First Fiction of the New Year

I promised I’d have a story for you this weekend, and after letting it sit overnight I finished it up today. It’s….well….it’s still pretty rough. I’d call this a very rough draft. I’m not 100% happy with the end, and I know that the beginning doesn’t set up some of the themes and ideas that the second half delves into very well. I’ve got some ideas of where to make changes, but I wanted to post what I’ve got.

A few interesting facts before I go on. This is the longest story I’ve posted on this blog, coming in at just a hair under 5k words. Not exactly the longest story I’ve ever written, but it’s pretty close. Also, this is the most closely autobiographical piece I’ve posted. Obviously the bit with the monster isn’t real, but it deals pretty heavily with the troubles I face with my depression and poor self esteem/body image. That’s probably one reason why it’s so raw. It was more difficult to write about, and I just wanted the emotions first. I’ll pretty it up later.

Also, I WAS in a drive through one night and I DID find a compartment in my car that I couldn’t ever remember being there before. Anyway, here’s the story. As always, feedback is appreciated, even if it’s just hittin’ that Like button at the bottom.

The New Compartment (Working Title)
By, E. W. Morrow
Word Count: 4967

The sound was soft and long, like leather sliding against leather, and was punctuated by the dull click of bone on plastic. Darin glanced around the cabin of his aging Pontiac in an effort to discover its source. It wasn’t an easy task. Crumpled fast food bags were beginning to overflow from the spaces around the passenger seat and every flat surface was covered in a layer of old receipts, bank slips and candy bar wrappers like a second layer of upholstery even less appealing than the tattered fabric beneath. Darin sighed inwardly at the clutter building around the edges of his life. A few scraps of paper had even made their way to the driver’s side, the space he had once kept so scrupulously clean and clear of debris, and they crinkled under his feet every time he put the car in park. Not long now, he thought, before something bigger crosses the line, like a cup or a bottle. And I’ll be too lazy to pick it up.

Or too fat, he added to himself as his gaze wandered to his own side of the cabin. Neon and fluorescent light streamed through the open window and windshield at conflicting angles, hitting the swell of his gut, not yet obese but approaching the the border with speed. Where once there had been only straight lines were now curves that were highlighted orange and white in a flabby, grotesque crescent moon halfway down his torso. Darin’s enthusiasm for exercise and proper eating had abandoned him long before his desire to clean up after himself. Now, the sight of his own body depressed him even more than the state of his car. Depression turned to disgust which led to despair. One dark thought led to another and Darin envisioned a bottle, hard plastic with little give and a wide base, like one of the sports drinks he bought when he felt too guilty to buy soda. He saw the contents of the bottle slosh, the base too wide for the cup holder to contain, watched it tip and tumble in his mind’s eye. He left it where it fell, his imaginary self forgetting about it entirely. The scene shifted and Darin imagined the bottle, some time later, rolling under the brake pedal, not even knowing if there was enough space between pedal and mat for the bottle to fit but imagining it all the same. He was on the highway. Of course it would happen on the highway. Thought led to thought so fast now that they were like individual frames on a roll of film projected for an audience of one. He tried to brake, the bottle got caught. A split second later the car flipped. Glass shattered. Smoke billowed. Sirens wailed. Darin watched the scene play out in his mind, horrified but somehow attracted to the idea. Giving up seemed so much easier than going on.

The sound rustled through the cabin again, leathery sliding followed this time by a series of the boney clicks in quick staccato so fast that they blended together to form one single sound. It was like the purring of a cat watching its master stare hopelessly at an empty birdcage.

“Will that be all for you, sir?”

The voice jolted Darin out of his reverie. He turned to stare at the big black box with the halo of neon lights and blinked away the darkness.

“Sir?” the voice prodded. It was garbled and mechanical, but definitely female. Young too, by the sound of it.

“…yes.” Darin replied after a moment. He leaned closer to the box’s speaker in case it would help. “Yes, thank you.”

“Alright,” the box said in the chipper, choppy female voice. “Then if everything on your screen looks correct your total is going to be seven thirty eight at the first window. Thank you!”

The screen the voice had mentioned was blank, as black and lifeless as the plastic around it. Darin simply muttered his thanks and drove around to the other side of the building. The window in question was about a third of the way down the side of the restaurant, set annoyingly high up for his short two door vehicle. The bottom of the drive through window was only a few inches below the top of the Pontiac’s and Darin had to lean down and over to see the cashier.

She was young, just like Darin had thought. Probably barely out of high school. Pretty too, Darin thought. Young and pretty. Big, bright eyes and a narrow mouth with full lips. She had her blonde hair, probably only a few shades lighter than it’s natural color, pulled back into a ponytail with a few strands left loose. They fell across her face and she brushed them away, tucking them behind her ear almost sexily, as she turned to slide the window open. Darin realized he had subconsciously sucked in his gut and had to force down the urge to straighten his own shaggy, dark, and probably greasy, hair. Had he remembered to shower today? It was so easy not to care how he looked right up until the moment he did.

“Seven thirty eight,” she said after the narrow window had slid open as far as it would go. She stopped herself from reaching out the window before the money was proffered, letting her hand hang daintily in the air in front of her. Darin stared at the bright blue nail polish and the collection of rings lining each digit like bookends. In each ring sat a gem whose facets were too big, to wide, and shone too brightly in the wrong kind of way to be real. Darin wanted to grab the hand, to hold it, to slip the rings down over those petite knuckles and kiss sensitive, indented flesh where each one had been.

“Sir?” said the girl, withdrawing her hand slightly.

“Sorry,” Darin said quickly, extending his own hand with his debit card clamped firmly between thumb and forefinger. “Been a long day.” The girl snatched it from his hand and slid the window shut as she swiped it. She kept her eyes on the register as the authorization process took it’s sweet time. As he waited, Darin tried to ignore the clicking that had swelled in volume once more. He’d rather not be madly searching his car for some unseen object when the girl turned her attention to him again.

“Here’s your card and your receipt,” the girl said as she slid the window open again. She held the card by the corner, as little of it touching her skin as possible. Darin took it without a word. “Your food will be ready at the next window. Thank you.”

And with that the pretty blonde girl shut the window, removed her headset and backed away from the window, retreating to the safety of the restaurant proper. Darin’s sigh of disappointment became a groan of discomfort as he shifted his bulk in his seat, struggling to pry his wallet out of his front pocket, but the denim material was pulled almost completely taught against his expanding thighs and he sagged back into a resting position as he gave up. Instead he slid the card into his pocket as far as it would go before it hit the brown leather of his wallet and stopped.

When he made it to the second window the attendant was nowhere to be seen. It was getting late and Darin reasoned that his french fries were probably taking some time to get ready, so he put the car in park and went to turn the radio back up since the communication heavy portion of the drive through process was now over. Darin’s hand froze half way between the gear shift and the radio knob. Something about his car looked different. It was subtle, and for a moment Darin wasn’t entirely sure that the effect hadn’t been caused by the orange neon light filtering through his windshield and hitting the dash at such an extreme angle. But it wasn’t the top of the dash that looked strange, and it was that thought that led Darin to the point of identifying the source of the uncomfortable emotion.

Darin had owned his car for nearly four years and he could not, in all those years of memory, recall ever seeing that particular compartment before. It was small, maybe five, six inches across and half that as tall, and situated at the very bottom of the dash board beneath the cd player. It had a door, the same sun-faded leather as the rest of the car’s interior, and in the upper center of the door was a small black latch set just above an indentation in the leather. Darin could easily imagine storing a garage door opener or a pack of cigarettes in the little cubbyhole but that was just it, he had to imagine it. He would have bet hard money on the fact that the compartment hadn’t been there the day before.

He reached out and touched the compartment door, felt the faded leather facing, traced around the latch at the top, pulled on it slightly to test its give without actually going so far as to open it. He’d hoped that the tactile input would spark some sort of muscle memory but was left unrewarded for his cleverness. Not that it had been that clever, said a voice in the back of Darin’s mind. If he’d been paying attention he would have noticed that the clicking and sliding sounds had stopped several seconds ago when he’d first seen the little door but now his mind was wholly fixed on the mystery before him. The only sound he heard was his own heart pounding in his ears as he pulled the latch a hair’s breadth further, frantically anxious and yet desperately loath to find out what would happen when it finally gave way. He pulled just a little more. It was getting harder and harder to move without simply yanking the thing open. He pulled a little more. Surly it would open any moment now. It would snap and explode outwards, Darin could feel it in his gut. His fat, ugly, swollen gut. He pulled just a little….

“Sir!” Darin jerked his hand away from the mysterious compartment and nearly bumped his head on the car door as he turned to look at the drive through window. An aging man, at least in his fifties but probably his sixties, in a button up shirt and tie much nicer than the girl’s uniform had been was leaning out the window. In one hand he held a crisp, white paper bag that had been expertly folded shut. It sagged a little and Darin saw grease had begun to leak through the bottom. In the other the older man held a tall cup that was wide at the top and tapered at the bottom. It had a clear plastic spoon and a wide pink straw stuck through the center hole of the dome shaped lid. Ivory waves of ice cream speckled with cookie crumbs peaked above the rim. Darin hated how delicious it looked. The man, who was almost positively the store manager, didn’t bother speaking again now that he had Darin’s attention. Instead he gave the bag and the cup a little shake and thrust them forward. Darin took them silently and the window was slammed shut a moment later. Darin threw the bag in the passenger seat, stuck the shake between his thighs and drove off with a frown. For the moment the strange clicking sound and the mysterious new compartment sank beneath the rising tide of shame and were forgotten.

Less than half way back to his apartment Darin’s milkshake was more than half gone. It was still cold from the freezer, firm enough that he had to really work to get any of it up the straw and into his mouth. But it was smooth, and sweet, and worth the effort, and it was beginning to soften as it leeched heat from his hand. The more of it he drank, the easier the act of drinking became. More than once Darin thought that there was probably a metaphor there, some life lesson he should pay attention to, but each time the thought arose a chunk of cookie would lodge itself in the bottom of the straw and glum philosophy was replaced with aggravation each time it happened. As he rested the cup on his belly he did his best to congratulate himself on not diving into the bag for a few french fries. He was determined that this time they’d make the entire trip home with him before disappearing down his gullet. The little voice in the back of his mind scoffed and tutted, doing its best to point out that one act of willpower did not excuse another, much less an entire life of poor discipline.

Ahead of him a light turned yellow. It was much too far away for him to even consider gunning the engine to try to beat the red. He’d barely even make it half way before it changed. He only considered rolling through the light for a moment. It was a brief flash of a thought and then it was gone. Darin eased his foot on the brake and the Pontiac ground to a stop. As he did so a line of cars making a left turn passed in front of the headlights, and he felt a strange feeling of regret at not running the light, of not slamming down on the gas and barreling headlong into the intersection and oblivion beyond. Then a minivan with it’s window rolled down passed in front of him and he caught a glimpse of the driver. Just a normal looking man, about Darin’s age if he had to guess. He had a checkered shirt and a pair of glasses that flashed in the headlights momentarily. It was just a momentary glance but it was enough to remind Darin that the cars weren’t just lifeless hunks of metal. There were people in them, people who didn’t hate their lives as much as Darin hated his own. The cold, sickened feeling that ran through him thoroughly erased the relief he felt at resisting his own self destructive urges.

Darin sighed once more as his waited for the light to complete it’s cycle. He stirred his milk shake idly before taking another gulp. Halfway through the mouthful the straw gave the wet, grating sucking sound that let him know he had reached the bottom of the cup. Darin stopped drinking.

The sound continued, slightly different but just as loud. The clicking had returned. Darin slammed his almost empty cup into a cup holder, pounding down an old napkin and collection of straw wrappers as he did so, and glanced around the car angrily. He was going to find out what that sound was, right now. It probably wasn’t coming from the passenger side, and definitely wasn’t coming from the back of the cabin, so he directed his attention to the front of the car. The glove box wasn’t rattling, the heater wasn’t on so it most likely wasn’t coming from the vents. Where else could it be coming from? A thought from his recent memory surfaced and lodged itself in his mind. Could it be, he wondered? Darin glanced down and looked at the mysterious new compartment, and then froze.

Where before there had been nothing, and recently had been a small leather faced door with a tiny black latch, there was now a rectangle of darkness. Below the void the new compartment’s door hung placidly, resting on the center console just in front of the gear shift. Darin replayed the last few minutes in his mind. He’d gotten close to opening the door, but he hadn’t actually done it, had he? He’d touched it, that was certain, even given the latch a few exploratory tugs, but nothing strong enough too open it. Unless…yes, that must be it. When the old man had yelled at him, Darin had jumped, he’d yanked his hand away from the compartment like it was a dirty secret. It must have opened then. It was the only explanation that made sense.

Darin sat for a while staring at the tiny rectangle of darkness. The clicking had stopped again and the only sound was the gentle, slightly arrhythmic thrum of the car’s four cylinder engine idling. Darin wished he had a flashlight on him. The car’s interior lights hadn’t worked when he’d bought the car years ago and it had never seemed important enough to get fixed. He momentarily considered fishing for his cell phone, but, remembering the trouble with his wallet, decided against it.

The clicking started up again. It was slow, and steady now, like a metronome. It was definitely coming from the compartment. Perhaps there was a seal of some sort that had worn through and now plastic was tapping on metal as the engine did whatever engines did. Darin tore his eyes from the compartment just in time to see the traffic light in front of him switch from yellow to red. He’d been so engrossed in his examination of the open compartment that he’d sat through a whole cycle.

The clicking continued at the same steady pace. Click, pause, click, pause. Then there were two clicks, one right after another, and the pattern resumed. Click, pause, click. A pause stretched on for several seconds longer than the others and just when Darin was prepared to believe the sound was over, another click came. From there the pattern fell apart completely, clicks and pauses without rhyme or reason. It became utterly impossible to tune out. The traffic light glared red at the idling vehicle. After a few more seconds, Darin’s patience snapped.

“What the fuck,” Darin exclaimed through gritted teeth, “is making that fucking sound?”

He gripped the hanging door firmly in both hands, applying pressure to various bits of it when the clicking continued. Well, Darin thought, it wasn’t the hinges. Maybe something inside. That little voice in the back of his mind, the one that usually told him he was ugly, or stupid, or tried to make him hurt himself told him to reach inside. For once, Darin and the voice completely agreed. He only paused for a moment before he plunged his hand into the darkness. The compartment was surprisingly deep, deep enough that Darin’s hand disappeared into it to a few inches past the wrist. He felt around the interior for anything that could possibly be making the obnoxious clicking sound. A screw, a crack in the plastic, anything at all. The walls were totally smooth, nothing but cool, featureless plastic. Just when he was about to give up, his middle finger found a tiny hole, slightly smaller than the pad of his finger, along the compartment’s bottom edge. Blindly he traced the hole’s circumference. The edges were sharp and rough but it was perfectly round, as far as he could tell, almost as if it had been created during the manufacture process and then left un-sanded, un-finished..

Darin realized his entire body was rigid, tensed against the unknown, the unseen. His index finger slowly came to rest on the compartment’s bottom and it found a hole of it’s own, similar in size to the first. The side of his hand brushed along the side wall and a tiny prickling sensation told him that there where a third hole was located.

Hang on, Darin thought, how did I miss that hole? I thought I checked there.

He moved his hand along the sides of the plastic box again. This time he felt no less than a dozen little circles, all precisely, if roughly, cut from the hard, brittle surface. Darin swept his hand along the other walls again, and now there could be no doubt, every single surface of the compartment was lined with holes that had not been there mere moments before. Like the compartment itself, they had simply appeared without warning.

The box began to click again. The clicks came fast, one after another, and the pitch and volume of the sound as a whole rose and fell sharply. It sounded just like a laugh.

Suddenly Darin felt a prick of pain as something rough and sharp penetrated his skin. The pain was initially sharp and then radiated intensely. Desperately he tried to remove his hand from the hellish compartment but before it had moved a fraction of an inch the pain intensified and his flesh was pierced by countless more of the tiny, invisible objects. Darin heaved with all of his modest strength but couldn’t get any leverage seated as he was. The pain was so intense it was blinding but he could just make out the sensation of pressure and realized that the box, or something inside it, was actually gripping him just behind the thumb. He threw his whole body into his desperate struggle. His legs were stretched to their greatest possible extent, ever muscle and tendon straining against the unwavering strength of the demon box. He forced himself to contract, coiling like a spring, and then gave another full body wrench and got nothing but a faint popping sensation beneath the blistering pain. He heaved again, and again, over and over, each one more desperate than the last. In the end he was thrashing, flailing inside the tiny prison of his car. The whole thing rocked back and forth as his feet stomped and released on the brake in turn.

After what seemed like an hour, but was probably closer to thirty seconds, Darin’s thrashing ceased. There were tears in his eyes. Sweat beaded on his forehead and slickened his armpits. Already he could smell it. Acrid. Tangy. The stink of fear. The thought stuck out vividly in his mind, that sweat could smell different depending on it’s origin. That would be the shock setting in, the remaining spark of rational thought in his mind supplied. Even the pain was leaving him, another sure sign. He sat in silence for a moment, watching cars drive past his windshield. Some of the drivers seemed far too close, and extremely angry. Darin realized, distantly, that the car must have rolled some way into the intersection when he had been thrashing. That was a somewhat pleasant thought. Hopefully someone would call the cops. Now he could just sit there. He didn’t have to try anymore. Wasn’t that what he’d wanted so desperately these past few years? To be able to sit back in the dark and stop. Stop trying. Stop hurting. Stop everything. Let the world go on without him. It wasn’t Darin thinking these thoughts. It was the other voice, the dark, nasty, angry voice. Through shock, and pain, and perseverance it had shoved Darin aside, finally succeeding in making him the small voice in the back of his own mind.

Darin felt his arm move, wiggle slightly with his wrist as a pivot. Pain accompanied the sensation, almost gentle when compared with the torment moments before, but pain all the same. Darin couldn’t even bring himself to look down right away. Not out of disgust, or fear, but sheer, mindless apathy. But the arm wiggled more vigorously and the pain was beginning to grow, to spread. He looked at his arm.

Something was crawling beneath his skin. Long, ropy tendrils wound their way up and around and under his arm like parasite vines around a sapling. Darin watched one disappear beneath his shirt sleeve, joining the half dozen others. Without having to look or feel with his free hand he could tell that the tendrils were spreading throughout his body. Cold, nauseous realization dawned on the stricken man and suddenly he knew what the things were after.

Fat. Sweet, rich, disgusting fat. Already he could feel the tubes burrowing their way to his love handles and the meaty part of his inner thighs. The flabs of his underarms quivered as the creeping tendrils burrowed in. The pain was leaving him again, and he wondered if it were really shock, if the human body could simply ignore so much pain and damage, or if the tendrils themselves had some kind of anesthetic that they secreted. Probably both, he thought.

As each one of the tendrils had stopped moving, they began to feed. It was unpleasant, like having a long needle removed from a vein at the doctor’s office only all over his body, but Darin no longer cared. He could hear them clearly, a wet, sloppy, slurping noise. The sound reminded him of his milkshake and the sad, guilty sound it had made at the end.

The tiny ember that was still Darin sparked. It was small, a speck of warmth deep in his core surrounded by pain, exhaustion, and the howling cries of his inner demons, but it was still alive. It flared in synch with the new thought filtering into his brain.

Guilt. It wasn’t pleasant, or helpful, but it was his. It might be a paralytic, freezing him and numbing him to the world around him, but it was part of who he was. It was something non neutral for him to cling to and, possibly, fuel for a bigger, brighter fire than he’d ever had burning inside him before.

The spark inside him flared. It grew, pushing back the darkness inside enough for Darin to think straight, even if only for a moment. He wouldn’t have long, and he’d probably only get one chance, so he he did the only thing he could think of. As far as he knew, the thing in the box was part of the box. Both had appeared at the same time. And the box was a part of the car, at least for now. With his left hand he reached up, shaking from blood loss and exhaustion as he did, and fumbled for the keys. It took a few tries but eventually his hand found the ignition. The darkness inside him surged forward again, the other voice in his head at the helm, screaming with rage. Darin ignored it, just like he would ignore anyone else he hated. He gripped the keys as firmly as he could and turned them awkwardly.

The engine died.

The creature inside him convulsed and a series of frantic, muffled clicks sounded from the new compartment. Summoning up the remainder of his strength Darin heaved with all his might. It was difficult, but his arm moved. He didn’t dare look at the compartment. Instead he dropped his keys and clumsily pulled on the door handle. When the door popped free Darin simply threw his body at it. The creature hadn’t had time to consume very much of him and his substantial bulk tumbled from the car. Gravity pulled harder than he possibly could have managed and his arm finally came free. A chorus of wet sucking sounds followed by a series of gooey plops and snaps accompanied his fall. Darin caught a glance of something long and ropey and covered in slime before the car rolled away from his doubled up form. The Pontiac rolled away at an angle, jumped a curb on the cross street in front of him and hit a street sign before it stopped.

Darin lay on the ground for a moment, both thankful and disappointed that there seemed to be no cars in the area. Pride wasn’t one of his sins, but he didn’t want to be seen in his current state. Somehow he found the strength to stand. He hobbled over to the sidewalk and leaned against a brick pillar between two sections of black fence. The night air was cool, and the combination of blood loss and sweat meant that if he didn’t get inside soon he would get very cold indeed. For a moment he considered calling a cab, then realized an ambulance would be better. He fished his phone out of his pocket. The screen was shattered and it refused to turn on, crushed as it had been between his thigh and the concrete median when he’d rolled from the vehicle.

Still, he thought to himself, it could be worse. Home was only a few blocks away, and I’ve been meaning to get more exercise. And with that thought he stumbled home.

 

An hour later the light streaming through the Pontiac’s windows were bright flashes of red and blue. A gruff, middle aged man with a thick mustache and a receding hairline shone a flashlight through the open driver’s side door. He wore a black windbreaker with an embroidered police shield on the breast just above the spot his real one occupied on the shirt beneath it.

“Alright Frank, looks clean! Call it in and get it towed.”

“Alright Al, you got it!”

Al sighed and stretched, arching his back which refused to pop as he did so. It had been a slow night. He hadn’t exactly been hoping for the report of an abandoned car to turn out more interesting, but still, it couldn’t have hurt. Finally, giving his back one more stretch, he heard a boney crack. Al’s brow furrowed in confusion. He’d heard the crack, but he hadn’t felt anything.

“Damn chill,” he muttered to himself as he sauntered back to his cruiser. Ever year the onset of winter hit him harder, and so he chalked it up to general stiffness.

If he’d stayed by the Pontiac, he would have heard the rest of the of the boney taps emanating from the small, open compartment at the bottom of the car’s dash board.

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