You can’t send bubblegum to do a man’s job. That’s one of those things that’s so true, nobody even bothers to say it. But every once in a while, it bears saying.
It started when Wendi Jacobson received a package in the mail. It wasn’t the kind of package she usually got, with a little black swoosh on the side and tape that said ‘Prime’ all over it in blue letters. This one was all wrapped up in string, which struck Wendi as being one of the quaintest things she’d seen in a long while. It didn’t even look like the kind of string you could buy in a craft store; it looked like the kind binding old, yellowed letters in some dusty drawer in your great grandmother’s china cabinet.
The label wasn’t neatly laser-printed onto an adhesive surface and carefully affixed. This parcel – whatever it was – had been wrapped in brown paper, the address written directly onto it via Sharpie, in a crabbed-yet-scrawling hand. It wasn’t until she really looked at the address that Wendi started to get the sense that it wasn’t just quaint.
When she saw the address, she started to realize that things might be bad.
The mailing address was correct, of course. How else would it have found its way to her home? But the return address, that was the problem.
Cript (Where the Ded Sleep)
Below the bodis below the dirt
Under the lite, beneef the shadow
The first ‘below’ was underlined time and time again, as though the reader ran the danger of not realizing how insane the inscription was, and needed attention called to it. Wendi hadn’t picked up her strange new delivery, hadn’t even touched it yet. Now that she had seen that, she wasn’t sure she wanted to. But just then, she noticed something else. The edges of the package were starting to darken, as though something inside were leaking out.
She prodded it with her foot, and the thing moved. Not much, but enough. Furthermore, the stain kept spreading. She didn’t dare touch it again, but instead retreated inside, in a kind of mindless, automatic fog. She came back with her broom. She didn’t use the bristles, for some reason, but poked at the package with the handle end.
The paper of the bag ruptured and something dark red poured out in a gushing gout. Before she could react, she felt a strong tugging on the handle of the broom. The bristles smacked her in the face. Something was pulling the broom downwards, towards the still-gushing parcel.
For a few stunned seconds, she fought against the opposing force, as though her life depended on keeping her grip on the broom. As she felt it slipping inexorably out of her fingers, she realized her madness. No broom was worth this. She let go and fell back against the outside wall of her house, watching with confused terror as the small tear in the parcel absorbed the long, seasick-green handle of the broom. The strangely addressed packaged seemed to gulp it in, like someone stuffing as much of a beef jerky stick into their craw as they could stand.
Wendi realized that she didn’t have a moral obligation to stand there and watch this parcel eat her broom, and decided instead to go inside and slam the door. She grabbed her keys off the counter, headed out the back door, and drove as far away as she could on one tank of gas before she dared to get out of her car.
For this reason, she wasn’t present to notice when the package, having dispensed with her broom, began to spray blood outwards, like a whirling lawn sprinkler, covering the front of her house with a hideously suggestive spatter of gore.
“I am not an apex predator!” chanted Chauncey. “I am not at the forefront of modern microbiotics!”
His father, drunk, turned up the volume on the ancient, cuboid television. On the cathode ray tube, two blurry men leered at each other across a pockmarked table. Chauncey and Hervé McMillian were among the shrinking minority of households who had not joined the flatscreen LCD revolution. In fact, if Hervé was going to hang anything on his wall, it was more likely to be his brain-addled son, Chauncey.
“Do you hear me, father?” said Chauncey, slamming his fist against the wall and pounding his chest with his other hand. “I’m not like unto the world of bees! No dance shall I do to indicate a path towards honey for my brethren! Sterile they are, and sterile they remain, but I shall make my way into the world of men and let fly with bolts! Bolts of such fury as to make the angels weep!”
He collapsed after this soliloquy, weeping like a widowed mother.
Hervé grunted and turned the volume a few notches higher.
“I will not submit to the machinations of indignity!” Chauncey choked out between his sobs.
“Why the fuck not?” Hervé grunted, turning the volume up a bit more.
The speakers on his old TV were shredded like Enron’s accounting papers, but what of it? Hervé wouldn’t be able to hear what the people on his TV were talking about even if the speakers were top-notch, not with the way his man-child of a son prattled on.
“Because,” Chauncey said, gulping down air and wiping the tears from his beet-red cheeks with the back of his hand. “Because the red engine of death almighty stops churning for no man, no matter how small!”
“That’s a fucking shame,” Hervé said. “A goddamn, lying down, crying-ass shame.”
“Your wooden boat of youth would sink in today’s waters, father.”
“I ain’t your dad,” Hervé said, knowing it was a lie. “Your mom fucked some pond scum and then tried to have an abortion. I’ve seen wall clocks with more sense in their second hand than you have in your whole brain.”
“You see,” said Chauncey, beaming. He stamped a single foot, pointed knowingly. “That’s precisely what I mean.”
“Get back on your side of the line,” Hervé said through a flat mouth. His teeth barely separated as he spoke. “Get on your side of the line, stay there, and shut up.”
The TV clicked to its maximum volume. Chauncey, doing as he was bid, slunk back to his side of the line and began to toy with the slack in the chains this retreat afforded him.
Hervé took another swig of beer.
Damn chains. They were too damn long. His idiot brat of a boy could rattle them around like the goddamn ghost of Christmas goddamn past.
Wendi Jacobson filled her tank with gas and stopped in at the diner next to the station for something to eat. She was three hundred miles from her home and hadn’t eaten in roughly twelve hours. When she walked into the diner, a man with a pale face and bright green glasses slid into the seat next to her.
“I’m sorry,” she said. “I don’t want any company.”
“I can see that,” said the man.
His voice was small, reedy, but strangely deep.
“Then why did you sit down?”
“Because I’ve been expecting you.”
Wendi snorted. Just what she needed, after the day she’d had.
“Oh, have you?”
“Not in so many words,” he said, taking off his glasses and flattening them out into the surface of the table as though they were jelly.
She looked at him. His eyes seemed suddenly violet.
“Not in so many words, no,” he said again. “Not exactly in those exact words, madam.”
His hair was too thick. It seemed to spring out on his face in little patches. It was dark. The contrast between his pale face and the thick braids of dark hair made her think of worms.
“Or slugs,” said the man helpfully, as the diner slowly darkened and turned to foam. “Some kind of deep sea slug, wouldn’t you say?” The glasses were, by now, entirely flattened out. “Some kind of bug-thing, with eyes on stalks? Only they aren’t exactly eyes, are they Miss Jacobson? No, not exactly. They’re something…” He paused, searching for the words. “Something worse.”
She tried to scream, but realized she already was.
Chauncey clapped his hands.
“Another one! Got another one!”
“Shut your candy-sucking mouth, you nasally little puke!” shouted Hervé.
“They got the package, but they didn’t open it,” Chauncey continued, in the same excited voice, oblivious to Hervé’s anger. “But it’s okay, because they didn’t get far. The message got through.”
Hervé grunted, and uncapped another beer.
What the hell was his cornbread-for-brains son even talking about?
“See,” Chauncey said, hoisting a tiny figurine of a girl. “It got through!”
Hervé rose from his stained recliner, his pupils huge and spinning in his irises. His rage ran ahead of him like the heat streaming from an open oven door. Before Chauncey had even processed his approach, Hervé wrested the small, porcelain figurine away from his scrawny teenage son.
“Where did you get this?” Hervé said, his nostrils flaring with every syllable. “Where. The fuck. Did you get this?”
“Don’t hurt her, daddy!”
“I ain’t your GODDAMN DADDY!”
Hervé clouted his son over the head with a clenched fist. The boy collapsed in a heap, the chains shackling his wrists and ankles jangling down around him like spider webs.
“Where the fuck did you get this?”
There was no answer.
Hervé looked at the figurine. It wasn’t the first he had found. Many, many times before, he had torn every inch of this place apart, looking for more like it, yet found nothing. But every six days or so, his son produced a new one.
“Probably keeps ‘em stuffed up his butthole,” Hervé said, his chest heaving.
He flung the figure down disgustedly. It snapped in half. He stomped it with his slipper, and did not stop when the pain engulfed his foot. He stomped, and stomped, and stomped.
“Hey, Hervé,” said the desk attendant, Clare.
Hervé merely grunted. Clare smiled, as though this were some kind of private joke between them. It was four in the morning, and the sight of anyone smiling – even the radiantly serene Clare – offended something deep in the core of Hervé’s being.
He waited for the click of the solenoid in the double doors and flung them roughly open. He was in a terrible mood, and it wasn’t entirely because of Clare’s subtly mocking smile. Thing was, Chauncey hadn’t woken up yet. That wasn’t good.
Hervé had clouted him before. Plenty of times. But he usually woke up after a couple hours, or at least after a day. But it had been – what? Something like two and a half days since that little twerp had piped up with one of his nonsense sentences.
At least that was two and a half days without the fear that his inbred bastard son would start waving around any of his goddamn porcelain girls. There was that, at least. And it’s not as though Hervé wanted the little fucker awake. It was just easier to hide a living body than a dead one. He had learned that little lesson back when that greasy-fingered little Arkansas con-man was president, hadn’t he?
It wasn’t a scenario he wanted to repeat. Ideally, his snot-nosed little half-wit would be awake when he returned home, rattling his chains and talking his nonsense. But ideally didn’t usually happen in Hervé’s life. He had to make plans for other contingencies.
“Howdy, Hervé,” came the gruff voice of his factory-floor ‘friend’, Dinky.
Dinky wasn’t his real name, of course, but it was the best word for what he was. Hervé couldn’t remember his real name, and what the fuck did it matter? Hervé liked him about as much as he liked staring at shit. Not much he could do about it though, was there? He had to work with the guy.
“Dinky,” Hervé said, nodding. He had realized long ago that this seemed close enough to friendliness to most of his co-workers.
“Gum?” Dinky said, holding out a wrapped stick.
“Bubblegum,” Dinky said, his eyebrows scrunching. “What, you picky about gum or something?”
“Sissy flavor,” Hervé said, but he still took the gum.
“You’re a real card, you know that?”
“Who the hell talks like that anymore?” Hervé said.
Dinky shook his head, laughing.
That’s all anyone seemed to do after they talked to Hervé. Smile and laugh, laugh and smile. He wondered what was so goddamn funny.
They walked out onto the floor.
The roar of the machines was obliterative. Hervé waited a moment, then slipped his earplugs in. He was supposed to have them in his ears before entering, but he always waited as long as he could stand. Maybe the roar of the machines would make him deaf, and he wouldn’t have to hear his addle-brained mucus of a son rant about rayguns and fairy wings all night while he was trying to get drunk. He put the gum in his pocket and forgot about it.
He stood there for a few hours, and made clothes.
Four hours had passed. Hervé walked off the floor, slid his punchcard into the box, and grunted as he made his way to the breakroom. He never ate anything, but he didn’t know where else to go. He took a seat in the corner and looked down at his hands. They were raw and chapped. He absently rubbed the back of his left hand. It didn’t help. He stopped.
He felt something strange in his breast pocket. He reached up, and pulled out the stick of bubblegum. He didn’t really care for gum, but then, there wasn’t a whole hell of a lot he did care for. He peeled the foil off and leered at the lurid, pink rectangle.
He had heard somewhere that gum was made out of the same stuff they used to make rubbers. Kind of sick, if you thought about it. He popped the stick in his mouth and started to chew. The flavor tasted somehow juvenile, as though it were beneath him. He chewed it anyway. The whole goddamn world was beneath him, but he still had to put up with it.
He balled up the foil and aimed it at the trashcan. By its arc, he could see that it was clearly going to miss by a couple of feet, but Hervé was distressed to see the little circular wastebasket slide across the floor to catch it anyway. That wasn’t good, was it? It didn’t seem good. He didn’t like it.
He instinctively spat out the gum. It hurt like someone had stuck a branding iron into his mouth. He looked down at the breakroom table and saw the pink wad of masticated gum, along with pulpy chunks of some other pink substance, streaked with red. It took him a few shocked seconds to process that the mystery substance was, in fact, part of his tongue. He gave a little cry, and a spray of pulpy, red and pink mush shot onto the table.
He reached up to touch his mouth and stringy, sticky gobs of flesh came off on his fingers like hot glue. He stood up, and immediately fell to his knees. He put a chapped, worn hand on the table to steady himself, and found himself pouring all his concentration and willpower into maintaining his balance on that hand. He fought to regain his feet, and soon decided to settle merely for not collapsing further. A moment later, even that small goal was unattainable.
He landed on the tile floor not with a thud but with a splash. He very much did not like the sound of that splash. More disconcerting was the way his head seemed to roll, end over end, for quite some distance. It lodged itself in a corner, and he blinked a few times in disbelief at the scene that greeted his eyes: he was looking at a disarrayed pile of his own clothes, soaked in some putrefying liquid. It was abhorrent.
Hervé took another minute or two to process what he was seeing. As obvious as it should have been, it wasn’t the first thing even a deeply troubled individual thinks of in such circumstances. He was seeing his own, melted body from across the room.
The last thing he remembered, before his vision faded and night came, was the way that shining foil had peeled back from the lightly-powdered, pink stick of gum. And how much he had hated the taste.
“You can make your own tomato paste at home, kids!” Chauncey said, waving the little Hervé figurine around like it was a baton, and Chauncey was conducting an invisible orchestra with it. “You can do it if you’ve got the tomatoes, and you’ve got the paste!”
He held the figurine on the palm of his hand, stared into its eyes, and whistled a happy song. The chains binding his hands started to run down his forearms like iron sweat.
“You can make enough for the whole camp to have some, if you’ve got enough tomatoes, and that’s the secret!”
What had been chains pooled around his feet like liquid mercury. The porcelain statuette started to steam. He began to whistle.
“First, get the tomatoes. Then, get the paste.”
The TV exploded outwards in a shower of sparks.
Chauncey stretched, and was rewarded with a wretched symphony of pops. His joints ached, his wrists burned. And his head remained in agony.
“Nothing a little time and a few glasses of water won’t fix, Mr. Trixemine!” he said, stumbling on unsure feet over to the shelf.
Racks of VHS tapes slid off the edges as though pushed. Chauncey carefully placed the figurine on the middle shelf, and fidgeted it back and forth until he had it in exactly the right position.
“Got to get this place cleaned up for mother!”
Just a few more adjustments, and he would really have this dump spruced up.
“Pat it, and shape it, and mark it with a ‘B’,” he said, whirling his hands so fast they looked like blurs. “Then pour it in the oven for my mommy and me!”
He laughed, and figurines started dropping from the ceiling like rain.
“Along came the man with the penny to pay,” Chauncey said, licking his dry lips.
“And he took one bun and he went…”
Thousands of figurines poured from the sky, as though bomb bay doors had let loose a torrent of them.
They piled up so quickly, only Chauncey’s head and shoulders still stuck out above them.
With an ear-splitting pop, Chauncey seemed to turn inside out. A tiny, grinning figurine sporting an exact replica of his clothes sat atop the pile of ceramic people, and the downpour of porcelain statuettes ceased. The night was strangely quiet.
And so was the next day, and the day after that.