Showtime

It’s like getting ready for a big date. That’s the closest thing I can compare it to.

Some performers don’t put the same level of care and effort into their preparation as I do. Every little detail matters, even the things the audience won’t see, because all those little details affect your mindset. Your physical and mental state. Your flow. When I put on a truly great performance I reach a heightened state of focus, a higher state of awareness, a zen.

Shower. Shave, everywhere, even though the audience won’t necessarily see that. It’s not for them, it’s for you. Brush your teeth. Comb your hair – the audience won’t see that either. Stretch; wouldn’t want to pull a muscle.

The powder makes the air dusty. I slip into the black latex garment and it clings to me like a second skin. I pull the cord and the zipper goes all the way up my back, sealing me in. Then the hood goes over my head and the zipper finds its way home.

The savage rusted chains wrap the knuckles of my left hand. The spiked cudgel awaits in the other, its wicked steel spikes coated in dried blood.

From behind the metal bars of the gate I hear the angry screaming of the unruly mob. My audience. My hot date. My lover. Beneath their din are the panicked screams from the girl, who I know is chained to the stake in the center of the pit.

The gate rises. I clench my fists in anticipation and smile. Showtime.

Meathooks

In my dream I am cold and it is dark. Slowly I walk the narrow path afforded me. I can see my breath in the fingers of light, steaming in the cold, dry, air.

I am walking through the dimness amongst hanging bodies. They are naked. Most are dead. Some still live, but barely – I can hear them softly groaning, weakly calling out to me. Kill us, they moan. The bodies are bloody and dismembered. Missing arms. Legs. Torsos sliced open and entrails falling to the ground. Blood slowly oozes down them, dripping onto the hard concrete of the floor.

I am shaking but not from the cold. I am trembling but not because of what I see. As I reach the end of my journey I come to a long steel table. The bodies are hanging from meathooks. I am holding the cleaver.

Anybody Home?

“Honey, I’m home!” The door slammed shut behind me and I kicked off my boots onto the plastic mat.

“Maggie? Are you home? Hello!” I called out but there was no reply. The hallway was cold and the house empty and silent.

“Maggie?” I checked the kitchen but it was devoid of life. No note or anything either. The living room was silent and still as well. Oh, well perhaps she’s upstairs and just didn’t hear me.

“Honey?” Not in the study. The door to the bathroom at the end of the hall was open, showing the dark blue tile of the wall.

I entered the bedroom and froze. My blood turned to ice in my veins.

On the bed, draped beneath the white shroud of the sheets, was the shape of a body. It lay straight on the mattress like a soldier, head at the headboard, feet at the footboard, arms at the sides beneath the cloth draped overtop.

I found my voice. “M-m-m-m-m…aggie?”

The shape did not move. Slowly, with great trepidation, part of me not truly believing what was happening, I bent down and grabbed the base of the sheet and began to pull, terrified of what I would find beneath.

As the white cloth slid over the contours of what lay below it, the room distorted and bent around me. My cold blood suddenly sang in my arteries and roared in my ears.

The body beneath the sheet wasn’t Maggie. It was me.

Narration

Tinnitus

That horrible sound, that constant high-pitched eeeeeee in my ear – whining, buzzing, ringing. It was perpetual and unrelenting. It plagued me all hours of the day and night. It was maddening. It made it impossible to sleep.

“Tinnitus,” the doctor said. “A variety of causes, not always physical. Have you been under a lot of stress lately?”

“Stress?” I answered with annoyance. “I’m a lawyer, doc, I work 85 hour weeks, every week.”

“Well it sounds like that’s likely the cause of condition, given what else you’ve told me.” He scribbled something on his notepad. “I’m going to recommend some CBT.”

Great. I can’t sleep because of this ringing in my ear, like I just walked away from standing next to the subwoofer at a death metal concert, and my doctor says I need to go lay on a couch and talk about my feelings.

“Sure, whatever. But what am I supposed to do in the meantime to sleep?”

I’ll admit I wasn’t thrilled. A hearing aid? I’m not a senior citizen. But I’d try anything to get rid of the damned noise, even if it meant putting a little plastic blob in my ear playing a different eeeeeeeeeee to cancel out the one I was hearing.

The problem is, now I can’t sleep at night for a different reason. Because now all I can hear are the screams.

Unmarked Postage

If only I’d been more careful, this never would have happened. If only I’d thought things through, I wouldn’t be in this situation; here, now, in the hospital, typing this out while sitting in this hospital bed, hoping that if the thing that got to me isn’t just about me, if there’s others out there it’s also happening to, that they can learn from my mistake. I just hope it’s not already too late. I just hope there’s still something that can be done in time. I just hope my warning doesn’t go unheard. Don’t be stupid and end up like me.

I found a box on my porch last week, a giant nondescript cube of cardboard sitting right outside my front door. I probably should have realized something was up right off the bat; I wasn’t expecting a delivery.

Stranger still, the box was completely devoid of anything to identify its origin, destination or purpose: there was no shipping label, no plastic pouch with an invoice, no “this side up” arrow, no nothing. It was a completely anonymous cardboard box. But clearly it was intended for me – it was placed directly on my porch, directly outside my door.

I’ll admit there was a moment of doubt in my mind. What if some psycho had put this there? What if there were hacked up human body parts inside, their blood soon to leach through the bottom in ugly spreading crimson stains, like devastating black death escaping the shattered carapace of an oil tanker in the Gulf of Mexico? What if it was full of burned DVDs of child pornography, scraped from the deepest darkest corners of internet, a box of incriminating evidence placed directly into my hands just before a SWAT team coincidentally showed up at my door?

You’re being ridiculous, I thought. This is either a package meant for you, or some stupid prank. Just open the damn thing.

I wish I never did.

I’ll bring the box inside and open it. Settle this and stop being so irrational. I bent down to lift the package, and expecting it to be heavy, nearly threw it through the roof of the veranda when I lifted it. It was light. Very light. Whatever was in it weighed almost nothing – the majority of that emptiness inside was probably filled with those styrofoam packing peanuts.

I brought the box into the kitchen and grabbed a small paring knife from the drawer. I bent down on one knee to slice the clear packing tape that sealed the top flaps shut and a strange unwanted thought entered my mind: I was a butcher, ready to slice open the carcass of a pig. A hunter about to field dress a murdered deer. A surgeon ready to slice open the chest of an unwilling patient, and steal their heart for a black market transplant.

The blade split the tape cleanly, perfectly in half, almost surgically, just like my last strange mental image. When I ran it over the center where there was a gap between the flaps, there was a small sound as air escaped – the last exhale of the unwilling patient. Whoever had packed this thing had done so that it was damn near hermetically sealed.

I cut the remaining parts of the tape sealing the box flaps to the sides, and I’ll admit that as I did excitement rose in my chest, in anticipation of finally discovering the mysterious package’s contents. I lifted the flaps and opened the top of the box to reveal that it contained…. nothing.

There was nothing in it. The box was empty. The box was empty. There was nothing in it. What? This doesn’t make any sense. This doesn’t make any sense. This is fucking surreal. There has to be something. Something.

In disbelief I ran my hands all through the inside, touching all of it, pressing my palms against the smooth cardboard, then hitting it, grabbing it, punching it. No, there was nothing. It was empty. Empty. Empty inside. Unreal. Fucking unreal. Surreal.

A strange smell, a chemical, antiseptic smell mixed with something metallic was in the box, and now the air around me. I brought my hand to face and could smell it on it too, from where I’d touched the cardboard. The box was empty now, but there had been something in it once. Something which left behind this strange smell that now filled my kitchen and coated my hands. Eau de Union Carbide – the latest fragrance from Paris – the smell of sterile green hospital corridors filled with patients dragging IVs hanging from little metal trees, the smell of a surgeon’s instruments laid out in their roll ready to make the incision, the smell of sitting behind the curtain in a hospital gown and waiting for death. The smell of humans being treated like pieces of meat.

I sat on the floor in disbelief. It just didn’t make any sense. Where the hell had this come from? Why would someone drop an empty box on my porch, very clearly personally delivered by hand, to me, with nothing inside? It defied all logical explanation. What was this? What was this? I kicked the box aside in disgust. Fuck this.

I made dinner. I watched Netflix. I went to bed and dreamt of evil surgeons with giant grins of pointed teeth stabbing me with oversized hypodermic syringes. When I woke up in the morning the box was still waiting for me there on the tile of the kitchen floor, a big crease marring the side where I’d kicked it.

I got ready for work. I sneezed in the shower and the water running down me turned pink. Great, another morning nosebleed. Guess I needed to finally get that humidifier like I’d been meaning to.

My co-worker didn’t think it was so strange when I mentioned it to him the next day.

“Naw man, that kinda thing happens all the time,” he said, sipping his coffee and hovering over my cube.

“What the hell are you talking about? Psychos hand-deliver empty packages to strangers all the time? Because if they do, this is the first I’ve heard of it.”

“Nah, it’s a mix-up man.” He sipped his coffee again, from one of the old mugs from the kitchen, the one from the local radio contest where they’d spelled the station name wrong.

“I betcha that for like 95% of its life that package wasn’t even handled by human hands, man. You know what kinda age we’re livin’ in now? We’re living in the goddamn future, bro. Amazon’s got freakin’ unmanned forklifts buzzing around their warehouses, picking your shit offa shelf and loading into a truck for delivery and there aren’t even people involved. There doesn’t have to be, man – all that shit’s numbered and computer-coded and in the system.

“Didn’t you read that article about that woman in Tucson? Same thing happened to her as what happened to you. She ordered a freakin’ Magic Bullet from Amazon and instead of getting her fancy blender in the mail, a week later she gets this big-ass box with a huge piece of conveyor belt machinery from the warehouse in it. Bug in the system, dude. Literally no humans involved from end-to-end, and the goddamn robots don’t know whether they’re packing up a mix-o-matic for some old lady or a freakin’ nuclear bomb.

“It’s automation, dude, it’s the future. No system is perfect and you just happened to be a bug in the system. Some other guy is on the phone right now, bitchin’ out Amazon’s customer service reps ’cause he never got his package, and you’ve got an empty box, and some other fucker’s got a pile of throw pillows in the mail instead of his box set of Deep Space Nine.”

“I guess so,” I said. “I mean, it makes sense. But it still doesn’t explain how the package got on my porch if there was no shipping label.”

“Whatever man,” he said, and made to leave. “Not worth losing any sleep over if you ask me.”

As he turned to leave, a pain gripped my chest and I bent over in my chair. I hacked and coughed, over and over again. Oh god, it hurt. It was like there was something stuck in my lungs. I could feel my coworker hovering over me, uncertain of what to do as I kept coughing. I could hear my hacking noises going out over the floor above everyone else’s cubes.

Finally, whatever demon was squeezing my chest released me and I righted myself. The exertion and pain going left me light-headed and dizzy; I leaned back in the chair, red-faced and teary-eyed, a self-conscious smile on my face. My co-worker was staring.

“Bro, you alright? Thought I was gonna have to give you the freakin’ Heimlich.”
“Yeah, I’m good,” I said, and coughed again, quieter and under control this time. I cleared my throat and smiled again sheepishly. “Just had a weird something, you know? Down the wrong pipe.”
“Sure,” he said, still staring. He looked like he didn’t believe me. He took one last sip of his coffee and turned to leave. “Later man.”

Days passed, but that cough didn’t go away. I figured I was coming down with something. Great, burning more of my sick days when I should be saving them to play golf in the summer. Whatever, chicken soup and bad TV and this will be over soon.

Yesterday was when I knew. Yesterday when I woke up and a nosebleed would have been positively welcome. I awoke to a horrible searing pain burning my insides. Razorblades were slicing my viscera into a stacks of thinly-cut deli meat. Swarms of snakes covered in barbed wire were writhing in my guts and biting out chunks of my soft red flesh.

I ran to the bathroom and threw the lid of the toilet up. I fell to my knees and could feel the writhing snakes were making their escape, up through my stomach and esophagus. I vomited, retch after retch of disgusting reeking ejecta, fountains and fountains of my blood falling into the ruddying water waiting in the bowl. The pain was like nothing I’d ever felt.

Finally it subsided and weakly I brought myself to my knees. I ran the tap. Cold, cold, cold water poured out noisily. I put my hands under it, grateful for a pain somewhere else, a welcome numbing distraction from the ordeal I’d just experienced. I splashed my face with the frigid water and stared at my weary eyes in the mirror. My weary eyes stared back. I drank the cold from the tap to rid my mouth of the taste of old pennies. I stared at my half-naked self in the mirror.

The image came back to me, the grinning devil-surgeons and their comically oversized syringes: we’re coming for your kidneys. You won’t need them when you’re dead. Be there soon.

I opened the mirror, took a handful of painkillers and closed it again. Something was horribly wrong. I had to go to the hospital. This was more than a cold. This was more than me failing to control the humidity level of my place during the winter.

I called the hospital and explained what happened. I was too weak to drive, I said. Afraid of what might happen if I did. Fine, they’d send an ambulance. Be patient. I hung up the phone and went to walk out to the front porch, out to the veranda, where I’d found that stupid fucking empty box. That stupid empty lump of cardboard.

When I reached the door was when I put it all together, when all the pieces fell into place: the box, the airtight seal, the smell, my coughing, and the final piece, the final nail in my coffin, hand-delivered just as the box had been.

It was a plain white piece of paper slid through the crack underneath the front door, an ocean of white save for two tiny lines of text set dead center in the middle of the page. They were the naked, anonymous metal letters banged to the page from an old typewriter. Staring back at me – foreign, alien, uncaring – their meaning slowly seeped into my addled brain and pushed aside my confusion into a rising horror of realization:

JUST BECAUSE A BOX IS EMPTY
DOESN’T MEAN THERE’S NOTHING IN IT

The Meditative State

The doctor had recommended meditation. I was skeptical. But I was willing to try anything, if it would mean getting a decent sleep at night and relieving the constant tightness in my jaw.

I sat on the bed in my boxers, cross-legged, upturned hands resting on my knees with my thumbs and forefingers pinched together – the posture of a buddhist monk from a temple of the Tibetan foothills. This is ridiculous, my mind protested. Total nonsense.

I pushed the rebellious thoughts away and focused. I took deep, full breaths with my whole body and embraced the darkness behind my closed eyelids. In focusfocusfocus Out focusfocusfocus.

The constant mental static – the report due on Friday, groceries I had to buy this week, the running tap that needed fixing – all of it receded into the background. I felt the room fall far away and a numbing calm spread from my chest into my limbs. I was in the darkness with my mind.

Then I felt it. I wasn’t alone. There was something in the darkness with me. I could feel its presence. It was big. It was watching. It wanted me. And it was coming for me.

I felt a tightness in my chest, a rising panic. My heart raced as I felt the presence expand and come toward me, but the sensation of my heart’s arrhythmic thumping against my chest was far away – behind a wall, underwater.

This isn’t right. This isn’t right. It’s coming. Oh god, it’s coming. Run. I’ve got to escape. I’ve got to get out. I’ve got to get out.

I try to open my eyes, but find that I cannot.

Alone in the Dark

“What was that?”
“Er… what was what?” I asked groggily from beneath the duvet.
“I heard something downstairs, outside,” she whispered again into the dark. “Honey, I’m scared, go look.”
“Eh, wha…?” The bed was so warm; the last thing I wanted to do was get up.
“Come on baby, please? What if it’s a burglar?”
“It’s not a burglar,” I said, and kissed her on the forehead. “You’re hearing things. Would you please go back to sleep?”
“Then why did I wake up?” she said in hushed tones. “Please, honey, go. Go and make sure it’s alright.”
I sighed. “Oh, alright.” I threw aside my half of the blankets and got up. The floor was cold and foreign against the bare soles of my feet.

I crept downstairs and the old steps of the stairwell creaked beneath the carpet. The kitchen was clothed in rays of somber moonlight pouring in through the window. I looked out of it into the empty backyard. I went outside and stood on the back porch and listened intently. There was nothing; only the cold air and the rustle of the leaves in the wind and the shrilling of summer cicadas. On the way back looking out bay window confirmed the street was the same: dark, empty, and deserted.

The warmth of the bed was a comforting relief.

“There’s nothing honey,” I said, sliding next to her. “It’s empty out there.”
“Really, there’s no one out there?” she said, not quite convinced.
“Yes, there’s no one out there.”
“So, we’re alone?”
“Yes, honey, we’re alone.”
Good.

She smiled as she plunged the blade into my chest.

Vengeance is Mine

It took me months. Months to figure it all out. But dedication is a strange thing and can really change a man. Suddenly other things that had been a priority – my wife, my friends, my job – became unimportant and fell by the wayside.

I did it all alone. Figured it out all by myself, no need for some two-bit P.I. or anything like that. There had to be a connection between them. There must have been something. Somewhere they met. Some evidence left behind that day. Some clue.

After I found him it was much easier to find her. Child’s play really. Then the real fun began. Having her me meet somewhere and make it look like natural, a normal little social exchange in a public place. Coincidentally bumping into her, first once, then again and again at different places we now both just happened to frequent.

I knew what I was doing but she had no clue. I knew exactly where this was going and what the end game would be. I just had to play my cards right. It took a long time, longer than it should have. But when she wasn’t wearing her ring any longer I knew I’d won, that it was time to pull the trigger. I bought her a dozen roses that day.

“Oh baby, that was amazing,” she says, falling back onto the comforter. I light a cigarette and drink in her naked form with my eyes. I hear the door open downstairs and suddenly she’s afraid. “Oh my God, he’s home! Hide!”

I know he’s home. I know he is because I arranged for him to be.

When he walks into the bedroom and sees us lying together there is no surprise on his face, only anger and disgust.

You.” He utters the word with venom.

I blow smoke into the air. “Well, how does it feel?” I smile. “How do you like it?”

She screams as I leap from the bed and clutch my hands around his throat. She doesn’t realize she’s next.

Frostbite

We got off the snowmobile, first me, then Jake. The exposed top half of my face was red and still stung from the ripping wind of the ride.

All around us it was flat, flat and clear and empty and white. Lake Wanahago could have been the ocean frozen over after the coming of the Second Ice Age; the horizon was but a blank wall of infinite white in all directions.

“Jake, what the hell, man? We’re in the middle of nowhere!” I said over the howling wind. “I told ya it was,” Jake hollered back, fussing with the gear from the back of the vehicle. “Go have a look inside, make sure the hole hasn’t frozen over any.” He motioned toward the ice hut with his head.

I opened the padlock on the door and stepped inside. I peered down at the hole in the ice.

I heard the metal slam of the door as Jake entered from behind me. “Nah, looks like it’s fi-” My sentence was cut short by excruciating pain exploding in the back of my head. I collapsed to my knees onto the ice of the hut floor.

I turned and he stood above me with rage in his eyes, in his hand a crowbar, the weapon that had delivered the blow.

“Jake, what the fu-” “Didn’t ya think I’d figure it out, ya stupid fuck?” he spat the words at me. “Ya left yer goddamn wallet under the bed. If you’re gonna go ’round banging another man’s wife at least you could have the brains not leave any evidence behind.”

I stared up at him. The ice was hard and cold against my back, even through the down of my snorkel jacket.

“Get up,” he said. Slowly, cautiously, I got up from my knees to a standing position, holding my hands up for good measure. “Your clothes!” I stared at him, not understanding, and he waved the crowbar at me. “Give me your clothes.” “Jake…” “Give me your goddamn clothes or I’ll bash your fucking head in.”

Reluctantly I complied, stripping awkwardly in the cold air, and keeping an eye on the crowbar Jake held all the while. Finally I handed the pile of my clothes over to him. I stood in the ice hut, naked save for my long johns and boots.

Before I could so much as move I watched him pitch the bundle into the hole. I called out but it was already too late – my clothes soaked up the icy water, then sank into the depths of the lake.

Jake smiled wickedly at my face dropping. “I’m a sporting man,” he said. “Figure I’ll give ya chance. It’s -34 out there and 20 miles back to town, and you know as well as I do there ain’t another soul between us and there. Think you’ll be able to make it back before the frostbite gets ya?”

The chill on my skin was joined by a cold creeping through my insides.

Jake laughed. “Well, you can just think about fucking my beautiful wife to keep ya warm,” he said. “Which reminds me, I think it’s high time I go for a talk with the ol’ missus too, I reckon.”

I tried to duck, but the second blow from the crowbar caught me on the side of the head, much harder than the first. When I came to I was lying outside the locked door of the hut in the snow, my skin burning with cold, my ears ringing with the high-pitched roar of the snowmobile engine receding into the distant white.

I stood up and began to walk. The snow blew all around.

Killer Veggies, Man.

I’ve been ripped before in my life but today I was straight up tripping balls. Straight fucking balls.

Ice cream. Mint chocolate-chip ice cream. That’s all I want. All I want is a pint of mint-chocolate chip ice-cream. Just like Jeffrey Dahmer’s last meal.

TO THE GROCERY STORE WITH YOU! TALLY-HO! Squire, prepare my steed! We ride for the Kingdom of Supermarche!

Oh God that’s cold, the wind. Electric boogaloo. Arsenic flavoured cotton candy. An automated screwdriver and lint-roller, all-in-one, as seen on TV! Variable bitrate encrypted Rhino catheters. The last and final resting place of Enrico Fermi’s housecat. A pox on your house! Eights packs on your grouse. Pancakes filled with swarms of louse.

The doors slide open and I’m in the produce section and IT’S FUCKING HUGE. It’s like an ocean, like the whole universe is just here in this grocery store. HOLY FUCK, those veggies have teeth, man. Fucking TEETH. Those limes have incisors, those oranges have molars, those apples have bicuspids and they’re all razor sharp. And they’re moving up and down in those little fruit and veggie mouths.

Holy shit man, they’ve got eyes. So many eyes! Thousands of eyes, like a fly! They’re watching me. Oh god, they’re moving! They’re jumping from the stand. They’re coming for me. oh God they’re eating me oh God get them off me get them off of me get them offa me getthemoffame getemoff getemoff ohGodohGodohGod

“Sir, sir, calm down. Sir! Sir!”

“What’s going on? What’s the matter with him?”

“I don’t know, I don’t know. Call the police!”