Yes, of course, I know my rights. I have the right to remain silent. I have the right to talk to an attorney. If I can’t afford an attorney, one will be appointed for me. Yes, I know. In fact, I’m sure every halfwit kid with a TV for a babysitter can tell you their rights by heart. What do you think I’m an idiot?

Don’t worry. In due time, I’ll satisfy your morbid craving for what you so blandly see as the “facts of the matter,” but first it’s essential that you grasp the gravity of my experiences. None of my true motivations bear the slightest resemblance to the outward appearance of my actions. If it seems that I’m an unfeeling, cold-blooded murderer, nothing could be further from the truth. I recognize that you’ll probably question my sanity by the time I get to the end of my story. Perhaps you already do. Yet that’s nothing compared to how crazy I think I am. Still, I can’t deny feeling an overpowering sense of relief now that the nightmare has passed. I feel such profound satisfaction at having destroyed the monster that I hardly care if I go to jail at this point.

No, don’t write that down. Of course, I care, but you must understand that I have the most remarkable sensation of feeling as if I can finally breathe again after a long time with my head forced under water.

Okay, so you want to go back to the first time we talked. At the office after that so-called poisoning incident. Fine. I’m happy to accommodate you. In fact, you’ve suggested as good a place to start as any. It was a few weeks ago? Has it really been so little time? That’s incredible. I’ve got to get some sleep. I’ve hardly been able to rest since then. That whole incident really caught me off guard, but naturally, I still stand by everything I said to you before. I wasn’t lying to you.

I’m not lying to you now either.

I don’t know why table salt would burn him. Well, that’s not entirely true. I know now. But I didn’t at the time, and I didn’t mean to hurt him then. Not in any sort of malicious way.”

What’s that? Sodium chloride. Yes, of course, it was. That’s what I told you from the first, and you wouldn’t believe me. No, indeed it is not. Sodium chloride is hardly a dangerous chemical. It’s salt. Simple everyday common table salt such as one would find in a salt shaker or as you’re probably more familiar with in those little paper packets at the drivethrough window of a burger shack. I would have thought they’d require police officers to at least take a beginning chemistry class at the local community college.

No, I’m sorry. I’m not trying to be a smart-ass. And, no, I don’t know why table salt would burn him. Well, that’s not entirely true. I know now. But I didn’t at the time, and I didn’t mean to hurt him then. Not in any sort of malicious way.

I played a nasty trick on him because he was a miserable bastard, a fat sadsack of human refuse with the gall to look down on other people. I’m sure you’ve talked to other people in the office so I won’t try to pretend we were friends. Or even that we got along. We weren’t, and we didn’t. He was subhuman as far as I was concerned.

He looked down on me because I was one of the kids in the office. Anybody under thirty around here gets the dirty end of the stick anyway. Plus Carl wouldn’t talk to me because I’m from California. He had this strange attitude where he would only speak to people in the office who were native to the Pacific Northwest.

Mostly though, I got tired of having him steal my lunch out of the break room refrigerator. I finally got fed up and decided to do something about it. I brought in a spinach salad from home, and I buried it in salt. I figured if the fat bastard was going to keep stealing my lunch from the employee lounge, he could damn well choke on it.

I know my boss, Louise, tried to claim it wasn’t his fault. Many lunches can look alike, she said, as if we all had black suitcases on the baggage return at the airport. Well, that’s bullshit. You don’t accidentally steal somebody else’s lunch every day.

That’s no reason to poison someone, she said. You were just acting petty and vindictive.

I told her I didn’t poison him.

Don’t lie to me, she said. I saw the blisters all over his lips and his tongue.

Well, it was salt. And if he had some sort of allergic reaction or whatever that was just his bad karma. Payback can be a bitch, you know. Even though I never meant to really hurt him like that.

I think what really pissed her off was when I laughed because she accused me of “assaulting” him. Up until that moment, she was trying to be a manager and control the situation, but when I had the heartlessness to find humor in the situation and her labeling it “assault,” it became clear to her whose side she was on. She became cold and withdrawn from me.

And then she called you.

I’m sorry, David, she told me, Carl has generously said he won’t press charges, but the company has decided that the authorities need to be involved. You’ll have to explain yourself to the police, she said. And you’re being suspended from work without pay for two weeks administrative leave.

What did she expect me to do for two weeks after a hatchet job like that? Repent of my evil ways and start thinking about how I could be kinder to the real villain in this little office melodrama? Well, fuck that!

Pardon my French.

What really got me that time was how she was so tender and kind to Carl, running over to fawn over him and hold his pale, bloated hand when the paramedics were wheeling him out on that gurney. She ran across the office lobby, flagging down those no-neck paramedics with the short sleeves of their blue shirts rolled up to show off all their hours at the gym, and she positively mother-henned over that grotesque slob. Her auburn hair hung down over their faces as she leaned over him and whispered some piece of vapid encouragement in his ear as she held his disgusting appendage in her own delicate, coral-nailed hand.

At that moment, I felt the bitter surge of bile in my throat, and it wasn’t just because the kung pao chicken I’d gotten from the food cart across the street was a little off that day. No, I knew that Carl had to be revealed for the monster he was. The thought of Louise being repulsed by me and yet showing intimate tenderness to that disgusting creature revolted me. It was all I could do to keep from running up to him there and then and finishing the job on the spot.

No, I don’t mean that.

Really. I’m not like that.

I saw Louise turn away and suppress a tiny shiver as she secretly wiped her dainty fingers on the hem of her powder-blue dress slacks to smear away the disgusting ooze of Carl’s putrescence.”

I did feel some remorse then, though I hated to admit it even to myself. I couldn’t figure out what was going on, actually. My head was reeling with it all. I honestly hadn’t done anything. Just a harmless, petty prank to get even with him for stealing my lunches, and suddenly I was being written up and suspended from work. You guys were showing up to talk to me about whether my violent tendencies were likely to erupt into more workplace violence.

It was as if I’d come to work dressed in camouflage and toting an AK-47 around the cubes. But it wasn’t like that at all.

I was the victim here really. Why couldn’t anybody else see that?

And then something happened as they were wheeling Carl out on his stretcher. Something that made me know without a doubt that I was in the right. That I had always been in the right. I saw Louise turn away and suppress a tiny shiver as she secretly wiped her dainty fingers on the hem of her powder-blue dress slacks to smear away the disgusting ooze of Carl’s putrescence. She knew she had besmirched herself with his foul being. Her ashamed eyes met mine for only the briefest of moments as she hurried away to the ladies room to scrub his stench off her gentle, manicured fingers with harsh anti-bacterial hand soap. But I knew it was futile. She’d been slimed. She would smell the stench of his foul flesh in her hair for days.

Sure, she’d keep telling herself it wasn’t true. Carl was good. Poor, innocent Carl. And David was the vile one. David was the disgusting one. But she knew in her heart that it wasn’t true. She knew, and now I knew that she knew.

So, I had two weeks off to sit and stew about what to do next.

No, I wasn’t letting it go. I wasn’t being all introspective and trying to figure out what I had done wrong or why I had so much misdirected anger. I was trying to figure out what was next. Carl was the menace – not me. I just had to find the way for everyone to see that. And not only to see it, for I firmly believed that they already knew. But I had to get them to admit it to themselves.

So, I followed him.

It wasn’t hard. He was slow. He was stupid. He was unobservant. I probably could have walked right behind him, and he never would have known it.

But I drove to work at the end of the day, and I waited outside in my car. I watched him exit the building and shamble to his bus-stop. I watched him make the driver lower the wheelchair lift down for him so he wouldn’t have to exert the energy to climb the three steps into the bus.

I followed the bus. I meant to follow him home, but he rode to the end of the bus line, way past the zoo, and got off at the arboretum stop. There was a carved wooden sign that said “J.P. Montgomery Forest Park.” Underneath that, it said,

“Park closed at dusk” and “No overnight camping.”

I pulled into the parking lot there, angling my car in under a tree. My car was the only one in the lot, and I felt a shiver of loneliness as I slipped out of my car and heard the rumble of the bus engine as it turned around and headed back into the city. I hurried to pursue Carl as he disappeared up one of the narrow paths leading into the park’s acres of forest.

Maybe the wife had kicked him out, or perhaps he’d just pitched a tent in some remote corner of this sprawling park where he could live like a hobo and bus into work and wash up in the men’s room.”

But of course, I needn’t have rushed. There was a slight incline, so Carl had to move slowly. I almost overtook him as I headed up the path, and I had to drop back and slow down to keep him from noticing me. Not that he would have anyway. Carl was as slow and stupid as ever. I could hear him wheezing sickly as we crawled through the woods.

As we trudged along, it occurred to me that maybe he was homeless. Maybe the wife had kicked him out, and he’d been too lazy to find a new place to live. Or perhaps he’d just pitched a tent in some remote corner of this sprawling park where he could live like a hobo and bus into work and wash up in the men’s room. It was sad, really. I almost felt sorry for him. Almost.

After another few hundred yards, we came out into a flat grassy area about the size of a football field. A winding gravel path circled the grounds with small stone benches at regular intervals and little wooden signs naming the various plants. At the near end of the field, there was a square one-room public toilet padlocked shut and next to it a little gardener’s shack, but Carl didn’t go there. He just shuffled over to one of the stone benches and lowered himself down onto it. I quickly slipped behind the gardening shed, crouching down where I could peer out at him from around the corner. But he didn’t move again, and my knees were aching, so I had to change my position to where I could sit on a rock. I was slightly more visible, but he didn’t notice.

I stayed there watching him for hours, and he just sat there on a park bench, doing nothing. He had taken off his shoes and socks, and he remained there barefoot and unmoving for hours. He didn’t read the paper or a book. He didn’t do a crossword puzzle. He just sat plopped with his plump hands flat on his thighs and stared into space at nothing.

I watched him until the sun went down and I had to strain my eyes to make out his blobby shape in the gray twilight. Sure, I was bored as hell, but I was fascinated too. How could someone be as dumb and useless as Carl? How could he live? My butt went numb as I sat on a rock there trying to fathom the mystery of his existence, but he just sat there and did absolutely nothing.

It was maddening, yes. Maybe I lost my mind then. I don’t know. It’s possible. Anything is possible, I now realize.

But then the moon came up. A huge, full autumn moon. The type that hangs in the sky just above the trees, and you can’t believe how giant it is. It seems to dwarf everything else around it.

And there, in the beautiful amber light of that gorgeous moon, I witnessed his awful transformation. Carl stood up suddenly as if God himself had jerked on a string attached to his spine. He shuddered out of his shabby brown trench coat and began peeling off his rumpled work clothes. He pulled loose his blue polyester tie and slipped the loop off over his head without untying it. It disappeared into the darkness of the grass. He ripped open his pastel work shirt in what must have been a shower of plastic buttons. The shirt landed in a heap with the coat. Then he took off his belt and opened his trousers.

Banana slug by Greg Bodi/Wikimedia Commons

Standing repulsively naked in the yellow moonlight, he spasmed once, then twice. He fell face downward in the grass. I rushed from my hiding place and sprinted across the lawn to him before I could stop myself. There in the cool expanse of autumn grass – grass stripped of color and made gray by the sickly moonlight – Carl transformed before me from a blubbery, pasty-skinned accountant into something even more unimaginably horrible – a 300-pound Pacific banana slug, dark-skinned and glistening sleekly, a creature at once so vile and so majestically imposing that I can scarcely find words to describe what I felt as I observed him.

His eye-stalks groped through the cool evening air, and he began a slow, single-footed slither into the public gardens. There he devoured whole plants in a moment’s nibble with his horrendous slug mouth, pausing, it seemed, to eye me sidelong, feeling outward with his long eye-tentacles. He demonstrated no flicker of recognition, offered no wry smile of pleasure at my dismay, but merely gazed incuriously with the empty eyes of blissful ignorance. He looked at me with the eyes of a slug and saw me with the mind of a slug, unfettered by intelligent thought, liberated from the infinite self-consciousness of human existence.

If I struggled for comprehension, trying in vain to make sense of what I was witnessing, there was no struggle for him. He simply was.

And suddenly I understood that what I had mistaken for an attitude of superiority was merely oblivious indifference. While I and so many others spent countless evenings reclining under the blue wash of television or sweating in the alcoholic blur of local watering holes, always searching for the sweet comfort of oblivion, Carl – stupid, fat, worthless Carl – was out in the city park, munching happily on stolen greens without a troubled thought in his empty sliver of a slug brain.

It was too much to bear. I hated him for it.

Yes, I suppose I could have pitied him, but instead, I hated him. I imagined that somewhere there inside that repulsive man-mollusk, he was probably even proud of his freakishness, and that perverted pride made me seethe against him. And mostly, I hated him for having something I would never have – pure, perfect contentment.

He disgusted me, and I lashed out without thinking, moving over to kick him in the side. His flesh squished disgustingly under the blow, and my shoe came away slimed. He was repulsive. I felt my stomach lurch with sudden nausea, and I kicked him again, harder this time. As oblivious as he was, the next few blows seemed to get his attention. One eye swiveled my direction as I drove my foot into his blubbery gut once more.

You stupid, worthless slug, I said, though I don’t recall if I spoke the words aloud. Take this! I drew back my fist and punched him as hard as I could right in the eye. His big eye-stalk flinched back into itself in a hugely grotesque reminder of how tiny snail eyes would wince away from curious children’s fingers. I think I laughed aloud then. I waited poised until his eye ventured back out shyly, and then I punched it again with all the force I could muster, bellowing laughter as his eye retracted again.

He was so stupid and slow that I figured I could beat him to a pulp and he’d never be able to do a thing about it, but I was wrong. He turned on me then, not with any real quickness, but with more power than you might imagine. He reared up and threw the front of himself at me, catching my lower legs before I could jump clear. I fell back, sitting down hard in the grass and jolting my arms as I tried to brace my fall. My feet and lower legs were crushed under him, and by inching movements, I felt my entire body being forced under his weight. He already had both my legs pinned, and my arms lacked the strength to pull myself clear as his massive foot continued to work over me, pressing me flat on the grassy lawn. I struggled with all my power, but I could feel the life being crushed out of me as he slowly engulfed me. He had moved up over my shoulders, and he was so heavy and so strong. I could barely breathe. I punched out at him, but my fist glanced away meaninglessly.

My face was mere inches from the slimy rippling edge of his skirt, and he paused there for a moment, swiveling one of his eye-stalks to stare down at me. His foot produced a horrendous belching sound accompanied by some vile stench, and I gasped for breath as he held me there, feeling him twitch and spasm over me. Maybe he wanted to say something. Perhaps he wanted to pause a moment to relish his victory. Or maybe I was just deliriating as I faded out of consciousness. I couldn’t breathe, and I knew at that moment that I had lost. My life was being crushed out of me, slowly, surely, inevitably.

But then as he paused, and I felt his slippery weight rippling over me, my upper body suddenly squirted out from under him like a watermelon seed. I gulped in a lungful of air and kicked violently with both legs, scrambling free of him as my fingers dug into the dirt. I sprang upright and sprinted across the field, pausing once to double over and suck wind. My ribs ached, and it hurt to breathe very deeply, but the fresh evening air had never tasted so sweet.

I’d barely had a moment to catch my breath before I saw that he was following me across the grassy expanse. I knew if he caught up to me again, I wouldn’t escape a second time. But I also knew that I couldn’t simply run back to my car and flee. No, this beast was a menace worse than any I had imagined before. This wasn’t just Carl from the office eating my salads out of the employee fridge. This was a monster.

He had to die.

He had to be exterminated.

Not only that, but he would die by my hand, and I would be held blameless because once he was dead, others would see him for the repulsive horror that he was.

I ran to the garden shed. It was locked of course, but I barely registered the fact as I hurled myself against the thin wooden door until the frame shattered into splinters around the lock. It was dark inside, and I tripped over a leaf blower before barking my shin into the side of a riding mower. I spun away and groped blindly in the gloom. A rake and a shovel were propped against a wall. They sang out as they clattered to the cement floor under my clumsy hands. But then my hands found a pair of garden shears hanging on the wall. Not bad, but maybe I could do better. I held them in one hand while I continued to feel around with the other. My fingers found another wooden handle and the implement rocked slightly under my touch as if it were top-heavy. I tossed aside the shears and removed the ax from the wall, rushing out into the moonlight where the wereslug was approaching.

The fight had left me exhausted to the very core, my clothes plastered against my skin with foul ooze as I shivered in the cold autumn air. But I had won.”

I attacked him with all the savageness of adrenaline fueled by mortal fear. At first, he engaged me still full of his own animal rage, but I knew to stay clear now, to not let him rear up and trap me. I circled him and swung in hard with the ax. The blade bit deep into his mottled hide, and a jet of vile slug blood sprayed from the wound. He turned towards me, but I danced quickly away. I circled in and struck him again, scoring another deep wound. I felt myself splattered with his sickening gore.

Sensing that the battle was lost, the creature turned and tried to slither away, but I pursued him with bloodlust. I could taste victory. Again and again, I chopped into leathery flesh with the ax until his skin ran thick with ichor.

Finally, he could no longer even move to flee, and still, I swung at him furiously. Frantically. I knew the creature was dying, but it was hard-won and hours seemed to pass as I hacked away at him as his life oozed out from a hundred gashes.

My spirit swelled with satisfaction I stood staring down at the hideous creature I had defeated with brute force. The fight had left me exhausted to the very core, my clothes plastered against my skin with foul ooze as I shivered in the cold autumn air. But I had won.

And I was vindicated. Finally, everyone would know that I had been right about him all along.

Then, as I looked down at the gory corpse of the wereslug, my elation turned to numb panic and finally stabbed into me with icy cold fear as I realized that I had not only sealed Carl’s fate but sealed my own doom.

Yes, I knew I would be talking to you officers again, and I knew I would have to make an accounting of what I had done.

There in the frosty moonlight, I watched in horror as the disgusting wereslug I had so manfully slain slowly transformed back into the poor fat slob of an accountant. The one I had so cruelly victimized and picked on. The one who wouldn’t harm a fly. Face down in a pool of blood and hacked to pieces with an ax, the only horror presented by Carl’s grotesquely naked body was in the unspeakable violence I had visited upon it.

In a wave of repulsion, I realized that the only monster anyone else would recognize was still standing there with a bloody ax clenched in its hands, a wicked grin of triumph gradually melting from its moon-bleached face.

from the collection The Meaning of Blood (Cloud Lodge Books, £7.99)

 

Chuck Caruso is a 19th-century Americanist and Edgar Allan Poe scholar, and an adjunct English professor at Marylhurst University and Clark College in Oregon and Washington. His horror tales have been published in Cemetery Dance, Shroud and Dark Discoveries, among other print magazines and anthologies. His western noir tales have been published by The Big Adios, Shotgun Honey, Flash Fiction Offensive, The Western Online and Fires on the Plain. His story collection The Meaning of Blood and his novel The Lawn Job are published by Cloud Lodge Books.
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Chuck Caruso: In the shadow of Poe

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