TW: graphic depictions of violent acts
I answer an ad formatted like a Black Ops mission that leads me to a colorless office building.
772 Iris Boulevard
The blacked-out words catch my wayward cigarette ashes like the cracked sidewalk catches raindrops in its crevices. I stare into the grey above and wonder if the job will be as intriguing as this ad. If my burnt fingertips will sense peculiar things the way it twitched before rain formed.
“Better head inside if I wanna get paid.”
The buzz of one of several hanging lights spaced apart not unlike my two front teeth. Makes for an easy cigarette holder. And then the dim glow flickers until it holds. Reveals a stark room and a white book in the middle on a wooden chair about to collapse with the slightest sit-down.
My fingertips twitch. Then a hidden intercom tucked somewhere in the room:
“See that book? Pick it up.”
The grizzled voice shoves me toward the book. Could have been the kind to sell cigars and guns to 1950’s husbands. My fingers touch the tattered spine and cover before his voice growls again.
“You're gonna read to someone named Ora. He's in the other room. Say hello, Ora.”
A pained voice squeaks out of the intercom. Not the kind to be sold by cigars and guns or answer the door in the first place.
“Ora loves when someone reads to him. This book is his favorite.”
It's called Ora in a Box. I flip through it and-
“Some of the pages are torn out.”
“Start from the first page you see.”
I clear my throat and my burnt fingertips twitch yet it's only fiction reading. Nothing comes out of that but imagination and words. Calm down, I mutter to myself.
“Ora fidgets in his chair and catches his finger on a loose nail.”
Ora screams through the intercom seconds after I finish the line. My fingertips twitch again and I twitch with them.
“Who are you anyway?”
“Call me Warner. Your compensation is in the metal mail slot fifteen paces ahead. You're going to come here over the next week and read a line from this book. The job is done when the book is done.”
I shuffle forward and open the mail slot to a package the color of the lazy taxi I hailed to get here. My fingertips twitch with the package in hand and I slip it back in because it could be…
“It's not a bomb. It's $500.”
I scoop the money up and make a beeline for the door until Warner’s growl over the intercom stops me.
“Hold on. Can't scurry away with my money without knowing who receives it.”
“Like your clean blonde hair, Christian. Makes you come across approachable. See you tomorrow.”
I shake my head and push out of the building to a canvas of grey and endless rain. Warner is odd and the job is a stranger deal but I don't question the money. Some ominous limo pulls out in front of me and the door swings open but I don't question this or the money.
The dark partition obscures the driver’s face and it could be best that whoever drives isn't social. I don't need to converse with another weirdo today. Not to mention I don't get paid to converse with more than one weirdo.
I weigh the package in my hand with a few tosses. $500 to read a line. Too good to be true but I tear open the top and find $500 in $1 bills bound by a rubber band. Excessive but efficient I guess.
The limo brakes in front of my apartment and speeds off. I light a cigarette and drop it in front of the building. My fingertips twitch upstairs past kids who lob handballs at each other and a couple who can't pry their lips away to come up for air. Must be the rain or the feeling of this job. I enter my apartment and the night blurs by.
My phone tremors off the hook. Unknown number. Wipe my dreaming eyes to read. Clear my throat to answer.
“You've got breakfast waiting at the building. 9 sharp. Don't be late.”
I throw on something decent on my bed and rush outside to find the limo from yesterday. Brush my teeth and wash my face on the way to the building. There's a scalding coffee in front of me and I scoop it up once we arrive.
Back in this same stark room. Back for another quick $500. And there's a yogurt for me beside the book on a distant table. My fingertips twitch but what's troubling about yogurt?
“Didn’t picture you as a letterman jacket kind of man but it suits you. You know the deal.”
I eat the yogurt while Ora whimpers over the intercom. It shoots a chill down my back but I have to finish it. I set the yogurt down and flip the page.
“Ora snaps off a leg of the chair and breaks it over the back of his neck.”
Ora cries at the snap of a wooden chair leg.
I stumble and my brain starts pulsating. I scream because it feels as though my entire body is in flames.
“Need a little insurance. Can't have you sharing this information with the police. A microscopic bomb dropped inside that yogurt will make short work of you if you do.”
Warner is out of his mind but I need the money. There's a miniature explosive inside me and snitching isn't advised. Take the money, Christian.
“Take the money, Christian. Oh and there's a camera that drilled its way into your body once you made contact with the book. It's connected to the bomb.”
I grip the package and sprint out of the building. The $500 isn't simple anymore. But I can't escape. Not the limo nor the job. Here comes the limo.
There's another coffee before me but it's warm. I slip it and weigh the package with another loose toss in the air. Ora gets nothing out of this aside from pure unfiltered pain and I reap the benefits.
“But it's a book,” I think out loud for the first time around the driver and there's only a grunt in response.
My apartment lobby is empty up the narrow stairway but packed inside my place. My fingertips twitch hard. Men and women dressed head to toe in black planting cameras around my private space stare at me as if they were not supposed to be caught. Warner is a freak and I wouldn't be surprised if this is his doing.
“It's not an easy $500 anymore,” I utter out loud to no one. Or to Warner.
Everyone in black turns to me and parrots “It's not an easy $500 anymore” in unison before setting up the remaining cameras. I heat up leftover pizza and slide into bed.
27 more days and I'm free to go. Calling the police will kill me. Telling anyone I know or don't know will kill me. Plus the house is bugged and there's a camera living inside of me rent-free. My phone buzzes with a text that reads, “9 sharp. Limo comes in 5. Hope you like powdered eggs and cheddar cheese on English muffins.”
I throw on another random outfit and ask to use a neighbor's bathroom. Refuse to let Warner watch me take a dump. I jog out in time to meet the limo and vanish.
The coffee is warm and I sip it as the driver lowers the partition.
“This is a weird development.”
“Don't mess with Warner. Especially his coffee.”
I scramble to roll down the window and chuck the coffee out. Warner won't poison me. I barrel out of the limo with a purpose now. And that purpose is to stop this torturous loop.
I'm back in the room with a scrambled egg and cheddar cheese English muffin staring me in the face beside the book.
“Denim isn't too shabby a look either, Christian. You're becoming something of a model.”
I skip over the English muffin and snatch up the book.
“Ora dislocates his arm.”
Ora’s all-too-familiar yell rings out on the intercom. I feel bad but that $500 feels good. I'll get us out of this somehow, Ora.
I tuck the package under my arm and waltz toward the exit.
“Skipping the most important meal of the day?”
Warner's menacing gruffness could give a serial killer pause. I can't be intimidated though and make for the limo without the English muffin.
The limo driver isn't social on the ride home. The partition is raised as always save for a folded note bent out of the top. I could skim through it on my neighbor's toilet before the next read. And it feels better to spend the sundown there.
Identical text to yesterday with the exception of “English muffin wasn't poisoned btw.” Sure it wasn't. I roll out of bed and leap into whatever clothes are close.
The limo driver nods to another folded note. Previous one read “Warner is a klutz” which means they're throwing him off whatever scent the driver is using to help me and Ora escape. I stick the folded note into one of my back pockets.
I jog into the room and find the same English muffin from yesterday beside the book.
“Star-spangled tracksuit. Appreciate the patriotic turn.”
I bypass the English muffin and lift the book to my eyes.
“Ora scrapes his arm with his sharp nails.”
Ora shrieks over the intercom yet I march toward the metal slot with a disturbing coolness. Toward the money.
“Bring home the English muffin. Don't be childish.”
I burst out of the building and into the limo which coasts down the road in front of my apartment. The driver and I split a nod and I shut off the electricity. Rather sleep in total darkness than as the unwilling star of a 24-hour reality show. My fingertips twitch for the first time in a little but nothing warrants the concern aside from this dodgy peanut soup.
Phone buzzes with the text “got a surprise for you downstairs.” I descend the stairs to discover a bruised and sunken pale man weeping in my living room. I shudder but then I notice the specific details such as a scraped arm and mark across the back of his neck.
My phone rings with the same “unknown number” label. Ora whimpers and shields his face. This could have been me. The roles could have been reversed if Warner wanted it that way.
“We would have this in the building but… I suggest you turn your TV to channel 15 news. Nice grey cardigan by the way.”
“An unidentified limo driver was discovered dead in a flaming limousine last night-”
I switch the TV off in a shaking fit.
“You don't escape. You leave when the job is done.”
Three English muffins sit beside the book on my living room table. Ora demands me with a violent nod no but Warner knows where I live. My alternate means of escape is charred to a crisp and I have two days left. I cradle the book to my chin.
“Don't worry your blonde head about the driver. He's a basic yet unfortunate casualty of rebellion. And I told you to bring the English muffins home.”
“Is that hesitation I hear, Christian? Do you think I would hesitate setting off the bomb in your bloodstream or did you forget this isn't another English muffin to bypass?”
His gruff yet honeyed voice coerces me to read. To disregard Ora’s whining. His pleading eyes with whittled-down nerves. But thoughtfulness be damned because I need my life back.
I gulp and start the line over.
“Ora jabs himself in the leg with a nearby shard of glass.”
Ora sobs as he grasps a shard of glass from a shattered picture frame I forgot to replace and clean up. And launches it toward his leg as I lunge to stop him.
I feel my body expand until it bursts. Or that's what would have happened if I stopped Ora. But I don't and he bawls with a bleeding leg. My stomach growls and I devour the English muffins instead of at least impeding the rapid flow of blood.
I drag myself into the kitchen and whip a roll of paper towels at him before ascending the stairs to my room. Warner cackles and I can't help wondering I transform into him day after day.
I march back downstairs for the package and disappear again.
Ora’s sunken eyes gaze at me down the stairs. The guilt doesn't faze me because my brisk step toward the book means one step closer to freedom. One step closer to privacy in my own home. In my own body. Gimme that book.
The phone rings and I set him on speakerphone.
“Slow down, killer. Can't have you reading on an empty stomach. Have another English muffin on me.”
I chomp into the English muffin and the room grows wobbly.
“I haven't let go of you and that driver conspiring against me. You can read now.”
“Christian strangles Ora with his bare hands. No, Warner.”
My body gallops toward Ora out of its own volition and wraps my hands around his withered neck. Ora loses oxygen in no time flat and collapses.
“What did you do?”
“I wrote you into my story. You're gonna enjoy the explosive ending.”
I snatch the package and distance myself from the house. No more torture. No more manipulation. No more- wait… My body is expanding and I hear this beeping noise inside me BURST.