Bogleech.com's 2014 Horror Write-off:
" BAG MAN "
Black Magic opens the door to his apartment a crack, and peers up and down the hall. “Ok. It’s clear. Come on.” He and Suz take the weight of the trash bag. She shudders as its slightly damp skin rubs up against the track marks on her bare arms. The naked floorboards of the building creak under their shoes as they scuttle towards the stairwell.
A door ahead of them opens. Black Magic curses everything under the sun. The coast is no longer clear. He adjusts his grip on the bag and tries to pick up the pace, but Birdman’s matted, dirty-blond dreadlocks are already sticking out through the door.
“Hey, dog.” Birdman’s expression is dopey and hopeful. Black Magic grunts. Suz says nothing, just looks at the floor as she struggles under the bag. “Think you can help me out?”
“Fucking should fucking help us out,” grumbles Suz, barely audibly.
“Tomorrow,” says Black Magic reassuringly. He does not stop moving, his tone intends to communicate that he cannot stop, and that Birdman should get back behind his door and stay there.
“Look, man, I’ve got the dollars,” Birdman tries again.
“Tomorrow,” repeats Black Magic.
“Is that friend of yours still here? Whatsisname, Jack…Todd…something like that?”
Black Magic drops his side of the bag. It slips through Suz’s fingers and hits the floor with a meaty thump. He does not strike or even lay a hand on Birdman, just looks him in the eye. “Tomorrow, I’ll get you your goddamn drugs. Tomorrow.”
“Ok,” says Birdman quickly, throwing up his hands. He retreats into his apartment, shutting the door too fast and knocking one of the numbers loose. Black Magic returns to the bag, helping poor floundering Suz. They struggle it all the way downstairs, and sling it on top of the other bloated, shining trash bags under the stairs. They both give a sigh of relief at getting its weight and moisture out of their arms.
“Oh, that’s fucking sick,” says Suz abruptly, pointing at where a cockroach scurries up from under one bag and down between two others.
Black Magic is in a bad mood as it is. He considers saying that the cockroach is a lot less sick than the weeping angry red punctures in the crook of her elbow. Instead, as they climb the stairs, he says “It feels the same way about you.”
“Bullshit. It knows it’s a fucking cockroach,” Suz replies. “It lives in garbage and it eats garbage.” As she says this, they have to step over yet another trash bag, which some inconsiderate person has simply kicked out their door and left in the hall.
“If you touch a cockroach, you know what it does? It goes off, and it washes itself. You can’t blame it. It doesn’t know where you’ve been.” He takes another tired look at Suz’s floral needle marks, knowing full well where she’s been.
“Even so-” She stops dead, stops talking and stops walking. Black Magic carries on a few steps without her before realising. She points downward, jabs a finger violently at the floor outside Birdman’s apartment, where they dropped the bag. The boards are covered with a big, elliptical stain that can only be faded blood.
“Right,” sighs Black Magic. “You go home, get cooking, I’ll run over to the goddamn Shop-n-Mart and get something to deal with this.”
The cockroaches scuttle over the floorboards and walls, like rats from a sinking ship. Black Magic swears and instinctively clutches his fresh cleaning supplies away from their swarm before fleeing upstairs. It is not as though the roaches have some intuitive knowledge that something’s about to happen. Rather, being cockroaches, they have a natural sensitivity to minor temperature changes, odours, hormone trails and so forth.
Neurons and synapses flash like fireworks in the darkness of the trash bag. Electrical impulses hum between them, now their organic fluid has seeped into a discarded wristwatch. These grey cells are aligned like crystals, perfect carbon atoms arrayed in the most complex and faceted diamond in existence.
The biomass starts to move. It was, in fact, these tremors that frightened off the cockroaches. Nerves and tendons root around in the dark, looking for something to connect with. They wrap themselves around a filthy syringe. Obviously it hurts, when they touch the needle. But life is a struggle. They writhe with stimulus and keep going.
The syringe is assimilated together with a full ribcage of chewed chicken bones. Tendrils of biomass adjust themselves around this construction. Then it flexes, back and forth. This biomass is more than used to being arranged around the structure of an endoskeleton. Now it is simply following its own reflexes and unconscious instincts. Its having been slightly dissolved with lime is actually a boon here.
Sachets and packets and hollows in the mass swell and contract, as they are pumped full of fresh air, or in some cases juices that circulate through the bag in a series of tubes. Those sparkling neurons light up as they are flooded and washed with nutrition and minerals. Their cells eagerly suck in oxygen. A cockroach at the foot of the stairs watches in paralysed horror, as something even it had been dimly aware of as inanimate begins to respire, making the faint noises of life.
Sentience blooms. Rudimentary limbs stretch out the inside of the bag. Blind, deaf and mute, the puddling flesh thinks of consumption. Fresh gastric fluids pool in one of its larger hollows as its newborn appetite spirals through its makeshift mind.
With one limb, it tears at its own skin – tears a vaguely round hole. Around the edges of this, pieces of broken glass and chipped ceramic are assembled by living, flowing matter. It sucks in air, taking its first proper lungful, not merely what little seeps through the tiny openings of its knot-top. Then this ramshackle mouth opens to its full extent, and makes a peeping sound, like a baby bird.
“Oh, Christ.” Black Magic staggers as he shuts the door behind him, nearly falls off his feet. He sniffs his hands and recoils violently, they stink of chemical bleach.
“Oh, I can smell that from here,” says Suz with mirrored disgust. She is of course smelling the cleaning fluids over the burning spoon two inches away from her face.
“Least we can’t smell the blood any more,” says Black Magic, collapsing onto the settee next to her. The smell is so strong now her stomach convulses, ready and willing to eject its fragile contents. “Who would have thought he had it in him?”
“Don’t talk about it,” says Suz, the spoon shuddering in her hand. “It’s done. Let’s, let’s just try to forget about it.” She barely sees the spoon. She sees Todd, his moonlit eyes twitching, about to fire an overdose into his vein, rambling endlessly about having fallen apart and sincerely wishing to put himself back together.
“It wasn’t you who had to cut up the fucker,” says Black Magic. Suz remembers the sounds of that, too, very distinctly. Her grip on the spoon trembles worse than ever. “We had to do it. We had to. They woulda had to cart him out of here, asking all questions of us. I mean, think of his family, they don’t want to hear…that. Better this way, you know? Someone’s fuckup child who just disappeared one day. It’s better for them.”
“Wouldn’t they want to say goodbye?”
They both look at that spot on the floor, of the same mind, that this patch of bare floorboards is now and forever Todd’s grave. It is sparse “Ashes to ashes, dust and stuff,” says Black Magic, waving a hand ceremonially. “It’s what he woulda wanted.”
“That is not funny,” says Suz, who wants to throw the spoon down dramatically, so as to underscore her point. She gently places it on the table instead, so as to not spill its contents. “I need to get out of here.”
“Where you going?”
“I have no idea.” And she rises shakily from her seat. She is dead set for the door, you could really believe she would walk straight through it and out into a different world.
For a fraction of a moment she hesitates, and Black Magic says “Don’t go. Please.” The hesitation stretches out over a dark pit of the unknown. “I’ll give you another two grams. We can get high, feel better. Just don’t go.”
Both directions pull at Suz, itch in the back of her brain. Two grams will only put off how she feels about kicking, escaping, for a little while, just an interval. But humans are creatures of habit.
Feeling nothing, only the numbness already, she retakes her throne over the spoon. As she returns to cooking their shots Black Magic finally breathes easily.
Birdman is in a different place. Furious and raging with the preliminary sickness, he has a very clear direction. Stomping each stair like he hates every single one, he makes downstairs, for the garbage. He has long since been shameless about rooting through the bags for discarded plastic wraps that might still carry a smear of brown gold. Several of the complex’s denizens have noticed him at it.
He is good at it, too, he has become good through thorough practice that truly holds his attention. He sifts through sedimentary layers of garbage, and dissects containers, packaging, anything that might be used to conceal something incriminating from the city workers who haul it away. Often he finds little bits of different drugs. He can even correctly pick out Black Magic’s bag from the pile, based on the distinctive shape of the knot.
Today he has been on tenterhooks since he ran into Black Magic, and was bouncing behind his door waiting for the coast to clear. He hasn’t spared a thought for why the bag had needed two people to carry. Now he stands over the bags, his body throwing a shadow across them. He wastes no time and crouches to untie what looks to him like the right bag.
A couple of last cockroaches move out of his way. They see this as a symbiotic relationship in the truest sense. They leave Birdman alone and he leaves all kinds of sugars and nutrients strewn around for them to enjoy. Birdman would not agree. He would not even have devoted quite so much thought to it. He is only interested in finding what he wants, and would not be so very bothered if a cockroach was wandering over his scabby arm in the process.
If he finds a beautiful leftover, he will spirit it away in seconds – leave the bags with their guts hanging out, viscera all over the floor, and sprint back upstairs to the safety of his apartment. He doesn’t need much, he doesn’t ask much, just a little bit. A tiny bit of opiate to get him through this long night.
Deeper inside the pile, the biomass senses movement, not its own movement this time, external stimuli – its remaining jumble of simian instincts all saying that something is coming for it, some larger predator that will tear and consume it. It would be a shame, at this point, for it to be eaten by a mountain lion.
It has no visible eyes yet, but it is just about aware of its form being exposed to the light. Then it feels a touch on its black plastic skin, near the tightly knotted sphincter that keeps its insides inside. So purely out of a desire for self-preservation, it lashes out with one flapping vestigial limb.
This limb has a disposable razor blade jutting painfully out through its skin, and catches Birdman on his cheek and the side of his head. He takes fright and turns to run. Immediately he slips on a rotten orange he had thrown aside only minutes ago and cracks his head on the side of the stairwell. It does not make a cracking sound, nor does it split his skull, but it does do him significant internal injuries and produces quite a bit of blood.
The noise carries, but by the time it filters through floor and door, to Black Magic and Suz it sounds like an awkward footstep. Chiefly, it sounds faint and faraway, from up here in their private secret sanctuary. They lie sprawled in positions that would more than likely be quite painful, if it wasn’t for the chemical cushions soothing their bones.
“I’m sorry,” says Suz.
“No, I’m sorry,” insists Black Magic, as forcefully as he can while swaying on the inside. “It was a fucked up thing to happen, there’s no getting around that. Of course we’re going to be fucked up about it. It’s only natural.”
“I’m just glad it’s over.”
“Oh God, me too.” They try to forget it, the deed that is still fresh, raw and bloody in their memories. They try to put aside the single, strangled noise Todd brought up from his throat before he keeled over and turned blue. They begin to talk, to reminisce about brighter times, about summers long ago and that one time when they climbed that mountain.
“We should do that again,” says Suz. “Take some hits. Can you imagine that? Taking the hit right at the top, all the way up there. Pure wonders of the natural world.”
“I’d prefer doing it on one of those chair-lifts,” says Black Magic. “You know, nothing under our feet. Kept up by cold steel and dudes who know how cold steel works.”
“You make cold steel sound so inviting.” They think about just how inviting they find the fine cold steel of a syringe, and mutually laugh. Their flights of fantasy give way to a more grounded, earthy fantasy as they begin to cuddle in the face of a sudden chill. Their happy kissing and soft bodily contact evolves into fucking hard and sweatily. Both of them make the most awful guttural groans, sounds that would turn their stomachs at any other time.
As they lazily ram their bodies against each other, the floorboards under the couch grind and squeak. This completely covers the scream of discovery from downstairs that they wouldn’t have heard anyway. Their relaxed pheromones are dulling most of their senses, as though plugging up every orifice in their heads.
Hours later they are still lying in a state of bliss, the knives are not even scratching at the insides of their veins yet, and everything goes wrong when they hear the distinctive policeman’s knock at their door.
Suz answers, pink and sweaty. The policeman misses her prominent track marks because of her long-sleeved shirt, and their cooking and injecting equipment are likewise hidden from view by a hastily applied tablecloth. So it is the bloodied plastic sheets alone which draw the man’s eye.
She follows his gaze, then turns back to him. She would have gone white, were she not already addict-pale. Then “I’m on my period,” she says instantly.
“Oh. Excuse me,” says the policeman, now wrong-footed to Suz’s immense satisfaction. She feels it was a very good lie, given she has been well past the point of menstruating for some weeks. “I’m just going around the block, I was wondering, have you seen a Mr Crowley around, Mr Benjamin Crowley?”
“Mr-? No. Why?”
“Some poor woman found him dead in the lobby.”
“I’ll field this,” says Black Magic, elbowing Suz aside. “We never saw him, he wasn’t here, the last thing we heard, he was going to straighten out and go back to Oregon, now if you don’t have a warrant I’ll ask you to leave.”
Suz elbows him back. “He said Ben Crowley.”
“Oh, you mean Birdman. Yeah, he’s been around. We saw him the other night, he didn’t even look ill.”
“You don’t happen to know if he had any enemies? Any outstanding beefs?” asks the policeman.
“No, I don’t think so. Somebody killed him?”
“Possibly,” answers the policeman eventually.
“Possibly? Come on, help me out here.”
“It’s really not my place to say. Either he was attacked, or he slipped and fell and bust his head open. Maybe both.”
“Right.” Poor Birdman, think Black Magic and Suz, poor stupid Birdman. He’d always been both clumsy and irritating. “We’ll call you if we hear anything. What’s the number again, nine-one-something?”
They sigh when the man in uniform leaves, and take a morning shot to steady their nerves. Quickly their nervy relief turns to laughter, that they have successfully disposed of a body. When they are just about lucid again they creep on down to the stairwell, to take a look at the murder scene.
The coroner’s assistant flashes his high-quality camera, while the man himself stands over Birdman’s body stroking his chin. “Like he was spooked by something,” he mutters.
Black Magic panics again. He has joined the dots between Birdman being spooked to death and the gutted trash bags. There will be only minutes before the coroner – an expert, after all – does the same, and he knows the bag of Todd will still be covered in his fat incriminating fingerprints, to a lesser extent Suz’s too.
He digs his fingernails into his legs as he silently curses his own stupidity. They should have, he knows, taken that bag as far as possible from their building and abandoned it in the scuzziest, loneliest dumpster they could find. Too late for that now. And a look at the grim expression on Suz’s face tells him she is thinking exactly the same things, she knows they are doomed too.
Crouched hidden, they watch through the bars of the banisters as the coroner’s assistant and the attending officers begin to rifle through the building’s trash. The seconds crawl by as they feel themselves coming closer to getting got, hit with who knows what bogus charges on top of what they’re actually guilty of.
“Nothing,” says one of the uniformed officers at last. Black Magic jerks upright so fast he knocks his head on the banister, and the noise rattles all through the stairwell. All the official, tax-paid men look up for the source, so they steal out of sight.
“Do you think someone else got it? Got to it before them? Maybe it was one of Birdman’s poisonous friends, maybe they want to blackmail us, they know what we did.”
But there is no demand, no anonymous rattle of their mailbox. They happily get back to their reliable routine. They mourn Todd in their own way, by trying not to think about it, and do a plum job of it. Then a few days later Suz takes longer than usual bringing back fast food after making a delivery. Black Magic sees her coming up the street, toward the building, then nothing for far too long, no sign or sound of her.
Black Magic is not, as a rule, paranoid. It is only the residual bad feelings about the building that make him crack open the door and storm out wielding a golf club, looking into dark corners. He is already getting a strong dark fantasy, Suz laid out on the floor as dead as Birdman, and he doesn’t know what he would do.
He accelerates as he charges downstairs, building up to full steam ready to scream bloody murder and hit someone. He tears the door open, steps firmly outside, and stares uselessly at the empty vista of the street. The cold grey of it all reaches out and touches his bones. Pieces of broken glass glint like distant stars, the only sign this place was ever populated. The only thing that moves is steam – rising from the bubbling, frothing sewers beneath, and it sickens him.
He turns. Suz is there, below the stairwell in the section reserved for trash.
“Come look at this!”
She squats, feeding glossy yellow French fries to something he cannot see. This would not be the first adorable wild animal to become trapped inside the apartment block, and he approaches without a thought, lowering his club, letting it drag behind him. Then he brings it up again, opening his mouth and giving a cry of horror as he retracts a step.
Two big, bulging white eyes stare at him out of the darkness. As his eyes adjust to the light the real terror of the scene becomes apparent. Those watery, vulnerable eyes that gave him a reaction of real gut fear are looking at him out of a trash bag, an obscene little thing with features vaguely resembling a mouth and a topknot, that Suz is gently feeding.
“The fuck is that?” he says eventually, keeping his voice low. And in response, the bag peeps at them, making the only sound those parodies of organs inside it can muster.
“Ah, don’t be mean,” says Suz with a lazy wave of her free hand. “It was scared, I had to coax it out here – man, it loves these things.” The bag makes some very contented noises, as she feeds it another handful of fries doused in vinegary ketchup. It nips her finger and she yelps.
“That’s alive, though,” says Black Magic, now leaning on his club, looking at the creation of black plastic that is moving under its own steam, tentatively accepting Suz’s offering.
“What did you think it was?”
Before long he too is kneeling down alongside Suz, stroking with his knuckle the artificial skin of the little thing that is gluttonously scarfing down their fast food. It is far from the worst thing either of them have ever touched at length.
“So, what, what,” says Black Magic confusedly, “is there something alive inside there?” He reaches for the topknot, and the bag squeals, recoiling in fear.
“No, the whole thing’s alive,” says Suz, slapping his hand away. “I think it’s Todd.”
“Bullshit. Yeah, it kind of looks like his eyes. Why you think that?”
“I don’t know. The eyes, maybe, and we put those pieces of him down here in a bag but they never found them, and he was talking about getting back together…” The chain of logic is watertight to their twisted minds.
“So, he actually put himself back together.”
“It might not, you know, be him per se. Just all the alive bits.”
“You think it killed Birdman?” They both stand up abruptly and step back, and the bag recoils again. “Nah,” he concludes, “probably just scared him.”
“Yeah, fucking pussy probably-”
The door to the complex rattles, then slams shut. “What the fuck?” Black Magic is roaring as he runs to it again, golf club poised in his hand like a sword. Once more he tears the door open, sees the night sky swirling around him, and a deliberately non-descript white van tearing away. He hurls the club after it, striking it on the roof and producing a dull gong sound that expands through the empty street like a circle of lead.
Back inside – away from those terrifyingly distant daubs of light surrounding and oppressing him – Black Magic breathes more calmly with Suz’s arm around his shoulders.
“I get this awful feeling they’re still watching us,” he says.
“Sleep on it,” she says in an attempt at decisiveness. They go to fuss their new pet, to take their minds off it, but it has burrowed away into the pile of trash bags to hibernate. Beginning to itch, they make their way back upstairs.
On the top step, an inconsiderate person has taken a shit. Black Magic thanks his pagan Gods he did not step in it on the way down. Chiefly, though, they are both thankful it is relatively solid, and confined to one place, rather than spread everywhere as the residents’ shits tend to be. The flies and ants are already bored with it.
The vermin’s new interest is itself vermin. A rat has been cut in half by the elevator doors, which now have its blood smeared up the middle. Because the complex pre-dates the formal existence of disabled people, the elevator only comes down to here, on the first floor, and now as Black Magic and Suz pass it, it grinds open.
“Beast him. Yes, I’m deadly serious, beast him. Look here now, he’s your cousin. I can’t make you do anything, I’m just the messenger, I’m just delivering a harsh truth. I don’t care if he’s twelve, he’ll thank you for it,” says English Tom on his phone, before stepping on the half a rat. “Oh, how frightful.”
“Thomas,” nods Black Magic in a tone that could very easily be mock-deferential, but isn’t.
“Evening, old boy,” says English Tom. “Just out for a night-time stroll. There’s a couple of fiends out there, eyeing up the block. Keeping tabs on us, you know.”
“Not fiends in a white van?” English Tom’s expression flickers. “We just scared them off.”
He steps backwards into the elevator. “Sleep lightly,” he says casually, and vanishes behind the closing doors.
They get safely home, and take a pair of shots so good, it leaves them far too content to even think about sex. They sleep soundly, curled up into each other.
A floor below, the burgeoning biomass mines down into a less sentient trash bag, its spiritual brother, and begins consuming and incorporating everything it can, washing down those greasy little sacks of reclaimed potato that were nowhere near a full meal and barely even a repast.
The heat of the active biomass shows up through walls, even around the similarly heated water pipes and electrical cabling of the complex, on equipment that is sophisticated enough. The fiends in the white van pick it out easily from their fresh vantage point two blocks away, and begin making plans.
Black Magic ruffles through the week’s money in the morning, simultaneously ruffling his brains as to where that thirty dollars can have gone, when the phone explodes in a jangle. Not the mildly tinny music of his or Suz’s respective mobile phones, but the standard rattling ringer of the apartment landline – it lies in the corner, gathering cobwebs, which are now rudely torn aside.
“Ah, Magic,” says English Tom’s unmistakable voice. “Do you ever think much about community, and scripture? Loving one’s neighbour as oneself, and such.”
“I love everyone, Tom, you know that,” says Black Magic, still half-asleep.
“Listen here, old sprout, why don’t you meander up here for a drink?”
“Sounds fucking ominous,” says Suz. “He’d better not be Birdman’s stepbrother or something.”
“Fuck, you think I’m not worried about that? Fact is, right now he’s got the advantage of me. If I go up there he might not give me another consignment, but if I don’t go, he sure as fuck won’t give me shit.”
Both of them briefly think about extending this argument further, but know it would be pointless and immaterial. The prospect of no more heroin is bleaker than either would care to deal with, particularly now in the cold light of the morning that creeps around the curtains and throws things into stark shadow.
And they do try and fight it. They try and recapture the carefree, loving anecdotes that came so readily the night before, that now stutter and peter out like a dying engine. Suz feels the familiar flu-ish symptoms coming on, and Black Magic knows his are not far off. There it is, the sickness that pumps through their veins corroding whatever it touches. They both know that they will become brittle, hollow, ready to snap at anything. They will upset the other and then be angry with themselves for doing it.
So Black Magic staggers out. The building seems hostile today, the harsh light revealing all the sharp edges and unfortunate stains. When he goes for the elevator somebody is freebasing in it. They curse and plead so horribly he redirects himself to the stairs without a word.
The whole way upstairs, he worries about his money situation. How he has paid off English Tom promptly up until now, and how he has literally no frame of reference for how the man might react. A young man, maybe even just a boy, runs blindly down the stairs and nearly knocks him over.
Sweating and starting to really hate everything around him, he reaches the door to English Tom’s fabulous penthouse apartment. Up here in the rarefied atmosphere the carpet is barely even burnt. “Come,” is the oily reply when he knocks.
He goes in through the open door, and feels himself jerked out of position with an arm around his neck. Whoever it is grabbing him flashes a blade in his face as they pat him down. They zero in on the wad in his pocket, pull it out into the open air, and toss it on the coffee table.
“I think that’s enough of that,” says English Tom, not looking up from his phone. The arm releases, and Black Magic rubs his neck.
“He’s light,” says the woman behind him, stalking around into the light. She wears plain, angular clothes that look like surgical scrubs. The flesh of her arms puffs out above her long gloves in a way that draws Black Magic’s eye.
“Let’s not fuss about that. What’s a little lightness between friends? Besides, there’s more important things. Here you are, Magic, have a partake.” The woman reacts, drawing out a filled syringe and laying it on the table between the two men.
“What’s this about?” asks Black Magic, sitting down as he does in a desperate attempt to keep things casual.
“I’m not happy, Black Magic. I’m not happy with the way things are.” Black Magic pauses halfway through rolling up his sleeve, worried by this. Worried that the syringe he has been given contains an overdose, or something crueller. And he must weigh this against the other horn of the situation, that there is no other way of keeping things casual.
English Tom has paused his speech, and is now waiting, watching expectantly. Black Magic tries not to groan, and readies his arm, puts the needle to it.
“You’ve seen them. They’re keeping tabs on us, seeing what it is we do. Neither of us want that.”
Instantly Black Magic feels the sickness full and strong, feels how long it has been, and depresses the plunger almost involuntarily. He doesn’t want another furious internal debate about the logistics of going without.
“I don’t know who they are. I don’t want to know. What I want, old fruit, is for you to deal with it.” He reaches under a cushion and draws out a shrivelled-looking garbage bag.
Black Magic is flying already when this happens. He interprets the bag, instinctively, as the shrunken corpse of whoever it was poking around. He wonders whether he is now meant to feed it, or take it to the incinerator.
English Tom throws the bag on the table and it makes a solid gunmetal clunk.
“So I incinerate them, then,” Black Magic concludes, still coming off his alternate train of thought, and English Tom chuckles at the turn of phrase.
Downstairs, Suz is attempting to postpone the inevitable. She has left the apartment, double- and triple-checking the lock has held, and ventured to the stairwell, to visit the garbage bag.
She slips on the fifth-to-last step. Her neurons fire off like the gears of a clock, and she distinctly remembers slipping on a step in the depths of school, showing lots of leg, and the unpleasant things people said about that. She remembers comparing her legs to Cyndie Drumble’s and losing. She imagines a recurrent fear, of treading wrongly and her leg buckling then breaking and the splintered bone slicing outward through the skin.
By the last step she grabs the banister and shakes it as she does, as though it had betrayed her family name. She storms down to the garbage vestibule, wishing only to get whatever she’s doing over with and get back to the apartment. Then she sees the bag, slithering lazily over the other bags, and it turns and sees her. It makes a cooing sound.
She walks up cautiously, so as not to disturb it, and lowers herself gently to sit among it in the bags. Everything is forgotten. “Hey, little thingy,” she says softly. Its big, dull eyes grant unmoving consent as she extends a hand, hesitates, then begins to stroke it.
It does not feel entirely like a garbage bag. As yesterday, Suz notes to herself, it is pleasantly warm. But then to her cosmic elation, she realises now, from this greater contact, that she can feel the distinct pulse of life within it, the rigid sensations of organs beneath the skin, and nearly coos with amazement herself.
The little bag makes different, subtler noises, that shake it from within like a cat’s purr. Then it convulses, and sicks up a patch of grease onto Suz’s filthy trousers. She finds it hard to care. It crawls closer, trying to curl itself around her and adhere to her body.
“You just want to be cuddled, don’t you?” she says, as though it will respond. It simply stays there, vibrating softly on her side. She looks about self-consciously, even though she is out of sight of anyone down here. Then she asks, “Todd? Are you in there?”
And she waits for a reply.
“If that’s you, like, jump up and down, or spin around or something.”
She waits again. As she does, she looks into the thing’s curious eyes and reflects it’s nowhere near that level of cogitation, even if Todd is alive in there. She gives up waiting and squeezes it instead, and it coos again.
For a few moments, she fantasises about taking it home. Naming it, perhaps, watching it grow bigger, stronger, over the days and months. Then she imagines Black Magic’s horror at the sanctity of the apartment being breached, and the fantasy dies.
He would, too, she thinks bitterly, he would go crazy over that, let alone when it’s by something alien and outside like the bag. But then she reassures herself, imagining it can happily roam free down here, amongst its own kind. The space is dingy, but so is the bag. She sits back, relieved and pleased with herself to have gotten around this minor crisis.
The sickness is there, somewhere in the background. It is almost eclipsed by the degree to which she feels eerily content. There should, she hypothesises, be something degrading and repellent about lying back almost prone in a pile of trash bags yet there is not. And of course, this is even with one of the bags on top of her, nearly napping.
She lies there hidden in the dark, listening to footsteps come and go with absolutely no idea. After a bleary while she comes to think that Black Magic will have no idea where she’s gone. This very real concern, after some thought, overrides her strong desire to keep lying there. With a heroic effort, after one or two goes, she gets herself upright, back into the real world, slipping out from under the bag. It gives her the same curious look, and starts rummaging in the pile.
When she finally decides to turn away and leave, the door to the block opens. Two beings in Hazmat suits walk in, holding tablets in front of their faces, and she freezes as they walk business-like toward her.
“I can’t seem to get a lock at this range,” says the lead figure, a man’s voice, turning a dial on his tablet. The second puts the tablet down, actually looks in front of their face, and gapes. Suz doesn’t even need to follow their gaze to know what they’re seeing – they’re seeing the bag, she thinks, they’re going to take it away and be real pricks about it too.
“Miss, your leg!”
In dull surprise, she looks down. Initially she doesn’t see it, but then notices flashes of pallid skin as she moves. A patch of her jeans has been burnt away, and so has the flesh underneath – left a similar dark colour. She has a momentary out-of-body lurch at how she still does not feel it.
“What happened? What did it do?” says the first Hazmatted man, squatting to take a closer look.
“It didn’t do anything, and I didn’t see anything,” says Suz firmly, defaulting to her anti-authoritarian reflexes. The Hazmatted man stands back up and strikes her with the back of his hand, playing directly into her thought process.
“It’s in there,” says the second, advancing on the mound of bags. “Look, you cooperate and you’ll get through this just fine.” She stares back at him, not speaking. He kicks at the piled bags, and gives an order to come out.
Suz gasps involuntarily as she sees the bag – her bag, she already thinks of it as her bag – peeping down at them between the banisters.
“Certainly she’s a monstrosity,” English Tom is droning on the other side of the vast, chemical valley that is practically tearing the room asunder. Over in his reality, his woman – and she is, obviously, his woman – is twitching aside the curtains to peer out. “That’s simply one of those horrible slanders people apply to people they dislike, it doesn’t really mean anything.”
The door thumps. It echoes in Black Magic’s skull. He watches paralysed as the woman crosses over to it, and passes a little sealed package out to the faceless thing on the other side – while keeping her knife at the ready, artfully behind her back.
“I mean, look at me, old son, I lie, I cheat, I steal, that is just normal, that’s my terrible up-broughtness. Morally I am well ahead of the curve.”
Black Magic is in no mood for morality. He would like, more than anything else, to go home and sleep off this shot – English Tom’s woman seems to have overestimated his tolerance. If pressed, he would dully agree to shoot dead anything invading the block, so long as that could get him out of here.
“Lillifer here steals opiates from the sick, that, that’s nothing. Half the nurses in this country are at it. One might argue, they might, Black Magic, say that she, at least, is taking personal responsibility in selling them on, as opposed to sending them down her veins.”
Lillifer’s pretty eyes flash between English Tom, and the trash bag that leans on Black Magic’s side, weighing him down and threatening to send him sinking straight through the couch.
“You’re probably concerning yourself with the idea I’m asking you to murder policemen, you know, don’t worry about that. They’re not the law, they’re not even federal men. Those operate differently. I told you I didn’t know who they are, nobody seems to know that.”
English Tom sits forward, steepling his fingers, raising his eyebrows and going for a bad-dude crescendo, going for his absolute oily best.
“That’s why they’ve got to go.”
In his youth, when he was what English Tom would call a ‘nipper’, Black Magic was scared of the dark. Terrified, even. But at some turning point in his early adolescence, he read some weird fiction that told him differently. It was not, the text explained, the dark he was scared of, but the unknown. What might potentially be lurking in that dark.
“You can trust me,” says Black Magic. Whether English Tom is dangerous normally is irrelevant now. He is scared and definitely dangerous to anyone within arm’s reach, probably to anyone within the block. Better to go along with whatever delusions he might have, than risk worrying him further.
“I do hope so,” says English Tom. He tries to form a smile as his heavy eyes lift and meet Black Magic’s for the first time. “Now see to it – oh, I almost forgot.” He knocks aside a cushion, and from behind it takes a bottle of grappa. “Your drink, as discussed. A toast, to this understanding of ours.”
He pours out healthy measures into used Dixie cups. Black Magic takes his at a swallow, hoping in the time-honoured tradition it will make him feel a little better. It does not. For a moment he feels as though the sickness has returned, filtered through the shot like a fog, but then realises that this is different, he genuinely is somewhat fluey – and that little bite on his hand is itching like a thousand flies.
The men in Hazmat suits have Suz pinned against the greasy wall. One has his gloved, sealed hand clamped over her mouth. She glares back at them, wondering if they honestly think nobody’s tried this on her before. The other takes what looks like a Maglite from his belt, and pushes a button – electricity arcs and spits across the head.
“You get one more chance to walk out of this,” one of them says, their moving mouth just about visible through their foggy visor. They sound regretful, but not in a manner that suggests they would hesitate. There is a revolting, high-pitched choking noise from behind them. Without releasing Suz, they turn their heads, to see the little bag hanging through the banisters, regurgitating a filled condom. It falls to the ground, unseen – their attention is on the bag.
“I never imagined such things could be,” one of them breathes inside their suit. “I mean, I’ve seen bioconstructs, but never one that incorporates synthetics quite like that.”
“Ok,” says the other one carefully, “put her down.”
Suz’s eyes widen in fear, just before she gets the electric torch jammed in her ribs. She convulses violently and slips out of consciousness. They release her, let her fall to the floor, and notice that something has burned gaping holes in their gloves where they covered the orifices of her head.
There is a squeak of gasping air as the little bag fails to make it up the next step of the stairwell. It reaches out its blank limbs to try again.
“Get her in the van, quick,” says the man wielding the electric torch. “I’ll grab the thing.” Cheeping in fear, the bag manages to make it up onto the next floor as the man charges up the stairwell after it. It scampers along the corridor, eerily quick.
The elevator door grinds open. Black Magic sees the bag go past, obviously fearing for its life, and then the Hazmatted man run after it. This is all he needs to step out into the corridor, plunge his hand into his bag and let off a burst of fire into the retreating back of the Hazmat suit.
He staggers, not from the recoil of the weapon so much as from the sudden light and sound. In the enclosed space it is like launching fireworks from his fingertips. The itching and the strange illness has his head twisted already, and right now nothing is helping that.
“Good man,” drawls English Tom, stepping out of the elevator around Black Magic, advancing on the crumpled Hazmat and patting it down, rooting through the pockets. He draws his fingers through the bullet wounds and examines their bloodiness, laughing to himself. “Yes, that’s the way to do it.”
“They’re on us already, it’s like they know,” says Lilifer in a low grumble, looking up and down the corridor. “What the hell is that thing?”
“Don’t worry about that,” says Black Magic. “It’s just, like, a garbage bag, it’s harmless.” Some eldery, grey woman peeks out her front door through morbid curiosity, and Lilifer hisses at her, actually hisses, a feral sound that sends her into full retreat.
“You saw nothing,” commands English Tom, to the woman’s closed, and, by the sounds of it, double-locked door. He turns to Black Magic. “They won’t have come alone.”
And the second Hazmatted man appears at the top of the stairwell, large elements of his suit melting away now. He has foregone his electric torch in favour of the machine pistol that was slung discreetly by his hip, and he has the advantage here, ready to take out everyone in the corridor with one controlled volley.
He has forgotten that he has spent upwards of five minutes down there, in the ground zero of refuse and decay. It has torn apart his suit, it is rallying against his immune system, and now it has jammed his gun, corroded the metal to the point it will not function. He beats his fist on it, cursing, as Black Magic blows him away. The muscles under his suit give out and inertia sets in, taking his body tumbling back down the stairwell.
“You do that well,” says Lilifer, giving Black Magic a little earned smile. He lets the bagged-up gun fall to his side, and the brass casings spill out through the bag’s puncture wounds like drops of fat yellow blood. He turns his head, looking up the corridor for the living bag, but it has gone - clearly fled for cover.
Suz blinks through her concussion. The adrenaline pounding through her is tackling the sickness head-on and she still feels awful. There is the distinct sensation her body is going through its own trash, metabolising the dregs and remnants of all the heroin she has put through it. She imagines all of her blood pooled, and herself on the edge, dropping in dime-bags and needles, more than that volume of liquid should be able to hold, as though she is constantly feeding some persistent sacred font.
Perhaps if her addiction was so, she could burn out the bad parts. Separate them, distil the blood, but then she thinks of how the dopamine receptors in her brain will have become attuned with practice to the unique rhythm of the poppy. She imagines burning out the bad anyway, really just hoping for help.
There is pressure on her chest and she comes back into the waking world with a great gasp of air. The bag looks fatly down at her, and mouths her affectionately.
“Oh, little thing,” she says, throat dry. “Go, get help.”
The fallen man at the foot of the stairs coughs, spits blood through his splintered visor, and says “It’s not at that level of cogitation, you idiot. If a bioconstruct got to that level you’d know it.”
“Who the hell are you?”
“Department of the Treasury,” he says, mockingly, as drily as possible with a whole throat damp with blood. “I would tell you. You wouldn’t know the name, though. We were meant to stop any potential contaminations, like that one on your leg.”
“This isn’t even hurting,” says Suz, with some attempt at bravado.
“Yes, that’s the most interesting part. My guess would be it’s already affecting your neurochemistry – your brain.”
Suz doesn’t even roll her eyes at that. She reflects that at its core, the brain is just electrical impulses, and begins to worry that the Taser may be having unfamiliar psychoactive effects.
“It’s quite possible in nature. You have parasites, for instance, in insects, encouraging them to be eaten by larger creatures and so spread the parasite further, by physically getting into their brain and screwing with it. You even have infant humans causing the mother’s brain to release feel-good hormones through touch.”
Now Suz thanks the gods, all of them, that it’s just the withdrawal and possibly the Tasering putting her in this place. She sluggishly realises the man has been shot, and wonders who did something awful like that.
“Something killed that fella’ Birdman,” booms English Tom, coming down from above with the stairs squealing in pain under him. “They thought someone cut him and took flight, but they didn’t find anyone.”
“Oh, you can’t be serious,” says Hazmat. “You don’t even grasp this, do you?”
English Tom makes a gesture, and Lilifer slips ahead of him down the stairs. As Hazmat tries to explain the wonder behind it all, Lilifer goes for his head with her heel. She lands it expertly on his temple and crushes some delicate and vital vessels.
“It’s this thing, isn’t it?” says English Tom finally, waving toward the bag, which has turned to face the newcomers. “By God, it is alive.”
“What’s the move?” says Lilifer.
“Looks like we sell it as a bio-weapon,” he says doubtfully. “Doesn’t seem kosher, does it? Now the state’s involved I say kill it and be done with it.”
Suz tries to hold on to the bag, which cheeps and mewls pitifully, but Lilifer has greater leverage and harsh kicking shoes. As it is torn from Suz’s arms something pricks her, and as it is carried away she spots the needle, jutting out of its body. She feels the hit instantly, wonders if it somehow knew, and says “It never did nothing to you.”
Her ears cut out. She sees Lilifer bring her foot down on the bag, and then the look on her face as she sinks into it up to the knee. The air fills with daubs of light, far above Black Magic leans over the edge and unleashes metal hell at them.
His shadow flicks down the stairs and he is at her side. Ringing and echoing to the point of distortion, she hears him ask “What did they do to you, Suz? What did they do?”
A man in a gas mask and fatigues walks into the block behind him, and fires a syringe into him from a crossbow. For a second he teeters on the edge of overdose from the chemical cocktail in his heart, then overcomes it and collapses into merciful blackout sleep.
“Ah, jeez,” says the man in the gas mask, as more people in identical gas masks appear around him. “Looks like a bad one.”
The cleaning crew are too late to stop the regurgitated condom from crawling slug-like into the heaving pile of the whole block’s trash bags. As the last person on the last shift prepares to leave, a lump of pulsating garbage taller than a man shambles up from behind and opens a vortex of glass-chip teeth and engorged candy wrappers.
The other members of the cleaning crew hear the commotion and hurry back inside, already thinking how they have breached various Isolation Protocols. They come in with their weapons ready, but there is nothing left, apart from a vomited puddle of rinds and band-aids. They notice the missing bags and make the only assumption they can.
The block is strategically detonated. It is reported as a routine demolition and backdated city council documents are fabricated. Inquisitive family members are subsequently led to believe that their missing relatives were suicidally depressed and had been for some time.
This is easier with some than others. Suz’s relatives are all too eager to believe it. Black Magic’s parents are sceptical, but eventually buy it on being shown his forged diary, a record of his decline and fall. And they are very close to wrapping up his story, until they realise that at some point in the past few days, his unconscious body has gone missing.
“Fuck a humanoid. This one was sapiens sapiens.”
“Think it can still be taken alive?”
Someone steps out of their apartment in front of them, gazes into the empty eyes of their gas masks, and runs. They don’t even shelter in their apartment, they know there’s no shelter to be had, they panic so hard they actually leap out a window and lacerate themselves.
“There’s a lot of biomass. You ever seen that much?”
The new cleanup crew stop in front of the door to the bottomless pit, the shaft this anonymous block shovels all their trash down, and they tear it open. The wind hits them, as though it really is a bottomless pit and they now stand on the precipice. They turn on powerful electric lamps and in front of them a swarm of living bags disperse and scurry back to the darkness.
Black Magic rolls over, into the light, and looks up at them. “Oh no,” he says, “you guys again.”
He raises the bloated, glistening thing on the end of his arm. Organic valves inside it expand and contract, and through overwhelming pressure of fluid it fires a nugget of bone through the forehead of the leading gas mask. It could potentially be any fluid that does this, even water, although it is not.
The other members of the cleanup crew back away. Black Magic’s protuberance fires too quickly for them. The last one, though, he only gets in the shins. Weird crinkly minions drag the man inside the trash pit, and sit him upright. Even through his gas mask he picks up on the stink of the place, of years’ worth of garbage decomposing in a confined area.
“Tell me where you took them,” says Black Magic. Not angrily, just certain that if he doesn’t get an answer he will do something bad.
“I’m dead anyway,” comes the reply.
“Oh no you’re not.” There is some noise in the background. Ever since all the wax in Black Magic’s ears turned liquid and ran down his neck, he’s been hearing things like there’s no tomorrow.
He steps outside, out of the block, feeling absolutely wonderful. There is no sickness anymore. If he feels like it is coming on, in seconds one of the bags has appeared with a little bit of a needle and makes things better. He doesn’t need to inject it any more. Just puts it inside himself.
And he is doing good. When some poor beaten body gets consigned to the pit, he is good to them. Some of the bags hum along with the nervous system of a cockroach. A fair few are more complex and anthropoid. The cleanup crew’s helicopter hangs there in the middle of the street, observing him. He sees them moving in their seats, reacting.
“There,” one of the pilots says, looking ahead through a screen, “that thing there, it’s got the same signature, that’s what we’re looking for.”
Black Magic wonders how this can be done, comes up with an idea, and as he does the nearest bag opens its maw and sticks out a tin can loaded with a hardened ball of waste material. The sealed end of the can is filled with volatile fluid – the bags have eaten bottles of vodka, tins of lighter fuel, all kinds of things.
The bag fires off its own effluent like a little mortar. The crusty, noxious ball hits the helicopter dead in its windshield, and immediately begins to dissolve it. The crew inside scream, consider simply jumping ship, but they are already being eaten away themselves by the various hungry chemicals. In seconds the helicopter’s propulsion is irrevocably damaged, it is tilting listlessly to one side, and finally destroys itself against the side of a block.
Black Magic smiles. Not at having taken lives, that is a lingering source of regret. It is just that psychoactive drugs never gave him visions like this.
The police arrive five minutes later, five minutes too late. The first officer on the scene sees the closing sewer grate, sprints across the street over to it, and sees only a flash of dark green plastic that spits poison in their face before vanishing below.
Then the cleanup man tears choking and coughing out of the block, his protective suit hissing and sizzling at the edges. To his relief the police credit his top-secret ID, and take him home, leaving a trail of half-artificial hormones a mile wide in their wake. With the right eyes it glows like a river of light.
Suz wakes up painfully again. She sees blank white surroundings and smells antiseptic, and relaxes, just about used to waking up in hospital. Going over her most recent memories seems to explain how she ended up here, and she relaxes, not noticing that the door is hermetically sealed.
Thinking back reminds her of the loss of the bag. Out of nowhere, she laughs internally at that, reminded of the time she and Black Magic lost a different bag. They were sad about that one, too. But quickly it is too obvious how it was not the same. Her bag had a nightmarishly brief existence, knowing only squalor, and then got stomped to death. She tries to think of how she made it better, but it doesn’t help, knowing something she held and loved is dead.
The worst part, of course, is how the little thing made it better as it was wrenched from her arms and about to die, gave her the last shot. She feels horrendously guilty about feeling so good as she watched it die. The oncoming sickness isn’t helping with her mood either. She feels empty, as though she has been scraped out from the inside, as though there is a hole in her.
There is. When she sits up and the blanket slips down, her left nipple is gone and in its place is a cluster of spongy, cheeselike holes. To look at them she would assume that some hungry burrowing worm got at her while she was unconscious.
In fear, she reflexively pushes down on an imaginary needle. Instead she gets the button of her morphine drip. She curses it, knowing this is just putting off the withdrawal for later. But it is solving a lot of her problems right now. She touches the holes, and the calloused-looking skin around them has the smooth, unnatural texture of a plastic trash bag. It is warm, too, the same sensation of biological warmth as her bag. It doesn’t feel too bad.
There is nobody around. There are no sounds coming from outside the room. There is no clock on the wall, which has Suz gradually, sleepily realising that this is less of a hospital room than it is a cell. She takes out the IV, wondering if it is what has made her track marks so much more prominent and bruised. She tries to use it to cut the plastic ties that secure her legs, but already they are dissolving, freeing her. She gets up and now she sees the sealed door, taking it in stride as a grim inevitability. She looks around the room for heavy objects, but what furniture there is has been melded to the floor. Something moves on the other side of the goldfish-bowl window in the door. She creeps closer to look out. A man in the standard Hazmat suit is silently wheeling Lilifer along on a gurney – her knuckles are bloody and her face has been shot apart. In seconds they are out of sight.
Suz goes back to bed. After a while she contemplates putting the IV back into her arm. When she is almost at the point of doing so, the lights flicker, then go out. The door swings open with a hiss. She walks out eagerly.
Possibly the same man in the same Hazmat suit is crawling along the corridor towards her. His legs drag uselessly behind him, one is obviously broken, bent in an unhealthy direction. He tries to beg for help but the sound simply won’t come.
Behind him, one door hangs wide open. A fat red bag marked with a biohazard symbol flops out, not moving like the other bags. The heat of the mixing biomass inside weakens the material, and thick tendrils melt out of its shapeless form. They are lumpy and crudely formed, but not terrible imitations of arms and legs.
It takes a step forward. Something in Suz expected the thing to shamble inhumanly, instead it walks stiffly, legs apart – she thinks for a second the fine hairs on its skin are pricking up. But they are actually the cruel points of needles.
It is standing over the broken man, contemplating, seeming as though at any second it could go in for the kill. Suz knows she must take action, must do something to stop it from snuffing out the man’s life. Sure this place has taken her prisoner, but this poor bastard just works here. The red thing, though? It’s probably frightened and crazy and dangerous.
She steps forward and puts her arms around it. It might be all those needles, but she gets the impression it is cuddling back.