Sunday Stories: “The Clutch”

The Clutch
by Tobias Carroll

On the first morning, Dalton passed the trash bags on the last leg of his walk to work. They clustered there on the edge of the sidewalk, nine strong. The first hours of August sun extended the previous night’s heat. Dalton stepped through the clinging vapor on his way from the subway to a basement office two avenues away.

By the third morning, the air’s density had grown: sweat sprouted from Dalton’s chest and shoulders as soon as he rose to street level and began his westward walk. Ten steps down the block, he saw the bags again, grey plastic taut in places, slack and crumpled in others. Their shapes, he saw, had come to rest on one another; had come to compress and support themselves. Lingering meant more perspiration, and so he continued on his way, walking to the office, opening it for the day and triggering the meager air conditioning he’d crave in the hours to come.

After seeing them linger for a few more days, Dalton began to wonder when the bags would be removed. He entered the office under pipes and saw the patterns on his shirt-front darken with sweat. That ebb and flow continued throughout the day as the aged air conditioner rattled and shook in the air-vent window. The day’s work accomplished by minimal movements, an attempt to avoid any gestures that might stream more sweat towards his eyes. The pungent heat left Dalton feeling that there had never been anything besides this: the damp and the drying, the subtle stench that seemed to rise from his chest. The calls from creditors and the calls to debtors, anguished voices on the line and the sound of his own voice, some new tremulous tone birthed from strange circumstances.

On a Thursday morning, the heat made mirages of the street and sidewalk. The bags resembled flagging balloons, structurally intact but steadily withering. From the other end of the block came the sound of an impact; a man, glimpsed at the other end of the long block, had struck a rat’s head with a hammer. The rat crumpled. The man stepped back inside a doorframe and Dalton walked on, looking straight ahead; the man and the rat effectively dissipated by the time he reached them. There was no sound, no word of explanation; there was no context save conflict. What became of the rat’s shell, Dalton wondered: left to rot on the sidewalk or tossed atop another clutch of bags, grey fur subsumed into grey plastic, the surface dimpled by its weight.

A week later, the bags still suppurated in the morning haze, the trash strewn over them grown hot and melting in the sun. Dalton saw it as he walked past; pale pink bubblegum running like rivers down the arc of one, flies alighting on pungent fruit rinds atop another, and strewn salt from something molted or rotten away. Dalton had watched the plastic grow more and more taut over the preceding days: something within had begun to fester or bloat. The gulf between trash bags and the surrounding litter had lessened; the plastic membranes remained intact, but slowly settled into a strange equilibrium, and Dalton had no envy for the collectors who would eventually come and remove it all. He imagined the bags punctured in that transit, imagined the bilious scent that would emerge, and found himself on the brink of gagging.

Later that night, after eleven hours below the surface, Dalton made his first few steps outside, the night air still fetid. The bags’ color had gone further grey, almost translucent. The sun had set; cars’ horns jutted at one another on the northbound avenue, loud mobs exhorted one another on distant sidewalks. Dalton felt wreathed in sweat; he hungered and heard a car’s horn explode into the air and wanted nothing more than to puncture its windshield, to unwind its driver. The bags, he saw, were ripening in the air and growing even more distended. Another car’s horn left Dalton twitching, and he now moved to kick one of the bags out of its squat ameliorated splendor. He struck it and felt the outside cave, a sensation not of plastic but of something harder, and then he watched it split; watched the membrane seep inwards and something long and pale and patchwork emerge, arms bracing itself to enter the night. Dalton watched its mouth strive to form words, watched its eyes meet his own, and felt himself grow cold.

Tobias Carroll is an editor at Vol.1, and makes his home online at The Scowl. This story was originally written for a night of horror stories at Blue Angel Wines this summer; it seemed appropriate for the season.

Art by Margarita Korol.

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