In the corner of his cubicle, it laid. Not moving--it couldn’t--and definitely not threatening him. It was dead, inanimate, gone to meet its maker. If it had a maker.
He wasn’t sure what sort of animal it had been. Maybe a possum, but sometimes it was too large or too small for that, or its fur was the wrong color. Sometimes it didn’t even have fur. It never smelled, but flies buzzed around it. Its organs spilled out onto the carpet, and brown, sludgy blood pooled beneath it. Maggots squirmed and made its intestine twitch. Ever since the corpse entered his life, it never progressed beyond the same stage of rot.
When he first noticed it, his shock that he’d left a dead animal rot unnoticed for so long in his apartment made him wonder if it actually existed, or if it was just a twisted hallucination. Some thought in the back of his mind insisted it was always there, and he just hadn’t seen it before. Whenever he tried to clean it up, the nausea overwhelmed him. He wept every day that weekend, unable to approach it. The smell of his own vomit by its body lingered for hours. By the time he cleaned his mess up, it left a stain in the carpet.
Maintenance showed up to fix the perpetually-clogged sink. She made no comment on the animal, and didn’t even seem to see it. She asked him if he was sick.
“I don’t think so,” he said, and she went to do something to the sink--he didn’t pay attention.
“Well, have a great day, ma’am,” the maintenance worker said. She said something else before she went, but he couldn’t focus on her words.
As the days passed, he noticed the corpse in new places. It followed him wherever he went--under a seat of the bus, near the drinking fountain at the park, by his desk at work. Out of the corner of his eye, he saw its huge, gaping mouth. Its teeth glistened as flies perched on its tongue to lay eggs. Of course, now he knew he’d lost his mind. None of his friends or coworkers mentioned it. It haunted him alone.
After a few months, he more or less learned to live with it. It was easier to ignore. He could function even with its bulging, sightless eyes watching his every move. Talking about it with even his closest friends was impossible. They’d fear him, think he was crazy. And therapy? Too expensive, by far.
So he left it be. But today, it looked larger--more like a beagle than a possum or squirrel. He stared down at its matted fur and wrinkled his nose. Shit leaked from its burst guts. He felt faint.
“You staring at something?” his coworker across the aisle asked. He tore his attention away from it to look at her.
“Just spacing out.” A fly landed on the thing’s eyeball.
“You’ve seemed distracted a lot lately, or just sort of down. Everything alright?” She knitted her brow with a frown. He smiled back.
“Oh, yes. Just letting my mind wander to the weekend, you know?” His coworker laughed and her concern evaporated.
“Don’t we all!” she said. “By the way--I love that dress. It flatters your figure so nicely.” He winced as some insect in the corpse shifted, its movements making a soft squelching sound that rang in his ears.
“Thank you. It was on sale.” He stood and lifted the dress to show it off. When he sat down again, the corpse looked larger. Like a lab, or a goat. He turned pale, but swallowed the bile in his throat and returned to work.
As the days went by, it shifted in size more and more often, but never grew bigger than the length of a coyote. He learned to expect the growth or shrinking, and prayed that it would stay smaller--a rabbit-sized thing didn’t really concern him these days. But it had been so long since it was that small, he doubted it would get smaller again.
He did notice that sometimes, he could influence how big it was, though not control its size precisely. When he wore slacks, it shrank. Dresses and skirts made it grow. The less makeup he wore, the less space it commanded. And, most recently, hearing his own name made it snap to the size of a malamute, then shrink the next moment he caught its presence in his glance.
He changed his wardrobe and stopped wearing dresses entirely. His new shoes--no heels, just black sneakers--also helped manage the thing’s size. And even though his coworkers asked him if he was feeling ill or sick with a stomach bug, not wearing makeup kept the thing’s size small. One day when he decided to put some foundation and lipstick on, just to keep his coworkers’ mouths shut, he was mostly able to ignore it. Its flies hummed in the background, but he imagined it was just the air conditioning running. Then a coworker came up, smiled, and said, “Your lipstick is such a lovely shade of red--so feminine!”
The corpse in the corner grew and grew, until its rotten guts lingered under his feet. He rushed to the bathroom and cleared his face, scrubbing the stuff off until his skin reddened. He returned to his station and looked down. The damn thing oozed with maggots. His stomach twisted into knots until he needed to sacrifice some valuable sick leave to go home and vomit.
He vowed to never bother with makeup and dressing up again. Every choice he made could change the corpse’s size, so he chose to keep it small. When he started wearing a binder to flatten his chest, his coworkers’ gazes drifted lower and fixated on that part of his body. Aggressively, as if they were trying to convince him of something, they emphasized his name and the pronoun they referred to him with. The word “she” grew barbs. Whenever he heard it, the corpse ballooned in size until its skin split. Its innards, all liquified from decay, sluiced through the breaks in its body.
His manager called him in. The others in the office had noticed his new style and so had his supervisors. With a look of concern, his manager closed the door of the office and sat across from him with his hands folded.
“I wanted to discuss your… manner of dress, as of recent,” he began. Flies coated the creature and swarmed in its gaping belly. The movement of their many legs and wings made it seem like the corpse was breathing.
“Is there something I’m doing wrong?” he said, tearing his eyes away from it and staring at his manager.
“We pride ourselves in having a very professional staff, and we have standards in place for the work dress code. Jeans, for example, are only permitted on Fridays.”
“I do follow that rule. Most Fridays I still wear slacks.” His manager nodded, feigning care.
“Well, it’s not strictly about the clothing,” he said. He took out the employee guidebook and turned to the dress code outlined on pages six and seven. He cleared his throat, pointing to it.
"Women should wear work-appropriate “natural” makeup. Red lipstick is permitted and encouraged’... and so on. Now, correct me if I’m mistaken--you to seem to not be using any makeup at all recently.”
In the corner of his eye, the corpse disrupted his vision. Its bloody fur nearly brushed against his skin. He fought every instinct in his body begging him to vomit. He swallowed and spoke softly.
“Are men required to wear foundation or cover-up or lipstick, sir?” he said. He hardly heard his own, high-pitched voice and hated that he felt so unable to shout and get angry. His manager laughed.
“Of course not. That’s ridiculous,” he said and leaned back in his seat.
“Then why are only women specified in the dress code?” His manager’s face flattened. “I assure you that what you think is happening here, isn’t. There are certain expectations for both men and women, and none are unreasonable. As a woman, we expect you to look put together and professional. Not like you just rolled out of bed.”
The flies’ collective wings felt like wind on his face. Dizziness crept up his spine and nausea filled him.
“I would like to speak with HR,” he said.
The corpse’s eyes glistened and oozed with crust and infection.
Losing his job had a silver lining. He recognized the corpse’s origin and made a decision, and did not need to worry about explaining himself to his old coworkers. Years later, a surgeon unbanded his chest. His flesh was bruised and bloody, but it was flat. Masculine. Male.
“Well, mister? Do you like how it looks?” the doctor said with a proud grin. In the corner, a small skeleton, perhaps a mouse’s, laid in a connected heap. No maggots or flies bothered it. No rot was left on its bones. Peel away the flesh, and the intricate supports looked like art.
13 March, 2021