The Bleak – Geoff Wallace

A husband and wife lived in a house infected with a machine virus. The virus made inorganic matter reconstruct itself—every time it removed one part of the house, it added an element elsewhere. Nothing was lost—just rearranged.

The house was perfectly livable; the couple simply switched rooms every few weeks. And the virus did seem to possess a sense of aesthetics. Even when it broke down a wall, the result was geometric, jagged, pleasing. The weather was astonishing. Wispy yet vivid skies, always cool yet not cold. Exceedingly pleasant. And in the backyard, a sacred tree.

The tree held balance over the region. While it lived, base impulses were kept at bay. Crime was only committed out of utmost necessity—stealing to stave off hunger, running red lights to reach the hospital in time. Darker, deeper machinations were unknown.

But then, one night, one of house’s rooms suddenly appeared on the tree. There was the living room floor, a green velvet couch, and the off-white walls, all perched on a thick branch. The virus had never done that—it had always kept the couple’s things in place while it transformed the house.

As the husband and wife watched, the tree began to mutate, breaking itself and sprouting new growth, flowing like a river of splintered wood. The virus had transferred itself to organic matter. The husband and wife thought maybe if they slept on the tree—a small sacrifice done slowly to appease forces unseen—the balance could be maintained. But it wasn’t.

Night lasted for days; the weather turned bitter cold. The couple knew the sky was gone, never to return. As the years passed, the region collapsed. Plant life died off; animals became scarce. Architecture stagnated into stiff, unrecognizable shapes. Organized crime ruled the land, and the price was steep. 

The heads of the leading crime organization resided in an enormous white-stone mansion with soaring, severe windows. A gothic mood blanketed everything. Inside, all the gangsters were dying. The virus had spread to living beings, infecting organic matter with the same disruptive, deconstructive force. A hand or foot would fall off and a new arm would sprout from elsewhere, but mangled and useless. The gangsters took it as a divine sign.

A young Dustin Hoffman, the boss’s son, was writing his will beneath the dining room’s once-celestial chandelier. Outwardly he only displayed a few rancid boils, but his internal organs were nearly destroyed, displaced and fused.

In the bathroom, the boss, Robert Duvall, decided his fate. He gazed out from an enormous knife-like window at the remains of the city, smoldering and distorted. The virus had replaced his skin with extraneous, partially closed blood vessels—his body oozed a viscous mixture of sweat and blood. Both his feet had dropped off, and one eye was gone entirely while another hung loose from its socket.

Everything was crumbling, decaying. The virus had even made plumbing impossible. But because the rich still had their pride, the gangsters hadn’t built makeshift outhouses like most people in the region did but instead converted their bathrooms into enormous pits of porcelain.

Duvall eyed a hole in the center of the floor, thinking grimly of all the human waste inside it. Less a hole than an exit—less an exit than an abyss. He scrawled his own last words on a ragged sheet of paper. Would the virus leave it intact? He couldn’t know.

The blood seeping from his broken skin gathered on the pen, trying to scab, forming a partial lasso-like blood clot around the pen.

“I only know half the hells I’ve set loose on this land,” he wrote, laboring the pen between his liquid fingers, “but the totality of their carnage is a price I must pay alone. And I will see to it that I pay more than my own life can bear.”

Somewhere in the hall, Hoffman screamed like an animal, or an animal imitating man, and Duvall paused, wondering if the virus had suddenly manifested syphilis in his son’s brain. The screams filled with blood, gurgling like a blender thrown in a bathtub, and finally ceased.

Duvall grimaced and picked up the pen again. His one working eye slid further from the socket, and he cocked his head back at a grotesque angle to see the paper. He thought briefly about maneuvering it with the three working fingers on his opposite hand, but the idea made him gag.

He regained his composure and continued writing: “I have decided to send myself where I belong—in the filth. I will starve myself until I am small enough to fit inside the pit toilet, and that is where, with any luck left to me, I will drown.”

He paused for a moment, thinking of what remained of his son.

“If any power still looms above…and if it retains any ounce of mercy…then I will go quickly.”

Though time crawled ahead, and dehydration threatened to end him, after a small eternity the boss still stood, now a husk of a man. Both eyes gone, he groped at his skin, feeling bones sharper than before, ready to split and pierce the surface. He hadn’t lost enough weight, but even with only himself as audience, he was committed to his punishment. 

Summoning his final shred of strength, he grabbed his arm and pulled hard—a sickening crack shot across the tainted porcelain. Pain racked his limbs, but even pain felt good when it was delivered by his own hand; the virus couldn’t touch him now. 

His shoulder dislocated and body finally narrowed enough at last, he inched toward the edge of the pit and began to slide down—down into the feces and piss and blood and darkness—to drown.

Geoff Wallace is a 55-year-old trapped in the body of an 18-year-old. His twin selves are at work on many projects at once. He likes shelving picture books at Powell’s in Portland, Oregon.

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