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 Obliteration Room

Colonel F. J. Jefferson walked into the cold steel room and surveyed the panels of blinking instruments. Scientists clad in white lab coats scurried about, flicking switches, twisting knobs, pulling levers. The air buzzed with a ferocious intensity.

“This is it,” Dr. Wodehouse said proudly. He and Jefferson faced to turn the one-way glass. “Behind this glass and that steel door lies the greatest weapon we have ever produced. It will be the weapon that will turn the tide of the war.”

“A room?” Jefferson said quizzically. “How is a room a weapon?”

“We call it The Obliteration Room.” Wodehouse took a drag from his cigarette. The smoke curled upward into the stale air of the observation room. “Right now our technology is just confined to the fields we can generate inside, but once we extend the coils to be able to be applied anywhere we’ll be unstoppable.”

Wodehouse flicked a switch on the instrument panel opposite the glass and leaned down to speak into the grille of the microphone above it. His cigarette dangled in his mouth as he spoke. “Bring in the test subject.”

A pale emaciated man in an orange jumpsuit was lead into the room in front of them by a guard. He was chained at the wrists and ankles. The guard deposited the prisoner in the center of the chamber, then exited and closed the steel door behind him. The wheel in the door spun, hermetically sealing off The Obliteration Room from the surrounding passages of the bunker.

“Fire the weapon,” Wodehouse said, his voice tinny and garbled in the microphone, his expression unmoving.

The scientists in the room flipped switches and chattered excitedly. Then there came a low humming. The humming rose to a drone, then a grinding, then a deep throbbing that seemed to shake the whole facility, one that resonated in the forms of all in the observation room, and seemed to shake Jefferson’s very bones within his old frame.

The walls of The Obliteration Room wavered like a mirage in a desert. The prisoner craned his necked upward toward the ceiling and screamed. His face melted into a liquid, pouring down his cheekbones and exposing the red muscle of his face beneath. His eyeballs swelled and bulged from their sockets. He screamed in agony and the scream was drown out beneath the droning of the machine. He flailed his limbs wildly at his sides, as the men in the observation chamber watched in horror, and then they exploded into clouds of red blood and muscle and splintered bone.

The prisoner fell to floor, writhing, melting, screaming, crying for mercy and disintegrating into a pile of gore.

“Shut it off! Shut it off!” The Colonel screamed. Wodehouse watched impassively.

Finally, the drone died down and all was quiet again. The men in the observation chamber stared blankly into The Obliteration Room, at the steaming puddle of red ooze and shattered bones that had once been a man.

Jefferson looked down at the instrument panel.

“God help us,” he muttered. “We shall never use this weapon.”

Wodehouse smiled. “Follow me,” he said coolly.

“To where?” Jefferson asked, still shaken.

“To the others.” Wodehouse flicked his cigarette. “This is only the first.”

Dove Lake

I always loved going up to the cottage. It had been passed down in my family for generations. A rustic little box of stone and red wood, it sat in the middle of clearing down by the waters of Dove Lake, a stalwart little guardian of the serene wilderness around it.

I remember packing up all our things every summer with my Dad – fishing rods, propane grill, pots and pans, citronella candles, the whole kit and caboodle – into the back of our tiny dark green station wagon and heading up there for a week every July.

I loved those times in my childhood. My father was a stern man, but that tough armor he wore, that look he had like the world owed something and he was going to fight damn hard to get it, seemed to fall by the wayside as soon as we made our way up north. The beautiful trees and rocky hills of the Canadian Shield just brought out the good in him and let him leave all his worries behind.

My old man passed away many years ago, God bless him, and so the cottage belongs to me now. Kate and I had been loading up our own little car and heading up there every summer just as I’d done in my childhood. But that all came to a stop that one summer. I could never look at the cottage the same way after that, or think of it only in the rose-tinted glasses of nostalgia.

It was two years ago that it happened. Kate had just had the baby not too long ago, and we’d decided after all the stress of becoming new parents to head up to the cottage for some time just for us. We deserved it. We left the baby with Kate’s parents, packed up the car, and headed up the highway to Dove Lake.

“I just want to sit out on the dock and read my book,” Kate had said.

That was the other thing. We weren’t just heading up there and leaving our newborn son behind just because we wanted some time for ourselves. Kate hadn’t been doing so well after the delivery. She’d still been in a lot of pain (which the doctors said was not normal, but did occur) and more troubling, had been very down since.

I talked with our doctor about what to do. Medication wasn’t necessary, he’d said. This happens after a baby sometimes and it eventually goes away. If things worsened or Kate’s mood didn’t lift we could look at other options. He agreed that heading up to the cottage to relax and take our minds off things would be a good way for Kate to feel better.

It was great to get up there. The sun was beautiful on the rippling dark waters of Dove Lake and our little rustic getaway (humble though it was) brought joy to my heart when we pulled into the property’s gravel drive. I thought of my youth, of sitting out in the little tin tippy and fishing with my Dad, and him telling me stories about the men at the factory, and how he’d travelled across Europe by train when had graduated from college, and how Grandpa used to sit out and fish on the lake with him just as we were.

I squeezed Kate’s hand. She was staring out the passenger window.

“Honey, we’re here,” I said.
“I know,” she replied heavily, and sighed. She frowned and I kissed her on the cheek.

It was always cold in the cottage. Though it was the middle of July, Dove Lake was far enough north that the temperature really dropped in the early morning and in the evening. You could see your breath in those early hours, those mornings we’d sit out on the dock and drink strong black coffee from tin mugs, and watch the mist rise from the still waters of the lake.

This year was different somehow. I was excited and happy to be away and escape up to the family retreat, but everything carried this dreary heaviness that emanated from Kate. Nothing seemed to break up the dark clouds that surrounded her; there was an impenetrable wall, a filter where all the sunshine and beauty passed in dull and gray to her, and all the beauty I knew she had inside couldn’t get out.

I tried to help. I tried to cheer her up, but I just couldn’t. Things got worse, and we argued at night, though she had even little energy to put into that. In those nights we huddled under the sheets close but were a thousand miles apart; the air in the cottage was cold but her next to me was colder still.

By the fourth day we weren’t talking much. There was just this uncomfortable silence between us, and the dark gloom enveloping her. I began to wonder what to do. I just wanted us to be happy. I suggested that perhaps we should just go home, that it wasn’t right to do it that year, what with the new baby, and how she was feeling, but she wouldn’t hear any of it.

“We came for the week,” she said, sad but resolute. “We’ll stay for the week.” She sighed again.

On the fifth day Kate wouldn’t come outside. I went for a hike. I came back to the cottage and she was lying on the bed, staring up at the ceiling.

“Honey,” I said, “Let’s go out in the boat. Come on, let’s go fishing.” Anything.
“No,” she sighed, and rolled over. “You go.”

I should never have gone.

The waters of Dove Lake were dark that day, dark and still and quiet; the air was cold and damp. I rowed out and there was no sound at all, except the metal oarlocks creaking in protest and the water splashing from their cyclic motion. I stopped when I reached the center of the lake and dropped my line. I felt alone. I worried about my wife, and about our new son. I looked over the side of the boat at my reflection in the glassy water. It was like a mirror. My face stared back up at me, tired and sad, with the dark gray clouds over that overcast day as my backdrop.

Far off near the shore, I saw mist rising from the shallows. I didn’t catch anything in those lonely hours. I felt as the last man in all the world, sitting completely alone and isolated, in the center of purgatory. No one could reach me. No one knew I was here. Nothing could lift the gloom of the mists of the lake.

I paddled back to shore, and turned to see the cottage dock coming into view, coalescing out of the mist. I pulled the oars again and their metal shackles squealed. Splash. Squeal. Splash. Squeal. I stopped again and turned to toward the cottage.

Peering through the mist, I saw a ghostly spectre emerging from the far end of the dock. It was a pale, thin form, naked, slowly treading along the boards toward the cold black waters at the end.

It was Kate.

I screamed her name and my cry echoed out against the gray sky. She didn’t slow. I began to panic and started rowing with all my strength. The oarlocks groaned and complained louder than before and I felt like I was going to tear them from the gunwales of the boat. I’d never get there in time. I called her name again and again and my distraught cries echoed out into the nothingness, into the watching trees of the North.

Again I turned and looked over my shoulder. I was too late. I watched my wife reach the end of the dock. Even from the distance I could see her standing there, starkly contrasted against the rising mist. Slowly, she looked down. She raised her eyes straight up, to the lake, to me, and then her arm in one long, fluid, languorous motion. One finale wave goodbye.

Kate stepped from the dock and disappeared into the waters of Dove Lake.

I screamed and screamed and pulled the oars with all my strength. I paddled faster and faster, faster than I ever had before, until my arms burned and every fiber of my being begged me to stop. Still I rowed, until my arms felt like they would be pulled from their sockets. It didn’t matter. There was nothing I could do.

By the time I reached the dock, Kate was already dead. Her body floated cold and lifeless in the water. Sobbing, I pulled it into the boat with me. I cradled her head in my lap and sobbed and sobbed and called for her to come back, to live, not to go.

But she was already gone.

Last year the anniversary of Kate’s death came around. Her parents and my family offered their condolences. We had a nice dinner at her folks’ place, and visited the cemetery to honor her memory. But I wanted to do so in my own way. I wanted to go back to Dove Lake and have some time alone just as I’d done every year.

When I got up there after the long drive, everything was eerily still and all the memories came flooding in a rush, like a dam breaking. It was just as it had all been the year before. On the coarse wood of the table made of logs, still folded, sat the quilt Kate had lain under the day she died.

I’m selling the cottage this year, because like I said, I can never go back up there again. I can never feel the same way about the cottage as I did before. And maybe you think that’s because of what happened, because of Kate dying, and because of all the bad feelings I now have associated with that place, overpowering all the memories of my youth.

But that’s not it. I can never go back because last year I rowed out to the center of the lake again, and in the mists of the far shore I saw Kate walking out into the water; and when I looked down into it I saw not my own reflection, but her sad face, begging me why I’d done nothing to stop her.

How I Met “The Gunny”

Yesterday morning I woke up, and there was a large spongy blob of flesh attached to my arm.

I threw the bulky comforter off the bed and sat up on its edge. I stared down at the bulging patch on my forearm in disgust and disbelief. Where the hell had it come from? It was bulbous and irregular. It was a bubble of swelling flesh, an unnatural, hideous protrusion mocking me and nature. It looked wrong. Looking at it made my insides shift around within me.

With morbid curiosity and fearful trepidation I slowly pressed my index finger down on the top of the fleshy mass. My skin felt like my skin. The muscle beneath felt like my muscle. I pushed and the surface of my flesh bubble dimpled beneath the pressure. I pushed harder but my finger only went so far – it was solid beneath, like my muscle had swelled outward in the night into this deformed lump, and stretched the skin above it. I pushed again. And again. My flesh dimpled again, and again. I was disgusted but simultaneously fascinated; it was like watching a pimple being popped or lancing a giant blister and seeing the fluid drain out.

The protrusion on my arm didn’t appear malignant. It didn’t ache under my touch and didn’t appear to be a blister or wound. Then, a thought jumped into my mind and I panicked – what if it was a tumour? Could you even get cancerous growths on your arm? I didn’t know. And would one arise overnight? Could that even happen? I didn’t know. I was worried now, and so decided to play it safe.

I went to the clinic.

As usual the line at the clinic was long, and sitting in the waiting room was a special kind of discomfort, its own unique purgatory. The dry, stale air lit by too-bright fluorescent lights overhead; the horrible feeling of other people inside of your comfort bubble, and sick ones at that; an old man hacking and coughing too loudly; a bratty little kid in diapers crying and running around while his parents sat idly by – it was all awful.

Finally my number came up and they called my name. I followed the nurse (clad in hospital pants, but oddly also, an H&M t-shirt) back to the examination rooms and sat to wait in the one she indicated, Room #3.

I am a person. I am an individual that matters and that our healthcare system will do the best to fulfill the needs of, and keep healthy and happy. But I was also just the person in examination Room #3. A person with a problem waiting to be fixed, as quickly and cheaply as possible. A piece of meat to put through the factory line.

I stared at the various objects populating of tiny, antiseptic space: the black examination table with that weird tissue paper pulled across it, cylindrical glass containers on the counter full of cotton swabs and tongue depressors, and tacky ancient floral prints on the unsightly turquoise walls.

I sat on the examination table and the tissue paper fluttered beneath me, kicking up a tiny ruckus in complaint. I heard footsteps from down the hall and a doctor entered. She was middle-aged and wore a white lab coat like the doctors do in movies and the dentists do in toothpaste commercials. She entered the room in a hurry, then slowed when she saw me. She leaned against the counter. Her physical manner was relaxed but she asked a lot of questions quickly, and I could tell she was all business, trying to get me the hell out of there as fast as possible. On to the next piece of meat.

She rattled off questions in a rapid interrogation: diet, allergies, exercise, family history.

“So, what is it?” I said, as she continued to examine the fleshy bulge on my arm. “Do I need an MRI? Is it a tumour? Please tell me it’s not a tumour.”

The doctor paused and stared at the ground. She poked the fleshy mass on my arm again with her finger.

“You may,” she said, answering my first question noncommittally, “but I can’t say for sure. I’d like to send you to a specialist first as we’ve been seeing… a lot of people with this lately.”

Something about the way she said the last part wasn’t quite right, and made my insides shift around again.

“What the hell does that mean? Is it viral then, or what? I want to know what this is! Do I need an MRI? Do I need surgery? What?” I started to become agitated and the questions just spilled out. I had raised my voice. When I finished my face was red, half flush with agitation, half with embarrassment at my outburst.

“I can’t say for sure,” she said, again, noncommittal. Controlled. “The Gunny is a specialist. He’ll be able to sort you out.” She walked over to the computer and opened the drawer beneath it. She pulled out a card and handed it to me.

THE GUNNY, M.D. – Specialist

And an address with a suite number. No phone. No email. No name of the practice. No indication as to what kind of specialist. My insides shifted around more.

“So… can I see him today?” I said, despite myself. It was already about 5 PM by then, and I’d wasted the entire day waiting in that stupid clinic.

“You sure can,” the doctor said, sitting down at the computer desk. The keys of the keyboard clacked as she entered in the details of my visit. “It’s 24 hours.”

“A 24 hour clinic?” I pushed myself up from the examination table and hopped down to the floor.

“No,” clack clack clack “he’s 24 hours.”

On the way out of the clinic, I rubbed the fleshy growth on my arm and it warmed. In the waiting room, the old man bent over in his chair again and coughed his phlegmy hacking cough. The sound echoed behind me, as I made my way past the other waiting pieces of meat, to the outside.


By the time I’d headed downtown, grabbed a bite for dinner, and found the building that matched the address it was close to 8 PM. It was dark out, and cold already.

It was completely nondescript office building. The revolving glass door to the high-ceilinged lobby was open despite the late hour at which I arrived. I pushed and with a whoosh the glass spokes of the rotating wheel ushered me in from the cold. The security guard at the front desk didn’t so much as look up at me when I headed over to the brass doors of the elevator bank.

I pushed the button with the little triangle on it and it glowed red.

DING. I entered the mirrored box of the elevator and pushed the button for the 45th. The doors slid shut, encasing me in the tiny rectangular universe. It hummed as it carried me upward and I stared at myself in the glass. I stared into my own eyes and saw in them worry. I stared at the mysterious fleshy mass on my arm, the cause of that worry, and its mysterious fleshy brother in the mirror world next to it.

DING. The doors glided open metallically and I stepped out onto the marble floor of my destination.

It was long corridors carpeted in forest green, bright white lights illuminating the drywall from triangular sconces, and imposing dark brown wooden doors. It looked like part of a fancy apartment building or condo. It did not look like where you would find a doctor’s office at all, unless that doctor happened to work out of his home.

I rounded the corner and followed the numbers down until I found Suite 4502. It was the very last door at the end of the hall. I knocked and the door opened immediately and then stopped, held shut by the chain on the inside. In the gap I saw the face of man, muscular and masculine, staring back at me. His head was shaved. The room behind him was dark.

“Yeah?” he said, making no attempt to hide his hostility. Well, this was not what I had been expecting.

“I’m, um, here to see Dr. Gunny,” I said, stumbling on my words. I pulled the card from jacket pocket and held it out, into the gap in the door.

“Alright,” his hostility softened, but only slightly. “No problem. And it’s not Doctor.” He receded back into the shadows and I heard the metal of the door’s chain scrape as he undid it.

“Sorry?”

“It’s THE Gunny.” The door opened and I could see now the man wore dark jeans and a tight black t-shirt. He looked like a bouncer at a nightclub. He looked like he could beat the living shit out of me if he wanted to. He stretched out his arm to the open darkness ahead, indicating the way: after you.

I made my way forward. I could see the hall stretched far back and ended in glass doors to a balcony. From around the corner near the end I could see bright light pouring up onto the ceiling and casting dark shadows all around.

There was no closet. There were no pictures on the walls. The corridor was completely black and the walls bare. This was no doctor’s office. This was no one’s home. My mind screamed for me to leave, to run, to get the hell out of there, but the muscular man that had answered the door had also closed it behind us and was following me, forcing me deeper into the room and cutting off my only route of escape.

Having no choice, I proceeded forward into what lay ahead of me. I rounded the corner and the hallway opened into a square room offset from the main entrance. The illumination came from two high-powered construction lights on a stand placed in the back corner. The room was completely bare of anything else save for two men. One was another body-builder type wearing the same nightclub bouncer uniform as the man who’d greeted me at the door. He stood in the back corner opposite that of the lights.

The other sat nearly dead center of the room on a simple folding metal chair. He was clad in a trench coat, and even though he was sitting down, I could see that he was exceedingly tall. The chair on which he sat was enveloped by his lanky form and the cloth of his bulky outer garment. The shadows of the room and the harsh backlighting made it difficult to see his face; it was hidden in the shadows but I could see his head was shaved.

I started to sweat. What the fuck was this? What the hell kind of doctor was that at the clinic who had sent me here? Was I going to be robbed at gunpoint, or worse? I wanted more than anything to run but I was in too deep now, plus that other bald meathead blocked my only way out. I was committed.

The dark man swathed in the shadows had not moved. I could feel him staring back at me from beneath the beams of the construction lights and the darkness they cast onto the side of him facing me. No one was saying anything. I stood there for probably a full minute in absolute silence with the stranger staring at me from within the shadow.

“Um…. hi.” I finally said. My voice sounded infinitely loud. It echoed in the emptiness of the room.

“Hello,” came the voice of the dark stranger, The Gunny. His voice was low, and coarse, and cruel. “What brings you to me?”

“I… I…. went to a clinic. The doctor, she sent me here, sent me here to see you.” Every sentence came out of my mouth a question.

“Why?” said The Gunny.

“Um, my arm, it, I…” I held it out in front of me. The fleshy mass looked bigger now, redder in the strange lighting of the cold room. God, was it pulsating, ever so slightly?

In one slow, terrifying movement, The Gunny rose from his chair. The metal legs scraped against the hardwood of the floor, squealing terribly like nails on a blackboard. He stood, towering above me, his face still hidden in shadows cast from the harsh light behind him. He was the most frightening thing I had ever seen.

“The flesh.” he said.

“Wha… wha… what?”

“The flesh,” he said again, louder. “You have the affliction of the flesh.”

“Yes, my arm,” I said, stuttering. God man, keep it together, don’t panic, I thought. “There’s something wrong with it. The doctor, she sent me here, she said…” I held out my arm further toward him.

“THE FLESH!” he said, raising his voice, yelling now. “THE AFFLICTION OF THE FLESH! YOU ARE CURSED WITH THE AFFLICTION OF THE FLESH!”

He was screaming now. I was fucking horrified. He raised his long arms above his head and waved them as he yelled.

“YOU SHALL SUFFER! YOU WILL DIE! YOU WILL BE ONE OF MY HARBINGERS! THE END OF MAN! THE END OF MAN!”

In a rage he ran to the back corner of the room, lifted the lightstand and threw it toward me. It clattered to the floor, and then everything was awash in brightness and The Gunny’s face was illuminated in the harsh starkness of the floodlamps.

“THE FLESH!” he screamed again. “THE FLESH! HARBRINGER OF THE FALL! THE END OF MAN! THE AFFLICTION OF THE FLESH!!!”

In horror I looked into the face of The Gunny. I could see now his eyes were black pits without white, sunk deep in his skull. His bony face was long and angular and tapered to his pointed chin.

The Gunny’s face was covered in bulging growths like the one on my arm.

He continued to scream, nonsense now, some strange language I didn’t understand. His mouth opened wider and wider with each scream. His jaw detached and slackened. It sunk downward and his mouth opened wider than a human mouth ever could. His eyes grew larger and darker. Their blackness was the depths of the darkest ocean, of the deep cold of space, of my most horrifying nightmares. All the terrors of my childhood and what awaited me after death lived within those eyes.

He screamed and screamed in that vile language and the growths on his face pulsated and began to expand. They inflated outward from his face, like blisters filling with fluid, with pus, with blood. Frozen in fear, I watched as he screamed and the fleshy masses enveloped him, swallowing his head, then his raised arms, then his torso.

I watched the other men run toward him. The fleshy mass of The Gunny grew ever larger and they became trapped in it. It swallowed them, sucking them into the crevices and cavities of its ballooning grotesqueness. I heard their blood-curdling screams as the expanding mass of skin and muscle smothered them.

Finally abject terror spurred me to act, to run. The way out now clear, I turned and bolted for the door. I slammed the hard wood of it behind me and from beneath I heard the dying cries of those other men and the horrible screams of The Gunny. I tore down the hall to the elevator and did not look back.

I didn’t stop running when I reached the lobby. I didn’t stop running when I reached the street. I ran out into the cold uncaring night, my eyes wide and my soul still gripped with terror. I sprinted down the street, beneath the bright lights of the streetlamps, past the dark alleyways and the closed-up storefronts of the downtown.

I ran home and locked the door behind me and pushed a chair under its handle. Still panting, I ran to my room and collapsed into bed and hid under the covers. Eventually, my breathing subsided and my terror faded into exhaustion. I felt drained and I fell asleep. In my feverish dreams I saw the ravenous expanding flesh of The Gunny and heard his horrible cries of THE FLESH THE FLESH and the screams of his two bodyguards as they were swallowed up in it.


When I awoke this morning the sun was bright and spilled in through the long blinds. I looked down to my arm to see that the fleshy mass that had so troubled me yesterday was gone. In disbelief, I pinched and rubbed the spot where it had been. It was gone. My arm was back to normal.

I went to the clinic again this morning, to find the doctor I spoke with. There was a different girl at the counter today, and when I described the doctor she said no one like that worked there. She couldn’t find my paperwork either.

It was as if everything yesterday never happened, as if it were all part of some horrible nightmare. But I know it was real. I know it all really happened. Even though I can’t explain it, nothing will convince me otherwise.

I know the nightmares will keep coming. The Gunny will haunt my dreams, his unnatural towering form beneath that trench coat, his dark angular face hidden in shadow, his horrible cries of THE FLESH echoing in my subconscious and it ballooning to envelope me. I’ll run but be stuck in place, as you are in dreams, and this time, won’t be able to escape.

I can’t logically explain what happened to me. I can’t understand what I was a part of, or what it means. But two things still bother me, two niggling little doubts that cause my insides to shift like they did when I awoke to that growth on my arm. If The Gunny was real, what happened to the other patients the doctor mentioned? And what did he mean by being a harbinger?

Trick or Treat

“I don’t wanna go in there,” Johnnie said, gesturing toward the dark hedges. “I don’t care if he gives out the best candy every year – Old Man Jameson is creepy.”

“Awww, come on ya scaredy cat!” Mikey teased. “You scared of the dark? Scaredy cat! Scaredy cat!” Mikey was dressed as a Roman gladiator. He had real leather sandals his Mom had made him, but the storebought plastic breastplate he wore was too large and sagged past his waist.

“Yeah, come on Jonnie! Don’t be a girl!” Samantha giggled, hitting him with her goodie bag. Samantha was a princess this year, clad all in pastel purple, in a conical veiled cap and long flowing gown.

“Alright, alright,” Johnnie relented, pulling the drooping edges of his bedsheet up from the ground – he was a ghost. “Let’s go.”

The children walked in through opening in the dark hedge fence, toward the old wooden door of Old Man Jameson’s house. The building was ancient, the exterior made of large round stones set in concrete; it was more of a cottage, really. The walkway toward the chipping red paint of the front door was uneven cobblestone, upheaved into disorder by the frozen ground of many winters past.

“Oh my god,” Samantha said, her voice wavering. “This is soooo creepy.”

Old Man Jameson was always known for his elaborate Halloween decorations. The children glanced around nervously as they progressed towards the door – the gladiator, the princess and the ghost – at the unsettling lifelike quality of the horrors on the display.

Child mannequins in costume, not much larger than the children themselves, were set in lifelike poses around the yard. Here, a boy dressed as a tiny policeman, his eyes missing and streams of blood painting his cheeks red. There, a girl in a costume as fairy, her frail paper mache wings distressed and body eviscerated. Another mannequin was a boy not much bigger than Johnnie, dressed as a Viking. A horned plastic helmet sat on his tiny cranium at a funny angle, and the fake flesh on his face was peeling from the skull underneath. All so lifelike.

“Come on, let’s get our candy and get out of here already!” Mikey said, no longer feeling like the brave soldier of his costume. The children gathered around the red door, and Samantha the swung the brass knocker.

RAP RAP RAP

“TRICK OR TREAT!” The children yelled.

Old Man Jameson opened the door and it creaked eerily upon its aged hinges.

“Well hello!” he said, grinning toothlessly. “Happy Hallowe’en my little ones!”

“Happy Hallowe’en, Mr. Jameson!” Samantha chirped. The boys were silent and stared at the old man.

“Have some candy apples!” he said, and dropped the plastic-wrapped fruit into their open bags.

“Thanks. Happy Hallowe’en Mr. Jameson,” Johnnie said. He made to leave.

“Oh, but wait,” the other said, smiling at the children. His teeth were so yellow. “I just made some hot cider. Won’t you have some before you go? It’s an awfully cold night out there this year for October. It will warm you from the inside.”

“I dunno,” Johnnie said with hesitation. He remembered something his mother had said about strangers once, and felt like this might be that kind of something.

“Sure!” Samantha said gleefully, taking a cup of the hot steaming liquid the old man had decanted.

The boys followed suit, and sipped the cider. It was delicious.

“Good, good,” said Mr. Jameson.

“Ooooh, I feel funny,” Samantha said, raising her hand against her head.

The children collapsed into a heap onto the front step.


“Oooh, Old Man Jameson’s house!” said Billy, pulling his fur-covered cap down again. He was a werewolf this year. “Let’s go! He always has the best candy!”

“Aaaah I dunno,” said Steven, a bashful scarecrow. “He’s sooo creepy.”

“Come on you silly boys,” Jenny said. She was Barbie this year. Marcie, an evil witch in a flowing cape of shiny black plastic, followed her in through the hedge.
The children walked down the cobblestone of the path, past the lifelike decorations in the yard. Dead youth surrounded them in frozen poses: a miniature gladiator bloodied from battle with his left arm missing, a child ghost covered in a gore-smeared sheet, and a young princess dressed in purple cradling her severed head in her hands.

RAP RAP RAP

“Trick or treat!” The children squealed.

Painkiller

I’m addicted to painkillers.

“You have a very rare disorder,” the doctor had said. “Which is why it took us this long to identify it, why we had to run so many tests.”

Lucky me, a very rare disorder, like having the winning ticket in some cruel genetic lottery. Like giving the winning ticket to the guy behind the counter at the convenience store, and he puts it into that blue plastic machine that sucks it up and makes all those cheesy electronic sounds, bells and whistles that mean we have a winner!, only for you instead of a million dollar jackpot your prize is a gigantic genetic fuck you from mother nature.

I’ve been in horrible pain for most of my adult life and no one could tell me why.

Horrible, stabbing, piercing pain all the time, pain that I could feel all the way into my bones, and no one knew why – until that moment.

“You have a very rare disorder,” the doctor had said. “You have a developmental defect in your nervous system that causes your pain receptors to fire incorrectly.”
“So what does that mean?” I’d said, gritting my teeth.
“It means that you’re in pain all the time.”
“And the cure is…?”
“There is no cure, it’s a part of your biology. The best we can do is try to mitigate your symptoms so that you can get through each day. This is something you’re going to have to live with for the rest of your life.”

So now I’m addicted to painkillers.

Do you know what it’s like to be numb? Do you know what it feels like to not feel any pain at all? I do, now. I bet you think constantly having that shit running through my veins would make me feel goddamn invincible. With drugs that powerful I could do anything, I could feel no pain. The pain would be gone and I could go back to living my life and feeling good again. Enjoying it. Climbing mountains. Kayaking on the sea. Going on a bike ride with an attractive brunette and laughing about it afterward, all smiles and white suburban bliss like one of those motherfucking lifestyle ads.

No. It’s not like that.

The doctor hooked me up, yes. I’m on the painkillers 24/7 now, and damn they’re strong. Yes, they make the pain go away. Yes, I can live. But they make other things go away too. It’s a spectrum, you know, the feelings people are capable of, the material that makes the experiences of human existence. The drugs own me now, I’m dependent on them to live. I can never run out. I’m always thinking about the next time I have to refill my prescription. The pharmacist and I are good friends now. She said she’d never seen a prescription written out indefinitely. Here you go sport, enjoy your drugs – for the rest of your life.

But the painkillers have taken other things from me too. Pain and pleasure lie on that spectrum of human existence. The drugs let me function by keeping the pain at bay, by keeping me from feeling like my bone marrow is being ground out of me with belt sander. But they also take away something else, and this is the price I pay. They’ve taken away my ability to feel.

No more pain. No more pleasure. No more feeling. No matter how blue the sky or how brightly the sun shines, every day of my life is one of gloomy overcast November. The kind of day when you feel a little off. The kind of day when the traffic just seems to move a little slower. The kind of day when manic depressives finally commit and ignore the scrawled message in permanent marker on the overpass handrail that says don’t jump.

Is this best my life can be? My doctor says yes and I try to believe this is true. A lack of feeling must be better than feeling pain all the time. But I still just feel so empty.

The drugs do what painkillers do: they kill the pain. But they’ve killed the other parts of me too, the parts that feel.

The part of me that would have seen red when I came home and found her in bed with him. The part of me that would have been upset when she yelled at me and said she was leaving. The part of me that would have felt remorse when I put the knife in, and when I pitched that last clod of earth on top of the grave I dug for her.

Now there is only emptiness. Now there is only darkness. But at least the pain is gone.

1974

I remember when I came in from the field there was a car in the driveway I didn’t recognize. It was a big car, more of a boat really, a beautiful black 1974 Buick sedan.

That this strange car was parked in the driveway was odd enough; Mom hadn’t said anything about anyone visiting, and Dad was still at work, and would be until late in the evening. What was even stranger was that the car looked brand new. It looked as though it just had come out of a carwash, and someone had waxed and polished it to a fine shine. No, it looked even newer than that. It wasn’t just immaculate, it was pristine. Even though it must have gone down the couple kilometers of dusty gravel road to reach our farmhouse, there wasn’t a spot of dirt on it. The chrome on the wheels shone in light of the setting sun. It looked as if it had just rolled off on an assembly line.

I went in the side door to the house and winced when the screen banged behind me. Mom hated it when I let it do that.

“Mom?” I called out. I heard voices coming from the living room, quiet polite conversation, half-murmured. The kind you have when someone is over for tea, or a relative is visiting.

I came into the room and yes, there was Mom was sitting in the big chair drinking a cup of a tea. The service was laid out on the glass of the coffee table.

Across from my mother on the couch was a strange man I did not recognize. Though he was sitting down, I could tell he was the tallest man I’d ever seen; his long lanky arms rested at his sides, and though his feet were on the floor his long legs were bent upward and angled at the knee. He looked like a giant spindly insect trying to blend in and be a good houseguest.

He was dressed all in black, in a suit. The suit looked new, new like the strange car that sat out in the driveway, like it had just been pulled off the rack. His clothes fit him strangely though. I could see his pants were too short and exposed some of his socks at the ankle. And his jacket was clearly made for a smaller man and fit him too tightly.

He wore the shiniest black oxfords I’d ever seen in my life.

“Honey,” my Mom said, “This is Mr. Smith. He works for the American government.”
“Hello little boy,” he said. His voice was high pitched and nasal, the last voice I would ever place with a giant man like the one before me. “I’m John.”
“Mr. Smith and I were just talking about your father,” my mother continued, with forced politeness. “Why don’t you go into the other room and read?” They both looked at me expectantly, my mother with annoyance.
“Okay,” I said, and did.

I could hear Mr. Smith asking my mother all kinds of strange, personal questions in his high pitched voice. Where did you grow up? How long have you and your husband been married? Do you have any family living in the area? How long have you been living in this house? I remember wondering what someone from the American government would want with my Dad, and how strange it was that they’d come all the way up to rural Ontario just to find him.

Finally I couldn’t take it any more and went back out into the living room.

“Mom, when are we having dinner?”
“…about your husband’s work with CSIS?” I had interrupted just as the strange man was mid-sentence.
“Dear, don’t be rude,” my mother said sternly.
“Dad works at the hatchery,” I said, and then without thinking, blurted out: “Oh, you must mean Mr. Trammel!”

Mr. Trammel was our ‘next-door’ neighbour in that he lived about a kilometer further down the road from us. Sometimes he came over for dinner and talked with my mother and father. Even though he lived here in the country, he drove into Ottawa every morning to work at CSIS. Whenever I asked him if he was spy he said no, that he just had a desk job like a lot of other people there, but that he did still help put the bad guys away.

“DEAR.” My mother repeated, in her I mean it this time or you’re in big trouble voice. “Please go to your room and close the door. You’re being rude.”
“Sorry Mom.”

I went to up to my bedroom. I could still hear my mother and the strange man, John Smith, talking as their voices carried up through the floorboards. It was one of those strange times where you can hear the tone of people’s voices but the words all garbled and indistinguishable. I heard the back and forth of my Mother’s soft, polite replies and the high-pitched, hurried inquiries of the strange dark visitor.

Time passed, and later I heard the man leaving and the front door slam. Through my window I watched the beautiful black 1974 Buick slowly back out of our driveway, and head down the darkening gravel road in the twilight. A cloud of dust rose up into the warm evening air behind it.

Later I heard Mom call someone on the phone and talk a lot while I read my comic books. Dad came home early that night for dinner, so I figured it must have been him. During the meal they didn’t say anything about the strange visitor, or his big black Buick.

I don’t remember a lot of things about my childhood. Sometimes it’s hard for me to even remember exactly what the old farmhouse looked like. But I do remember the lights I saw in the sky out in the field that night, and that black 1974 Buick sedan; the same one I’d see parked down the road outside Mr. Trammel’s place, the night before he disappeared.

Bonemeal

“What’s in the bag?” I asked, stopping mid-step on the sidewalk beneath the noonday sun.

“Bonemeal,” Mr. Saunders said, still hunched over. “For the garden. Nothing else makes the plants grow like it. Hard to find good bonemeal these days though.” It was one of those large paper bags that you buy at the hardware store, the kind that come in packs of twenty and are as large as their less environmentally friendly black plastic cousins, and have catchy slogans and marketing messages printed on them in all dark green capitals letters in stylish font: SAVE THE EARTH BY THROWING OUT THIS BAG. Or, BROWN IS THE NEW BLACK.

Mr. Saunders was hacking away at the base of the tree with a hatchet, creating a tiny pile of woodchips at his feet and a growing triangular notch near the bottom of the trunk. The tree was bigger than a sapling, yes, but still smaller than an adult. He’d planted it some time ago with high hopes. But now hack, hack, hack went the hatchet.

“Damn shame about this tree,” he said reflectively, coming up to a standing position and wiping his brow. “Seems some kinda rot gotta hold of it.” The bark was coming off in blackened rigid u-shaped sections of varying length, joining the pile of woodchips Mr. Saunders was making on the lush green grass. “Doesn’t look like nothin’s gonna save it, not even the best bonemeal.”

“That is a shame,” I said, sauntering over from the sidewalk. “Sorry Mr. Saunders.”

He laughed. “Ha, it’s not your fault son,” He wiped his brow again. “Nature does what she will. I’m just trying to have some nice vegetation here on my property. Say, would ya mind going around back and fetching me my spade? I think I left it in the garden. Once I’m done here I’m gonna need it to dig all the roots out.”

“Sure thing, Mr. Saunders.” He smiled at me and I headed back around the side of the house.

As I rounded the corner of grey brick near the hanging coils of garden hose, I heard a horrible metallic snap. The most intense pain I’d ever felt shot up my leg and I cried out. Looking down I saw my ankle was bloody and the flesh was cut to the bone by a pair of rusted metal jaws. I had stepped into a bear trap, hidden in the grass.

“Mr. Saunders!” I cried out, tears streaming down my face. “Help! I’m stuck.”

And then my kindly neighbour came around the corner of his house in his overalls and he looked different than before; he held the hatchet low at this side and his eyes had this far-off look, like he was staring through me. I thought about how I used to see Sarah Fountaine walk past our house every morning to head to school, because she left a half-hour earlier than me, and how I never saw her do that anymore, not for the last couple months, though I’d thought nothing of it; or how our other neighbour Mr. Tran had always been puttering in his garden on the front lawn, with his fat wife tut-tutting from gray breaks of the front walkway while holding the metal and glass storm door open, but I hadn’t seen either of them outside their house in weeks.

Mr. Saunders walked towards me with the hatchet swinging low at his side, and I felt the teeth of the bear trap bite into my leg, and the blood coursing through my veins.

“Hard to find good bonemeal these days though, isn’t it?” he said, raising the hatchet. “Damn hard to find.”

I’ll Be Dead Soon

When I came home, there was blood on the sheets.

Shit. Shit shit shit shit shit shit. Not again. No, not again.

But the bed was empty. Emily wasn’t there. I ran back out of the bedroom and saw that the sliding glass door to the balcony hung open – the curtains around it were slowly swaying in the wind. I hurried out into the blinding light of day.

Emily sat on the concrete of the balcony floor, her back leaned against the grey brick of the wall. Her legs were pulled up against her in the fetal position and her face was pressed into her knees, buried beneath her disheveled black locks. She was crying.

“Honey….” I said, softly, and crouched down.

She looked up at me. Her pale skin was reddened and her cheeks were coated with streaks of hot tears running her black mascara. There was sadness in her eyes, and shame.

“I’m sorry baby, I’m sorry,” she started to say, but her words quickly rose and turned into crying again.

I slid down against the wall next to her and put my arm around her. She buried her face in my shoulder, and wept. Over and over again she kept repeating: I’m sorry baby, I’m sorry. I’m so sorry. I’m so sorry. I’m sorry, baby, I’m sorry…

I tried to comfort her, knowing that it would do little. It would be a long night.

I gazed out from our balcony on the 23rd floor, into the rows of cold uncaring skyscrapers of downtown. As Emily wept, I felt her slowly rubbing her hand against her forearm, over and over. I looked down at her long fingers as they smeared her blood back and forth, the same blood that was on the bedsheets, the same that covered her fingers, and had flowed from the shallow cuts she made.

She’d said before it would be the last time.


“Come on honey,” I said the next day. “Let’s go get a hot chocolate.”

In all the chaos and emotion that was living with Emily, I tried very hard to find the few things – those precious few, bright things – that stood out for her, that I could do to try to lift her spirits. There weren’t many. There wasn’t much that could bring her from her low, dark place closer to what could be considered to feeling normal, or even just sad. The white hot chocolate at the cafe down the street was one of those few things. Sometimes. “Come on babe, it’ll be fun.”

I heard her stir in the other room, and throw the duvet from the bed. Then the sound of her slowly pulling on clothes.

“Yeah, fun….” Her distant words were hollow, slow and empty.

Em came out of the bedroom. She had thrown on her black tank top and jeans, the only clothes she’d worn these past few weeks. She stared down at the floor outside the doorway. “Baby, I just don’t feel like it. What’s the point?”

The last couple months had been especially bad. I’d never seen her like this before in all the years that we’d been through. And she hadn’t cut herself before, not since she was in high school.

“Come on, it’ll be fun,” I said again. Sometimes it required a lot of effort. A lot of gentle but persistent encouragement to get her going. But it was worth it. Those times I could lift her spirits just a little, it was worth it.

“Alright,” she said, listless.

The barista at the cafe was cheerfully oblivious to the cloud of despair around the love of my life. All smiles and happy words and can I help you? and the contrast between her cheeriness and Em’s gloom couldn’t have been starker.

We sat at one of the little red circular tables. Emily set her hot chocolate down in front her and stared into its steaming depths. She was silent. I sipped my coffee and felt like screaming. I felt like flipping the table and spilling our hot drinks all over the floor of the cafe. I felt like getting up from the chair and taking her in my arms and shaking her back and forth and shouting I love you and you’re beautiful and smart and funny. I know you are. I know you can be, because I’ve seen you be. You know me better than anyone ever will and I love you more than anything in the universe and that’s all that really matters. What’s wrong with you? Why can’t you just snap out of this? I love you! I love you and I just want you to be happy but I don’t KNOW WHAT TO DO!

Emily sipped her white hot chocolate silently. She didn’t look up.


That was a week ago, when she cut herself again. After that, things only worsened. She just lay in bed in the apartment all day, most days she didn’t even bother getting up or getting dressed. I tried to talk to her but she was just so withdrawn.

When I came home from work this evening the sliding door to the balcony was open again. Shit. Shit shit shit shit shit. I stepped outside but Em wasn’t out there. I went into the bedroom but she wasn’t there either – the bed was bare, the duvet thrown in a heap on the floor, and her clothes weren’t in a pile on the floor next to it like they normally were. As I went back out into the kitchen, I began to think that perhaps she was feeling better and had just gone out and left the door open – she had always been very forgetful.

It was then I found her note on the counter, and as I read it, I began to cry.

My Dearest Michael,

I’m so sorry. I’m so sorry for all of this. For all the tears, all the pain, all the drama, all the blood. I love you so very much and I know that you never deserved any of it. It’s all my fault. I fucked everything up. All I ever wanted was for you to be happy, but I know now that I’ll never be able to make you happy if can never be happy myself.

Life is just so hard. It’s so hard to get up in the morning and face another day when deep down I know that everything is pointless. It’s so hard to pull myself from bed and go outside when I’m always so tired. It’s impossible for me to keep going on when I feel so dead and empty inside and I can never do anything right.

I’m so glad we spent this time together. Even though I know this life is just a meaningless dream, I’m glad I shared this dream with someone like you. I know that you were always just trying to help. But there are some things in life that can never be fixed, and I’m one of them. I am, and always have been, broken.

I’m ready to wake up. I’m tired of this rotting feeling inside and this empty hole in my chest that only grows larger with each passing day. I’m ready to wake up from this dark dream.

I’ll be dead soon. Maybe one day you’ll learn the truth of it all and follow me. But until then I just want you to know this is not your fault. It’s no one’s fault but my own.

I’ve always been a fuck-up. I’m sorry.

Goodbye,
Em

Beside the sliding door to the balcony, the curtains fluttered softly in the cool summer breeze, and danced in gentle beams of warm sunlight.

I knew where Emily was.

How the Break Room Microwave Shut Down My Old Workplace

Do you guys know that one person you work with, the one that nobody likes? Yeah, well, there used to be someone like that at my old workplace. I say ‘my old workplace’ because, well yeah, it’s not really there anymore. And I’m pretty sure I’m one of the few people that actually knows what happened.

Work is a strange environment. Sometimes the only thing you have in common with the people that you’re forced to share physical space with is that you walk on the same carpet from 9 to 5 that they do. It’s like having a whole shitload of roommates without any choice in the matter. Research by sociologists and psychologist into the nature of Work, capital double u, has found that factors like the working conditions and interpersonal relationships between employees are much more important determinants of workplace satisfaction than things most people would think of, like say, salary (which by the way, in my case, was shit).

I think the reason places like the break room or kitchen or whatever it might be called at your particular place of work can elevate the tension between employees is because they are shared spaces. You’re just trying to eat your fucking lunch without having to listen to that guy a table over keep slurping his fucking noodles and make you hate your life even more than you already do because you’re an office drone and your timesheet is overdue.

Or you’re trying not to be annoyed by the fact that someone keeps leaving big piles of dirty dishes in the sink and randomly eating people’s food out of the fridge. It’s worse than living with a bad roommate, because you’ll never be able to figure out just who that fucker is. You don’t even know who to blame, and even if you did, you probably wouldn’t know him anyway, the guy from cubicle 4451. It’s that kind of behavior that makes human beings sharing space with other human beings bring out the worst in them, and cause people to resort to measures of amazing passive-aggressiveness, like posting notes on the break room fridge written in ALL CAPS calling out the fucker who’s eating everyone’s food and hoping that bastard will stop.

He won’t.

In my old workplace, I don’t know who the hell this guy was – I’ll call him Steve – but I always seemed to end up having my lunch at the same time as him. It didn’t matter what the events of the day were, or if I took my lunch at 11:30 or at 2, it seemed like Steve was always there in the break room at the same time I was. I began to think that Steve either didn’t do any fucking work at all and just hung out in the break room all the time, or that he had some strange obsession with me, that perhaps I had slighted him in some way and he was waging the ultimate war of passive-aggressive psychological attrition against me.

I started to hate Steve because I don’t know what the fuck Steve ate every day but it STANK. Every time Steve was in the break room at the same time as me, he’d put his little Tupperware container in the microwave and hit the buttons BEEP BEEP BEEP and it would make that noise and then the light would come on and there’d be that hum and I knew that glass plate inside was slowly rotating, letting the ungodly odors of whatever fucking disgusting concoction Steve would soon devour seep out into the break room in a uniform manner, until it was totally permeated with noxious odour. It was like being in a fucking sauna of putridness.

For this, I hated Steve.

And I wasn’t the only one. Understandably, other people had the misfortune to experience this same thing I did. I started talking to other folks in the office and they knew exactly what I was on about. “Who the fuck is that guy, anyway?” – Tom from accounting. “I know, right? Like what the hell can smell that bad and possibly be something you would eat?” – Jenni from marketing. “I don’t know who the hell that guy is, but god, sometimes I can smell the break room from all the way down the hall and have to take my lunch at a different hour, just because of whatever fucking disgusting mystery meat he’s nuking in there.” – Jamie from IT.

So you probably think this story is about Steve, right? That Steve is the guy everyone hated and no one knew, and was the one responsible for my old workplace shutting down? That he was just some dude from outside sneaking in and nuking human flesh he’d hacked up in his basement, to devour in front of people for whatever sick and twisted reason it got off this closet psychopath?

Well, you’re wrong. Kinda.

I found out later that Steve was a support guy from helpdesk, ordinary kid working his way through college that just really happened to like Thai food and fish. And it’s true, as you can tell from my writing here, that no one really liked him because of his culinary preferences and their stench which we had to share in.

You see, the person who everyone REALLY hated, who was ultimately responsible for the end of my old place of work, was Diane. Fuck Diane. Some days I felt sorry for her, most other days I just wished she would die.

Diane was fat. Really fat. And a terrible dresser. Each day I had the misfortune of crossing paths with her it was like a fun game to see what fucking style crime against humanity she’d committed. Lots of bright bright colours that should never go together. Lots of ugly, baggy sweaters. Neon leggings which would never be appropriate in an office environment anywhere in the world at any time. And god, her hair – her horrible permed, dyed hair with the roots coming through – fuck.

Diane was loud. Her voice was low and grating, within it bitterness instilled from years of unhappy marriage and dealing with meaningless office bullshit and incompetent coworkers. I could hear her on the phone even though I was a whole block of cubicles away, bitching into her headset at some other drone who was, no doubt, only a few other cubicles away and hating his life because of her.

No one liked Diane. Not even Diane.

She got really upset some days. I heard her yell and scream and could fucking FEEL the awkwardness rising like warm air from my fellow drones’ cubicles around me. You know when someone’s voice changes, when they are just on the very edge of breaking down into tears? Yeah, there was a lot of that too. VERY AWKWARD.

It was pretty clear to everyone that knew who Diane was that she had emotional problems.

Between Diane’s all out being a horrible fucking human being and Steve’s nauseating microwave specials, I was hating life more than just because I had to reboot my computer four times a day, because it kept freezing and IT wouldn’t fix it or give me a new one. I thought about quitting a lot. Or about stabbing Steve or Diane with an icepick.

So yeah, Diane is the one everyone hated. And she’s the one who was ultimately responsible for the company folding after what was unimaginatively dubbed “The Break Room Incident”. Kind of an understatement.

I think I was the only one who really put two and two together and realized that there was a previous altercation which really set off The Break Room Incident, which I also happened to be around for. I don’t think anyone else experienced the former and the latter. And I don’t think anyone else had PTSD, or can’t sleep at night, or has panic attacks and recurring nightmares like me, because they didn’t see what I saw.

Diane was often in the break room at the same time as Steve and I, which made things worse. On the plus side, she kept quiet while we sat there stewing in the disgusting vapors of whatever rancid disaster Steve was devouring. But I still had to be in the same room as her, and listen to her drinking ridiculous amounts of soda from that fucking ginormous cup from Seven Eleven, and eating whatever fucking boxed processed combination of salt, fat and sugar which to her constituted food. I made the mistake of looking up one time and could see the anger in her face, the pure frustration. Have you ever seen a very fat, very ugly woman in a bright yellow knitted sweater angrily chewing? I have and it’s horrible.

And then one day, she went off – the precursor. Diane had already been in the break room when I arrived – boxed food with 2500 mg of sodium: check. Fluorescent green cardigan: check. Crows feet and a dour expression and being a total bitch – check.

I sat as far as fucking possible away from her and tried to eat my meal with whatever tiny amount of peace I could muster in this hell of an environment that I called work.

Then Steve came in. Steve came in with his headphones on, totally oblivious, and took the lid off the Tupperware container BEEP BEEP BEEP HUMMMMMM and I felt like vomiting. Through my nearly gagging I shot a cautious look over at Diane as she was sitting close to the microwave and Steve. Oh shiiiiiiiit. She started getting up. This was going to be bad.

“HEY,” she said. This was going to be a fucking train wreck. I couldn’t look away. Steve was still oblivious to Diane not a foot away from him, still plugged in, still rockin’ out to Megadeth or whatever the fuck he was listening to. BEEP BEEP BEEP BEEP he pushed the button and the door opened and he took out the steaming container that smelled like shit.

“HEY.” Diane said, again. This time, he heard her. Slowly, he took out his headphones. “THAT FUCKING STINKS.”

Steve was, needless to say, a little surprised.

“I….”

“That fucking stinks,” she said again. “and I SWEAR TO GOD if you nuke any more of whatever disgusting crap you’re about to eat when I’m in here, I WILL PUT YOUR HEAD in that goddamn microwave so you can smell it.”

Diane brought her big flabby bear paw of a hand up and smacked the container Steve was holding up into his face. The hot, steaming, disgusting sludge which he called food exploded everywhere, all over him. Diane stormed out. Steve stood there in shock, reeking and coated in his brown sludgy foul-smelling lunch. I left, and took the afternoon off. That night I dreamt of Diane’s demon eyes and sinking into an ocean of brown mire that was Steve’s lunch.

About a week later is when the incident happened.

I came up to the break room for my lunch and I could smell the foul miasma floating down the hallway. Fucking Steve, I thought. As I got closer to the break room, I saw Diane leaving at the other end of the hall. I found out later I was the last person to see her before she disappeared.

I got closer to the break room and the rancid smell got even worse. Jesus Steve, what the fuck are you eating today? It smells like a fucking slaughterhouse in here.

When I entered the break room reality tilted. There was blood everywhere. The sink, the counter, the white paint on the drawers – they were all splattered with bright crimson. Steve’s body sat on the floor in a pool of blood, leaned against one of the counter’s cupboards, a giant knife sunk deep into the ribcage. The police report would later state that Diane had stabbed him over 43 times.

The microwave hummed and rotated the plate inside, oblivious to the carnage of which it was a part.

Diane said she’d put his head in the microwave, and that is exactly what she did.

I have a new job now. I eat lunch at my desk, and I still can’t sleep.