rating: +65+x

It's amazing how death changes a person. That's not to say the person themselves (even though it's safe to say they do undergo a profound change), but who they are to you, and how they stand in your memory. Evil men can become saints and vice versa the moment they give up their last breath. Paul was neither, yet he's still…changed, with his passing. Then again, this all might be invalid, as I'm more and more certain that Paul is not actually dead. Just the Paul that I knew.

But I'm getting ahead of myself. I…am pretty much nobody. I work in an office of a company you would know if I told you the name of it. I'm single, female, thirty-five, and have pretty much peaked out in my life's achievements. If it weren't for Paul, I'd probably have passed by life unnoticed, with no great change of character after death's call. I've always wished for some kind of…excitement in life. Now that I have it, I'd give anything I have to make it go away.

Paul was a fellow cube-slave, a office worker of zero ambition and even less presence. He was short, slightly overweight, had a nervous laugh, and slowly advancing (receding?) baldness. I think he was around thirty or forty, but I couldn't be sure, and he always seemed to have a slight…agelessness about him. As if he was born in suit and tie, already fortified with a head full of PowerPoint and team meeting schedules. You could probably pass him a hundred times a day, and wouldn't be able to recall the color of his limited hair at gunpoint.

We were office friends, the special kind of hazy, organic relationship that develops around those who are somewhat trapped together, but don't want to commit to actual friendship. We worked and went to lunch in the same area, so we ended up bumping into each other enough to force some kind of rapport. I think he also had a crush on me, which was flattering. I'm not pretty, so any attention is at least a bit of a ego stroke, even if the giver is about as plain as tofu.

We would talk, sit at the same table at lunch, walk to our cars, all very easy and non-committal. He told me about his dog, his interest in movies, various tv shows. I'd tell him about my two cats, my rather insane mother, and my ongoing car problems. He was painfully lonely, and I think I may have been one of the few friends of any persuasion he had, if not the only one. I felt very humanitarian…instead of donating a dollar a day to Africa, I was donating time to Paul.

Looking back, it started with the dream. Paul was sitting at the lunch table, and had a massive bandage around his arm. He'd been even more closed off then normal for the last few days, and had even missed the day before, which was very odd. The worst thing was, almost nobody had noticed. One coworker, who sat a few desks down from Paul, actually said “Who's Paul?” when I mentioned his absence. I felt a twitch of actual, genuine concern when I sat down across from him.

My first question was about his arm, but he passed it off as nothing, saying he just had an accident. After a little prodding, I got him to tell me what had happened. Paul said he'd been sleeping badly. Always prone to fits of insomnia, he said that lately it had been worse. He'd wake up from strange dreams, panting, and find the bed soaked with sweat. He said he also had the weird feeling that someone had been in the room just moments ago. By the time he'd gone and checked all the doors and windows, he couldn't get to sleep again. He'd laughed then, saying the joke would be on the thief, that he'd probably end up losing money anyway.

I laughed too. Paul could be funny, and smart, and almost charming at times, but it always got buried in a big, smothering wave of gray blandness. He didn't seem bland then. He looked…nervous. He blinked, looking around, then leaned in a bit. He smiled nervously, and said what had happened was rather embarrassing. In the middle of the night, he'd woken up from a horrible dream, and found himself unable to move. He said it was like a weight on his chest, pinning him down. He'd also seen something across the room. He paused, seeming to decide whether or not to go on, then sighed and shook his head. He said that there was a thing standing in the doorway to the hall. He said it looked like it had a cloak, but it seemed to move like it was alive, and its head was like a insect, long and narrow, with a cluster of eyes on each side.

I looked at him, dumbfounded. Here was a man whose greatest imaginative moment was suggesting a blue background on the monthly expense pie chart instead of white. He must have seen my shock, because Paul laughed again, loudly, causing a few people to turn. He waved his good hand, saying for me to relax. He said it was sleep paralysis, uncommon but not unnatural. Paul said when you sleep, your body sort of “switches off” to keep you from flailing around and hurting yourself. Sometimes, if you wake up suddenly, your body stays in that mode, and you feel pinned. He said you can even have very, very vivid dreams when you're like this, which explains what he called the bug-monk.

I asked him if this happened to him a lot, but he said no, not since he was little. He went on, saying that he thinks he blacked out for a moment, or went back to sleep, because he woke up again with a sudden, sharp pain in his chest. He'd shouted, tried to get up, missed the edge of the bed, and managed to bash his arm off the edge of the nightstand, giving himself a nasty bruise and gash. I prodded him about seeing a doctor, but he said no, he's just wrapped it with some gauze and medical tape and gone back to bed. Lunch had wrapped up by then, so he'd gotten up, nodding apologetically, and quietly gone back to his cube. I sat for a bit, looking at my untouched lunch, and just thought.

Work kept me busy for the next few weeks, and I didn't see much of Paul except for the once-weekly carpool and an occasional wave in the hall. Whats more, one of my idiotic cats had gotten out and went missing for several days, so I was very preoccupied. I say that, now…but really, I wasn't. What Paul had said was so…weird, so out of character, that I just wasn't able to process it. So, I didn't. Have I not said that Paul was insanely easy to forget? Looking back, I see now what I should have seen…his weight loss, the baggy eyes, unkempt hair…

It was a Friday, and I had been working late. I don't mind the office at night when I'm engrossed, but as soon as I lift my head, I realize how very…empty things seem. Unless you've been in a huge office after hours, there's no good way to describe it. It's like there's an…energy. Something stuck to the walls, the desks, all the hustle, bustle and human exertion leaves a…residue. I'm wandering. It's enough to say that, when Paul came up behind me and said hi, I nearly screamed.

I spun around to say hi, and I literally gasped. He looked like a shadow of himself. He'd lost weight, but in all the wrong places, and his skin looked baggy and poorly fitted. His eyes were red and hollow, and when he smiled, his gums looked raw. He seemed to be wheezing a bit, as if he'd jogged a short space and was catching his breath. I blinked and shook my head, trying to recover, and offered him a seat. When he sat, his joints cracked and popped like a box of corn flaked being stomped.

I asked if he was all right, but he just stared at the floor like he didn't hear me. I asked again, and he slowly shook his head. He said he hadn't been feeling well, and wheezed out a slow, painful sigh. I started to ask if it was something bad, but Paul waved it off, saying it was probably just a flu. I just watched him, stunned. He must have lost forty pounds, and his clothes fit him like a sack. He suddenly looked me in the eye, a rare feat for Paul, and asked if I remembered about his dream. It took me a minute to remember what he was talking about, and seeing me think, he started to rise, saying “I shouldn't have come”. I put a hand on his arm, telling him to stop…and I felt the ridges on his arm.

I pulled my hand away, stammering something, but Paul looked down and sighed. He sat back down, and put his head in his hands. He said he was sorry for saying anything, but that he really didn't have anyone to talk to. He started to ramble, waving his hands and speaking with a tone that was equal parts hopeless, tired, and hysterical. Paul said that there was something wrong with him. He said it was the dream, that he didn't think it was actually a dream. He'd found little pinpricks all over his body the day after the dream, and he'd peed blood. I started to ask if he'd been checked for cancer, but he kept on as if I wasn't there.

He said he'd felt something, inside. Something not right. He got up and started to pace, going out to the hall and back in to my cube, rambling. He said something about growth, and something trying to take over. Mid-way through his monologue, he stopped, cried for about thirty seconds, then started back as if nothing happened. I was starting to get very afraid. Paul always seemed like someone prone to depression, and I was scared that he'd had a breakdown or something. For a moment, I saw my face on the news with the word “Missing:” underneath. He suddenly shouted, saying he wasn't going to let it out, and rolled up his sleeve, saying he'd found a way to fix it.

I stared and had to put my hand over my mouth to keep from screaming. His arm was a horror show. A deep, winding gash stretched from his wrist to his elbow along the underside of his arm, looking nearly a quarter inch wide in places. Blood was crusted all around it, and what looked like…pus, or some other fluid. What was worst, though, was the stitches. He'd taken some kind of heavy gauge thread and stitched the cut shut. It was a bad job, the stitching jumping around randomly, in places pulling the skin into tight, painful angles. I looked up at him, horrified, and he pulled his sleeve back down, turning away. He said “I shouldn't have come” again, then rushed out of my cube and down the hall. I should have done something…but I just got my things and left.

Paul wasn't at work the next day. I felt sick. I was pretty sure I'd just witnessed the end result of a suicide attempt, but I had no idea what to do. I thought about trying to get help, but I couldn't think of who to call, and it felt…inappropriate. I hardly knew him, and it didn't feel right. I was sure he'd get help, or…something. I justified myself not calling a thousand ways, and when I heard, finally, that he'd called in sick, I just moved on, filing it under someone else's problem. I wish I could say that I did everything I could, that I tried my best, but I didn't. I just…moved on. It was so unsettling, and weird, and just…wrong, that I just pushed it away.

It was nearly two weeks later that I finally checked. He had stopped calling in, and the carpool just cruised past his house. It looked bad. The lawn was unmowed, the car just sitting in the driveway, several newspapers on the porch. I asked around work, but the very few people who even knew who Paul was had no real idea about him. They just shrugged and assumed he was sick. I went each day with visions of him dead in the bathtub, or coming in and shooting everyone. It was when I drove by and saw his door hanging open that I finally did something.

I was heading home, and as I went past Paul's house, I saw the front door hanging open. It was late, and it was just standing, wide open. I slowed down, looking, and I saw one of his shoes sitting on the porch. Like he'd run out of it, or kicked it off. I sat, looking, and almost before I decided to, I pulled in to his driveway. I sat in the car, gripping the wheel, looking at the door. If he was fine, it'd be a monstrous invasion of privacy…for all I knew he had a girl in there, and had slipped off his shoe in a mad bout of passion. He might have just been hot, and was letting the house cool off. There might be a robber inside, and dropped his shoe on the way out with a load.

I had the window down, and the evening was very quiet, just a few insects buzzing. I was just about to put the car back in gear when I heard the sound. It was a short, sharp sound, like someone yelling after banging their shin. I looked to the open doorway, listening, and after a few seconds it happened again. I rummaged in my purse, grabbed out a little can of mace I'd gotten from my mother, and started over to the house before I could really think about what I was doing. By the time I decided this was a terrible idea, I was already through the doorway, mace in hand.

It was dark inside. I mean pitch black. The only real light was from the doorway, the streetlights leaking in to the living room. The smell hit me first, and as my eyes adjusted, I saw why. Old, half-eaten food was out everywhere, balanced on plates and the arms of furniture. Craning my neck a bit, I could see in to the kitchen, and the fridge door was hanging open, the light burned out or broken, more dead food rotting there as well. I heard the sound again, louder, and it seemed to come from the back of the house. I started to thread my way to the hall, trying not to be afraid.

Mid-way down the hall, I looked in to what seemed to be a office. Papers were tossed everywhere, and the little window on the wall was…black. I looked in a bit more, then stepped back. A garbage bag had been taped over the glass. Looking back in to the living room, I could see all the windows had been covered. I tried the light switch, but nothing happened. All the lights and windows were useless. I started to shake, softly, and called “Paul?”. There was nothing for a bit, then start sudden yelp again. It was coming from the next door in the hall.

I inched down more, screaming at myself inside to just run, just leave. But, I felt responsible. I was the only person who could have helped him, and now, if he was hurt, or sick…or worse, it was my fault. I had to try something. I started to push on the door, but jumped back as I heard a sudden, deep, muffled moaning from behind it. It kept on, sounding like someone sobbing in to a pillow, sounding so hopeless and lost. I slowly pushed open the door, and stepped in to what I now saw was the bathroom. The curtain was pulled down, and lay on the floor. In the shower, naked, with the door open, was Paul.

He was curled in the corner, blood smeared on the floors and walls. His body looked as if he'd been attacked with a machete. Deep, gaping cuts and sores stood out all over. Pieces of flesh looked as if they'd been torn or lopped off, and his skin looked…thin and sagging. His feet were misshapen, and it looked as if his spine had somehow swollen and twisted in his back. When he moved, everything flexed and opened, but only let out tiny trickles of blood and yellowed pus.

He was stitched shut. Every cut and sore had some kind of thread trying to close it. String, yarn, twine, shoelaces, even wire, all of it was stitched in to his skin. It had grown over or ripped free in places, and the threads were all sodden and dripping with ooze and blood. From each of the cuts, too, there seemed to be some kind of…growth coming out. Stiff hair-like things, or hard, sharp, black points. From a deep gash on his back a long, thin patch of what looked like red plastic hung, flapping with each movement. His skull looked broken and twisted. His ears and eyes had been sewn shut. His nostrils were closed with thick, dripping bands of copper wire. He howled that muffled, moaning cry again, and as I looked at his face, I saw why.

Paul was forcing a sharpened shoelace through his lips.

I screamed, and I fell back against the wall, watching him lace his mouth shut, and I threw my mace at him. I was hysterical, scrambling along the floor. I looked back once, and saw him lean back, his mouth sealed shut. His lips were moving, as if his tongue was trying to push through them. I ran outside, knocking over his coffee table on the way, and threw up in his yard. I got in my car, peeled out, and called 911 when I was six blocks away.

Paul is dead, in the eyes of the law. I was investigated for a while, but he was labeled a suicide and quietly buried. Nobody came to claim the body. I didn't go to the funeral. I took a week off from work, and got pumped for information as soon as I got back. I didn't really say anything. I drifted in a haze, just trying to forget. But I can't. I never will.

You see, there's a issue with Paul's death. It was never made public, but they never actually recovered a body. Yes, they recovered a great deal of tissue and flesh from Paul's house, but not nearly enough to make up a corpse. It was mostly skin, some fat, a little muscle, nothing more. I was discounted mainly because I had a alibi, and that I'm not strong enough to skin and butcher a fully grown man. Whatever happened to Paul didn't end when the police charged in.

I don't know what happened to him. I've read about insect physiology, and watched science fiction, but I still will not even attempt to explain. Paul is dead. However, I don't think that means as much as it should. When I'm finished with this, I'm going to go take a shower, go to bed, and polish off a full bottle of both vodka and Vicodin.

Last night, I woke in the dark, groggy and feeling drugged. I looked to my window, and saw a shape there for a few seconds. It moved away, but I saw it. Narrow head. Wide black eyes.

But it still has Paul's face.

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