The money was starting to run out when Tucker found the job. It was posted on Craigslist, under ‘Gigs’, and the pay was right. Hell, any pay would have been right, with the unemployment running out, and temporary assistance drying up. He’d been eating government cheese and peanut butter – the kind that separates when it sits for five minutes, and you’ve got to stir it like a mad chef beating an egg – and tasteless loaves of white bread better suited for insulation than nutrition. It was hard enough, trying to make rent and keep the lights on and find a way to the unemployment office, one more month on his current diet, and he’d just fling himself from the fifteenth story. Hell, he’d probably open his mouth on the way down – at this point, even pavement would taste better than another goddamn grilled cheese sandwich.
Tucker read the ad again.
OPENING: 8am-5pm, competitive wages, retirement. Candidate will be willing to sit for several hours at a time; have a strong affinity for detail; an ability to complete tasks on their own and report to a supervisor. Please be hygienic, smoke-free, and willing to submit to monthly examinations. Email resume to: firstname.lastname@example.org. EEOE.
He pulled up his resume and emailed the address, then shut the netbook. He’d thought about selling it, but instinct told him to hold onto it. Some things you need. This he needed for the job hunt. And porn, if he was honest. But he’d convinced himself it was really the job hunt, and if his Aunt Sheila knew what he really used it for, she’d beat him with it. Instead, he’d sold his iPod, and his collection of board games, and a few comics he’d collected over the years, but this he kept. Porn, no porn, a man needed a lifeline. He thought that if not for social media and masturbation, he’d have gone mad much sooner.
The netbook chimed, and Tucker frowned. That was quick, he thought. He cracked the lid and pulled up his email. There, in bold letters was his reply.
To: email@example.com (Tucker Kennedy)
From: firstname.lastname@example.org (Gustaf Carlson)
Subject: Re: Job
We’re glad you found our posting, and after reviewing your resume, would like to invite you to interview with us. Please appear at 931 Blackwood at 8am. Bring two sources of identification, and dress comfortably.
We look forward to meeting with you.
Tucker closed the netbook and let out a little whoop. He glanced at the clock on the counter – 9pm – and decided he’d crash early. Blackwood was about 10 blocks away, and while he could walk it, he didn’t want to show up sweaty, which meant catching a ride. He flicked the lights off in the kitchen and curled up on the futon, eyes drifting closed. For a moment, his brain flicked a thought at him, like a fisherman casting a lure.
You didn’t even ask what the job is.
Then it winked out as sleep took him.
931 Blackwood was a squat black building adjacent to an empty lot. Waist-high weeds overgrew the lot, though they were turning brown in the late autumn air, and Tucker could see a few short bushes with burrs clinging to their stiff bare branches, and grass the color of bile. He turned from the lot and opened the front door of the building, stepping into a warm hallway – almost too warm for his taste – a light sweat breaking on his forehead as his heavy peacoat was suddenly too thick. He was just deciding if he should wait or check one of the side doors in the hall when a tall Swede with a massive beard stepped from one and approached. He looked Tucker up and down and turned, gesturing for him to follow. Tucker stood still for a moment longer, but the big man wasn’t waiting for him, nor checking to see if he followed, so he found his feet, and hurried to catch up.
They entered a small conference room, the table a massive mahogany thing that ate nearly all the space and seemed to have its own gravity. The man sat, and Tucker found a chair across from him.
“You have papers?”
Not real big into small talk, then. The man had an accent, Norwegian, he thought, though Tucker was less interested in that than whether he had stepped into a murder factory. For a second, he had a vision of his body being rendered into soap and sausages and squashed it. He dug his birth certificate and driver’s license out and passed them to the man, who scrutinized them. After a minute of silence, he nodded and passed them back.
“Good. I am Mr. Ericsson.”
“Is Mr. Carlson here?”
Ericsson shook his head. “Not important. I have some questions.”
“Injuries, mental illness?”
“No, and no.”
Ericsson nodded, his face unreadable.
“You bring a phone?”
Tucker’s heart jumped. This was it. This was where they murder him. He was about to stand, about to say anything, when his stupid mouth betrayed him.
He was locked in. He hoped he’d make a tasty soup.
“Good. That’s good.” Ericsson stood and started out of the room. “Follow.”
Tucker made it to the door, his head swiveling toward the exit. He could run. He could keep looking. He could live. He turned his head to the big man, approaching the end of the hall. Not much of a life if you have to live on Ramen for the rest of it. Not much of a life if you have to spend it in the dark, or in an alley. He found his feet moving, carrying him to the end of the hall. Ericsson waited for him there.
The door at this end was heavy – steel with a porthole, bands of more steel riveted across it. The faint smell of antiseptic wafted under it, and a cool white light spilled out from the crack at the bottom. Ericsson looked him up and down.
“Payday is every other week.”
Tucker found his voice. Surely they wouldn’t make him into hot dogs if they were talking pay. “How much?”
“Five thousand a week.”
Tucker blinked. “What?”
Ericsson was opening the door, and didn’t hear. It was silent on steel hinges, and the smell of antiseptic grew stronger. The big man stood to the side, and Tucker stepped into the opening. His stomach turned.
A naked man sat strapped to a chair in the middle of a tile floor. Near to Tucker, a second chair sat empty. He turned to Ericsson, convinced he should run, he should find a phone and call the cops, he should flee and never look back as if his ass was on fire. Ericsson just stared back.
“He is okay.”
Tucker looked back. Five thousand a week.
“What do I have to do? Nothing gross, right? Nothing -” he swallowed. “Nothing bloody?”
Ericsson shook his head.
“You will watch him. Then you will tell us what you see.”
Tucker started into the room, the thought of the money moving his feet. Ericsson put a hand the size of a small ham on his shoulder, and Tucker halted. He looked back.
“Do not talk to him. Do not touch him. Go no closer than the chair.”
Tucker nodded and stepped fully into the room.
Ericsson’s voice echoed in the tile room before the door banged shut.
Tucker sat in the chair, waiting. After a moment, the sound of a bolt being slammed home rang through the room. He jumped, then blushed and cleared his throat, then looking around, settled into the chair.
The man across from Tucker was plain. He made Tucker think a little of vanilla yogurt – white and dull. Aside from the lack of any hair on his body, the man across from him could have been any middle-aged white guy from the city. Tucker looked him up and down, making mental notes. He was sitting down, but he guessed from where the man’s head came in comparison to his own, he was about average height. A slight paunch pooled around his lap, and his face was a bit pudgy, his chest not well-defined, his arms slack. Tucker couldn’t help himself and craned his neck a little. The man’s penis was flaccid and withdrawn, but he thought with some small satisfaction it was smaller than his. His eyes, brown as a Crayola, stared ahead, and he gave no indication that he recognized Tucker as in the room, or that he was there himself.
Tucker leaned back in his chair and sighed. It was going to be a long day.
His stomach rumbled. He’d had a breakfast bar on the way out, but in his mad scramble to get out the door and into a cab he’d forgotten to bring a lunch. He squirmed and wished he’d tucked a book into his shirt. Then again, that might have gotten him fired before they’d hired him. He turned his head, glancing at the porthole in the door, but it remained stubbornly closed. He turned back to the man in the chair. Tucker had thought he needed a name, rather than ‘the man’, so he had dubbed him ‘Red’. In his head, he’d been imagining the man with hair, and the picture of him with a shock of red perched atop his pasty white skin had made Tucker chuckle.
Tucker frowned. There was something atop the man’s head now – a brown stubble that hadn’t been there before. It seemed unlikely the man could grow hair that quickly, but there it was. He wondered if that was why Red was here. He was a mutant with the ability to grow luxurious locks of hair in a short amount of time, and they were harvesting it for those kids with alopecia. He snorted and looked again. Yes, there was a stubble there, a brown carpet that hadn’t been there before, and it looked thicker, even in the few seconds since he’d noticed it.
The room suddenly filled with the screeching of a klaxon, and Tucker nearly shit himself. He clapped his hands over his ears, and yelled for Ericsson, but his voice drowned in the tidal wave of sound. A second later, a deluge of steaming liquid splashed over Red’s body, the antiseptic smell nearly overpowering. Red opened his mouth and screamed, as though the liquid had pulled him from his catatonia, not stopping until the sound of the klaxon and the downpour did. Tucker’s ears rang in the ensuing silence.
“Shit!” he said aloud, and clapped a hand over his mouth, looking frantically at the door. No one seemed to notice, as it remained shut.
Red had returned to his obliviousness, and though it bothered him to no end, at least Tucker was no longer hungry. He squinted at the man, trying to figure what the purpose of the bath had been. He seized on it when he noticed the man’s head was bald again, no sign of the stubble that had once occupied it.
Five thousand a week, Tucker. Don’t flake out now. You can do this. Just watch the man and keep your mouth shut.
The stubble was back. Tucker’s stomach clenched, and he plugged his ears, waiting for the deluge. When it came, he weathered it best he could, and let out a long sigh when it was over. He looked over at the man.
This shit ain’t right.
Red didn’t respond.
The man’s eyes flicked to him. They seemed to focus, to notice for the first time. Red’s jaw worked, the lips trying to form words.
More movement, but no words.
“Why they got you here?”
The man gestured, motioning Tucker closer. He stayed put. He felt bad for the guy, but wasn’t sure he wanted to risk having an ear bitten off.
“Did you do something?”
Red shook his head. The stubble was back on his scalp and covering his chest. Tucker thought it looked like pubic hair – thick and curly and held together by wiry masses.
“Are they studying you?”
The man nodded.
“Can I get you anything?”
Red looked at the door, eyes flicking to the knob.
“Yeah, I don’t think I can get you out of here. But I might be able to bring you stuff.”
“Hurts.” The first word from Red’s throat was raspy, like barbed wire rusted to ruin.
“What does? That shit they dump on you?”
Red nodded. “Wrists, too.”
Tucker looked at the straps. He thought he could loosen them a little.
“Okay, man. I’m gonna loosen your straps. Don’t eat me.”
Tucker glanced at the door, but it remained stubbornly closed. He walked the short distance to Red and knelt, grabbing a strap. The hair coated the man’s arm now, and Tucker swore he could see it swaying gently, like algae in a current. It smelled of grass in the sun. Maybe that was a byproduct of the chemicals they were dumping on Red. He loosened the strap and went to sit back down.
The man nodded. He said nothing else. The klaxon sounded, and the antiseptic poured down over the man, washing his hair away. When it faded, Tucker sat, feeling a warmth in his chest. He might have pissed away the money, but he’d done something good. Maybe not the best thing he could have, but even small things counted.
Tucker collapsed into bed, too tired for even an evening jaunt onto the netbook. The exhaustion from sitting for nine hours surprised him – his legs and back ached, and there was a kink in his neck. In addition, he was getting a sore throat, probably from breathing in the chemical stink in the small room. When Ericsson had come to get him, he’d simply looked Tucker up and down, shut the door, and bolted it again. Tucker had expected questions, or an on-the-spot firing. Instead, the other man walked back to the conference room and left him to find his own way out.
He kicked off his shoes, hearing them hit the floor with a soft thud, and drifted off to sleep. Sometime in the night, he woke to a coughing fit, his throat blazing. That’s it, he thought. Those damn chemicals made me sick. He made a mental note to hit the clinic in the morning before work and fell off the cliff of sleep once again.
His heart hammered as he looked in the mirror. The stuff on his chin and jaw was thick, a carpet of brown that seemed to undulate with no outside influence. He rubbed it, and a cloud of dust rose into the air, drifting to rest gently on the mirror. It had grown overnight – not his usual beard stubble, but something supple and soft and warm. Tucker had tried taking a razor to it, but when he did, it reacted violently, going stiff and sending deep shooting pains into his neck. He wished he had a bucket of the stuff they were dumping on Red to dunk his head in, but that seemed like a ship that had sailed.
Okay, I just need to shower. Shower and rest. I can call in sick until I figure something out. Maybe they have something at the clinic.
He stripped down and stepped into the shower, the water warm and comforting. The stuff on his cheeks seemed to react well, and before long, he felt good – better than he had in a long while. He closed his eyes and sat under the water until he was wrinkly, then stepped out, taking his time toweling off. Even though the stuff on his cheeks had grown – he thought he looked like Captain Ahab now – and it was sprouting from his chest and legs, the panic didn’t come. They would have something at the clinic.
He dressed, though the clothing scraped against the growth and made him uncomfortable. Outside, he hailed a cab and rode the way to the clinic in silence, enjoying the sunshine and the warmth of the interior. The cabby was playing something – jazz? He didn’t hate it. He thanked the cabbie and tipped him, though the man took the money gingerly when he noticed the brown fuzz on Tucker’s fingers. Shrugging to himself, he entered the clinic, bright light and warmth coating him like a jacket.
He stepped to the reception desk. The receptionist was small and brunette, though neither of those things meant anything to him now. He could hear the sounds of people – other people in the room. A sniffle here, a polite cough there. He was so warm, and it was comforting. The receptionist looked up, her eyes going wide, and Tucker caught himself in a small mirror hung on the cabinets behind her, probably placed there so the nurses could fix their makeup, or a doctor his hair.
His face was almost completely occluded, the brown mass now a writhing colony. He opened his mouth to ask for help, and instead, a cloud of spores, brown and delicate, burst from his lips. They landed on the receptionist, and she screamed as they began to take root in her skin. Tucker spun, thinking to escape, thinking to not endanger anyone else, but it was so warm, so hot.
He ripped his jacket off and began to unbutton his shirt. The waiting room was chaos now, and some of the patients had fled, but others still sat, waiting. The hardcore addicts. The truly hurt. The ones who thought I’ve seen weirder shit in this city.
His shirt came away, and Tucker felt relief at the loss of sensation against his pods. He looked at the people still in the room and felt full. For the first time since he had started pinching pennies and scrabbling for food, he felt full. He needed to share it. He needed to let everyone know how it felt to be so near contentment.
With a sound like a wet bag tearing, Tucker burst, spores exploding from him like a piñata bearing the plague. They settled on the patients, inhaled by those walking past the doors, sucked into ventilation systems and sent spinning into the atmosphere.
Tucker’s last thought before darkness took him was a simple one: I am free.