Sick, or The Algorithm

My final version of The Algorithim will appear in the upcoming anthology “No Monsters Allowed” from Dog Horn Publishing. Tom Festo’s fantastic adaptation of this story can be seen here.

Sometime during the third consecutive night spent huddled over the toilet, insides heaving and shuddering as I vomit forth seemingly everything I’d ever eaten, I realize what’s happening: He’s trying to poison me. It’s all so elegant, so perfect, and so clear, that I almost laugh, but another barrage of retching forces me into silence.

The next morning I throw everything in the kitchen away, wrapping it three times in black plastic and burying it deep in the apartment’s communal trash cans, to prevent an unfortunate transient from crossfire of His wrath. I am out the door of the complex and halfway to the corner store when I realize: He knows, must know, where I would shop.

I pick a direction and walk, enjoying the chill winter air that soothes the ragged shreds of my inside. I turn at random intervals, following an improbable path out of my familiar neighborhood, until I find a small shop with an unfamiliar name. Once inside, I hurriedly fill a small plastic basket; brands that I never have eaten, strange tins of ethnic ingredients I can’t recognize, foods that I’d never thought of buying. Soy milk. Tofu. I can feel my stomach reborn in anticipation of an untainted meal.

I prepare the meal in a fog of nervous anticipation, trying to focus on savoring the aromas and the grease spitting sounds of the frying pan. It tastes clean, but then, so has every other meal before this. I try to tell myself that the mounting pain inside me is simple fear and anxiety, but before the stroke of midnight, I am again crouched in the dingy bathroom, surrendering the days work into the porcelain mouth of the sewer.

The next day, I pack up the remaining food and dispose of it with the same care. I eat out that day, layering debt onto the last of my credit cards at restaurants on the opposite side of town.

He is more clever than I could ever imagined, and I am awash in despair as I spend another sleepless night gagging and sobbing on the tile floor. I imagine the Algorithm, the perfect predictive models at His disposal, brilliantly charting my every move across the city; every time I thought I’d outwitted Him, I was willingly walking into his web.

I buy a candy bar from a vending machine in a theater, and hold it close like a talisman. When I get home, I fill the bath a few inches deep with rust colored water, and hold the little plastic wrapped bundle beneath the water and squeeze. I know that I will see it, but it still breaks my heart when I do. A thin almost invisible stream of bubbles picks out the point where a foreign object has pierced the protective layer. Through the haze of piercing hunger, I convince myself to try, just one bite, and to take the chances. It’s a gamble that I do not win.

In the small hours of the morning as I press my fists into my empty protesting belly, I imagine the legion of His followers sliding silently through the restaurants and produce aisles of my life, slipping hypodermic needles into carefully selected packages of food. They are ruining and corrupting at His whim, surgical and efficient, before vanishing into the throng of the city at my approach. They will always be one step ahead of me, until I learn to think in new ways, to chart new cognitive pathways, and turn the game back upon Him. So, I tell myself, this is what I must do.

The first day of my new life, I spend in the small living area of my apartment, organizing my thoughts with clean and sterile efficiency, and conserving what energy I can from my wasting body. Night brings the retching sickness, but all that arises is water… and pills, half digested in the bilious water.

The pills. Of course. Not for the first time, I feel a sharp twinge of respect for crystalline perfection of His plans. I dump the last of my dozen prescriptions into the toilet.

On my third day, I feel a clarity and a sense of purpose that shocks me in it’s intensity, and my will penetrates the starvation malaise. I must win, or I will die. The rashes and sores in my cheeks are deeper, and I can feel the gentle sway of loose teeth in my desiccated mouth when I grind them in thought. He is winning, but not for long. There is still time.

Water, I collect from the roof in a small army of cheap hardware buckets. I know that somewhere in the byzantine plumbing of the aged building, there must one of His infernally clever devices; a tiny pump, squatting like a predator and pulsing its vile contents into the water main. I’ll have to give up bathing. A small sacrifice. The rain water will keep me alive for a while longer, but I must find a way to eat.

The answer comes to me in small unconnected puzzle pieces over the next few days. While gently working another loose molar from my bleeding gums, they suddenly snap together, and a warm smothering blanket of epiphany coats my aching frame. The clattering of the tooth into the sink basin is like the ringing of bells.

Late in the evening, I begin another unconscious dérive, drifting through the city on shaking and atrophied legs, knowing full well that He is watching. But this, my beautiful solution, is beyond even His reach.

I choose the house at random, and then, in one final attempt to baffle the Algorithim, turn around and choose another house across the little tree lined street. I sift through the mail; it’s a small sample size, but enough to confirm the most necessary of facts. A single occupant.

The poor man is surprised to have a visitor at all, and his face contorts with fear as I force my way inside. I am flooded with guilt and regret as I push him to the floor and strike quickly with the crowbar I pull from the folds of my jacket.


I must steel myself. This is His fault. He has brought us to this, and this poor man is just another of His victims.

I make quick work of the meat, the muscle memories of summers spent hunting in the mountains flaring up with each quick cut. I allow myself a quick bite, a feast to my shrunken and withered stomach. The iron and mineral salt taste floods my head like a vapor and I bawl in relief, like a child. When I have the meat packed tight into my rucksack, I light a single candle on the top floor of the little house, and turn the gas range on high.

I’m not yet home when I hear the low rumble in the distance; the pulsing lights of fire engines highlight the black cloud hanging in the sky.

For the first time in more than a month, I sleep well, my body rapidly healing as pure, untainted nutrients penetrate my cells. I am not yet well, but after a few more meals, I will be ready, once more, to fight Him. I know I can beat him now. I know the Algorithm can only predict the actions of my past self, bound by the laws and morals of the old world.

That world is dead.

I am a free man.


20 thoughts on “Sick, or The Algorithm

  1. o.o I can stomach organs being devoured from a living persons body, butcher shops….but you found my one weakness… Oral related problems. Great work! I really loved reading this one, for some reason reminded me of North, but thats far from a bad thing. Happy Holidays, and great work once more!

  2. Your best writing, to me, stems from the brilliance of the little details (working loose a molar from the mouth? Gross out points, plus sheer stark psychological trauma!) and the stories work best when they’re built like a pyramid around those details.Previously I’d say you’ve had much success with leaving some of the overarching stuff intentionally vague, but here it feels contrived. Maybe it’s the vernacular (every time I read “Algorithm”) or maybe it’s something else, but I can’t quite articulate my feelings on this one beyond this: it doesn’t stick. Those brushstrokes of detail juxtaposed with a total lack of comprehension as to the main Who and Why – that’s usually a good combination, but I just don’t like this one very much.Still, definitely not a bad effort, and I don’t regret the read at all.

  3. I enjoy this one. It recaptures that “inescapable doom” feeling that was present in North.I hate to nit-pick the storyline, but it seems to me that if this Algorithm can predict a random candy bar he picked out in a random store, wouldn’t it be able to predict the fact that at some point he’d become cannibalistic? Maybe that’s just what He was trying to get the narrator to do in the first place, though.

    1. Katherine

      i actually think this is in the perspective of a paranoid schizophrenic. and i could be wrong but this does hold a good semblance to my familiarity with the affliction. for instance the character feels more clear headed and hope filled after flushing their medications? that’s very common with schizophrenics who suffer nausia at the hands of their meds. as well as the ever persistant antagonist HIM, who doesn’t have a name. probably because they don’t hold a real identity? but this is just my interpretation.

  4. This isn’t in relation to this particular story. I just wanted to ask if you’d ever consider using a female lead? All your main characters seem to be males, not that there’s anything wrong with that, and I’m not some crazy feminist, I just think it’d be interesting to see what you could do with a female lead.

  5. Hello all. Thanks again for the feedback. A little bit of background for this: I put a considerably smaller effort into this story, as my time was limited. As such, it doesn’t has the back story or foundation I build for some of my other works. As a bit of a break from tradition, the overarching mythology (“He”, the Algorithm) are purely inventions of the narrator. I envisioned this as the narrative of a good and intelligent person driven to violence by his mental illness; the outside elements he blames are just his externalizations of the illness.It’s definitely not as satisfying a result in the finished product, but I never thought “He” was anything but the narrators personification of his symptoms. As such, “the Algorithim” is not perfect, because he’s not really being poisoned or harassedAs for my viewpoints, it wasn’t until the last comment here that I noticed that I write in first person with male narrators roughly 100% of the time so far… This is something I will try to change up to practice later, but at the moment, I’m not sure if I’m confident enough as a writer to pull it off. We’ll see.

  6. Likely, JK would need to use the women in his life as models for his protagonists. Given his chosen genre of the moment, I’m not sure he could do that to them. 😉

  7. Great story, though I find it slightly odd and/or worrying that nobody else seemed to cotton on to the fact that the narrator was just a paranoid schizophrenic inventing conspiracies.It seemed quite obvious to me.Bizarre.

  8. The nice little twist at the end made my eyes bulge out a little bit, I was so surprised. Your originality is to be applauded, and your skill at lacing words together is absolutely fantastic. You, sir, are gifted. I’m pretty sure I’ve never placed that term on anyone else.

  9. If I may be honest… I preferred the story without your explanation. With just the story by itself, since we're only hearing it from the narrator's perspective, there's always the doubt that he might be right. That he wasn't insane in the first place, but was driven insane by his circumstances, as impossible as they seem. Being able to know for sure that he was just paranoid in the first place takes away that worrying element.

  10. You may always be honest, that's the point of feedback.I try (and often fail) to present these stories with out commentary initially, as I definitely prefer the possibilities of ambiguity.For the most part, I myself try no to commit to one interpretation or another unless it's absolutely necessary, and I'm actually quite shocked at my specificity in the comments from last year. I genuinely intended this to be open to interpretation. Surely, mental illness is the easy, neat, clean interpretation, and the model I tried to adhere to when writing, but the presence of a nearly omnipotent poisoner is a damned eerie conceit, one I'm not willing to rule out completely.These things seem to have a life of their own when I set them down. I like the idea that the creator is now arguing himself for the true meaning…

  11. I hate to comment on a story that was posted so long ago, but I just finished reading through all your works and I was… stunned. Floored. The best of these are better than any short story I'd ever read, and the worst are still astoundingly good. Anyway, I might be overanalyzing this, but I loved the way that I couldn't ever tell whether he was sane even after the end, and I switched my opinion on his sanity twice while reading it. Update more. I need something to fill the empty pit my life has become.

  12. Just thought I should add this, since no one pointed it out and I'm certain more people have thought of it:For me, "He" is God. And the story swings from a non-benevolent and non-omnipotent God that has a grudge with the narrator, and a delusional guy.Or something in between.

  13. Pingback: Metapost: A Gentle Entreaty « The Josef K. Stories

  14. Pingback: The Anticipation Of An Untainted Meal | Popular Fiction

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