Eight Cups a Day
Cameron was absolutely ordinary. He filled a respectable desk at a respectable company, earning a respectable paycheque that had kept him and his ex-girlfriend Nadia quite comfortable in their respectable apartment. He had a physical once a year, and was in respectable health, nothing out of the ordinary there either, with the exception that his blood pressure was a little low for his age and size. “Drink more water,” his doctor had recommended, then sent him for some routine tests.
Cameron took those words to heart ... for about a week; just like the way he stayed right on top of flossing for three or as many as four days at a time after a visit to the dentist. The trouble was that he just didn’t feel thirsty all that often. He didn’t have to do a lot of soul searching to realize it had something to do with how much coffee he drank. Magnetronics Inc. liked their employees happy and well caffeinated, so the pot in the sixth floor lunchroom was almost never empty.
Unlike some people who just forced down their one cup in the morning every day to get going, Cam actually liked the flavour of coffee, even the mediocre shit they had in the sixth floor lunchroom, drinking an average of six to seven cups a day. He’d mentioned his coffee intake at his check-up, and the doctor hadn’t sounded worried, “Just have some water now and then. Coffee doesn’t hydrate you, it dries you out.”
Right now he was supposed to be producing slideshow charts for next week’s big meeting with Jefferson & Sanford. Technically speaking, Magnetronics was only the software provider for the ad company, and shouldn’t have to manipulate the data, but the firm was sixty-five percent of their business, so if they wanted charts, they got charts. Instead, he had a very small Window open on his desktop beside the firm’s currently empty corporate template, and was watching the “top five stupidest extreme sports injuries.” He wondered how watching teenage idiots sterilise themselves on public handrails never got old, but it didn’t. The phone rang. Cameron recited the company script.
“Magnetronics, Inc., how may I help your business today?”
Cameron recognized the voice immediately, and tried to keep his voice from quavering, “Mr. Jefferson?”
“That’s right. Who am I talking to? Hurry up.” The man was a notorious ball buster. It was bad luck that Cam’s boss was out, as Alvin Jefferson Jr., that everyone called “Ay-Double-Jay”, would call everyone in the building until he got the answers he wanted.
“Cameron White, sir.”
“I’m looking for my charts, White. I want to look them over before the meeting next week.”
“Um ... I think ... those charts are ... in production right now sir.” Cam swallowed guiltily, and with some difficulty, as his throat was bone dry. He shut the Youtube Window, as if the man had been standing over his shoulder, rather than at the other end of the phone.
“Damn it White. Why do you people always leave things until the last minute?” Jefferson sounded pissed, but, as pissed seemed to be his natural state, this was about a three out of ten.
“Sir, with no disrespect, I believe the deadline for the charts was Wednesday, and we’re well on track to hit that target.” Cam was breathing hard. He was in survival mode. He’d witnessed a dressing-down by the hot-tempered young lawyer before, and it wasn’t something he wanted to experience.
“Get them to me this afternoon White. Make it happen.”
The line clicked dead before Cameron could reply.
Cam was shaking. He wasn’t used to dealing directly with clients like that. He swallowed again, and felt a dry click at the back of his throat. It was time for a cup of coffee. The caffeine never failed to steady his nerves.
He passed Marnie Adams on the way to the lunchroom and forced himself to stare at her glasses. Marnie was notorious for wearing shirts that showed cleavage just over the line of office-appropriate. The thing was, she was also incredibly likely to snap your head off if she caught you looking. He got a “side of the eyeful” and continued on.
Preparing his coffee in the lunchroom was like a zen ritual to Cameron. Selecting the creamer, tipping the Styrofoam cup under the spout, and just the right amount of stirring. It allowed him to let his mind go blank, and press his mental “reset”. Right now, he thought he could get out of hot water, if he could just focus on what Double-Jay wanted to see. The biggest project on everyone’s lips in the past month had been the rollout of Slipstream 3.3.; if he selected only the most important features ...
His thought broke off suddenly, as he choked on his first sip of coffee. It was as if the liquid had soaked into the lining of his mouth, as if his gums and cheeks were made of sponge instead of tissue. The remainder had been just a trickle that had hit his throat a split second too late to swallow correctly. A bitter, metallic taste remained, like he’d been sucking on a battery. Cam dumped the rest of his cup down the sink, got some water instead and walked back to his desk. That was damned strange.
Cam sat down hard into his chair, rolling backward a bit with the momentum. He lifted the water to his lips and stopped. He really didn’t want this water. In fact, for some reason, he seemed repulsed by it. It was almost as if his body didn’t recognize it as something good to drink. He passed this thought off as a leftover from the incident with the coffee and took a sip.
The water bubbled violently in his mouth, mixing with his stale, coffee-tasting saliva and becoming viscous foam that started dripping from his lips. He reached under his desk and pulled out the tiny wastebasket, which, thankfully, was lined with a garbage bag, and spat.
He felt his forehead, it was fine. Something was wrong with him, though. He dry-swallowed some aspirin from his drawer, and turned back to the charts. He tried to keep working, but now he was acutely aware of being thirsty – his mouth felt like it was baking. He tried another bit of water, but got the same disgusting result. That did it. He wrote a quick “going home sick” email to Mr. Martin, who may not have appreciated his disappearance, but didn’t usually give grief for actual sickness.
Thirty minutes later, Cam was sitting on his couch watching Sports Center’s afternoon wrap up. He ate potato chips and waggled his bare feet, recently sprung from their wing tipped prison. Looking at his feet, Cam considered booking a pedicure. He’d always had dry skin on his feet, but the calluses and cracking around the bottoms of his feet seemed to be getting out of control.
On top of his many flaws, and he did have a few, Cam was a “picker”. He could never encounter a flaw on his skin and just let it heal on its own. His chest bore several reminders of his bout with chicken pox when he was fifteen and had scratched himself raw. When he got a cut, it took three times longer than usual to heal, as he was forever popping off the scabs. So, when he saw the raised ridges of skin along the cracks in his right heel, he couldn’t resist. He worked his thumbnail underneath one edge and began to pry up a strip of dead skin large enough to cut away with his nail scissors.
He was just getting a good edge that he could work on when, without warning, a chunk of flesh the size of a walnut broke away from his foot. It was completely dry, and the tissue inside was a pink honeycomb. The hole it left behind revealed more of the same weird dry sponge texture and a nubbin of something white that could only be bone. Incredibly, there was no pain, but his stomach lurched and he began to heave. Nothing came out, but he retched until his throat felt like it was on fire. He hopped on his left foot to the bathroom, before he remembered what to expect from drinking water. He decided then that the answer was to just work through whatever was going on, and just keep pouring water in until his body accepted it. Leaning against the wall, he got his clothes off, threw the pink shower curtain aside and got into the shower stall. He fumbled for the handle, threw it on full and opened his mouth. Out in the living room, the phone began to ring.
Cam’s body was becoming a horror. His throat was foaming again, and he couldn’t bring himself to endure the choking, so he let the vile mixture fall from his mouth to the drain. His attention caught up with the situation then, as his senses screamed that something terrible was happening. As the pelting spray hit his skin, it was immediately absorbed, and he felt as if he was filling up. He looked down at his hand, and saw it had doubled in size in the brief seconds he’d been in the shower. His skin was sucking in the water, and retaining it like a sponge. He felt an itch at his waist, and rubbed his heavy hand against it unthinkingly. The top layer of epidermis sloughed off at this tiny bit of friction, and piled in on itself like wet toilet paper. As if it had only been waiting for this one weak point, the skin began to fail all over his body, coming off in long transparent strips he’d always associated with a peeling sunburn. Free from restraint, the flesh underneath began to swell even more, bulging grotesquely around those patches where his skin was still managing to hold on.
He struggled to turn the shower off then, but the water had made his limbs so heavy that he was completely incapable of moving. Vaguely, he could hear the phone still ringing outside, a million miles away, in his bedroom. “Guess the machine will get that one.” He laughed crazily, which quickly broke into sobs that, in spite of his new surplus of moisture, were still dry. His knees gave out then, under the pressure of a hundred extra pounds of waterlogged flesh. Now he felt pain, and began to scream, but his throat was still so dry that the sound was weak and cracked. His nose bulged into his line of sight as his face began to fill up as well. In a matter of moments, his head snapped forward under the weight and mercifully ended his life. The water continued its work, filling and filling and filling, until his corpse began to break apart and wash down the drain a bit at a time.
Cam’s remains were found a week later. Neil Gorstein, who lived in the apartment downstairs, had noticed a drip in his bathroom ceiling. The water coming from it was a muddy red colour, and stank to high heaven. He called the Super and reported the leak, saying he was pretty sure the neighbour upstairs had gone away and left his bathtub running. Mr. Lao had gone upstairs, to the “big” apartment at the isolated end of the hall to bang on the door, and had come away gagging. Police and Ambulance were called, and finally Cam was discovered.
The washroom was flooded two inches deep in the reddish brown water. In the shower, in a position oddly like prayer, was a skeleton kneeling in a soup of pink putrescence. Fresh water was still pelting down and spattering loudly against the bones.
There were three messages on the answering machine. The first was from Alvin Jefferson Jr., demanding to know what had happened to him, where his charts were, and informing him he’d be without a job if he didn’t get in touch immediately. The second message was from Edgar Sanford, informing him he needn’t return to work tomorrow. The third was from Doctor Jacobs’ office asking him to call them immediately to discuss his test results.
In the meantime, though, he should ensure he was getting plenty of water.
Copyright Chris Allinotte 2010