Thanks to narrator for another production of one my stories. You can follow Eden on Twitter at @Paichan
“Hey Hon, just got a call and another job I’ve got to get to, so just have dinner without me… I should be home around 9. Love ya.”
At first I wanted to be a doctor. Then I started reading about criminology and wanted to become a medical examiner. But guess what? You have to be smart to get into medical school. And you have to be hard-working to become an M.E. And I was neither of those things – so now I do crime scene cleanup. Now I scrape brains and blood and bone off the floor. Think about that next time you have a shitty day at your cushy office job.
I get there and it’s that indoor mall, not far from where I live. They’ve closed down the whole place, yellow police tape everywhere. I give the cop at the front my spiel and he tells me it’s at the back. There’s blood and entrails everywhere.
“Jesus, what happened here?” I say to Carl, the M.E., who’s standing nearby. “Shotgun blast to the torso by some junkie. Fucking heartless.”
“Who was the victim?” I venture.
“A woman. Still trying to ID her as he took her wallet.”
He jerks his head over his shoulder and I look over to see his underlings with the body bag. The last thing I see before I look away is the zipper coming up over the woman’s face. Julia’s face.
Think about that the next time you have a shitty day.
“It’s always amazed me you know just when to stop pouring,” I said, as Dr. Edelson finished doing so. He righted the china pot above the silver tray of the tea service, then began pouring the second cup.
“You know, my boy, I’ve had this same china set for over 35 years now. It should trouble me if I did not know when to stop pouring.” He set the pot down and we picked up our cups. He sat back in his easy chair and sipped the tea, resting his other hand upon the top of his cane which leaned against the side of the chair as he did so.
“Something has been bothering me, my boy. In fact, it’s been bothering me since the first time you came to visit me so long ago. I don’t know what you look like. And I know for you this is the simplest thing, to know a man’s appearance, but for me, you understand, it’s a much more complicated and shall we say… intimate thing.”
“I understand,” I said. “It’s okay Dr. Edelson. I trust you.”
I got up and came over to the professor’s chair. I bent over and he put his old, wrinkled hands upon my face and began to feel my cheeks. His hands explored the nuances of my visage, around my cheekbones, near the corners of my mouth – intrepid explores in unmapped territory.
“You’re so beautiful,” Dr. Edelson said, “but this is difficult. Would you mind?”
“Of course.” I kneeled. I felt his hands continue to explore my face, caressing my cheeks, my forehead, pinching the bridge of my nose and exploring the length of it. Then Dr. Edelson’s hands moved to my eyes and I felt his fingers not moving atop but pinched in a grip and pushing against their surface. I cried out and tried to stand but the old man held me in place by some untold reservoir of strength.
“Professor stop! Please!” I screamed, as the old man pierced my skull’s sockets with his fingers. He wriggled them around my eyes and pulled and twisted. I screamed and screamed as my eyes rotated and slipped beneath his grasp, until finally I heard a wet snap as he yanked them free of my skull. I moaned in agony and and fell forward. I felt blood gush down my cheeks and drip onto the floor.
Then there was a sound, a strange slurrrrp, like that of a man sucking a grape held between his lips into his mouth, followed by the same sound again. I heard The Professor rise from his chair, the leather shifting beneath him.
“You are beautiful,” he said. “So beautiful, now I can truly see.”
I felt him kneel down next to me and placed his hand upon my shoulder. With his other hand he grabbed my chin, smearing the blood running down my face. I sobbed.
And then I felt the old man reach for my teeth.
I followed them on a whim.
I saw the group of girls – thin, pale, dressed with all the accoutrements of a night out on the town and attracting the opposite sex – turn down a blind alley and go through an unmarked black door. It must have been one of those hidden clubs, a secret place that only the coolest people get to know about by word of mouth.
What the hell, I thought. One final nightcap and I might even be able to chat one of them up.
Coming through the door, I strangely found myself entering directly into the heart of the place. Everything was red. Bright red. Crimson. The club was well lit and everything was like blood under the scarlet illumination. I felt like I was a piece of meat being kept warm under a hot lamp.
Stranger still, the club was completely silent. There was no thumping electronic music playing, no din of voices and drunken laughter, no sounds of bottles and glasses.
The place was empty save for the girls I’d seen walk in and a few others they’d joined. They were sitting in a booth in the corner, all similar in appearance and dress. They were fawning over a lithe sliver of a man, bare-chested beneath a black leather vest and sprawled out on the red upholstery of the booth.
“Hello,” he said, his goatee waggling. “Welcome to The Crimson Club.”
“Uhhh, thanks,” I said. The silence was unnerving. “Anything to drink around here?”
“There is now,” he said, baring his fangs.
“It’s my cat,” I said, holding it out toward the doctor. “She’s sick.”
“Um, alright,” the doctor replied . “If there’s a problem with your animal, ma’am, I recommend you take it to a veterinarian.”
“No, I mean it started with my cat, but she got me sick too. I can feel it.”
The doctor stared. “Okay,” he said skeptically, “could you describe your symptoms? There are very few diseases transmissible between cats and humans. You could have a bacterial infection, or cat-scratch fever, as it is colloquially called. Are you experiencing any fever or headache?”
“No, nothing like that.” This was getting frustrating. He just didn’t understand. “I’m dead, doctor. I’m rotting away inside. I’m dead and the disease is what’s keeping me moving around. I caught it from my cat! She died a year ago and has been reanimated by the virus since then. See, look! Look at her eyes! They’re all green! She’s dead!”
I pushed the cat into the doctor’s face so he could see, but he didn’t look. He wasn’t even looking.
“Ma’am, there’s nothing wrong with your animal. And if you aren’t experiencing any real physical symptoms, I would venture that perhaps you need a psychologist not a doctor.”
“I’M SICK!” I screamed in his face. “WHY WON’T YOU LISTEN?!” I could feel the virus rising inside me. I could feel my mind slipping. I felt myself losing control again. The hunger was rising.
“Nurse!” The doctor called.
“I’M SICK!!” I pounced on the doctor and bit into his neck, and the warmth of his blood rushing into my mouth was a sweet release.
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.
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
When I awoke my arm had turned into a girder.
I gazed in horror at the monstrous metal beam which had replaced my flesh, covered in red paint chipping away to red-brown rust. Out into the street I ran, and saw it was filled with throngs of horrified people. They were changing too.
A man’s hands were twisting lengths of copper wire, and a woman’s arms steel pipe. A young boy’s torso sat atop stacks of cinder blocks. Another man lay dead in the street, his head replaced by the frosted dome of a light fixture.
Up above the buildings were changing too. The massive skyscrapers were transforming into monstrosities made of our skin and bone. Blood gushed from orifices of the towering piles of flesh, running down into the streets and flooding them.
From high above came a voice, one we heard only in our minds:
You knew this day would come. You are only getting what you deserve. Proud humanity, turning from nature with scorn; you said you didn’t need us, that you had bested us with your technology, your science, your engineering. You raped and harvested us, turned us into what you said life should be, what was easiest for you: a sterile, artificial world.
You built false idols in the sky in which to live. You shut yourselves in, away from each other. Closer and into smaller spaces you hide away, but you are farther apart from each other than ever. And you are the farthest from us that you’ve ever been.
We are only showing you what you’ve become. Gaze upon each other in horror at your true nature.