Sunday, April 6, 2014

Frozen Packages by Pathos

Chris and Ronnie, burger flippers in a Chuck L's drive-through, find something disturbing in the walk-in cooler; by Pathos.

Looking back, it's shocking to think that for over a year I had been working in such close proximity to the packages. At times only feet away. But in the routine of my mundane occupation, I was completely ignorant of the fact that I was standing in the very shadow of something so horrifying.

I looked out the drive-through window at the sheet of rain that smacked against the concrete of the parking lot, creating a continuous growl as the downpour splashed off the surface of the earth. I adjusted the microphone on my headset. It was fortunate that few people ventured out of the comfort of their homes on such a night. The overcast skies shielded the stars and moon from penetrating the gloom, the sparkling sheen of the rain catching the reflection of any far off light the only thing truly visible. And when anyone was so bold as to order at the outside menu of Chuck L's Roast Beef, I was the guy who would have to stick my head out that window to handle their money and give them their order. On every occasion, rain and wind would infiltrate the building and wreak havoc on my neat little stacks of paper cups and plastic lids, and leave me soaking wet in the process.

"Hey Chris," Ronnie, the night manager called my name, "you wanna help me get the rest of the freezer ready for freight?"

Ronnie was a renegade, his bony frame taut with muscles, which in turn were painted with green tattoos, so faded as to be all but indistinguishable as they climbed up his arms.

"I'm the only one wearing a headset," I said, "unless you can find Anthony, but he sucks at taking orders."

"I've got him cleaning the bathrooms," he told me.

"Geez, it's not even eight," Ronnie was prone to overreaction, so I tempered my irritation at his unorthodox haste, "and somebody's got to cover drive."

"You really think anyone's out driving in this crap-storm?" I saw that flare in Ronnie's eye, the kind that dared only the greatest fool to question his authority, "come on, I wanna get this crap done."

I rolled my eyes and followed him into the freezer. Other than Ronnie, Anthony, and myself, the only other person working was Esperanza, the assigned back closer. She was a first generation Mexican immigrant, her English was actually pretty good, but her limited vocabulary kept her from being ideal in customer service. I don't even think she knew how to work the registers. It wasn't that she couldn't have learned, she was just such a good asset on the backline that there was no reason to switch her around.

I followed Ronnie, briefly explaining to Esperanza that I'd be in the freezer helping him clear out boxes.

"Then who's going to cover register?" she asked.

I took off my headset and pretended to offer it to her. She smiled at the joke. She had a really fun smile, with cute dimples.

"No, no, no," she laughed as she shook her head, then turned back to filling her sauce bottles.

I put the headset back on and wore it into the freezer, even though it was useless in there. The insulation caused such interference that it wouldn't even beep if a customer pulled up to the outside speaker. Ronnie was already in there hastily pulling curly fries and mozzarella sticks out of their boxes, and tossing the individual bags onto a shelf where they wouldn't get in the way of stocking freight the next morning. He started tossing me boxes, which I automatically broke down and stacked.

I had worked at Chuck L's for five years. But about a year ago the owner, Ken Patton, had made the odd move of storing miscellaneous items in the freezer instead of the attic. His excuse was that it helped with "energy conservation". Apparently he'd given the full lecture to a few other employees, and as his lectures could be tedious, I had never made a personal inquiry. But the fact was that half of our freezer was stacked floor to ceiling with boxes full of random crap. They were all labeled with a sharpie, and I perused the visible explanations pertaining to the contents of each box. "Employee Uniforms," said one, "Christmas Decorations," said another, "Monkey Dishes," whatever the hell those were. But what really struck me as odd was that in such a vast space jammed with boxes, to the extent where it seemed like a complete wall of cardboard cut us off from half the freezer, a couple of the boxes were marked "empty".

Energy conservation or not, who the hell actually labels an "empty" box and crams it into an already crowded storage space? Ken certainly had his quirks, but this seemed to me, at that moment, sheer idiocy. It was hard enough with all the iron racks on the slippery metal floor to keep from accidentally toppling stacks of curly fry boxes when you reached up for them, and those were just individual stacks.

"Hey Ronnie," I said, "why would Ken keep empty boxes stored in the freezer?"

"What makes you think that they're empty?" he said as he continued to shovel frozen goods onto the side shelf.

"Well, they're marked 'empty'," I said, "unless there's something so valuable hidden in them that he only wants us to think they're empty."

Ronnie had a record as a druggie and petty thief. I'm only guessing that the suggestion that something valuable may be what truly caught his attention. He turned around and scanned the cardboard wall. He saw the boxes to which I referred and struggled to remove one from its place. A few adjoining boxes came crashing to the ground as he dislodged the one he chose, and he cursed roughly, but continued to remove the box for investigation.

"It feels empty," he said when he had it in his arms. The top was loose, so he quickly opened it up and peered inside. "Yeah, it's empty," he sounded disappointed as he looked in.

My state of mind was quite different. The crumbling avalanche of boxes that Ronnie had inadvertently created gave me a very small window to the back of the freezer. The wall had been two boxes thick, and as just enough had fallen away for me to see beyond them, something very suspicious caught my eye.

"What is that?" I pointed toward what sort of looked like the contours of a human head and shoulders wrapped in a sheet.

"What the hell?" Ronnie, seized with furious curiosity, tore through the remaining parcels that impeded our access to the back. When he was done, and the entire freezer floor strewn with miscellaneous containers, he had clearly revealed three human sized shapes, each entirely concealed within white sheets and sealed in large plastic coroner's bags.

"Are those real?" I simply aired the question that had doubtlessly crawled into both of our minds. They were all standing erect, propped against the back wall.

"Don't be stupid, of course not," he said in a voice that was somewhat less than certain. There clearly had to be other explanations. Mannequins perhaps. Why? Who knows, but it wasn't any less feasible that hiding human bodies in a restaurant.

Ronnie approached one, flicking his box-knife open. I swallowed apprehensively. Surely this would only prove that my gut feeling was wrong, but the suspense thrilled me. It was a sort of nervousness, but my life was all-in-all so boring that I was almost just as afraid to have my suspicions invalidated.

He slit the plastic man-sack which contained one of the enigmas, then carefully bifurcated the sheet over its head. He was blocking my view, so initially I didn't know what had startled him so much that he jumped back, slipping on the slick, icy floor and twisting his ankle against one of the iron racks. He started swearing loudly, profusely, and incessantly, while I stepped to the side to see what he had revealed.

It was a hideous visage, that was sure enough. It looked like a human face, pale blue, and pocked with a few dark, shimmering sores which were caked with ice. The eyes, nostrils, ears, and mouth were all stitched shut, sutured with an extraordinarily thick metal wire. It certainly was a ghastly face, misshapen and deformed as it was with all of its sensory organs stitched shut. I stared in a state of stunned disbelief.

"What the hell?" I gasped, while Ronnie scrambled to his feet, still cursing impulsively.

"That's a real body," he panted as he finally rose, "that's a freaking real body."

I just continued to stare from where I was, the unseeing disfigured face looking right back at me, suffering in grim agony as its skin was stretched and pulled tight with wire.

"We have to close right now!" Ronnie shouted, and hurried out to, presumably, lock all the doors and turn off the lights on the pole sign and menu board. I remained for a time, the puzzle of this strangely mummified creature gnawing at my mind.

When I finally left I saw Ronnie intercepting Anthony as he returned with his bathroom kit.

"Anthony go home!" Ronnie shouted, every tendon in his neck visible as he furiously tried to corner Anthony with his body, "clock out and go home!"

"What did I do?" Anthony asked.

"Just get your ass out of here, we're closing!" Ronnie raged.

"Okay, okay, geez," Anthony tried to duck around Ronnie's skinny frame without accidentally touching the raving lunatic. He was practically pinned against the backside of the counter, and finally Ronnie backed up enough to give the poor idiot enough room to clock out at the register and grab his raincoat.

Anthony threw me a perplexed look as he left as if to ask me what was going on. In response I raised my eyebrows and twisted my mouth in a way as to tell him it was something pretty bad. I doubt he was completely satisfied, but he nodded at me, acknowledging at least my subtle implications that it wasn't his fault.

"We're closing!" Ronnie shouted to Esperanza and me as Anthony went through the door, greeted by a howl of wind and an assault of pelting raindrops from the angry storm. I watched as he shuffled out of the parking lot toward the nearest bus stop.

"Why, what's going on?" Esperanza asked me, used to Ronnie's bizarre fits of rage, but not so used to closing at eight o'clock.

I really didn't know how to explain it to her. "There's some dead bodies in the freezer," I shrugged.

"Haha, very funny, what's going on?" she was humorless this time.

I gave her a very deep, meaningful look, one that she obviously didn't understand, but accepted the severe gravity of it.

Ronnie swore loudly as he came back from locking both entrances.

"Alright, what do we do, call the police?" I asked, trying to be as collected as I could, but feeling the panic creeping into my voice at both Ronnie's hysteria and the mysterious discovery that had been buried in the freezer.

"Not yet," he said hotly, "first we have to drag their asses out here to make sure they are what we think they are!"

"Who?" Esperanza asked.

"Is that really necessary?" my panic was escalating, "can't we leave them in the freezer and give them a second look?"

"No!" Ronnie's logic was senseless but resolute, "I want to make sure that those are really three dead people by seeing them in the proper light."

He roughly slapped my shoulder, a signal for me to follow him. I sighed and, ignoring Esperanza's flurry of questions, complied. It took a little time, but after Ronnie had violently ripped the cords out of the oven, shoving it, as well as the bread rack, towards the back entrance, we finally were able to extract and reveal the entirety of the three bodies, laid out for examination on the floor of the backline.

Bizarre specimens, the three of them. Two men and one woman, we surmised by body type, though the genitals had been removed and stitched tight, along with the rectal cavities, by that metal wire. It became apparent that the objective had been to tightly seal any opening in the bodies of the three victims. Eyes, ears, nose, mouth, butt, and genitals were all excessively covered by wire sutures and other means. They all seemed to have died of the same thing, a disease by the looks of it, as bulging, raw sores were abundant on all corpses. The sores were lumpy and veiny, and, at the moment glistening under the fluorescent lights with patches of icicles filling every crevice they could.

Esperanza watched us unravel the horrid things with her hand over her mouth, her brown eyes wide with terror, but unable to tear themselves away from the mutilated abominations that Ken had apparently sealed in the freezer of his restaurant.

"How did they die?" Ronnie asked me as if I were a freaking medical examiner.

"Doctor Chris's official diagnosis is that they died from unnatural causes," I said bitterly. "Can we call the police now?"

"Not yet," Ronnie looked at me with that authoritative flame in his eye. "Do you think Ken murdered these people?"

"Hell, I don't know," I said angrily, "it doesn't look like they were murdered to me, looks like some weird virus."

"Then why would he wrap them up and hide them in the freezer?" Ronnie challenged.

"I think we should call the police," Esperanza piped in, her voice quivering.

"Not yet!" Ronnie now cast his devil's glare upon her. I think at this point the bastard was just being stubborn.

"Why not?" I said, "you expect me to solve the mystery of the frozen cadavers? That's not my job."

"Your job is to do whatever I tell you to!" Ronnie's voice tingled with hate, but he was really only being immature.

"I think I saw one move!" Esperanza gasped.

We both looked down at the corpses. They were still prone, in the position we had laid them in. I thought of how lovely it would be if they were zombies. But, as weird as this whole thing was, nothing out of the realm of possibility had happened, so I was still sane enough to reject the theory of the corpses being infected with the zombie virus.

Then we all saw a subtle convulsion from one of the sores on the female. As we watched in tense silence, these episodes became more frequent amongst all three bodies.

"I think they're just thawing," Ronnie said, "as they thaw the muscles probably loosen up."

"I don't know dude, something's screwy." As I said that one of the smaller sores on a man's head split open, and a reddish worm with giant, purple veins started to squirrel out. We all watched it in disgust as it wriggled out of the man's skin, and slithered like a snake under the backline coolers.

"What the hell?" I said slowly as it disappeared.

Suddenly the slamming of a car door penetrated the pattering storm, vibrating with so much fury it felt like it shook the entire building. There was only one man I knew that was capable of having such wrath as to reproach a rainstorm with the noise his anger produced. I went around the backline to the front, and could clearly see the shadowy silhouette of a disgruntled man stomping towards the restaurant through the glass door.

"Holy crap, it's Ken!" I said.

A torrent of cursing from Ronnie, and then. "Do not let him come back here! Do whatever it takes to keep him away! When he leaves, I'll call the cops, I swear."

His instructions were sheer madness. It was easier to pacify a charging rhino by stepping right in front of it than to confront Ken Patton when he was rampaging. When he wasn't, he was a decent guy, but the thought that he'd felt it necessary to conceal mutilated corpses in the freezer created a mysterious and perhaps diabolical aura around the man that enhanced his menace further, were that possible.

He tried the front door. When he found it locked he thrust his keys into it with such fury as to grind the pins in the door-lock to dust. When I saw his face, red with anger, under the light, I became petrified with a fear that the diseased corpses in the back could only dream of matching. His whole head was like a volcano, ready to explode and send a geyser of molten brain matter all over. And I had to keep him from reaching the backline.

"Well, Ken, what an unexpected surprise," I smiled as I stood in front of the swinging employee entrance as to impede his path.

He was so angry he could barely even find the words. "What's going on in here?" he threw up his arms, "why are we closed? We close at eleven, every night, no matter what. Where's Ronnie? Anthony called me and said he'd practically forced him out of the restaurant!"

While trembling in terror at the unfavorable circumstances in which I'd been trapped, I tried to placate the irate business owner.

"That Anthony," I said, "he got off early because we were slow. He must've been joking with you Ken, crazy idiot. We're not closed."

"Then why are the outside lights off? Why are the doors locked? If something is broken I'm the first call you make! Where's Ronnie?" My attempt at deceit had only added fuel to the fire. "What's going on here?" Ken stomped his foot in frustration.

"I think Ronnie's getting the freezer ready for freight," I told him. "Really? The lights were off? Maybe Anthony shut them off as part of his joke. I'll check the breakers. Why don't you go home and relax? Everything's fine."

"Everything's not fine!" he roared, "you're lying to me! What did you guys -"

He stopped mid-sentence as his eyes spotted something on the floor behind me. Suddenly, as if a switch had been thrown to turn him "off", Ken's face went from bright red to ghastly white. His shoulders began to sag, his jaw dropped in horrified disbelief. I followed his eyes and saw the little red worm slithering out into the lobby.

"Y-you opened the packages?" all the fire had left him, he was choking out his words, "you dragged them out of the freezer? How long have they been out? They have to be frozen."

Seemingly out of nowhere Ronnie lunged toward Ken and pointed a kitchen knife at his throat. The flicker in Ronnie's eye now seemed to grasp an even broader sense of control. As Ken was breathless and frightened, Ronnie found himself with some sort of leverage over his boss, and was manic with power.

"What are they, bastard?" the ends of his lips almost curled into a smile, "where did they come from you vicious, murdering bastard?"

Ken tried to wriggle his way into the back, but Ronnie swiftly maneuvered his knife to keep the owner right in front of him. I, meanwhile, had moved off to the side, in front of the register, where, if violence from these two madmen should occur, I would have relative safety.

"I'll explain everything, I promise, but first we have to get the packages back in the freezer, they must stay frozen!" Ken pleaded with Ronnie, but it seemed to give the latter psychopath an even greater sense of authority.

"You explain first, then we'll decide what to do," he said.

"Please, you don't understand, we have to keep those packages frozen," Ken begged.

I felt there must be good reason, in fact a sick tightening in my stomach thought it even knew what it was, considering the convulsing of the bodies and the emergence of the little worm.

"Explain first!" Ronnie said through clenched teeth.

Ken sighed in submission. "Okay," he said, "but I'm going to have to make a very long story very short because those things need to stay in the freezer."

"Then get started!" Ronnie demanded.

"The whole thing started during the recession," Ken hurried his voice, but I had yet to ever see him explain something that wasn't long-winded, I wondered if he was capable. "Sales were going down. Then a friend of mine called me out to his cousin's farm. He gave me a little fried brown piece of meat. It was absolutely delicious, and even addictive. I asked what it was. Well, they led me out to a dead cow, which had giant blisters teeming with those little worms. Nobody knew where they came from. But they were irresistibly delicious. I wanted to press them into oil and rub a glaze on our beef to make it, well, addictive. I realize it may seem a little unethical, but those were desperate times. That's before we found out what happens if you swallow them alive. They breed inside people, if you split them in two each half will remain alive. They still are completely safe if consumed dead, I want you to know that, I'd never poison anybody, but my friend and his cousin and his wife were so addicted to eating them, they'd somehow consumed some that weren't entirely dead. When I realized what was happening, and the three people all died of the worms eating them alive from the inside, I stitched every hole in their bodies shut. Then the worms started burrowing out of the boils they'd been breeding in, and I realized I had to keep them frozen to put them in a stasis, where they were completely benign. But if you revive them..."

Ronnie's mouth was foaming with rage, and he seemed unyielding, so I jumped into the conversation. "Why did you bring them here?"

"Because I was still hoping to use them somehow," he said, "I don't have a big enough freezer at home, so I wrapped them up and put them here. But as sales started to rise, I decided the most ethical thing to do was to keep them frozen until I absolutely needed them."

"Yes, very 'ethical' of you." I was disgusted. "What are they?"

Ken shrugged. "Undocumented parasites. I have no idea. We were just calling them 'tasty worms'."

"Tasty worms?" I shouted fiercely. "Oh, that's a great description Ken! We'll call the bloodthirsty, mutilating parasites 'tasty worms'!"

"We didn't know they were parasitic at the time," Ken started to get frantic, "come on, I told you the whole thing. We've got to freeze those packages!"

Presently we heard Esperanza scream.

"Oh, no!" Ken pushed his way past the knife wielding Ronnie, panicked to a point I'd never seen. I followed him.

"It's too late!" Ken said woefully as the boils in the corpses began to burst one by one, great masses of wriggling worms pouring through each. "We can't let them escape the building, they'll hunt people and crawl inside their mouths and noses."

"How do you know?" I asked.

"I don't have time to explain it all!" I think that was the first time I'd ever heard Ken not want to explain something. "Chris, I need to go out to my car, make sure no worms escape. After I'm back, this whole place is quarantined until every last one of them is dead!"

I covered the entrance as he went. One of the disgusting cretins had gotten pretty close to the door, so I smashed it with my foot. The things seemed to be giant pockets of blood. Red crimson splashed from the dying parasite, creating a large puddle under my foot. I lifted it and my stomach curled in revulsion as sticky flesh, like chewed bubble gum, clung to the bottom of my shoe. I thought I would puke, but a honey-sweet smell filled my nostrils. How could something so revolting smell so delicious?

As Ken returned with a gasoline can, Esperanza locked herself in the woman's restroom. I figured it for the best, hoping only no "tasty worms" had preceded her. Ken locked the door.

"Grab the fire extinguisher," he ordered.

"You're going to start a fire?" I said.

"Just enough to burn the bodies in the packages," he told me, "I'll have to cut my losses and destroy them. Then we have to kill every last one of those worms."

The last thing I was worried about were his losses. I snatched the fire extinguisher and released the handle.

"Oh, no!" Ronnie intercepted Ken, still brandishing the knife, "you are a sick bastard! I'm calling the shots now!"

Ken was about to reason with him but I knew it would do no good. Ken was the smartest of the two evils offered at the time, so I took action. Aiming for his eyes, I hosed Ronnie down with the fire extinguisher. With great pressure the device hissed and flung its foamy aerosol into his face. He dropped the knife and screamed, seeking shelter in the back storeroom.

"Good call, Chris," Ken told me. I just glared at him in response.

He poured gasoline on the three bodies, which were flopping up and down as their wounds ejaculated flowing tentacles of worms. Ken lit a match.

"Use the fire extinguisher on my word," he said as he dropped the match onto the trio of jumping worm incubators.

A burst of light and a wave of sweltering heat grazed me as I tried to hold my ground with the fire extinguisher. The fire sprinklers kicked in almost immediately, but were wholly ineffective against the crematory blaze. The fire didn't spread, but the risk of smoke inhalation dwelled in the back of my mind, meanwhile my skin was being reddened by my close proximity to the flames.

"Okay, go!" I was only too happy to comply, for the duration we had let the fire burn seemed excessive. I saturated the flames with the fire extinguisher, working back and forth to decimate the crackling inferno.

Meanwhile, Ken threw the lids off of the fryers that weren't currently in use, and turned them on.

"Our only options are smashing them or burning them," he explained, "when these are heated up, I'm going to dump hot oil on the floor. Until then, smash them!"

The tasty worms popped like water balloons filled with blood as I hunted them across the restaurant. When the fryers were heated, Ken warned me to seek higher ground, and I climbed onto the front counter as he opened all five valves, flooding the restaurant floor with smoldering corn oil. The overpowering scent of the fry grease was made slightly more bearable as it overtook the worms and cooked them, sending their sweet aroma wafting into my nostrils.

Eventually, after hours of scouring the restaurant, leaving no stone unturned, we were both satisfied that the infestation had been completely annihilated. Ken called out Esperanza and sent her home. The restaurant was completely trashed, everything overturned, spangled with great splashes of worm blood, and the whole texture of the floor had been altered by the boiling corn oil. Ken looked around dismally at the wreckage that had earlier that evening been a fully functional restaurant. He was quite distressed, but as for me, I was just glad that we'd finished, and the weirdest freaking night of my life was almost over.

"Alright, Chris, thanks for the help," Ken said dully, "why don't you go home and rest, I'll start cleaning up this disaster."

Exhausted as I was, were he not largely to blame for keeping his infective packages in the freezer, I would have offered to stay and help clean up. As it was, I felt little to no pity for the man. For him, it was poetic justice, that an act of corruption which he hoped would aid him financially ended up virtually destroying his business.

"By the way, where's Ronnie?" he asked. I hadn't thought much about Ronnie amidst the mayhem unleashed upon the little restaurant. The last place I'd seen him was the storeroom, though I'd ventured back there since, on my raid to rid the world of the tasty worm threat.

I finally found him standing in the walk-in cooler, with a look of pacified stupor on his face.

"Thanks for the help asshole," I said, "what the hell are you doing in here?"

He looked at me placidly. I saw a long, red stripe quickly slither out of his nose and down his throat. He grinned in ecstasy.

"They really are good," he told me.

6 comments:

  1. this really is excellent, great characters, especially Ronnie, who I just knew had an awful fate in store. original Story, mad. I loved it!

    Michael McCarthy

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  2. Tasty worms!! Wow - just the right touch of tension, a good sprinkling of characters brought to life with great writing, and a dash of humor. Very well done! Fun story!

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  3. What a disturbingly fun story! I don't usually read horror or science fiction on purpose, but this was well written and engaged me to the end. My favorite image/line is "The overcast skies shielded the stars and moon from penetrating the gloom" NICE!

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  4. This was a good time. Nice balance of action, humor, and squick factor.

    --Wendy Hammer

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  5. I particularly enjoyed the minor conflicts and mysteries leading to the discovery of the packages.

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  6. I Love, Love, Love this story. I was hooked from the very begging until the very end.
    Who hasn't wondered what's really lurking in the everyday places we all know? This story captures what we are quietly wondering...but might never say out loud...Hat's off to the author, Spectacular!

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