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Martha clacked her fingernails on the keyboard at her desk, burying her face into her computer screen. The reflection of the words glared across her glasses, her head sinking lower and closer to the computer, back hunched, fingers clenching up. And each time she typed a period, her head would do a little jerk, the tight bun on her head bobbling around.
Isaac fiddled with the fountain pen in his hands, smirking as he twirled it around his fingers. Occasionally he would look across the cubicle at Martha, and each time her head would have disappeared farther behind the barrier until all he could see was the hunch of her back and her stomach fat bulging under her too-tight skirt.
In the cubicle next to him, Jake knocked a stack of paperclips from his desk, and they spilled onto the floor in a haphazard pattern, straying out to Isaac’s workspace. He could hear Jake cursing quietly as he grunted and banged around trying to pick up the paperclips.
Isaac smacked his hands on his knees, chuckling to himself, and walked over to Jake’s area, bending over to help pick up. Red faced, Jake fumbled about with the small clips, his meaty fingers missing most of them. Having picked up a rather large handful already, Isaac cleared his throat and dumped the pile onto his coworker’s desk. Jake looked up, giving him a toothy grin.
“Thanks, man!” he panted, awkwardly standing, putting Isaac right in line with an intricate tattoo of an eagle on his arm.
“Yeah, sure.” Jake patted him roughly on the shoulder, shaking Isaac off his balance as he walked back to his desk and sat down.
Grasping his pen, Isaac settled down into another hour of minimal productivity.
“Hey, Ike.” Jake slapped him on the shoulder, sneaking up on him. “A couple of the guys from work are gonna go out to the bar down the street tonight. You gotta come with us.”
Isaac glanced down at his wristwatch. 6:30. Quitting time. Rubbing his temple with his right hand, he sighed pointedly at Jake, who stood there with an expectant look on his face.
Grudgingly, he said, “Yeah, sure. Sounds like fun.”
“All right, man! We’re gonna head out soon, if you want to pack up your stuff now.” Jake walked around to his cubicle, clapping his hands together.
Across the cubicle, Martha was still clacking away at the keyboard. He wondered how someone could possibly have that much stuff to write.
After gathering what few things he’d brought to work – an extra shirt, a pad of paper, and two pens – in his briefcase, he followed Jake and two other men from the next row of cubicles out the glass door and down the street.
The street was mostly dark at night, in the corporate area of the Detroit suburbs, so it was easy enough to see the flashing neon green sign above the bar called “Blue Moon.” And if the sign weren’t a big enough giveaway to its location, the rotten smell of liquor that pervaded half a block’s radius surely was.
Inside the bar, techno music blasted through black speakers at either side of the entrance, deafening him for several minutes. And toward the back of the room was a stage with three scantily clad women dancing around poles in a way that was meant to be sexually arousing. Judging by the hooting of the men near the front of the stage, it was working.
“Ike, we’re gonna do shots, man! Think you can handle your booze?” Jake called from the bar, winking. The lights up on the stage began to flash, circling around the whole of the bar, the music somehow seeming even louder than when he first walked in. He swallowed and nodded, making his way toward the other men. It was going to be a long night.
Driving. He was driving along a black road, raindrops pelting his windshield. The wipers worked in overdrive to clear his visual field. But the road was so slick, and he was going so fast. He knew if he kept going at this pace, he would hydroplane. But he couldn’t stop. They told him to keep going. He had to keep driving.
He could feel his heartbeat pulsing in his ears, and icy rain sliced his cheeks. He closed his eyes, falling to his knees; it was as if all the muscles in his legs had lost their substance. The bubbling constancy of the voices spiked in intensity, each word booming with a terrifying echo in his mind. Covering his face with his arms – blocking out the torrent slamming up against him – he drew deep, ragged breaths shattering his lungs. Every inch of his body ached, the two days of walking finally seeming to catch up with him.
They would not cease; they would not stop until they had drowned him entirely, until he could hear nothing else but their ghoulish screeching.
The wind howled in his right ear, loud enough to shake his eardrum, threatening to burst, and the might of the storm, relentless, pushed down on him as he struggled to keep control. The voices pummeled, he thrashed, and with a horrible scream that broke through the wind and the rain he fell, curling into himself.
All was still.
He sobbed into the crook of his arm, completely drenched with rain and sweat, coughing in between shallow breaths until his stomach lurched, and he emptied the contents of his stomach onto the sand next to him.
His crying became a quiet whimper, breathing slowing, eyes shutting on the dark sky.
He gasped in a breath of the putrid air, which stung his nostrils and his raw throat, the taste of bile fresh in his mouth. His eyelids were heavy, and he found, frustratingly, that he could not open them.
Yet his instincts told him he needed to get up, needed to move, a quiet but fervent idea urging him to open his eyes. He stretched his legs out from his chest, rubbing his eyes, forcing them open finally. He winced in the blinding sunlight above him, wanting desperately to close them again, but he could not. He had to go.
Crawling to his unsteady feet, dry vomit – stuck in the most unpleasant crevices of his body – cracked with his movement, sand falling from his clothes. He glanced right, then left, at his surroundings. Trees, ancient and monstrous, stood dauntingly to his left; to his right was a small lake – a pond, really – green from the algae that leeched at the bottom. However, every aspect of this place was unfamiliar to him. He must have blacked out the night before and wandered off to this place.
It was a strange sensation, being lost. It was like he was a child again, and he’d strayed too far from his house. Of course, he was not a child. Probably, he was not very far from a familiar trail, or a highway. He’d surely find his way back soon enough, if he started walking.
One foot in front of the other, he marched left, toward the trees. He had taken only a few steps before he stopped, ignoring the tightening of his gut telling him to continue, and turned back toward the lake. There, at the edge, was a bright orange sign he had not noticed before. FISHING IS PROHIBITED ON PRIVATE PROPERTY, the sign read. He jogged to the water’s edge to get a closer look at the sign, sure he had misread it from a distance. He had not.
His stomach squeezed, harbinger of something terrible, though he did not know what or why he knew it in the first place.
He jumped at a raucous in the water, looking over at a duck floundering around at its murky surface before it took off in the air, squawking away. Scanning the water for the cause of the duck’s strange behavior, his eyes stopped on something sticking out of the water in the middle of the lake. He couldn’t quite make out what it was, and he squinted, leaning forward to try and get a better view. It looked like some kind of brown algae from where he stood, the water licking the toes of his worn shoes.
“Hey! This is private property!” He swirled around, looking in the trees to find a man at the lip of the forest, heavy-set and dark-skinned, holding a large rifle pointing up toward the sky. He clicked the bullet into place with a jerk of his arm, and a crack exploded in the sky, a flock of birds darting off from the sound. He was so startled that he lost his footing and toppled into the water behind him with a heavy splash.
The contaminated water pressed against him, suffocating him and blurring his vision, eyes widening in panic as he struggled to breathe. He pressed his arms down to gain momentum, but found that his foot was tangled in a mess of algae. He fumbled to untangle the weed and flipped over in the water. Disoriented, he squinted, figuring out where he’d fallen in. He thought he had figured it out when he saw, right in front of him, the brown substance that had looked like algae from the surface. Under water, he could tell that it was not even close to algae. It was human hair, connected to a hefty man wearing a blue-collared shirt with an eagle tattoo on his right arm. A wave of movement in the water shifted the man to face him, and he could see the cold, expressionless features of a face he knew very well.
He screamed, bubbles shooting up in his face, a strong hand grabbing his arm and pulling him to the surface. Gasping for air, he did not see the hand that came down on his hair, grabbing him to a standing position.
“You crazy d*****! What’re you doing here?” the man shouted at him, rifle cradled in the crook of the arm not holding him up.
“Th…th…there’s a body in the water,” he quivered, pointing lamely at the lake.
The man eyed him suspiciously, his upper lip furling onto a jagged scar just above it.
“A body? You really are crazy.”
He shook his head. “No, please, I’m serious. There’s a dead man in the water.” He looked over to where he’d seen his friend, seeing the hair still poking out of the surface. “See, right there, that’s his hair.” He pointed more fervently.
The man looked to where he was pointing, staring at the spot. “All I see is a big bunch of algae sticking out, man.” He walked over to waist-deep water, about five yards from the body. “Yeah, man, it’s just some brown algae.” The man glared at him, obviously thinking he was insane.
“You have to believe me. Here, I’ll show you.” He dived into the water, swimming to the body. But instead of seeing a man, he saw a large clump of brown algae. He grasped his hair, tugging at it. He didn’t understand where the body could have gone; it was dead.
He kicked up to the surface to see the man staring at him. ?
“I don’t understand! I swear to you, there was a body down there,” he pleaded.
“I told you, there’s no body. Now you need to get off this property before I call the cops.” He ran his hand over the rifle. “Second thought, I’mma call them anyway.”
The man marched out of the water, shaking off his hands and pulling his phone out of a zippered pocket in his vest, leaving him standing waist-deep in the lake where he’d seen Jake’s dead body.
The next day, Isaac went to work with a lingering headache, agonizing over what he would tell people when Jake didn’t show up to work. He thought that maybe he should tell them he had a terrible hangover from the night before – it really wasn’t that far-fetched. But when he kept not coming to work, people would start to wonder. People would start to suspect him of hiding something. He couldn’t have that.
His hand trembled as he opened the heavy glass door and walked into the office. He kept his head low, trying to avoid eye contact with anyone as he reached his cubicle and sat down in the worn, grey wheelie chair. There, he could relax.
He heard the distinct clacking of Martha’s nails against plastic keys, typing even more feverishly than usual. Peeking over the barrier of the cubicle, he saw her, hair in the messiest bun he had ever seen on her head, threatening to topple out of its band with each jerk of her head. He absently picked up his pen and began to twirl it around his fingers.
“Psst…Ike,” a deep voice whispered from the cubicle next to him. Isaac froze, letting the pen fall with a boom onto his desk. “Ike!” the voice hissed again, this time louder.
His heart jumped around erratically in his chest, hammering away at twice its normal speed. And slowly, ever so slowly, he turned his head to the left to see Jake’s head appear at the top of the barrier.
His eyes widened, and he leaned back toward the other edge of his little square. This made Jake laugh.
“You bastard, you!” he chortled quietly. “You down six shots and then disappear on me before the seventh.” All of the blood drained from Isaac’s face. “Eh, don’t sweat it. You can always make it up to me the next time we go out. Prove to the other guys you can actually hold your booze…Ike?”
Isaac was aware that Jake was talking to him, but could not make out any of the words. Every sound seemed to be muffled, and a tornado began to spin around in his head with increasing force, the voices returning in a whirlwind of self-loathing suggestiveness. He tripped out of the office, running into the intense sunlight, glaring against his view of the street. And with a blood-curdling scream, he fell to his knees in the middle of the street, passersby stopping to stare at the side show right in front of them.