By R.G. FLANDERS
TZIDO SUN/ Shutterstock
Walter Collins was a terrible roommate and I had finally worked up the courage to tell him so. He looked at me without expression, slowly sipping his maté as I gave him the speech I had prepared throughout the better part of my day at the office. As I wrapped up, Walter just sat there, a diminutive figure on my couch. His little arms and legs moved slowly as if he did not want to disturb the air between us.
“So you want me gone. After all these months you decide to kick me out. I thought we were pals.”
I had anticipated this and countered swiftly. “Pals stick together and help one another out. You just sit there and drink my tea, while I go out and slave away my life at the office so you can keep having your lavish meals. I will have no more of it. You are like a parasite. Please go!” Walter sipped his maté once more. He tilted his round little head ever so slightly.
“You would like me to get a job then? Would that make you happy?”
I sighed and drooped my shoulders. This man was impossible. “It feels like we’re married or something. I go out every day to work a numbing office job, just to pay the bills of a lodger who doesn’t pay his. I mean, really, I know we have a long history together, but just when exactly did we become joined at the hip like this? I feel like I’m doing all the legwork here, and you’re just here for a free meal. Well, no more!” I said it and felt less and less confident as the words fell from my mouth. Did any of this get through to him? Walter slowly set down his mug and even more slowly removed his glasses. He wiped them with a soft cloth. His eyes looked microscopic now, like a mole’s.
“So you think I should walk a day in your shoes. Do your job. Get your perspective on things.”
“In a way, yes. Why should I be the one working at an office where nobody likes me, with no career opportunities, just to come home at night and spend my hard-earned money on a freeloader?” Walter stopped wiping his glasses and set them down on the coffee table between us.
“All right. Message received.” He carefully slid down from the couch, until his short legs touched ground. His head barely cleared my coffee table. Strange how such a diminutive individual could be such a burden. He ambled towards me and raised his hand above his head. I reached down and shook it, unsure about what to expect. He pulled, firmly, and I stumbled, landing on one knee. Walter nimbly moved behind my back, still holding tight my hand and locking it painfully at elbow and shoulder.
“Walter, now wait a minute…” I felt his other hand briefly slide between the rim of my trousers and the small of my back, resurfacing with the hem of my shirt between the fingers. A cool brush of air caressed my naked skin.
“What in the name… Walter!” I tried to swat at him with my other hand, without effect. The little guy was well out of reach and tightened his vice on my right arm. Next: the oddest of sensations. A gentle but firm pressure against my spine. A brief, sharp pinch. Then: no more sensation at all. Walter released my right arm. It swung beside my body. I willed it to grab him, but the arm would not obey my command. I remember once waking up after sleeping on top of my arm for some time, blocking blood flow and nerve pulses. The arm felt alien to me and dropped like a dead man’s limb on my chest as my other hand picked it up and released it. This feeling was quite similar, only now it seemed as if my entire body belonged to someone else. I felt as if I had suddenly died, but gravity needed some time to catch up. I feared Walter had somehow killed me, slipping a knife into my back or in some way causing irreparable damage to my spine. I almost resigned then and there to dying, a hapless victim to heinous murder.
Then, some sensation was restored to my limbs, but distant and faint. My feet started moving of their own accord. I found myself unable to stop them from walking me to the bathroom. Whatever Walter had done to me, it seemed to have robbed me of conscious control over my body. I watched in horror and dark fascination as my mirror image slowly rotated to reveal just exactly what Walter Collins had done to me. My posture was straight enough, more self-assured even than I was used to, with a straight back, relaxed shoulders and a somewhat wider stance. Further down, beginning to show just below my shoulder blades as an elevation under the skin that increased and formed quite a considerable hump when it reached the area where a man’s kidneys are located, a large swelling had formed on my lower back. From that swelling protruded the small body of Walter Collins. His arms rested on my hips, and his legs, no longer touching the ground, wriggled a little as they dangled from his body. There was no longer sight of his head, which I assumed was burrowed in the mound of flesh protruding from my back. He had really dug in deep. Then came the voice. It felt as if I heard it from inside my head at first, but then I realised it originated from below, as if the knot in the pit of my stomach had learned to speak.
Gently, now, Bob. Take it slowly. The connection is fragile at first. My body started to awaken again from its torpor. Slowly, hairy strands of pain pulled across my skin and congregated at the location where Walter’s head bored down into my back.
The pain will pass soon enough, the voice said. There will be no significant bleeding and it should not get infected, but don’t start picking at the connection with dirty fingernails. Feeling returned to my fingertips, like a thousand needles gently probing the skin. With difficulty, I regained control over my hijacked limbs, my facial muscles, my speech organ.
“What have you done!” Streaks of panic derailed the sound of my voice. I flailed at the intruder with both arms, tried to throw myself backwards into the bathroom wall to shake him off. Then I froze in mid-movement, lost control over my legs again and saw my mirror image slowly walking to the centre of the room.
Now stay calm, Bob. I have direct access to your spine and everything inside it. I can do a complete takeover if you give me a hard time. You asked me to walk in your shoes and get your perspective on things. You invited this in.
“Never this! Not this… abomination! I’ll gaaarflghshsjsh… think this is an excellent idea, Walter, my friend. Did I tell you I intend to lower your rent? Well let me just take out the paperwork and you’ll be set.” My mouth no longer uttered the words my brain was sending it, instead speaking whatever my lodger ordered it to.
“So you see and hear, Bob. I am willing to grant you some measure of control over your body for the duration of this symbiosis, but I can just as easily take over everything.” Everything. My gut repeated what my mouth was saying. Because I take pleasure in conversation, I will return to you your ability to speak. Don’t be alarmed if your mouth runs away with you at one occasion or the other. I will only use it when the situation calls for it. I’m sure our little joint venture will work out for the both of us. Gosh, is that the time? We need to leave for work.
My arm raised my wristwatch into view. If I missed the bus, I would be late. But I was powerless to influence the situation. As a spectator to my own life, I watched as my body dressed itself, picking one of my wide suit vests that I wore back in the days when I was heavily overweight and before I discovered the power of portion control. The large vest covered my shoulders and back and almost completely obscured the body of Walter Collins from view. Only his dangling feet were visible, but they soon retracted into the shadows. My body inspected itself in the bathroom mirror. Besides a strange hump, it looked pretty okay. To my dismay I noticed that I had better posture when Walter was controlling my limbs.
All set. To the office. And off we shuffled, my lodger and I.
I am not a happy person at work. Office life holds little charm for those at the bottom of the food chain. A balding middle aged man with an ill-fitting suit, no family or sex life and no success in his career to counterbalance that. In my office, thirty seven people cross my path on a daily basis. I have about two conversations a day with my co-workers, which implies that thirty five others successfully manage to avoid speaking to me. I was once working late on a Friday and nobody noticed my presence, so the building got locked up with me inside it. I waited for a few hours, tried in vain to get my supervisor on the phone and finally decided to break a window and get down using the fire escape. But not before spitting in each and every coffee mug I could get my hands on. At my company, people rarely wash their coffee mugs. By Monday morning, my saliva had dried in along with whatever beverage last occupied the mugs and was happily ingested by my unwitting co-workers. Childish but sweet.
I now positively dreaded walking through the door wearing my awkward vest and with the body of Walter Collins dangling from my back. But I had little influence on the matter as Walter controlled my legs and fired them into a brisk, bouncy stroll. I felt like I was a forgotten passenger sitting in a car taken out by a joy-rider, bracing at every turn and fearing a fatal collision around every bend. The door opened and I bounded through it like a stag looking to impress every doe in the woods.
Jane the secretary was sitting at the reception, sipping her chamomile tea as usual, her pinkie finger extended slightly upwards. It gave her a posh look that clashed violently with her shabby clothing style. Usually, she did her best to ignore me. But this time she had a hard time keeping her eyes off me. Did she notice Walter? If so, then she did a good job hiding it. Certainly she must have noticed it, how could she not? But there was no disgust or horror in her expression, only puzzlement and a sparkle I had never seen before in those eyes. She nodded a greeting and actually smiled at me before returning to her magazine. The corners of my mouth curled upwards and I could feel my body incline slightly, producing a subtle and elegant bow. Jane glanced at me twice more and smiled again as I continued my walk across the office floor.
She’s pretty if you don’t look too closely. You can tell she’s in for it. Are there any other women in the office? Walter’s voice gurgled up from my abdomen and resonated inside my head. I hoped nobody else would hear it.
“There’s Cathy in Accounting. She’s the hottest woman in the office, but she’s toxic. Married three times, widowed twice,” I whispered to my stomach, which must have only added to the oddness of my appearance. The feeling that I would not last the day without losing my job grew stronger every second.
Cathy. Let’s meet her then. Hooking up with the main prize will be good for your confidence. I protested weakly, but my head already made slow scanning swipes of the open office floor, trying to locate Cathy. She was chatting up Bruce, the Vice President.
“Not now!” I implored in a forced hush, but my legs already started moving and homed in on the pair. Walter took complete control over my body and the situation. All I could do was watch and listen as my mouth spoke the words I had longed to speak for so many years, as my eyes openly investigated Cathy’s face, neck, and shoulders, and as Bruce the VP for the first time lost his lead over the other men in flirting with a woman. Bruce’s eyes nervously shot back and forth between me and Cathy, his smile frozen on his lips, his body language agitated. Bruce did not have many competitors on the work floor. Just as Cathy began to turn away from Bruce completely and lean a little in my direction, Walter cracked a little joke through my lips, stood up and walked off, leaving her hanging and wanting more. I never before witnessed pure genius at work and was awestruck now that this genius looked exactly like me. Too bad this ‘me’ was nothing more than a hand puppet for Walter Collins.
As the day went on, more and more co-workers passed by my desk, striking up conversation. I heard myself calling in favours I didn’t realise were there in the first place. By the end of the day, my body was seated in a comfortable chair and I was facing the CEO directly for the first time since I started working there. I was in an utter panic, but my features were composed, calm, confident. Only my sweat glands appeared to remain outside of Walter’s control. I could feel a slow drip developing from my armpits. This was it. The moment the CEO would sack me for being a douchebag at the office. For chatting up the women. For behaving like I owned the place. For making his VP look like an oaf. I was squirming mentally, but my body was relaxed. I could feel Walter being squeezed between my back and the back of the comfy chair.
Easy Bob. This is all natural. Believe me, I’ve been here before. You won’t get the sack. There was no way of responding without looking like a total nutcase in front of the CEO. Drip drip. I thought I could almost hear the drops hitting the surface and feel them cooling as they slowly slid down the sides of my abdomen.
“So Bob, it would appear that you have been holding back on us all this time.” The CEO leaned forward and grinned. Then he relaxed and looked out the window, his gaze fixing not on some feature in the landscape but on a distant memory. He told a story about himself as a young man, up and coming in the world. He too had to bide his time, navigate a treacherous environment, avoiding the traps and pitfalls his colleagues set for him. He too had waited for years to suddenly pounce and get ahead. Only, when he did, nobody was there to help him. Nobody to take him under his wing. “And now I see you do the same, and I can’t help but think back of that young fellow with all his dreams.”
“I’m not a young fellow anymore,” I heard Walter say through my lips. “I’ve matured like a good cheese.” My hands grabbed my belly fat and shook it. The CEO cracked up.
“Exactly! You must be, what, my age? Too late for that promotion, you’re thinking, am I right?”
“A good wine is best when you open it timely,” Walter replied. Did he get that off some calendar? I was deeply embarrassed, but was powerless to stop it. The CEO looked me in the eyes.
“I hate it when I see those young upstarts elbow their way into high places, only to abandon them as soon as another opportunity calls. I need good men, Bob, people I can rely on to stick with us. Even when we fall on hard times.” His eyes shot at Bruce, who was relaxing behind his computer screen and fiddling with a pencil. The CEO straightened his back. “I don’t like stalling. Bob, I’m offering you the position of senior VP. You’ll get an office, a secretary, and most importantly: you will be Bruce’s senior. That will put him in his place.”
I wanted to gasp for air, but Walter checked my reflex. He nodded graciously. “I’m glad you noticed my qualities. It was time for a change. I gratefully and humbly accept.”
That night, I was lying on my right side, trying to get to sleep with Walter’s head still buried deep inside my lower back. We were both in our underpants, which weirded me out a little. But there just wasn’t much I could do about it. In one day my life had changed completely. On my way out of the office, everybody was looking at me, at Walter too. I could feel their looks. But my newly acquired status kept them from commenting on it. I caught Cathy’s eye looking at me too. She winked as I passed by and picked up my brief case.
With Walter asleep, chaotic thoughts rushed through my head about how to deal with this new situation. A part of me – at least I suspected it was me doing the thinking and not Walter Collins – was fantasising about what it would be like to sleep with a stunner like Cathy. And how we would handle the technical complication of the small person sticking out of my back. Would she mind? Would Walter be involved in the event, or would he sense things indirectly? Would he take over completely and make me watch? My brain felt like it was oozing out of my ear. I felt dizzy and also very weak. I wondered if the connection with Walter was eating at me in a literal sense. It sure did a number on my mind, but what about my body?
That question got answered soon enough. At work, with Walter controlling my posture and movements, I clearly exuded confidence and power. I had become a force to be reckoned with. At home, in front of the mirror, Walter relaxed and let go some of his grip on my nervous system, allowing me to temporarily resume some of my old habits. Inspecting myself in the mirror, it was clear that I was quickly growing thinner. Without Walter to prop me up, I was also having trouble to maintain proper balance and posture. Meanwhile, Walter seemed to be getting bigger, an effect I initially ascribed to my own dwindling size. I let go of that illusion a couple of days later when I felt how Walters feet touched ground without him letting go: he had definitely grown, both in length and girth. It was now impossible to fully hide Walter from sight. We looked like a pair of rundown ventriloquists, with Walter as the puppet master and myself as the cartoon plaything.
And still my ascent at the office did not slow down. My co-workers just ignored the oddness of the situation and hung from my lips that spoke Walter’s words. Cathy had fallen for me and was working hard to secure a date at my apartment. To my shock, I heard my voice agreeing to her proposal to visit next Saturday night. I had no clue how to handle that situation.
Saturday morning I woke up lying on my back. It took a few seconds to realise Walter had gone away. For the first time in over two weeks I was alone. I struggled to get out of bed. My muscles ached and seemed unwilling to obey any commands coming from my old brain. I somehow managed to stumble into the kitchen and cried out his name. Where was he? Tonight would be the night of Cathy’s visit! I could not possibly entertain her, let alone seduce her in such a sorry state. I dropped on hands and knees and slowly crawled to the bathroom, pulled myself upright with the greatest effort and inspected my mirror image. I looked like less than a shadow of myself. Walter had left me completely drained. My face reminded me of those awful images I had seen on the History Channel of the walking dead, freed from prison camps in Eastern Europe after the war. I needed to regain some strength. I swayed left and right, then crashed to the floor.
As I lay there languishing, the irony struck me hard. My lodger had finally left, and I would give anything to have him return to me. He had changed my life, turned it around, made me into somebody. And now he was gone. I blacked out.
I didn’t know if I dreamed a dream about the door bell ringing, my cell phone bleeping and somebody knocking at my door, calling my name. Maybe it really happened. When I came to, harsh sunlight penetrated my living room window and slowly raised the temperature inside the apartment. I was already sweating. Somehow this simple sensation gave me strength to get up and start crawling to the kitchen, prise open the fridge with my withered fingertips and eat whatever I could find on the bottom shelf. I blacked out once more and came to again.
The sun had shifted position considerably. I managed to get an eye on the wall clock: it was past four in the afternoon. I pulled myself upright, slowly, so as not to pass out. I supported myself on the kitchen sink, grabbed a chair and slowly started walking with it in front of me, like a four-legged crutch. Walter hadn’t left me a note. I had several missed calls on my cell, and a string of text messages and voice messages that grew angrier in tone as the time stamps progressed further towards the end of the evening. My first date in years, with the office stunner, and I had stood her up. I also realised I would be in no shape to return to work tomorrow. I dreaded to face it all alone.
A week later. I sat on my couch, sipping my maté tea and thinking about the future. I no longer worked at the office. Called in sick, than called back to tell them to go shove it. I slowly got up and shuffled through the room like an old person. My strength was returning at a snail’s pace. I finally found out why Walter had suddenly left me, without even leaving a note. He did not go very far. In fact, he never even left the apartment. I discovered his body in the pantry, huge and bloated and fast asleep. He left me because I had nothing left to give, no more blood or strength to drain. Had he stayed, he would surely have killed me. Now he was completely satiated and passed into some form of hibernation. I took out a can of beans and sausage, closed the pantry and shuffled into the kitchen. I would slowly grow stronger, while Walter digested my essences and gradually shrank again to his former size. One day I would be normal again, and he would walk out of my pantry and settle on my couch, sipping my maté. Perhaps one day he would attach himself to my back once more and I would feel confident enough to go out hunting for a job or a girlfriend. We just needed to time things a little better.
About the author: R.G. Flanders (pen name for Rob Geukens) is a Flemish author of speculative fiction short stories and children’s books. He has published several books and stories in Dutch, including books on a creature that can retrieve lost objects you truly need, things that eat Time itself and monster hunters. This is his first story published in English. A Dutch version of the story (title: Take it easy) was published in the anthology ‘Bloedzuigers in de polder’ (Edge-Zero Publishing) in December 2022.
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