This is my final text of this story, as heard on Season 10, Episode 9 of the No Sleep Podcast.
I hear the dogs before I see them. It’s Monday morning, I’m in the bathroom stall, pants down, pretending to shit and making polite throat-clearing noises every few minutes. The rotten vegetable green paint on the walls never fails to give me a headache, so I have my eyes shut tight. Still, I can spend twenty minutes here, three to four times a day, eating up an hour. More if you factor in the round trip from office to toilets.
My legs are numb despite my best efforts to restore circulation. That’s my cue to stand up, to go through the motions of wiping, to flush, and to pretend to wash my hands. Before I can lurch upward, I hear them, inside the wall to my right. Nails clicking on pressboard and metal. Fur scraping drywall. Breath like a shuddering air conditioning vent. It’s right next to me, too big to be a rat, and far too real. I spin away, dopey grin on my face in some idiot desire to catch someone’s eye, to have a shared moment of surreal “did you hear that?” camaraderie, but I’m alone in the handicapped stall of a men’s restroom.
The sound drifts away, vanishing at the corner of the walls. I’ve almost forgotten it as I wash my hands, getting them wet and soapy for real, feeling unaccountably dirty. I head back into the office with measured slowness, in no hurry sit at my desk and stare with mock pensiveness at a spreadsheet. I smile at the receptionist, a quick shy twitch. She has the decency to return the gesture, but I see her reflection in the glass wall as I pass, and I know she will crinkle her nose and scowl at my back. Five times a day, a quick scowl, then she forgets me.
The twins, on opposite sides of my low cubicle walls, share a smirk when I return. One taps an expensive watch and the other snickers. Then they turn back to monitors wantonly displaying fashion and travel sites. Both college football sub-stars turned financial middlemen, I still can’t tell them apart, even though one is black and the other is blonde. Dueling scents of designer colognes fill the air and I feel sick. Monday is a long day, but it ends. It must.
Tuesday, I hear them again on my way to the toilets. They’re shadowing me in the hall, inside the walls. I hear a snarl like the whine of an electric drill depressed in bursts. I should be frightened, but I’m giddy at this bizarre interruption of routine. When I stop, the metallic clatter of nails continues past the elevators and restrooms, towards the empty offices that once contained an investment firm on the far end.
It occurs to me that I may be imagining this business with the dogs. I haven’t seen anything, only heard vague noises. So why do I have a clear picture of them in my head, lean and wolfish with beady eyes?
I let my bathroom break go an extra ten minutes, as long as I can before the twins will turn silent jeers into outright verbal abuse, and I’ll have to acknowledge them. The thought makes me ill.
Back in the office, it becomes clear I’ve missed another meeting. I stand outside the conference room, unsure whether to enter late, or slip away unseen. Over my shoulder, I catch the receptionist frowning at me, her pretty brown eyes turned down in what, at my most charitable, I would call sad sympathy. The look you give a transient dying in the gutter.
The glass doors to the meeting room spill open. I hear one of the twins guffaw as the other drawls: “Well, holeeeee shit.” I fake a coughing spell and retreat to the kitchen to drink four glasses of water, hoping to speed the next trip to the bathroom along.
It’s Wednesday when I first see the dogs, and they are dogs. It’s curled up, sleeping at the end of the hallway, so far away that it looks like a ragged heap of discarded grey clothing at first. But when I stop and squint at it, it uncoils, a slinky, silent movement that leaves it standing and facing me.
I have the distinct feeling that the eyes are glowing, and I feel, rather than hear, the grinding sounds of its growl. Before I can make out anymore details, it darts sideways, into the wall and through it, leaving only a chalky stain on the unbroken surface.
It takes me a moment to realize I’ve stopped breathing. I am certainly not going any farther down the hallway. Turning on one heel, I re-enter the office. Too quick. I startle the receptionist out of her good graces, and one of the twins stands up to stare. The other whistles from between two perfect front teeth.
There’s a sodden patch beneath my right armpit, and an acrid tang of fear and panic leak from my asymmetrical sweat glands. The twins are aware too, and a few other drones rise up from their cubicles to see me, disheveled and unkempt.
For the first time in… months? Years? I wait to go to the restroom until I actually have to go. I enter the hallway with eyes locked to the ground. But I can still hear them, growling in low, machine tones. I’m almost to the restroom doors when I look up to get my bearings. The dogs are right in front of me.
Three of them, lean and wolfish, like I’d imagined. But that’s where the similarity stops. They’re ragged and filthy; a chalky dust coats their matted wiry fur. Lean doesn’t even begin to cover it. In the front, skin stretches across a canine ribcage, but behind the ribs, beneath the knotted spine is… nothing. Flesh wrapped around a narrow backbone. The back legs have some strange, rumbling threat of power, but they are nothing but literal skin and bones.
At the end of each skeletal leg is something I have to stare at for a long liquid moment before I can accept it. Instead of paws, they have tiny, desiccated hands. The hands of a child mummy behind museum glass, only these hands terminate in perfect, shiny wood screws that rasp against the institutional grey carpet.
One of the dogs growls again, a power tool with a battery winding down, and I drag my protesting eyes to look at the thing’s head. A shark tooth smile of gleaming metal nails, beneath two gleaming LED eyes, bright and painful to look at.
I’m not going to the bathroom. I will find a corner of the office, and I will piss into a coffee mug and dump it into a fake potted plant.
But it’s too late. The lead dog, a foot taller than the others, stalks towards me. The little hands coil into fists, then splay outward with each step, wood screw nails clicking together. It’s panting, and a tongue like a rotting grey slab of meat darts between gleaming nails. The other two dogs are giggling, a low breathy chortle.
I turn and run. It lunges after me, howling like a fire alarm and that’s when I realize how fucked I am. Where my office door should be, there’s only a featureless hallway, stretching on for miles ahead of me. A perfect geometric vanishing point of architecture. No doors. Nothing.
A keening wail of despair fills my throat, and I pump my legs, but without any point of reference, I’m not even sure I’m moving.
It leaps for me, the sound of little clawed hands on the floor ceasing. Screws pierce my shirt and flesh. The blow sends me reeling to the floor where I shred my elbows and knees against the carpet.
I have time to roll over before it’s on top of me, tiny grey hands clutching at my forearms as I try to bat it away. The mouth opens, jaw unhinging too far, and the dead tongue slides to one side. From deep within the black maw, with the stale scent of plaster and ozone, something slithers into view. A neon green and shiny tentacle that splits and splays open like a flower.
Wires. Copper wires with green plastic coating, spreading open like an anemone. At the tips, the plastic peels apart, melting, blackening, dripping away in plumes of sizzling, greasy smoke. The naked wire at each tip gleams, dancing in the fluorescent light.
My arms go slack, drifting across rough fur that can only be fiberglass insulation. A writhing mass of wires spread out across my vision, each pointed tip glowing red hot as it reaches forward to embrace me. The skin on my face is taut in the heat, and my bladder releases, wet and warm, and it’s almost comforting, like surrendering to sleep.
The dog clenches all four of its little hands at once, a spasming embrace. The wood screws dig deep into my chest and thighs, and it thrusts its broken maw onto my face. The wires burrow deep, and my body erupts in a thousand boiling points of crystal white pain. The wires pierce my eyes with a hiss, the heat quenched in the water of my body. I scream into the thing’s open throat as it howls back into mine.
I suck in a breath to scream again, inhale chalky drywall dust and start to cough convulsively, leaning forward in my chair and spattering my monitor with phlegm. Disoriented, I squint my eyes against the sudden light, and I try to scream again but it just comes out as a strangled cough.
One of the twins is standing and staring, no clever joke on his lips. He’s not the only one. The office is quiet, and a field of heads like prairie dogs poke up from behind cubicle walls, all swiveled over to look at me.
My shirt is untorn, my face unflayed. My pants are soaked, of course, the urine already cooling, but I can’t stand up now. I manage some facial contraction that passes for a smile and turn to my monitor, dismiss the Wikipedia article on the screen, and bring up a spreadsheet.
None of them want to ask if I’m okay, but only the twins return to mockery. I hear them whispering the words ‘piss’ and ‘stench’ over the next few hours.
When it’s dark outside the tinted windows, and I’m the last one in the office, I head to the kitchen, stripping naked and running water over the salt stain in my khakis. I relieve myself in the sink. I won’t be going back into the bathroom.
I must brave the hallway to go home, that much is inescapable. With my few possessions in hand, my coat, my empty ornamental briefcase, I step back into the hall. The pack is at the far end of the hallway. Their pinprick LED lights track me, but they do not follow.
The big one pants, a sound almost like the twins’ mocking laughter, as copper wires dance at the corners of its jaws, but they do not approach me. They let me reach the halfway point, and in a gesture that feels like an insult, they turn away, ignoring me as I stab the elevator buttons.
The car comes without incident. They don’t even watch as I board. The elevator, I find, has too many buttons, and I have questions I shouldn’t have. What floor am I on? Which floor has the exit?
The numbers descend to “1”, then “L”, then “B”. I hit all three buttons, taking my chances. The car obliges, sliding downward, away from the dogs. The ride takes longer than it has any right to be, and the digital display is dark and quiet. There are no chimes between floors, and I’m left to make pointless estimates of height and time as I go down.
Floor 1 is offices, a twin of my own floor, whose number I can no longer remember. But there are no dogs. The doors part on “L”, and a wave of light, sound, and smells assault me. Morning sun and the thrumming sounds of people and business. Men and women in fresh-pressed, clean suits step onto the elevator before I can get off, smells of breakfast and coffee and bagged lunches with ham sandwiches.
I’m too stunned to move. How long was I on the elevator? Or in the hallway, with the dogs? Before I come to my senses, the doors close again, the passengers giving me a wide berth, barely concealed disgust as they eye my stained pants and damp underarms. They make a show of covering their noses, grandstanding like vaudeville performers, and I see one of the twins, a grin like ice as he shakes his head.
If they hate me now, it’s worse when they realize I still have the “B” button lit up, and the elevator slides downward. Now their contempt is vocalized in little coughs and sighs. The twin chuckles, low and dry, eyes locked on me until I stare down at my shoes. When the door opens on the basement, a concrete hallway with exposed pipes, I think about running, spending the rest of my days in the solitude of underground. But I can’t bear the shame of moving, so I let the doors shut, aware of their hateful sidelong gazes.
We ride in silence. People depart at each floor, and when the twin steps off the car, I join him, still unable to recall what floor we work on. I follow him at a safe distance down the hall, clutching my jacket and briefcase, aware in the delicate scent trail of his expensive soaps how awful I must smell. I contemplate darting into the bathroom to hide, but my body stumbles, numb, toward the office door.
The dogs trail me inside the walls. Metal nails clicking on concrete. Fiberglass fur scratching drywall. I hurry through the door.
The office is in full swing, everyone moving with coffee-fueled purpose, but they stop to stare at me. I pass like a leper. The receptionist regards me with what feels, for a moment, like true sympathy, and I want to cry, fall at her feet and beg for forgiveness. But she’s cupping a pretty hand over her nose and scurrying away.
My desk is a thousand miles away. They’re all looking at me, they know something is wrong. I never fit in here before, but it’s different now. By lunchtime, they’ll have pitchforks and torches.
I need to leave. I failed once, but I will leave this time, and I will not come back. No paycheck, no health insurance is worth this.
My briefcase drops from my numb fingers and I turn back towards the front door. One of the twins cracks that it’s early for my bathroom break and I break into a run.
The dogs aren’t in the hallway, but the elevators are destroyed, dented doors hanging askew to reveal an empty shaft that drops away into blackness. A breeze comes from far below, cool and pleasant, with a smell that reminds me of childhood. Like a garden hose in summer on a hot and dusty sidewalk.
That pleasing little thread of memory evaporates, leaving only the black abyss of the elevator shaft. I know I have to go home, but I have no idea where it is, or how to get there. A hand wraps around my heart. A gray and withered child’s hand.
The elevator shaft calls to me, and I have the powerful urge to leap through them. Instead, I turn and enter the bathroom.
I’m unsurprised to see the color of the walls is not green, but a pale blue, and that there are now three urinals and two stalls instead of the other way around. This is the closest thing I had to a comfortable space, of course, why should it remain that way?
The dogs are here. One is lapping in a toilet with its rotten grey tongue, and another is scratching against the metal door of the stall, screw-nails leaving shining furrows. Up close, I see cheap ballpoint pens and paperclips matted in their fur.
The big one is right there, smiling at me. I don’t even perceive movement before he’s on me, clutching hands shredding my arms and legs. I sit hard on my ass, the ringing impact against the tiles sending stars shooting across my eyes.
It drops its lower jaw like a hinge, and I smell burning plastic. The flower of green and copper wires emerges, spreading open to embrace me. If I were not wholly empty, I would soil myself and wail, but I am a shell. An angry hateful shell.
I scream something that must be fuck you but comes out as an ululating babble and I reach up and grab the bundle of wires at the base, hard. Some of the wires curl back to pierce my hand, but I squeeze tighter, and then wrap the other hand around the dogs neck, feeling the metal and plastic frame beneath the fiberglass fur, and I pull. I fucking pull.
Like reaching into a bag and pulling at the bottom, it turns inside out. The dog falls back in on itself as its guts come tumbling out in a rain of disposable coffee cups, brown plastic door stops, and the bright green fabric leaves of fake plants. Where before there were four limbs and the embrace of wire, now a thousand writhing tentacles of metal cabling and plastic tubing lash out with sudden purpose, entombing me. Every inch of what the dog has become reaches out, a thousand prehensile artificial snakes, each one fixed on piercing my heart and drinking me dry.
My body convulses without aim, kicking off the wall and sliding beneath the sinks, but I wear the thing like a perfect suit, molded to ever contour of my body. It’s skinning me, lacerating and abrading my flesh away. When it starts to grind bone in a dozen places, I open my mouth to scream and, it spills inside me. Bitter plastic tendrils force their way down my throat.
I retch, spewing bitter yellow bile onto my desk, over the sticky keyboard.
There is no blood on my filthy skin, but I stink more than ever, the tang of fear and sweat stings my eyes almost more than the smell of vomit on my desk. The twins are staring at me. Jokes forgotten. They look afraid, and for a moment I savor it. I stand up, and I think about spitting at one of them.
But then I see the dogs. Dozens of them, moving through the office without a sound. Devouring.
No one sees the things that eat them. One of the twins has only one leg, the other a raw stump picked clean by a blossom of hot wires. His dog crouches beneath him like a faithful pet.
I run without thought, headlong towards the door. The receptionist looks shocked, fearful of me and my sudden flight. But she doesn’t seem to mind that her dog has chewed a hole in her stomach to root around up in her ribcage with tiny, clutching dead hands, as everything inside her spills out around her pleated skirt.
A dozen other scenes of casual carnage slide past as I hit the door without slowing down. In the hallway, the dogs, my dogs, emerge, passing through the walls in a puff of plaster dust. They keep pace with me while I run. A game, like chasing cars. They could down me at any time, but they seem to enjoy the exercise.
The elevators are still yawning black holes, but I see the emergency staircase next to it and I throw my shoulder into the door. The stairwell is dim and cramped, the dogs don’t follow. I keep on running downward, taking the stairs three, four at a time. I don’t slow until I’ve dropped at least two dozen floors. Too many floors.
What stops me dead is a sudden realization: there are no more doors. There are no numbers. There are only stairs.
I keep going. For an hour at least. Past a hundred empty landings. After a while, it doesn’t make any sense to go any further down.
So I go up. For a day or more. The door to my floor is gone. I keep going. My body screams for sleep, but I know it will only give up and die, and by god I want to let it, but not here. Not in this building. I will die outside.
A thousand flights of stairs pass, and finally, the staircase ends. A sign.
It’s twilight outside. A cool night the color of a bruise, smelling of car exhaust. The rooftop is empty, just a wide field of cracked tiles. I stare out across a city I don’t recognize. A meaningless field of identical towers. I breathe. Deep and clear. I think about my promise to myself. This counts. I’m outside the building. I think this means I win.
It’s enough. I smile, and enjoy the quiet.
When the stars come out, I’m ready. I step up to the edge of the building, look down at the streets below, and slip off my shoes.
I spread my arms wide, and I step out into the open air.
My legs impact just a few feet below, on carpet. Shocked, I tilt backwards and crash into a heavy oaken table. I lose my balance and go down onto the conference room floor. Above me, fluorescent lights hum. Everything spins.
After a while, I stand up. My shoes are perched on the table, next to the telephone. At the door to the meeting room, they’re clustered, staring in at me. Shocked. Horrified. I can see beyond the frosted glass that everyone is here, pressed to get a good look at me, leaping to my death from a three foot wooden table.
Fuck them. I pick up a chair and hurl it at the glass. It explodes outward, raining down in a thousand safe little pieces, but it’s enough to scatter the goddamn scavengers. I have more chairs. I throw a few more, once a half hour or so if any of them get too close. The dogs slide between them, unseen. The flying chairs don’t scare them of course, they seem content just to watch.
At some point I doze off, only to wake to strong, firm hands on my shoulders, helping me to my feet. I want to weep at how good it feels to have someone not shirk away from me in fear and disgust, to be touched. I don’t recognize these two men in dark uniforms, but they’re whispering soothing platitudes to me, and I buy in, fully. Yes, it will be all right. Yes they will help me. Yes, It is going to be okay.
They guide me to the door, and out into the hall, and I’m not scared. I smile at the receptionist as I go, and I don’t care that she looks like she wishes I was already dead. I understand.
In the hallway, the men are no longer trying to soothe me, just hustling me forward towards the waiting elevator. Inside, there are no buttons, just doors that slide shut on us like a mouth, and I know it’s not going to be okay.
One of the two men smiles. Behind the grin, I hear the skittering dance of copper wires against his perfect white teeth.
The new sense of purpose that comes over me is cool and hollow. If I can’t escape this place, then by god I can hurt it, as much as its hurt me. I brace myself, planting one foot on the elevator floor, and tense my body in preparation to strike. These men, the dogs, they’re nothing more than extensions of the building, mindless hands reaching out from a rotten, hateful abyss.
It thinks it has me in its grasp. Maybe it does. But I will not go willingly. I will bite back, and when I sink my teeth in, I will not let go. If this place will not let me die, then so be it. I will make it kill me.
This one snuck up on me. I wrote it all this weekend in just a few sittings. A bizarre idea I had while walking down a hallway in my office stuck with me, and a later nightmare provided a complementary series of images (the grasping tentacles of wires from a snake hinged jaw), and pretty soon it was out of my control.
I knew exactly where the story would go before I started writing, something that brings its own curious problems. This feels overlong for its slight subject matter, so it probably needs a more savage edit than usual. This also feels like something I would used to write, a largely interior monologue about subjective horrors, from an unreliable narrator. I like this structure. A lot, but I wonder if I shouldn’t be done with it. The other projects I have going at the moment are almost frighteningly novel, so there was something comfortable about banging this out so fast.
At any rate, I’d love to hear your feedback, as always. I feel like the rust is flaking away as I start to write again, but don’t let me get away with bullshit. Call me on it. I’m counting on you.