The Folding Man

Submitted into Contest #135 in response to: Write about a casual act of bravery.... view prompt

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Fiction Horror Science Fiction

Low howling rattled the wall that Abby shared with her neighbor, Louis, enough to break her concentration. Abby was an avid runner doing some light stretching before venturing out into the city for a few miles of uninterrupted physical exertion. She had only just begun her trance, closed her eyes and let her forehead rest on her kneecap to complete a head-to-knee stretch, warming and smoothing the muscles of her strong legs, falling silently into that serene mental state that fueled her jogs, when his cries shook her loose and commanded her attention.

Louis had lived in the building for over ten years, three of which had been spent next to Abby. He was a generation older than her, and he frequently complained about their other neighbors and the previous occupants of her apartment. His gripes were typically trivial, and she had gathered over time that they were nothing more than conversation fodder. Louis had lived alone for so long that he found it difficult to connect with others without searching for a common enemy.

The screaming became more pronounced as Abby stood up and moved toward her door. It was clearly the result of great physical pain. She stood quietly by her door, ear aimed at the hallway, waiting for a sign to interject. It wasn’t unlike Louis, who worked from home, to angrily carry out a domestic task by letting everyone in the building know his discomfort, but this time was different. He indeed sounded like he needed help. Then, he called out for it.

Abby opened her door, her running shoes already equipped, and hurried to Louis’ door.

“Louis,” she said, “Are you okay?”

“Abby,” he said, his voice muffled, “Please come inside. I need help. I don’t know how it happened.”

Abby tried to open his door but found it tightly sealed. The doorknob defiantly held its place in her hand.

“It’s locked,” she said.

“Oh god,” Louis cried. His voice was muffled by more than just the wooden door between them. Something sounded like it was covering his face. A rolling storm of uncoordinated crashing and pained moaning from inside Louis’ apartment shuddered the hallway around Abby. She heard him drag and shuffle his weight toward her. The lock clicked, and she opened the door.

Although the scene within that humble apartment contained familiar images, their presentation was bizarre and terribly foreign enough to shock Abby. She gasped and let go of the door, which then closed itself in her face. She promptly opened it again, desperately wishing to consume more visual information, and fully entered the apartment.

Louis was bending his body at the waist so that his forehead was touching his knees. His face was obscured, pointing behind him through his legs. His hips looked overexerted and knotted, and the young woman winced at the sight of them. He was breathing heavily and wobbling back and forth.

“What is going on?” she regained her breath.

“I’m folding up,” Louis said, “I’m folding all the way up. I can’t bend back. I can’t. My skull is going to fuse to my knees. I knew this would happen. I saw it, a story about this, on the news. An Asian guy, his spine went all nuts, and he folded in half, and his face fused with his knees, and his mom had to take care of him for decades until he got surgery. I don’t have a mom to take care of me, Abby. I can’t.”

Louis’ stiff and teetering legs finally lost balance, and Abby caught him before he fell forward, which would have caused immeasurable agony and exacerbated his predicament. She gently laid him in a sitting position with his face pointed toward the floor in a knee-to-head stretch.

“You can’t sit up?”

“It took all of my strength to even stand myself up so I could waddle over to the door. No. I can’t straighten my back. I’m folding. Oh god, Abby, I’m folding.”

Abby knew better than to attempt fixing whatever was happening with his spine. She could make it worse. Briefly, she imagined everything he was saying to be in his mind. Perhaps he had become paranoid after seeing the rare condition on the news, and he brought it upon himself in some kind of psychosomatic response. However, his panic convinced her that he had no control over his body, or, at the very least, his mind wouldn’t allow it.

“Should I call an ambulance?”

“I did, and they didn’t believe me. Can you believe that?” he said, “What the hell do we even have ambulances for in this town if they don’t do anything? So, they just get to pick who they’re going to help now? Wish someone would have told me that.”

“They’re not coming?”

“They’ll probably come. I don’t know. I hung up when they didn’t believe me because they were pissing me off.”

“Did they say they were coming?”

“I gave them my address.”

“Okay, I’ll wait with you until the ambulance gets here. Is there anything I can do? Can I get you anything?” she asked.

“Yeah, hand me the mirror on the table.”

Abby took a small hand-held mirror from the counter and handed it down to Louis. He positioned it beneath his legs and angled it so that he could make eye contact with her, and she was able to see his face. She could only see his eyes. His forehead was obscured, pressed against his knee as though it were gripped to it by a cult of ghosts.

“Hey, there he is,” she smiled.

“Abby, I’m so sorry I brought you into this. I know the reason I got the condition is because I heard about it, and that’s probably how it’ll spread to you too. When we go to the hospital, you should have them check you out. I don’t even know what they could do, but you’ll get it like I did. I know you will. You must get on top of it quickly. You’ve seen it. Oh no, you love to run. God, you were about to run. I’m so sorry. I’ve ruined it for you.”

“It’s okay, Louis. I’m okay. Let’s just worry about you.”

“I need you to bring me something else,” he said.

“What is it?”

Louis closed his eyes and gulped deeply. He took a few shallow breathes and appeared to decide against whatever it was he was going to say. His inner argument fluttered behind his eyes. He looked down at the floor in front of him and then darted his eyes toward the mirror and reflected them at Abby with shrill brilliance.

“Grab the hammer that’s in my toolbox in the hallway closet, then grab the kitchen knife in the knife block on the counter. Bring them over to me.”

Abby ran to the hallway closet, which sat across from Louis’ office. Once she found the hammer and turned to reenter the kitchen, she noticed his computer through a slightly cracked door. On its screen brightly beamed an article focusing on the tragedy of a “folding man” who had developed a rare disorder that caused his body to fold in on itself. Near the bottom of the screen were photos of many different people who suffered from the condition. It seemed to have affected the entire town where the original case appeared.

“Abby,” Louis called. She straightened up, left the office door, and returned to the kitchen, where she grabbed the knife Louis had requested.

“What do you need to do?” she asked.

“It’s what you need to do,” he said.

She paused.

“What?”

“I can’t do it myself. My skull is fusing to my knee bone. By the time the ambulance gets here, it’ll be too far gone. It’s just getting harder and harder to break them apart with each passing minute. Soon the bond will be so strong they’ll have to remove an entire section of my skull. I’ll have brain damage. They might have to amputate my leg. If you can pry them apart right now before they set, I might be able to continue getting up and down these god damn stairs in this god-forsaken building. I need you to put the tip of that knife blade on the spot where my skull is fusing to my knee and hit it with the hammer.”

She took a moment to process this information. The knife and hammer felt heavy in her hands. Abby had never counted herself as someone who could perform such a gruesome act. To clobber a crude cooking utensil through her neighbor’s bones would be perhaps the most challenging and heart-pounding activity she could carry out. Her jog would evaporate behind her and feel untraceable for the next few days. Any further action beyond this moment would surely end in a heart attack.

“I don’t know if I can do that,” she said.

“I can’t do it. You must. Otherwise, they’ll never separate me. They’ll never unfold me.”

“Okay,” she paused and breathed, allowing a brief meditation to cool her nerves, “Guide me through it.”

Louis directed Abby with the tenderness and understanding of someone trusting their life to a stranger. He desperately wanted her to succeed in her task, and the only way to truly encourage her was to show her that he would forgive her even if she happened to mistakenly drive the knife through his brain. Throngs of steel could push through his melting, pulsing mind, and it would be a relief from the terror of this folding.

The modest blade’s tip clumsily settled upon the very center of the connection between Louis’ forehead and kneecap. She held the handle square and loaded her grip on the hammer behind it. Both of them sat quietly to ready their minds for the unveiling of their fate and come to peace with each conceivable outcome. Louis closed his eyes.

“Do it.”

Abby intended to strike the handle with much more force than what transpired, but she lost her spirit when the moment came. Instead of a clean break, the knife became lodged between Louis’ face and leg. It sat there, stuck, blood softly beginning to trickle along its edge, and he opened his eyes. Then, he screamed.

He yelled at her to strike him again, but she froze. Her mind pleaded with her to run away, to escape back down the hall and take shelter safely in her apartment. Her flight response had been initiated, and she was working against every fiber of her instinctual programming to flee. What was she doing? She wasn’t a doctor. She shouldn’t be hammering a knife into a man’s head. She couldn’t do it. While she mulled over her misfortune, Louis’ cries reached a fever pitch, and again, she was pulled from her trance into a clear decision. She pulled back the hammer and struck the kitchen knife as hard as her strength would allow.

A pop, and Louis turned his head, laughing.

“You did it,” he smiled. A hole bursting with exposed skull rained blood over his eyes. A patch of flesh that had formed between the opposing sections of body ripped away and fresh air leaked into Louis’ tissue. He cackled until the red mess had completely covered his mouth. Abby searched the kitchen drawers for fresh towels. Only a short moment in doing this chore felt like an eternity, and she excitedly turned back to her poor neighbor once it was completed. However, Abby was met with a horrifying vision that left those clean towels on the floor beside her feet.

Louis wretched, gargled, moaned and released a resounding screech. His bones gnarled, twisted and cracked. Like twigs breaking in the hands of a child, his body folded again. He had become like a piece of paper now creased in half twice. The middle of his spine and his thighs split and whipped around in another 180-degree fold. Hot blood gushed from his face like pressure escaping a deflating air mattress or a balloon full of watercolors placed beneath a guillotine. They both screamed, and through the williwaw of their gory turmoil emerged the light song of the door buzzer. The ambulance had arrived.

There was no time to move with uncertainty, the medical professionals who ultimately saved Louis, or they would have been standing in that apartment for hours. Although none of them had seen this condition before, some of them had heard about it, and their decision to stay and help was weighed very carefully against those stories.

Fortunately, nobody seemed concerned about why Abby was clenching a bloody hammer and standing over a knife because she would have needed to explain herself, which she was entirely incapable of doing. Instead, Louis explained as much as he could before his energy level reflected the amount of blood he had lost. Soon, the ambulance was gone, and Abby was back in her apartment, washing the crusty dark crimson off her hands.

Louis underwent a series of complex and painful surgeries. Essentially, doctors had to break most of his bones to set them back correctly. His entire body, broken. Luckily, he had made it to the emergency room in time. He would recount later that the doctors told him if they had waited any longer, his head would have permanently fused to his knee, and they would have been unable to disconnect it without causing considerable brain damage.

Coincidentally, another patient in the hospital had developed an identical host of symptoms while being monitored for an unrelated medical condition and tragically passed away without ever knowing exactly what was happening to them. Health staff on site were able to make observations during the chaos that assisted in Louis’ rapid recovery when he arrived only moments later. Two in one night. They couldn’t believe it. 

Despite being in physical rehab over the following weeks, Louis would send messages to Abby asking how she was feeling, and she would politely reply, “Worry about yourself.”

She put her phone down and resumed stretching for her run. The sun and nirvana of chemicals coursing through her body would soon be giving her a momentary reprieve from the stress of her recent existence. She bent forward and held her breath as she brushed her nose against the stubble of her leg hair in a head-to-knee stretch. Then, she sat up and smiled.

February 28, 2022 16:39

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2 comments

F.O. Morier
08:00 Mar 10, 2022

I love a good horror story for breakfast, Good work!

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Calvin Kirby
00:29 Mar 10, 2022

Austin, I really enjoyed your story and thought it was very intriguing. You had me in suspense through the whole story until the end. I thought you had made everything up, but Googled it and found there was a YouTube video of a man in South China who suffered from this rare condition. I thought Louis was a little extreme with the method he wanted Abby to apply to his situation. I did feel a little disappointed in the ending. I was expecting something a little more bizarre. Good story. Keep writing.🤗

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