Horror Fiction:

" Harmburger "

Written by Jonathan Wojcik

   I'd worked with meat for most of my life. Delis, slaughterhouses, even a sausage factory. Not glamorous, no, but it paid the rent and I was used to it. Apparently I was even exceptional at it, since I'd suddenly been invited to interview for a "once in a lifetime opportunity" in "high end meat service." I didn't know what that was supposed to mean. It sounded like a lot of bullshit lingo, and so did most of the interview. I couldn't even tell exactly what the job was supposed to entail. One minute it sounded like food service for a wealthier crowd, the next like quality control at a factory. Whatever the hell it was, I was sure I'd get the hang of it, and it paid easily twice what I was used to earning.

  That was assuming, of course, that I even got the job. My interviewer was emotionally unreadable and remarkably unremarkable, like some cartoonish parody of a stuffy federal agent. Suit, tie, cheap haircut, glasses, nearly monotone speech pattern. I couldn't even tell that our meeting was concluded when he stiffly extended his arm for an uncomfortably cold, moist handshake.

  That was the last thing I remembered before the meat locker.

  I awoke alone on its hard, tiled floor with blurred vision. I was still dressed for the interview. Had I been drugged? Had I tripped and fallen? I searched my memory for some kind of company tour, anything that might have filled in the blanks.

  I sat up and took in my surroundings. Huge beef carcasses swung softly in the corner. Every wall was dominated by shelves of riveted sheet metal, packed full of butchered parts. Another corner was occupied by immense metal drums, probably filled with processed scrap. There were large coolers to my left and a massive shelf of what looked like pickle jars to my right. The door was more like a bank vault's than a freezer, with a wheel-like mechanism that didn't even belong on the inside.

  It didn't budge in any direction. Locked.

  I called for help. I pounded with my fists. I tried my phone. No signal. I was more angry than afraid, forgetting the entire mystery of how I got here and just pissed that an allegedly "high end" business would be this goddamn careless. I was already formulating my complaint speech when it started to dawn on me that I wasn't cold.

   That didn't make sense.

  The lights were working, and I could hear the hum of machinery, but the room was barely cool. Nothing frozen, nothing even frosty. It was even a little warm. By the time everything had thawed like this, the stink should have been suffocating, but there wasn't a hint of anything other than freshly butchered, bloody meat. It was as if every last thing in here had been chopped up only moments before I arrived.

  Anger slowly gave way to curiosity as I more closely investigated the contents of the vault. I couldn't tell what most of these things even were. You learn a lot about anatomy when you've been cutting it apart for a living. What I'd taken to be beef carcasses were all wrong, completely different bone structure. Not deer, hopefully not horse. The plucked birds varied wildly in size and shape, none the usual barnyard fowl. Nearby was a rack of what looked like skinned snakes. There were things that reminded me of elephant's trunks, crocodile tails, ostrich talons, even a pile of severed, monkey-like feet, but the proportions were a little funny. The colors and textures seemed just slightly unnatural.

  Nothing was even labeled in a language I could name. It all looked like meaningless squiggles, like a child pretending to emulate a foreign alphabet. Stamped everywhere was the same stupid looking company icon; a smiling, cartoon hamburger in a tiny little chef's hat, big round Simpsons-looking eyeballs staring straight ahead.

  Still playing tough-guy, I could only think that all this shit must have cost a fortune. Half of it was probably on an endangered list, somewhere. I wondered if I could blackmail these assholes. I spent another few minutes screaming for attention. I banged at the door with with a big, heavy can of God knows what. I tried my phone again. Still nothing. Worse still, I was beginning to feel hungry. How long had I even been here?

  I wasn't about to try eating anything raw, but I had yet to give the pickle shelf a closer look. There were hundreds of jars. Something in them had to be palatable. I considered how expensive they might be, but they'd have to have a lot of gall to charge me at this point.

  The jars were oddly dusty, as though they hadn't been touched in months. I picked one at random and wiped it clean. Eyeballs. Somehow not surprising.

  I tried another. It was packed with fat, white spiders. Some people. I passed again on what resembled a bundle of spaghetti erupting from a heart, ditto on the purple maggots. A jar of fetal mice was the only thing I'd ever actually seen for sale as food before, in a Korean market, and probably the only thing I wouldn't have bitten into to save my life. Another jar was filled with something black, fuzzy and tangled. It didn't look like anything.

  As I held it up to the light for a closer look, it jerkily, abruptly twisted in its glass prison with a muffled, gurgling squelch. I let out a mighty F-bomb and fell straight on my ass. The jar sailed from my clutches and shattered hard against the floor. The thing inside uncurled. It looked like a slick, black octopus. Its little arms flexed. It was alive.

  I gagged a little, watching the tiny squid-thing drag itself nowhere in particular. How was that even possible? What the hell survives PICKLING?

  The wiggling glob set off an avalanche of new alarm bells. Things I'd skimmed over were coming back to gnaw my brain. Keeping my distance from the shattered jar and its impossible contents, I rifled through shelves with a new found awe and disgust, registering things my brain had been refusing to dwell on. Elephant trunks? Was I an idiot? What the hell kind of elephant has a trunk with fangs on the end? What bird has webbed, metallic fins where it's supposed to have wings? What in God's name has a head like a hairy sawfish and no eyes? The "snakes," on closer inspection, had legs. A lot of legs. Something like a six-winged housefly was impaled on a skewer, as big as a Maine lobster. Even I knew that insects didn't have little human-looking teeth and jaws.

  Anger was all I had to drown out my growing terror. I stomped around the Pantry From Beyond for over an hour, calling for help again whenever my lungs stopped aching. I popped open one of the coolers, half expecting a giant tentacle to reach out and pull me inside. I definitely wasn't expecting to find hundreds of perfectly clean, white, cat-like skeletons, neatly shrink wrapped on styrofoam trays. A happy hamburger sticker was plastered to each, its right eye in a mocking wink. "WHO THE FUCK IS EATING SKELETONS!?" I roared aloud to nobody as I slammed it shut.

  I was almost too baffled, too frustrated to hear the metallic clinking behind me. The long, groaning creak was what caught my attention.

  The sound of a door opening. Of THE door opening.

  The rage, the fear, the million and a half desperate questions all but melted away. Tears were already welling in my eyes as I turned to greet my savior.

  Standing in the doorway was a hamburger in a chef's hat.

  Now, you might expect anyone's first instinct to be that this was only some poor bastard in a stuffy costume, perhaps on his way to dance around for some snotty brats when he happened to pass by and heard me shrieking. You would have had to have been there to know just how blatantly, immediately wrong it all was.

  No corporation, no human being in their right mind would have commissioned this abomination as an advertising mascot. Not with every ground gobbet of meat in steaming, glistening detail. Not with black and green splotches of mold eating away at its oversized bun. Not with waxy streams of curdled grease dribbling to the floor like frothy dog slobber and sure as hell not with the overwhelming, unmistakable stink of hot, moist, extremely spoiled meat. Even at a distance I could see the undulation of tiny, white maggots.

  The huge, wet, bloodshot eyeballs pulsed rhythmically in their lidless, perfectly circular sockets, and the thing's improbably long, ropy ground-beef arms wobbled around like the limbs of a marionette. Its legs were strangely bare. Hairy, knobbly and disturbingly tiny; the legs of an ancient, emaciated dwarf. They also connected with the body a good five feet apart.

  There was absolutely no way for anything shaped like a human being to be inside this thing.

  We stared each other down in an awkward, thoughtless silence, man and sandwich, for what seemed like several minutes when it reached one of its slimy muppet arms back to the door and slowly, calmly pulled it shut. From somewhere behind its back, it withdrew the biggest meat cleaver I'd ever seen outside a Looney Tunes bit.

  Oh Jesus Fuck.

  I took a step back. IT took a step forward. A dangling clot of meat plopped wetly to the floor like a hunk of shit.

  Before I knew it, the ugly, tiny legs had whipped into a frenzy of motion, a mad skitter I can only compare to a dog trying to tap-dance on an ice rink, though the whole thing only glided forward in a slow, steady pace, burger-body wobbling like a jell-o mold but never quite tipping over. It would have been damn entertaining if a rather large and sharp slab of metal didn't come sailing within an inch of my stomach.

  You never really know your own reflexes until they're keeping your intestines where they belong. The locker may have been huge, but the thing had a good five foot or six foot reach. It took another shot at my stomach. I fell backwards as it went for my eyes and rolled just in time to save an ankle, the weapon sticking for one life-saving moment in some sort of inside-out sloth. It dawned on me that none of these precisely aimed strikes would have actually killed me, and I made a noise unbecoming of an adult.

  The rest of our battle, if you can call it that, was a continuous rush of blind, primal panic. I overturned boxes, I threw whatever I could lift. I tore around the room like a trapped animal as a god-damn hamburger tried to maim me in a vault full of dead monsters. Go ahead and laugh, asshole.

  I was in hysterics by the time I got a shot at the door. It wasn't locked anymore, but the damn wheel could only turn at a snail's pace. I could hear the bastard skittering behind me, the whistle of the cleaver closer and closer. I was finally about to give up on the door when I heard the splat.

  He had fallen.

  He was flat on his stupid fucking sandwich face.

  It was the pickle jar. The one I'd broken. He had slipped on that black, oily octopus thing like a banana peel, leaving a long, dark smear on the floor. He didn't move a muscle, assuming he had any.

  Despite everything I'd seen up to this point, I was not expecting what happened next.

  Swiftly and silently, the room stirred to life. I'm not even ashamed to say I pissed myself. So would you. I'd practically earned it by now.

  Claws flexed. Eyes snapped open. Skinned and headless bodies teetered upright on bony stubs. Everything in the room that had hypothetically been alive at one time was waking up, and all of their attention was on the prone body of the burger-man. Cuts of meat rippled toward the crumpled beast like caterpillars. Intestines slinked along like sweaty, pale blue worms. The cooler of skeletons burst open, bony bodies trailing whisps of plastic wrap as they poured forth in an antlike stream. Soon, the fallen mascot was barely visible beneath a scrabbling, churning heap of mutilated monsters, a pool of remarkably normal blood spreading rapidly outwards.

  A feeding frenzy. Even the life-saving little squid, none the worse for wear, was inching its merry way towards the nearest hunk of burger. Godspeed.

  Confident the swarming meat was adequately distracted, I turned back to the door and put my full weight on the wheel. An agonizing twelve seconds later, it popped ajar and creakily swung open. I didn't think about what might be on the other side. I slipped out the instant I had room, slammed it shut and locked it tight.

  I collapsed my back against it and slumped to the floor, panting as I came down off my adrenaline high, my mind momentarily refusing to process my new surroundings.

  My oddly familiar surroundings. Not as cold as they should be.

  Something almost, but not quite like the head of a pig licked its chops from a nearby shelf.

  Standing between me and the next door was a small chicken. Plucked and headless.

  It cocked its shotgun.