Eric’s day is off to a rough start: his regional managers are in town, he’s running late to work, the moon seems to be falling apart, and he just can’t seem to get his tie right. At least he has his priorities straight: it’s the little things that matter. The world may be plunging into chaos, the neighborhood children might be mutating into abominations, but that doesn’t mean he can let his standards slip. If he and his co-workers can survive their nightmare walk to the office, then Eric has a plan for success…
Something happened to the surface of the moon while Eric Eldridge struggled to adjust his tie that morning. He was terrified of this, the way the fabric refused to yield to his shaking fingers, the way it alternately came undone with sudden abandon or compacted into a hardened, ugly snarl. Hadn’t he tied a goddam tie before? Granted, he was trying to pull off a Balthus knot, a calculated risk when he had only an hour to get to work. Sebold told him those ostentatious knots were in with the trifecta of regional managers visiting the office this week, hinting this minor change would garner Eric more status than a quarter’s worth of spotless paperwork. But even after watching five web videos on the Balthus, Eric was having a hard time producing anything better than this tangled mess. He’d got the upper bit right, sure, but how the hell was he supposed to produce that bit of fabric cleavage below?
Convinced that staring in the mirror might be behind this fumbling, Eric turned away and looked out the window. Outside, a bus swept by, followed by a flurry of litter and black flower petals. Across the street Mrs. Squint was wrestling a lumpy plastic bag into her trash bin while twin brothers skipped past, dressed in matching, pin-striped uniforms, weirdly eager to get to school. Blood still dripped on the windowsill from the walls, but at least it wasn’t as bad as it had been last week.
Eric almost had it, had that Balthus right at the tips of his fingers, when he once more noticed the moon. Pale against the bright blue morning sky, it looked as embarrassed as it ever did when caught still out after night. A celestial walk-of-shame. Just as the knot squirmed away from being completed, a series of tiny fractures spread across the lunar surface. Visible from two hundred and forty thousand miles away, those cracks must’ve run the length and depth of the Grand Canyon, but from down here, it looked like someone had draped cobweb across the satellite.
Eric shook his head, angrily pulled the tie free, and turned back to the mirror. This time he saw his problem: the tie was squirming on its own, reluctant to be forced into a new shape. He needed only to wait until it had settled down, lulled into complaisance by the pause, and then he could surprise it with a few vicious tugs.
When he’d settled on some rough approximation of the Balthus, he stumbled into the kitchen, poured himself a cup of coffee, and switched on the television. He wasn’t looking for news on what he’d just seen. No: Eric had just never been able to relax and enjoy a cup of coffee while doing nothing. It drove Alice crazy, but he had to have something to read or watch or otherwise take in while downing the black sludge. If he didn’t, his taste buds, undistracted, would revolt and, after a bit of gagging, he’d sometimes cough the stuff up.
Alice, oddly hard of hearing at thirty-eight, always left the volume of the television on too high and a burst of noise shattered whatever tranquility the kitchen had leached from the morning. Mashing the volume button, Eric watched two talking heads arguing over an appropriations bill up for vote that week. As he sipped his coffee, he flipped through stations, one nervous eye fixed on the kitchen clock. Still plenty of time, still doing fine. The pundits were replaced by a commercial for a drug meant to alleviate an unmentioned condition (sappy music, children running through bucolic fields, a goiter sprouting tiny mandibles), then a music video, violent static, a scene from a sitcom, a shot of a man pulling himself to pieces on Good Morning America. Grimacing, he killed the screen. He didn’t have time to watch anything right now anyway.
The last of the coffee went down like a shot of acid and Eric shuddered. Why did he never remember to throw the dregs into the sink? It was always the worst. Just how many minutes of productivity did he think it would give him?
He stepped outside and was locking his front door when a voice behind him said, “Hey, man, I think you’re gonna make it to the office on time today!”
His friend and co-worker Sandra Yoshida stood at the head of his driveway, eyebrow cocked, smirking, impeccably dressed. When Eric saw the sleek briefcase in her hand, he panicked for a second thinking he’d left his own inside, but there it was, sitting beside him. “Heya,” he said, joining her, “decided to walk today?”
She nodded, then, with a little tremor, gave him a hug hard enough it took his breath away. After regaining their composures, they set off down the sidewalk. “We might run into Jenkins, too. Heard he was having, um,” she hesitated, gestured vaguely, “car troubles.”
“Sure,” he said. “The more the merrier.” Inwardly, though, there was a distinct quiver. Jenkins was decent, never a jerk, but the guy was a wreck, a sweaty, stuttering assemblage of self-consciousness and faux pas. Eric supposed if he were a bigger asshole, being in Jenkins’ company would give him more pleasure than pity: around Jenkins, no one could feel like the biggest schmuck on the scene. Instead, he felt sympathetic shame whenever the man made his inevitable gaffs, any pleasure spoiled. Did this awareness, though, make him less of an asshole, or merely a disappointed one? He frowned at the thought and stepped around a puddle of spoiled milk leaking from his neighbor’s mailbox.
“So?” He turned and Sandra was twitching a smile at him from behind her stylish sunglasses.
Eric blinked. “So, what?”
“Did you watch Design of the Times last night?”
He laughed. “God, are you still obsessed with that show?”
Playfully, she punched his shoulder. “Bet your ass, I am,” she said. “You’re losing this bet, my friend.”
“Yeah, I watched it. You think I’m gonna miss the mid-season finale?”
They stopped at a crosswalk by the local elementary school and Eric’s eye snagged on something over his friend’s shoulder. There, behind a chain-link fence, kids were playing a game in the school’s playground. A couple dozen children following each other in a circle, kicking up dirt and clumps of grass as they tried catching one another. They weren’t making a sound, which may have been what made him look closer, not a giggle or a scream. No need to worry, of course. None of his business.
He looked back at Sandra. “Yeah. Well, you’re outta luck. My girl is going to win this thing.” Eric kept talking over her nervous, incredulous groaning. “Don’t even. She’s got the skills, the judges love her, she even made the last score.”
Sandra rolled her eyes. “Whatever. Chick knows how to apply wallpaper and you think that makes her a champion? Where did she even get that pattern from? The 1970s?”
The kids in the playground whirled faster and faster around each other. By the time Eric and Sandra caught a break in the traffic and made it across the street, the game had turned ugly. They were moving almost too fast to see, but from the glimpses he got, the kids had already begun catching one another. Each had sunk at least one arm into the back of the child in front of them, their bodies fusing haphazardly. One poor girl’s leg seemed to have melted into that of the boy she followed, and their stumbling gait made the whole kid-circle wobble unevenly.
He didn’t need to see this, not at all.
“And your guy? Mister ‘I paint miniatures and collect novelty clocks’?” He shied away from the fist she aimed at him. “This is your winner? Watch: he’ll be eliminated before the final four.”
They were almost to the shopping district, the school behind them, when Eric heard the sound of the chain-link fence surrounding the playground squeak in protest, groan, then burst open. Something thudded wetly onto the sidewalk. Eric stopped in front of the window of a coffee shop and pretended to examine his tie in the glass. In the reflection, he could see the still-whirling clump of children now rolling across the street. A ball of stretched faces, flailing little limbs, brightly colored pinafores, overalls, shorts, and super-hero t-shirts, it ran into a stop sign, knocked it over, ricocheting in his direction.
Sandra tapped his shoulder and he turned, carefully ignoring the approaching conglomeration. “Come on, Dapper Dan,” she said, her smile flickering now, “your tie looks fine.”
Calmly, they walked on. A crash behind them set off a car alarm and Eric had to yell to be heard above it. “You noticed!”
“Of course. Is that the, uh…”
“The Balthus knot!” The latter word came out as a shout in the silence left by the sudden failure of that car alarm and Eric blushed. “Sonofabitch took twenty minutes to tie.” The rolling sound began again, now accompanied by scrapes and squishing and clinks, as though the ball of children had incorporated parts of the car it had demolished.
Sandra tugged on his arm and pointed at a figure a couple blocks up. “There’s Jenkins,” she said and strode faster. Neither looked behind them. “Let’s go! We can’t be late today.”
All around, the crowd of early morning shoppers dispersed with similar speed. One woman, suddenly enthralled by a display of furniture, dragged her own screaming child into a store while two men on the other side of the street quickly sauntered into a bakery. Sandra’s hair, pulled back in a ponytail, bobbed in front of Eric as they ran down the sidewalk. He thought of the prospect of his promotion into marketing management, thought of the smile that would split Alice’s face when he told her he’d got it, thought about how it would cut back the need to travel so much, thought of anything but the metal being pulverized behind them, the shriek of a pedestrian who hadn’t run fast enough.
Jenkins, oblivious as ever, had stooped to tie his shoelaces when they caught up with him. “Hi,” he said, blinking at them from the sidewalk. “It’s great to see you. To see the both of you. Today. Not like it’s never good to see—”
Sandra pulled him up and patted him on the shoulder. “Good to see you too, Adam.” She made a show of looking at her wristwatch. “But we better get going, buddy. Big day today!”
“Oh, ah, sure,” Jenkins said and they started moving again.
Somewhere back there, a loud and liquid crunch, followed by the sound of glass bursting. As if he was just cracking his tense neck, Eric turned his head to one side, then the other. A block behind them, the ball of kids, now studded with a car door, tires, bits of pavement, and what looked like a Pomeranian, had wedged itself into the window frame of a department store. Those little limbs, waving frantic and mechanical, would likely dislodge the ball soon, but not before the three of them could get to work. That throb in his chest, that was just excitement.
“You guys watch Design of the Times last night?” Jenkins, who always seemed to be fighting a cold, wiped his nose with the back of one hand. He reeked, as ever, of acrid terror. “My guy didn’t do so good, I guess, but there’s still time for him to make up points in the Speed Round.”
Sandra and Eric exchanged a mutual eye-roll. Of course, the poor guy chose the worst contestant to pin his hopes on. And of course, they couldn’t say as much, as his already teetering self-confidence would crater with the slightest criticism. In a weakened state like that, he’d be a goner in no time. Eric, vicariously mortified, looked away from his eager face. They’d almost left the shopping district and he could make out the office park ahead, towering buildings surrounded by patches of bright green grass. The wall they were walking alongside had been decorated since yesterday. Someone had crafted a mural of severed yet still quivering, dripping genitals. It wasn’t the most pleasant sight he’d seen that morning and he looked down at the sidewalk, suddenly interested in the cracks and stains covering it.
“Maybe, Adam,” he said as soon as his voice was steady enough to use once more. “Can’t rule out a dark horse. Sandra will owe you half her paycheck if you win, with odds like that.”
A hybrid of a giggle and a gasp escaped Sandra. She’d seen the mural too.
They were only a couple blocks from the office park when a crimson and glistening cloud blew in from the west. It moved through the air like an amoeba in water, a solid mass making abrupt changes in direction, long red tendrils questing the air around it. As he watched, the cloud brushed against the building nearest theirs and left a smear of dark fluid on the concrete from which smoke instantly poured. Beside him, Sandra gasped, coughed, and launched into a series of predictions. Ad revenue would dictate the winner of Design of the Times, she told him, fixing her jittery eyes on his, and every marketing analyst worth a damn said there was no way a woman would win twice in a row. “My guy’s a shoo-in,” she said, her voice cracking.
“Mmm-hmm,” Eric mumbled. His disobedient gaze kept sneaking to that cloud. It vibrated, squeezed in upon itself, and then a flurry of dark objects fell from it to the park below. My promotion, Eric thought, pushing his throbbing heart back down his throat, Balthus knot. “You listened to the marketers last year,” he said, “and look where that got you.”
If they kept to the sidewalk, they could avoid the cadavers hanging from the park’s trees, could avoid hearing the desperate things they babbled, but that meant tacking on an extra five minutes out in the open and Eric couldn’t stop thinking about those shapes dropping from the cloud. Jenkins, who’d stumbled ahead, veered toward the trees, but Sandra grabbed him by the shoulders, gently redirecting him back onto the sidewalk. “No shortcuts today,” she told him, “can’t afford to get distracted by pretty sights when the regional managers are here.”
Clearly unhappy, Jenkins nonetheless stepped back on the sidewalk. He glanced to one side, gagged at something just out of Eric’s line of sight, and said, “Eric, are you, are you nervous about your in-interview?”
Before Eric could respond, four, no, five figures rounded the side of the building. Whatever they had been before, hapless construction workers or executives or retirees, these creatures were now clad in identical glossy black leather uniforms, patches of red cloth and chrome accoutrements the only other colors visible. The one in front careened toward him, its body twisting around and over itself, first meeting the concrete with a leg and an arm, then two arms, then two legs. It even took one step with its head, legs and arms wriggling in the air. Eric winced at the thought of how that must have felt, cheekbones squashed against hot sidewalk, but when the figure righted itself, he saw his sympathy was misplaced. The thing’s face had fallen off, or been removed, as had those of its companions.
A cracked giggle escaped Eric and before he could stop it, he said, “Fuckfuckfu— Yesss, Adam! A little nervous! Baring, Lofter, and Myers are here! What if they don’t like my work this year?” The creature in the lead somersaulted past Jenkins, missing him by an inch, and flopped down directly in Eric’s path. Casually, he stepped around it, his pretext a sudden need to throw an arm around Sandra’s shoulder. “Ms. Yoshida here,” he said as the other uniformed beasts swung around Jenkins and flailed past them, “says I got nothing to worry about.” Eric had all of ten seconds to breathe a shuddering sigh before he realized those flopping, jittery bodies weren’t vanishing into the distance. Instead, he felt a presence behind him, almost leaning against his back, and a disjointed shadow joined his on the pavement in front of him. Was it whispering?
Sandra shook beneath his arm, but her voice was all sunny optimism. “I’m telling you, Eric, you’ve got this. Especially now you got that sweet Balthus—”
Just as the gravelly whisper in his ear threatened to resolve into words, Jenkins looked back at his co-workers. He’d been grinning, no doubt ready to deliver a strained compliment, but the smile drooped. He spoke without thinking: of this, Eric would always be sure. It was just an instinctual thing, though he supposed one could still call it courage. “Eric, it’s right behind y—”
The words had hardly left his mouth when the creatures tumbled past Eric and Sandra and fell upon Jenkins. He screamed once, only once, but the sound carved itself into Eric’s eardrums, an aural tattoo he knew he’d never be able to erase. Still whispering, the black leather-clad creatures grabbed Jenkins’ arms, legs, and head. Before they’d even begun noisily disarticulating his body, wrenching it into some new shape, his face had begun to slip from his skull.
Eric hesitated almost too long and then tugged Sandra onward past the shivering creatures, past Jenkins with a blank space where his face had been, down the long sidewalk, the entrance to their office now in sight, the sliding doors out front ready to take them in.
Sandra’s eyes were dangerously watery, her upper lip trembling. “Poor Je—”
“Sandra,” he said around a lump in his throat. He tried to say more but couldn’t.
After giving a tiny nod, she stared ahead. It took a moment, but when she spoke, her voice was clear and bright once more, barely touched by the emotions he knew roiled beneath her glassy smile. “I sure hope someone brought doughnuts,” she said.
Eric approached the secretary’s desk with a bear claw wrapped in a napkin in one hand, his briefcase in the other. Alice would be so proud of him. They’d celebrate tonight, maybe make love for the first time since that night the walls started bleeding. He’d crush this interview and they’d have nothing more to think of for days.
Behind the desk, Trisha was typing a memo. Ignoring the tears running down her face, Eric slapped the bear claw down on the counter in front of her.
“Eric Eldridge,” she said, hurriedly wiping her face, “is that for me?”
They smiled at each other a little too long and then she pulled the dessert toward her. Gamely, she took a bite, chewed at it, swallowing the clump of sugared dough with only the smallest effort. “You think these offerings will get you special treatment?”
He laughed. “Never, Trisha. Just trying to brighten your day. Did you watch Design—”
The look she aimed at their manager’s door shut him up. He’d seen the same look on Alice’s face a month ago when she’d found their loveseat digesting their Labrador.
“Is my interview with Baring, Lofter, and Myers still today?”
Trisha forced more pastry down her throat, then nodded. “Sure is, Eric. But the regional managers…” She held both hands in the air, fingers wriggling as if she were trying to pull something down. “They had a little incident on their way to the office.” The tears started once again and she buried her face in the crook of her arm. “They’re in there. With Mr. Stanton.” He waited as she was overcome by another wave of sobbing. Poor kid: she wouldn’t make it, not at this rate. It was amazing she’d lasted as long as she had. When she’d calmed herself, she reached out and touched his hand. “You can go in, if you want to.”
He didn’t want to, but after squeezing her hand briefly, he walked through those double doors.
Mr. Stanton, his direct supervisor for the last four years, was crumpled on the floor in a dark corner of the office. Eric wasn’t about to get near the body, but it looked like something was growing out of the sockets where the man’s eyes had once been. He turned his own gaze forward and approached the big, sleek desk which occupied the center of the room.
Aside from in a few corporate promotional photos, Eric had never seen Baring, Lofter, or Myers, but he supposed the creature crouching behind that desk was what was left of them. The incident to which Trisha had referred had fused their torsos together into a chaos of well-tailored suits, bulging protuberances, and awkwardly overlapping limbs. From this mess, three heads dangled on necks grown perilously thin and all too long. Something had eaten away most of the flesh on their faces. Bone glinted whitely in the morning sunshine, but any features which had survived their transformation were so swollen they more than made up for the missing skin in those parts that hadn’t. When the bulbous eyes of what had been Baring settled on him, the other two swiveled in his direction too. An arm still draped in tattered cloth jerked out from that tangled torso and pointed imperiously at a chair sitting before the desk.
Eric sat. He plastered the best, most obsequious smile on his face he could manage, and swallowed the bile flooding his mouth. He stared vaguely in their direction, somewhere between the bobbing heads of the regional managers, stared and smiled his best smile. “Thanks for—” he lost his breath, closed his eyes, opened them once more and went on. “Thanks for seeing me. I’m grateful to have a chance to—”
“Baaaaaaaaaaa,” said the head on the left. Lofter, or what was left of him. It stretched across the desk on one of those flimsy necks, thin eyelids flickering over outsized eyeballs.
Uncertain, terrified, no, nervous, just nervous, Eric nodded. “It’s good to meet you all. I can’t say how much I appreciate my position here at—”
The head on the right, Baring’s, lifted into the air, wavering so unsteadily he was afraid it might fall from its neck. Torn remnants of lips smacked against one another and then it spoke. “Gravid benchmarks, Eldridge, undertake your overlay. Squamous synergy everlasting, Eldridge, our grainy gouts of capital.” The neck on which this head perched reared back and it turned its eyes on its fellow managers.
The head in the middle was still, so absolutely still. If he hadn’t already recognized the other two, Eric wouldn’t have known this was Myers. Eric thought it might be dead until it blinked heavily. The skin left on its face contracted around that blink, pulled violently inward, and then relaxed. Immediately afterwards, its features froze again.
“Well,” said Eric, who by now had little idea what words were coming from his mouth, “I’m certainly happy to do anything to push my department into new territory.” His hands were trembling so violently by now he had to grip the chair’s armrests to keep his fear from showing. Sweat ran down his forehead and into his eyes but no way was he going to wipe his brow, no fucking way. He blinked hard. “We’ve got a plan to expand market reach. We’ll use a combination of—”
“Baaaaaaaaal,” said Lofter’s head and rotated so one of its giant eyes could fix him more securely. It was close enough now he could smell it, an odor equally rank and sweet.
“Our stygian supply chain rankles, Eldridge,” gibbered Baring, its mouth opening wide as if anticipating even bulkier words. “A tenebrous paradigm shift raises all rafts of measure, Eldridge, all nautical for naught and you, Eldridge, your core competencies mark you more fungible than your cohort.” It snorted loudly, spat a wriggling lump onto the desk, watched the thing squirm away, then howled.
Myers’ head turned ever so slightly toward the right and one wobbly eyebrow barely connected to its skull rose half an inch.
“Though iridescent,” continued Baring, “what utility do you bring our charnel matrix? Have your faculties—” It stopped, squinted at him. It could see him shaking, see the sweat, oh god it could read his panic like it was written on his forehead in neon. Eric was going to start hyperventilating, then he’d begin screaming, then it would all be over. “Disappoint, Eldridge. Your aspect fibrillates. We have no temporal resources to train on a loathly bottleneck. None. The market won’t bear mammalian mummery anymore. Present your throat, Eldridge, present this noisome flange that we might—”
The head on the left, Lofter, its horrible scrutiny finished, arced across the desk, turned in to face its fellow managers. “Baaaaaaal,” it groaned and crooked back to stare at Eric once more. “Baaaaalthus.”
After Myers and Baring extended so that they might get a closer look at his tie, they retracted once more. They briefly conferred, one chattering, one repeating that single word, one dead still. Then, turning toward him, the three nodded.
Still struggling to keep his breakfast in his stomach, still faint with death dread, Eric nevertheless managed a smile for them.
He’d got his promotion.
Alice would be so happy.
After work, he and Sandra walked home together. Maybe they saw what used to be Jenkins off in the distance, loping brokenly across a parking lot filled with bones. It was hard to tell: in that glossy black uniform, he looked like the rest of the creatures with whom he roamed. Eric and Sandra had to ford a river of tarry ichor which had sprung up in the shopping district, and that ball of children, now twenty feet tall and glimmering with razor wire, almost crushed them by the post office, but they reached their street safely. Heaving, retching, drenched in sweat, barely able to stay on their feet, but they were okay. Just peachy. They knew because they told one another this, and several times.
Alice, home from another long day at the café she ran, hugged Eric so hard he felt like he was going to break in half. After they’d both stopped weeping with relief, he told her he got the promotion. That smile on her face, it was worth it. They invited Sandra to stay for dinner and of course, she accepted.