by Keith Dugger
Thick blood circled the bathroom sink, a red swirl drifting down a black hole.
Out of sight... J. J. McAlester, Mac, pushed the dull steak knife to the back of the vanity. The cheap Formica countertop was dotted with dried blood. Some spots were lighter than others, some were days old. All were a testament to the horrors of a punishing daily routine.
Mac shivered like a puppy after its first bath. The digital thermometer beeped, 103.4. He stuck out his tongue, searched it for clues to his fever, and chuckled. Holding up the pint-sized Mason jar, Mac gazed at the tiny man through a filter of bloodshot eyes. It was Day 47, he was hung over again, and he was scanning the features of the 46th tiny man in a jar for a sign. Anything different enough to mean something.
The man in the jar watched him unblinking and silent just like the others. These were not tiny babies waiting to learn to walk, talk, and grow up to be president someday. No, these were fully grown men wearing nothing but wool fedoras and silver rings on their index fingers.
The first time Mac dug one of the bastards out of his arm, he panicked. Before he could even comprehend that he’d just birthed a two-inch man from a pustule of pus, he stuffed it down the kitchen sink and flipped on the garbage disposal. He thought he’d heard a scream. Maybe he’d wanted to hear it scream.
On Day 2, he scratched a boil on his neck in his sleep. The next morning, Mac found the second man sitting on his chest, waiting for him to wake up. After that, he kept them all.
Every day since, Mac would find a new boil, blister, or pus sack somewhere on his body. If he popped it, even if he ignored it, he had another two inch man to bottle and store.
“What the fuck do you want with me? Little piss ant,” Mac said. He shook the jar, swirling the man like a bottled tornado, wanting it to yell or curse or just scowl. As with his other 46 brothers, the little man didn’t speak, or blink, or react. Mac didn’t feed them. He tried to drown them. He didn’t pierce air holes in the flat jar lids and the inside didn’t fog up. They didn’t die.
Mac took the pint-size Mason jar to the kitchen and put it on the shelf above the refrigerator along with the others.
He called them Larry. All of them.
• • •
“Does it do tricks, Mac?” Gabe slid to the edge of the wooden dinette chair and leaned close, inspecting the Mason jar Mac had put in the center of the table.
Mac pushed him back at the shoulder. “Don’t be an idiot. It doesn’t do anything.”
“Where’d ya get it?” They both crossed their arms and looked at the man in the jar. If Gabe were six inches taller, forty pounds lighter, and bald, he and Mac would look like twins sitting there scowling at Mac’s prisoner.
“I woke up with the shit sitting on my chest.” Mac didn’t mention the others. Gabe couldn’t stop staring at the damn jar.
“Does it talk?”
Mac adjusted his baseball cap. “Dude. It doesn’t do anything. It just stands there, it doesn’t blink, it doesn’t flinch. Hell, I don’t think it sleeps.”
Gabe gulped his beer. “I think it’s the Canadians.”
“You know, they spy on us, patiently waiting. Canada’s been wanting to take us down for years. They could’ve had us during the Cold War, but they waited too long. Once Reagan...”
“Shut it, Gabe. Larry’s not a Canadian spy.”
Gabe snickered and pointed the neck of the beer bottle Mac’s direction. “Larry. I bet he’d call the cops if he knew you named a little naked man in a jar after him.”
“Larry’s an ass.”
“Buddy, he stole your girlfriend at the 1986 spring dance. Only you hold onto shit like that.”
“He’s still an ass.” And anyway, Mac thought, Gabe only knew half the story.
• • •
Tap, tap, tap.
Mac had fallen asleep on the couch, passed out drunk, really. A string of drool quivered from the corner of his mouth as he snored.
It was Day 97. Mac stayed drunk until he slept then started a new day, digging out another Larry and taking another drink. Bandages, Band-Aids and neck ties covered his arms and legs where he’d tried to keep the infection away. Open sores and pus riddled his bare chest and face. The house reeked of the color green.
The jelly jars his mom had stored in the basement were almost gone, the shelf above the refrigerator was full, two rows high. Almost a hundred days into his hell, Mac had every counter top lined with jars; he’d started stacking them in the corner by the open pantry next to a dead Ficus tree in a clay pot.
Tap, tap, tap.
Mac shifted on the blue vinyl couch; in his dream the men mocked him. Ninety six Larry’s tapped on their glass prisons with silver rings trying to raise Mac, scare him, anything to make him move. They tapped in unison, in time with a dark conductor visible only to them.
Tap, tap, tap!
They chased him through shiny corridors of metal walls and floors of his nightmare; the skin of their feet flopping against the smoothness of the floor, their teeth chattering like the echoes of silverware on stemware announcing a toast.
“To the chase!” They yelled. Or didn’t.
Their fedora-topped heads bobbed together, rockin’ to the metal-on-glass rave beat they’d created. The smallest portion of their tiny mouths looked to be upturned in an almost smile, yet in his alcoholic dream-haze they glared at him solemnly.
The tapping echoed through Mac’s fight to wake up. He could feel the rattle of their jars bouncing across the counter, the floor, the table.
Mac writhed in a half-sleep state as the trilling soaked into his mushy brain.
Tap, tap, tap.
“Wake up,” a tiny voice whispered.
He opened his eyes, stayed stiff on the couch and stared at the ceiling. Was the voice real? he wondered dazedly. He darted his eyes over the popcorn-textured surface, hoping he was still asleep.
The tapping roared through the house like a freight train squealing off its tracks toward a dead man’s curve. Mac sat up, suddenly very much awake. The house was quiet. The Larry’s stood frozen in place. Mac’s heart reached through his chest and beat at him; he wondered if the noise that woke him was only a part of the dream.
I need another beer.
• • •
Mac rifled through the sixteen basic cable channels he’d ripped from the old lady next door. He’d managed to keep all the Larry jars racked and stacked in the eat-in kitchen behind him. He clicked and paused through every channel.
He swatted at a gnat-like buzzing near his ear.
The crowd roar of a soccer match kept him on the sports channel. He adjusted himself, took a drink of beer, and mumbled something under his breath.
“Goal!” The announcer stretched out over the stadium’s sound system. The crowd blew into their vuvuzelas, imitating the sound of a million locusts. Mac turned his face away from the television and flicked the off button. The buzzing spread around his head, an invisible swarm attacking his sanity. He slapped at the nonexistent locusts, or gnats, or mechanical bees, and felt them crawling over his infection-pocked body. He clawed at the pink skin between infected holes with ninety-day growth fingernails packed with skin oil, pus, dirt, and his own blood.
The swarm intensified. Mac fell to the floor, twitching uncontrollably. He continued to claw at his face, arms, chest, trying to get the bugs off him for good. He held his ears, felt a warm liquid dripping down his rough beard. When he saw the blood on his hands, he screamed.
“What the hell do you want with me?” He grabbed the remote and turned on the TV. Commercial. Yet the vuvuzela sound rushed down his throat, physically gouging his insides like a plumber’s snake. Mac turned off the TV, desperately, uselessly, threw the remote at the blank screen. It shattered and its pieces floated to the hardwood floor in a slow-motion blur. The locusts, gorging themselves on his imagination, drilling at his ears with the pain of a thousand power tools, grew even louder.
Mac pulled at his throat, gagging for air. The deafening sound, the touch of razor-sharp barbed legs of nothing, and the simple thought that he was being eaten alive made him need to scream, to exorcise his demons. His chest burned as he frantically tried to gasp for even a single breath. He passed out.
He was partially aware, even unconscious. He could feel the wetness of his released bladder embrace him as he lay face down on the floor. He heard the scratching of the pain tearing at the underside of his skull. He thought he saw the Larry’s fondling their thimble-shaped peckers. When they stopped their miniature masturbation, the swarm stopped too. They each turned in the jars just enough to see him face down on the floor. And watched.
• • •
Day 101. Mac’s fever was over 104. He’d stopped showering, and his birthing canals were oozing green pus that slicked over his body like a silicon glove of death. His lesions weren’t healing. They dripped and leaked, staining every porous surface in the house. The roof of his mouth flexed as he ran his tongue over the new bump. Another Larry was crowning its head, ready to pop out of the zit in his mouth. He coughed back the idea of being a father to another of these hellions and shoved the thought under the pain of his headache.
Larry pushed his way onto Mac’s tongue anyway, and Mac retched out the bastard into a metal sieve to filter out the stomach bile. He grabbed Larry by the midsection, still dripping with putrid acid, and rummaged through cabinets looking for a vacant Mason jar.
He’d used the last one in the kitchen for Larry number 99.
Mac puked twice more as he carried Larry down the wooden stairs to the basement. The aged wood flexed and squeaked under his weight; he pulled the chain on the single-bulb light in the middle of the room. Pink yard flamingos, perfectly aligned in two rows of ten, stood watch over the men, their plastic windmill wings turning in time with a calming, yet unreal wind. They squeaked at each revolution. Dozens of flytraps unfurled in honor of the dead swayed from the ceiling joists, dotted with thousands of flies. Some were dead, some still twitched a hold on just one more minute of life. Those alive buzzed an erratic static beat off-time to the pink flamingo wing squeaks.
A man sitting at the bottom of the stairs squeezed his eyes closed and tried to turn his head away from the in-rush of even the low wattage light. Tree-shaped air fresheners dangling from fishing line circled him in a forest of pine scent.
“Well, if it isn’t J.J. McAlester. Coming to check on your house guest?” His voice was gritty and he squinted through the blue swelling of black eyes in Mac’s general direction.
Mac retrieved the last Mason jar from a water-stained cardboard box on the floor. Other empty boxes were piled to the side.
“Just putting my friend away,” Mac said, nodding at the little Larry.
“You can’t leave me down here forever, Mac, ya know,” he said, watching Mac push another man into another jar.
Mac tightened the ring sealing the jar and set it on the clothes dryer. “I’ll keep you here until I’m tired of fucking with you, Larry.” He threaded through the flytraps timidly like a virginal trip to a five-dollar hooker. Mac hadn’t had a real woman in over a decade.
“You look like shit, ya know. Guilt diggin’ at ya?” Larry sniffed, his sinuses gurgling. “And you stink like gangrene.”
“You’re one to talk. Your breath could strip varnish.”
“Killing me won’t bring her back. It wasn’t my fault, ya know.” Mac flinched at Larry’s bad habit sentence endings.
“You were drunk, you bastard. You took her from me and killed her. How is that not your fault?”
Larry, a five-foot-ten version of the little men cooped up in Mason jars, looked at Mac, almost pleading with him through his swollen eyes. He weakly pulled at the bindings securing his arms and legs to the cane-bottom chair.
“I was 17! What I did was wrong, but you know she wouldn’t want to see you this way. She loved you, too, ya know.”
Mac swung a half-hearted backhand across Larry’s face. “Don’t. Just don’t.” He was tired of cutting him, beating him, and hurting him. Mac was tired of trying to make him pay for what he’d done nearly 20 years ago.
“I just want you to die and erase yourself from my memory so I can be drunk in peace,” he hissed through clenched teeth.
A stage light focused on the end of an empty shelf just as 12 mice dressed in tuxedos walked out in a mouse cabaret, alternating legs kicking up and out. Their bow ties untied, their top buttons unbuttoned.
Mac’s fever jutted its tendrils deeper into his uncertainty, and he didn’t see the man in the Mason jar on the dryer rocking side to side behind him. Just a few shoulders to the side of the jar, and it was rolling across the metal lid toward the edge.
“You better catch that, ya know,” big Larry said, cocking his head toward the dryer.
Before Mac could understand, before he could turn and stop the jar from wobbling off the dryer, he heard it shatter on the cement floor. Glass shards scattered out, little hardened lightning bolts waiting for an unsuspecting bare foot. Mac’s bare foot. He unconsciously snapped in time with the flamingo beat.
The naked, two-inch tall Larry wearing nothing but a Fedora, sprinted across the cold floor and disappeared under the storage unit across from Mac’s hostage.
Upstairs, 99 glass jars broke apart at the same moment.
“Shit.” The roar of mechanical bees echoed in Mac’s head even before he heard it bounce off the rickety stairwell.
Larry laughed. “I told you to catch him. Now they’re coming, ya know.”
The slaps of hundreds of tiny bare feet moved across the kitchen floor above them. The buzzing was coming, too.
“They’re coming for you.”
“The darkness. Your darkness. Hatred.”
A rippling shadow slithered down the stairs as the tiny men moved as one over the floor. Arm in arm and back to back, they only covered a space the size of a pizza box, but the sight caused Mac to retreat to the back corner of the small basement.
“What do they want?”
Larry turned his head to his right shoulder. “They want you, Mac. They want you, ya know.”
The shadow of little men moved across the basement and, without even touching him, they pushed Mac deeper in the corner. He slid down the wall and held his knees to his boil-ridden chest.
“Stay back.” He wanted to yell, but only found air enough for a trickle of sound. He kicked at them.
Big Larry belly-laughed.
The black pool edged closer to Mac, enveloping his feet, his legs, his waist. As they touched him, he fell into the blackness, the void they created, and disappeared.
He wanted to scream. He didn’t.
Mac raised his chin as though he were fighting to stay above water in a midnight storm lost at sea. He pursed his lips trying to keep the little men out. Instead, they slinked into his nose in a double stream of payback.
And he was gone. The shadow fell apart on the floor and the tiny Larry’s flittered in all directions, melting into the surroundings as if they’d never been there.
• • •
Larry sat quietly in that moment. Mac had left him tied up in the basement. He might have called for help, but didn’t think anyone would hear. He might’ve waited on Gabe or Mac’s girlfriend (Did Mac have a girlfriend? Larry wondered) or some other passers-by. The zip ties squelched the blood flow in his purple hands and feet.
He starred down at his once chubby thighs, now emaciated and wrinkled with loose dehydrated skin. Mac had stripped him to his underwear and left him there over a hundred days ago. Larry watched the pale flesh, hairless from Mac’s fire-play on days 52 and 76 and waited.
The tiny men had left him there alone.
Larry tapped his ring on the wooden chair frame. Tap, tap, tap. He closed his eyes and listened. Tap, tap, tap. Nothing.
He listened and felt for anything. And he tapped that silver ring on his index finger against the wood. The old chair sounded hollow, a generation of duty and on its last rot.
Tap, tap, tap.
Larry didn’t even breath when something twitched just under the surface of his skin. He didn’t look or move as it fluttered in his leg. He felt it stretch into a hardened bump.
“Come on, baby.” Larry suppressed a snicker.
It got bigger and, even though it looked like a tumor, a growth that had to hurt, Larry rode out the event. He had counted on it.
A tiny man pushed through the pustule, crawled onto Larry’s thigh, and looked up at his host just as Larry opened his eyes. They winked at each other. Covered in the white pus of afterbirth, the two inch tall man wearing nothing but a red baseball cap didn’t smile. He didn’t speak. A miniscule soldier on the field of battle stoically waiting for a commander’s orders.
Larry smiled. “Hey, Mac. Took ya long enough, ya know. Now get to untying me. And fetch me my hat.”
Copyright © 2011 by Keith Dugger