Updated: Aug 4
Re-release of my first short story, penned on Friday the 13th.
On a crisp, October day near the community of Gray, a man was discovered heading westbound on the side of Tennessee State Highway 75 towards the neighboring community of Spurgeon. He was abnormally disfigured and unidentifiable by another local en route.
His identity remained unknown, and he was unable to communicate via any standard means. Walking and bicycling between the towns in the area was common because of their closeness to one another and the location of the area’s largest working-class employer, the Larson bottling plant. The plant was nestled in between the two towns just outside of city limits making it an ideal location for workers from both towns and more likely the company’s way of skipping out on city taxes.
The balding, red-headed man was both faceless and handless and walked with an unfamiliar gait, stutter-stepping, and stopping every 4th step, appearing as if he had forgotten how to walk altogether or never learned how to properly do so. A seemingly good Samaritan transported the man to an area medical clinic for review, but quickly disappeared without a trace after the fact.
Sitting alone in the empty waiting room of the clinic, the man began to exhibit signs of impatience and intolerance with his current state. Panicked and fidgeting, he began to jostle the legs of the cold metal chair he was placed in and tremble in a manner that would have been troubling to any onlooker or observer. It was lunch hour at the clinic, and the medical staff had forgotten to lock the entry door or place the closed/will return signage in its usual place. He began to sweat profusely and frantically, and his skin began to lose all color. Any bystander in the area would have been able to see his need for help and feel equally helpless. He couldn’t be offered a glass of water without a mouth, and there seemed to be no other immediate means of helping the man to maintain any source of sustenance into the foreseeable future.
A wet rag might have helped.
A reassuring touch on the shoulder by the doctor could have given him a small amount of confidence that he was not left alone to die.
The tiled floor in the room made the voiceless sounds of his panic reverberate and only further add to the anxiety of what had happened to him and what was to come next. As the disorderly state of the man began to dissipate, his energy and mental and emotional capacity also continued to diminish. The realization of the fact that his ears were still attached amidst the other missing appendages threw him into further feelings of perpetual chaos.
The walk home from work the previous day had been like every other Thursday at 5:06PM for Dave Halbert. He took in everything slowly as he traveled, the buzz and rumble of neighboring cars, trucks, and tractors and the sights, sounds, and unwelcome scents of the bottling plant halting production for the day. The plant had recently begun the transition from glass to plastic. This was something that no one in the area was thrilled about, and clearly, no one in the Larson bottling plant leadership had a grasp on. Processes in the plant had not been fully realized or documented, and this left much of the staff with little to no guidance on how to properly operate machinery and equipment.
The consequences of this had quickly escalated into a dire situation, and Dave was pondering if it might need to be his last day before something awful happened to him as a result of the ignorance or negligence of his coworkers or management using all new equipment. In the previous week, four employees had not given notice, returned to work, or been seen by any of the other plant workers in or around town. There was a mystery of intrigue and suspicion lurking around the corner. Locals had no explanation or theories as to their whereabouts. In years past, various bottling equipment had gone missing from the plant without explanation, but rarely did it expand to people.
Halfway between his residence and the plant, he frequently walked through a 7-foot tall steel culvert to cross from one side of the highway to the other. It was 250 feet across and a little claustrophobic if another person was crossing from the other side. The dark tunnel was avoided by many of the locals. It had become a thoroughfare for those that braved it or needed to get to the other side of the highway and didn’t want to cross at the street level. At previous times it was even sealed off by the local transit authorities or police due to various activities that were never articulately described or defined by the local news outlets.
About two-thirds of the way through the tunnel east to west, there was an access panel that went underneath to an underground area for the storage of street worker supplies and other construction signs and tools. It was not easily identified or noticed by most passersby and was a frequent hang out for some of the troubled youth in the area and other criminals and vagrants.
The faint sound of a grinding machine was audible to Dave from within the culvert as he passed through. His curiosity left him wondering what the sound could be, who could be down there, and why this time of day, he would hear such a thing. He felt this way, mainly because all city and county workers were usually nowhere to be found past regular daytime 9-5 sort of hours.
As he finagled his way around and into the access panel, he saw a narrow passageway lined with various brands and fixtures of garden lanterns hanging from the ceiling in no consistent cadence or order on a long braided rope. He followed the tunnel lighting in a direction heading northward and could hear the grinding sound getting closer and closer as he approached. He also began to smell an unforgiving odor that reminded him of dreaded trips to the dentist's office with the drill hard at work in his or another patient’s mouth and gums. He was feeling more and more unsettled for some reason. Perhaps it was just the wear and tear of the work-week or the struggles he was having at home. Maybe it was even just the fear of the unknown and the decision he had made that had brought him into the tunnel.
Not typically paranoid or suspicious, his feelings of anxiety were unsettlingly high the past few minutes in the tunnel. He was frequently uncomfortable with loud sounds or strange smells.
Grinding was among one of the most challenging sounds for him to tolerate. While he was growing up, his father would build, sand, and sell wood furniture to locals in the area. He wasn’t uncomfortable with the sound when he was younger, but given his father’s grim and unexpected demise, it now caused a large amount of uncertainty within him. It triggered old memories that they shared of sanding furniture and working together.
His father, a victim of unfortunate circumstances, was gunned down at point-blank range by a rather demanding client in a heated exchange fourteen years earlier. It seemed in this circumstance, the traditional grandmother’s rocking chair (one of his father’s bestsellers) did not meet the client’s precise standards. His father’s stubbornness in admitting he had taken a relaxed approach to the piece did not help matters, and the client’s drunken state had left his judgment clouded and impaired. His father and the exceptionally particular client had done business with one another for many years up to this point and had their share of difficulties, but the final time they did business, there was no more reconciling to be done.
As he drew nearer to the grinding sound, he could faintly hear a man and a woman arguing with one another on how to properly handle a machine and the muffled scream of another man.
The familiarity with which the woman dealt with the grinder and ordered her husband was clearly indicative of her persistent pursuit of perfection. Her day job revolved around selling flesh-toned wallets and purses on the side of the highway to newcomers and out of towners that did not know her. To the locals, there was always something a bit off-putting and troubling by her bizarre demeanor when she came through town or passed through the local Shop ‘n Save to stock up on her usual groceries, which typically consisted of eggs, bread, and cheap wine.
She was a double major in biology and business at the University of Tennessee, thirty years earlier. Her varied interests left her chasing dreams in multiple directions and never quite settling on the career of her choice until fourteen years ago when she started her side of the highway pop-up business. The intricacy of the human anatomy and the interwovenness of what it requires to continue to function was always a bit of a curious thing to her. She met her husband while in college. He was a notably odd psychology major who was in a perpetual state of attempted self-diagnoses and one year senior to her. They shared common interests in the frailty of man, the macabre, and abstract art.
Multilayered discussions on the science and psychology of what makes mankind tick and what is actually required to tick led to an interesting question they couldn’t help but philosophize. How many expendable parts of the human anatomy did God give us, and why do we have them? They wanted to go beyond the vestigial organs that were already known and push boundaries closer to their limits. Initially, they began experimenting on smaller animals in their earlier years as a hobby, but found it to be rather uninspiring or too easy. ...
FOURTEEN YEARS AGO
There was never a breaking point that led them to their strange pursuit per se. Just a common interest in exploring what could be done with the knowledge and skills they possessed and too much free time. Innocent to the untrained eye, the Gray community in years past would have felt some sort of sorrow for the impoverished conditions that the couple was living in. Their home was a dilapidated one-room shack near the railroad tracks and surrounded by a small community of unoccupied and collapsing mobile homes more populated by vermin than any people of question.
Sometimes, late at night, vagrant and homeless population would drift to the area, and the couple would strategically leave the doors to the unoccupied surrounding homes open and staged with a garden lantern or two in the window to see if they could lure one in. This wasn’t a situation of southern hospitality, however. The couple’s first victim was a man the locals referred to as “Benny,” an unshaven, malnourished, and deep-thinking street philosopher who tended to wander around after he had bummed enough cash to score a drink that he didn’t need. Earlier in the day, they ran into Benny and told him of a nearby place near them that had food and electricity but seemed uninhabited.
Whether it was Benny’s desperation or his drunkenness that led him to the vacant house was unclear. He had gone right where they wanted him to and immediately went after the spiked bottle of unidentified alcohol-scented liquid in the home near the doorway. Benny immediately saw it and took a drink, which quickly rendered him unconscious. ... Benny awoke in a dimly lit room, feeling very nauseous and dissociated from his usual self. He was struggling to figure out where he was or what was happening. A woman had emerged from the shadows as he gained consciousness and put her foot down on the floor pedal of the modified Singer sewing machine she had.
She began to stitch his mouth shut again for the eighth time and jabbed at him, “So Mr. Thinker, you think you have this world all figured out, huh? Why it is the way it is...Our reason for existence...Our grand design. I’d like to see you try to ponder on that now without your constantly babbling mouth available.”
As he struggled to speak, he looked down to try and use his hands and pull his mouth open. Much to his surprise, he found that both of them had been completely removed, leaving him only with nubs on the ends of both of his arms.
There was no rhyme or reason to this, Dave began to turn around and head back to the culvert when he heard a voice shout out at him from behind. “Dave, oh, Dave... I knew you would find your way into our tangled web one of these days. GET OVER HERE NOW!” He heard what sounded like a metal gate being lowered, and it dropped suddenly in front of him. He was trapped. The couple had created a collapsing false wall that they left in place to ward off those they did not want to find their “creative” work area and to maintain the secrecy of their operation.
Dave recognized the pop-up purse and wallet vendor, Tilda Hawkins and said, “Tilda, I don’t know what you want from me, but I need to get home now, and I can’t stay and chat.”
Another man’s voice spoke up, “Oh, no, no, no, Dave. You don’t have a choice this time. We need to WEAVE you into our schedule now if this is going to work.”
“What do you mean, WEAVE me in? I wasn’t here for an appointment!”
He began to smell a strong scent that he couldn’t avoid and then fainted suddenly. When he awoke, he felt numbness all throughout his body. He could tell something was incredibly different. His mouth had been sealed up and stitched together, and he no longer had either of his hands!
FOURTEEN YEARS AGO
Tilda spoke to Benny, “You know that hands are something we all use, and many of us take for granted. You could be working a job at the factory, but instead, you sit on the street meandering and musing on and on about whatever the political or social flavor of the week is...trying to dissect it, just hoping someone will listen to you. What a waste! Well, I guess we’re going to cure that problem for you now, aren’t we?!”
She began to heat the machine up and leaned into melt and bind Benny’s facial skin together. Tilda’s appreciation for the scent of searing flesh was terribly unsettling and extremely indicative of her fractured state of mind. She effortlessly merged the pliably hot forehead and chin together and kept all of the remaining flesh in a nearby ice chest were his amputated hands had also been stored.
Tilda figured out that there was indeed a market for her uniquely textured wallets and purses. She had begun incorporating human flesh into them to try something new. Hands and excessive face flesh were among the most usable and flexible parts to use she surmised. Her items could be abstract art. Of course, this could never be admitted to anyone other than her husband, Steve. The new flesh additions to the existing material gave the purses and wallets a unique quality that could not be defined well in descriptive terms, but it nonetheless piqued the interest of travelers and collectors alike and sold quite well. Benny passed away in a state of confused panic. It wasn’t the despicable acts of Tilda that did him in. It was his recognition of the fact that he had lost his ability to use his most critical senses.
Again, awakening as if in a dream-like state, Dave sat uncomfortably, realizing that his fate had been unraveling right in front of his eyes or what had been his eyes. He realized that he could no longer see, smell, or speak. What was happening?
Tilda cackled to the other voice and said, “Steve, I think we have really gotten some ‘quality product’ here this time.”
“The same good product we stole from the morgue 14 years ago from his pop!” Steve remarked.
Reggie could hear the sound of a rocking chair in the room. As his senses attempted to return, all he had left were his heightened sense of hearing and an elevated sense of feeling through the rest of his body. It was at this point that he began to realize that he was the one sitting in a Grandmother’s rocking chair that his father had made and that Steve was the same man who had killed his father all those years prior. No one had seen Steve since they had stolen his father’s body. Tilda had kept him locked away and only used him for labor and the more physically grueling tasks in their design and creation process.
Dave could hear the sound of a few other people in the room, and he could only wonder if it were his missing coworkers. There were no voices, just the sound of a physical struggle in multiple parts of the room and rocking chairs creaking in no particular rhythm. He really had no way of knowing or communicating to confirm. Tilda had figured out a way to route breathing through the sides of the neck, similar to fish gills-- this was to circumvent the use of the now unavailable mouth and nose.
In an unexpected turn of events, Steve’s growing frustration with Tilda before this moment led him to knock her unconscious. He had been holed up in the work area far too long. He had begun to resent Tilda for this. He carried Dave to the side of the road and made sure to hold onto his wallet and identification tags to ensure greater anonymity in his newly “woven” state. As for the other victims, their whereabouts are still unknown...
The office manager and a nurse in the medical clinic returned from the local sandwich shop down the street and came unhinged entirely at the hideous sight of a now unidentifiable Dave. They spoke out in a state of disbelief,
“What can we do?"
"This is unbelievable!!!!!"
"Where’s Dr. Risler...?”
Dave sat there, unable to speak or communicate, and collapsed to the floor. His heartbeat raced, and he frantically kicked his legs in the air like a protesting toddler. They couldn’t give him medication to calm him down orally, so they sedated him with a needle where he later flat-lined from sheer panic and fear.
A white Chevy pickup truck drives down the eastbound side of Tennessee State Highway 75 in Tennessee just near Gray and a little past the township of Spurgeon. The man has forgotten an anniversary gift for his wife. The local gas station doesn’t have anything worth stopping for.
He sees a sign that reads,
“Premium HAND-WOVEN purses and wallets, join us today for what just might be someone’s most unique... life-changing experience!”