By Benjamin Davis
Frank was in the bathtub when life’s trap door opened, and he fell. Then he continued to fall. No whoosh around his ears. No chill on his back. No swoop of fear in his stomach. Only a hum told Frank something had changed. He opened his eyes to a desolate sky above. Below, the horror came quickly to meet him. Frank saw faces in what had first seemed an undulating sea. People. Countless people writhing like worms in a rimless bucket. Their screams and moans swirled into that heavy, suffocating hum as it grew louder, and louder, and louder.
Frank collided into a frenzied darkness on all sides. He scrambled at first, not knowing up from down until he saw a split of gray light. He fumbled to hold whatever he could—hair, limbs, faces—to propel himself upwards. Breaking the surface, the hum was deafening. The sight of the grotesque sea of flesh nearly made him let go. Be swallowed up. But he could not believe that this was all fate had. Not for Alice, not for David. No god could damn them to this hellish ocean of meat.
Apologizing as he pulled himself onto the protruding belly of some half-buried man, Frank saw that those on the surface were calmer. They mumbled or moaned, staring vacant-eyed at the sky. Frank got shakily to his feet to find the man’s skin was firm and dry underfoot. Despite the effort of pulling himself to the surface, Frank hadn’t a drop of sweat. He tried to spit. Nothing. Then he fell ass-backward and elbowed some poor soul in the face. “I’m sorry!” He rolled to the side. A woman’s exposed face smiled up at the sky. “Ma’am, are you okay?” No answer. As an experiment, he dug his nails into his thigh as hard as he could. No pain. So he got to his feet, found his balance on the undulating ground, and walked. After a while, keeping his balance became not so different from being at sea. Except for avoiding the faces.
Frank tried not to think, tried to forget how Alice hated crowds, fought away images of David swallowed up somewhere below. He counted falling stars instead. He told himself they were stars and not more bodies added to the pile. There is no telling how long Frank might’ve gone on like that—chest to shoulder to thigh, counting would-be stars, if not for the small boy who fell out of the sky not ten paces away and vanished beneath the surface.
Frank ran to the spot. He pulled limb after limb out of his way. “David!” he shouted, “I’m coming. I’m here.” He fell to his stomach, reached down, and got his hand around a child-like ankle. About to pull, hands from below latched onto his arms. They yanked him downwards. He tumbled into the fleshy chaos, elbowed, clawed, and smothered. Yet, even as he plunged into the living abyss, he didn’t let go, would never let go.
Frank felt someone grab his legs. They began to pull him back out. He was ripped from the hands below by those who pulled from above. When he broke the surface he shouted to whoever, whatever, “Help the boy!” He was dragged onto a flat fleshy surface but hadn’t let go. Two men flanked him, one his age with a well-kept goatee, the other a wiry, olive-skinned youth with tucked-back straight black hair. Together, they pulled the boy out.
“David?” Frank extended a hand to the boy’s shoulder. The boy turned, his pale, thin face telling Frank that crying in this place was as impossible as spitting. But it wasn’t David. The eyes were wrong. The skin, too drawn and pale. “Are you alright, son?” The boy recoiled, cocooning his face into his knees. Frank kept his hand on the boy’s shoulder. “It’ll be okay, son.”
From the goateed man, “Can you handle this, Stan?”
The other, presumably Stan, nodded. The man headed off down the macabre stage Frank now saw was made entirely of people — a mosaic of people of all sizes, shapes, and colors, face-up, arm-over-shoulder, leg locked with leg, sealed up tight enough to resemble an eccentric kitchen floor. Frank traced the pattern back to between his legs where he saw a man’s rough-bearded face looking up at him. “Hello, friend,” the man chirped.
Frank stood, placed one foot gingerly on a woman’s large thigh, the other on a man’s broad chest. “I’m sorry,” he told them. Stan laughed. It cut through the hum.
“Sir, please. It’s okay. I know. It takes a minute. But please, sir, is this your boy?” He motioned to the boy who Frank had pulled from below. It took him a moment but said, “No, he just…he needed help.” Stan nodded. “Okay. Okay. Margaret!”
A woman who’d been crouched beside the edge of the strange platform came over. “Yes?”
“The boy,” Stan motioned.
She bent, whispered something in the young boy’s ear that made him open his arms, which he then latched around her neck, and she carried him off.
“Come on,” Stan said. He stopped a few paces away. “It’s okay, look.” He jumped up several times and the woman beneath him giggled. He bent and said, “How are we today, Imani?”
“Sunshine and daisies,” she said. Stan held his hand open palm toward the woman. “See?”
Frank checked his feet, stepped onto a man’s trim belly and asked, “What is this? This…” he looked around at the stage of interlocked bodies where they stood.
“Not that,” Stan said, pointing at the horizon. “And that’s what matters.”
“Look.” Stan came close enough to put an arm on Frank’s shoulder. He pointed to the edge of the platform where each human link had been placed, so one arm stuck outward. “Folks are positioned so we can move. Like a Viking boat. Others take shifts along the edge,” he pointed to a few, like the older man who’d helped drag him up, “to keep the grabbers off. When we find live ones, we try to bring them aboard. We’re, hm, over two hundred now, I think. It’s not so bad. We don’t need food, can’t shit. Don’t get tired. Can’t strain a muscle. No real danger unless you fall over. Can’t hurt each other. Can’t move fast, but where have any of us got to go?” He let out a forced, quick laugh. “Welcome to paradise!”
Frank took it all in. “What—”
Stan held up a hand. “Please, I just work here.” He chuckled at his own joke. “Charlie started all this. I’ll let him explain.” He pointed across the platform that must’ve stretched a hundred or so paces wide. At the center, Frank saw the backs of three tall people: two men and a woman. “Come.”
Sensing his unease, Stan held Frank’s elbow as they walked. “He’s a little… Well, you’ll see,” Stan told him. As they rounded the trio, Frank saw a startling spectacle of a man. Near seven feet tall, bear-like shoulders and hewn arms. Skin that wasn’t thick with hair was layered in tattoos so diverse he looked as though he’d rolled helter-skelter in the world’s graffiti and came out inked and scarred. One scar began at his hairline, dragged down one eye, and was swallowed in a wild beard that hid most of his neck. Hair, that was no less wild, fell past his shoulders, framing a face that was an exercise in rugged imperfection: a crooked nose, weathered cheeks, and lines etching the passage of time around his eyes and mouth. “This is Charlie.”
Charlie sat on what could only be called a throne of flesh. Three figures, forming the backrest, flanked Charlie. Beneath him, four people knelt, forming a base. Two were his seat, while the remaining two acted as human armrests. Nine individuals total of varying ages and genders, their gaze fixated on Frank, frozen like statues. Except for one elderly woman beneath Charlie, babbling through a gap-toothed grimace, one visible eye darting under a curtain of thin gray hair before settling on Frank.
“A live one!” Charlie had a deep, dangerous voice. “Oh look at you. Made it far for an old fella. Let me guess—lost love? No, no, you’re looking for your mother. No, no – dog? No dogs here, friend. Best to get on with it and lose your mind. RIGHT, MOTHER?!”
The gap-toothed woman cackled until Charlie reached down and pinched her nose hard.
“Hey, don’t do that.” Frank met the woman’s eye. “Ma’am, are you okay?”
What happened next, Frank could not have predicted. Charlie leaned forward and erupted. “DON’T YOU SPEAK TO HER!” Those around him hissed. All except the woman he’d called Mother, who’d gone back to cackling. Frank felt an arm on his shoulder and realized Stan was squeezing it in a reassuring way. “It’s okay,” he whispered.
Charlie leaned on one knee, eyes on Frank as his human throne settled. Frank met his gaze. Life’s lessons had taught him better than to cower when challenged. So he stood, waiting for Charlie’s features to soften, his posture to relax, a single eyebrow to lift in a welcoming smile.
“What is your name?” Charlie asked.
“I’m Charlie. That’s Stan,” he motioned to the man beside Frank, “and that’s Carol, Bob – HEY, BOB!” He waved at a patch of flesh to the right of the throne. “And that’s Edgar, Nadeem, Jane, Tim, Lee-ho, Jane again, and…Ron? No, Reggie. Yasmine, Fars—”
“Charlie.” Stan cut in. “He was trying to help a boy who had fallen in.”
Charlie looked down at Frank for a few long seconds, then stood, opened his arms and, in two massive steps, had Frank pressed to his enormous chest. “Good man,” Charlie whispered in his ear. “Charlie,” Stan said. Stan was pointing back at the throne. The gap-toothed woman was inching forward but shuffled back as Charlie let Frank go.
“So, Frank,” Charlie said, retaking his seat, “What would you like to do here? Plank? Rower? Performance artist? There is no rush if you want to scream for a while. AHHHHH!” Charlie yelled at the top of his lungs. “AHHHHH! It feels good. Come on Frank. AHHHHH!”
“I can’t stay.” Frank cut in.
Charlie stopped shouting and frowned. “Excuse me?”
“I can’t stay. Thank you. But you were right, before. My family. I’ve come looking for my family. A boy, three, maybe four. His name is David. And my wife, Alice. I need to find them. Is there a place where people are not…” Frank watched the sea of limbs roil.
“Zombies? Brain dead? So ugly? Details, man. Details!”
“A safe place?.”
Charlie laughed. Those in his throne, those below, and even a few who’d caught Frank’s words from the edges of the platform laughed with him. Even Stan laughed which made Frank feel a bit betrayed.
“No, friend. If you’re looking for the safest place in this hell, you’ve found it. Whoever you’re looking for is long…” he whistled and pointed down, “gone.”
Then, for the first time, the woman beneath him spoke. “He could go—”
“Shut up! Shut up! You don’t speak. You NEVER speak!”
Frank’s patience snapped. He had no time to navigate Charlie’s erratic mood swings, nor did he have any desire to become a fixture in this madman’s purgatory. “Stop! Leave her alone.” Frank shrugged off Stan’s restraining hand. “What is all this, this madness? How is it any better than… than that?” His finger jabbed towards the endless sea of bodies. One of Charlie’s armrests averted their gaze. A realization struck him. “You’re terrified of him, aren’t you? But you’re already dead! This is ridiculous. Ma’am,” he lowered himself to the woman, “you don’t have to be this. Whatever this is. Please, tell me. Where can I go?”
Charlie stood. “You don’t get to speak to me like that. You have no idea what she’s done! She’s—” Suddenly, his eyes widened. “And you. What about you?” He towered over Frank. “What did you do to deserve this place?”
Frank tried to move but found his feet held by those beneath him. “I died.”
“Died? You think this is because you died?” He bent to rest his face beside Frank’s and whispered, “What did you do, I wonder.”
Then Charlie had Frank around the neck. Those who’d been holding his feet let go as Charlie lifted Frank into the air. “What did you do to deserve this? What brought you to hell?” Stan had Charlie’s arm now. He shouted, “Charlie, he’s just an old man! Charlie, stop!”
Charlie carried Frank like a ragdoll to the edge of the platform. Frank could feel the terrifying power that kept these people in check through the grip Charlie had on him. He knew Charlie could fling him into unreachable depths, or plunge him into the suffocating darkness beneath the bodies. But all thoughts of that dissipated as something truly bizarre crawled from the sea of flesh, scrabbling toward them. A spaceman, white-clad, sealed up in a spherical helmet with a half-domed reflective visor. The air cracked and fizzled around him as each step sent tremors into the bodies below so they sizzled. Frank could smell it. It was the first thing he’d smelled since he arrived. Like burnt cotton candy.
With a brutal toss, Charlie sent Frank sprawling. He stepped to the edge of his carefully woven platform. “Hello, God! It’s me, Charlie! I’ve got a bone to pick with you.” Without missing a beat, he lunged off the precipice. His fist crashed into the Spaceman’s helmet, the visor spider-webbing under the blow.
The Spaceman reeled, collapsing in an awkward heap, while a grotesque transformation swept through the surrounding bodies. They contorted, pulled apart like taffy until they became elongated ribbons of flesh. “YOU’RE NOT GOD!” Charlie roared, hurling himself at the fallen Spaceman. He brought his fists down in hammers, the rhythmic thuds echoing in the cacophonic screams.
The horrifying spectacle of deforming bodies expanded outward from the Spaceman’s energy and floated past Frank. Skin, muscle, bone — all flayed apart, forming grisly confetti that filled the air. There were unfurled rows of teeth, strips of hair, spirals of entire faces. Juxtaposing this horrific scene was a cloying sugary scent that made everything seem even more sickening.
In the middle of this bedlam, Frank scrambled, trying to claw his way out. But the pit forming around the Spaceman yawned wider, swallowing everything faster than he could escape. He watched, helpless, as bodies slivered into nothing, and Charlie — oblivious to his own body unwinding — continued to barrel his clasped hands into the Spaceman’s helmet.
Then came the jarring crack.
The Spaceman’s visor gave way under the relentless assault, shattering into a million shards. For a moment, everything froze. Charlie paused, confusion flickering across his face. He glanced up at Frank, a chilling laugh erupting from him before he unspooled into a wisp of colorful thread.
With effort, the Spaceman rose, his form barely discernible through the swirling remains. Frank turned to get away, arms out ahead of him to clear away what was left of the bodies, but in moments, arms grabbed him from behind, thick, white-gloved fingers lacing together around his midsection. There was a snap and they both vanished.
To find out what happens next, tune into Talk Vomit’s October edition.
Benjamin Davis has stories & poems in 25+ literary journals like BOOTH, Hobart, Maudlin House. His first book of poems, The King of FU (2018), was such a smashing success it shocked the indie press who printed it into an early grave. He is now working on his first six novels.