TW: BODY HORROR, SELF HARM, DEPICTIONS OF DEATH
Tuesday morning, an hour before I have to show up at work, I wake up in a coffin.
It’s dark. Not the claustrophobic kind, but the kind that expands my surroundings, swallows me, leaves me grasping at phantom shapes in an attempt to orient myself. Leaves me stranded in space: starless, cold, loveless.
Somewhere, a deep, echoing distance away, light writhes like a deep sea fish. Pale blue and bitterly neon, it twists on itself again and again, an aching mobius strip that curls somewhere between my eyes and my brain. It sears itself there, resolves into a familiar form.
My alarm blinks, reading 6:30 A.M. An hour after the time I usually wake up.
My alarm blinks, reading 6:32 A.M. I read the numbers, process them. An hour before I have to be at work. I’m going to be late. Bile climbs up my throat, and only the terror gagging me keeps me from throwing up all over myself.
Filled with a desperate fire, I leap out of bed, or try to. Walls meet my twisting, and my hands scrabble around me. The formless darkness resolves itself into unfinished wood, splinters catching my frantic fingers.
Wood above my head, brushing against my nose in a rough caress.
Wood below my feet, solid against my jackrabbiting kicks.
Wood against my barely bent knee as I buck against the confined space.
I’m not afraid of being trapped, of being in close quarters. I can’t afford to be, with the size of my apartment, but here, pressing against tight, unforgiving walls, terror crushes me.
The heartbeat pounding through my bones is a stifled scream saying, ‘I’ll be late, I’ll be late, I’ll be late.’
With my infrequent employment, I tend to have a lot of time to myself. I spend most of it at the local library, on the internet. It almost feels like I’m a kid again, only possessed by a looming anxiety that makes my hands tremble on keyboards.
To further compound the reflection of my childhood, I also spend most of the time scrolling through WikiHow, trawling through articles explaining how to wear velvet dresses, or how to make cats like you.
When I was seven, my parents were freshly divorced. I had to stay at my grandparents’ home in the Ozarks for the summer. My mother was looking for new love and always in the habit of hiding the messier aspects of herself, be it her credit card debt or her massive collection of porcelain figurines. Of course, the messy side of her also included me.
At the time, my grandfather was still healthy enough to move under his own power,and spent most of his day hunting in the woods, or perching his stand with a bottle of wine. Grandmother religiously monitored her beehives, firm in her belief that bee stings could cure anything from joint pains to depressive episodes. Both of them were enjoying their childfree, retired lives, and while they weren’t upset about my presence, they weren’t particularly interested in it either.
For that entire summer, my grandfather walked me to the town’s local library, a single room building with scored wood floors and large windows, whose frame’s peeling white paint littered the top of the bookshelves. Most days the librarian didn’t turn on the AC or the lights, instead, opting to shove the windows open and let the breeze do the rest.
When we got there, my grandfather would say to me, “Remember Marnie, don’t leave until I come back for you. Stay, you hear me, girl? Stay.”
I mostly ignored the dismal children’s section, with its crumb-filled books and their worn-soft corners. After all, I was seven years old now, and my mother had assured me time and time again that it made perfect sense for me to be independent at this age.
Instead, I spent my time perusing the impressive collection of “How To” books. By the end of the summer, I learned how to fold seven basic origami figures, how to create rudimentary stained glass, how to succeed at an interview, and even how to pick up girls.
Now, at a bored and disaffected twenty-seven, I reverted to that state.
Two weeks ago, just before the temp agency found me another job, I read about being buried alive.
I’m tumbling through the air.
Ocean waves below me, heartbreakingly blue. I hit them like I’m falling in love, and they shatter, a broken mirror cradling me. Into them, I sink, and moon jellies drift off my body, bubbling up to the surface.
Striking the water with me and sinking, sinking, sinking: a desktop computer, sheets of printer paper weeping ink, a framed picture whose faces blur with static. A suit, and the man in it. A briefcase form which paper clips scatter into flower petals.
Around us, the dark ocean rises.
Morning damp dirt clings to my face. It drops off in clumps, trailing down in a lover’s caress. All around, graves are washed in pink light. Upon a hill in the distance is a gazebo, its shadow crawling across the ground towards me.
I sigh, and grab the small headstone marking the plot I’m in. My nails are bloodied, ragged from clawing through the earth. With a final tug, I drag myself out of the grave. My suit is filthy, but my boss comes in late anyways, so I’d be able to shake myself free of the dregs of the grave before he saw them. Besides, it was better to walk in covered in grave dirt than lose my job for the sake of a shower.
The grassy hill rolls like an ocean, grave paths rushing tides. They tug at me, pale grey dust foaming underfoot, bubbling around my ankles. If I look back, I know I’ll see it whirlpooling into the grave I left, trying to suck me back in.
I push past it.
If I idled around in life, I’d never afford a grave in death.
This early in the morning the gate is locked, but after digging myself out of a grave it’s a simple effort to leap over it.
Dawn’s milky light soaks everything in an oceanic blue, casting pale shadows in a lattice work across the streets. The noise of the cars that pass is muffled and liquidy, their forms wavering.
The few people on the street waver too. Timid forms, dripping in their suits and ties just like me. Rippling across the buildings, the clouds’ shadows pass like ships far above.
Drifting to the square, I sacrifice myself to the gaping mouth of the MARTA station.
Secretarial work isn’t hard. I’ve long since numbed myself to the horror of phone calls, and paperwork and scheduling are simple tasks that I perform with enough gusto that the rest of the permanent workers know me as someone reliable.
“Hey Marnie, do you know why there’s dirt in the- Oh!” Angelina’s eyes hit like a breaker. I can feel her gaze sweeping across my dusted off but still subtly dirty suit, my greasy face, my battered hands sorting papers. When her eyes pull away, it feels like something of me drags away as well.
“I tripped on my way to the MARTA station,” I say, with a stiff grin that makes Angelina wince.
“Headfirst into a pile of compost?” Her wince rallies itself into a smile that makes my skin feel loose.
“O-Oh. Okay, well, I’ll just go and clean-”
“I’ll do it.” I jump up from behind my desk. The papers I’ve been sorting have greasy smudges from my fingers. This is a good excuse to escape her conversation, clean my hands, and fix the mess I’ve made before it can get to Jason, my boss.
Small sores open up on the palms of my hands while I’m scrubbing them, gnawing themselves open like hungry mouths. They leak a clearish pus that smells like a dumpster during the dead summer heat. Sickly and rotten. Reaching up to grab the first aid kit above the sink, I make eye contact with my reflection. More of those blisters litter her hairline, and she grimaces.
As a temp worker, I have no health insurance. My mother kicked me off of hers as soon as she could. If I squint at them, they look like pimples. Perfectly normal. Perfectly ignorable.
The cheap wood of my desk pulps in the ocean. Its shards swirl around me, tangled in currents. The papers I marked with my greasy fingers swirl up from below, pasting themselves to my arms and legs. They tighten, and their pressure unnerves me.
Fearfully, I cast my gaze downward. In the depths of the ocean, I see stars, the white of teeth, grinning up at me.
Space, cold and loveless, is down there. The space I escape. The space that’s hunting me.
I sink further, and know the brutal, heartless mouth waits for my return.
My window is blocked by another apartment building, and the diffused morning light turns the air to water, shadows melting down the walls to pool in my shower stall. It won’t take much before they fill the shallow basin and devour the toilet that sits within. “Saving space,” my landlord said when she helped me move in, “is the highest form of art.”
My face watches me as I watch the shadows. The Marnie in the mirror is greasy, cheeks puffy and bloated, under-eye bags a foul greenish-red. Her hands are covered in bandages concealing unhealed blisters. She looks like stagnant water, filled to the brim with rot, waiting to be swept away.
We stare blankly at each other. Her eyes are exhausted, too tired to look miserable, but too miserable to seem anything but. I shut them, heaving a sigh that drags my whole body down to rest against the sink. My forehead squeaks against the porcelain.
Eyes unfocused, the white sink swirls in my vision, blurring to a plain of snow, a cloudy sky, a blood-splattered wall.
My knee slams into the sink as I jump up, sending the whole thing shaking uneasily against it’s grout.
In the mirror, my nose drips red, bubbling foam. Each exhale sends it leaking further down my face, and I lurch forward to keep it from getting on my shirt. Unsuccessfully, of course. Blood sinks into my shirt, low on my stomach.
It’ll be a terrible idea to go to work soaked in my own blood. I need to change.
My phone reads 6:59AM. Half an hour to get to work.
I look down, reassess the situation. With how low the blood is, it’ll be easily covered by a suit jacket. After the wretched sight I made the day before yesterday, I know I’m on thin ice. Being late would be the straw that breaks the camel’s back. Just the idea of getting fired, having to clean up my desk, sling my paycheck, is enough to make my decision for me.
The blood on my shirt sticks to my stomach as I leave my apartment.
My boss’ name is Jason. I’ve never cared enough to guess his age, but he’s balding badly enough that half the mail he gets is about various kinds of hair supplements, and he sometimes stares at clients who have particularly nice heads of hair like he wants to hold them down and shave them.
That’s better than how he treats us workers. If anyone eavesdropping heard the way he speaks to us, they’ll think we’re a cross between belligerent middle schoolers and dogs. He speaks to use like he’s afraid of giving us the impression that he thinks we’re human.
Jason’s not the worst boss I’ve ever had.
He didn’t notice my suit situation, after all, though that may be because he’s more interested in us coming in on time, so that the “time” he’s invested in us is repaid in full.
I think my coworkers might disagree with me, at the moment. I can see Jason’s arms, his emphatic pointing, through the frosted glass office door. Marcus got called in earlier over something I’m too busy to be interested in. Something to do with the archaic filing cabinets. Jason’s distant anger is all white noise to me, so I let wash in through one ear and out the other.
The phone rings. I pick it up, and type up an appointment.
The phone rings. I pick it up, and hum agreeably to the complaints of some client or another.
The phone rings. I pick it up and choke down a sigh at the telemarketer’s voice.
The phone rings. I pick it up.
The phone rings.
Jason’s door opens, and his eyes narrow at Marcus, whose broad shoulders are hunched.
“Words are wind, Marcus. Show me you care,” Jason says, he pauses, and looks over at me and my hand, still holding the silent phone to my ear. “And you, Marnie. You look like you crawled out of a sewage treatment facility. Clean up your act.”
I nod obediently. His gaze on the crown of my head is oceanic in its pressure.
I stink of rotting seaweed. More of those blisters showed up and burst, leaving me greasy and radiating a foul smell. Combined with the worsening bloating I feel swollen and disgusting.
Something had to be done, or I’d—
“Do you, like, have something against showering? Is this, like, a political thing? Or are you just naturally rank.” a man around my age says to me from where he stands, holding onto one of the ceiling bars. He’s in board shorts and a loose Eagles t-shirt. A Dad rock guy. His face blurs and glitters like a tidal pool, colors and lights spinning dizzyingly together.
I shake my head mutely, and turn back to the window, curling in on myself. My prey instincts tell me engaging with this man will just delay my arrival at work, ruin my mood for the day.
I tune him out for the rest of the ride with a garbled podcast whose words spin like maple seeds through my ears. Still, he’s turned my awareness to an actual problem.
For the first time in a long time, people notice me on the MARTA. Even being covered in gravedirt hadn’t been enough to draw attention, but now side-eyes brushed by like curious fish. People move away from where I sit, head resting against the window. Their noses wrinkle and disgusted expressions cast themselves my way, some subtle, others less so.
This needs to be solved. In a tight knit working environment thinking someone is gross is enough to ostracize them, and I could not not afford that. Not with rent coming so soon.
I run into CVS. The cashier glances up at me and then just as quickly looks away. The first body-spray I see is watermelon scented, in a tall bottle that advertises that it’s two times more long lasting than the previous formula. It’s on sale, fifty percent off.
I’m in the bathroom before I realize, frantically peeling the plastic cap off with bandaged fingers.
The first squirt, in my haste, goes straight into my face. I blink through burning eyes and angle it downward, spraying it again and again.
If someone comes into the office, notices how I smell, notices how wrecked I look, notices something, anything off with me…
I’m drowning in air, pressure throttling me as surely as a noose. In my blacking vision I see eager stars grinning at me.
When I come back to myself, I’m pressed against the bathroom door. A full body shake brings me to the surface, and I pull my shirt collar to my nose and take a whiff.
I gag, violently.
The watermelon is artificial and cloying, and underneath it is a black, insidious rot. One smell is much worse than the other. Firmly, I unscrew the cap of the body spray and dump it down the back of my shirt.
I know what death looks like.
The first corpse I saw was my grandfather. I went to his home in the Ozarks again when I was sixteen. My mother had a new boyfriend who hated teenagers and she wanted me out of the way so she could play with him for a while. After nine years, my grandfather wasn’t the same man he used to be. A bad fall destroyed his leg and left him unable to walk for extended periods of time.
Once he was stationary, it was all downhill from there.
The man I met at sixteen was bitterly angry when his memories didn’t swallow him whole. He complained constantly, saying that his pension should’ve covered the surgery, that he did more for that company than they ever did for him, that he just wanted one more day to hunt and then they could take him.
I nodded along, never knowing what to say to a man who never seemed to know what to say to me.
A month after I got there, I woke up in the middle of the night. The sky was pierced by stars in a way the city sky never is, and they cast a shivering white light over the woods whose edges sidled up to my grandmother’s beehives. Slinking between the hives was a dark figure. I assumed it was my grandmother, checking in on her bees as she tended to do, and forced myself back to sleep, afraid of the revealing light of the stars.
The next morning, my grandfather was gone. My grandmother organized a search party, and left me to the house. Distantly certain, I went to the backyard. One of the “How To” books I read recently was about tracking, and it didn’t take much to pick out my grandfather’s staggering footprints. I followed them into the woods and found his body.
He was sprawled on the ground, limbs twisted like a doll’s. I blinked dumbly down at him, then looked up to the tree, where his old hunting stand was. Even fresh, the stillness of his body and the dark, wet, curling scent of rot gave him away.
It’s that scent, that insidious scent, that I’ll never forget.
Thick, ropes twist over my lap, spilling out from my shirt, darkening my skirt with some kind of milky liquid. My skin peels around them, clinging in thick, ragged strips. It’s stretched apart from the inside-out, pale, bloodless, ghostly as a deep sea fish.
The lack of blood is the only thing keeping me from screaming. That, and the reaction of my coworkers. My intestines wiggle accusatively in my lap as I shuffle in my seat.
My stomach’s been swollen the past several days, but even in my darkest dreams I never imagined that it’d be one lunch away from bursting.
I gather them up gingerly in my suit jacket, pressing it close, and then peak into Angelina’s office.
“Hi, Angelina. You have a sewing kit right? One of my buttons came off.” I say. She nods, and grabs it from her drawer, then shuts the drawer gently.
“Here.” Angelina hesitates, taking a breath and diving back in, “Hey, Marnie, are you doing okay?”
I laugh, and it sends my intestines writhing against my chest.
“Yes, I’m doing just fine.” I accept the sewing kit, and make a break for it. The feeling of my intestines tugging from the outside-in is like someone pulling on a piercing. No pain, just an unsettling weight where there should be no awareness.
The unisex bathroom door slams shut behind me, and just to be certain I wedge the trashcan under the handle. With that done, I release them from my jacket.
They spill to the ground like vines, dripping from my shirt, which I hastily unbutton. They’re the tentacles of a jellyfish, and I giggle hysterically at the image of me, floating above pedestrians’ heads, my internal organs brushing by them, stinging them, dragging them up to me.
My stomach’s rupture is a largely straight line, though the edges are frayed like fabric. Still no blood.
Sitting on the floor, I take deep breaths. I need to fix this before my break is over. Lying on my back, I try to stuff my intestines back inside, but they fight. Having a taste of fresh air, they have no desire to return to me. It’s a lost cause, one I have no interest in saving, so I grab the sewing scissors from the kit. Spooling out my intestines, I eye where they return to my body.
The first cut is hard. The scissors squeak fitfully against them, and I have to saw in order to make it through, but once the skin is broken it becomes a matter of angling the scissors properly. One slice follows another, and my intestines part form each other.
The fall to the floor, spilling brackish, black liquid that reeks of death. I can see it now. Someone comes into the bathroom once I leave and find the floor covered in filth. The vision chills me, makes my skin shiver loosely against muscles, and I shove the end of them in the toilet.
Once it’s situated, cutting the other end is simple enough, as it placing it alongside it’s sibling to drain.
I sit, and watch the rotting, liquid remnants of my internal organs gurgle into the toilet. My stomach feels hollow, and it’s not from their absence.
These sights, these wretched smells. They’re familiar. I know what death looks like. I know what death smells like. And that smell is stuck with me. A heavy smell, one that creeps along the ground.
The smell of death is the pressure of the bottom of the ocean.
The intestines I cut from myself without a wince. The intestines festering within me, bloating me, the rot that leaves me covered in blisters and grease as my body devours itself.
Someone knocks on the door.
“Marnie? You alright in there?”
“No.” My voice is dull, unironically lifeless. “I think I’m going to head home for the day.”
“Oh. Uh. Okay. Come out when you’re ready.” Their footsteps fade. I pull out the pin box from the sewing kit, and hold the edges of my stomach together. A running line of blue and red hearts seals it shut. Angelina’s industrial strength denim thread, apparently the best for making sure those buttons stay on tight, will serve to hold it, hold me, together.
Each pull of the needle tugs waxy flesh closer together. I tie off the thread like the “How To” books taught me, wash the needles in the sink, and then shut my shirt. Hiding the evidence.
The intestines, largely drained now, I gather back up in my jacket. I cradle them close, like a child seeking comfort, but they’re cold. Angelina’s sewing kit I drop off at my desk, and once that’s done I run out the back door.
The dumpster’s lid is already unlocked, and my bundle tumbles in, intestines unfurling from it as they wave goodbye.
The MARTA is as good a coffin as any. Certainly it’s more sturdy than the one I climbed out of ten days ago. I tuck myself into the back, far from anyone’s sight. I don’t want them to see me, see the black, wretched stain of death spreading across my shirt. Across my face.
The sounds of the other passengers come to me from across as distance as wide as the ocean. I’ve been treading water for days now, trying to keep my head up for fear of what lies below, but like the rope of an anchor my intestines twine their way around me and drag me under. Face to face with a dead, mocking truth.
Killed by exhaustion and animated by fear. It’s funny.
In the yellowed plastic of the MARTA window, my reflection looks back at me grimly. She’s a corpse, as worn and faded in death as she was in life. I know, looking at her, that I wasn’t buried for the sake of someone’s twisted amusement.
I’m stalling in the gazebo at the cemetery. I can feel my grave pulling me, and it’s the tug of a current. The gaze of a noose. Not insistent, because it knows I’ll follow it anyways.
I want to follow it. I want to rest. God, how I want to rest. But I stand still, and around me the air prickles to attention like a storm.
My phone rings and I pick it up. I’m certain this is what I’ve been waiting for.
“Hello, Marnie King speaking.”
“Where are you.” Characteristically of my boss, it isn’t a question. I look around. The gazebo stretches above me, peeling white paint ground to sand beneath my feet. A man walks his dog down the cemetery’s path. A couple of teens smoke weed in a nearby copse of trees.
“I’m around.” When I say that, waves of air pull back from me, receding like the ocean before a tsunami, all grave anticipation pulled to a tight center. The pines are tugged along with it, shotgun crackling as they break, and gravel swirls eagerly to the hungry horizon.
“Clearly you aren’t, since I don’t see anyone at your desk. Marcus said you left at lunch and haven’t come back.”
“I’m not really—” I look down at my stomach. Around my feet the currents drag tighter. “I’m not really in a state to be at work.”
“You dying? Unless I see a doctor’s note, I want you back at work ASAP.”
I can’t help but laugh at that. No, I’m not dying. I never even noticed I died in the first place.
“Glad to see the functioning of my workplace is funny to you, King.”
I open my mouth to respond. I want to deny finding humor in this situation, because I don’t, because I care about things running smoothly or I wouldn’t be here, waiting to pick up the phone, trying to remember where my grave is. I want to make excuses, but the retreating air snatches them away.
As Jason always says, words are wind.
All that bubbles from my throat in their place is another snorting, ragged laugh.
“Seriously? I thought you, of all the clowns I hired, understood the sacrifices it takes to make a company run, but it seems you’re just as much of a joke as the rest.” While he speaks, the retreating ocean rushes to eat me. The sea water, brackish as my blood, transformed from air into the dark churnings of cold, bitter water floods back. The predicted tsunami’s gaping mouth. Shattered wood glints within, white like stars, like teeth, gnashing and hungry. “Run back to that temp agency I dragged you out of. And don’t bother coming back for your shit.” Jason hangs up without letting me speak. Not that it would matter.
The wave hits. It breaks into me, and I into it. Water constricts, snake-tightening around my empty torso. Like the grasp of a desperate man, a starving child, it drags me, clings close. Pressure curls too-tight on all sides, the closest thing I’ve had to a hug in years. My phone frees itself from my hand and spins into lonely depths.
The gazebo shreds into paper, phone book pages scattering into snowstorm. Suspended within it I see names, names, worthless names. My name, repeating over and over and over.
“Marnie King,” says the storm, “1989-2018.”
And I nod, because it’s true.
Water crumples and spins like a top. Like a drain, a breath released, spiralling down and away. The water is gone. Soaked, I’m standing before my empty grave.
“Marnie King,” says the headstone, “1989-2018.” In the grave, a fresh coffin. Plain, unadorned. Pine, white like teeth. Like stars. I tuck myself into the grave, and let the waves of dark, endless earth swallow me whole.