“You’ve never told me why it likes skin,” said Jake. He sat resigned, exhausted against the cold cement wall.
“Why ask now, Meat Stick?” said the Neighbor. She turned her attention away from the metallic, red-stained tools she wiped down and toward Jake.
“You expect me to know why? Look at me.” He motioned his head down to his chained limbs in front of him. Jake’s right hand was wrapped in gauze from the forearm down. Within this, a red tint had risen to the surface, darker at the bottom, brighter higher up. The same area on his left arm sat unwrapped and scabbed-over from a similar affliction. “Just humor me.”
The Neighbor nodded approvingly and turned her head back toward the tools in front of her. “You eat much KFC?”
“What’s your favorite part of fried chicken?”
A slight shuffle came from the darkened corner of the basement to Jake’s left, and a hefty exhale followed.
Jake shifted his eyes toward the darkness.
* * *
Jake stumbled into an office that was not his. He sat down across from a face that looked strikingly like his own and put his fingers on his left temple. The similarities didn’t stop at the face; it had the athletic build, the relative age, and the same aggravated countenance.
The office held two photos that featured both Jake and his slightly older brother, James, among many others that were faced outward, welcoming anyone who might find themselves in Jake’s position. One of the photos was of the entire family: Jake, James, Mom-Anita, Dad-Alan, and Dog-Achilles. The other was just Jake and James but at an age when James could hold a catfish that was the length of his legs. Jake lay sleeping in the captain’s seat with his pole-tip in the water and Dad’s sunglasses covering his eyes.
James leaned forward onto his desk. “How you feeling this morning?”
Jake looked as if he were thinking his way through the floor and said, “Flummoxed.”
“Flummoxed,” said James.
Jake looked satisfied with his answer and nodded his head.
“Do you know what ‘flummoxed’ means, Jake?”
James leaned back and instinctively mirrored Jake’s positioning in his chair. “You know that’s a verb, right?”
“Hmm,” said Jake. “Yeah, but I feel more like that word sounds.” He sliced his right hand through the air in the form of what could have been a sound wave as he pronounced, “fa-leh-micksed.”
“Are you drunk right now, Jake?”
“Yeah… Just residually, though. I think.”
“Well how much did it take to put you in this position, on the other side of my desk, where the other employees come in here for usually not-so-good reasons?” asked James.
Jake re-entered deep-think mode and sat up in his chair, leaning forward on his knees. He looked around the office again as if it had recently been remodeled and remembered that the bookcase to his left smelled something like fresh mulch when it rained, or maybe it was just because the window was always open during inclement weather. Jake dug his heels into the earthy brown carpet as he had done before.
“Nine,” said Jake, but he was not as satisfied with this answer and his brother could tell.
“Nine,” said James.
“…plus or minus three.”
“Oh, so it could have been six. Or twelve. That’s a one hundred percent markup in beers, going from six to twelve. You realize that, right?”
Jake was thinking through the floor to China at this point. “No, it definitely was not six. I remember getting to six and moving right along.” He repeated his flummoxed motion except much quicker. “And they weren’t beers,” he added.
“You’re an asshole,” said James.
Jake shrugged a slight shoulder and circled the office with his eyes. “I’m not an asshole,” he said.
At this point, James had perched the upper-half of his body, raptor-like, onto his desk as if he could spring right over the mahogany at any second. “Look at you, man,” said James. “You’re my younger brother—”
“Nine months younger, asshole.”
“Jake, still, it always felt like more than that. Do you even have an excuse this time?”
“Take your pick. What’s your favorite?”
“This is serious. I put my god damned neck out on the line to give you some responsibility around here and the more you fuck up, the more it looks like simple nepotism. The more it looks like nepotism…”
“I personally liked when I came in and said I tripped, fell, and landed in a huge-ass bottle of whiskey…”
“…the less respect people have for this company…”
“…I was drunk when I said that, though…”
“…the less respect people have…”
“Ha… or the time with the hooker at Red Lobster with…”
Jake stopped looking around the office and realized James was close to tears. His face was beet-red.
“Stop it, man. I love you. Okay? I do,” James said. “But I’m out of options. I can’t have you back here until you clean up. I just can’t.”
“When’s the last time you called Mom?” Jake’s response was quick and James looked slightly put-off.
“Not now. I can’t do this now,” said James.
“You’re all she asks about, you know. I call every day. She tells me about playing Wii bowling with her neighbors down the hall…”
“Fucking quit it.”
“… and she cries about Dad. Mom doesn’t stop crying about Dad, man.” James had retreated back to a slouch in his chair, closer to breaking down than before. Jake’s face was blank but he kept eye contact with his brother. “And then she asks about you. ‘How’s Jamie?’ or ‘Tell Jamie I love him’ or ‘I have Jamie’s clothes folded on his bed’. I just answer her as best I can. Then she hangs up.”
James was in full tears. “Look, I’ll call her, okay? I will. Soon.” He wiped his eyes off and sat back closer to his desk. Jake still had not broken eye contact. “Come over tonight. Kate and I will make dinner and you can hang at our place and we’ll help you figure shit out, alright?”
Jake sat for a second longer, not answering his brother, then stood up and walked to the door. “I love you too,” he said, and left the office.
* * *
Jake woke up on a mattress with clean sheets. He opened his eyes and sat up, unsure of the time of day at first. It was too dark. He tried to stretch his eye muscles and turn his head but all he could see was darkness.
“No shit… I’m blind,” Jake said to himself, as he was wont to do from time to time.
“You’re not blind, Meat Stick,” said a clear female voice in front of him and to his right.
Jake was not altogether surprised to hear a voice. Once he heard it, certain flashes came back to him. Walking from his place to James’s on a bright day. A woman watering flowers two houses down from James. Then a gap. Lights. A basement. Something moving.
A switch was flipped and a single set of florescent lights came to life to Jake’s right. The lights were placed over a large hardware table and chair, and only illuminated that area. The rest of the room remained in pitch darkness. As Jake’s eyes strained to compensate for the flood of light, he looked at the table and began to make out the tools that the woman kept there. Jake felt dwarfed by the shop table and could only see about half of the items. What tools Jake did see— a syringe, two vials filled with clear fluid, one that was empty and sitting on its side and a large cheese grater— let the burning-cool liquid, fear, flow between his muscle fibers and exit in droplets through his skin. Jake tried to take in the rest of his surroundings and lifted his arms. They were chained at the elbows and connected to the cement wall behind him.
“Those are protecting you, not me,” the woman said, as she descended the stairs in front of Jake and sat on the chair at the worktable mere feet from him. The echo of her voice suggested the basement to be of considerable size. When she came into the light, Jake could recognize her as the gardener he passed outside. She still wore her gardening gloves, loose-fitting jeans, light blue jacket, and a worn baseball cap. Jake saw an intense beauty sneak around the lines of age in her face. The gravest oddity was the indifference with which she looked at him which, at times, came across as a look of inexplicable, impenetrable madness.
Jake, still dazed, could not muster anger through the fog in his blood. “My protection… What are you talking about?”
“I’m saying you’re not the only thing down here. Were you to come out of your bindings, I don’t think you would make it to the stairs.”
Jake could not find words to say, and instead only thought of one word: flummoxed.
The woman stood up and headed back up the stairs. She reached for the light switch and Jake, slowly coming out of his drug-induced daze, finally asked, “Wait. Who are you?”
“I’m a neighbor, a neighbor and a mother. One more thing—” she turned to Jake as if to make her point all the more clear, “I can’t feed it right now because it ate something else this morning. I shouldn’t change the makeup of its diet in the same day. This means it’s a bit restless. Now, it knows it is not to come to your side of the basement, but I suppose there is nothing stopping it should it decide to venture over. And if it does, it will be cranky. When it gets cranky on me, I sing to it and it goes right to sleep. If you hear it coming any closer, I suggest you start singing. This will make all of our lives much easier. I don’t want to come down here in the morning and see you in twelve different places. You hear me, Meat-Stick?”
Jake did not answer the Neighbor and she turned out the light. He heard a solid thud on the top step and the give in the linoleum floor above. A door above the steps was shut with care as not to disturb the household. Jake then continued to hear soft steps slowly retreating to a silence. In the pure dark, Jake sat—eyes as wide open as his body would allow—scanning the black. Jake heard a skittering of nails on the cold concrete and a guttural noise that did not seem to come from too far a distance. He wanted to remain silent, to not give away where he sat, but he remembered the Neighbor’s warning and began to sing:
“Five little ducks went out to play, over the hills and far away…”
* * *
Jake had not slept in hours. It fed, it slept, he slept, it woke, he sang, he ate, it slept, he stayed awake. He got used to this routine in an amount of time he could only calculate as “long.” He knew it ate regularly and he thought he remembered something about it feeding in the morning.
“5 a.m., probably,” Jake whispered. “Maybe p.m.? What do you think over there, sleepy?” Controlled breathing from the corner was the only answer to Jake’s question. Jake flexed his right hand and felt the skin crack and leak as it stretched. His left hand had healed to the point of fleshy recognition and his upper arm was bandaged this time. The Neighbor would only take so much a day, always from a fresh spot on his arms, then would wait until a wounded area was relatively healed to go back and harvest again.
Jake heard the linoleum give under the pressure of soft steps above. “Must be a.m.”
The door opened softly and the Neighbor’s descent was masked by the slippers she wore on certain mornings. She flipped the light switch on. She was wearing a white robe and wringing the water out of her black hair. Jake had begun some days ago to fantasize about the Neighbor. With little else to do, he would create elaborate scenes in his head, often involving this type of attire and playing with the many meanings of Meat-Stick, but these fantasies did not sit well with Jake. Beside the fact that she was his captor, the fantasy relationship came off as incestuous in his mind. Jake couldn’t forget the Neighbor’s description of herself as “a neighbor and a mother.”
“Good morning,” said Jake, as the Neighbor reached the bottom of the stairs.
“…fucking meat-stick,” she muttered, not making eye contact. Jake smirked at her response. “What’s so funny?” she asked, grabbing a bottle of hand lotion from the blind side of the shop table.
Jake did not answer and she threw the bottle in his direction. He looked up at her with an incredulous look on his face as this was the first time she offered this sort of luxury.
“Don’t make me say it. You know what to do,” she said. Jake opened the bottle and began to apply the cool cream to his afflicted areas.
“So what are you going to do with me?” asked Jake.
“I’ve told you,” said the Neighbor.
“But you haven’t done anything yet. I’m still here.”
“Because I’m not done with you.” The Neighbor sat on the stool and filled a syringe with the contents of a vial.
“So when will you be done?”
“I’m not going to go through this shit with you every other morning. I’m done when I’m done. It’s done when it’s done. Then I’ll throw you back out to whatever you were doing before you became useful.”
“Well why don’t you throw me some pleasure food every now and then? This fucker gets all the good shit and I’m stuck with whatever you can find under your toilet.” Jake threw a small pebble he found on the cement floor toward the darkened corner.
“I don’t feed you that poorly, now do I? I give you what you need to survive and what it needs to survive off of you. Hey, I could just decide to give a shit less about the both of you and feed you next to nothing.” Her right hand she firmly planted on one hip in a clear position of authority.
Jake thought for a second and once again flexed his healing limbs. “You call this care? The least you could do is feed that thing something healthier than skin. You equated me to KFC at one point, right? Quit giving it bullshit and give it what it needs.”
“Oh, and what exactly does it need, Meat-Stick?”
“A good lump outta Momma’s aging ass would be my first suggestion.”
The Neighbor removed her hand from her hip and let out the first amused smirk that Jake saw in some time. Jake could not help but feel relief and surprise at the sight of her relaxed facial expression. The Neighbor did not respond to his jibe as she exacted her measurements. Jake continued to study her face, seeing the warmth of a smile in the corners of her lips. He grew slightly aroused while trying to keep down a feeling of longing, not just for her body, but for her presence.
In an instant, Jake imagined the scenery transforming to a green wooded park, him sitting on an old quilt, the Neighbor kneeling in front of him lathering blood-red jam on a piece of rye bread, a shuffle coming from a gathering of bushes to his left. “Here’s lunch, sweetie,” said the Neighbor, handing Jake a plate with a soft, curling smile. “Now for your better half.” The Neighbor whistled and came at Jake with the same stained cheese grater. “It’s okay, Mama’s here,” she said. Jake snapped out of it and was once again in the basement.
“What if I told people?” said Jake.
“I’m sure you will tell people. Tell everyone. Won’t be here.” The Neighbor grabbed her syringe, a green colander, and the cheese grater, and sat down in front of Jake.
“I could take that needle from you, plunge it into your neck and then grate your face off, you know,” said Jake. He did not believe himself and her face suggested she felt the same way.
“And then what? Would you just wait for me to wake up?”
“What if you didn’t wake up?”
“You know what would happen if you got out of those chains or I didn’t feed it, so stop acting so fucking stupid.” She stuck the needle into Jake’s arm and grabbed the grater. Jake had only begun to feel the narcotic effects of the drug but the Neighbor was coming at his arm with the grater.
“Hey. Hey. HEY!”
She took no notice of Jake’s flailing and took one quick swipe down the inside of his right arm. Four pieces of skin of differing sizes sloughed off through the grater and curled into the colander.
“God damn it, I’m not asleep yet!”
“You’re pissing me off this morning,” said the Neighbor as she got up and walked slowly toward the darkened corner of the basement where it was waiting. “Hey baby… Mommy’s okay. It’s mealtime. Come on, sleepy, Mommy’s making it fresh.”
Jake heard this exchange as the pain dwindled and he could feel the disquieting comfort of sleep overtake him. He saw the Neighbor come back his way leading behind her what could have been many thin, non-weight supporting appendages spanning the width of the room, but he wasn’t sure given his wavering consciousness. “But… I just put lotion on that spot,” he said as his eyes went dark.
* * *
Jake woke up in a grassy front yard, his back to a wooden picket fence and facing a house that felt too familiar. The light that came through the second he opened his eyes was so intense that he threw his body down on the ground and smashed his face into the area between two fence posts. A sensational burn crept through both his arms and Jake then remembered his wounds and how slowly he needed to move when he woke up as not to break the skin too much.
It took Jake a few minutes to feel around and recognize this area as grass and not a wet mattress sheet. He sat back up against the wooden fence to make sure he was really where he thought he was. Upon deciding he was out, in the daylight, still only yards from the spot he could last remember seeing the outdoors, Jake checked his pockets and found that his belongings—keys, pen, lighter, cell phone and wallet—were all where he usually kept them. Jake fumbled through his pockets, cracking what felt like every single scab on each hand and grabbed his cell phone. He jumped to his feet and wobbled his way to the sidewalk. Once on the concrete, Jake started to walk opposite the way of both the house and also his brother’s home. Jake looked at his phone, turned it on, and scrolled through the contact list before settling on the one that read “Mom”.
On the fifth ring, Jake’s mom answered. “Good afternoon?” she said, through an old, labored voice.
“Mom, it’s Jake,” he said, still walking.
“Jake, honey, how are you doing? How was vacation?”
Jake realized someone probably told her this in light of his absence. He did not know whether to hope James had talked to her about it or to be upset that he lied when he finally spoke to her.
“Vacation… It was alright, Mom.”
“I bet it was better than alright. I hope you took your sunscreen this time; you always got so burnt in the sun, and we could not hold you down to put it on you.”
“Still haven’t learned. I’m practically a lobster.” Jake twisted his wrist, breaking more skin. “Was it James that told you I was leaving? I’m sorry. I meant to call you beforehand but everything piled up so quickly and I didn’t have cell service while I was gone.”
“Well, to be honest, I was a little upset you didn’t tell me where you were going.”
Jake smiled through his soreness.
“And yes, it was Jamie that told me about it. He always calls to tell me what you’re up to.”
Jake’s smile was fleeting and was replaced by an anger he could not contain.
“James never calls you, mom. I call you. Every day.”
“Jake, I have not talked to you in months. Even before your trip. I don’t even know if you’ve been working, or if you have a girlfriend, or if you’ve been taking care of the house. I know everything Jamie’s been doing. I love hearing about my boys, both of them. Since Dad passed… I… ” Her voice began to trail off and sputter.
“That’s because I told you everything about James! You always ask about him and not me. You don’t know anything about my life because I don’t have one. I work—used to work—for James, I have no girlfriend but plenty of girls, I drink the same brand of whiskey Dad used to drink every day, and I just woke up outside of a house where a lady was skinning my arm and feeding it to something she keeps in her basement.” Jake had nearly wrung open every scab on his arm.
“Oh, Jake,” his mother’s voice had recovered, “no need to be so dramatic. That’s not how you get attention. And what do you mean ‘used to work’ for Jamie? Did he lose his company? What happened to him?”
“Nothing happened to him, mom! He fired me! His company is A-OK. Don’t you worry your little head about it, Momma. I’ll get a hold of Jamie and have him call you and tell you all about it.”
“Thanks sweetie. It sure is nice to—”
Jake hung up the phone.
* * *
Jake sat in his car outside of a house that looked altogether welcoming, warm, and humble. It reminded him of his family’s first home before his father passed, except it wasn’t the same house. Jake slouched in the driver seat and wiped the foam off of his pants as he cracked a new beer. With one swipe of his eyes, from left to right, Jake could see the house that felt so much like a home and then glimpse James’s perfect family abode right next door.
There were only a couple of details that broke the illusion of tranquility. One was the line of police tape across the Neighbor’s sidewalk, front yard, and porch. Another was the hedgerow, lined by flowers of species that Jake would have never been able to guess, which showed obvious signs of neglect. Bulbs of pink and yellow drooped and browned and were being overtaken by the decaying hedge behind.
It didn’t take long for Jake to finish his beer and toss it into a pile on the floorboard to his right. “Ah… fuck it,” he said to himself, as he worked up the strength to lift his impaired body out of the door and onto the sidewalk. He moved too quickly opening the door and the skin on his left hand crackled and split apart in more than one place. Standing in the street across from the flowers and police tape, Jake looked both ways and lumbered across the street.
“Didn’t stop shit, did you?” Jake tossed the two rows of police tape over his head. He entered the house through the unlocked front door without hesitation and didn’t think about his decision to do so until he shut the door behind him.
Jake had never seen the upstairs of this house. He was unconscious when he arrived, unconscious when he left. It looked normal, and this did not surprise Jake. He looked around and saw a regular, two-story suburban house, except with no furniture, no decorations, and no sign of ever being lived in by an actual person. To his left was what could have been a family room, to his right, a not-so-ornate dining room. Next to the steps, straight ahead, wooden floorboards led to the kitchen and back yard. Jake walked down that thin hall toward the kitchen and saw a door slightly ajar to his right. He knew where this door led, and how he might feel when he opened it. Jake knew that the police had scoured the area but he could not be sure that there was no secret room somewhere that might allow the Neighbor and her thing a place to hide while the cops searched the property. Or might she have just left the thing behind?
“What did she say? ‘We won’t be here.’ She won’t be here,” he muttered aloud.
Jake tapped his fingers on the doorknob, closed his eyes, and whipped the door open, letting a rush of musty basement air vacuum its way up the steps. The basement was dark as ever. He reached out to both sides of the walls for a switch. He had to take two steps down the stairs to find it on his left. When flipped, the only lights that flickered on were the fluorescent bulbs, only they had no wooden workstation or mattress to illuminate.
Jake descended the rest of the way toward his old corner of the room without much hesitation. He felt relatively safe in this corner of light as he stood in it and looked out toward the blackness that held his former and possibly current roommate. Jake thought he heard the muffled steps of the Neighbor above, coming down to collect the thing’s lunch. He was not sure if he felt alone and he wanted above all else to see if he still was. Jake felt the need to find what had fed on him for so long, what was too cowardly to ever come out of the dark and what drove the attention of the Neighbor, leaving Jake as just a resource.
Not scared but almost angry, Jake walked forward into the dark opposite corner of the room. He took six steps, which felt more like twenty, and came to an abrupt stop as his right foot smacked something solid and hard in front of him. He put out his hands and felt the cold, rough cement wall. Extending both arms away from their point of contact with the wall, Jake was able to tell that he was in the exact opposite corner of the room. He turned around and saw what the thing probably saw every single day: a light that illuminated some steps and a harsh corner of an unfinished basement. Jake’s former corner looked so far away it could have sat in another time or world. The effect of the darkness around his corner’s light gave him a sense of tunnel vision, of being somewhere in which Jake was only a spectator to an atrocity.
Still not scared, and becoming angrier, Jake walked into the dark again and came to an abrupt stop as the ground below his feet became soft and plushy like a firm waterbed. Jake looked down to no avail, laboriously picked up his right foot, and went a few inches forward. The ground was still soft, but now accompanied by one large and a few small pops. Twigs snapping on the ground in the forest during autumn. He brought his left foot forward and heard and felt the same, queasy sensation. Reaching out in front of him, Jake jammed his fingertips into a cold cement wall. He turned around and sloshed through the mess, determined to find some sort of light source. Jake swept his hands along the back wall, his forearm eventually running into a hanging string. “Here we go,” he said.
An incandescent bulb popped to life above Jake’s head and caused a white flash through his field of vision. Recovered, squinted, Jake looked down to the mess under his feet. It was localized, relegated to the exact corner that the thing had probably occupied.
“Of course, it’s blood. Oh, and bone. Look at that there, maybe some fur. And a small kitten. How about that,” said Jake, letting the pool of gelatinous entrails, tissue, and hair pool up and around his boots.
“What the fuck?” Jake could not dickhead his way out of this situation and jumped out of the mess. Hunched over, he vomited a white spray of foamy beer and rested his hands on his knees.
Unable to take his eyes off this abomination, Jake noticed a folded note, still white and clean and placed near the middle of the pile. Jake squinted, covered his face with his bleeding left hand, and crept toward the note.
Coming right up to the pile, Jake peered over the paper and noticed written on the front in cursive, all-capital letters, the words: MEAT STICK.
“Fuck me.” Jake picked up the note like it would bite him, and jumped back from the pile of innards once again.
He opened the paper and tilted it toward the lightIt read:
PUT THIS HERE THIS MORNING, FIGURED YOU’D BE BY. WELL, YOU WOULDN’T ACTUALLY KNOW WHICH MORNING IT WAS NOW WOULD YOU? WHATEVER. IF THIS DOESN’T REACH YOU IT’S NOT LIKE IT MATTERS.
YOU KNOW EXACTLY WHAT WAS UNDER THIS NOTE DON’T YOU? OF COURSE YOU DO. YOU MAY HAVE BEEN A DRUNK, BUT YOU WEREN’T TERRIBLY FUCKING STUPID.
SO I KILLED IT.
IT WAS PITIFUL. A MISERABLE THING. JUST EATING SKIN. BEING FED, NOT HUNTING. I KEPT IT FROM HUNTING. IT WAS MY FAULT BUT I DIDN’T CARE. IT WAS USELESS.
YOU HAD A USE. YOU WERE FOOD FOR IT. PURPOSE. MORE THAN YOU HAD BEFORE. I KILLED IT BECAUSE IT WAS PURPOSELESS AND I HELPED IT GET THAT WAY.
DON’T GET KILLED. I MAY FIND ANOTHER THING ONE DAY.
Jake took a few minutes and read and reread the note from the Neighbor. As he read it for at least the tenth time, a shuffle came from upstairs. Someone had walked inside. Jake just stood still. He was trapped and knew it. Whatever would come down those stairs would come down.
The steps got closer and a boot became visible at the top step.
“Jake! Are you down here?” It was James.
The anvil masquerading as Jake’s heart slowed. “I’m here.”
James made his way down the steps, a new addition to the hotel room from Hell that Jake had stayed in. He walked over toward Jake, staring first at him and then at the pool of Thing in the corner.
Jake saw that his brother was terrified.
“Jake,” said James, “what the fuck are you doing down here, and what the fuck is that!”
“I’ll explain,” Jake said in a calm voice. “But we really need to talk, brother.”