There’s something changing at the office.
I smell it first. Then Shannon, in HR, then the entire third floor. It smells like a pond, like deli meat starting to turn. It smells like sepsis, like something getting infected inside your eustachian tubes, but not in the good way.
Next are the rashes. Hot red blotches on everyone’s hands, necks, and ankles, puffed up and tender, itching, driving us mad. The whole IT department in the bathroom running their hands under cold water, screaming when the water only makes it worse. The guy in the cubicle next to mine, why can’t I remember his name, rushed to the hospital to have his stomach pumped after taking about a dozen Benadryl capsules.
Then the paralysis. A stiffness in the fingers, a bit of lockjaw. People let their phones go to voicemail. The office quiet for the first time in years. Then Rita slides off her chair, splitting her lip, hot chai spilling over the back of her thighs. But she just lies there, eyes wide, screaming through her teeth.
There’s something changing at the office.
It’s me. I’m the thing.
It was supposed to be a karaoke party, but no one can figure out the machine, so for the last hour or so the only music has been a cheap instrumental reproduction of a Christmas carol no one has heard of, on loop in mid-February. If it was July, the song might be whimsical, ironic, putting people into a silly, nostalgic mood. Instead, it’s exhausting, tacky, the most sobering background music possible. Most of us here are still trying to forget Christmas.
I get a text. It’s Jessica again. I decide I’ll reply to her in 45 minutes. 45 minutes is about the max I can go without her getting weird on me. Not many things can keep someone from texting back for more than 45 minutes, I guess. Maybe if I was at a movie. There are some pretty long movies these days. I probably should have told her I was at a movie with, I don’t know, Felix. But instead she thinks I’m working. I guess it’s sort of even true. It is a work party after all. It’s pretty much just the same thing as any work day, except with more booze, tighter clothing, higher heels, a nonstop yuletide backing track, and everyone’s significant others. Minus Jessica, of course.
I set my watch for 45 minutes, then head directly to the snack table because I see a couple new faces there and I am starving.
I’m in the third floor bathroom.
I’ve locked myself in with a set of keys I took off a paralyzed maintenance man. I’ve pushed the keys underneath the door, then used a pen to nudge them farther out of reach. I’ve called 911.
Through the door I can hear the moaning. A dozen lock-jawed employees, lying on the carpet or slumped over at their desks like sculptures made from cramped, solidifying muscle.
I go over to the paper towel dispenser, accidentally see my face in the mirror, throw up globs of pale jelly into the garbage can. I wipe my mouth, grab two fistfuls of paper towel, come back and shove it in the space beneath the door, hoping it will keep whatever my skin is producing from getting out and poisoning the paramedics when they get here.
I check the door knob one more time, sit back against the door, close my eyes, and try not to think about eating my co-workers.
They don’t struggle at all, as if they’re perfectly fine with the idea. There’s nothing gory about it either. Their meat is no different from the ham in my ham sandwich, the whole raw chicken I ate on my kitchen floor last night, or the barbecue spare ribs I had at my sister’s on the weekend. Just as tender, too. Their flesh slides free from their pearl white bones like a toasted marshmallow slides free from a hot skewer. I don’t need to chew, I barely swallow. I just absorb it, ooze over the carcass collecting the nutrients, then move on, an undamaged skeleton left in my slime trail.
I open my eyes. The screaming from outside the door has stopped. Either they’re dead or the paralysis has just gotten worse. I look down and realize I’ve pulled out all of my teeth. I feel around with my tongue. Stiff bristles are lining the inside of cheek, growing from the back of my throat.
I need to throw up again. I run over to the toilet, push the stall door open and find Jason, from sales, paralyzed on the floor, looking up at me, trying to scream.
This spinach dip is too thick.
I drag a piece of bread across its surface, watching Jason, from sales, trail off mid-sentence while he looks around for a garbage can.
He was talking about his kid, a chubby little one-year-old that everyone in the office has seen hundreds of times on the screen of Jason’s phone and still can’t get enough of. He can’t find the garbage can, so he starts the sentence up again, now awkwardly holding his folded paper plate like some sort of taco filled with shrimp tails and wads of napkin.
This cocktail-inspired office-party conversation about his kid, Leon, the one-year-old who went as a tiny, tiny Spider-Man for his first Halloween, all started because Lisa had asked us if we wanted to go outside for a smoke with her. She only smokes when she drinks, which usually means she doesn’t smoke until her 10 am coffee break. Jason and I politely declined in unison, and now Jason is telling me how he quit smoking the day Leon was born.
I listen carefully, my loosening teeth tearing stale bread like animal hide.
I’m trapped in the office bathroom with Jason. Or rather, Jason is trapped here with me.
I’ve tried the door. I’ve tried to reach under the door for the keys. I’ve tried to use that pen to pull the keys back to me. Now I’m pounding on the door and screaming for help, hoping someone out there is able to hear me, able to move, able to let me out and stop me from doing any of the things flashing through my head, able to save Jason’s life. But my screams don’t sound human, or like anything I’ve ever heard. Four or five distinct tones coming from a toothless mouth, from whatever mutated anatomy has replaced my vocal cords. Anyone who hears me isn’t going to want to open this door to see the thing that’s making these sounds.
I try to bust the door down. I feel something give way, but it’s not the door. My arm droops from a broken socket. I kick the door knob and feel some bones in my foot crumble. I collapse to the floor, breaking something else. None of it hurts. It actually feels good, great even, like my bones aren’t supposed to be there. Like they are foreign objects imbedded deep in my sticky flesh, waiting to be removed.
So I try that.
I bend my broken foot almost in half, until the sharp end of a bone peeks through my skin, followed by a stream of pink, milky fluid.
I slide the bone out. It’s pockmarked and brittle, like my flesh has been digesting it, sending the calcium to support some new system or organ.
I pull out a total of seven bones from my body before I even realize what I’m doing. I look at the pile. Whatever I was before can’t be put back together. I’m sure of that now.
And I’m hungry.
I drag myself over to the man in the stall. Did he have a name? Why would you name something like that? His pupils dilate as he sees me slide around the corner, and the sight of his fear floods my mouth with digestive enzymes.
I grip his ankle with one hand. With the other, I slowly remove his left sock.
I’m at the office party, listening carefully as Jason tells me how he quit smoking. He’s excited, animated, gesturing with his paper plate, counting his points for me on the fingers of his pink, meaty freehand. He may be a little drunk, but he’s clearly proud of his accomplishment.
I’m impressed. I’ve never smoked, but I spent my entire childhood watching both my parents try to quit over and over again. My mom listening to hypnosis tapes while she drove, while she cleaned the house, while she smoked. My dad throwing his cigarettes in the sink and then pouring a half pot of stale coffee over them, as if they were the last cigarettes in the world and that would take care of it. I grew up learning that it was honourable to fight temptation, but that really, people are always going to do what their bodies want in the end. But as long as you tried, as long as you died on the bloody hill of temptation, like the ancient samurai, that was good enough.
But Jason’s actually done it. For Leon, for his health, for every extra day, every extra moment he’ll get to spend going on walks, eating good food, watching the draft, laughing with his wife, playing with his grandkids.
He says it all has to do with something called “cessation time distortion”. The average craving only lasts three minutes, but nicotine withdrawal can actually slow your perception of time and make it seem much longer. So once you start getting a craving, the timer starts. You don’t have to never smoke again, you just have to not smoke for the next three minutes. That’s it. That’s his trick. When he wants to smoke, he checks his watch, and spends three minutes thinking about his kid. Done.
Lisa’s back from outside. We all get more drinks, load up fresh plates with shrimp. Someone has finally figured out the karaoke machine and now Jason and Lisa are singing Jewel together and it’s the funniest thing anyone at the company has ever seen. I laugh so hard I almost swallow a shrimp tail, and as I pull it out of my mouth I realize I might not need to cheat on Jessica tonight after all.
But I’m not at the party, I’m not laughing, and it’s not a shrimp tail I’ve pulled out of my mouth.
It’s a toe nail.
Tears streak down its paralyzed face.
I don’t have tear ducts anymore, but I’m still sobbing, blubbering in this broken voice, looking down at what I’ve done to this thing’s foot. Like a horrible, hellish popsicle stick, a bone sticks out from the base of what was once Jason’s second toe.
I have to do something. That bone is connected to an entire human skeleton, and I still vaguely know that a person, not just more meat, is wrapped around that skeleton. I look at that tiny bit of bone and know that if I can’t stop myself I’ll eventually see an ankle, a femur, a pelvis, vertebrae. I look at its– his face, at his terrified, puffy eyes. The thing I’m becoming does not eat dead tissue. I wonder how many those bones Jason will have to see, too.
Caustic saliva fills my mouth again and I drop Jason’s foot, push myself back until I’m up against the sink. Shaking, I pull the watch off my sticky, rubbery hand, take a deep breath, and set the timer for three minutes.
Just three minutes.
Digestive enzymes trail from my chin in long tendrils. Jason is only five feet away from me, glowing with infrared heat, wreaking of protein and soaked in sour fear. I try to control my breathing, gooseflesh spreads over my entire body.
Two more minutes.
I’m sobbing again, knowing I can’t make it. The bumps on my legs raise until they’ve become writhing, swollen polyps that angle blindly toward Jason’s exposed flesh. A couple of the larger ones continue to grow until they are things of their own. Hungry, prehensile tumours growing like coral out of my calves and ankles, even less interested in the ethics of eating a human being than the rest of me, just looking for a host, a warm place to sink their hooked suckers into.
I’m angry now. Angry at myself for being so weak, angry at Jason for being here with me. This is the wheelchair-accessible washroom, squeezed into the blueprints like an afterthought, two hallways down from our desks. Nobody uses it, that’s why I picked it. So why the hell is he here? Why? What happened here was his fault, not mine. I had no choice, he did. Wrong place, wrong time, meat-man.
The tumours, now everything from the ankles down, are trying to separate from the rest of me and I don’t even care. Why should I. Even if I could somehow get through the next thirty seconds, it wouldn’t change a thing. I’d still be here, Jason would still be here, and I would still eat him alive eventually. Might as well be now, because I am starving.
I let go. My flesh is like taffy, I have almost no bones, and I watch as what used to be my feet pull free from my body and start to slowly crawl toward Jason’s. I can still feel them. They are still me. I feel the cold marble slide underneath my skin, my meal inching closer. Jason sees them too, I can tell he’s fighting the paralysis. His feet have started twitching, he’s worked his mouth into a silent scream. His fists slowly pry open and he drops whatever he was clenching so he can tug pathetically at his pants, trying to pull his legs back an inch or two. I watch this futility in amazement. I check my watch.
Only fifteen seconds. Each one feels so long, permanent even, but I realize now they are all marked for death, dying one at a time for me. And I know I can make it.
I pull the metal trash bin over, lift with all the strength I have. Any bones left in my arms strain, fracture, but I get it over my head and then bring it down as hard as I can onto the crawling growths. The pain explodes, the growths hiss and buck. I lift the bin back up, see them writhing, bruised and splitting. I bring it down again. Then again. Then again, until the explosions of pain blend together into a white noise, until the white noise has faded into the background, until the metal can is coated with all that’s left of my feet, until my arms are dead and I realize the timer on my watch is beeping, that it’s been beeping for almost six minutes.
I let the bloody bin slip from my hands and slump back against the wall. I look up at Jason, and see him mouthing the words “thank you”. I smile, tap the beeping watch, mouth it back. I hear another sound now, too. Distant sirens, paramedics storming the castle. It will take them a while to find us, they’ll be busy with the others, but that’s fine. I know we can do another three minutes if we need to.
I look Jason over again, making sure he’s really okay, seeing him as more than just heat now, more than just salt and calories. I see his haircut, his suit color, the pastry flakes on his shirt from eating breakfast in the car. His spider-man tie. His magic-marker stained sleeve. His wedding ring.
And the half-smoked cigarette that’s fallen from his hand and rolled against his soft, delicious feet.
"Soft Feet" was originally published in Issue 10 of Massacre Magazine. January 2017. Illustrated by me.