Fiction: Robert’s Harness

I wouldn’t have tied up Robert if he hadn’t been so insistent. He had been acting really strangely since Jocelyn disappeared, and I figured it was just the stress of losing his wife or something without knowing what happened to her. Over the past few weeks, though, he had confided in me more and more, and I quickly realized that this went beyond Jocelyn’s tragedy. This guy has been going steadily insane, and the process had started well before his wife went missing.

He had a number of strange obsessions. I quickly learned that he was something of a carnivore, or at least he was one of those Paleo guys. His fridge was stocked with nothing but meats and the occasional leafy green vegetable. He was hyper-focused on scents, too. He went on and on about “the stink of the city,” and there were a number of times I caught him wearing a piece of Jocelyn’s clothing. It kept him calm, he said. I didn’t think much about it at the time; grief takes you to strange places, and I wasn’t going to judge.

Then I learned that he had this weird ability to know exactly what phase the moon was in, and what phase it would be in for any given date in the next five years. He knew exactly how the moon affected the tides, all the lore about how it affected people, words that had anything to do with it. A favorite of his was “lunatic,” and he’d reserve that word for a certain kind of person only. He’d look in their direction, take a deep breath, and tell me. “See that guy right there? In the business suit? He’s a lunatic. I can spot ’em a mile off. You don’t want to see him coming towards you in a dark alley.”

I assumed he was just ragging on power brokers or something like that, because it was the fashionable thing to do. I had lunch with him every day for three weeks, and in different spots around the city he pointed to different people and branded them. A bouncer at that dive bar on Oyer Avenue. A jogger who ran by in Clearance Park. An old professor-type on the bus. The city was getting crowded, he said, with lunatics and homeless people. It was weird, but who knows what connection that had for him with Jocelyn? Maybe he thought someone had taken her. She volunteered at a food bank. It put her in contact with all kinds of people. Maybe he had an inkling of what happened to her, and wasn’t ready to admit it to himself yet.

“Maybe you should talk to the police,” I told him a few days ago. We were having lunch at a shawrma place on Palace Blvd. He was picking the meat out of his pita. “If you have a hunch about someone at the food bank, they should know about it.”

“I need you to tie me up on Saturday.” He said it just like that. “Jocelyn used to do it, but she’s gone, and you’re the only person I trust.”

I laughed, nervously. He looked me in the eye, put down his empty pita, and grabbed my forearm. He had a surprisingly strong grip for a bank teller. “I’m serious. I need you to come over this weekend and restrain me. I…I know this sounds weird, but it’s really important to me.”

“Why in the world would you ask me to do that, Robert?” I pulled my arm away and stared at him. I didn’t want to even entertain the thoughts I had, but I couldn’t help myself. “What are you getting at? Is there something you need to tell me?”

He sighed, and looked down, and then around to make sure nobody was listening. “I’m one of them,” he said. “I’m a lunatic.”

I would have laughed again if he didn’t look so earnest about it. There was something in that desperate, lost expression that unnerved me. “Maybe…maybe we should go to the police. Or a doctor. Have you talked to your therapist about this?”

Robert shook his head vehemently. “I can’t talk to anyone about this. I can’t go to the police, or a doctor. I’ll…listen, I’ll be fine, really. As long as you come over and…and babysit me this weekend.” He couldn’t bring himself to look at me. He started to stop in mid-sentence, as if he was about to say something, thought the better of it, chose a different word.

The conversation ended only when I told him I would think about it. Over the next couple days, Robert revisited the question several times a day and got increasingly agitated when I tried to blow him off. I thought I would be able to wait him out on it, but nothing doing. When he started telling me I would be responsible if he hurt himself or someone else, I figured I’d better agree just to keep him calm. There was no telling what was actually going on, but someone had better be there just in case.

He asked me to come over early Friday afternoon. Well, not so much asked as made me promise. He’d provide the bindings, he said, and the food. I just needed to make sure he had everything he needed all weekend. I packed an overnight bag, made sure that Robert’s doctor, therapist and the detective investigating his wife’s case were all on speed dial, then I headed over.

As soon as I got there, he barked order at me. Here, do this. There was some sort of apparatus that was half-cage, half-incomprehensible complex of leather and chains that he wanted me to buckle him into in a very specific manner. I couldn’t make heads or tails of it, but I did the best I could. Some of the little buttons and straps were a pain in the ass, and they were redundant anyway, so I didn’t bother with anything that took longer than say, thirty seconds. He made me test them, and he squirmed and tugged as much as he could, but there was no getting out of it. Only when he was sure he was totally secure did he actually relax.

By then, the sun was going down and we were both sweating. He had a goofy grin on his face, and his expression told me that I had passed some barrier between us that I had no idea existed. Whatever was going on here, we would be stuck together for a few days. No time like the present to press for honesty.

“So…mind telling me what all of this is about?” I tried to be casual, to keep my tone light. It helps widows keep their spirits up, I’d read somewhere.

Robert laughed and looked out the window. The sun was reflecting off the windows as it set. It made all the buildings look like they were melting in fire and blood. “You’ll find out here in a few hours. Would you mind grabbing a couple of steaks from the fridge?”

“I hope you don’t expect me to feed you all weekend.”

“No need. Just put it on that standing desk and wheel it over to me when it’s done. I’ll be able to reach it.” Robert kept watching the window. The streets below his apartment were growing dark now, and the darkening sky was just revealing the first and brightest stars.

“Fine. How do you want it cooked?”

“Cooked?” He looked confused.

“Yes, cooked. How did Jocelyn make your steak?”

I stopped rooting through the impossible amount of meat in the fridge to look at Robert. He had finally looked away from the window, towards the front door as if he was expecting someone. He went quiet for a time, then shook his head. “She just opened them up and put them on a plate.”

I raised an eyebrow. What the hell was this? “Cold?”

“Yeah,” he said. He looked at me, and I shrugged and retreated into the kitchen. “She would put the steaks on a plate, and we would wait for nightfall. She’d put on a movie and sit with me through the night, and sometimes she would sing and play her guitar. It made me…made me feel less crazy.”

His voice was choking up, I could hear. I lifted the steaks with a pair of tongs I found and slopped them onto the plate. Raw as they were, that was roughly two pounds of meat there. I put them on the table, wheeled it in front of him, and then smiled. I didn’t know what to say to him all of a sudden. This was way too weird. “How about I put on a movie?”

Robert blinked back tears. “Sure.”

So I did. The TV remote was coated in a fine layer of dust on the coffee table, and we immediately dumped into one of those old movie channels when it turned on. I figured that would do well enough — neither of us would be watching it anyway. I turned to make sure that Robert was all right. His head was down, his face was pale, his breathing harsh and irregular.

“Robert?” I moved to get up, and the blanket covering the couch slipped away. It would have been so much better if I hadn’t looked, but a flash of color caught my eye.

The couch had been ripped to shreds. The stuffing had been pulled out of it, but flattened underneath the blanket. It looked like everything had been splashed with red paint, aged and dried until it had turned a liver-brown. I stepped back, horrified. I meant to ask Robert what this was, but the question died on my lips.

Robert was hunched over, trying to clutch his stomach. His back and neck was sprouting hair, so much of it that his skin disappeared. Something was bubbling inside of him, warping his torso and limbs, and all the bindings strained with it. There was an awful crack, and his mouth hung like his jaw had been broken. I couldn’t tell if he started screaming first, or if I did.

His torso and arms were swelling terribly. His shoulders hunched and grew like someone had stuffed hams into them, and his chest looked like it had been pulled apart before it puffed up. His scream deepened into a half-growl, half-roar, and when he rose up the top of his head was a full foot from where it had been. He was still changing.

His body changed in fits. Bones snapped or lengthened, and Robert whimpered and howled. I couldn’t say anything. Everything was telling me to run, but I couldn’t bring myself to move. I kept backing up until I bumped the television. It tottered, then slammed against the wall behind me.

The thing where Robert stood looked up. Its yellow eyes caught the poor light coming in from the window as it stared at me. There was nothing of my best friend in there anymore. I didn’t want to know what had replaced it.

I broke for the door. It tugged on those bindings and snapped right through them. That’s what the redundancy was for, I thought to myself. Way to half-ass it.

The monster was insanely fast, and its bulk blocked the door before I even made it two steps. I stopped, put my hands out. “Robert. You don’t want to do this. There’s…there’s meat for that!”

I pointed to the steaks on the table. It followed my finger with a disinterested glance, then looked back at me and growled. Then it leapt.

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