Aphelion Issue 242, Volume 23
August 2019
 
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Almost Done

by Andrew Saxsma




Ray lit a cigarette and took a deep drag while he stared at the laptop screen in front of him. He reached across the desk, grabbed the ashtray, then flicked the tip of the cigarette, dumping freshly burnt tobacco and paper. Milky smoke spewed from his nostrils as he exhaled, frustrated.

He rested his elbow on the top of his desk and leaned into his open palm. The room was dark, lit by the hazy glow of the LCD screen.

He was tired, so tired. You could see it in his eyes. They drooped, they sagged, and they were a bulbous purple. His cheeks and chin were prickly with ignored stubble. His sandy blonde hair was greasy, unkempt, and swooped down across his forehead.

Ray took another drag, keeping the smoke in his lungs longer than usual, then sighed, blowing the smoke out. He glared at the alarm clock on the nightstand beside his bed. Two-forty-three a.m.

He squeezed his eyes shut, feeling a slight relief of tension then opened them wide, stretching out his eyelids. He snubbed out the cigarette and rested the palms of his hands on the edge of the keyboard, fingers hovering over the laptop keys, but his mind was blank.

"God damnit," he whispered to himself.

Ray typed a few words, read them back to himself, then jammed his pointer finger onto the backspace, deleting it. He sighed, hating what he'd written.

Ray stood, pushing his chair back with the backs of his legs. He leaned over the desk, looming over the laptop.

"It's almost done, Ray," he whispered to himself, irritated. "The words are there," he said, gesturing to the screen. "But, why aren't they here!?" He grabbed his head with both hands, ruffling his hair.

"Five hours. That's all you've got left, Ray," he said to himself. He rested his hands on his hips, still staring at the laptop screen. "Three-hundred minutes. Eighteen-thousand seconds 'til everything you've worked for is due! What are you gonna' do, Ray? What in the sam-hell are ya' going to do?"

Ray squeezed his fist, pissed and feeling the anger burning in his gut.

He backed away from the desk and headed into the kitchen of his small, one bedroom apartment. He picked at the peeling lime green wallpaper beside the fridge while he opened the door and took out a gallon of milk.

He grabbed a glass from the cabinet above the sink, next to the fridge, and poured himself some milk and took a sip, trying to calm himself.

"Almost done, Ray," he reminded himself.

He watched the last conversation he had with Professor Fruegher over and over in his head while he drank his milk.

Tomorrow, Ray. Eight a.m. sharp! If you can't have it by then, don't bother turning in your dissertation at all. Oh, and, Ray, Grad school doesn't give out refunds.

Fruegher's pretentious, high-pitched laugh echoed in Ray's mind.

I'll show that son of a bitch, Ray had thought.

Ray washed out his glass in the sink and walked into the living room. He looked around, as though he was stalling himself, avoiding going back to work. He wanted to. He wanted to sit down, pump out the rest of his paper, and turn it into the smug bastard. For the past five hours the words had flowed, oh, how they flowed. It was almost too easy, as though his fingers knew what to type before his brain even did.

Then, around two-thirty that afternoon, they stopped flowing. His well of words was dry as sandpaper. He couldn't focus on a single word. Not a one. It was like trying to grab water. He could still say words, form sentences with his voice, but what good is that when you can't think about what you're going to say before you say it?

"What the hell is happening to me?" he asked himself, unable to think it. He drew the blinds of the window beside his TV and looked out onto McCormack Avenue. The Arby's across the street was dark, its neon sign completely blacked out. Next door, Wendy's Cleaners was also closed, had been for about four hours now.

Ray's wandering eyes stopped when he looked at the sidewalk.

"What the hell?" he said, squinting through the blinds. He spread them apart with two fingers to get a better look.

A portly man in a blue sport coat stood in front of Wendy's Cleaners, staring up into Ray's window, right at Ray. He had one hand in his pocket, one wrapped around a briefcase, and a lit cigarette in his mouth. His face was dark, chubby, and blotted out by the night.

He reached up, plucked the cigarette from his lips, flicked the cigarette down a storm drain, then put his hands back into his pockets while he exhaled smoke.

Ray backed up from the window and ran his hand through his greasy hair.

"That guy was watching me," he said aloud. It calmed him to talk, since thinking wasn't really what his head wanted to do right now.

Ray spread the blinds again with his fingers and pressed his nose against the window to get as close a look as possible.

The heavy man looked both ways then crossed the street, shuffling back and forth on his tiny feet. A breeze picked up the tails of his sport coat as he disappeared below Ray's view.

"Oh, crap!" he said to himself. He looked around his living room while he grabbed his head with both hands.

He opened the window then leaned out, watching the man disappear into the lobby of his apartment building.

"Who the hell is that?" he asked himself while he closed the window. He walked over to his front door and twisted the dead bolt, locking it tight, then took a few steps away, watching the door as he did.

He could feel his palms and pits begin to sweat. His body went cold and he had trouble catching his breath. He paced back and forth in his living room, trying to think, trying to form thoughts, but his noggin was empty.

"Maybe he lives here. Yeah!" Ray laughed. "He probably lives downstairs next door to Karen Filler. I've never met the guy that lives there, could be him. He just stepped out to have a smoke, right?"

When a thud rattled the door and its hinges, Ray jumped, bouncing back and falling back onto his couch. His hand slammed into the coffee table and quickly went warm with pain.

Ray scrambled to his feet as another thud slammed into the door. He flicked his hand in the air, trying to numb the pain.

"Damn, that hurt!" Ray whispered.

"Raymond Deluise, I know you're in there," a deep voice yelled from the other side of Ray's door.

"What do I do?" Ray asked, trying to be quiet.

"I heard that!" the man shouted. "I saw you in the damn window! The only thing you're doing is wasting time, son!"

A succession of knocks rammed the door.

"God damnit, son, open this damned door!"

"What do you want!? And, how do you know my name!?" Ray yelled.

"I'm not foolin' around, kid! I'm a big boy and this door's about as thin as a worn nighty!" the man hollered. "I could break it down with a sneeze!"

Ray crept close to the door and peaked through the peephole. It was the fat man for sure. His cheeks were puffy and rosy, glazed with a film of sweat. Ray watched as the man pulled a handkerchief from an inside pocket of his jacket and dabbled his forehead.

"What do you want?" Ray asked, still looking through the peephole.

The fat man looked around the hall, scanning for other people then put his glossy blue eye right up into the peephole.

"Let me in, kiddo'. You don't wanna' strike this match!" the man said, gritting his teeth. He backed up and took a deep breath, debating something in his head. "You been to Haiti lately, Ray?" he asked, reluctantly.

Ray looked at the dinner table in his kitchen. Near the centerpiece, a bowl of fake fruit, sat a passport with a stamp from Port-au-Prince.

The man smiled, getting his answer from Ray's silence.

"Open up," the man said, as though he had something to offer.

Ray dropped his head low and twisted the deadbolt free. It was crystal clear the man wasn't going to go away until he said what he came to say.

"I'm in trouble, aren't I?" Ray muttered under his breath.

He'd smuggled that Haitian fertility statue in his carry on bag at the airport. Had they known? Suppose they had known, why now? And just who were they, if there was a they. Ray grabbed the knob and opened the door, stepping back to let the man inside.

The fat man adjusted his coat, tapped his forehead with the handkerchief some more, then stepped inside. He looked around while Ray closed the door and locked it again.

"Nice apartment," the man said, peaking down the hallway into Ray's bedroom. "Lots of uh…" he looked at Ray, "lots of space."

"It's home," Ray said, sitting at the kitchen table. "What's this about?"

Ray lit a cigarette and took a deep drag, trying to soothe his shaky nerves. He held the cigarette with his left hand and played with the ash tray on the kitchen table with his right, all the while watching the fat man, who appeared even more nervous than he was the more he stared at him.

The fat man stared at the floor, at the walls, everywhere but at Ray. Now that he was inside, he looked unsure of what to do next. He set the briefcase, upright, onto the kitchen table then sighed.

He spotted Ray's passport then looked at Ray.

"May I?" he asked, gesturing toward the passport.

"Knock yourself out," Ray said, wishing he could think right now, wishing he could form thoughts and try to sift this one out. He stopped playing with the ashtray and tossed the passport across the table. It slid and stopped next to the fat man.

He reached down, picked it up, and compared it to the man sitting in front of him.

"This was what? Three-four weeks ago?" the fat man inquired.

"Something like that," Ray said, sitting up. "Look, what is this about?"

The man gulped, afraid of what he had to say.

"Did you," he said, searching for the delicate way to ask his question, "take any illegal substances while you were Port-au-Prince, Ray?"

Ray shook his head.

"No," he said aloud. "This is about drugs?"

The fat man puffed his plump cheeks.

"Did you," he paused again. "Did you…"

"Did I what?" Ray asked, agitated. He snubbed out his cigarette.

"Did you knock boots with any of the locals, Ray?" he finally said. "I won't remind you how important it is that you tell me the truth now."

Ray bit on his lower lip while he smashed the cigarette into the ashtray, watching the paper tear and black ash smear.

The fat man leaned down onto the briefcase with his elbows, balancing himself, looming over Ray.

"You ever hear of an Apocephalus borealis, Ray?" the fat man asked, already presuming the answer for himself.

Ray shook his head 'no' and realized he was shaking, afraid.

"That's not surprising, there's no reason why you should have," the fat man said, licking his lower lip.

Ray swallowed, hard.

"It's a fly that's so teeny-tiny, you can't even see it with the naked-eye," the fat man said, using his fingers to display just how small it was. "And what this fly does is shove its eggs into the stomach of a bee without so much as a kiss. After a bit, the eggs hatch, and these nasty, wiggly maggots begin chompin' the son of a bitch from the inside out. The bee, delusional 'cuz he's two pancakes short of a stack, flies around, like an empty shell," the fat man said, staring at Ray, who was focused on the story. "Like a zombie."

The fat man lay the briefcase down.

"Now, that ain't shaboodle when it comes to you and me, Ray. We're not bees," the fat man said with a stomach-jiggling laughter.

Ray smiled, nervous from the man's laugh, and began to chuckle himself. He didn't know what else to do.

The man stopped laughing all at once and stared at Ray.

Ray quit, uneasy.

The fat man unlatched the briefcase lock and hesitated to open it. He rested his arms atop the case.

"But, now listen closely 'cuz this part pertains to you, Ray. We've recently discovered something quite unsettling," the man said.

Ray felt his stomach sink and gurgle. His nerves were on edge and his blood went cold for the second time of the night.

"These flies," the man said, building to the point, "they've acquired an attraction to, well… humans."

Ray opened his mouth to say something but stopped.

"Well, women to be specific; Haitian women," the man opened the briefcase and looked overtop. "I know, I know. We're not sure exactly how, or even why. It sounds impossible, and normally I'd agree with you, but we're seeing some peculiar behavior in Haitian males. Near as we can tell, the effect this bug has on the women is unnoticeable, so none of them know they've got it. Our best guess is that it's passed on sexually, and that," the man said, pointing at Ray, "is where you come in, son."

"What a-a-a-are these infected men doing?" Ray asked, stuttering with worry.

The fat man smirked.

"Well, I can tell you that they're not dancing to the time warp again," he said. The fat man looked at Ray with inquisitive eyes. "Tell me, Ray, have you had trouble… thinking lately?"

Ray was quiet for a moment.

"Well, I've just been really stressed. I had to get an extension on my dissertation and it's due in less than four hours. On top of that, I haven't had much sleep lately," Ray said, glancing at the clock on the microwave by the kitchen window. "If I don't finish that, my life's ruined!"

"Stress, Ray?" the fat man asked.

"Yeah, you have no idea the pressure. It's…" ray said, interrupted.

"You think you're the first person I've visited?" the man asked.

Ray leaned back in his chair, finally understanding that this guy meant business, and he was in a boatload of trouble.

"So, try and sell me that bit about stress again, Ray, 'cuz I ain't buyin' it," the man said.

Ray pulled out and lit another cigarette while he stared off into the distance.

"How do you know I even have it? Yeah, I'm having some trouble thinking. I still say stress is as good a reason as any," Ray said, point-blank.

The man scoffed and reached into the briefcase. He pulled out an empty test tube and placed it on the table with one hand and a vial of white powder with his other hand. He set that next to the test tube then folded his hands across his bulbous gut.

"Standard pee test," he said, gesturing toward the test tube. "I add the tester, bing, bang, boom. If it's green, you're good to go. If it's red," he said then paused. "If it's red, you're dead," he laughed.

"It it's red, I what? Just take some pills and it'll clear right up, right?" Ray asked. "Take two, call you in the morning kinda' thing?"

"I wish it was that easy, son, I really do," the fat man said. "Why don't we cross that bridge when we get to it, eh?" the man asked, taking a small plastic cup from his case. He handed it to Ray.

Ray reached out and grabbed it. He spun it in his hands, staring at it.

"Best not to doddle, Ray," the fat man suggested.

Ray stood from the table, eyeing the fat man, and walked to the bathroom. He closed the door and locked it then looked into the mirror.

His face was drenched with sweat and his greasy hair still clung to his forehead. He caught a whiff of the fresh linen air freshener set atop the tank of his toilet.

What are you doing, Ray, he thought.

He said aloud, "That was…"

He wiped the sweat from his face with his hands then planted them onto the sink. He leaned in close to the mirror and concentrated.

"That was a thought! I had a freaking thought!" he grunted. He flexed his neck and strained to focus his mind. He squinted his eyes, staring at himself in the mirror.

There, you've just had another one, he thought.

He let his body loosen and panted, catching his breath. He grabbed the cup with a smile and unzipped his jeans.

You're not sick, he thought to himself.

When he came out of the bathroom and walked into the kitchen, the fat man slapped on a pair of white latex gloves. Ray set the cup of urine in front of the fat man then sat on the opposite side of the table with a satisfied smirk.

"You guys gonna' compensate me for my time?" Ray asked, sure of himself. He crossed his arms and sat back in his chair, a smug smile on his face.

The fat man glared at Ray while he pulled a tiny plastic pipette from the case and filled it with a sample of Ray's urine. He squirted it into the upright test tube then set down the pipette. While he held the test tube at eye level, he dabbled in some of the white powder and spun it around, stirring the mixture. He set it down in a test tube holder and folded his arms over the table.

"Takes a few minutes for the solution to form a bond and produce the color," the fat man said, glancing at his watch.

"You said I'm not the first person you visited," Ray asked, making small talk while he waited to prove that fat bastard wrong.

The fat man looked at Ray, trying to figure out where the conversation was going.

"What happened to them?" Ray asked.

"Well," the man said reluctantly. "They went through the same thing as you, Ray. I administered the test to each of them. Some passed," the man said, looking away. "Some failed."

"And the failures?" Ray asked.

The fat man's cheeks pulled back in a chubby smile.

"Red, you're dead," he said, showing his coffee stained teeth.

Red, you're dead, Ray thought, you've got nothing to worry about except turning in that goddam paper and--

Ray stopped and if you'd have asked him, he'd say he swore he felt his heart skip a beat, that is to say, he felt it stop and then start again.

Ray looked at the test tube and all the warmth left his body. He sighed, losing all the air in his lungs. His eyes watered and he began to quiver.

The test tube had turned red.

Red, Ray, he thought. Red, you're goddam dead.

The fat man pulled out his handkerchief while he gawked at the test tube. He wiped his forehead and cheeks then stuffed it back into his pocket.

"Well, Ray," he said, looking up at Ray. "We've got ourselves a bit of a problem."

He reached into his jacket and pulled out a snub-nosed revolver and set it down in front of him.

"What the hell!?" Ray shouted, sliding up from his chair, knocking it over in desperation, and backing into the counter behind him, scared out of his wits. He found he couldn't keep still. His body quaked and was freezing while he stared at the gun.

"The condition has a fatality rate of one hundred percent," the man said, "but it doesn't end there for the infected."

"Meaning…" Ray said, clearly not grasping what the man had just said. His head was all over the place and he couldn't concentrate again.

"Ray, you've gotta' understand something. If this got out, if it spread, do you have any idea what could happen to this country? To the world?" the man asked. "We've done a terrific job keeping it isolated in Haiti. And, unfortunately, in your case, there are slips."

The fat man picked up the revolver and clicked back the hammer while Ray shivered next to the sink, fighting for a thought. Just one would do.


***


The fat man stood over Ray's laptop, reading the dissertation while the crew wearing hazmat suits carried out the body bag from the kitchen. Another crew worked at scrubbing the blood from the kitchen counter and the wall beside the sink.

The fat man smirked.

"He was almost done," he said with a laugh.

He stared, puzzled, at the laptop screen, unable to form a thought.


THE END


2013 Andrew Saxsma

Bio: Mr. Saxsma, in his words, has two published novels and various works and articles and such. This story was the second in a 'one story per week' project.

E-mail: Andrew Saxsma

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