Three nights ago my wife had a big fight with our son, Charlie. Since then, Charlie hasn’t left his room. The argument was about Charlie’s grades and future, which my wife is sure he’s throwing away. Basically, she’s worried Charlie spends too much time playing Minecraft (“that stupid virtual block game,” as she calls it) and not enough time studying, interacting with real people or doing real things to prepare him for the real world.
Although I agree Charlie is a gamer, and his gaming choices are mostly limited to one game, many boys his age play video games, and at least his game of choice isn’t especially violent. It’s even quite creative. But when I tell this to my wife, she gets upset and insists that if Charlie likes building things, he should get his grades up and go to university to become an architect or an engineer. I say that maybe he’s learning to code. “He’s not coding. He’s playing,” my wife says. “He’s not learning anything.”
I’ve tried talking to Charlie through his locked door, but he doesn’t answer.
When I get up at night, I see light creeping from the space between the door and door frame, and hear the clicking and clacking of his keyboard.
When I knock, the clicking stops.
It’s now been five days, and as far as my wife and I can tell, Charlie hasn’t left his room even once. We suppose he must have bottled water in there and maybe some snacks, but we agree that what he’s doing isn’t healthy. At first, we suspected he may have been waiting for us to go to sleep before coming out, so I set up one of my game cameras in the hallway outside his door, but it hasn’t captured anything except some photos of us. He must be going to the bathroom inside there too. He’s not showering. He keeps his window—which looks out onto the backyard—closed, with the blinds down. I’ll set up another game camera outside, just in case he tries going out the window.
It’s now been a full week and my wife is really starting to freak out. She wants me to break down Charlie’s door. The game cameras still show nothing. The keyboard sounds continue, so at least we know he’s still alive. God, it feels weird to write that. I guess I’m not quite as worried as my wife, or I would be forcing the door. As it stands, I feel we need to respect Charlie’s independence and give him time. Teens are rebellious, and they definitely don’t like being told what to do. “His behaviour isn’t normal, even for a teenager,” my wife says. “Don’t you fucking see that?”
I guess I don’t—not yet.
The smell from Charlie’s room is starting to take over the hallway. It’s like a mix of old coffee, urine and eggs.
I gave in to my wife and forced the door—or at least tried to, because it seems Charlie has reinforced it somehow. It didn’t budge. Still nothing on the game cameras. Still flickering lights and clicking at night. There is the possibility of going in through the wall itself, which is just standard drywall, but I’m not desperate enough to try that. Like I’ve told my wife repeatedly, what am I going to do, smash the wall with a sledgehammer or an axe? It’s too Shining. Besides, what if Charlie’s by the wall? I don’t want to to smash him.
The outdoor game camera caught Charlie sneaking out the window! It was in the early morning when my wife and I were fast asleep. He was gone about half an hour, and the camera took another photo of him sneaking back in, holding what looked like a package of some kind. I know things aren’t back to normal, but nevertheless I feel somewhat relieved. And vindicated: I told my wife it would have been crazy to break through the wall.
It’s the night of the thirteenth day, and there are new sounds coming from Charlie’s room: whirring and rattling. They definitely sound mechanical.
Electronic music. Loud and all the fucking time. As if sleeping wasn’t hard enough for us, just with the nerves. My wife and I spent an hour sitting outside Charlie’s room and pounding on the door, hoping he’d answer. I think my wife is starting to break mentally. Her anger has transformed into despair. She has taken to apologizing to him and begging him to let us in.
Day 15. The outdoor game camera caught Charlie leaving again, but this time he returned with a package and a girl. I suppose if things were normal, I would be proud. But things are not normal and I have no idea what they’re up to. I don’t feel comfortable with a stranger’s kid locked up in a room inside my house. As for my wife, she’s been staying mostly in bed. She barely works anymore.
I can’t believe I didn’t think of this sooner. Early this morning, Charlie sent us an email. It was cryptic but at least it’s proof he’s still willing to communicate. The message said: “im almost done now so it wont be long.”
My wife knocked herself out with sleeping pills and I’m sitting in the living room, trying to watch late night television. It’s not working. The lack of sleep and constant barrage of thumping electronic music is driving me a little bonkers. Sometimes the music sounds like someone screaming. I don’t know if the whirring and grinding and buzzing are instruments or sound effects or real. Charlie isn’t answering my emails. I must have written a hundred to him by now. He’s been in his room with that girl for days.
I’ve decided. I’m going to cut power to the house and go in through the wall with a sledgehammer. If I make a fool of myself, so be it.
Charlie’s in the hospital.
My wife is staying with her parents for the time being.
I’m living in a motel because I can’t stand the thought of being in that house alone anymore.
Not after what I saw. Not after smashing through the drywall to see my only son with his fucking arm cut off. So much blood on the sheets. It reeked of piss and burnt flesh. And that girl, Clarice—some internet girlfriend of his—so ungodly pale, sitting at a desk, cutting into my son’s severed arm with an X-Acto knife.
The police haven’t identified any actual crime, but—
Charlie’s lucky to be alive despite what he so calmly tells me whenever he regains consciousness.
“I did it…”
“Don’t you see?”
“In real life, just like mom…”
Charlie’s words haunt me. I’ve no one to talk to but the psychologist, and she acts like a robot. I feel like I want to grieve but I don’t know for whom. Maybe for my entire life.
I feel this persistent, unbearable dread.
I can’t explain why.
A fear that something fundamental has been changed.
My wife still hasn’t been to see him. She says she can’t bear to see him like this.
“It’s just an arm,” I say. “He’s OK.”
“Do you understand that he cut off his own arm?” she says at me, like it’s an accusation. Like it’s my fault.
There’s just so much guilt.
Charlie’s still in the hospital, but he’s doing better. The doctors are more concerned about his mental state than his physical one. They think he’s shut away the memory of cutting off his own arm. Whenever they try to tell him he’s missing it, he shrugs it off. “Oh, that. That’s fine. I’ll get another.”
Every time I see Charlie, I want to ask him about the things he told me earlier.
But the doctors dissuade me. They say he’s still too fragile. They say it’s better not to force him to remember the trauma. They say there’s a chance he may never truly remember it, and maybe that’s for the best.
The one thing he constantly asks is to see Clarice.
The doctors veto that too.
I don’t like leaving the hospital because there’s something terrible about the world now. Something I don’t want to face.
Clarice called me. Out of the blue.
She wants to meet.
There’s something about that girl that makes me uneasy, to put it mildly. Maybe it’s her pale skin, almost like bleached paper. Or the way her body felt that night I finally went through the wall. Charlie felt solid. She felt like a bunch of old bandaids on Jell-O. The way she was sitting there, so carefully, methodically working the flesh of his arm…
“Charlie thinks it’s time,” she said.
“Time for what?”
“For you to finally see. He wants you to be proud of him.”
How fucked is this: I’m meeting her at some old automotive plant. I don’t know if she even has parents. Maybe she’s a runaway. God only knows.
But God help me, I have to do this.
I hesitated to the last possible minute about whether to tell my wife about meeting Clarice—before finally deciding not to. I don’t know why. I want to say I don’t want to cause her any more stress. Her psyche is pretty destroyed as it is. But I also feel, somewhere deep down, that she simply wouldn’t understand.
So that means no one knows I’m out here right now.
I know that’s not smart, but I don’t care. I shouldn’t be afraid of a girl.
Yet here I am, sitting in my car, writing on my phone. The weather is threatening a storm somewhere far off. The factory looks ominous.
And I’m fucking terrified.
I don’t know how to begin to describe what happened: what I saw and did and what I had done to me. I’m back at the motel, and I keep making mistakes typing this on my laptop because my hands are refusing to obey, but I’m resisting the urge to take a drink because I want to be as clear as possible while writing this.
It’s fucking monumental.
I met Clarice after wandering about the factory for a quarter of an hour that felt like so much longer. The rain had started, and the way the drops echoed in that place was unreal. Like drums inside my own head.
She called my name suddenly—
I saw her standing by an old, overgrown piece of machinery, beside three bulbous garbage bags. At least one was leaking.
She said she was happy I had come. She said Charlie was a genius.
She was wearing an old trench coat, and without warning she let it drop to the cracked cement floor.
She was naked.
I wanted to back away. I started telling her I was married and there was no fucking way I would—
“It’s not about that,” she said.
She wanted me to look: to come closer and look at her.
So I did.
I remembered how her body had felt in Charlie’s room, and now I saw why. Her pale skin was spiderwebbed with blue veins, a nearly imperceptible network in a repeating pattern. “Go ahead, touch me,” she said.
I pressed a finger against her flesh. It still felt off, but not as disgustingly creamy as it had then. She had solidified.
“Now press harder.”
She groaned—and my fingertip sank into her: or more accurately, slipped into one of the blue veins.
“Go on. Keep going until you hear a click.”
I pushed deeper inside. Until there it was: a click, followed by a loosening.
I wavered, my gaze meeting hers. “Don’t be afraid.”
Gently, I removed my fingers from within her while maintaining my grip on whatever it was I was holding:
A cube of flesh.
And in her body I saw a corresponding void.
As I inspected the cube, rotating it between my fingers, she removed a second from her body—another void appeared—then took the cube I had been holding, held it against the one she had removed, and I watched them fuse together.
“Blocks,” I whispered.
Still missing two small volumes of herself, she turned toward the garbage bags. “These are my parents,” she said, pointing at the three bags in turn, “and this is Barker, a homeless man I met at the shelter.”
I couldn’t finish the sentence. I didn’t know how to finish it.
She crouched and unfastened the bags.
Inside each: a stew of raw flesh cubes and multicoloured ooze, steaming—bubbling, frothing, popping; pulsing with what I imagined must be life.
She took a few cubes from each bag, wiped them, then held them together in the palms of her hands along with the two fused cubes of herself. Like melted metal, they all melded together into one new thing: a fleshy disc with wisps of hair, half an eye and a bone jutting from one end. The half-eye twitched and the entirety secreted a kind of slime across Clarice’s bare hands. It was both horrible and awesome, as if humanity had been deconstructed—
“We can all become blocks,” Clarice said. “To make and remake as we see fit.”
But there was something about that disc.
About the twitching.
Maybe this was possible. But it was not fucking right.
I backed away: from Clarice, from her oozing garbage bags and inhuman smile. “It’s merely science,” she said matter-of-factly. “A new science, of being and bodies and existence, and Charlie is the discoverer. He is the new Darwin!”
I started to run.
Her words chased after me: “Are you proud of him? Are you proud of your son?”
The layout of the factory confused me.
Where had I left the car?
“You thought he wouldn’t amount to anything in the real world, so he redefined it: he changed what it means to be alive. Soon he will be worshipped—”
Something hard collided with the side of my head, reducing me with dwindling consciousness to the floor—smack!—and I felt hands grabbing me and dragging me, three shapes of reeking flesh, and Clarice’s laugh, echoing throughout the unreality of the factory as the whirring and buzzing faded in and out and in…
I awoke alone.
Nude. Cold rain on my face.
I was still in the factory, but Clarice was gone. I felt a kind of transcendent solitude. Groggily, I got up—only to promptly collapse on rubbery legs. I crawled toward some derelict machinery and used my arms to stand. My arms were rubbery too, but eventually I managed it. There were tools on the machinery: a saw, pincers, knives. Lightning lit up the distant sky, and in its flash I saw delicate blue veins all across my forearms. Memory returned to me. Memory and fear: the dread sense of realization.
Now I’m back at the motel, typing on my laptop. Disbelieving my own words.
Yet there it is: on a melamine plate beside me:
my own flesh cube.
And every time I think I’ve gone crazy, I run my fingertip over the corporeal void from where I removed it.
My body is still soft and flabby—unsettled—but I imagine I will solidify.
As a human, I am filled with a hideous trepidation for our future as a species. I don’t know what this means for us as people.
But, as a father—
I cannot help but feel a kind of pride.