The following story won 1st place in our Scary Short Story Contest! Enjoy…
Maggie stopped midstride and surveyed the office; more people were missing today, a trend that had started the previous week. Usually, the place was buzzing with life–or something like it–but that day, Maggie counted a total of five people in the entire office, sitting idly at their desks next to printers that were growing quieter by the hour, their arresting whir reduced to a halfhearted hum as they drooled out pages of faded ink. Maggie found Larry in the break room, the only person at work whom she knew, and asked if he had heard of any mass-killing/zombie viruses going around. Larry stood with a hand on his hip, drinking coffee from a mug adorned with a long sticker that stretched around the circumference of the cup twice, so that if you didn’t know what it said you would have to walk a loop around him to read the text: SOMETIMES I FEEL LIKE I’M GOING IN CIRCLES.
“You tell me,” he said cryptically, taking a long sip while staring at the wall.
“Where’d you put all these missing people Maggs? What made you snap? Did someone forget to wash out the coffee pot again?”
Maggie grinned, disoriented by the abnormally stoic manner of Larry’s teasing.
“That can’t be it,” she said. “The only person who does that is still here, after all, talking to me.”
Larry looked at her gravely. “For now,” he said, nodding. “For now.”
Maggie’s expression changed into befuddled bemusement as Larry took slow steps away.
Maggie arrived home to find her fiancé Matt sitting on the couch in a HAZMAT suit.
She dropped her bag on the floor in front of him and said, “How’s the meth cooking?”
Matt shrugged listlessly, barely smiling at her joke. “It’s all right,” he muttered.
“Love the outfit.”
“Sexy, right?” Matt said, deadpan.
Maggie sat down next to him and put her feet up on the coffee table.
“Why so sterile?”
“What’s with the HAZ-Matt?”
Matt’s eyes stayed on the television, which was off, as his head tilted limply towards her.
“Makes me feel safe,” he said. “Lots of weird shit goin’ on.”
Maggie turned on the local channel to find a stagnant shot of two empty chairs positioned symmetrically on either end of a deserted news desk, a disproportionate amount of coffee mugs scattered about the surface.
Matt slept in the HAZMAT suit that night, furling his eyebrows when Maggie rolled onto him and attempted to initiate sex. Unable to sleep, Maggie got out of bed hours later and went outside, walking through the sleepy neighborhood with her arms folded over her chest. Many of the street lamps that lined the sidewalks had gone out, and only a few of the remaining lights glowed without a flicker. A few blocks down, she came across an old woman in a bathrobe walking her dog, who squatted on someone’s lawn. The woman waved ecstatically when she saw Maggie, waiting for her dog to finish before leaving the feces and hurrying over.
“So good to see you!” she shouted.
The dog sniffed Maggie’s leg and looked up at her skeptically.
“I’m sorry,” Maggie said. “Do I know you?”
“I suspect not,” the woman said, then looked away, pondering, and shook her head. “No, you wouldn’t.”
“Well, I’m Maggie.”
“I know,” said the woman.
The woman nodded.
“I just wanted to say thanks.”
The woman smiled and reached out her hand, gripping Maggie’s forearm.
“You don’t have to be modest with me, dear. I know this is you, and I for one am grateful. The world’s people attic needed some cleaning out.”
Maggie flinched, pulling away her arm. “Cleaning out?”
The woman’s dog began to bark.
“Relax, dear!” the woman shouted above her dog. “I’m not asking where you put them! I’ve little interest, to be honest.”
Maggie backed away, the dog barking louder and louder. She pointed behind the woman at its front-lawn defecation.
“You should pick that up,” she said.
The woman gawked.
“As if it matters now!” She laughed hysterically, the sound turning into an outright cackle as Maggie ran home.
The next morning, Maggie tried to take a shower beneath the glorified dripping that was her showerhead’s newly diminished water pressure. She thought about Matt and the way he had acted last night. A lot of things had seemed strange, but Matt’s behavior wasn’t too atypical, the HAZMAT suit oddly appropriate, as if it had been there for months and just then become visible. They’d gotten together nearly a year previous, after their decade college reunion, where Maggie had followed him into the men’s bathroom and confessed to having a crush on him that she’d never acted on. She’d kissed him before he could finish saying, “Never too la–”
It would have been perfect if she wasn’t dating Larry at the time. The worst part of it all was how fine Larry had been with it, or at least pretended to be. He’d been the one to say “I hope we can stay friends,” as if he was the one ending it, as if he wasn’t losing anything.
Driving to work, the streets were nearly barren, the usual highway traffic reduced to one or two cars passing every other mile. At the office, Maggie walked the length of the uninhabited main room, peeking beneath desks and calling out HELLOs, seeing nobody. From one of the cubicles, a phone rang with a low and lethargic blllrrrinnggg, trailing off into silence by the middle of the third ring. In the breakroom, she found Larry standing before the sink with his back to her. He held the coffee pot in one hand while the other moved in mad circles several inches above it. Maggie stood at the threshold of the room and leaned against the doorframe.
“Where is everybody?”
“Don’t do that,” Larry said, without turning around.
“Act like you don’t know.”
Larry continued with his phantom coffee pot cleaning, his hand spinning in still faster rhythms. “Okay, Maggs.”
Maggie groaned in exasperation and walked back through the office, stopping on the other side when Larry’s voice called out behind her. “Maggs?”
She swung around and looked back at him over the sea of cubicles. She could see now that he was smaller, and not just the smaller that resulted from standing at the other end of a long room; his whole body had shrunken, quite proportionally it seemed, and Maggie estimated that he was now below four feet tall.
“Yes?” she asked, after a period of silence.
Larry cleared his throat. “Why me?” His voice was slightly higher.
Maggie paused and squinted; she could practically see the inches falling off his shoulders.
“I’m sorry,” she said softly, then turned and left.
Still wearing the HAZMAT suit, Matt didn’t speak a word that night, looking at her blankly when she asked him questions and reacting to her touch only when she’d held his nose and mouth shut for over a minute. She tried this several times, and every time, Matt would stay still for as long as he could, then burst into gyrations until Maggie released him, his expression remaining indifferent as his chest heaved in and out. In bed, Maggie kissed him and rubbed his flaccid penis, eliciting only an impossibly low, nearly inaudible murmur that didn’t include any actual words, or at least none she could discern.
She didn’t expect to sleep that night and didn’t give insomnia a chance to strike, going to the living room and turning on the TV to the old black-and-white movie channel. She recognized the film as one that she’d seen before, not too long before. There was something different about it that time, though. She leaned forward and scanned the screen, searching for signs of the actors. The transitions and settings seemed to be the same, but the people who should have been arguing in the bedroom, walking along the avenue, or sitting outside the café with apple pie, were absent. The resulting movie was nothing more than a series of still shots showcasing vacant spaces, like a promotional video you might see playing on a loop in the lobby of a travel agency. Maggie turned it off and sat back on the couch, her vision clouding as her eyes welled up. She rubbed them dry and sniffed, then tensed in surprise as she noticed a figure standing in her backyard, dimly illuminated by the weakening porch light. A closer look revealed it to be the old woman from the night before, again in her bathrobe, her dog sniffing the grass. Maggie went out through the sliding glass door and approached the woman, who smiled serenely.
“What are you doing here?” Maggie asked.
“Everywhere else will be gone soon,” the woman said. “Thought I’d get a jump on the move.”
Maggie put a hand to her forehead and began to pace the backyard.
“What do you mean?” she asked, flailing in desperation. “Why is this happening?”
The woman stayed still and watched her. “I suppose you could stop it,” she said. “If you wanted.”
“How?!” Maggie shouted. “How?”
Behind them, the woman’s dog picked a spot on the grass and squatted. The woman waited for it to finish, then turned back to Maggie and raised an eyebrow. Maggie sank back, feeling her limbs go limp. Her expression neutral, she muttered, “As if it matters now.”
The woman grinned widely, revealing several tooth gaps.
The next morning, Maggie woke to find Matt gone, the HAZMAT suit still laying on his side of the bed, as if he had evaporated within it. In the kitchen, the toaster barely tanned her bread, and the clock ticked sluggishly, the second hand moving eight spaces in what felt like a minute. Maggie returned to the bedroom and stood over the HAZMAT suit, taking a deep breath before pulling off the covers and laying it out before her, removing her clothes and slipping herself into it. Secure inside its shell, she got a stool, set it in the hallway, and pushed open the little covering in the ceiling that led to the attic crawl space, the air from within meeting her, thick and moist. She went to the garage to get a ladder, stopping on the way to examine the dilapidating world outside–sagging houses and drooping mailboxes, the stop sign on the corner curling into itself like a piece of ribbon.
Returning up the stairs, she spotted the robed old woman sitting in the living room, knitting on the couch as her dog chewed at the upholstery. Maggie set down the ladder and ascended to the crawl space. From inside, she moved the cover back over the opening and scrunched herself up in the dark.
The sounds from outside were quick to commence–horns blaring and fireworks popping and people shouting and laughing and crying, coming through the walls in a dull roar.
Timothy Day loves plants, bad puns, and blanket forts, preferably at the same time. His fiction has appeared in magazines such as Menacing Hedge; Cease, Cows; Jersey Devil Press; WhiskeyPaper, and others.
Lead image: “Day 313” (via Flickr user Robbie Biller)
[…] “HAZMAT,” Cease, Cows […]
Interesting story–so Maggie was effectively causing the world to shrink into nothingness until she put on the Hazmat suit and sealed the effects in with her?
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