The Gift of Flesh

On the first day of Christmas, I received a big toe. I stepped out of the front door of my house with my greyhound rescue Clever. The crisp winter air cut through my jogging gear. I cursed the 5:30 AM alarm, and my veterinarian’s insistence that Clever needed more exercise.
I didn’t see the package. Not at first. I leaped off the doorstep and plunged forward in to the wind only to be yanked back by the leash.

“Clever, come on boy,” I said, raising my voice in the high, slightly embarrassing tone that I only used with him.

Clever sat anchored to the concrete. His sniffed a small package on the ice-glazed step, snorting as if he might inhale the thing. I snatched the cardboard box from beneath his nose.

Clever sat on his haunches, looking up at me with begging eyes, whimpering low. I broke open the packing tape. A jewelry box waited inside covered in dark green felt, as if it grew moss. I shook the box and heard a thick rattle. Clever’s whine grew and the box’s hinges screeched as I opened it.

A big toe, pale and fat, rested on a tiny cushion of cotton. I picked it up, expecting the rubbery feel of a Halloween prop. Some joke item bought on a clearance rack of a store that was only open forty-five days a year. Instead, I felt flesh. The toe had been flash-frozen by the winter cold, but it was unmistakably real. Congealed blood, like the crust of strawberry on a jam jar lid, ringed a small piece of yellow-white bone that protruded from the base, broken and jagged.

My vision blurred as reality seemed to unwind. My knees collapsed. I would have fallen, but Clever’s bark saved me. I snapped the jewelry box shut and looked around my neighborhood. Mr. Dillard stepped out his front door, wrapped his thick white robe tight around his body and picked up his newspaper. He looked over. We made brief eye contact before I darted back in to the house, dragging Clever in after me. I threw the dead-bolt shut. I dropped the box at my feet and rushed to the bathroom.

Something about vomiting brought me back to my senses. The tension and panic had been expelled along with  partially-digested broccoli chicken takeout.

I wiped my mouth on my sweatshirt sleeve as I left the bathroom. Clever lay in front of the door gnawing on the corner of the jewelry box.

“Bad dog!”

Clever clutched the box between his teeth and fled behind the living room recliner with his tail between his legs.

“No, Clever. Bad.” I reached around the recliner. Clever reluctantly spit the box in to my hand. I  sat the slobber-covered box on the kitchen counter. I pulled at my matted hair as I paced, circling the box as if it was a bomb that might explode at any minute, destroying me.

I’d left the cardboard box outside. I opened the door just far enough to reach my arm out and grabbed it from the bare flower garden next to the doorstep. I slammed the door shut again without bothering to check if anyone had seen me.

I turned the cardboard box over in my hand. The outside was bar. Not so much as a single pen-stroke marred the surface. I checked the inside of the box for a note, poking at the corners and checking within the folds. The box was entirely clean, which I found remarkable, given its gruesome contents.

Clever whined. I turned to check on him. He’d urinated on the condo’s carpet. I couldn’t blame him.

 

I sat on the bench at the bus stop, dressed in one of my work suits. Fine pants. Tailored coat. A tie that hinted at a powerful man. I felt anything but powerful. I shivered, but I didn’t feel cold. I felt cracked. The front window of my house could be seen from the bench. Even with the blinds closed and the curtains slid shut, I could still see the toe. I could hear it, whispering from within its slobber covered case. I could almost feel the pulse of its disconnected heart.

Someone in the crowd said something. I sat in nervous apprehension, wondering if they were speaking to me. No one uttered another word. A man in the back coughed, a ragged, wet hack. Could that hack belong to the person who sent the toe. I willed my head to look back, but my neck remained frozen, the muscles as tense as rope. Air brakes hissed as the bus settled before us. I was the last person to board the bus, despite being closest to the door. I took a seat far in the rear. I sat alone, searching the backs of heads for any hint of recognition or curiosity. I dared not to even blink, as if that would be the moment when I would miss a tell-tale turn or glance. A woman near the front, dressed in a tasteful blue pant suit and a wool peacoat, looked up for a moment. After brief eye contact, she blushed and looked away.

We both got off the bus at the same stop. I strode down the sidewalk, my hands shoved deep in to my trench coat, fists rolled so tight that my fingernails dug into my palm. The woman walked behind me, the clack of her heels matching my pace. One block. Then another. I turned towards my office building and still those heels followed. Clack. Clack. Clack. Clack. I reached my office building and darted inside. I rushed to the elevator and dashed in as soon as it opened. I hammered on the button for the twelfth floor, pecking at it with my cold fingers. As the door closed, the clack of heels faded in to the distance.

I slumped against the wall of the elevator, hyperventilating, sucking breath too fast for my body to handle it. The elevator stopped on the fifth. An older man in a worn corduroy jacket almost stepped on, but seeing my state, he quickly walked away. The doors closed once more.

I sat at my desk all day. I didn’t talk about football or the holiday movie slate. I didn’t flirt with Carol in sales or go outside to beg an imported Turkish cigarette off Thomas. I just observed, decoding ever murmur, watching the movements of every passerby, analyzing their gaits. I listened as the wall clock ticked down the seconds until my release.

 

I took a taxi home. I swear that the driver watched me in the mirror. I swear that when I wasn’t looking, his eyes were black as coal.

 

The next morning, I opened the front door slowly, as if it were rigged with high explosives. Clever pushed his nose in to the crack, struggling to wedge his way through to the outside world, making a desperate attempt at escape. He’d almost managed to get his head out when I saw another box, slightly bigger than the last, sitting square on the front doorstep. The blank cardboard stared at me, begging to be let in.

Clever licked his chops as he surged forward against the door. I stepped around him, forcing his head back in to the house and shutting the door.

I picked up the box and hurried back inside. I tore the cardboard box apart in order to get at the mossy green necklace box inside. I took a breath and opened it. A finger with a red painted nail sat inside, wrinkled and bloodless. It was a ring finger. A gold band crested with a small, clear diamonds wrapped around its base, just above the rotting stub.

The pressure built in my skull until I screamed, a constant shriek like the wail of a boiling kettle. I hurled the box across the living room. The finger flew free. Clever bounded after it like a stick. I rushed to my bedroom and hid beneath the blankets like a child. Clever made slobbery crunching sounds as he gnawed on the finger at he foot of the bed. I covered my ears with my palms and whispered prayers to gods I didn’t even know existed.

 

The boxes have piled up. One after another. Every day except Sundays. Some are small. Some are square. Some are as long as an arm. I look out the peephole every morning to find another sitting on top of the ever growing pile. I ignore the smell of shit and piss. I pay no attention the whines of Clever, ignorant, who just wants to go outside.

Jack Campbell, Jr. is a dark fiction writer in Lawrence, KS. His writing has appeared in various venues including Twenty 3 Magazine, Danse Macabre, and Insomnia Press. He writes about reading, writing, and life on his blog at www.jackcampbelljr.com.

 

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