The Organ Grinder
Trigger Warning: Suicide, cannibalism
Here, then, lies the leviathan:
A tower of flesh and stone three miles end-to-end, long gone cold, laid to rest where it finally fell across the heart of a dead city. Hideous in scope and form, it crumbles sprawled in the rubble, slowly devoured by the earth, moss and vines climbing its traincar fingers, reducing them from threat to landscape after only a few short years. Close enough up, little creatures mill and scuttle across the gargantuan corpse, plucking at its edges, crowding around the most interesting parts, that damnable human impulse to see everything in bloody detail all the time.
They gather themselves up and rebuild around the monster, atop it, through it. They mine the body for resources, begin to strip it clean of anything ad everything useful, pat themselves on the back for doing so, and then they carry on. They’ve been doing the same shit for years, why would today be any different? As if survival at all costs wasn’t the most basic of all their ugly behaviors. They burn its fat for fuel to keep themselves from throwing their friends on the fire, they carve dinosaur steaks from its sides so that they might not eat their children.
Years pass, and another day dawns on their desperate economy of death, and for the first time, one of them finally strikes bone.
When she sees his name on the schedule next to hers and the words Western Tunnels, Kooby turns on her heel and immediately goes to Bailey’s office, even though she knows it’s not going to do any good. Bailey’s even waiting for her when she walks in, ready for the inevitable argument, but at least she has the common courtesy to be smiling about it.
“Change the schedule.”
“Can’t do that, Koob.”
“Yes, you can. You make the schedule, so you can change it.”
Bailey shakes her head. “Nope. Schedule runs on a rota. You know that. Schedule’s the schedule. Sorry.”
“No, you’re not.”
“Not particularly, no.”
They’ve done this dance before. Nothing ever changes. But that doesn’t stop her from trying. Maybe some day Bailey’ll show her mercy. Yeah. Right. Kooby stirs and grumbles about it for the whole week, until her day in the western tunnels with Peet’s finally upon her and she has to wake up early and get her shit together anyway. She catches him leering at her while they’re strapping on their rubbers, cinching the nylon ties tight and fitting four-socked feet into the heavy, clunking wellies.
“Don’t,” she snarls. “Just don’t, okay?”
“I didn’t do anything,” he says, his voice a slapped whisper. “I didn’t say shit.”
“You were going to, though.”
She doesn’t say anything else to him until they’re in the tunnels and it’s time to work: not when they do the safety checklist, not when they pick up their cart and their saws from the equipment room, old evil-looking Husqvarnas that used to cut cement before the fall. Kooby checks the gas levels on both, then heads out into the dripping red suck without looking back to see if he’s following.
Quiet in here, but it’s always quiet. Humid, too. The rubbers only make that worse. Kooby flicks on the suit’s headlamp and follows the distant spot of light down into the depths, listening to her boots goosh against the wet, fleshy floor. Sweat beads down her temples, racing along her jawline and pooling in the hollows of her long neck—she has to actually twitch midstep to shake it free. Still. She’d rather be in the suit than without, in the stink and the rot, no matter how well preserved the rest. On hot days you can smell the tunnels all the way up in the towers, the top floors even. Those are bad days.
The tunnel they’re in splits in twain, diverging in opposite directions, and Kooby pauses at the fork, studying the walls, trying to read the marks left there, what’s fresher or not. After a few seconds, she gestures left with the blade of her oversized saw.
“This way,” she grunts. Behind her, Peet just mutters “Okay.”
When they come to a place that looks right, Kooby tells Peet to triple-check the saws while she checks out what they’re working with, here.
It takes a little while to learn to spot the right ratio while you’re in the tunnels. Colors get weird down here, distorted by the shadows, even with the lamps. There’s an ideal muscle-to-fat ratio you have to look for, the perfect mix of sustenance and flavor. Practice makes perfect. Kooby’s been doing the job for longer than just about anybody, except for Bailey, which is why she’s always on the schedule. The job just always made sense to her. Something about it. She runs her heavy rubber gloves along the soft red walls, whispering to herself (and maybe a little bit to the walls), waiting for the meat to speak to her, like it always does. Meat has seams in it, just like everything else. It’s just a matter of looking close enough to find them.
She can feel Peet watching her from back there. He finished running his checks on the saws minutes ago, now he just has to stand there and wait. He’s the one making it awkward, not her. She presses her fingers deeper into the surface of the cool, dripping flesh, feeling as close as she can, waiting for the seam to—there it is. She unsnaps her boxcutter from its little velcro holster and opens it up with a wicked click-click-click, then draws a line in the wall with the blade, standing back to point while the old, lumpy blood runs out.
“Here,” she says, keeping her light on the fresh incision.
“Okay,” Peet says, hefting both saws and stepping in close. She takes one of the Husqvarnas and kicks it to life with the ripcord, relishing the hellish roar and the way it judders and shakes in her hands like a rabid animal. Waits for Peet to get his going, too. The tight little tunnel fills up with white exhaust, but they can see just fine with their lights. Kooby nods to Peet, and Peet nods to Kooby.
They start cutting.
Peet’s been talking about suicide, again. He does this every few months, mostly just to get attention. He does a lot of shit like that, just so people will look at him. Well, not people exactly, more like person. He always does it more when Kooby has to work with him. Probably has something to do with the crush he’s had on her for years. He hasn’t even had the decency to keep it a secret or anything, either—seems like everyone she knows has heard about poor, forlorn, doomed romantic Peet. Fuck off. Dude’s a mincing little creep so scared of rejection it seems like he’s told everyone but her about how perfect she is to him. Honestly, first time they met was just before a cutting shift when he walked in on her taking a shit. Yeah. Real sweet. Ever since that day, dude’s been weird. He was probably weird a long time before that, though. Like, odds are good. Anyway. First time he ever told Kooby about trying to kill himself was maybe their second shift together ever, or third. Came out of nowhere, too. One minute they were talking about what was on TV that night, and the next, Peet said
“So, I don’t know if you hear or not, but last week, I, uh, I tried to cut my wrists with my shaving razor.”
Kooby didn’t even know how to respond to that, so she didn’t. Just kept cutting and pretended she didn’t hear him… at which point he cleared his throat and said it again, louder this time. Unable to avoid it the second time around, Kooby turned and looked at him through the heavy clear plastic of her mask and just said “Okay?”
“It happens sometimes,” he continued without being invited to. “I don’t know. I just get sad, I guess. Like, really sad. Do you ever get really sad, Ms Kooby?”
“It’s just Kooby,” she corrected him, “and no. I don’t.”
“You should be glad,” he said. “You’re lucky. It gets really hard sometimes. Like, really hard.”
“You ever try and kill yourself, Kooby?”
And it had pretty much gone on like that ever since. Fucking exhausting. To be fair, she’d been really good for a couple of years there, though. She’d tried, or at least, she’d done her version of trying, which mostly amounted to quietly humoring him and his bullshit and not taking one of the saws to the back of his fucking skull. But in the last couple months, half a year? Something changed, like someone reached inside her soul and threw the give-a-shit lever to the off position. Her patience for his sad sappy loser act just dried up, and she’s not sure why that is exactly, but damn if it isn’t something. Maybe the job’s finally getting to her. It happens to a lot of the other cutters. This kind of work can’t be the best for your mental health after all, but she’s not sure it’s that. Going into the tunnels never bothered her before, and having to show up at fuck o’clock in the morning and go carving doesn’t bother her now.
It’s just him.
Him and his bullshit.
So when they’re halfway through splitting the seam she found and he says “So I ate a lot of pills a couple nights ago but it didn’t do any good because I just puked them all back up,” she wheels on him.
“Shut the fuck up,” she barks. “Just shut the fucking fuck up.”
“No, no, no, I said shut the fuck up. It’s every time with this. Every single time, and I’m sick to death of hearing about it. Understand? Either grow some balls and actually do the deed for good and all, or stop talking about me about it. Either way, shut. The fuck. Up.”
Behind the plastic, Peet looks like she drop-kicked his dog, his lower lip fluttering in and out of his mouth with each panting breath, slipping against his crooked front teeth.
“Kooby, please, I’m sorry,” he splutters, but it’s not helping.
“Fuck you, Peet. Fuck you and everyone who’s ever loved you, okay? I’m sick of your shit. Stop pointing it at me like someday I’m going to come around and give a good goddamn. I’m not ever going to fuck you, alright? Never. Bother literally anyone else with it, because I’m done hearing about how sad and in love poor Peety is. You’re suicidal? Prove it, or fuck off. Either way, I’m done with you.”
And that’s that. She doesn’t have anything else to say about it, so instead of belaboring it any further, she just turns away from him and goes back to cutting the heavy slab of meat loose. She’s amazed to find that she already feels lighter, less coiled-tense than she has around him in years. She finally said it, got it out, told the truth. Holy shit. All she ever needed to do was say it. She presses the whirring blade deeper into the bloody wall, relishing the way it sprays back against her suit in warm sheets. Kooby throws herself all the way into it, the weight finally off her shoulders, just able to do her job for the first time all day, remembering why she likes it. It’s a sensory overload, swamping herself in it like this, the heat of the blood and the rubber, the scream of machinery, the smell of smoke, the red and white before her. She sinks into her work, so much that she doesn’t hear the whine of the other saw spooling up to a fever pitch behind her. She doesn’t hear anything: not the saw, or the crush of Peet’s boots on the spongy ground, or the way he’s ugly-crying behind his mask, saline and gummy yellow snot clotting in his beard. She doesn’t have any idea what’s about to happen until the very last second when she thinks Maybe I shouldn’t’ve been such a cunt about it, then takes her finger off the saw throttle (but the sound doesn’t stop) and turns to apologize just in time to see Peet stick his arms out in a Christ pose and go toppling over, stiff as a board, onto the spinning, upturned blade of his own Husqvarna.
She doesn’t have any chance to stop him, barely manages to scream out in shock and horror. All she can really do is watch it happen.
He hits the saw square-on and flops back and forth as the blade buzzes into his chest cavity, his hands clawing at the ground, trying and failing to find purchase, either nervous misfire or regret come far too late. The sound of it is fucking horrible, a wet churning that slaps against his suit while the machine howls and Peet screams. It fills up the whole tunnel, that sound, anguish and violence and death metamorphosed into noise. Blood and muck sluice out of him and pool underneath in a single, slow wave, and when he finally stops screaming, Kooby kicks him over so she can toe the saw’s power switch to off.
Silence floods in around her, bulbous and absolute, it crushes her where she stands and she’s alone with all that dead meat, now. Kooby screams and pitches forward onto her hands and knees, and it’s not like she means to, but she pukes in her suit anyway. She stays crumpled there for a long time, staring at the place where it becomes impossible to tell the walls and floor from what’s left of Peet.
Then, there’s nothing else except to get back to work.
Kooby comes back alone, but not empty handed.
She drags the cart behind her, loaded high with both saws and enough meat to feed an apartment block for a month. The cuts are of a great variety: large and small and everywhere in between, ribeyes and porterhouses and top round and skirt and a hundred others. She stumbles through the decon chamber, already stripping off her soiled rubbers, to find Bailey waiting for her by the lockers. The boss doesn’t waste any time getting to it:
Kooby shrugs. “How would I know?”
“Well, he was your day’s partner, so that sort of makes you the authority.”
Kooby kicks her wellies off into the corner of the little room, then peels off each set of socks and unsnaps the tie clasps keeping her rubbers snug, turning back to Bailey with a pissed look on her face.
“You’d think that, right? Except I don’t know. Guy said he was feeling sick and asked if it was cool he headed back early. I said sure, and he went. So as far as I know, you all saw him last.”
Bailey shakes her head at the younger woman.
“I don’t know what to tell you. He never showed up back here.”
“Then I don’t know what to tell you, either. Maybe he got lost along the way, he’s stupid enough to.”
“Maybe so,” says Bailey. “By the way, saw that cart you dropped off at the kitchen. Very impressive.”
Kooby pulls off her jacket and pants and throws them in a pile by her boots. “Thanks.”
“Saw you brought back his cutter, too. Real nice of you. Shit’s heavy.”
“Some real interesting slabs on that cart, by the way. Little ones, stuff I didn’t recognize. Little different color than the big ones.”
Kooby keeps shedding clothes until the only thing she’s wearing is a stone scowl, then walks to the shower stall, runs it hot as it’ll go, and starts to scrub off, not even bothering to draw the plastic curtain.
“Just weird,” Bailey continues. “You’re usually the one cuts real big steaks, Koob. I mean, I saw you got a bunch of those too, but you almost never bring back little scraplets like those other ones. Just weird, all I’m saying. Out of character for you.”
Through the soap and the steam, Kooby gives her a measured, shattered look. She doesn’t say anything, just holds her boss’s gaze for a long second. Bailey steps in closer to the stall, her face equally grave.
“Kooby, what the fuck happened out there? Tell me the truth.”
Kooby raises her eyebrows, a fraction of an inch.
“He went home.”
Bailey nods, more to herself than to her subordinate, then turns and walks out. Kooby finishes washing off, wraps herself in a pilled old towel and goes back to her apartment so she can sleep for like a week or more.
First thing she does when she wakes up is calls up the Assignment Board and requests a transfer out of Food Services. Bailey doesn’t put up too much of a fight when she gets wind, just enough to avoid anybody asking the wrong questions. She even calls in a few favors to help arrange a new job for Kooby, too: manager in Waste Processing. Could be worse. Could be worse by plenty. Rumors about Kooby’s solo return follow her around for a while, but eventually, those peter out. After all, the guy was nice, but not nice enough for anybody to really care that much.
Bailey serves the steaks. All the steaks. It’s not like she has a choice, people need to eat, and they have to serve what’s turned in. She can’t have herself getting caught throwing away perfectly servable meat, they’ve executed people for far less. But when she sends cutters out the next time, and the next, and the next after that, she tells them to avoid the western tunnels. They’re not safe. And if any of them disobey her orders and go looking, and happen upon a ripped and stripped body still clad in shredded yellow rubbers, none of them are stupid enough to say anything about it, not even the new ones.
They simply retreat back into the darkness, and the safety, and the ignorance.
And then they carry on.
Matthew Lyons is probably taller than you, not that it’s a competition or anything. His work has appeared in Literally Stories, (b)OINK, Abstract Jam, The Molotov Cocktail and more, and can often be found magneted to the fridge, rendered in dry macaroni and glitter glue, whether his wife wants it to or not. Complaints can be filed on twitter at @reverendlyons.