16 May Enumeration Insurgence
“Enumeration Insurgence”Written by N.M. Brown Edited by Craig Groshek and Seth Paul Thumbnail Art by Craig Groshek Narrated by N/A
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⏰ ESTIMATED READING TIME — 36 minutes
Work from the comfort of your schedule while being paid well. Apply for a census job.
A website was printed on the bottom of the yellow sign sticking out of the ground as I drove by. I’ve seen a lot of them lately. You know what I’m talking about; I’m sure you’ve heard the ads on the radio.
My work had shut down indefinitely due to the issues we’ve all faced this year. It just so happened that I found myself in need of a job. However, as the radio ad will tell you, convenient or not, being a census worker was still a government job. I’d worked enough jobs to know that a government job would want to drug test at least once. I knew I’d never pass, even with my medical card, so I never applied.
Well, as stupid as it seemed, I took a shot. My gas light came on just as I passed the second sign, so I figured why the hell not.
The application was easy. All I had to do was enter my information and upload forms of personal identification. Not one thing was mentioned about testing or needing to go to a lab before my first day during the entire process. Maybe it was one of those things that were implied; I don’t know. My plan was just to stay dumb until told otherwise.
I received an email back almost right away, asking for a telephone interview. The questions were of the average sort; they wanted to know if I knew exactly what the census was and the purpose it served, past job history, personal references, stuff like that. As much as I despise talking on the phone, I thought it all went pretty well. The man said that the next step would be to meet with an associate at one of their local office buildings.
We set up a time, he gave me the address, and two days later, I was pulling up in front of what I thought was an abandoned office building. I’d driven by the plaza dozens, if not hundreds of times over the past three years that I’d lived there. I never saw one car in the parking lot.
A silver BMW sat in the parking spot beside mine, up by the very front of the building. The numbers on the glass door, smothering under layers of dust, read Suite 1014.
The door activated a series of warbled chimes as it opened into the darkened lobby. A weathered receptionist sat at an old desk behind a Plexiglas shield which desperately needed cleaning. She raised her gaze slowly in my direction as I approached her area. After sliding some forms under a rectangle cut out of the shield, her attention returned to her computer screen, barely more than a shaped piece of thick plastic.
A middle-aged woman entered the lobby from behind one of the doors that led to the back, smiling once she saw me. “You must be Mr. Gamblin,” she stated. I nodded dumbly and waited for further instruction. She stepped aside, motioning for me to follow her to the back.
She took me to a small room, unremarkable in every way. The walls were a dull beige with tile to match. There was no other furniture other than a dinner-sized table, two chairs and a struggling vending machine. I say struggling because the lights inside flickered, and the hum it emitted sounded like exploding roaches.
A large, manila envelope sat in the middle of the table. My eyes were drawn to it the moment we sat down. She clasped her fingers together, giving me a moment to take in my dull surroundings. “My name is Chandra Briggs, and I want to start by saying that it’s very nice to meet you. Firstly, we want to thank you for your interest in the census program. Congratulations on becoming a part of our team! This packet includes lists of addresses close to your area that haven’t responded to our forms yet. All we ask is that you kindly go door to door and ask people if they’d be interested in participating, you know…get it over with while there’s still time. You will be paid for your time, gas, and of course…based on how many completed forms you turn in.”
My mind raced to think of all the possible scenarios I could encounter along the way. “Is it mandatory? Like, what if they don’t wanna speak to me?”
She threw her head back in a light laugh. “Heavens, no! This is to give people a little nudge to make sure they do their duties as American citizens. I cannot tell you how important it is to get these numbers as close to accurate as possible. They don’t need to speak with you; only a courtesy for the greater good of America.” Her kind tone turned dark as the last few words left her lips, leaving me beyond unsettled.
After that, I was taken to a different room for photos. They needed a recent one for my census ID badge. I took my packet and went to my car, eyes still adjusting from the camera’s flash. I paused behind the steering wheel, deciding to peek inside. There was a set of blank forms, envelopes and the aforementioned address list. A lot of the houses were on my way home from the office building. I was feeling pretty good from the meeting and wanted to start making some cash.
A few people slammed the door in my face before getting their forms out and even more ignored me completely. I decided to give one more house a try before heading home to veg out for the night. I’d input the miles I’d driven on the site they gave and start racking up money.
The house looked happy; brightly lit, I mean. That’s why I decided to stop there in the first place. A few well-kept stairs took me right to the doorstep. An older man smiled widely as he opened his front door.
“Good afternoon, sir.” The smell of baked goods and Pine-Sol wafted from behind him. I could see the silhouette of a woman sitting in a rocking chair in the front room. I didn’t want to be too obvious and look like a creep, so I looked down to focus on my forms. “We see that you haven’t completed your census survey for the year. Would you have some time today to do so?” Thankfully, he agreed.
We got through the first few questions well enough. Then I came across one that I stumbled my words on. I had to read it internally four or five times before realizing it was exactly what it looked like. The next to last question left my lips, an expression of mortification on my face. “How many people are living in the home?” He said that he lived alone and that no one else inhabited the property.
As stupid as it sounded, the last question was still one that I was required to ask. “How many dead in the home?” I winced in anticipation of an answer, one that I thought would be obvious.
He moved off to the side, smoothing the front of his shirt calmly. When he did, I was able to see the woman inside. Her face was nothing more than a smear or mar and rotted tissue. Her body looked stiffly placed in the chair, completely rigid except for the activity of decay.
My whole body trembled as my mind stumbled over which words to say. Terror robbed the breath from my throat before I’d gotten the chance to form them anyway. I saw her; he knew that I saw her. The only question left was how we would treat it now that it was out in the open.
I held my hands up, slowly taking steps backward to put as much space between us as possible subtly and slowly. I felt an overpowering relief when I saw he’d stayed in the same place, making no advances in my direction. The man just stood there, smiling cheerfully. A lump of fear, dust and insecurity lodged in my now dry throat, making the act of slowing down my breathing to be more difficult than it already was.
Was he so far gone upstairs that he didn’t realize she was dead? He had to have seen her there for all this time, not speaking…moving…breathing. Not to mention the smells that are supposed to accompany a dying body, which I oddly experienced no traces of. For all I knew, he could have killed her himself. Was he planning to kill me, too, now that I saw things I shouldn’t have? Dozens of thoughts and questions like these flooded my brain faster than I could focus on.
The man inhaled a deep breath and uttered a single word before slamming the door in my surprised face.
With the door firmly closed, I ran to my car immediately, thrusting the keys in the ignition with shaking hands. My phone rang on the passenger seat before I even had a chance to grab it. I know…I know I should have called the police. But when the screen lit up with my boss’s name and number, I was relieved to be able to talk to someone who could calm me down. None of this was making any sense to me. The only solace I could grasp was that the question was on the form for a reason. So, maybe it’s something that happens more than one would think.
“I had to put one under dead in the home this evening,” I exclaimed, not even giving her the chance to greet me. “I can’t talk, I have to ca–”
“Mr. Gamblin,” she asserted. “I understand that you’re very upset. I’ve already sent a message to alert the authorities. Give me the address while we’re here on the phone. Do you still have it?”
After I gave her the address, she told me to take a couple of paid days off, which I accepted, but I couldn’t get that image out of my head. If I tried to work now, after this…I might never go back.
Even so, I was too terrified to be at the house alone, as stupid as that sounds for a man my age. I had nothing to do there but stare at an uninteresting television screen and bounce my gaze off of four surrounding walls, each one showing her gory mess of a face.
All I knew was that something felt morbidly off about the new job I’d acquired. I should have left, but I needed money. Besides, it’s not like the bureau killed her, right?
By the time I turned on the app to clock in, it was as if nothing ever happened. The previous few days had been uneventful enough that I felt it was safe to go out and knock on doors again.
The elderly woman from before, well… it turns out that it was determined she died of natural causes. The man hadn’t killed her at all; the worst he’d done was fail to report her death. And with the man’s age and frail state of mind, it wasn’t something the state felt was worth pursuing legally. Even if they did, upon the death of a married person, by law, their spouse has the right to custody of the deceased and their burial. In the end, I was just happy to move on. It was none of my business, after all.
My mind had picked up on something I noticed earlier in the week. As I looked over my forms, it clicked into place. There was a chunk of addresses that were missing from my route. One of my main character flaws was that I always thought I knew better than everyone else; having said that, I figured they either lost the forms while compiling them, or it was a glaring clerical error. So naturally, I decided to go and question that section anyway.
It was towards the beginning of the block of addresses I was starting on, so I drove past where I’d started previously and turned down an unmarked street. My confusion and irritation at the bureau’s incompetence grew as I took in the area around me.
My first thought was that maybe this area contained a section of unfinished houses. This was quickly ruled out by the occupied driveways and glowing porch lights. There wasn’t anyone outside, but signs of life were evident from inside the blind-drawn homes.
One thing stood out – or rather, the absence of said thing – challenging everything that I thought I’d learned. Not one single mailbox greeted the car-filled driveways. I slowed down as I continued to drive through, taking in the houses’ front porches and front doors. There were no mail slots and no numbers nailed to the front paneling, nothing to identify these homes from one another properly.
What’s more, most had overflowing trash bins with matching piles of discarded items next to them on the grass. My stomach flipped as my eyes fell on a toddler’s riding horse. It had been tossed carelessly, landing just to the side of the other items. Its once-white paint had faded and chipped away, the remaining coat marred with dirt, mold spores and food smears. Mattresses were laid atop each other outside the end house on the cul-de-sac, which seemed unnecessary, since a large box truck was resting in the driveway. In fact, I’d noticed quite a few of these houses held box trucks in their yards. There was no company logo or labeling; just plain, white trucks.
The atmosphere turned my body cold, speckling my arms and neck with goosebumps. Don’t get me wrong, the mattresses weren’t smeared with blood and gore. None of the neglected items looked sinister. Some of the furniture appeared new. Still, though, something didn’t feel right in the air. It was heavy, earthen. And although I was in my own car on a wide-open street, something about it felt suffocating…like being buried alive.
My rationale from earlier began to turn on itself. On the other hand, if the houses weren’t on my list, then technically, I couldn’t be held responsible for not visiting them.
The front tires groaned as they dipped off the asphalt into the soft grass to turn around. As sure as I was that it wouldn’t be a big deal to use one of their driveways, I didn’t want to draw any more attention to myself than I already had.
Two blinding headlights entered my path as I straightened out the car to leave, approaching in the direction I was attempting to leave in. So much for staying under the radar, I thought bitterly. I pulled off to the side to allow him room to pass. However, he stopped once he got to the side of my car. “Hey, there!” he said, raising his voice to be heard over my car radio.
I nodded slightly in response, studying his face for recognition. After only a moment or two, I was beyond certain that I’d never seen him before. But when I looked past him at the inside of his vehicle, I recognized a manila envelope with the same emblem in the top corner that mine had. “Are you a census worker?” I asked, raising my own pile of forms into his line of sight.
“Ahhhhh, one of my brethren!” he shouted dramatically, chuckling after to lighten the effect. “Yeah, man,” he continued. “I’ve been doing this for eight months now. I’ve never seen you around before.”
I thought that was a ridiculous and pointless statement seeing as we all worked in separate, local areas. I surmised that some people were just nervous blurters and moved on with the conversation. “Yep. This is my second week. See, this street is a huge hole on my route list. It’s not even listed. I can see that people live here, so I thought I’d try to get some responses,” I explained.
His eyes darkened despite a smile creeping across his face. “There’s a reason for that.” He paused to light a cigarette before explaining what it was. “It’s not on your list because it’s already on mine.” He lifted a list full of printed numbers and names, just like mine. “It takes a certain kind of person to knock on these doors.”
My smile grew lax with disbelief. “Come on, pal. Don’t bullshit a bullshitter. I don’t give a shit who talks to these people. I just don’t want my ass to be nailed if I didn’t.”
“Well, it’s settled now, and you can go on your way. I’m sorry for your confusion, but we both have a job to do. Even with the most modern conveniences available, people still don’t want to take the time to help out our country.” He shook his head disgustedly as he took a long drag from his smoke.
With that, his foot tapped the gas pedal, and the car crept on by. It made no sense to single out a single street in one area for another employee while I could have hit those houses just as easily.
I haven’t told you much about myself, but you probably caught by now that I smoke pot, and that can sometimes make a person paranoid. There wasn’t much going on in my life at the time, and the inconsistency in the route gnawed at me. It’s stupid. I shouldn’t even care. There was a huge chance that none of those people would open their doors anyway. But I couldn’t get it out of my head; I had to know more. I decided to head back out after dark and drive through one more time. If nothing else, maybe I could find a new end table or computer monitor, I told myself.
The sky was a starless canvas of black and blue as I pulled closer to where I’d have to turn off at. I’d almost driven by it completely under the guise of moonlight. By day it was hidden, unremarkably remarkable unless you knew where to look. But by night, it seemed almost impossible to find. I switched my headlights off as I pulled into the neighborhood. I was surprised to see more garbage now, and the majority of the box trucks were parked at the house where the mattresses were stacked earlier, which were now missing. I hadn’t been gone longer than four hours, but I guess they’d gotten rid of them in that short amount of time.
Pulling my car off into a more concealed area, I quietly turned the car off and stepped into the cold air, closing the door behind me. I tiptoed down the side yard, relying on shadows for cover. As a child, I’d play a game after the sun went down; I would run around in shadow, pretending that the moonlight was poisonous. If any of it touched my skin, I’d be a goner. Think of it as an evolved, more astronomical version of the ‘Floor is Lava’ game.
My mind took me there, visiting a simpler time to avoid the potential severity of my situation. There were five, maybe six steps left before I’d be at their side window. If I could get a sense of what was going on inside, maybe I’d be a bit more at ease.
A slight tapping pinged off the metal inside the rear box truck, knocking me off balance in surprise. My entire body was out in the moonlit open before I realized and jumped back in darkness. I slid around the other side of the truck, noticing it was held shut by a padlock. The rusty lock secured the ring keeping the back doors locked in place, but otherwise was left open.
The smell was unbelievable. I know a lot of people say that, but I really want to try to explain it to do it justice. It smelled like… hot garbage, infection, and sweet, fetid sweat. There was a musty copper of menstruation as well as the tinge of old, rotted blood. Undertones of urine and fecal matter floated towards the front as I swung the door open the rest of the way. It was worse than any animal hoarding house I’d ever experienced. I couldn’t imagine what the origin of it could be. It wasn’t death…no. Death has a stale quality to it. Whatever was in here, animal or human had been alive, at least at one point.
My lower limbs convulsed with terror, threatening to give out completely. I had to hold onto the back to remain upright. My fingers unified with a gelatinous mass of deep red and sickly yellow ooze that had gathered on the rim of the floorboards. Vomit protruded from my esophagus, adding another layer to the shit, sweat and rotten potpourri the back of the truck was seasoned with. The sight inside was unfathomable.
The missing mattresses from earlier had been painstakingly stacked on top of each other and squeezed into the back. Chunks of flesh and hair stuck out from in between them like gory frosting on a multi-layered death cake. I couldn’t even tell how many bodies were held in total. My fight response kicked in, and I was thankfully able to gather enough strength in my extremities to hoist myself into the back. The soles of my shoes fought to gain traction on the wooden floor. My hand flung itself into another hand as I windmilled my arms to remain solid on my feet.
Then, to my dread…ever so faintly…it squeezed.
At least five mattresses were sitting on top of this one, with god knows how many people sandwiched in between. I flung my free hand over my mouth to keep from screaming. That was the worst thing I could have done. An acrid taste of stagnated blood and bitter almonds filled my mouth, coating my lips. In my desperation earlier, I’d forgotten to clean it off after I’d grabbed the bottom of the door.
Nevertheless, this person needed help. I strained with all of my strength and will to lift the mattress by even an inch. The pressure from the weight on top created an almost impenetrable stack. I winced as my knuckles slammed into a solid, metal object. There were…bars rammed through each mattress, securing it to the one on top as well as below. It looked like they appeared every foot or so, and it was undeniable that some of them were rammed through skin, bone and organs.
Just then, the front door opened, illuminating light from the inside over the entire front lawn. Three men in suits emerged onto the front porch, struggling with an oversized bag. If I were more of a dramatic person, I’d have even gone so far as to call it a body bag. One of the men murmured codes into a clear earpiece, hidden into the crook of his right ear. They look to be of an official capacity. I couldn’t tell if it was military, government, or police. But they carried themselves secretively, like they knew they were powerful people.
They’d already be alerted to my presence by one of the rear doors being left open, and I wanted to be far away when that happened.
I crept almost out of earshot when all my efforts were rendered moot. My cell phone chimed with a text message. It was from Chandra Briggs, my superior from the bureau.
Report to the office building you were interviewed in by 8:30 AM tomorrow morning. I must meet with you.
The sound of the notification rang out through the night air like a gunshot, surely attracting the attention of the men that were leaving the house. I didn’t have time to look behind me, nor did I want to give away any indication of my facial features. By the time my car had started, I was sure I’d given myself away. Anybody that had that much disregard for human life was likely just as soon to kill me then look at me twice.
My stomach churned with worry, dread and terror as I pulled off the bumpy road back onto the familiar joys of the civilized highway. When I stole a glance in my rearview mirror, one of the men stood in the middle of the street…just staring blankly at the back of my car. My mouth and throat were dry apart from the traces of bile left behind from earlier.
My mind, body and spirit felt beyond frazzled. All I knew was that I’d been at that job for two active days, and both of those days, I’d seen more death than life. The best insurance and benefits in the world didn’t mean shit if I wouldn’t be alive to enjoy them.
Call the cops? Yeah, sure. For all I knew, they were the ones responsible for the deaths themselves. And if not, I still didn’t feel it was worth giving up my identity.
I drank myself to sleep that evening, fully intending on nursing a hangover in bed the entire next day. Chandra could go to hell as far as I was concerned, and this job could go right along with her.
However, the next morning I got an alert from my back saying a direct deposit was entered for immediate use. I won’t be an asshole and tell you how much it was for. Times are tough for all of us right now. But suffice it to say, I began getting ready for my 8:30 shift, abandoning my plan from the night before.
“Good morning, ma’am. Let me ask you, did you know that if asked to pick a card out of a deck of 52, 70% of people would pick the seven of hearts?”
Her wrinkled face stared at me blankly. “Come again, son? I don’t wanna buy no damn cards.” Her quavering voice trailed off in irritation, and I was afraid she was going to turn around and shut the door in my face. I can’t say I’m not used to it, but it still sucks, you know?
Anyway, I could tell I was beyond losing her interest, so I apologized and repeated myself. “I’m sorry,” I said. “It’s a numbers experiment. If you were to ask someone to think of a playing card and have them tell you what it is, 70% of them would say the seven of hearts.”
A smirk appeared as she shook her head slightly. “Oookkkaayyy,” she drawled. “And you knocked on my door just to tell me that? If you have business, you better get to it, boy. I’ve got supper in the oven and no time for bullshit.”
“Well, did you also know…” I continued, letting her know there was a point to my fun fact, “…that only seven out of ten American citizens have responded to their census forms?”
Her eyes fluttered in relief. “Good God, I thought you were some kinda nut. Why didn’t you just tell me you were from the Census? Seven of hearts…pfft, silliest ice breaker I ever heard.”
I ran through the list of questions, purposefully excluding the part about the dead. She snickered when I asked if there were any children in the home. “At my age? Heavens, no!” she chuckled. Suddenly her bright smile turned dark, along with the look in her eyes. “Besides…you won’t find any of those around here.”
Besides that, she was terse but cordial, and soon enough, I was sitting in my car with a completed form. Fuck. I’d barely been working here three weeks and had already experienced enough drama for a lifetime. I snapped a picture of the form, ready to upload it to the company app, when my mind flashed back to my meeting with Chandra the week before.
I hadn’t told her what I’d seen or asked any questions about the missing segment of the address list. She motioned to the chair in front of me across the table from where she sat, and I obliged. I was a bundle of raw nerves, and luckily Chandra wasted no time in informing me about what she’d wanted to see me for.
“As I’m sure you are aware, the time to report our numbers is rapidly approaching. I understand that people aren’t absorbing the…severity of their situations. The simplicity of knocking on doors isn’t what it used to be. The act of sending your little one around the surrounding neighborhood for school fundraisers is the time of yesteryear. But we must do all that we can to achieve accuracy. How are we supposed to truly protect our people if we don’t know many need care?” At this point, she was exacerbated, breathless from the strength of her convictions.
Protect our people? I thought suspiciously. Someone takes their job too seriously.
“I take my job very seriously,” she continued, almost as if reading my mind. “As should you. So, to emphasize that importance, we’ve decided to raise your payments by twenty-five percent.” My eyebrows raised in pleasant surprise as I thanked her for the information and gesture. “Don’t thank me yet,” she smirked. “I’ve also taken the liberty of expanding your area.” She handed me the new sheet, and I was on my way back home to eat before heading back out.
I decided to pick back up where I left off, on the street with the elderly lady from before. One thing I’d noticed about these houses was that the inhabitants were mostly all the same. They were all elderly, annoyed to have their time interrupted but too polite to say so, and they all got the same disgusted look on their face when I mentioned children. This neighborhood was by no means a retirement community. Despite that, it looked like a makeshift one had been formed anyway. Surely at least one of these residents had grown children living at home. However, nothing close to that had been reflected in their answers.
There were only two houses – or dwellings I should call them – left on that street, and one of them had a ‘For Sale’ sign out front. The house being sold looked well-kept but empty. No cars sat in the driveway, and the inside looked sparsely furnished, to be staged for showing. Next to it sat a yellowed, double-wide trailer that was badly in need of care. It stuck out like a sore thumb among the other pristine, Dutch colonial-style houses, and I wondered how they were even allowed to bring in into the group of properties. No matter how nice the house being sold looked, it was doubtful it’d sell quickly due to the eyesore that sat like a pile of shit with feasting flies right next door.
My fist paused two inches from the door before knocking. I took a deep breath and ran through all the possible scenarios that could greet me on the other side of that door. Before I had a chance to, a woman answered. Her posture was stiff, and her eyes grew wide with anxiety. “Yes? What can I do for you, sir?” Her voice was timid and quiet. If the weather hadn’t been as calm as it was, I probably wouldn’t have been able to hear her at all.
“Ma’am, I’m here with the United States Census Bureau. Now according to our records, you haven’t completed yours yet. Would you be interested in answering some questions for me and getting this out of the way?”
Her eyes shifted around the yard as she stepped out onto the porch, closing the door firmly behind her. “Do y’all still give out them coupons? I remember last time I filled out one of these, they sent me a shitload of coupons in the mail as a reward for my time.”
I had no clue what she was talking about. But I couldn’t just hmmm and ummm my way through this.
“No, ma’am, I’m afraid not,” I replied meekly, already feeling like I was wasting my time for not being able to give her what she wanted.
“Ugh…it’s just as well, I guess. What do you need to know?”
“As of April 21st, how many have been living in the home?”
She took a pack of cigarettes out of the pocket of her food-stained khakis and paused to light one up. “There are three of us here: my husband Merle, his mother Alma and myself. We moved in to help take care of her. Ya see, she’s bedridden. The poor dear doesn’t know what day it is or even what planet she’s on.”
I forced a heavily practiced look of sympathy on my face as I apologized for her mother-in-law’s state of health. “So, no children then?” I asked, not bothering to look up from my forms.
By the time our eyes met again, her facial features twisted into a horrified scowl. She backed up defensively against the front door, throwing her barely-smoked cigarette into the front yard. “Who’s been talking to you about me? Why would you ask me that? Didn’t you hear me the first time, asshole? I just listed everyone that lives here. If Alma was a child, well…then she couldn’t very well be my husband’s mother now, could she?”
A muffled clatter rang out from behind her closed door, attracting both of our attention. What little color the blood produced in her face disappeared as she seemed to recognize what it was. “I’m sorry, I have to go now. Fudge the rest of the answers for your form if you have to. If need be, I can just do it myself online later this evening.” Her words came out hastily and without space for breath.
I thanked her for her time, turning to leave before she’d opened her door. Shrieks and wails resonated through the now-open barrier before bouncing off my back and into the air. Now, last time I was here, someone wise told me to keep my head down…that if I minded my business, I shouldn’t have any trouble. Having said that, maybe I did bring all this on myself. But how was I supposed to ignore something like that? The cries sounded utterly feral and inhuman. Pausing at the bottom step, I glanced behind me to ask if she needed help.
Through the remaining sliver of the open door, I saw something hard to describe. It lunged at the woman who had answered, making her cower in fear. Whoever it was stood to be about the size of an average eight-year-old child. But its body was all wrong. It reminded me of that episode of the Outer Limits; you know the one. Where couples could genetically modify their kids to be the most attractive, smartest and successful? Well, it turned out that a portion of them became mutilated due to something called Genetic Rejection Syndrome. It’s pretty self-explanatory, but there are no words to describe what effects it caused on the children. This child’s effects were similar. Bile clawed its way up my throat, threatening to spill out over my fear-frozen face.
He (I presumed it was male) was covered in large masses of tumorous flesh. The skin of his face was stretched taught, pulled painfully tight over the flaps of his ears. A lump of skin had grown over one of his eyes, and the other bulged almost out of its socket. His poor mouth was a line of jagged, pointed teeth. His lips had been stretched so thin that they were nonexistent, impossible to tell from his cheeks or chin.
The boy jumped on top of his mother, burying his face into her left forearm as she unsuccessfully shoved at him to keep him at bay. He lifted his face away, completely ignoring her cries. A trail of blood, saliva and sinew kept them attached long after he separated from her. The boy’s father came out from a back room with a metal baseball bat, slamming the door forcefully once he saw I could see inside. A scuffle could be heard from the inside of the house, followed by a hollow thud. It hurt me to think that if I hadn’t come by, the little boy wouldn’t have gotten hurt. Whatever was wrong with him, he was still a child…one that deserved safety and proper mental care. I was calling this one in.
I saw the front door fly open through the view of the windshield of my car. My fingers fumbled with the keys, ready to get the hell out of there and call the cops. The little boy appeared on the front porch, staring me down through a blood-stained face. His lobster-like hand was twitching from the weight of the baseball bat. I threw my car into reverse, backed up, and peeled out of their driveway and down the street.
The last thing I saw in my rearview mirror was the boy’s jaw widening with bloodthirsty hunger as he approached the neighbor’s house that was diagonal from his. He pounced on the lady the second she answered the door, sending blood spurting from her neck, and he drank greedily. He stopped mauling her long enough to watch my car as it drove away. He was impossibly fast, and if he decided to chase after me, I’d say he had a pretty good shot. They didn’t allow you to drive very fast on residential roads; if he found me, I knew I was as good as dead.
* * * * * *
I got on the phone with the police shortly after, telling them to hurry as fast as they could. I was safe (for now), but unfortunately, I couldn’t say the same for the other residents of that neighborhood…the street where no children lived.
They took me about as seriously as a poodle in a pink tutu. I called to follow up the next week – I know, that’s not exactly minding my business – and was told that the situation had been resolved with no injury or arrest. They thanked me for calling it in and told me to have a safe week. So much for that, I thought wryly. I don’t know why I was so surprised. Nothing else in this job or town seemed to make any damn sense lately.
* * * * * *
After the emotional toll that the past couple of weeks of events had caused, I won’t lie and tell you that I didn’t start looking for other employment avenues. Who the hell wouldn’t?
Anyway, out of all the places I’d applied to, only one had contacted me back. Maybe I shouldn’t have put on my applications that I was currently indirectly working for the government; I don’t know. Nevertheless, I was offered a gas station job, one that I was grotesquely overqualified for, even with my spotty employment history. The manager needed somebody for overnights, and with my current – or lack of – official job hours, he said it would be the perfect fit. Not that I planned on staying with the bureau. Chandra was right about what she’d said earlier: the world was quite a different place. With the way things had progressed, it wasn’t safe or wise to go door to door, unwittingly inviting one’s self into other people’s problems.
I thought it would be nice! I mean, so many of us were in quarantine for so long. We should feel happy now that we’re liberated, so to speak. But sadly, people had become more guarded than ever.
I showed up to the interview, excited to change my, so far, morbid fate. When I spoke to the man named Mike that offered me the gas station job at the BP, he said the starting pay was $10.00 an hour. I had to fight bile back down the recesses of my throat when I heard that. It boggled my mind that I was trying to leave a job that paid easily ten times more for a lot less work. Working for BP meant I’d bust my ass 40 hours a week just to break even. I couldn’t help but ask myself, was it worth it?
But then I looked down at my shoes, still stained a pink tinge from the blood that the mattresses had leaked, and the decision seemed easy enough. Broke or not, I’d be safe. The worst thing I’d have to deal with is someone trying to steal beer or tweakers coming in to use the bathroom.
My census job would provide me all of the financial security I would need to prepay my next two months’ worth of bills; then, I could quit.
At least, that was my line of thinking on my first day of training. They had me go to BP’s central training store in town and sat me in front of a computer screen all day. I had to watch some videos and read screen after screen of information that should have been good old-fashioned common sense.
Like I said before…grossly overqualified.
There were tests about age restrictions and money order regulations. The manager on duty, Pam, told me to expect to be there for eight hours, but I finished everything in three and a half.
Pam seemed pleasantly surprised and asked if I’d like to clock out and go home or stay and work for the rest of the shift. I chose the latter gratefully. I worked overnights in my early twenties. I can remember clocking in and always heading straight to the cooler. She looked incredulous but thankful when I asked if I could take a peek in theirs.
My job at the bureau had been so full of inconsistencies. I mean, the pay was good, but let’s face it…it was still a glorified commission job. The things I’d subjected myself to during the short time that I’d been there had been traumatizing. My point was, the cooler was something I could control, a constant in a world of inconsistencies that my mind was becoming too fragile to handle.
The time went by very fast, and my frozen fingers were touching the screen to clock out after what seemed like an extremely short time.
Mike called from what was to be my home store and told me to meet him at 5:15 AM, before the gas station opened at 6:00, for a final interview and orientation. There weren’t enough employees to train me on nights, so most things I had to learn needed to be during the early morning hours.
* * * * * *
The upcoming sunrise hadn’t even begun to flirt with the horizon by the time I pulled into the BP. My body hated itself for being awake so early. Only one other vehicle graced the unlit parking lot: Mike’s Jeep. I recognized it from when I came in for the interview.
My arm shook as it reached for the front door handle, only to have it stay in place, jerking my body forward. I tried the other handle with the same result. Maybe he didn’t know I was here yet. The screen on my phone told me I was on time. He should have known to expect me. My sleepy knuckles knocked on the glass lazily, to no avail. Eerie darkness loomed inside, with the only source of light coming from an area towards the back of the store. I assumed it was Mike’s office.
I decided to approach the side door of the gas station, only to find it was also locked. However, my view inside was much different from this angle. A crimson sheen overtook the off-white tile flooring, spreading more by the moment. My eyes followed it to the point of origin, and I gasped in shock. The dirtied, blood-streaked soles of a man’s feet were flopped on their sides, presumably lifeless.
The click of heels resonated throughout the entire inside, reaching me in pert bursts. Someone was coming. I veered off to the side of the door, praying I had enough time to reach the car. I had the corner of the store within my reach; all I had to do was turn it, and my car would be right there. My warped rationale and desensitization from last month told me that whoever was inside surely called the police. I’d only be in their way, I told myself.
“Oliver Gamblin.” The voice froze me in place, not only because I’d been spotted, but because she knew me by name. Recognition washed over me like goosebumps the second that I saw her face: Chandra.
I instantly held my hands up in defense. “Alright…whatever the fuck happened in there was not my fault. Let’s start by getting that out of the way right now. Secondly, why are you here? And have you called an ambulance?”
She held up a hand to silence me, and as much as that would normally irk the shit out of me, right then, I just wanted to know what was going on. “It’s too late for him, and indirectly…” she paused to look me up and down, “it’s your fault that he’s dead. I just gave you a pay increase. Why on earth would you seek other employment?”
I was beyond fed up at this point. This was not how I wanted my morning to go. “I sought out this job to gain some fucking normalcy in my life,” I remarked. “What the fuck is this place?”
“Well, it appears to be a gas station,” she shot back snidely.
“No…I mean the bureau. I’ve seen so much fucked up shit…people in mattresses, mutated kids, dead roommates. Like, enough is enough. No job is worth putting my life and mental health in danger.”
A sharp laugh emitted from her throat but showed no traces on her lips. I’d have thought it was a nervous tick if not for what she said next. “Okay, you can’t give me that line of bullshit while reporting for your first overnight training shift at a gas station, one right off of the interstate, no less. Do you know how many clerks are killed from robberies and confused addicts? And guess what, Ollie-boy? The majority of those take place on the night shift.” She sighed slightly under her breath, pausing to take off her blood-soaked gloves and straighten the creases in her blouse before answering me. “Well, as you know, your job exposes you to some very strange facts of the world that had, until recently, remained hidden. My mother always told me I’d attract more flies with honey. Evidently, that technique doesn’t work on you. Mother was wrong; you can get just as many flies with shit. Now, if you’re lucky, I can convince my superiors not to terminate your employment.”
That was it for me. “Terminate?!? You’re lucky I don’t call the damn cops. I want nothing more to do with your company, or the government in general.” My hands wildly gestured to the inside of the store. “He was a nice guy! He didn’t deserve this.” I drew my arms to my sides, clenching my hands into fists to stop the tremors of fear quaking through them. The false bravado of my voice was beginning to crack, and I didn’t want to appear weak or scared, though I very much felt so at that moment.
Chandra nodded sympathetically. “That, Mr. Gamblin, is one thing we can agree on. But…here we are. I can’t have you moonlighting and telling all of our secrets. And I certainly can’t have you putting in your notice. You sought out a job from us, if you remember correctly. Census season is almost at an end. Three weeks from now, we will disappear from your life as quickly as we entered it. All you had to do was hold out for twenty-one more days; then, you’d have been in the clear.”
“You haven’t told me anything!” I shot back.
We were interrupted by a sound that hadn’t graced my ears in over a decade: the shrill ring of a payphone. I’d previously disregarded the broken-down payphone station, assuming it was in non-working order. There had to be, what, five left in the entire state of Florida, if that?
Chandra, however, was not surprised. She strode over to the phone casually, lifting the receiver to her ear. I couldn’t hear the conversation, but it was short and to the point. “Thank you, Kyle,” she said before hanging up. “Now…” she began to speak before she reached me, raising her voice over the noise of the wind. “You need to come with me back to the office. It’s early. No one else will be there,” she assured me as if privacy was on my list of concerns. Hell, the more people, the better at this point.
I backed away defensively towards the direction of my car, which was still around the corner in the front lot. “That’s okay. Like I said earlier, enough is eno–”
My words were cut off as oncoming headlights blinded me. Someone else was pulling up to the store, and for a moment, I thought I was saved, so to speak. I looked over at Chandra, expecting to see a look of panic on her face. I thought she’d run around back, duck back into the store, anything other than what she did.
I realized just how wrong I was as a man emerged from the truck. It was put into park, but left idling, and for some reason that didn’t sit well with me. I recognized him as the other employee I’d run into on the street a couple of weeks ago. We didn’t exchange names; by the end of our conversation, neither of us was in the mood for pleasantries. He walked past me as if he didn’t recognize me or just didn’t care to acknowledge my existence. Either way, I was fine with it.
Chandra gently placed one hand on his arm, motioning towards the inside with the other as she whispered in his ear. I watched him go back to his truck and gather a tarp, a bucket and cleaning products in his arms. She looked back towards my direction, her eyes forming a steely glare. “We don’t have much time. You need to park your car in the plaza a mile away. I’ll meet you there.” She didn’t allow me to argue before walking around the back, starting her car, and driving off.
Yeah, I could have taken off in the opposite direction, but these people had all of my information. They’d made copies of my driver’s license and social security card. They knew where I lived, and sooner or later, they’d find me. So I decided to meet with her, to put an end to the madness…hopefully.
Did you know that the average person lies 114 times a day, every day of their life? Seems a little high, doesn’t it? Well, I’d been finding out just how accurate that was lately.
It was hard to concentrate on any one thing in particular as I drove to the main office. I’d politely declined Chandra’s offer to park at the nearby plaza and ride with her. It made no sense to me. If I wasn’t in any impending danger, then she should be able to trust me as much as she expects me to trust her. As naïve as it may have been on her part, she agreed to let me take my car. She knew I’d show up.
As odd as it sounds, I’d never been in a situation where I haven’t trusted my employer before. I mean, yeah, sometimes you’d have the occasional sleazeball that pockets the tips instead of splitting them or goes out to lunch with a friend on the clock. This was something completely, life-threateningly different.
We arrived at the lot at the same time, parking in adjacent spots in unison. She guided me silently into the building and towards the back, an area I’d never been to before. We stopped short at the door near the end of the hall. I smelled the inside of the room well before I saw it. The conference table caught my eye the second Chandra opened the door. An array of food took up more than half of the table. There were two pitchers of orange juice, and two plates sat piled high with scrambled eggs, piles upon piles of bacon and sausage, toast, waffles, muffins, carafes of syrup, you name it. A single covered tray shined in the middle of the table. A smile began forming on my face as I wondered what could be under it…the first one I’d been able to muster around my boss. It fell away the moment I saw the chair at the end of the table.
Fraying strips of silver duct tape crisscrossed over the back of an elegant office chair. I was so wrapped up in what or who could be on the other side of it that I failed to notice Chandra’s voice. I don’t know how long she had been speaking to me or what exactly it was that she said, but a kind look had settled into the features of her face. Her hand was outstretched as if to offer me a seat at the lavishly filled table. Her words snapped back into focus after a moment of dreadful contemplation. “I said, would you like something to eat, Mr. Gamblin?”
Was I hungry? I mean, sure, I could eat. It all smelled wonderful, and my body was already reacting to it physiologically. I’d love to sit down, fill up a plate to distract myself from the sinister events of late. But that chair.
She continued to eye me suspiciously while I weighed my options. My eyes fell on a towering plate of toast. It looked perfectly buttered, not too much nor too little. Saliva covered my tongue in pools, sending a feeling of nausea through my stomach while adorning my tongue with goosebumps. It was the kind of queasiness that results from your stomach eating itself. That’s not the technical term for it, but I had a girlfriend in college that called it that, and well…it kind of stuck. Funny the small things that stay with you, like little parting gifts from those we left behind. But that fucking chair!
After an awkward amount of time, I shook my head politely. Chandra shrugged and shook her shoulders, making a comment under her breath. “What was that?” I asked her, unsure if I really wanted to know what it was, she had said.
“I said, ‛It will be helpful to have your stomach empty anyway.’”
What did that even mean?
The click of Chandra’s heels cut through the silent tension in the room as she strode to the chair at the end of the table. She placed both hands on top of it, pausing to massage the grooves in the leather. “Oliver, did you happen to read over our benefits packet?”
“Yeah, I looked through it a little bit. I think it’s nice that they cover dental and braces for employee’s kids.” Why the hell I said that, I’d never know. I’ve always been the type of guy to say stupid shit during times of crisis. I told my cousin once that it was a gorgeous day as I hugged her sobbing frame at her father’s funeral. I mean no disrespect, I just don’t know what the fuck to say; things just pop out.
“Well, then you know that one of the procedures that we cover is weight loss surgeries, mainly stomach stapling and gastric bypass. We want the best for our employees and their families.” Her smile showed me that she was truly proud of that fact. “We help save lives and our world as we know it.”
“Wh– What the fuck does tha–” I stammered before being interrupted.
“A very large part of what we do here relies on discretion. Understand that I’m not accusing you of anything. But you’ve had a lot of questions. Thankfully for both of us, you’ve saved those questions until we’ve had a chance to speak. Another man in your position may have taken… less professional measures. As a reward for this, I’m letting you be behind the scenes just this once. While we’re in this room, I must have complete control,” she continued callously. “That means that no matter what happens here, you mustn’t intervene.”
Her almond-shaped eyes stared at me expectantly until I nodded in agreement. The weight on the other end of the chair made it groan morosely as she turned it around. What met me on the other side of it was something I didn’t know what to make of, other than knowing I didn’t want to be any part of it.
A man slumped limply in the chair, barely being held in place by the tape. His skin was bloated and pale, but the faint rise and fall of his chest let me know he was alive. “This is Joel Richardson,” she began. “He’s been with us for the past two years. We’ve recently discovered some very alarming things on his cell phone: company file pictures, screenshots and the like. Obviously, we can’t have that happen. Unfortunately, there’s nothing we can do about the information that’s out there, but at least we can eliminate the source.”
“Source?!” I retorted. “This is a human being, Chandra. This man has a life, a home, bills…” I trailed off, feeling defeated and not knowing what else to say.
As always, my boss had an answer for everything. “You’re right. He does. Now, imagine throwing all of that away just to share a picture. Joel knew every bit of the consequences before he performed his actions. My sympathies ended the same time his disregard for the company did.”
The man roused as she said this, almost as if he knew he was the topic of conversation. His face went pallid, and his eyes bulged with fear at the sight before him. He began to sputter out questions, starting a new one before he’d finished the last. I could tell Chandra was becoming more annoyed with each one. “That’s enough now,” she snapped. He stilled at her command, but only slightly. “We just picked Joel up from the hospital, and he needs to eat,” she said aloud to no one in particular.
Chandra picked up a steaming spoonful of eggs, making an airplane noise as she guided it to his lips. She shoved them in just as he opened his mouth to reply.
Her movements were gentle and affectionate during the first portions. She fed each overloaded bite to him as if he was her starving infant, wiping the corners of his mouth lovingly between bites. Joel began squirming at the second helping of eggs, biscuits, bacon, sausage, toast and second carafe of orange juice. And who wouldn’t be? Even for a bigger guy, that was a hell of a lot of food. But something that she’d said earlier rang in my mind, becoming too loud for me to ignore. She’d said…weight loss surgery and gastric bypass.
Vomit protruded past the piece of bacon she’d just jammed in his mouth, spraying himself and the table before him. “Please…” he pleaded.
“Shut your damn mouth, Joel,” Chandra replied coldly as she shoved a rolled-up pancake into his mouth. Gobs of syrup ran down his chin, mixing with the sick already plastered to his stinking face. At this point, he attempted to turn away from her, refusing to eat another bite. If she’d just had him picked up, then his digestive system was still healing. If she weren’t careful, his stomach would burst, and he’d turn septic. Although there was a good chance that he’d choke on his food before getting to that point.
Clenching his jaw in her hands, she forcefully opened it wide, filling it with speckled vomit eggs and steaming sausage gravy. Joel hatefully spit it out in her face.
“EAT!” she bellowed with a voracity that made me cringe all the way at the other end of the elongated table. It seemed to grow longer each time that I stared at it. Sweat and tears of terror burned raw trails through the vomit encrusted on his fluffed cheeks as he cried out in protest. Chandra uncovered the single metal tray, unveiling a line of syringes. They were filled with a thick, clear substance.
Whatever was inside, Joel seemed to know exactly what it was. Invigorated by the adrenaline of fresh fear, he thrashed wildly in his seat. Chandra chuckled as it swiveled back and forth uncooperatively, its wheels repeatedly slamming into the plush carpeted floor. My lungs melted with dread, causing me to choke on what little saliva I could produce as she plucked one from the tray and walked towards Joel. My boss tore at his shirt with malicious annoyance until the fabric fell away, revealing a puffy red mess of small incisions that had become too irritated to heal.
She raised her hand high, pausing before plunging the needle into his stomach. Her hand shook with exertion as she forced the viscous liquid through the small opening in the needle. She repeated the process two more times before I jumped up to stop her.
Chandra waved a full syringe in my face as I approached her. “Do you want one too? You may not have diabetes, but that just means you’ll die slower,” she snapped. “Corn syrup is very bad for the body.”
I raised my hands to concede, returning to my place at the end of the table. Sure I could have overpowered her, maybe. But the sad fact was I’d always been terrified of needles, and a struggle would provide too many opportunities to get jabbed. A cacophony of guttural body sounds ripped through him as a puddle of his waste began to accumulate on the floor. Whatever appetite I’d had when I first walked in had disappeared along with this man’s dignity. I’d suspected she was going to kill him, but hearing her say it out loud made the situation – the danger – all the more real.
Joel had thankfully lost consciousness by now, his body likely settling into the early stages of shock. Chandra stared into my eyes triumphantly. “Do we understand each other, Mr. Gamblin?” I numbly agreed as I stood from the table. She smiled, straightened her blouse, and motioned for the exit door. “Have a great work week, Mr. Gamblin. We value all that you do here.”
In my panic and trauma, I’d opened the wrong door. Of course, I did, right? Because that’s how my life went. Awkward shit was always happening to me. Not only that, but now death seemed to follow me like a moonlit shadow. Anyway, the door I’d opened led to Chandra’s office. It wasn’t much, but when she’d found out about Joel’s release, she must have rushed out pretty fast. A stack of files lay open on her desk. I pulled out my phone to take pictures of them, but after seeing what just happened, I decided against it. Against my or any better judgment, I grabbed a handful, stuffed them into the inside of the jacket and left the building, taking the correct door this time.
The fear of my actions consumed me the moment I was out of the parking lot. If Chandra found out, surely I’d be killed…or worse. I just needed to stay safe, hide out somewhere until I could read it over.
This information may have won me a small battle, but the war on humanity still raged strong.
🎧 Available Audio Adaptations: None Available
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