Pack Rat or The Way of All Flesh by John Bruni

Posted: August 14, 2011 in Fiction

Channelling by Dave Mahan




A Parable by John Bruni

 (Editor’s note: this sick piece originally appeared back in 2005 in the now defunct Cthuhlu Sex magazine which was one of my favorite literary mags. While this one may not be “bizarro” per se, it is downright nasty and worthy of inclusion. A special thanks to John is in order for re-typing this whole piece upon my request being his hard drive crashed. John, I salute you.)

     I found her on a dark, wet autumn night.  It was the last thing I expected to see, especially after a mundane workday, completely uneventful and dead.  I had a sandwich from 7-11 and a candy bar from the office vending machine for dinner.  Days didn’t come blander than this.

     I walked home through a drizzle so light it felt like mist tickling my flesh.  I took my usual route, and I’d never seen anything out of the ordinary before.  Just used condoms, heroin needles, litter of a more innocent nature, and of course the occasional homeless person.  They knew me, though, so they didn’t bother me for change.

     A block away from my apartment, by pure chance–or perhaps by an indoctrinated fear of dark places in the city–I glanced into an alley and found it uncharacteristically void of the homeless.  I almost turned away before seeing the reason.  A foot stuck out from beneath a pile of trash, topped by a pallid, bony ankle.

     Normally, I’d mind my own business, but something drew me into the alley.  A flashing neon sign from across the street guided my path.  As I came closer, I saw a branch-like arm protruding next to the foot, and a syringe hung from the doughy flesh.  Even in the dim illumination, I could see a small trickle of red.

     This image should have turned me away, but I found myself affixed to the ground by curiosity and fascination, like a child watching his own fingers pluck wings off of flies.  I’d never seen a body before, and this person had to be dead.  Regardless of the needle, whoever it was would have definitely suffocated under the garbage long ago.

     I pulled the overstuffed, ripe Hefty bag aside and felt vaguely surprised to see the corpse was a woman I knew.  I regretted her death, considering her beauty.  Though her eyes had collapsed in their sockets, they had a nice green hue that became enhanced by the translucent clouds trying to obscure them.  Her blood had already sunken, showing a very pale color on her front and turning what very little I could see of her back dark.  Through the legs of her short-shorts, I could see her bowels had emptied.

     I know, I know.  How could I consider her beautiful if she had so many flaws characterized by death?  Well, everyone has flaws.  No one’s perfect.  She’d lived in the alley, where I’d seen her slinging her hook at every guy that passed (and some of the ladies, too).  Her rates were cheap, as she mostly wanted rock, but this time, she must have made enough to score some heroin.  She’d killed herself with her own desire.

     I never considered buying her.  She certainly had diseases, and I wanted nothing to do with that.  Still, she possessed surprising beauty for a streetwalker, despite the rail-thin body and the constant dull look in her eyes.

     I hated to see such things go to waste.  My mother always called me a pack rat.  I couldn’t throw anything away, no matter how useless.  Even cellophane wrappers and newspapers, things like that.  She had to throw away my discarded chicken bones out of fear I’d keep those, too.  I don’t know why I lived like that.  Maybe I thought I’d have a use for such junk in the future.

     I couldn’t help myself.  I had to bring her home.  My apartment wasn’t that far.  People were staying inside because of the god-awful weather.  All the factors were in my favor.  I even had something with which to cover her body.

     I untied the garbage bag and spilled its contents out in a Dumpster.  Rigor mortis hadn’t set in yet (which meant she hadn’t even been dead an hour!), so given her small stature, I managed to fit her into one bag.  I didn’t touch her in the process, using the heavy plastic as a make-shift glove.  Still, her flesh felt rather soft, even through a Hefty bag.

     Though she was dead weight, she felt very light.  I lived on the basement floor, so I didn’t have to carry her upstairs.  No one molested me on my way home, and no one saw me as I unlocked my door and brought the dead heroin whore into my apartment.

     Stepping around piles and piles of old cereal boxes and wrappers, I carried her to the bathroom and the bathtub before I so much as kicked my shoes off.  When I got out of my wet clothes and into some dry ones, I grabbed a Coke from my refrigerator and relaxed in front of the television.  I made it through an episode of Leave It to Beaver before I asked myself, “What am I going to do with a dead woman?”

     I placed the empty Coke can by the pile of empties and headed for the bathroom.  Her stink repulsed me, so I thought I’d start with giving her a bath and cleaning her clothes.  I turned on the tap and made sure the water reached a perfect warm temperature before I pulled her out of the bag and carefully stretched her out in the tub.

     First, I removed the syringe from her flesh, along with the tie around her arm.  Both went into the sink.  Next I took off her ratty sneakers, revealing feet free of blemishes save for her jagged toenails.  I peeled off her tube top, uncovering a black lace bra beneath.  I took that off next, but I stayed polite about it.  I only saw her bare breasts from the corner of my eye, making sure not to stare.

     Finally, I removed her shorts, ever so careful not to be soiled by her excrement.  She wore no underwear, so I couldn’t help but see her Down There before I turned away.  She’d shaved herself bare, and there were no physical signs of disease.  Maybe I could have bought her after all.  I put her clothes in the garbage bag.

     I reached for a thin bar of Irish Spring.  This time, I couldn’t look away.  I had to watch what I was doing.  I touched certain parts only as long as I had to, being the gentleman I am.  By the time I finished, she looked almost alive again.

     “I’m going to clean your clothes,” I told her.  “Be back soon.”

     I decided I didn’t want to clean her clothes myself, only because I didn’t want to touch them.  Who would want to get their hands dirty in such a manner?

     I took the clothes to a twenty-four hour Laundromat.  There were only a couple of people there, and they were too wrapped up in their own worlds to pay attention to me.  An overweight, middle-aged woman engrossed by the paint on her nails sat in the corner.  A young man flipping through Shakespeare’s Much Ado About Nothing perched on one of the machines.  I figured the book came from a school store, judging from the hot orange USED sticker on its spine.

     I spent my quarters and sat down to wait out the washer.  I picked up an old issue of Popular Mechanics and read through it with no interest whatsoever.  My mind kept wandering back to the dead woman in my bathtub.

     When I returned to my apartment, I called out, “Hi, honey!  I’m home!  I cleaned your clothes!”

     I stopped in the kitchen for a glass of water and then headed back to the bathroom.  Water glistened on the floor.  Had I forgotten to turn off the tap?  No, it wasn’t a flood.  The tiles merely glistened in the light from over the medicine cabinet.

     I stepped forward to examine the bathtub.  Only a calm surface of cloudy water returned my gaze.  Where did the girl go?  She was dead, so she couldn’t walk away.  Had someone stolen her?  Or did she even exist outside my imagination?  No.  Her clothes existed.  Therefore, she existed.

     “You washed my clothes?  You’re such a sweetie.”

     The voice came from behind me, and though it sounded jovial, it seemed like the words were spoken through a mouthful of sewage.  It raised the hackles on the back of my neck, and my arms were tight and dotted with goose bumps.

     It can’t be, I thought.  She’s dead.  I had no doubt about it.

     I turned slowly until I saw her.  Her eyes were flat and empty, and her feet were black with the pooling of her blood, but still she possessed a remarkable beauty.  To cover her nakedness, she wore a towel.

     “How?” I asked.  “You were . . . .”

     “Dead, I know.  I always thought it would be the rock that did me in, but I guess it was the smack.  The last thing I remember was shooting up.  I woke up dead in your bathtub.  Scared the shit out of me.  I know I’m dead.  I can’t breathe.  I don’t need anything.  My eyes don’t work very well, either.  Who are you?”

     I gave her my name:  “Caleb.”

     “Caleb.  Never knew a Caleb before.  I’m Annie.”

     “Nice to meet you, Annie.”  I held out my hand, and she took it.  Her grip felt chilly and stiff.

     I must have recoiled, or grimaced, or something, because she quickly added, “I’m sorry.  My joints are kind of freezing up on me.”

     She seemed to be taking death pretty easily.  Maybe all my life I was an idiot to fear the end of life, and seeing her so calm relieved my own nerves.

     I handed over her clothes.  “You can get dressed in my bedroom.  I’ll get you something to drink, okay?”

     “You don’t need to get me anything,” she said.  “I told you, my body doesn’t make me need, not anymore.”

     Shortly after I’d gotten myself a Coke and a bag of chips, we settled into my couch and started talking.  I told her about myself, she told me about her life on the streets, and before we knew it, we were talking like we’d known each other forever.

     At two in the morning, we finally hit a silent moment.

     “I should go,” she said.  “I’ve taken up so much of your time, and you’ve been so nice to me—-“

     “No, it’s all right,” I said.  “You can stay the night.”

     “I don’t want to impose.”

     I knew then that she probably worried about me raping her, or something, me being a stranger to her and all.  “No need to worry.  You can sleep in my bed, and I’ll take the couch.”

     “Are you sure?” she asked.  “I don’t want to be a problem.”

     I told her I had no problem with this, and she said she felt tired.  I offered her one of my shirts if she wanted to get more comfortable, but she declined.

     “You don’t have to sleep on the couch,” she said.

     “No, it’s all right.  You can have the bed.”

     “No, I mean, we could share the bed.  If you want.”

     Did I want?  Most definitely.  But I knew she just wanted to be polite.  She wanted to thank me the only way she knew how, so I considerately said no.

     Annie looked down, and though no tears came, she began crying.  “You think I’m ugly.  I understand.  I know how I look now that I’m dead.”

     “Oh no.  It’s not that,” I said.  “You’re actually very beautiful.  I’d be grateful to share a bed with you, but you don’t need to thank me that way.  If you don’t want to, that is.”

     “I’m very thankful for what you’ve done,” she said.  “It’s just that we’ve been talking so long.  I really like you, Caleb.  I know I’m not beautiful.  It’s okay to say so.”

     I touched her cheek.  The flesh felt slightly hard with the beginnings of rigor mortis.  I pulled her face closer to mine until our lips touched.  We were gentle at first, and then our pace picked up.  Soon, we passionately groped each other, kissing, pulling our clothes off.  We made our way to my bedroom and fell as one to the mattress.

     The next morning, I decided to stay home.  In fact, I never went to work again.  I never so much as left my apartment.  We stayed together, reveling in each other.  For about a day, she stiffened so much she couldn’t move, but when rigor mortis ended, we resumed our love-making.

     On the fourth day, I noticed the first blister on her body.  It poked its head out from her arm, near the needle mark that had killed her.  We thought nothing of it until more made their appearances.  We knew then that she was beginning to rot.

     She took to sleeping in the bathtub, filled with ice from the machine in my refrigerator.  Shortly after that, she started foaming at the nose and mouth as if she had rabies, except she spat out stuff as red as blood.  She sobbed a lot (though she couldn’t shed tears) because she didn’t want me to see her like that.  Even I have to admit it didn’t appeal to me, but I still loved her.  She was still my Annie.

     You’re disgusted, aren’t you?  Think about it this way.  What if someone close to you became terminally ill?  Something nasty, something that makes that person lose control over their bowels.  Or necessitates a regular siphoning of that person’s throat and lungs.  Things you have to clean up because you’re all that person has.  Whether it’s your mother, father, brother, sister, wife, whatever, do you stop loving that person just because things start to get ugly?

     One night, while we made love, I accidentally leaned on one of her legs.  I heard a sickening crunch, and she screamed.  When I looked down, I saw I’d crushed her leg.  The rotting flesh split open, and a fetid stench drifted up to me.  We stopped making love for a short while after that.

     The next day, she begged me to cut off her bad leg.  “I know you hate the smell,” she said.  “There’s nothing else we can do.”

     “Keep your leg,” I said.  “I don’t mind.”

     “I do mind.  It doesn’t hurt or anything, but it grosses me out.  Please, Caleb?  For me?”

     I’d never severed an extremity before, but given the spongy consistency of her flesh and the brittle nature of her bones, I guessed it wouldn’t take very long, even with only a steak knife.  Though she assured me she no longer felt pain, she still looked away as I pressed the blade into her soggy flesh.  It reminded me of a pumpkin two weeks after Halloween, mushy and sticky.  If I hadn’t given up eating, I would have vomited on her for sure.  As it was, I had stopped consuming food when I ate the last of the bread, and all I offered was a dry wretch.

     I put her amputated limb in a garbage bag and placed it by the back door in the kitchen.  At the time, I thought I’d throw it out later.  But I never got around to it, even after I began adding more parts of her to the pile.

     Okay, okay.  You’re right.  You got me.  I always will be a pack rat.

     For a bit of time, her smell would go away, but it always came back on another piece of her, which she promptly begged me to cut off.  All she had left was her head, her torso, part of one thigh, and a whole arm.

     At about that time, I heard the news.  I hadn’t gone as crazy as I’d thought.

     I heard a knock on my door, and without thinking about Annie (I was too used to having her around to realize others might have thought our relationship questionable), I went to answer it.  Mrs. Hardway, my neighbor, stood before me.  A kindly old widow, she lived directly above me, and from the looks of her, she had been dead for three days.

     “Mrs. Hardway,” I said.  “Good to see you, ma’am.  How are you?”

     “Getting along.  Well, look at you!  Still alive and everything!”

     “Yeah.”  I thought it strange she should mention that.  Being alive was supposed to be the norm.

     “You look very thin,” she said.  “Are you eating enough?  You should eat something.  Fatten you up a bit.”

     “I would, but who finds the time anymore?  Besides, I’m out of food.”

     “Oh, you poor thing.  You don’t have any ice, I suppose?  My maker is broken, and I’m starting to rot.”

     “No problem, Mrs. Hardway.”  I ran to the kitchen and gave her a bowl of ice.  “There you go.”

     “You’re such a dear.  Thank you.”

     “Have a good day, Mrs. Hardway.”

     So Mrs. Hardway was dead, too.  For the longest time, I thought I’d lost it, and somehow Annie was a part of my mind.  If it happened to Mrs. Hardway, maybe I still had all my marbles.  Maybe this thing was worldwide.

     I turned on the television, and sure enough, I guessed correctly.  The reporters, most of whom were still alive, kept talking about how the dead were returning to life, not as movie zombies bent on eating human flesh, but as ordinary people.  Christians everywhere called them abominations and demanded the president to outlaw them and have them killed on sight.  Others wanted to create shelters for the living dead.

     No one knew how it started, but I guess it was a chemical spill, or perhaps radiation, like in the movies.  Or maybe Hell finally ran out of room, like the Bible says.  I couldn’t think of any other way to explain it.  But I didn’t care.  I had my Annie.

     Very shortly after I learned the dead walked the earth, Annie began to swell.  Soon, her stomach grew to the size of a basketball.  We had to give up sex again because she didn’t want to burst.  From then on, we stuck to oral.

     Then her tongue began to thicken until she couldn’t fit it back in her mouth.  She asked me to amputate.  I was used to it, so I removed her tongue expertly and without a second thought.

     By the time she was dead two and a half weeks, her flesh became red with rot, yet our love still felt fresh to me.

     On the eighteenth day, as we kissed, I ran my fingers through her hair and without realizing it, I pulled a handful away from her head as if it were a clot of cobwebs.  She didn’t even notice it.  She rammed the stump of her tongue between my lips, and I heard a couple of hollow snaps.  Suddenly, my mouth was full of her teeth.  She gasped and pulled away, covering her face.  I spat her teeth out into my palm and dropped them into the garbage can by my bed.

     “Don’t look at me!” she wailed in her stunted voice.

     “It’s okay, honey,” I said.  “I don’t mind, really I don’t.  I love you no matter what you look like.”

     “Stop saying that!”  She lashed out at me.  Her hand hit my chest, and in my weakened state, I fell off the bed and into unconsciousness.

     When I woke up, I discovered Annie looking anxiously at me.  “Thank God,” she whispered.  “I thought I’d lost you.  I was afraid you wouldn’t come back.”

     “I’m okay.  It was only a little fall.”

     “It was more than that, Caleb.  I told you, you should have gone out to get some food.  If you had, maybe your fall wouldn’t have . . . have . . . .”

     “Have what?” I asked, though I suspected even then.  Distantly, I noticed I wasn’t breathing.

     “Have killed you,” she said finally.

     So I was dead.  Big deal.  Death didn’t mean much anymore.

     Within minutes, my eyes collapsed, and I could see my blood pooling.  If I hadn’t watched all these things happen to Annie, they would have scared the daylights out of me.  Besides, she helped me through everything.

     When her belly burst, she asked me to take off everything below her neck.  I could carry her much easier after that, and oral sex was even better.

     Then I started to rot.  It didn’t hurt.  I was surprised at how easily the blade went into my own flesh, how I no longer felt pain.

     Annie’s still with me, though her skull’s starting to show through her flesh.  She doesn’t have vocal cords anymore, so she can’t talk, but I can tell she still enjoys cuddling.  I know we haven’t got much time left, but we’re making the most of what we have.  We love each other.  What more do we need?


  1. lennon82 says:

    Wow! That disturbed the hell out of me!

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