A pair of footsteps rasped overhead. This time, Owen didn’t strain to look. He instantly recognized that puttering shuffle. The light snapped on a moment later. Skullet said nothing as he sauntered across the room. He sat on the folding chair, staring at Owen with a devilish scowl. Owen stared right back.
“So what happened?” Skullet asked, being the first to break their Mexican standoff-like staring contest. Owen didn’t even attempt to grunt an answer.
“Why is this blanket on the floor?”
Again, Owen didn’t so much as blink while gazing into the dark eyes of this monster. Skullet huffed, nudging the blanket with the edge of his foot. He was slow and cautious, as if he expected it to be booby-trapped. The blanket slid across the hardwood floor with no resistance. Skullet picked it up.
“That’s odd. When I left, this was on your lap.”
Skullet leaped, whipping the blanket through the air. It unfurled with a harsh snap. From this sudden outburst, Owen sensed Skullet was keen to the realtor’s visit. Maybe a door had been left unlocked or something had been moved. Whatever it was, from the grimace plastered across Skullet’s face, he knew it wasn’t good.
“Do you want it back?” Skullet rang the blanket a second time. Owen grunted an incomprehensible reply, hoping to lure him into removing the gag. This worked, since a moment later, Skullet snapped off the rubber straps. Owen heaved a deep breath as the gag ripped from his mouth.
“I asked you a question.”
“Water,” Owen replied, still gasping.
“You get nothing until you tell me exactly what happened.”
Skullet twisted the blanket in his palms, winding it into a thick knot.
“It fell,” Skullet repeated. “That’s your answer? It fell.”
“That’s what happened. How the hell do you think it got onto the floor? Can I have some wat—”
Before Owen could finish his question, Skullet looped the blanket around his neck and yanked. Owen wheezed and his hands tore into the padded armrest. He swung his head in either direction, but not a single splinter of oxygen entered his lungs. His vision began to blur.
“You have one final chance before I get the knife,” Skullet said, providing an extra firm tug. “What happened?”
“I-I was struggling to free my-myself,” Owen choked. “A-and it fe-fell off. I’m n-not lying. P-please, I d-don’t understand.”
“Who else is here? Who’s helping you?”
“If-if anyone was helping me, I w-wouldn’t be in this chair. I’ll be calm from now on, I p-promise. Please, j-just let go.”
Skullet released his choking grasp. Owen coughed, attempting to breathe. It took a moment, but his vision slowly returned. Skullet towered over him, still clutching the blanket. Owen stared at the floor. His arms were shaking, and perhaps his legs were too, but he’d lost feeling in them a while back.
“So you didn’t get up?”
“If I had, do you think I’d still be sitting here in my own piss and shit?” Owen snapped, immediately regretting the outburst.
Owen wrenched, waiting for Skullet’s retaliation. When none came, it only made him angrier. More than anything, he was furious at himself for scaring off those women. If he’d just sat there silently, he’d now be free. He’d no longer have to endure this maniac’s tortures. He’d been so stupid, stupid, STUPID! But chiding himself would do no good. If he wanted to have any hope of a second chance, he’d have to keep his cool.
“Who was here?” Skullet asked, barking the question like an interrogator.
“Look around, nobody’s here. Go search the entire house if you want, I’ll wait. Not like I can go anywhere.”
Skullet turned, scanning the room as though some mysterious person was going to lunge out from the shadows at any moment. When none came, he jerked his attention back to Owen.
“How do you know this is a house?” Skullet asked, gazing into the pits of Owen’s eyes as though he was staring right into his brain. Owen knew any hesitation would only increase Skullet’s suspicions, so he mustered up his most confident tone.
“I know I’m in a house because I’m not outside, duh. What is this nonsense? Stop mucking around and get me a drink of water.”
Owen fought every temptation telling him to lick his lips. That might be pushing it too far and he couldn’t risk losing everything. There was hope the realtor might return, and Owen needed to distract Skullet from whatever had set him off. So he put on his puppy-dog eyes, donning his best look of desperation.
“Please. I know you’re a good man. I understand that now. All I need is a drink of water. Can you help me?”
“Water,” Skullet grumbled. “Do you still want the blanket?”
Owen nodded and Skullet uncurled the blanket, placing it across Owen’s lap. Unlike previously, Owen didn’t notice a difference and still felt frigid. He hardly noticed Skullet’s touch as the blanket was tucked underneath him. This lack of feeling was far more unsettling than any pain.
After securing the blanket in place, Skullet gathered two space heaters, situating them on Owen’s either side. There was a burst of hot air as he switched them to full blast. Owen pretended not to care, but unlike the blanket, this he noticed. The warm rush felt like heaven.
“That’ll keep you from being cold. I want to ensure you feel every agonizing ache,” Skullet said, while shifting his gaze towards Owen’s feet. “Well, what do we have here?”
Owen stared down, noticing his toes were sticking out from the end of the blanket. It was strange. He hadn’t noticed they were uncovered, not that he could feel any difference. But they seemed like foreign objects connected to somebody else’s body. He doubted he could still wiggle them even if he tried.
Skullet rolled up the blanket, exposing Owen’s entire foot. Owen hadn’t even glanced at it since Skullet’s last visit, so it came as a shock to see it puffed out and red like a tomato. Along with the inflammation, a string of crimson lines tracked across its surface. Skullet yanked the blanket even further, revealing that the infection ran all the way up to Owen’s knee.
“Perfect. It’s begun.”
Skullet pressed on Owen’s big toe and a splintering pain shot up as though it’d been jammed into a vise grip. Owen screamed, which only caused Skullet to tighten his grasp. For a moment, Owen was certain he would pass out, but it eventually dulled and he calmed into a whimpering pant.
Skullet released and grazed over one of the red lines tracking up Owen’s leg. He stopped at a large bump and wiggled it from side to side. Thankfully, this didn’t hurt and Owen managed to restrain from yelping. The bump appeared to be filled with air, and Skullet moved it between his fingers like one of those bubbles in a piece of packing wrap. To Owen’s relief, Skullet refrained from attempting to pop it.
“Guess we’ll have to add some penicillin along with the blood thinners. Lucky I always come prepared and have a well-stocked kit. Otherwise, with this nasty infection, you wouldn’t make it ’till tomorrow. We wouldn’t want that, would we?”
“Water,” Owen hissed. “Or I might go sooner than that.”
“Patience. Let’s see this other foot.”
Unlike the bloated toes on Owen’s right foot, his left was shriveled and tinted blue-gray. Dry white flakes speckled his skin, crusting it like snow. Owen barely felt a thing as Skullet wormed his fingers through Owen’s toes. He watched in amazement as Skullet bent his pinkie-toe back upon itself, and yet there was still no pain. Owen worried it might just snap off, but Skullet released and it flopped back into place.
When it became clear nothing could mimic the wrenching pain of the other foot, Skullet freed his grasp and fetched a bottled water. He tossed a handful of pills into Owen’s open mouth. Owen had no second thoughts as he gulped all of it down, drinking as much as his stomach could hold.
In a surprising gesture, Skullet then brought him a bowl of chicken noodle soup. Owen’s stomach had rumbled throughout the previous day, but the hunger had eventually disappeared. The soup reignited the grumbling like an earthquake. As soon as he finished, he pleaded for more. Skullet only chuckled at the request, and Owen wondered if it would’ve been better to avoid eating altogether.
“No more,” Skullet said. “Your days of consumption have come to an end. Now, it’s time to give back. How familiar are you with decomposition?”
“Please, you don’t have to do this. It’s not too late.”
“And you didn’t have to do what you did. But it happened and the bill is due. Still, don’t see it as a bad thing. Judgments are so temporal. Think about the greater picture. View this as part of the cycle of life. Everyone claims life is beautiful, but they never include death. And I know death can be majestic. I’ve witnessed its magnificent glory. You can’t love life and hate death. Either you live in love or you don’t. And like you said, it’s not too late.”
“If you live in love, then forgive me and let me go.”
“Don’t you understand? These physical restraints aren’t what’s trapping you. Only you can free yourself, free your eternal soul. I can do nothing. I’m only the messenger.”
Owen hissed, tugging on his restraints. Skullet was damn lucky the nonsense he was spouting wasn’t true, since if Owen could free himself, he’d lunge up and gouge out the bastard’s eyes.
“The physical body doesn’t matter. Indeed, that’s why it withers and decays without a soul. It’s a sign to remind us how all of this is truly insignificant. That’s why in the end, it’s the tiniest creatures who eat our flesh. Maggots. It’s common to believe maggots are worms, strange carnivorous creatures who lurk underground. But really, they’re not worms at all.”
Skullet held up a large mason jar. Inside, a mass of black dots swirled around, darting from one side of the glass to the other. Owen heard a faint buzzing sound.
“Flies. Annoyance in life and collector of death. Maggots are just the larval stage before flies metamorphose and grow wings. And similar to all children, these baby flies are little food munching machines. Hungry little maggots.”
Skullet placed the mason jar onto the ottoman near Owen’s feet. The flies pounced noisily inside the jar, but thankfully there were no signs of any maggots. Although, Owen feared Skullet was saving the best for last.
That’s why when Skullet returned with his next item, Owen was surprised to see him holding a plastic honey bear. There was a squishy plop as Skullet squirted a dab of honey into his mouth. He ran his tongue around the edge of his lips, lapping up any remainders.
“Tasty. The flies can’t get enough of it. I’m sure you’ve heard the saying you can catch more flies with honey than with shit. Of course, from your stench, I’m certain there’s also plenty of the other stuff.”
Skullet squeezed the honey bear, splattering a large dollop across Owen’s leg. He rubbed it in as though applying sunscreen. When that portion ran thin, he squirted some more, coating Owen’s leg with a thick sticky layer.
“I bet you didn’t know that maggots are the only insect approved for medical use. And that’s not for the middle ages, but today. You see, maggots are designed to disinfect and eat away dead skin. All the while, leaving the healthy flesh alone. There’s a true perfection in this simplicity. An animal whose sole job is to eat away the rot. That’s a creature of my own heart.”
Got that damn right, Owen thought, but kept this to himself. After being choked, he figured it best to lay off the snarky comments. Whatever this scheme, it couldn’t be worse than that. Still, a nervous pang shot through him as Skullet twisted off the lid of the mason jar. A swarm of flies zoomed into the air and a couple immediately fluttered onto Owen’s honey drenched legs. Skullet shooed them away with a sweeping motion.
“Timid creatures, those flies. But don’t worry, it doesn’t take long. In the split second when they land, they’re able to lay their eggs. In fact, every night while you sleep, your body is covered with thousands of these tiny invisible eggs. Most days, you get up, move around, shower, so these little wonders never get to hatch and take their first steps. But sometimes, if the conditions are just right, the cycle of life begins.”
Almost as if on cue, as Skullet said this, a fly landed on Owen’s nose. He shook his head and it darted off. Another soon replaced the first. Skullet gathered five additional mason jars, all filled to the brim with flies. By the time he’d finished releasing them all, a black cloud had formed, swarming from one side of the room to the other.
“She was morbidly obese,” Owen yelled, unable to restrain himself any longer. A thick legion of flies was now piled across his legs, vaulting up and down like popcorn popping.
“Who?” Skullet asked, dripping another line of honey atop the buzzing throngs.
“You Goddamn know who. With all that weight, it’s not uncommon for some of the skin to die and to find maggots in the folds. I sure as hell didn’t lock her inside a filthy room full of flies. This isn’t right, you hear me? You evil bastard.”
“Sow wind, reap a whirlwind. And I do say these little guys make quite a storm. But don’t worry. It takes at least eight hours for the eggs to hatch, and hopefully the penicillin clears up the worst of the infection before they get to chew on it. For the record, maggots weren’t in the folds of your mother’s skin. They were on her legs. Those same legs that were fused to the chair.”
“No,” Owen yelled. “Don’t do this, no!”
Owen would’ve screamed louder, but every time he opened his mouth, a couple flies darted inside. But what was most disturbing was that Skullet was right. The maggots discovered on his mother’s legs were the direct result of not shifting her for five straight days. Even the scientists at court had confirmed that. To think, he’d been under the delusion that death would be peaceful, never once imagining the mess underneath that blanket.
“That’s enough,” Skullet said, twirling the ball gag around in his hand.
“Okay,” Owen said, ceasing to yell. “But please leave on the light.” Not only did he hope the realtor might return, but the idea of having these crawly things all over him in the dark was too much to bear.
“I guess it can’t hurt. Might do you well to see the transformation with your own eyes.”
Skullet slapped the gag across Owen’s face. He blasted a deep guttural laugh, before disappearing up the stairs. A fly climbed into Owen’s nostril, forcing him to exhale with so much force that he began to black out. When the fly shot out, Owen heaved a deep sigh of relief. Though, he wondered if the alternative of choking might’ve been better. Hell, anything was better than this.