One Wound Feeds Another
by Andrew F. Sullivan
We know it has claws.
“I seen it boys, I seen it and it ain’t a raccoon, I can tell you that.”
We know it has claws because there are fresh marks along the ceiling where it scrabbled into the locker room, then into the laboratory, then into the computer room that none of us ever enter. We know it has claws because it pulled open Little Charles’ locker and ate all of his Vegetable Thins, leaving behind only an empty shredded bag out of spite. It pissed on Other Charles’ locker on the way out. We think it lives inside the broom closet by the power boxes or maybe the air ducts, if it lives at all. There’s a drop ceiling in the office downstairs that rumbles when the air-conditioner is running. Parts of our lunches keep disappearing. Half our smokes come out soggy.
“Well, then it’s a cat,” one of us says. “An ugly cat, maybe.”
None of us believe in ghosts. Not out loud. Not while on the afternoon shift.
“Nah, boys, it’s something else. Something worse, or crippled. Like a coyote, man. I seen it on the third floor, around the mixers. Six and seven. Sounded like it was hackin’ up a lung.”
We sit around in a circle on the roof, smoking, waiting for someone to say her name, but no one does. Tugg isn’t the only one who heard it. It’s a sound like someone retching, almost human. It’s just an ugly cat. We nod. It is easier that way, easier to believe.
“Tugg, you’re full of shit. I never seen a coyote climb that many stairs.”
“Then you haven’t lived, Littler Charles. You haven’t lived at all.”
No one talks about Clean Jean.
Clean Jean wasn’t always Clean Jean, but names happen to you. You don’t get to choose. They’re like fate that way — they got no mercy. The harder you fight, the more they stick. After they cleared out union people and brought in a new crew, Clean Jean was one of the first to start with us on afternoons, pumping steam and effluent out into the world, filling up the sky with shit it didn’t need. Soap is not too complicated. One day they won’t need people. The new guys just pasted stickers over the old, but all the signs remained the same. Eye-wash stations don’t change. •
Sometimes the new kids would ask if we ever had anybody fall in, ever made soap out of people. Sometimes we would say yes, just to watch them squirm. We’d say yes and drag out the words describing the process, how you fish the bones out afterward. How you make sure the camera are turned the other way, how you tell management that buddy just up and quit.
Clean Jean didn’t like that. Clean Jean didn’t like much at all, really.
Forty-three with two kids, no husband and a house she could not afford. Forty-three and on every online dating site she could find. Tugg liked to stick pieces of paper to her back with drawings of his dick on them, see how long it would take for her to notice. Tugg is dumb, but cunning, an animal who can smell your fear like musk. He’s a dog who could find the weak link, break it down into submission. Tugg needs a pack. He wasn’t much younger than Clean Jean, but he called her that old bitch. Three years is a lifetime, he would say. Sometimes we took her lunch bag or took her hat when she was off her station, dropped it down from one level to the next through the blue and yellow bars, left it dangling in places she couldn’t reach.
“You worried about going bald, Clean Jean?”
A good nickname, the kind that gets stuck deep in you like a burr, is always going to bite a bit. It’s the closest someone like Tugg or even Little Charles gets to irony. A power play.
Clean Jean was not clean, according to Tugg. Before that, she’d just been Jean or Big G.
“It’s spelled with a J, actually.”
He’d been romancing her over the internet while jacking cookies from her lunch every day. Found her account while riding through profile after profile in his grandma’s basement. Getting her to show him things on a webcam that none of us could believe until he flashed the janky screenshots in the break room, the body contorted into new positions every couple frames, the smile the one we knew with too much yellow on the top and a small crack through the bottom. Tugg’s name on the dating site was Long_Sergio_72, but no one had the balls to ask him why.
Dirty was too easy. Tugg used his powers.
No one showed her the pictures. It was just the name that stuck. And she kept talking to Long_Sergio_72. She told him everything. We learned new ways to hate ourselves as she broke down each of us over the internet, displayed our faults and our flaws for Tugg while her jerked it into a sock. We confronted the lazy, shiftless parts inside us, and we didn’t like what we saw. She knew when we went on break to jack it in the john, when we texted our girlfriends while we were supposed to be supervising a new batch, when we fell asleep at the end of the afternoon shift. She had no mercy for any of us, we decided. She would eventually rat us all out.
There is a flash of fur, a quick snarl and a shriek from the locker room. It’s dark outside, but the lights are bright and we can see everything. We all smell like your grandmother just showered and one or two of us might even look beautiful in this light. The shriek is high and it pierces every floor in this place, echoes in on itself and back again until it’s all anyone can hear. •
“Mother... godddamn, motherfuck...”
Tugg holds his right hand out to us like a flare, bright red, pulsing, blood dripping down to leave a trail behind him as he passes back and forth on the metal catwalk, every step a little off.
“Ain’t a raccoon or cat, the thing took a chunk out of me, look at this.”
It has more than claws, it seems. It has jaws too. Jaws and teeth.
“Like a goddamn wolverine.”
“No wolverine in here,” Other Charles says, kicking at the boxes stacked beside the rancid fridge, his boots banging against the walls. “Just a cat like we said, they can tear you up good.”
“You wanna go home, Tugg?” Mitchum says, the man running the crew. His eyes are gray, his skin is gray, he hates us all, but the blood unnerves him. There is a lot of it, and the bite seems big, bigger than most, like fangs from a deep sea fish, the kind with an unhinged jaw.
Mitchum turns a paler gray somehow.
“Nah, I’ll just wrap it, give me the kit.”
The first aid kit has been raided for years. The scissors disappeared when someone wanted to chop some bud for a joint on the roof. The Band-Aids ended up in somebody’s pockets, but there is still a wad of gauze for Tugg to wrap tight around his wrist and tape it off.
“If I go home, that’s all I’ll ever hear from you guys from now on, every goddamn day. Tugg and the little beast that sliced and diced him. No thanks. Goddamn cat.”
He’s not wrong.
“So you admit it’s a cat?” Other Charles says. “We should get rid of it.”
“I don’t know what it is, but it’s got it out for us. Was just waiting for me in my locker.”
Claw marks descend from the ceiling above us. No one in management seems to care.
“And it’s white.”
“The thing. Not a cat I’ve ever seen.”
Tugg stays for the rest of his shift, but keeps wincing every time he has to use the hand. Sometimes he walks around the decks on different levels, poking into tanks that have already finished, forgetting when to flip the water off. No one speaks to him; he is already busy plotting his return. Someone new will fall under his gaze tomorrow, someone to take his place at the bottom. Everyone is on edge. A white creature has upset the hierarchy. Before we leave, Tugg stands at the fire door and watches the lake, watches the water, and we don’t ask him why.
That’s where they say Clean Jean washed up, but that’s just what they say.
We never seen it in the papers and no one trusts the internet to tell it right.
The first photos he posted up didn’t have her face in them. Clean Jean didn’t even notice. There was enough other shit dangling from our lockers for her to ignore the first few images. It only made Tugg angrier. She should have remembered the sofa in the background, the sofa she had dragged into her bedroom for some reason, the one with the red floral pattern and what looked like a purple throw pillow on it. She should have recognized the water stain on her ceiling, the one that seemed only to grow larger from one session to the next. •
Tugg didn’t like to be ignored. More photos began to crop up in strange places, printed off in colour on copier paper. They popped up in the fridge and around the eye wash stations. There was a birthmark on her neck we could all recognize, but Clean Jean didn’t want to see it. Couldn’t see it really until she found her face pasted inside her own locker, her legs spread wide open, her mouth pushed out into something like a kiss. There was a scream then too, one like Tugg’s like the sound of whatever ate our lunch, a sound that came from somewhere deep, deep inside her. A body torn open night after night by a man clicking and laughing in the darkness.
She fled. Banged out through the fire door and set off all the alarms.
“Now that’s an exit,” Tugg howled, but there was no chorus to support him.
We don’t know what really happened. That’s the point — we can’t ever really know. We don’t want to. There was a story about a woman throwing herself off the Bloor Viaduct, but that could have been anybody. Her age wasn’t posted. There was another about a woman who hung herself in the shower so that it would all go down the drain—the piss, the shit, the fear. A clean job, Other Charles said. There was another story that burbled up on the day shift crew about a woman who filled her pockets with rocks and just walked off into Lake Ontario in the middle of the day, walked and walked until she drowned. She didn’t even fight it; just let it take her under. But the day shift lies to us all the time and we weren’t inclined to believe that. Clean Jean didn’t come back. We know that much is still true. She disappeared from all her online accounts, blinked off one final time. Blinked out of our lives. Tugg was suspended for two weeks, but he wore it like a badge of honour.
“She was gonna get us all fired anyway, you know.”
We all nodded. That’s what we did. That’s what we do.
Sometimes we called her house late at night to see if she was home. No one had her cell number. The house line was disconnected. It didn’t go anywhere. It just gave you the same message every time. Eventually we stopped calling. We tried to pretend we never had.
Tugg doesn’t come in for a few weeks after the bite and Little Charles’ starts to pick up his role. We don’t hear much from Long_Sergio_72 while Little Charles switches locks on locker doors and asks the new kid to go find him a socket hammer. We ask the new kid to get us frozen water, he asks if we mean ice, and we tell him no, he’s wrong. Frozen water ain’t the same as ice.
“Look at that lopsided motherfucker.”
We finally spot Tugg in the parking lot as we’re headed in for the afternoon. He tries to avoid us at first, but the old instincts kick in and he returns to the fold for a moment.
“What happened to your hand, man?”
There is only a stump.
“Shoulda gone to doctor earlier, but how am I supposed to know what diseases that thing had? Shit. Doctor said he never saw anything like it before, said he wanted to do a case study on it for some journal. He’s gonna write up a whole paper on it and everything, boys.”
Tugg always has to stand out, even when it came to losing body parts.
“This place is doomed anyway, I’m just here to serve ’em papers and give ’em all a piece of my mind. They got a little monster in there and they’re in denial. It’s not right.”
“No shit, it’s still eating our food, man.”
“Tough shit. These days are numbered here, I’m telling you.”
Tugg struts away with his chest out, his back straight. He no longer has a set of steel balls dangling from his truck, but we know someone probably just stole them. No one brings it up now though, not with Tugg still in ear shot. Parts of Tugg will continue to go missing. The hand is just the start. The rot is deeper than he knows. We can smell it spreading through this place.
Back inside, we go about our tasks in practiced rituals. There is no one taking the lead now, even Little Charles has backed down. In the quiet moments, we all say we spot her in the corner of our eye, a white thing, a burnt thing, a thing with claws and a snake’s jaw swinging open.
No one says who it is, but we offer up tribute on the lunch room table. Bologna, salami, what’s left of a yogurt. The next day it is gone, but the cleaning crew doesn’t complain.
“You really believe Tugg about this shit?”
“I never believed anything that fat boy said, you know that.”
We gather on the roof to smoke. We are cut off from the city, dangling like a skin tag off the parkway. There is no discussion of a better place for us or her. We don’t talk about that tiny movement in the distance, the one we can all see down on the ground between the buildings, among the rust and scrub. A limping white creature, covered in lye or something worse, taking a sip from a puddle. Its teeth are sharp like ours. Its weeping wounds glow under the moon.
“He’s right though. That one-handed shit is right.”
There will be no further shifts. Tugg is just a warning bell in the parking lot, off centre, half present, unable to crack his knuckles, but rarely wrong. Our teeth are sharp. We will turn on one another without him. There are no new orders for the future. Soon there will only be the lake, this lake and Clean Jean floating beneath its shining surface, smiling up at us.
“He shoulda never done it.”
She will ask why we took so long to join her.
Andrew F. Sullivan is from Oshawa, Ontario. He is the author of the novel WASTE and the short story collection All We Want Is Everything. Sullivan now lives in Toronto, where he works for an urban planning and design firm.
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