I am a happy, happy drone at Hartway & Burrough LLC, a for-profit charity with headquarters in Baltimore.
I tell people that I work in data entry. I punch dates, dollar amounts, and names into spreadsheets from 8:00 AM to 6:00 PM, sitting in a cubicle surrounded by other cubicles. The white walls and bright lights keep me from falling asleep between visits to the break room coffee machine. In passing, I usually end up running into Basil from Accounting, or Sheila in Public Relations. Dodging eye contact, we have interchangeable conversations with cookie-cutter responses.
How’s it going? Good.
Busy today, isn’t it? Sure is.
I don’t love my job; my hands cramp up by the end of the day, becoming stiff, awkward instruments I can barely hold a fork in. But I’m good at it, and it pays, so I swallow my gripes. I have become deaf to the nonstop clacking of the keyboard, accustomed to the eye strain from the blinking cursor.
Today, I’m cataloging potential hosts for our next gala, alongside an estimated budget for the event. The scroll bar gets a little longer with each addition. My mind begins to dull.
Walters Art Gallery – $10,000
Hampton Inn – $5,325
Pierce’s Park – $2,400
I pause, forgetting my place on the long list of transcribed names. It’s frustrating, squinting at the fine print where all the type jumbles together. I vent my frustration in the most childish way I can think, then backspace quickly, before anyone sees. All our screens are monitored, but I haven’t given HR cause to look.
Dickhead Boulevard – $5
After a hard blink, I try to divert my focus back to the sheet. I notice a blotch that wasn’t there a second ago, making the paper sag like somebody spilled oil all over it. The spot is black, and it spills down the page like a trail of syrup.
My confusion turns to disgust when the smell hits—raw sewage, fetid and mildewy-sweet. As I feel bile rising in my throat, I look up; the ceiling tile directly above me has loosened at a crooked angle, feeding a consistent drip of what I could only call sludge into my cubicle. It looks slightly more viscous than water.
I marvel in repulsion for a few seconds before standing up. What a mess.
When I step out of my cubicle, the look on my face must have been manic. I lock eyes with Harvey from Marketing, a friend of mine. Bald, heavyset, mid-forties, always in a blue shirt; I think we watched a Ravens game together, once. He complains about headaches a lot.
He spares a glance toward the faulty tile. “You’re deep in it now, huh?” he says, with a husky chuckle. “Let me help you out.”
I follow Harvey to the supply closet. Per company policy, we’re not supposed to be in here. But the two of us sometimes ‘appropriate’ cans of air freshener left lying around: it’s cheaper than a run to the dollar store.
He drags out a metal waste bucket that hasn’t seen the outside of the closet for months. “This’ll do.”
I wave at Harvey before returning to my cubicle. I keep thinking to ask him, we should go out sometime again, get some wings. Next week I will; next week for sure.
Although the company frowns on ‘non-productive activity’ outside of regular lunches and breaks, I discreetly take a generous helping of kleenex to my desk and wipe it down, then print a fresh list of gala hosts. The old list isn’t illegible, but it is disgusting: I crumple it into a ball and pitch it into the trash bin. I’m relieved to see the mess contained, but over time, I start to notice the sound. Every so often, my focus is interrupted by a wet splat as the ceiling regurgitates more mess.
I hear the splatter at random intervals; multiple times within a few seconds, or sometimes, minutes of silence before a wet one slops against the bottom of the can. I almost flinch at the noise; I can’t tune it out like I can the ambient chatter of the office. It’s driving me up a fucking wall.
I don’t have to take this. I shouldn’t have to. Fed up, I decide to draft an email to upper management. All correspondence goes through upper management; that much was made clear during the onboarding process; I email them, they email somebody else. It’s all very efficient, so I’m told.
It takes three drafts before I can phrase my request professionally. My inbox dings immediately after I hit ‘send.’ I don’t get my hopes up: more than likely an automated reply.
Thank you for your email. I will be out of the office for the next week and will have limited access to email. If this is an urgent matter, you can reach our senior staff during business hours at 555-6167.
My eyes glaze over the cut-and-paste response right as another drip hits the bucket.
Yes, Jenny, this is an urgent matter—so I dial senior staff. Waiting. Ringing. Waiting. Ringing.
“Thank you for calling Hartway & Burrough. A mediating team member cannot take your call right now; please hold for a response.”
The receiver dips in my palm. I tap my foot against the carpet tile while senior staff twiddles their thumbs. The hold music consists of upbeat acoustic guitar fed through a bad connection, looping every few seconds.
Every second I’m left on hold, I’m conscious of the bucket, slowly filling with this slop. After five, ten, twenty minutes, I give up on hearing back from them. If they won’t answer my emails or pick up my calls, then I’ll have to submit a formal complaint to upper management in person. I went through the proper channels and got nothing; I thought I was at least entitled to an answer.
I pass by cubicle after cubicle occupied by happy drones like myself, hunched over keyboards with listless eyes dead to stimuli. I’m sure they’re all thinking the same thing: how much longer until I clock out? Lucky them; they can work without distractions.
At the end of a long walk, I step out from the office into a hallway. The stairs going up are blocked with yellow tape: construction. It’s been ‘under construction’ for as long as I can remember. Instead, I step inside the elevator just beside the stairwell.
Upper management sits on the 33rd floor. I press the button and watch the analog face tick higher. I blink hard, thinking how to approach the issue with my superiors. Do I butter them up and hope I win them over with a smile? Or, should I bluntly state the issue and demand immediate action?
It only occurs to me that I could be fired for speaking out of turn. But then, losing this job wouldn’t be so terrible, would it?
Then comes a stinging pain. It throbs in my forehead: a headache that’s been acting up all week.
With budding anticipation, I watch the analog interface hit 33, punctuated with a ‘ding!’
I blink again. The doors open. I’m standing in front of the ground floor lobby. Pale daylight filters in through translucent sliding doors, the marble white floors squeaking with foot traffic.
What was I doing again?
Throat dry, I check my watch. Oh. Closing time.
A familiar fatigue washes over me. Frankly, I’m just glad to go home after the same old daily drudgery.
* * *
It’s morning now, the start of the working day, and I’m standing in front of the coffee machine in the break room. While I empty the last grains of sweetener into a styrofoam cup, Basil from Accounting walks past me.
“Is that a new shirt? Looking sharp today.”
It’s not a new shirt. It’s the same shirt I wear every day. But I nod and say thanks out of reflex.
As usual, I head to my cubicle with my coffee in hand. Upon reaching my desk, I stop dead in my tracks, staring blankly.
I want to retch just looking at it. That thick, dark sludge from yesterday has completely engulfed my working space. My computer monitor is coated in it, and it seeps between the gaps of the keyboard. Black liquid trickles down the partitions of the cubicle, leaving ugly trails and fat splatters. My monogrammed, stainless steel pens lie on the floor in an unsalvageable state. The bucket Harvey gave me has long since overflowed, toppled on the ground as the liquid flows freely around it. How could I have forgotten?
When the stench hits, I’m almost knocked flat. It smells like the curdled contents of a dumpster wheeled out into the rain; like rotting carcass left out in the sticky August heat. A lump in my chest forces its way up before I pinch my nose shut. I can’t stand to be around it.
No one else seems to be bothered by the continuous slew of waste seeping from the ceiling, not even my cubicle neighbors, who should have at least picked up the smell. Having lost my appetite, I pitch my coffee on my way to the elevator. I don’t get paid enough for this.
A sense of self-righteousness hastens my gait to the elevator; if the company can’t be bothered to pick up my calls, let alone deal with the mess, then I can’t be bothered to work. I drive home through morning traffic, expecting a pink slip or a furious voicemail by the time I get home. I’m white-knuckling the wheel; in place of the triumph I ought to feel at ‘sticking it to the man,’ I’m wracked with dread and fear. This will have dire consequences—I know it.
I pull into my townhouse driveway and order takeout on the couch. Not just a sad Whopper or something: a full course of dim sum and dumplings and a fifth of the bottle of Jack from my cabinet. If I’m going to be fired, I may as well treat myself to a good meal before running myself ragged on a job search.
I don’t get up from the couch for the rest of the day, only making exceptions to eat, shit, and sleep. My life is over, I tell myself, the TV’s light searing images into my retinas in the dead of night.
I don’t recall sleeping: only a bleary state that recedes when daylight breaks. Pain bounces between the walls of my skull. Maybe it’s a hangover.
I think to myself, this is release. I’m free of my shit job. I should be happy.
But right now I’m shivering in a threadbare blanket, straining at the sunlight in the window.
This isn’t living.
By some nervous compulsion I shamble over to my home office where my desktop sits. The plastic monitor shell, once opal-white, has long since yellowed.
I scroll through my inbox. No reply from upper management. No scolding from the boss. It’s 10 AM. I’m supposed to be clocked in right now. By all accounts, my head should be mounted on a pike. I keep expecting the floor to collapse from under me. Any minute now I should be fired, shamed. But the minute never comes.
I go to bed, but I don’t sleep. Can’t sleep.
The ensuing days and weeks are dull. It’s like work, in a sense: the same thing on repeat. I get food. I stare at a screen. I sleep. This mindless ass-scratching can’t go on. And yet it does.
It gets stranger when I receive a paycheck. And another. And another. I receive them all with a kind of bewilderment. The pay stub indicates hours that I’m being compensated for—hours that I did not work.
This is more than just a clerical error. Hell, I could go to jail for this. But whose fault is it, really? The checks keep piling up on my kitchen counter and I’ve stopped questioning why.
Two months into this bizarre retreat, I start to fantasize, the way people do when they imagine winning the lottery. I get the idea of flying from this urban hellscape: just getting in my car and driving as far as the highway will take me. I want to feel the wind in my face and get sloshed on watered down beer. I want to get in a fistfight and lose a tooth. I want to wake up in the bosom of a woman I don’t know. Anything to get away from sterile life at Hartway & Burrough.
s I look out the window and contemplate my flight, I start to feel my head tighten. It hurts; it hurts so bad. There’s a horrid pulsing in my skull, thumping, banging. My vision goes fuzzy, the slightest tilt of my head bringing on a spell of vertigo. It’s not just a headache anymore—I have to make it stop. I’d do anything to make it stop.
I strain to focus on the edge of the kitchen counter. I want to bash my head against the sharp corner and let the boiling blood spill out. It has to stop; I’ll make it stop. I’m gripping the granite top now. It’s too bright, too loud. My head is on fire and I’m going to put it out. PUT IT OUT. PUT IT OUT.
I blink. I’m standing in the kitchen island, hunched over the counter with a strange intensity. I can’t explain what I’m doing here, like walking in a room and forgetting why.
It’s quiet in this little townhouse. I can’t remember the last time I made genuine contact with another person. Even if it’s tedious, mindless work, maybe I was better off at the company. Maybe I should go back.
Next morning, I slip back into a familiar routine with far more ease than I fell out of it. I shave, put on my shirt, shine my shoes, and microwave an egg sandwich on my way out. There’s something strangely comforting about the ritual, as if I’m meant to do this. While I navigate my commute on the interstate, my time away from Hartway & Burrough feels like a distant dream.
My arrival back in the office is received without fanfare. I pass by Sheila from PR on my way to my cubicle. I put on a smile, as does she.
“Lovely weather today,” she says. I agree.
The building is the same as I left it: the light panels flickering slightly above; the brown coffee stains on the thin, polyester carpet; the indistinct murmur of three dozen phone calls at any given moment.
Upon reaching my cubicle, I remember why I left.
I stand at the edge of a roiling pool of black sludge. Nothing from my desk has survived, all congealed into a dark mass of absorbed shapes and protruding edges.
I gape uselessly, my face a caricature of shock like The Scream.
The stuff seeps out into the walkway and into other cubicles, yet nobody pays it any mind. My coworkers walk around it, through it, over it, leaving black tracks on the carpet. The sludge clings stickily to their shoes, dragging their steps, but they go about their morning like it’s not even there.
“What seems to be the problem?”
I whirl around to see a woman I’ve never met. She wears a sanguine skirt suit and glossy black heels that stand out against drab surroundings, her blonde hair tied up in a bun. She beams at me but through her dark-framed glasses I can see that her eyes are creased, impatient.
I mumble something about an unsafe work environment, gesturing feebly to my cubicle.
“Oh, right. I got your email some time ago. I’m Jenny. So sorry for the inconvenience; I’ll see that you’re relocated promptly.”
Like a lost lamb to a shepherd, I follow behind Jenny. She walks with a peculiar rhythm, click-clack click-clack, never faltering or slowing.
She stops at a cubicle identical to my own—rather, one that was identical to my own. Everything seems to be in pristine condition: a waste basket, a polished desk, and a shiny new monitor.
She smiles again. I don’t think her smile ever dropped, actually. “Here we are. Let me know if there’s anything else I can help with.”
I ease into my new swivel chair, my chest deflating with a breath. I remember how to do this; I remember how to work, I tell myself.
Like everything else today, it comes back easily. I am a happy, happy drone at Hartway & Burrough LLC.
Another spreadsheet. More names. More dates. I punch them into an ever-expanding database, a page with no bottom. I’m efficient, and I waste no time. That’s why they hired me—right?
I blink. I must have lost my place in the sheet again. Before I resume working, I can’t help but glance over at the hole in the ceiling that compelled me to move. It’s not a steady drip anymore: only the last bit of runoff from a slanted tile. But the damage is already done.
I crane my neck to the screen and ignore the faint whiff of the sludge creeping up my nostrils.
At the end of the day, I hear lively chatter—a rare sound in the office. I’m more accustomed to the droning, client-friendly tones we habitually take over the phone. Following the sound, I find myself at the forefront of the break room, which in actuality isn’t a separate room at all: just a meager alcove in the labyrinth of the office floor.
It’s a party. Streamers drape the ceiling, red solo cups laid out next to generic dollar-store colas on the table. A dozen or so people are gathered here—celebrating what? They smile, they titter, but their faces don’t light up at all: just glazed happiness.
At odds with the party atmosphere, I approach Basil from Accounting, chatting up some woman too young for him as he props his arm up against the fridge. When we lock eyes, I ask about the occasion.
He turns to me right as the target of his unwanted affections leaves. I notice a sort of drunken sway in the tilt of his head, but it can’t be alcohol because drinking is strictly prohibited on building premises. “Didn’t you hear? Harvey’s getting promoted to upper management.”
Harvey—a name that hadn’t crossed my mind for months. Did he notice I was gone? Did he care?
Basil grins, the wrinkles of his pink cheeks accentuated by the strain. “The man of the hour hasn’t shown yet. What a guy, eh?”
I find myself pressing further. How did Harvey climb the ladder? I’d never heard of anyone managing a feat like that until now. Even if it’s not proper workplace etiquette, I voice the inquiry to Basil, wondering what he did to impress the bigwigs.
His fingers drum on the fridge. It’s strange, looking in his bespectacled eyes. I almost feel like I’m staring into the back of his skull: there’s nothing going on inside. Just a vacant stare that happened to be aimed in my direction.
“There’s a real shortage of documents and policy, you know?”
I take a second to process what Basil just said, waiting for it to make sense. But it doesn’t. Slowly, I repeat my question about Harvey’s promotion, rephrased just slightly.
He nods and says, “Weather today? Shirt suit sharp looking you think might. Soon productivity soon preferable excellent.”
It’s all nonsense, strung together in a way that sounds almost coherent. My heart quickens a little; has Basil lost touch with reality, or have I? Maybe I’m the one who doesn’t understand anymore. He still smiles at me, like he’s waiting for me to catch onto a joke. I back away slowly. Coming back to work was a bad idea.
That’s when I notice it. I must have mistaken it for a blemish or bruise earlier. An abnormality of the skin—a thin black vein that blushes darkly around Basil’s crown, running up his head and disappearing into his thin combover.
My stomach sinks as I eavesdrop on the conversations around me. I can only parse it as babble disguised as English, imitating the cadence and rhythm of conversation. Promotion Harvey great. Excited good metrics. Metrics ticket SEO.
Head spinning, I look around and see the same, dark vein rippling in the heads of everyone at the break room. I barely resist the urge to run far, far away; there’s no people here, only animals in suits and ties.
All except Harvey. I glimpse him standing alone at the window wall, cup in hand. I remember the Ravens game, getting hot wings with him inside a packed sports bar. He had me cracking up talking about the coach’s ‘square-ass face,’ but I can’t recall how the joke went. Maybe he’s different, so I pray. Desperate for a sane conversation, I sidle past my blissfully absent coworkers up to my friend.
He glances at me as I take my place beside him. I stare at him, wide-eyed, looking for any trace of the vein on his face. If I see it again, I might scream.
Silent, he looks back toward the city street below. His expression is weary, though lucid, gazing somewhere distant.
After a shaky breath, I try at small talk. The wife. The kids. What’s on TV. He gives short answers, never pulling his gaze away from the streets.
Then I ask how he got his promotion. He stops cold, glances at me in the corner of his vision, and brings the cup to his lips. His hand shakes.
“I tried getting out of here. Tried. But upper management said they got something for me, something that’ll change my mind,” he says. “It feels like I don’t really got a choice. Crazy, isn’t it?”
He smiles, but I can see the terror written on his face.
No, I tell him, not at all.
His smile fades.
When I think nobody’s listening, I ask him a simple question: are you happy, Harvey?
* * *
The following morning, I see everyone gathered by the break room window. Their faces are pressed against the glass like kids at an aquarium.
A murmur of gibberish floats in the air.
“Tragic sad condolences. Thoughts severance family.”
With a mounting sense of urgency, I shove past the suits until I can see it for myself.
Two-hundred feet down, Harvey is splayed across the curb. I recognize him by his wide frame and his blue shirt, not his face. His face is red mush. I don’t understand. Then I see the tire treads traveling up his chest, and realization sinks in.
Harvey has jumped in front of a bus.
I scream, shrill and raspy. The sound jumps out of me involuntarily, and I’m shocked to recognize it as my own voice.
The eyes of the office are on me now, incredulous that I’d react in such a way.
I remind them of his name. Harvey! Harvey is dead!
The crowd is unmoved. If only I could make them understand.
Taking advantage of the silence, I tell them that the company did this to him. I cry out that Hartway & Burrough has blood on its hands. Again, the crowd is unmoved. My heart pounds louder in the quiet break room.
Then, Sheila from Public Relations approaches me with a maternal smile, her eyes crinkled so kindly at me. I can’t help but focus on the black blemish in the skin beneath her forehead, a blossoming flower of bulging veins.
She gets a few syllables out before she gets out a wheezing cough. She gargles on her words, bile spattering the floor.
No, not bile; it’s black, and reeks of something oversweet. It dribbles from the corners of her lips and onto her chemise: the same sludge that coated my desk. My coworkers look on with half-lidded eyes, unfazed at the sight.
I bolt from the break room, panting, sweating. I need to get away from them, those animals. I don’t know what they’ll do to me if they get ahold of me, but I don’t want it. I run, and I hide.
After many panicked turns, I find refuge under my desk, cradling my head in my hands. The shade is comforting because the light is harsh. They can’t hurt me under here, in the dark.
Facing the cubicle wall, I lay wide awake for minutes, which bleeds into hours. I have no sense of time with no window to look through, but I know the building closes soon. What happens past dark? I don’t know; I haven’t thought that far ahead.
The chatter of the office becomes quiet, but never truly silent. I want so badly to cut across the floor to the elevator, but I can’t. If I see one of them again, I’ll pass out. I get why Harvey did it now. He didn’t want to end up like them.
I tell myself I still have one chance—that I can still leave and succeed where he failed.
I jolt and bang my head on the underside of my desk at the sound of numerous footsteps, coming from the opposite end of the office. I’m familiar with this meandering procession, because I’m usually part of it: the start of the day, 9:00 AM sharp.
It hits me that I’ve been holed up inside the building for a full day now. It didn’t feel like it, but it most certainly was.
Rising from my hiding spot, I peer out the window and see light, overcast clouds, confirming my fears. No one stopped me. No one even checked on me.
When the incessant noise of clacking keyboards starts up again, I remember that I shouldn’t be here. I need to get away. Now.
I look frantically around like a twitching rat, weighing my options. I tried to leave, once. They pulled me back; this I know to be true, but I can’t explain how.
If I can’t leave, then I’ll force them to remove me from the premises. That’s the only way out now.
With newfound determination, I lift the computer monitor off my desk. Hoisting it overhead is a terrible strain. My muscles must have atrophied in the time I’ve been working at Hartway & Burrough.
I shout, and throw the damned thing down to the floor, ripping out the cords in the process. The black display shatters into hundreds of little shards. Good. I start stomping the plastic shell beneath my polished dress shoes. There’s a manic joy I take in watching company equipment buckle, bend, break. I love this. A massive weight lifts from my shoulders, one that I never knew was there; I think I wanted to do this for a long time, before Harvey and before the sludge.
When I’m done, I stand up on my chair, almost falling off when the wheels move on the carpet. From this high up, I stand above all the cubicles in the office. Still riding the high, I cast my keyboard and pencils out into the maze. Did I strike anyone? I don’t know. I sing, I yell, I laugh.
My grin falters when I survey the cubicles again. None of my coworkers react to my show, my desperate little cry for attention. Their sagging, bloodshot eyes squint at the glow of their own monitors at their own desks. There is no acknowledgment, not even a sidelong glance.
A mix of fear and shame compels me to step down, like a misbehaved child meeting their father’s disdainful gaze.
I emerge from my cubicle into the maze and demand to be released, to be fired. My voice is hoarse, guttural; I want to sound forceful, but it comes out desperate. I will be free. I will not die as Harvey did. I will be free.
My pulse quickens at a familiar sound half-identified: an instinctual reaction. From a blind intersection emerges a pair of black heels in a slender—or maybe spindly—frame.
Jenny from upper management stands opposite me in this white aisle of cubicles. My eyes are naturally drawn toward her. In a monochrome-gray office she wears red. Surrounded by hunched animals she stands upright. Where all eyes are glazed over hers are alert. Short of breath, I realize she’s not like the others. Not even like Harvey. She looks like any other office worker, but her presence is otherworldly—something neither animal nor man.
“Is everything alright?” she asks; a formality, of course. There is no warmth in her stiff posture, hands steepled at the waist.
No, I tell her, I want to get the hell away from here.
No sooner after I voice my intention to leave does the pain strike: a killer headache knocking on the inside of my skull. Something is trying to cow me into submission, but I won’t let them. My knees wobble, not of my own accord. I can hardly stand. The elevator doors aren’t far; I can make it there, one step at a time…
“This doesn’t really seem like a productive use of your time,” Jenny says, her voice like a knife in my brain. “Why don’t you take a few deep breaths and try to focus on work?”
Breathing heavy, I tell Jenny to eat shit. The paychecks can’t make me come back. I let her know that I’m going to run far away from here and forget all about this. My life is my own.
I hobble past her, and she steps aside without complaint. Even with my back turned to her I can still feel her hawkish gaze, prying for weakness.
“Don’t you want to know?” she suddenly asks, in a tantalizing tone unlike her usual professional prattle.
I look over my shoulder, knowing she has nothing good to offer me. And yet I listen anyway.
She smiles at me. There’s something inhuman about her mouth, a little too thin, a little too long: red lipstick smears end to end, as if she’s bit into some succulent fruit.
“Harvey was going to see for himself. Got cold feet at the last second,” she explains, feigning disappointment in her voice. The black tinge blooms inside her head, throbbing like a heartbeat. “But you don’t have to end up like him. Come and see—the thirty-third floor.”
I blink. Jenny is gone, disappeared, but I remember what she said with perfect clarity.
My migraine is lifted. The elevator beckons me: a chance to escape!
My gait hastens to a full-on sprint. I press the button over and over. The steel doors part, releasing cold air.
And then I am alone inside a metal box.
I can leave now. I’m free.
I swallow a lump, staring long into the elevator buttons. My finger hovers over ‘ground floor.’ It’s so easy. All I have to do is push it and run when the doors open.
I consciously avoid looking at ‘33’ until I can bear it no longer. I expect something terrible to happen, but it’s only a button, I tell myself.
A dangerous thought crosses my mind.
Would it really be so bad to see it for myself? Just to satiate my curiosity—one peek, that’s all. It’s strange. Minutes ago, I wanted nothing more than to be free of this place, but now I feel like I haveto know the secret of this building. The question would haunt me if I left now.
My hand glides to the button labeled ‘33.’ The motion is graceful, almost effortless. Against every impulse of my rational mind, I press the button.
One by one, I watch the numbers tick up. Judging by the elevator’s long ascent, the building is much taller than I remember, impossibly so. The temperature falls chill, and I feel my breath start to hitch, as though I’m scaling a mountain.
A chime marks the end of my journey. 33, the analog interface reads.
The elevator opens to a cramped hall. A single, dim bulb lights outside the elevator. To my right is a dead end. To my left is a long stretch of hallway. I can’t even see the end of it through the darkness.
This must be where Harvey turned back and gave up, I realize. Unbearable anticipation swells in my chest, and when the lift closes behind me, I feel trapped.
The far end of the hall calls out to me in a way that defies the senses. I can’t explain how; it simply does. So I walk, guided only by the bulbs that light up one-by-one with my approach. Dear Christ, the smell; a single whiff makes my uvula quiver and my chest heave. It’s like I’ve buried my nose in it, the oxygen tainted with the scent of melted caramel and fly-swarming manure.
The smell heralds its arrival, of course. The black, bubbling sludge seeps from every orifice of the corridor, between the cracking seams of the walls and ceiling. It thickens to a fine paste on the floor, and I’m forced to wade through the ankle-deep puddles at my feet. It weighs me down every step, cold where it touches my bare skin.
Strange as it is, I’m not afraid. The pounding in my heart could be likened more to excitement more than anything else. And that terrifies me. Have I already gone mad? Am I no different than the mindless beasts wandering the office floor? I can’t be sure anymore. But I must walk.
As I walk further, the squalor spreads. The drywall has crumbled, revealing crumbling supports infested with rot. It looks more like a cave dwelling than a building now. I stand before a door, made of aged, termite-eaten wood with a greasy gold knob. There’s a sense of finality at this threshold, as if all the answers I seek are waiting on the other side, for better or for worse.
I open the door.
My eyes widen and water.
The walls are flesh, and the floors are flesh, and the room is beating, living flesh. I can only describe the texture as meat: red, pulpy meat.
My coworkers are here too. They cling to the walls like helpless babes, sucking on the teat of red, ringed tendrils. I watch their swollen lips pucker around the tip, and how they seem to shrivel for moments like they’re being drained from a straw. They feed from the tendrils. The tendrils feed on them.
Their cheeks are sallow, skin sunken. Their upper halves are identifiably human, but their lower halves bulge and swell beyond recognition, all slugs’ tails that beat contentedly on the floor beside their torn clothes. Black sludge pours out from their flabby skin, slipping through the gaps of intestine on the floor. My heart skips a beat, as I realize the cause behind the fallen ceiling tile in my cubicle.
At the center of the room sits a thing that defies classification. Bulbous and huge, it sits in a coil of itself, with that same pinkish slug’s tail as its brood. It lacks eyes, but bears many nostrils, in places where nostrils don’t belong. Its upper half sags beneath the weight of six breasts, and its mouth is a gaping sucker lined with teeth. Stringy cords adorn its body, connecting it to the walls of the chamber. It is the beating heart of this building.
It’s so beautiful. Mother! Mother, mother!
She has no eyes to see me but she must know I am here.
I tremble and shake with joy. I ache to be closer. I ache to be with her. I ache.
I take my last step closer, triggering metamorphosis.
My head is about to burst. I can feel it, birthing out of me.
My jaw is forced open by something from within. The bones crack loudly, the sound ringing in my ears. At last, a wriggling tail protrudes from my mouth, large and fat. The worm emerges from its willing host. For the first time it feels warm air on its smooth, segmented body. I am grateful to have nursed such a precious creature into existence, for this is what I’m meant to do. My agony is a small thing, compared to the euphoria of serving mother.
I am a happy, happy drone at Hartway & Burrough.
Sam Bostwick is a Midwest-based author with a love for the strange. He is studying English at North Central College.