In the late afternoon, Arnold began mental exercises to try to convince himself that he was sheltering from actual disaster that would abruptly end in a couple of days. The role playing helped to provide waves of relief to his back. He decided to medicate with the stash of whiskey that was intended for emergency numbing or celebration. As soon as he took a short pull, he vomited.
“Come on, Arnold. Stop being such a weakling. Man up, dammit.” He cleaned up his puke and took another drink. He did a handful of buzzed push ups and trimmed his moustache to allow himself some safe vanity. He believed a man was always better when confident. Last week at the grocery store, an attractive woman in full makeup and workout clothes asked if he was a police officer. He thought of flirting, but said, “I’m sorry to say I’m not, ma’am.” He liked that someone thought he was a policeman. Daydreaming helped the rest of the swallows of whiskey stay down, and he nursed the bottle until early sleep took him.
“I’ve gone too damn soft.”
Sleep came in short, half-dozing fits, with the longest stretch falling on Arnold near morning.
His mind allowed him to dream as only partial reprieve from the gnawing pain in his back. He dreamt he was a child in elementary school, the grade a combined memory of first, second, and third grades. The room smelled of ancient, wooden desks and ashen pencil lead.
He felt his bladder swell, felt embarrassment at drawing attention to himself in the middle of class. The other children worked quietly at their desks, and the ambient sounds of sniffles and shuffling paper hurt his abdomen and back. He raised his hand, and the old, indifferent teacher acknowledged him with eyes widening from squints to the entire lenses of her glasses.
“Yes, Arnold. Do you have a question?”
“Can I go to the restroom?” He thought his voice was too shy to indicate his need.
“May I go to the restroom?” the teacher replied.
Her eyes steadied or young Arnold, unblinking. “You mean may I please go to the restroom, Mr. Zimmerman.”
Arnold thought he might cry. “Yes, ma’am. May I please go to the restroom?”
The old woman sighed in slow exhalation. “Yes, you may. Take the restroom pass, and do your business quickly.”
Arnold stood, his prize won, and wet himself. The girl with the bangs who sat next to him made a sound of disgust which alerted the other children to Arnold’s shame. They began to laugh and Arnold’s bottom lip shook in pre-tears.
He spasmed awake and gasped. His ears had the residual tinnitus that immediately follows a loud noise, though Arnold could not recall hearing himself scream. Lying on his side, he felt the cot to see if he had pissed himself in mirror of the dream. Only his pillow was damp from his sweating scalp. Arnold felt like a fever had broken into a bout of the flu, but his back felt a little better, almost good. Despite the relief, the lump had grown, and he could not lay supine. He thought he could feel the knot occasionally thump inside the bulging tissue of his back. Arnold began his meditation on the imaginary violence and plague outside of the bunker that kept him from giving up and calling his wife.
Convinced of the effectiveness of his mental stretching on his worsening condition, Arnold practiced some light leg exercises and read some of a book about the Dunkirk evacuation to pass the morning hours. Resigning himself to the confines of mind, body, and bunker seemed to be working. He spent the time before lunch almost feeling normal.
Three bites into his lunch rations, Arnold‘s body temperature rose in a sharp, violent fever so quickly he thought he might be dying. He stood up and began removing his clothes, repeating a panicked, “OhmyGod, OhmyGod, OhmyGod!”
Stripped to his white Hanes briefs, he felt his body begin to cool. He shook himself and tried the meditations that had worked earlier that morning. He caught a glance of the World War II artifacts he had brought along for his stay and tried to imagine he was a German soldier stationed in harsh, frozen Russian. He managed to steady his panicked breath in short, rhythmic puffs, the heat and panic ebbing with the controlled in and out.
He focused his mind on his breath and the image of a Russian winter. Mindful of the large mass on his back, Arnold lay on his right side, his arms and legs curled in sharp angles at the knees, elbows, and wrists. Against his will, his thoughts turned to the bulging growth that he could only feel, but could not see. If he could control his body temperature, why couldn’t he control the tumor? His lungs and diaphragm became leathery, efficient bellows in his mind’s eye, the lump a perforated gas bag. In and out, down and down, control and release. He could feel a comfortable undulation in the mass, and the pain was nearly gone.
Arnold’s eyes strained wide and frightened at the sound and sensation of the skin on his back exceeding maximum elasticity and tearing. The artificial lighting that he had only a day ago thought warm and welcoming now felt cold and antiseptic. A wet that he could only assume to be blood ran down his side and pooled under the his pale, freckled spare tire. A second drip of pus, thick and viscous, followed and joined the moat around his middle. Arnold winced and curled his limbs and neck at the stabs in his back and a growing erection he could not understand. His breath became frenzied and he curled into a tighter ball, stretching the skin on his back so that it could more easily open the gash to relieve the pressure of the growth’s contents.
He figured the trauma to his body had made him delirious as he thought he heard a low moan issue from his back and a dull thud on the bunker floor. A painful move to sit upright gave time for the mass from his back to slide under the cot., leaving a streak of blood and mucus. Was he still affected by the booze? Was he in a fevered hysteria? He shook his head and forced himself to sane decision “Buck up, Arnold dammit.” He slowly put on his pants and retrieved the first aid kit from the stocked shelves. In clumsy, awkward stretches, Arnold poured stinging alcohol on his back and wrapped a bandage around his rib cage to close the wound. He was worried about infection, but he could feel the absence of the extra weight behind him. What could a doctor do, anyway? He’d get antibiotics if he needed them, but plenty of men of war had sustained and survived far worse than this. Yes, he was going to make it to his goal. A moan hissed low under the cot.
Arnold held tight the scissors he had used to cut his bandages as he cautiously knelt beside the small bed. The smell of blood, pus, and alcohol collected thick in the small enclosure. He bent to peek where the cot met the wall, and he dropped the scissors at the sight that he could only believe to be hallucination. A small man, about a foot and a half from feet to head, crouched near the wall. The figure had disproportionately large, heavy ridged, and bulging eyes, fit for nocturnal life, and teeth that reminded Arnold of the sheepshead fish he had seen on a trip to the Idaho Aquarium. The small, hairless man was naked and muscular, but had smooth skin, like a Ken doll, where the genitals should have been. The hands were also unusually large for the body, almost the size of regular sized man’s. Arnold decided it was safest to assume that the image was real in case there was some physical danger present that his mind was masking. He backed up to the supply shelf and pulled out the near empty bag of cheese puffs and a survival knife.
Arnold knelt back down beside the cot. “Want a snack?” he asked in a voice meant to be firm yet polite. He had never been good at baby talk directed at children or animals. He tossed a cheese puff under the cot. No sound indicated that the thing had decided to accept the offer. “Is it better if you are real or that I am crazy?” Arnold placed another cheese puff closer to edge of the cot. A hand reached for the second snack and pressed its palm down on the cheese puff. Arnold made a sound that made him feel like a child who had yelped at the apex of a roller coaster. He checked himself and cleared his throat. “You eat these, dammit.” To demonstrate the cheese puff’s purpose, he crunched one in exaggerated bites to let the thing hear him eating without fear.
Arnold placed a third snack just in the light beside the shadow of the cot. As Arnold firmly placed the orange snack on the floor, the small man grabbed Arnold’s wrist and pulled hard. Arnold tried to pull away, and he stabbed blindly where he thought the thing should be. It made a low moan, but Arnold was not sure if he had cut it. It had frightening strength, stronger than Arnold, and it held him fast. He stabbed again, and the small man released Arnold’s wrist and wrenched the knife out of Arnold’s fist. Free from the thing’s hold on his wrist, Arnold turned to face the supply closet. Before he could stand up, a searing pain shot through Arnold’s knee. He wheeled to find the small, sallow man sawing the survival knife through the back Arnold’s knee. The thing’s strength allowed him to shove the blade all the way through the knee with the tip jutting through the front of the kneecap.
Arnold screamed and grabbed the small man by the throat and squeezed. The thing’s headlight eyes widened. It’s hands grabbed Arnold’s forearms and squeezed so that Arnold thought that it might break bones in both arms. When Arnold relinquished his grip on the thing’s throat, it leaped onto his chest and grabbed a fistful of Arnold’s thinning hair and left ear. With the face so close, arnold noticed that the small lump where the nose should have been lacked nostrils. Its breath stank with the quick, rattled contractions of the miniature chest.
Arnold grabbed the thing around the waist with one hand and swept the floor for the scissors with the other. When his fingers found success, he brought the point of the scissors hard against the thing’s side. The small man’s flesh was tougher than Arnold’s, and the scissors only pierced a shallow cut into the creature. The small wound was enough to affect the small man, and it lowed, pulling Arnold’s ear in a quick jerk that tore the ear completely off of Arnold’s head. Arnold screamed, and the creature retreated back beneath the cot.
Arnold pulled himself up to one leg, knocking supplies down from their neat, ordered stacks. The knife handle still protruded from the back of his bare knee. Arnold felt tears on his cheeks and snot in his moustache, and he felt ashamed. He reached a hand to the side of his head for confirmation that his ear had been removed and. He winced and tried to contain himself. He had trained for emergencies, nothing like this, of course, but emergencies nonetheless. “Calm down. Handle this.” He fumbled for his handgun and smoothed his mustache in satisfaction. “I’ll fix you, you little bastard.” He hopped on one leg to the wall opposite the cot and sat on the floor. “Slow and steady, Zimmerman.” He lowered onto one side and aimed at the figure hunched against the wall. Arnold steadied his aim and squeezed the trigger. The bullet found its mark in the creature’s side. “Yes!” Arnold celebrated, and the small man clambered out from under the cot and began tearing at the supply closet in a desperate attempt to escape the bunker.
It wanted out. Arnold smirked to himself at the thought of the thing’s fear of him. The space was built to keep the dangers outside, yet here was danger within. The irony was not wasted on Arnold, but he would not veer from his resolve in the bunker’s practical use. He was proud of his bunker, and this hideous thing, the malignancy grown from his back, was destroying what he had worked so hard to build. Arnold felt his lip shake with the pain in his leg, head, and pride. He watched the small man knocking aside cans and boxes in search of a door or window. Arnold sat on his butt and shot, missing the creature in its frenzied clawing and leaping.
The homunculus turned to Arnold, the tiny chest heaving and two open holes, one small and one large, on each of its sides. Arnold spasmed with fear in the small man’s steady, hateful gaze. It loped to the larger man and Arnold began shooting wildly, bullets missing the target with the pained, awkward leaps. The smell of gasoline in the small space compounded Arnold’s fear. One of the shots had ignited a small pool in the corner of the supply rubble. The small man stopped beside Arnold and cocked it’s head to one side like a dog listening intently to its owner. For a brief moment, the two studied each other in curiosity and disgust.
The small man leaped at Arnold’s middle and sank its flat teeth into Arnold’s pectoral.
He shot another bullet into the thing’s side, but the dull, flat teeth held fast in Arnold’s chest. The gun blasts within the enclosed space left Arnold only able to hear a loud whine. Smoke stung his nose, and tears ran down his eyes and dripped off his chin and onto the small man’s smooth head. This thing could not leave the bunker. He would have to remain with it. He would have to stay here, in control. The homunculus bit deeper into Arnold’s chest, and Arnold wrapped his arms around the creature, adding his remaining strength to keep it pressed against his body. The fire had found a few scattered bullets, and the report made the pair jump, neither loosening their hold. Arnold’s chest and leg hurt, and he began to sob. He closed his eyes in the growing heat and glow of the fire. He would hold tight to the unholy bastard, as long as he could, until immolation could take them both. Perhaps, Arnold reasoned, he could die in control.
About The Author
Scott Allen Young is both a consumer and a producer of works of horror fiction. Comfortable either in relaxing with a Stuart Gordon or Hammer movie or reading Joe Lansdale, Scott Allen Young also enjoys telling his own stories of monsters and the macabre with a fan’s appreciation for the disturbing things that bump around inside our own heads.
Scott is a native of Houston, Texas where he lives with his wife, son, and a fleet of pets.