He thought it would be funny...
From the moment just before he bites me to when the infection begins to change me, things happen like this:
I look at his bag, a threadbare pitiful thing, stained with grass-juice and oil and piss and vomit. At least, that’s what I think it’s stained with – the miasmic assault on my sense of smell is pretty hectic, like I’ve just walked into the wake of a decomposing, walking corpse. If I’d known that it was exactly what had I wouldn’t have stopped beside him, wouldn’t even have walked down the same street. I would have probably stayed at home.
But I don’t, because I don’t have that foreknowledge. I stop beside him, give his dirty, fetus-clenched and twitching body a long look –lingering on the matted hair and dirt-furrowed wrinkles; the falling-apart sneakers; the frayed, battered and stained clothes- and then my eyes fall on the bag and a decision thrills through me, like a firework sizzling just before it explodes. It’s lying maybe a breath away from him. Before I realize it my hand is spearing down, fingers clenching with bag-material between them, and I’m lifting the bag and tensing to run, nerves already beginning to fire and spark in preparation-
But he’s faster.
He’s moving, limbs unfolding like some mutant flower, a pale blur shifting towards me that I recognize as his face only when I see an intense red gaze and a yawning darkness under it rimmed with yellow pebbles-
His mouth, I realize too late, even as his claw-like hand clamps over my wrist, even as his muscles torque and I begin to move down towards him, even as I begin to realize what’s happening and something, a little voice in my mind, screams “Too late!”
I should have been faster; no, I shouldn’t have done it at all, I should have walked past him, because now he’s pulling me towards him and his eyes are wider and so is his mouth and his teeth are filthy and his tongue-
I feel the warmth of his lips, his breath, against the skin of my forearm, I feel his jaw begin to ascend until the -yellow pebbles in a hole- teeth touch skin and then there’s pain and pressure and a sound rising in volume that I don’t even recognize as my own voice. My body begins reacting, nerve-impulses kicking in, muscles jerking into motion even as I’m screaming like a cat on fire. I’m pulling away, digging my heels in for leverage, pulling and screaming, pulling and screaming, pounding the fist of my other hand against his face and screaming, pounding and screaming, pounding and screaming.
And then I’m falling away. My whole arm is on fire and my scream is vibrating against my teeth because my jaw is clenched against the pain. I need to get as far away from this rabid fucking fuck as I can. And even as I’m moving backward my center of balance is switching and tumbling, turning past the compass’ point, doing somersaults in zero-g and then my ass hits the grass and my clenched jaw clicks and the shock of contact makes my mind explode with black-and-white fireworks as the pain surges up into my shoulder and through my chest and falls like elephant-shit from an elephant’s ass into my stomach and fills it-
But somehow I’m still moving, still scrabbling backwards, pushingpushingpushing with my heels and grunting behind a rictus grin because I can see him, him, still moving and twitching, mouth smeared with the stuff that pumps through me to keep me alive, yellow pebble-teeth flashing sickly, eyes wide-crazy-wide, snorting as he comes for me, speeding toward me on all-fours, wanting more. I’m thinking: Maybe he hasn’t eaten in a while, maybe that’s why he’s so hungry.
But then, somehow, I’m on my feet, on my feet and whimpering like a scared puppy but still, upright and moving better and faster. The distance between me and the hungry hobo is increasing because he’s still crawling, still on-all-fours-sprinting, panting, snorting, but I’m moving further away now and just remembering that I’m in a park and that I’m supposed to be going to work and that I might be –crazy thought here- late.
And just like that the world snaps back to normality and the pain drops into a distant memory-cave and now the anger, the burning, roiling, sewer-cover lifting anger surges and I’m on my feet, striding forward as my hands clench into fists.
When I get to work the knuckles of my right hand are pulsing in righteous pain and the skin of my left forearm is warbling like a drunk soprano with tonsillitis. My forearm is still wet from washing it under the tap in the mall’s bathroom and my jaw is constantly clenched. I’m not late, though – I’m the first person at work. First person on the cameras, first to switch on the lights, first to switch on the kettle and first to have a smoke out back. And while I’m standing there, blowing out the second-to-last lungful of smoke, I’m thinking: First to get bitten by a hungry, psycho hobo. I can’t help but laugh. Crazy fucking world.
Hours later, after a long, terrible day, I close the door to my bedroom behind me. I turn and look at my bed, thinking something that blurs away into nonsense and silence. My arm is singing every non-English anthem with the throat of a Rottweiler and my stomach is empty but I’m just not hungry.
So I stretch out on the bed, groan, sit up and kick off my shoes, lie back again, close my eyes, try to breathe as slowly as I can. But that doesn’t last long because with my eyes closed the throbbing pain from the bite on my forearm ratchets up six levels past the stratosphere. The next few minutes? Well, put it this way – Can’t concentrate on anything, can’t focus, can’t piss without seeing that crazy fucker’s face-eyes-mouth-smeared-red, and around eight I drink two sleeping pills and put on some music and before I know it I don’t know anything anymore…
When I wake up the next morning the sun is full in my face and the heat is hectic and even though my mind begins clicking and the clicking is me realizing that I’m probably going to be late for work, the clicking fades away… Because my arm is - my arm doesn’t hurt anymore. Doesn’t hurt.
I push myself up in bed, sit with my back against the head-rest, bring my arm up to get a look at it, still blinking sleep and sleep-muck from my eyes, and at first I can’t understand what I’m seeing because it doesn’t make sense.
My arm -any arm- doesn’t look like that. Does it?
I’m standing on the other side of my boss’ table, waiting for him to stop writing whatever he’s writing and I’m nervous because he makes me nervous just by existing, just by writing, just by making me wait and I wish he would stop using all of that against me. But he does, unconsciously or purposefully, thinking that I’m well-mannered enough to wait or intimidated enough to wait or what-the-fuck-ever.
Finally he stops writing, caps his pen, places it down in the space between his coffee and his diary and looks up at me. “Yep? What’s up?”
‘What’s up’ I mentally echo. What’s up? Let’s see – I was bitten by a hungry, psychotic hobo because I wanted to steal his bag just for fun and my arm - my fucking arm looks like something from an episode of The Outer Limits, and you’re asking me ‘What’s up’? I almost laughed in his face. I almost roared in his face. I almost ripped his face off. Instead, I said, “I’m not feeling too well and I’d like to know if I can get tomorrow off?”
His eyes skip over me, touch-dancing like a thoughtful butterfly, as if he’s searching for what ails me, and I can’t decide whether or not I want him to ask because how will it sound when I tell him that I tried to steal a hobo’s bag and he bit me and I think I might have an infection? How will that sound?
So my boss looks at me, looks at me, looks at me, and then says, “You’re aware that tomorrow is Friday.”
He doesn’t say it like a question, so I don’t answer him. The skin around his eyes tightens a tiny bit at my non-answer and he nods fractionally and he says, “Friday. If you want to take tomorrow off I’ll need two things from you. First, you’ll need-“ and he lifts a finger as if I don’t know what ‘first’ means, “-someone to work your shift tomorrow, and second-“ another finger raised (this means two, idiot) “-you’ll have to bring me a sick-note on your next shift.” The fingers curl back, the hand lowers back to the pen, picks it up, pops the cap. “Do that and there’s no problem.”
No problem? No fucking problem? I want to spell it out to him, I want to scream it in his face while I puncture his eyeballs with the point of an un-bent paperclip because he just doesn’t see, he just doesn’t understand, he’s a fucking manager and they have no use for wasting thoughts on the lives of casuals, because I’m a casual and that means I don’t earn a fixed salary and because I don’t earn a fixed salary how am I supposed to afford medical aid, and if I can’t afford any fucking medical aid how am I supposed to go and see a fucking doctor so that the fucking doctor can give me a fucking sick-note?
But I don’t. Of course I don’t. I’m a casual and I can be replaced and I need to pay rent and I need to eat and drink and sleep warm and sleep dry and bath and shit and brush my teeth.
So I spend the next hour finding someone to fill my shift, and I do. Small miracles happen every day, I s’pose. And through it all I see flashes of what my arm looked like this morning and every two minutes, like an internal clock ticking off the time until the big reveal, I’m wondering: What does my arm look like now?
I make it through the day. I make it through and make it to the park and give it a wide walk-around because I don’t want to run into that piece of shit hobo again and I don’t want to get bitten again and my heart is pumping and I’m sweating and I just want to get home and sleep and-
-and there are police in the park. I stop. Stare. Forget to breathe.
There are three vans, an ambulance, a cordon, at least four uniforms, and there’re others taking photos and there’re others taking notes and there’s a body on the grass in the middle of the cordon and it’s him, I know it like I know the sun’s going to rise tomorrow. It’s that fucking hobo and he’s dead and oh fuck what does it mean how did he die what the fuck is going to happen to me?
I’m walking towards them, towards the cops and the body of the hobo that bit my arm, and even though I don’t want to I have to because if he died from something inside him then that something could be inside me because he bit me and I have to know. One of the cops sees me and takes a step toward me and lifts a hand and says, “Sorry, Sir, you must exit the park-“ and then I’m interrupting him:
“What happened? How did he die? What did he do? I gave him money yesterday and he was fine.”
But he turns me away and even as I’m turning away I’m thinking –another crazy thought- that if this was a television show I’d be taken in for questioning because that’s what cops did when you had a connection to the dead guy. But this is the real world. Better yet, this is a piece of shit small town. So I go home. And all the way there I can’t help but be paranoid about my arm.
Because I was bitten by a guy who’s now dead and my arm doesn’t hurt anymore and what the fuck is happening to me?
That night I still don’t eat. And when I finally start undressing -as the bath is filling with water- my mouth is clamped firmly shut because I’m trying not to think about what my arm may or may not look like. But as with all things we try to hide from, as with all things we tell ourselves not to look at…
The skin around the bite is swollen, a raised oval of grey-yellow flesh. The teeth-marks are tiny ovals, the exposed flesh underneath more black than red. The wound glistens and shines as if I’ve just rubbed Vaseline over it. The rest of my arm- Veins underneath the skin are bulging and thick, dark blue against skin that has an all-over red blush and I can’t help but think of a cartoon I saw once depicting a biker who’s one arm is huge and bulging with muscle – a tattoo on that arm’s shoulder proudly proclaims ‘Born to Jerk Off’. Because that’s the kind of size my arm has attained. It feels like even the muscle is swollen.
And the veins going up to my shoulder are thickening, too, the same kind of colouring lower down now travelling upwards, and I know, intellectually, that I’ve been infected with something, that the infection is travelling upwards into my body and that soon it’ll reach my lungs and heart. I know this, but there’s fuck-all I can do about it. Nothing. So I do the only thing I can – I climb into the bath, soak myself in the warm, wet heat, breathe and breathe and breathe, and like that I begin to ignore what’s happening to me. Like that, it becomes easy to just carry on.
I don’t go to work the next day. I sleep until the barking of dogs and the revving of a car-engine wakes me and then I continue to lie there, breathing. Beyond my bedroom door the house is silent – everyone else is either at work or sleeping late. I need to pee, and I need to smoke. Want to. But the bed and the duvet and the pleasant summer heat is just too much to pull myself from, and eventually I fall asleep again, and I dream.
When I wake up, I’m chewing something soft and warm and wet. I’m chewing and swallowing, chewing and swallowing, and I don’t know how long that continues because the moment stretches and becomes one long sick eternity of consumption, of sating a hunger that I didn’t even know I have, a hunger that’s more in my mind than in my stomach.
Sometime later, I don’t know how much time passes, I just stop chewing and swallowing, abruptly, and that’s when I realize that I’ve been chewing on my own arm.
The instant that knowledge blossoms in my mind is probably when I begin to go insane. I begin giggling. Giggling. And when I move my arm to get a proper look at it and see ragged flesh and the torn ends of tiny veins and pale-red, ragged muscle fiber and yellow-white bone visible here and there amid the ruin, I begin laughing, laughing as if I have just heard a particularly brilliant joke. Soon I am crying as I laugh, and the hilarity and insanity of that hilarity tumbles around my room and rebounds and tumbles and rebounds and what else am I supposed to do? No-where in any book is there a chapter that focuses on what to do and how to react safely when you begin eating yourself. At some point, between breaths, I start chanting, “No more groceries, no more groceries!”
I’m still chanting this minutes later as I finally get out of bed and walk towards my bedroom door, except now the chant has become more of a rhythmic growl, like a mutant wolf adding its voice to a Rammstein song. And then the door opens into me and I’m sent lurching off me feet to sprawl across the floor, knocking over stacks of comics and DVDs, and when I look up someone is standing in the doorway, standing there with their head thrust forward and their eyes wide and their lips moving amid sprays of spittle and whoever this is they’re screaming at me, I can hear the sound but the sound doesn’t make sense-
I think my mind reacts, then, to protect me or my dwindling sanity because there is a long spell of darkness, warm and fuzzy and nice, and then when I’m back in my head and back behind my eyes I’m looking down at a dead guy easily twice my size. He’s twitching, his lips are moving around red bursting bubbles and blood is spurting from a ragged red toothless smile that stretches across his throat, showing me the inside of his throat between spurts.
And the blood is splashing me and what doesn’t reach me splashes the floor of the corridor and he’s still twitchingtwitchingtwitching but slowing down, now, slowing and slower and slowest until he blinks and another red bubble pops between his lips and he stops. Twitching. Blowing bubbles. Everything. Just stops.
My hand is rising to my mouth and then I realize I’m chewing again and as I look down I see my eaten arm and the hand, drenched in his blood, clutching a fistful of what used to be a part of his throat, and that hand rises to my mouth and stuffs the still-warm gristly slimy throat-stuff between my cheeks and onto my tongue and I’m chewing, chewingchewingchewing…
It takes a while to chew that much throat-stuff, to chew and swallow as the pieces become smaller and smaller, but when I’m done I bend and get down onto all-fours and I grip his neck on both sides and pull, stretching open the wound that I made with my teeth, and then I lower my head into that wound which is still warm and I lose myself in the blood and man-meat.
It’s Monday morning and the house I used to rent a room in is empty but not still. Nonono, not still, not quiet, no silence here. There where my hunger led me are flies, a buzzing world-ending horde of flies, filling the rooms, the kitchen, the bathroom, buzzing and gorging on the feasts I began and have left to them. I’m there, in my head, deep inside where things like emotion and morality and choice don’t and have never existed, and I’m watching because this body that was mine, this body that my parents made and which had a name, belongs to something else now. I don’t exist for it – I am the door that was opened so that it could walk through to claim space.
It’s Monday morning and now the others are starting to wake, to move, to groan-squelch their own building hunger. The thing that is my body waits, waitswaitswaits until they all wait with it and then we are moving towards the open spaces beyond the walls of this house, toward the outside where more feasts await. We are moving and stumbling into the sunlight, onto the pavement, spilling onto the road, and there are sounds from things that crawl and growl along the road, loud piercing sounds that draw our attention and then we see the feasts inside, staring and screaming at us.
Soon there is silence again. Soon there are more of us.
We eat because we are hungry but the man-meat can only take up so much space – soon we are opening our mouths to take another mouthful and mulched meat falls from our mouths because there is no more space, even the short columns of our throats are filled, there is no more space for man-meat. But the bites, the bites are like violent, fruitful sex – we bite and create, bite and create, bite and create. There deep in my mind I get bored and I retreat and the warm fuzzy darkness is nice and then when I come out to see again I’m walking into that place I used to work and it’s empty because we are everywhere and where we are no-one wants to be. I remember The Back and this body that was once mine realizes that The Back exists and moves there, gurgling and shuffling, driven.
I know these left here must have been hiding, must have thought themselves safe from the things that were once living and laughing, and when I see his face I remember who he is and what he was and how I didn’t like him and the thing that is my body takes this and creates a reason around it, as I know it must, as I know it will. The man who is now meat, the man who used to be the Boss, begins to scream as blood-stained fingers reach for him. I’m watching and watching as the fingers land and grab, as the hands clench and pull, as the Boss moves toward the mouth that is opening to devour it, and I surge forward with all of me that was hiding and I say, through lips that are briefly mine again, “Sick-Note.”