How We Die
I’m lying awake at night, again. My breaths are short; my diaphragm seems to have been lassoed in a familiar way. I dread to look at the alarm clock for the fifteenth time in thirty minutes. Those bars of orange that continue to laugh in my face, or maybe they’re red?
I can’t stop paying attention to my heartbeat. It’s a constant reminder that my life is dependent upon something I have absolutely no control over. It thuds so tumultuously; I can feel the blood pulsing through every limb. I look around my room, thinking of something I can do to distract myself from my existence. Nothing. I see absolutely nothing that can help.
My small studio apartment is dimly lit and only partially visible because of the red—I mean, orange bars of the alarm clock. I see the books on my bookshelf I collected as a kid that haven’t seen the face of a reader in over ten years, a collection of DVD’s that lay by the T.V. that have had more playtime than a preschool; because I can’t afford cable, some dirty dishes that haven’t walked themselves to the sink, a mixed array of clean and dirty clothes on the floor, my black, non-slip work boots, and a pen and paper on the nightstand where I was going to write a note to leave on my neighbor’s door across the hall about the smell in his apartment that is slowing making residence in mine. It smells like after a heavy rain, sort of an earthy, muddy smell, with a twinge of body odor. I don’t know what he does for work, or what she does all day at home, but I do know that they must do something that destroys their sense of smell, because it is quite pungent. I don’t know how they can live in there. It’s disgusting.
Really? It’s already 3:15am?
I have work in four hours, and I can’t call in sick again. I’ve already pushed my boss’s patience enough. However, if I call out in the middle of the night, it would be easy to just leave a message without having to speak with him. Then again, I think that man is about one more call-out away from having a massive heart attack.
Richard Bailey, my boss, shows up to the warehouse every morning, at exactly 7:30am, never a minute earlier or later, and parks in the same spot. I would bet my last sixty-three dollars in my savings account that he hasn’t changed his daily routine in years. He just seems like that guy who is completely content with the way things are, despite how pathetic. He’s not bothered at all that he is a supervisor of a picking and packing warehouse at forty-two years old. It doesn’t matter that his stomach hangs past his belt, and dances up and down as he walks. He is not concerned with the pursuit of knowledge, understanding, or truth: “College”, he says, “is for liberals who don’t want to work yet, and girls who want to postpone their duties as a woman to fuck some guys while they pretend they’re out learning something for four years.”
I can’t stand watching him waddle out of his new, white, Ford pickup truck, and then huffing and puffing after his three- stair climb to the summit of the loading dock. As he approaches, I loathe his smell of cigarettes, last night’s Coors Light, and the Egg Mcmuffin he ate on the way in. Then, after we all apprehensively walk behind Richard into the warehouse, the smell of dust, industrial cleaners, and dread fill the room. After Richard has caught his breath, he typically gives us our goal for the day, typically something like how many orders need to be filled. Then, he walks up to his office and does god knows what until we see him for lunch.
I would just quit, so I can sleep the afternoon in and spend the rest of the day doing important things; like watch Netflix, eat the rest of my Mexican leftovers in the fridge, call another one of my unemployed friends to come over, or maybe I’ll apply for tech school, or maybe college? I hear HVAC techs do pretty well for themselves, besides the lung cancer and all that. But where would the rent come from? How would I eat? How could I impress pretty girls in tight outfits without saying I have a job? Unemployed guys don’t really do all that well on the dating scene, yet I guess that doesn’t make things much different from now. I just wish I could do away with the whole charade of dating altogether.
I have to stop my mind from wandering. I think I’ll get a glass of water. Maybe I’ll watch another DVD. I can pull an all-nighter. I’ve done it before, and I know the consequences in the morning: my eyes will feel like they have dimes on their lids, my stomach takes turns between growling in hunger and swishing nauseously in protest, aching bones, sore joints, and the mental agility to match my hindered demeanor. The next day, it makes things hell at work, but after a few hours it feels just like any other.
I walk over to the sink in the back left corner of my dimly lit apartment, both of my ankles cracking with every step. I got to the cabinet, pull out the tallest glass, fill it up to almost the very top, and slug it down like I had a purpose. As I take another glance around my dark, dingy, one-room apartment, where I have modestly packed everything I own into a whopping 15x15 space, I couldn’t help but notice that things seem a little smaller than usual. Maybe I’m just getting fatter? No, I just weighed myself yesterday. I’m only a trifle heavier than when I graduated high school barely five years ago, and I’m proud of that. Most of my friends by now have put on so much weight that they already have the body of sloppy, middle-aged man. Not that my steady diet of Cheetos and Mountain Dew won’t catch up with me someday, but my genes are too good for such an early decline. I can feel it in my bones that a long life is ahead of me. I’m symmetrical, no one in my family has a touch of grey hair, and everyone seems to die in their late nineties of what my mother says are “natural causes,” whatever that means. No one dies of natural causes. Dying of natural causes seems like a nice way of saying that these people are now at an acceptable age to have a normal, civilized, catastrophic, life -ending event like a nice stroke or kidney failure to round off a fulfilling life of fighting the good fight.
I walk over to the T.V. to filter through the DVD’s that are stuffed sporadically through the bottom shelf of my T.V. stand. In my diligent search, I came across absolutely nothing I want to waste my time watching, so I decide to just put on my alarm clock radio to the overnight jazz station. I put the music on a low volume and stare at the ceiling; lit barely enough by the light of the clock, that I could see the little cracks in the plaster. While staring at these cracks, and trying to forget that it’s almost 3:30am now, I notice the earthy smell coming again from the neighbor’s apartment. I sat up, turned to my night table, and finished writing the note for them that I’m going to tape on their door in the morning.
Hello Mark and Chelsea,
This is Evan from apartment 2-B, across the hall.
If you have any time tonight after work, maybe around 6 o’clock, could we get together and talk about matters concerning a smell coming from somewhere in the building?
After writing, I lied back down and somehow feel a lot more at ease. I was happy that I would finally be able to talk to Mark and Chelsea, and banish that smell back to hell. I guess it was the feeling of relief after writing that note, or maybe the smooth jazz, but somehow I felt tired and began to nod off. One of the last thoughts I remember before falling asleep was how much smaller the room felt; it seemed like it was slowly closing in on me, inch by inch.
I awake to the sounds to Duke Ellington’s cover of “Take the A-Train.” I’ve become fairly jazz -savvy since I figured out it helps me sleep so well. I look over at my alarm clock; it was seven. I feel particularly ill today. I have all my usual symptoms of a poor, or minimal night’s sleep, but something feels incredibly off. I’m freezing cold, which doesn’t make sense because it’s late April, and I’m inside my apartment. Despite how small and unattractive this apartment may seem, from the inside and out, the one thing this apartment does well is insulate.
Even on some of the coldest January nights, the old, thick, masonry construction, that isn’t built much anymore, in favor of cheaper, faster, lumber framing, really does its intended job. It seems like the buildings built eighty or so years ago were intended to work, and stick around for a while, unlike today’s. Now, it seems like they are built as quickly and slapdash as possible with the intent of driving out people who feel entitled to a decent, warm home, and in favor of people desperate enough to take whatever they can get.
My chill is so terrible. I quickly rose out of bed, and shuffle in a decrepit manner over to my closet. I threw on a black t-shirt, and a black hoodie that smelled of industrial cleaner. My dread of going to work increased. I thought about Richard Bailey and his uninformed, loud mouth, and feel a need to just call it quits and look into being an HVAC technician, or College. I stumble into my jeans, turn around to the night table and pick up the note for Mark and Chelsea. I tore off a piece of scotch tape, and turn around to leave. As I am leaving, I take one last look around the room on the way out to see if I forgot anything. I look back over my shoulder with one hand on the doorknob, and survey the apartment. I forgot nothing, but oddly enough my windows seem much smaller than they usually do. I guess I really need to start sleeping more; it is starting to affect me physically and mentally.
Instantly, my heart fluttered. I felt a rush of ice in my veins, and I could feel a presence behind me looking just over my shoulder. When I turned around, expecting to see another tenant, there was nothing. I wanted to go back into my apartment. I wanted to stay home, I didn’t know why. I hate being cooped up in there with the smell of the neighbor across the hall, the unusual cold, and the feeling that the room was perpetually shrinking, yet I wanted to stay.
I lumber my way down the stairs and open the door to the parking lot. I felt in a haze. I rubbed my eyes vigorously as I walked over to my car. I curse the sun for another beautiful day. I think to myself if I actually hate sunny days, or is just because I have to spend these wonderful days inside of a warehouse? I’ve always preferred rainy days because it makes me feel like everyone is doing what I’m doing: imprisoned at work, or imprisoned at home. I hate watching people from work, or my apartment window, enjoying the day. It makes me feel bad that I don’t share the same enjoyment.
I threw myself down into the car seat and fumble for my keys. I start up the ignition and look in my rear view mirror. I jump back in my seat and wallop my head against the headrest in terror. My face is hollow and sunken.
My eyes are blackened and porous, and filled with hundreds of maggots wriggling through the pinholes. My nose was enlarged and resembled a plaster mold. My jaw is unhinged and dry rotted through to the base of my neck and skull. My hair long, thin and grey. Parts of my face are dark and covered in a mossy, earthy substance. I open my mouth to scream, but nothing came out. Pure silence. My heart is racing and my vision is tunneled. In my panic I rip my head around to see if anyone is around, and when I turn back to the rearview mirror, I am myself again. My heart is firing, and my hands are completely soaked. “I must be hallucinating from hardly sleeping the last few days,” I reassure myself. I drive to work, my knuckles white with fear, gripping the steering wheel. I park at work at 7:25am and take some time to deep breath and compose myself before walking into work.
I awake to the sound of Richard knocking on my car window. I gaze up in the haze that has not left yet, and I can see his eyes, livid and unjust. He is holding a thermos full of coffee and sporting biscuit crumbs on the front of his shirt. His double chin multiplying as he rears his head down to look at me. Before I get out of the car to listen to his reasoning as to why I will never become a good supervisor, I glance at the clock; it was 8:38am. I hesitantly glance up at the rear view mirror before opening the car door.
“Do you know what time it is, Evan?”
“Richard, I got here at 7:25, I’m—I’m sorry—I had a really rough night and—and I hardly slept. I was here—sitting in my car, and next thing I know it’s—well—now.”
“I don’t give a shit why you’re out here sleeping in your car. All I know is that you’re not inside working. I don’t want to hear anymore about your problems, Evan. This has been going on too long. This has to be the fourth or fifth time that you’ve fallen asleep in your car and I’ve had to wake you up. You’re a sloth at work, you don’t take pride in your job, and frankly, all the guys say you’ve been smelling really bad lately, and I agree.
“Richard, It’s my neighbors, they have this weird smell in their apartm—“
“Excuses! Always nothing but excuses!”
“Richard, I—things haven’t been right recently—I don’t feel right—I don’t know if my heart is in this anymore. I think I want something thing more than what is in my life right now. I feel like I’m being locked in a box here.”
“You’ve got it all, man. You have a car, a job, and you’re young. I wish I were young again! You don’t know how good you got it! You, and your whole ungrateful generation!” You’d rather work somewhere that you love, or not work at all, than make money! I’m a supervisor, I have a brand new truck, and I make way more money than you. Don’t you want to be like me someday? The only way is to put in as many hours as you can, so that you can work your way to the top. You need to be serious about your job and what we do here. You have to stop having fun with your friends. Stop doing other activities outside of work that prevent you from working to best of you abilities here. Most of all, you have to start thinking about how you’re going to impress me into not firing you. Do you really want to lose everything you have because you are a lazy ingrate?”
“Rich, I don’t really have much. This car only brings me back and forth to here, and what does it matter that I’m young if I’m spending all my time here?”
“I don’t understand what you’re getting at, but I know you’re late and you need to get inside and start filling orders.”
I walk a slow, deliberate, slave-like walk of defeat across the parking lot. I Look up at the warehouse and feel an immense sense of anxiety as my eyes meet the loading dock and the doors to enter the assembly line. I reluctantly traverse through the parking lot, up the loading dock, and to the doors. Despite my snail-like pace, I still beat Richard to the door. I watched him nearly drown on dry land; walking up the steps, hacking and coughing, his hand on the rail to help himself steady his gelatinous frame.
“Who was he to tell me I smell?” I thought to myself. He reeks of Marlboros and that yeasty, sweaty, smell that all fat people seem to have. He might be right though; this job is really all I have, and maybe will ever have. I’ll never go anywhere else or do anything remarkable. I’m just an average guy with no idea of how to do anything of mastery. Plus, I’m too scared to leave my safe spot. There are too many what-if scenarios.
Maybe Richard is right? It’s not my job that’s killing me, or Richard and his ignorance, or even my dingy, smelly apartment; it’s my inability to conform, my inability to be satiated, my inability to be content with my life as it is. I have to just accept it. The sooner I do, the sooner things will be easier to become a happier, more productive me.
I walk into the warehouse filled with a new sense of something. It was something like pride, just not quite as concrete. As I work the day through, processing orders and packing boxes, I kept thinking about the horrifying face I saw in the car this morning. I continued to remind myself that it was just from the poor sleep I’d been having, and tried to keep it out of my mind.
When I got out of work today, I felt great zeal. I’m sure that I am going to fix my attitude so that I could be a better worker, and get myself out of this rut I’m in.
I get home around six o’clock and decided to check in with Mark and Chelsea to see if they read my note. I walk up the steps and knock on the door to their apartment. I could smell the earthy, muddy, decaying smell from the hallway and it solidified my eagerness to eliminate it.
Mark opened the door, and he seemed a little put off that I was there. I asked if he had received my note, to which he replied yes, yet he seemed confused.
“What are you smelling, exactly? He said. “Because we haven’t been doing anything out of the ordinary and haven’t changed anything in the house that would protrude any foul smells.”
I met his statement with a bewildered look. “Well,” I said, “have you not been smelling this muddy, decaying, outdoorsy smell in the building recently?”
He shrugged his shoulders, and had that look that people give when they have had enough of what you’re saying: a slight frown with protruding lower lip, nodding his head back and forth.
“Ok,” I muttered in discontent. I mention that I’ll take it up with the landlord, and I turn around and walk into my apartment.
I immediately take off my boots and stinking work clothes, and begin to make my way to the shower. Once I get to the bathroom door, I look back at my bed and realize it only took me a few steps to get across the room. I look around the room and see things were bunched so closely on the walls, it seems like the apartment has shrank greatly since I left. I tell myself that it’s just the sleep depravation. I’ll just take a hot shower, relax, and get in bed extra early tonight.
I finish showering, and the bathroom is filled with steam. However, the steam is so incredibly thick that I can hardly see through it; it is far more steam than the usual hot shower. I step gingerly over to the medicine cabinet and wipe the condensation from the mirror.
The face! Again! Staring back at me, cackling! This time it didn’t go away and I wasn’t in control of it, it shrieking and cackling at my fear. I panic and fall out of the bathroom and onto my knees. When I open my eyes, the entire room is filled with fog. I can hear the cackling of the apparition behind me. I am completely dumbfounded at the turn of events. I can very slightly make out the windows on the walls now, which are now as small as my hand and closing quickly. The earthy, muddy, decaying smell is in full form now, and seems to embody me.
The walls are shrinking rapidly and I’m doing all I can think to do. I make my way in the direction of my bed to hide under the covers, just like I did when I was a scared child. As long as I had the blankets over my head, no evil could touch me. I am cold as ice now, and when I look at my feet, the ground had been turned into grass and moss.
As I look up from my feet, the walls were only inches away, and then everything went black.
When I come to, it is entirely dark, and entirely silent. I was lying on plush bedding and I can feel that I am entombed. I move my hand slowly around to feel the box I am encased in. It is also soft and smooth, and I have only a few inches of room between my face and the top of the encasement. I scream, kick, claw, and fight, but all to no avail. After I realize it is impossible to escape, I stop and lay in complete solitude. I can smell nothing but mud and decay. I feel my ice-cold body, it is completely emaciated and I can hear the clanking of bones every time I move. After a great, long silence, I hear a tiny whisper. It is inaudible the first time, but the whisper repeated itself:
“Set yourself free.”
In my near-muted horror, I only whisper back, “How?”
“Set yourself free,” it repeated, as it seems to fade in the distance.
I panic again after my question is left unanswered, so I kick, and claw, and scream my way to exhaustion.
In my exhaustion, I don’t know why, but I began to think about Richard Bailey, and the berating he gave me this morning in the work parking lot. I think about it over and over and over. I begin to think he wasn’t right. Why would I want to be like him? I never wanted any of this! The only reason I started hating life, and having sleeping problems was because I couldn’t stop thinking about the prison that I had to go to every morning. I think about how I wasn’t like Richard. I didn’t want his truck, I didn’t want his job, I didn’t want his ignorance, and I didn’t want to be around anyone who wanted that.
All of a sudden, I can feel my body getting warmer. But I still can’t think about anything besides Richard Bailey:
His ignorance, his gluttony, and his foolishness. I twist and turn at the thought that there were millions of Richard Baileys out there. I can feel my strength returning. I can see a thimble of light! I could smell the clear air! I look at my body, and it now resembles a man of great strength. The light is growing larger and larger, as I shatter through the sides of my entrapment with ease. I feel a full breath of air pass in and out of my lungs. I penetrate through my coffin and stand up waiting to be engulfed by the white light. I feel no fear, I embrace the unknown, and as the light engulfed me, I feel nothing but peace.
Everything seems to have reset; the light dissipates and reveals my apartment.
It is enormous! It smells of fresh spring air! My windows seem much larger than usual and I have a longing to be outside and enjoy the beautiful, sunny weather! I feel whole, strong, and able-bodied. Everything seems organized and well kept. I look over at the books on my bookshelf with a wondrous glee of what new adventures are bound inside. I can feel myself bursting with a sense of pride and purpose; something I forgot existed.
I look in the mirror and I smiled to myself in my newfound enlightenment. I look down on my nightstand at my alarm clock, laugh, and set the morning alarm in the off position.
Joshua Smith is an English major, with a concentration in creative writing, at West Chester University of Pennsylvania.