Katausky vs. Paperby Jon Hakes (Spring 2017)
1. In his memories of childhood, Katausky could see the outline of his father in the big chair, dim features highlighted by the blue flicker of the television. His father plucked a single sheet of paper from the stack on the desk next to him, the glass of beer in his other hand unwavering. He set the beer down on a coaster on the desk, careful not to let any condensation fall on the stack of paper.
Katausky’s father brushed his free hand dry and wiggled his fingers. He folded the piece of paper in half, and then in half again. He repeated, to a total of seven folds. Pinching the small, bulging rectangle between his thumb and forefinger, he made a show of not being able to keep the paper folded shut along the last crease.
“If you were to fold this piece of paper thirteen times,” the father-image in Katausky’s memory said, “and then unfold it, you would open a gate to the dimension where the Paper Demon lives.”
“Have you ever done it?” Katausky heard the child-Katausky say.
“No, but I know the secret to folding the paper thirteen times.”
“What happens when the Paper Demon comes?”
His father reached for his drink and took a long sip. A squiggly line of foam hung on his mustache.
“I’m not sure, but it’s a demon, so...”
“Are you making it up?”
“Certainly not. Some day, I’ll show you how to do the folding.”
“I don’t want to do that.”
“Fine, suit yourself.”
He put a hand over his eyes. “God, my head is killing me. Go grab Daddy another beer.”
2. Katausky was taking his lunch break at a picnic bench outside the paper mill when a bird shat on his nose. His coworkers fell over each other laughing while Katausky spun around in circles, eyes wide and white with astonished anger, shouting, “Which one of you assholes threw that?!”
He left his lunch where it was sitting on the bench and stalked back inside. In the rest room, he washed and washed his nose with the cloyingly-scented foamy soap that never seemed to satisfy his standards of cleanliness. After the thirteenth washing, something clicked in his head, and suddenly the sickening, pulpy stench of the mill crept in through his nostrils and sat on his tongue.
In a few seconds, his nose sealed up again like a sarcophagus. He regarded this sealing, which seemed to be the usual setting for his nose, as a kind of involuntary talent. The smell of the mill bothered a lot of people, but Katausky was determined that he would not be one of them.
Katausky was a list-maker. A typical weekday list began as follows:
Check basement lights
Check locks on all interior doors
Check locks on all exterior doors
...And so on, running throughout the workday and into the evening. Weekend lists were worse, as they included all the household chores he had put off during the workweek.
Katausky would fold a piece of paper three times, to create eight equal-sized rectangles, and then tear them free. The rectangles weren’t quite long enough for an average list, so he would cram most of the list on one side and finish on the other, with the intention of recycling the unused fragment at a later date.
Katausky made lists because it was important to him that he not forget anything. What happened, without fail, is that he would finish the list, put it in his wallet, then occasionally clean out his wallet and put the little scraps of paper into a drawer for safekeeping, never looking at them again.
Katausky had a bigger problem masquerading as a smaller problem. He saw miniature people when he was stressed. At home, they filled the windowsills, ringed the tables, lined the kitchen counters, and sat on the toilet paper in the bathroom. For the most part, they were all very disinterested in him.
Many of them were people he knew. There was his father, who had disappeared into the Pacific Northwest when Katausky was entering his teens; Grandma Halstead, who had filled the role of parent for several years when Katausky’s mother checked herself into a California retreat for troubled artists; Miss Slidell, the perpetually-angry music teacher who had smacked his knuckles with a metal yardstick when he couldn’t sing in tune with the other children; and so on.
When the miniature people occasionally decided to talk to him, Katausky shoved his fingers in his ears and hummed to drown out their insect yammering.
The most notable of the miniature people was a tiny man in a spacesuit with a silver bubble for a head. Only up close, the spacesuit looked more like a silver tuxedo with clumps of foil taped onto it and silver piping on every edge. Katausky found that if he stared long enough into that bubble head, he could see an eye staring back at him, unblinking, pupil blown out to the size of an eight-ball, the eye of a hunter in waiting. Katausky thought maybe the silver man was an amalgamation of creatures from different science fiction and horror movies he’d seen over the years, but he couldn’t tell exactly which.
3. On the rare occasion that Katausky had a guest or two, the miniature people disappeared, poking their little heads out from behind curtains and chairs and the microwave.
Sully and Garson were two of Katausky’s few real friends. Maybe his only real friends. Both worked on the floor at another paper mill, rival to Katausky’s. They came over to play cards, drink beer, and talk about women they knew.
One night, Sully drank enough that he thought it would be more fun to stagger around the house and sing than to play cards or talk about women. He sang his way into the living room and fell heavily onto one of the chairs facing the windows. “Holy shit,” he said after a few seconds.
“What?” Katausky said.
Hearing nothing further, he and Garson went to investigate.
Sully was staring at the windows in fascination.
“What?” Katausky repeated.
“You’ve got little wooden Ts nailed into the tops of all your windows.”
“So no one can get in.”
“But you can’t open your windows,” Sully said, his glazed eyes wide.
“But neither can anyone else.”
“But if someone wants to break in,” Garson offered, “they can just break it.”
Katausky shook his head. “Shatterproof glass.”
Sully sat up. “So what you’re saying is, thanks to your wooden Ts, this house is an impregnable fortress?”
“Pretty much,” Katausky said, crossing his arms and puffing out his chest, “but if someone manages to get in, I have an alarm system that would rattle Jesus in his grave.”
“Isn’t Jesus supposed to, you know, not be in his grave anymore?” Garson said.
Katausky looked annoyed. “I’m no theologian,” he said finally.
“Not a very good regular Joe either,” Sully snorted.
The conversation continued degenerating, and led to punches and Katausky bringing cheeseburgers to Sully in the hospital while muttering gruff apologies.
In the hospital bed, Sully looked wrecked right through. He accepted the bag of food and set it on the rolling table, but did not look up.
Katausky said, “I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to do what I did.”
“If you want to press charges, I’ll understand.”
Sully did not speak, but shuddered, his head down, his eyes closed.
“Are you okay?” Katausky asked, fervently wishing that he could drift back in time and avoid the visit entirely, maybe back to a point where he could shred the sails of their friendship before it had a chance to leave port.
“They told me I have a brain tumor.”
Katausky dropped his keys, which he had been twirling around one finger. “Was it my fault?”
Tears dribbled down Sully’s cheeks as he looked up and said, “What?”
“Our fight. Did I do something to your head?”
Sully shook his head. “If anything, I owe you for putting me in the hospital. They caught it early enough that they think I have a good chance.”
“Well,” Katausky said, wishing he could be anywhere else, “at least you’re not dead yet.”
Sully melted into quiet sobbing. Katausky stared at the wall, noticing that the white clock hanging above Sully’s bed had stopped. His brain could not register what time was displayed.
Katausky stopped answering the phone when Sully or Garson showed up on the caller ID. After a while, they stopped calling.
4. A few months later, Katausky had a nightmare. He was lucid enough as it started that he was able to think, This is ridiculous, I don’t dream, and if I do, I never remember it. In his nightmare, a monkey with adjustable wrenches for arms came into the house and ran around loosening all the plumbing. Dream-Katausky hurried after the monkey, trying to tighten the pipes behind it, but instead making the problem worse. At first, the water seeped under the door in the kitchen, down into the basement, but soon the basement filled and the water level rose quickly in the first floor of the house. Dream-Katausky ran up the stairs, the monkey right on his heels, its wrench arms squeaking up and down in a panic. The two of them wound up on the roof, the house bursting with water. Dream-Katausky put his head in his hands and wept. The monkey patted him reassuringly with one wrench, then reached in with the other and removed his throat.
Katausky woke with sweat pouring out from under his hairline and clasped his hands to his Adam’s apple, running his fingers up and down his throat to make sure it was intact.
5. Shortly after the night of the monkey nightmare, Katausky reached his tipping point with paper.
The problem was the mail. Katausky received personal mail in three places: his office, his post office box, and his home address. He had tried, many times, to divert the mail from his office and home to his post office box, to no avail. And so, every week, he would gather mail from his office into a backpack, stop by the post office on the way home to add to the pile and combine it with the pile of mail from the mailbox next to his front door. He usually brought extra bags, just in case the backpack wasn’t enough.
Most of the mail was generic junk, addressed to “Resident” or “Current Resident,” and for a long time, he had simply thrown the pieces away, but lately he had noticed more and more credit card offers showing up in the mail. Credit cards offers aggravated him because his name appeared on them, and he couldn’t just throw them away, because some no-goodnik could easily paw through his trash, steal the offer, and then get a credit card in his name.
He started keeping the credit card offers, saving them up, and when he had a sizable pile, shredding them at home in an industrial-strength crosscut shredder.
But then his name seemed to filter out onto more and more mailing lists, like a toxic chemical flowing down tributaries into larger and larger rivers, slipping on and out to poison the sea. More mail began showing up from more sources, from political campaigns to environmental campaigns to renaissance festival apparel catalogs to suspicious mortgage re-financing offers. More and more of the junk mail had his name and a unique number that promised the offer was just for him, which meant that he had to destroy it to protect himself.
It became a burden.
The house, which Katausky had inherited, was big for the middle-class neighborhood it inhabited. It had six bedrooms, all upstairs. The bedroom at the far back corner of the house had been Katausky’s office, but was now a dumping ground for whatever paper happened to be ailing him. Junk mail went straight in there, as did, by mistake, the occasional bill. Leaflets that had been pressed into Katausky’s un-wanting hands ended up in there too, as did any relatively clean paper kitchen products. As years went by, the pile grew.
The delays between shredding sessions became longer. Katausky installed a second deadbolt with a unique key in the office’s door, and then boarded up the window and mounted bars over the backside of the wood. For a time, he considered coating the walls with some sort of sealant, possibly concrete, to prevent boreholes from all sides, but dropped it because it would have meant moving the massive pile of paper from the safety of the room for some length of time.
It took him quite a while to connect the growing mountain of paper in his home with his comfortable job as an Associate Wood Purchaser at the paper mill, but as soon as his synapses began to fire in that direction, a slow, simmering resentment toward the mill pooled slowly in the basement compartments of his mind. He was gruff with everybody, kept his sliding cubicle door closed, and, though he still couldn’t smell the awful odor of the place, became indignant that management forced him to work in such a deplorable stench.
Then Fate stepped in and tried to ruin his perfectly good misery.
6. The mill hired a new consultant named Miranda Baines. She was bright and funny and nearly all the male staff lusted after her.
Katausky, of course, distrusted her instantly. Her eyes sparkled with electric arcs of light, which seemed to send a corresponding burst of electricity up his spine. Her smile was brilliant and seemed completely genuine, which suggested to Katausky that she was a huge fake. Still, looking at that smile, he found the edges of his mouth strangely unrolled from his usual scowl toward a more neutral, flat horizon.
Miranda took an immediate interest in Katausky, drawn to him by forces beyond human understanding. The other employees tried to discourage her. They pointed out that Katausky was pretty well universally regarded as a nut, that he lived alone in a house that was way too big for him, surrounded by alarm systems and attack dogs and a hidden cache of illegal weapons. He was, they insisted, some sort of suburban Unabomber, and it was only a matter of time before pieces of his manifesto started appearing on the internet or in the town’s weekly Penny Saver.
One Friday evening at the East Westphalian Produce Market, Katausky was paying for his organic watermelon and dehydrated apricots when Miranda came around the corner, a canvas bag slung casually over her shoulder. They came face to face and Katausky froze.
“Hello,” she said, her eyes probing.
“Hello, also,” he said.
“So, you’re not much of a social animal on a Friday night either?” she said.
“No,” Katausky said. He almost added that he was not much of a social animal anytime, but stopped himself by biting hard into his tongue. He viewed this as an extraordinarily dangerous thought to express to anyone, a statement of weakness that could be turned around to destroy him should it ever escape the iron gate of his jaw.
“Well,” Miranda said, “at the risk of rudeness, are you free tomorrow night?”
No, Katausky’s brain said.
“Yes,” Katausky’s mouth said.
“Would you like to go out to dinner with me?”
Absolutely not, Katausky’s brain said.
“Sure,” Katausky’s mouth said.
The next night, freshly washed and attired in his nicest shirt and only tie, Katausky found himself staring at a plate of chicken curry, not daring to look up into Miranda’s face. They were sitting at a table in the middle of the very busy main room of Delhi Unlimited, the new Indian restaurant in Stokerville.
As the seconds and minutes seemed to stretch into years and centuries, Katausky’s peripheral vision collapsed in on itself until all he could see was the curry on the hazy-edged field of their table. All the blood in his head rushed into his ears, making them feel hot and swollen.
If Miranda noticed, she gave no sign. Her eyes were fixed on her own plate. Her hands, however, were miming some sort of action on her napkin, as though practicing an encyclopedia’s worth of knot ties.
Katausky was in the midst of a big bite of naan when the spiraling vortex of an epiphany started to give him a headache: he was on a date.
He began to sweat, just under his armpits at first, then all down his back. He could feel the beads starting to emerge just under his hairline, waiting under cover for the order to storm down the hill and embarrass him. He furiously tried to pull the sweat back inside his body through pure mental force. It seemed to be working, and then suddenly it wasn’t, and he was just sweating, trying to wipe his forehead dry with one hand in between the final bites of naan, hoping that if he did not look up at Miranda, she would not see him sweating or trying to remove it.
She finally broke the bubble of dead silence that encompassed their table by saying, “you’re very quiet tonight.”
“I’m always very quiet,” he said.
“I’m having a good time,” she said.
He finally looked up at her, to find that she was not looking at him. Her hands and eyes were busy with her napkin.
“Me too,” he said, wondering how such an acidic lie could leap off his tongue without leaving a burn. But then, the food was good, and he didn’t completely hate being around Miranda, so maybe he was, relatively speaking, having a good time.
“I’m glad,” she said.
In the parking lot afterward, Miranda tried to kiss him on the cheek. Katausky was perplexed. She had only taken a few sips of her wine and didn’t seem at all intoxicated. He himself had consumed almost the entire bottle, embarrassed that she had drunk so little and not wanting anyone in the restaurant to think that he was wasteful. In spite of this, he was stone cold sober, mind sharp as a plow biting into the earth for the first time.
She tried to kiss him and he tried to dodge the kiss while trying to appear as though he wasn’t dodging in a complex little dance that ended with Miranda kissing him on the nose instead. They both flushed with embarrassment.
He invited her over for coffee and dessert, staring like a slackjawed peasant visiting the big city for the first time. Miranda beamed at him and accepted. Katausky was momentarily panicked, thinking that he had neither coffee nor dessert back at the house. Then he remembered the bag of fair-trade Escandia coffee beans abandoned in the back of his cupboard because the flavor, Argentinean-Norwegian Autumn, made him seasick.
In Katausky’s living room, Miranda looked around with a curious eye. She admired his grandmother’s piano and made a comment about it. Katausky opened the piano for the first time in twelve years, sat down, cracked his fingers, and played some Mozart. Miranda sat quietly, hands resting on her knee, and listened until he was finished before giving him a warm round of solitary applause. Katausky, who had lost himself almost completely in the music, jumped, overturning the piano bench with a thump. He gave a deep, humiliated bow, hoping to cover for himself. Miranda laughed, jumped to her feet, and gave him a hug. She righted the bench and shifted it. And then she shifted it a little more.
“Can you turn the air up or something?” she said as she fiddled with the bench. “I’m really warm.”
In a sort of giddy haze, Katausky crossed to the front of the room, ripped the wooden T out of a window frame and tossed it to the side. He pulled the window up, seeing his careful seven-year-old paint job pull apart, thinking dully that he would have to paint again later that night. The evening air was cool and wonderful.
After that, it was all formalities. He made her the long-promised cup of the Argentinean-Norwegian Autumn, which she loved. He told her he didn’t drink the stuff himself, that she should just go ahead and take the rest of it, and she accepted. He worried that the beans had gone bad and that he was poisoning her, but he was too afraid of being unmasked as a terrible host to say anything.
He drove her home and she kissed him full on the lips.
He returned to his house in a daze. He looked at the still-open window in the living room and the influx of fresh, cool air was suddenly like the weight of the ocean, coming in two-hundred foot waves. He charged into the garage and cracked open a can of paint. Every room in the house featured the same off-white paint, and Katausky had one hundred gallons of it lining the garage walls. He painted the window in the living room shut again and nailed the T back in the frame. For good measure, he went and found several more pieces of wood from the stockpile in the garage and reinforced most of the first and second floor windows. Finally, sweating and exhausted, he reprogrammed the house alarm, creating a new code. The old code had been seventeen digits. The new code was thirty-six digits long, and Katausky spent an hour memorizing it in chunks of three and four.
At five in the morning, he went to bed to try and catch an hour or two of sleep.
He avoided Miranda at work the following week. She emailed him a few times, called and left a couple voice messages, but didn’t harass him. He read the emails, listened to the voice messages, tried to parse everything she’d said about how she had a good time, how she hoped that he’d had a good time, how she’d like to see him again. At some point, he wondered if he was over-thinking the situation.
7. Katausky was distracted from Miranda by a new, unpleasant development in the office: the arrival of the Badger.
The Badger introduced himself to everyone as “Harvey Stamp the Fourth,” as though he were next in line for the throne in some unknown woodland kingdom. He was a short man built like a heavyweight boxer, and it was his face and attitude that gave the impression of an enraged badger, from the flaring button nose to the flat head of short hair. He was a fine specimen of the working world’s waking nightmares.
Management put the Badger in the cubicle right next to Katausky’s. That other cubicle had been empty for many years, ever since Ramona Esposito had demanded to be moved because Katausky had been driving her crazy. To tell the truth, Ramona had been driving Katausky crazy, with her constant chatting on the phone with friends and family, her high, chipmunk laugh, and her tall beehive of a hairdo that wobbled just in view over the cubicle wall. In fact, Katausky had contemplated demanding that he be moved out of that particular office, but then Ramona was gone and he had the workspace all to himself. He had slowly come to enjoy his newfound freedom from the tyranny of other people. He even began to believe that some unknown kind soul on the executive strata must be looking out for him.
The arrival of the Badger represented a renewed assault on Katausky’s sensibilities. He assumed that his unknown managerial benefactor had either been fired or had succumbed to the poisonous whisperings of the general doltage of the mill.
Harvey Stamp IV was a loud individual. When he spoke to someone on the phone, which was often, he spoke with a high, nasally tone of voice that seemed better suited to scaring up game birds on a hunt. His breathing was labored, as though he was two or three hundred pounds overweight, rather than just a few. He was constantly blowing his nose in loud, stuttering bursts, or coughing like Armageddon had started in his lungs.
Katausky found no redeeming features in his new officemate. On his first day sharing an office with the Badger, he loathed the man more than he had ever loathed anyone, and it went downhill from there.
The Badger had a little pad of hot pink sticky notes that he carried around in the front pocket of his shirt along with a pen for note making. At the end of the first week, Katausky found a note stuck on the rim of his coffee mug. He moved it back and forth in front of his face until it was in focus. It read:
Need speak you on Reorder #34526267626. 555-9087.
-Harvey Stamp IV
Katausky stared at the note, rubbing at his temples with as many fingers as he could squeeze together, fuming at how he was going to have to dump his coffee out and wash the mug before filling it again, something for which he had not planned. Eventually, he pulled the note off the mug and stuffed it into his pocket, to be added to the stockpile at home. He then walked over to the Badger’s cubicle.
“Why would I need to call you?” he said. “We work right next to each other.”
The Badger looked up with his beady eyes and shrugged. “It’s your choice. I just wanted to make sure that you knew where to reach me if you wanted to call rather than speaking to me in person. I know you don’t like people very much.”
Katausky opened his mouth to argue this point, which he knew very well to be true, but instead said, “I don’t want you coming into my cubicle.”
Harvey Stamp IV looked authentically surprised. “How am I supposed to leave you notes?”
“I don’t want you leaving notes. It’s a waste of resources. You can just come speak to me, or leave me a voicemail or an email if I’m not here.”
“How am I supposed to come speak to you if you don’t want me in your cubicle?”
“You can stand outside my cubicle and speak from there. Or you can just talk to me over the cubicle wall.”
“Hmmm,” Harvey Stamp IV said. “No, I don’t think I like that.”
The Badger left a series of notes on the coffee mug each day the following week, leading Katausky to start locking his mug in the top right drawer of his desk, often with coffee still in it.
Later, Katausky’s supervisor, Mr. Pauli, came down on him about Reorder #34526267626, which had never been completed. Katausky was furious with Harvey Stamp IV over this, but refused to talk to him about it.
8. Katausky tried to ignore the Badger by diving back into his other problem. He stopped by Miranda’s desk with a card. It was a horribly embarrassing moment for him before he even talked to her because her desk sat in a large room stuffed full of desks in the Accounting Department.
These desks were all occupied by faces that turned to look at him as he trudged up to Miranda’s desk, his own face burning with a deep, nuclear fire. Many of the Accounting staffers did not recognize Katausky, and assumed that he was simply Miranda’s boyfriend, who had taken off time from his job somewhere else to come in and express his clumsy affection for her.
“I made this for you,” Katausky said, handing Miranda the card.
“This is a store-bought card,” Miranda said, looking at it.
“Good point,” Katausky said.
“You’re not getting off to a good start.”
“I know. Could we talk somewhere a little more private?”
“I don’t think I’m obligated to give you that.”
“No, no, you’re probably right. It’s just that this is very difficult for me.”
“I can see that.”
“Are you trying to get back at me?”
“Get back at you for what?”
“You don’t have to stare at the floor, you know.”
“I’m sorry, I’ll try to stop.”
“You’re still doing it.”
“It’s going to take some time to get myself to stop.”
“Okay. I can be patient.”
He began to raise his eyes. His vision snagged and struggled to focus on the top of her desk, which was amazing. He was trying to understand why it was amazing when the realization bubbled up from the quagmire of his thoughts: it was perfectly clean. Everything was in its place, from papers to stapler to pens to computer components to pictures of family to coffee mug to water bottle. The desk seemed to crackle and hum with energy. It was alive in its place on the timeline of Miranda’s work life. He found his awe to be equalled only by his envy.
“What I meant to say,” Katausky said, “is that I may very well have had a hand in producing this card, given that we supply paper to companies accounting for three percent of the U.S greeting card market.”
“You’re moving back onto thin ice.”
“I’m sorry. I wanted to say that I’m very sorry I haven’t called you recently, and that I’d like to take you out to dinner again tonight.”
“I’m not sure you deserve that chance.”
“I know,” Katausky said. He felt like his entire body was soaked in sweat. He kept his arms locked to his sides like a pair of downspouts, praying that he wasn’t giving off even the slightest hint of body odor.
“Okay,” Miranda said.
Katausky’s arms loosened, and he felt himself swell with happiness, no longer caring whether he smelled. He stood in the middle of the Accounting office proud as hell to be radiating heat like a star in the prime of its life-cycle.
There was some confused light applause from the Accounting staff, and then the entire scene sort of dissolved away and Katausky wandered back to his cubicle, smiling to himself.
9. They stayed in, rather than going out. Miranda showed up at his house at 6:30 with two brown grocery bags and proceeded to cook him the best meal he’d ever had. She made him black bean burgers and rice and broccoli, and he couldn’t believe how good it all tasted. When he told her, she simply said, “thank you,” and leaned over to kiss him on the cheek. He very deliberately forced himself to finish chewing and swallowing what was in his mouth, then ran upstairs, brushed his teeth, came back, leaned over, and kissed her on the lips.
After dinner, they cleaned the dishes together and then retired to the living room with coffee that Miranda had also brought.
“You didn’t give me a tour of your house last time,” she said.
“That’s not really the sort of thing I do.”
“By which you mean, letting people into your house is not really the sort of thing you do.”
“Well? Come on, show me around. You don’t have any skeletons, do you?”
He considered this. “Maybe one.”
“Really?” Her right eyebrow rose.
“I guess you really don’t need a tour of the house. There’s just this one room that you should probably see.”
“Okay, but I have to admit, this is the first time that you’ve actually started to creep me out.”
“Don’t get too excited there, Casanova. The fact that you’re creeping me out is not a point in your favor.”
“No, you’re right.”
“So, this one room?”
He took her by the hand and started upstairs. Halfway up, he froze. The miniature man in the silver suit was standing at the top, gazing down with his bubble-head eye. Miranda, walking up directly behind Katausky, bumped into his back and threw her free hand out to grab the railing and steady herself.
“Hey, watch it,” she said.
Katausky could only stare at the little man. The little man stared back, and though he didn’t speak, Katausky thought he knew what the little man was trying to tell him: don’t bring her up here, don’t you dare show her that room; that room is our embarrassing secret. Take her back downstairs and kick her out. We can’t have people in this house.
Before he could stop her, Miranda peered around him and said, “Oh, what’s that?”
Katausky’s blood went cold. He offered no resistance as Miranda gently pushed and prodded him the rest of the way up the stairs, and before he could say anything, she had scooped the little man up and was turning him over in her hands. Even more stunning than that, the little man seemed to have frozen into an unnatural pose, as though he were midway through a sprint.
“This is some kind of action figure, right?” Miranda asked.
Katausky emitted some kind of sound that faintly resembled the underside of human speech.
“It looks like some kind of a spaceman. Is it from a TV show?”
Katausky shrugged. “I don’t really remember.”
“It’s sort of cute that it was standing there waiting for us.”
She was looking at him, but he was looking at the little man. The bubble head moved ever so slightly to look at him. See? she can’t see what I really am, I’m only pretending to be something else and I can still move, and I’ll hurt her if I have to, even though I’m just a little thing.
Katausky whimpered at the thought.
“Oh, I’m sorry,” Miranda said, holding the little man out to him. “Should I not be touching this?”
He nodded and took the little man out of her hands. He could feel the tiny thump-thump-thump of the thing’s little heart, could feel the little muscles held tense as the creature struggled not to move. Without thinking, he opened the door to one of the empty bedrooms, tossed the little man inside, and pulled the door shut.
“You’re very mysterious,” Miranda teased.
Katausky thought he could hear the little man scuffling around behind the door. He grabbed Miranda’s arm and steered her down the hallway toward the paper room. “He... It was a spaceman figure that my father bought me when I was a kid,” he lied. “Limited edition and everything. They stopped making them thirty years ago.”
“Oh, so it’s probably worth a lot of money.”
“Uh, it would be, if I hadn’t taken it out of the box.”
She stopped. “You’re behaving very strangely.”
“Hmm?” Katausky said.
“You don’t seem at all embarrassed that you’ve just been caught leaving your toys out.”
“Oh yes,” he mumbled, “very embarrassing.”
She gave him a measuring look. He turned away and pulled her with him.
10. At the door at the end of the hallway, Katausky fished his keys out of his pocket and unlocked the double deadbolt. He pulled the door open and was surprised to find that only a tiny bit of floor was visible in the room. He and Miranda stared at the thick forest of paper stacks, rising up nearly to the ceiling.
He felt a rising panic, two major anxieties competing for his attention. His first thought was that he couldn’t remember things getting this bad in the room. Either he was starting to black out when he opened the door, or the papers were multiplying on their own, splitting and growing like cells. His second thought was that there was no sanctuary in the Paper Room from the little silver man, who would surely start pounding on the door of his prison at any moment.
He led Miranda, who hadn’t made a sound, across the hall to one of the other empty bedrooms. He flicked on the light and led her to the center of the room.
The floor was covered with lush chartreuse carpet of a very deep pile, carpet that had been there Katausky’s entire life. He’d left this room alone and empty when he redecorated the rest of the house when his mother had been overcome by her own blackened lungs.
There were no blinds or shades on the windows in this room, no wooden Ts blocking them from opening. The closet doors were open, the closet empty except for a few wire coat hangers.
Katausky sat down heavily on the floor. Miranda sat down next to him and took his hand.
“Are you okay?” She asked.
“Probably not,” he said.
“Can I ask you what the hell is going on in that other room?”
“I’m a little behind in my cleaning and sorting and filing and shredding. And my recycling.”
“I see. Do you need some help?”
“I can’t... wait, what?”
“Do you need some help?”
“Oh. I thought you were going to tell me I could just throw it all away.”
“No, I know you can’t just throw it away. Do you want me to help you?”
“Are you sure?”
“No,” she said. “That room is an abomination.”
“But I’m willing to try to help you clean it up,” she said. “I think maybe I need to help you clean it up. I think it would help me.”
“I don’t think I know how to say no to that,” he said.
They worked into the night, picking their way through the towering piles of papers. Miranda did not question anything, simply took direction and worked hard, only stopping long enough to check every now and then with Katausky on a specific paper that differed from previous papers.
By the time the sun started streaming through the windows in the empty room across the hall, they had carved out a small beachhead in front of the door. Miranda disappeared downstairs for a moment, then reappeared with one of the tall chairs from the kitchen. She planted the chair on the exposed floor as though she were planting a flag on the moon.
“There, now we’ve got a placeholder until we can get back here tonight.”
“You’re really going to come back tonight and help me with this?”
“Yeah, if it’s okay with you.”
“I think so,” he said. “I’ll ignore your calls and emails if that changes.”
She aimed a fake punch at his head.
They went down to the kitchen and Katausky poured them each a tall lemonade. They sat down and drank. After a while, Miranda asked if he had anything to serve for breakfast. Katausky went digging through the fridge and came up with materials for turkey sandwiches. The sucking void of his stomach welcomed the offering with a deep growl of approval.
“This is a pretty big house for one person,” Miranda said when they had finished eating. “You’re not secretly wealthy, are you?”
“No. My mother left it to me when she died.”
“How long ago was that?”
“About twenty years.”
“Do you miss her much?”
“I don’t know. I think I do, but it’s hard to say. I’ve always had a hard time believing in death.”
“What do you mean?”
“I was an adult when my mom died. At first, I think some part of my brain thought she had just gone away on a long trip, like she just fell asleep on a cruise ship that had decided to not make any more stops. Sometimes, I think I still think that.”
“That seems very strange to me,” Miranda said. “My father died when I was eleven. It was the most traumatic event of my life. It hurt then, it still hurts, and it always will.”
“I’m sorry to hear that,” Katausky said, squeezing her hand. “I don’t think I’ve ever felt that kind of pain.”
“So you’ve never come to terms with your mother’s death?”
“I’m not entirely sure what that means. I think I know, on some level, that I’m never going to see her again. But I’ve never felt any pain over it.”
“I think I envy you.”
“I’m not so sure it’s the healthiest way to deal with things.”
“Maybe not. We don’t have to keep talking about this if it’s hard.”
Katausky shrugged. “It wasn’t the only time. I had a good friend in high school, Alex West, my best friend, who died a few years after we went to college. He was a cop. He didn’t get shot, or anything like that. He was just out on patrol on a winter night and hit some bad ice just before a bridge. Went right off the road and down a hill, into a big tree.”
“I’m so sorry,” Miranda said.
Katausky shook his head. “I had just seen him the night before. But I didn’t feel anything like grief, and I never have. It’s like he was a magician who performed a disappearing act that just hasn’t been resolved yet.”
Katausky was quiet for a beat.
“Oh, and more recently, I abandoned my two best friends after I gave one of them a brain tumor.”
Miranda frowned. “I don’t think that’s—”
“Honestly, I don’t know what’s wrong with me. I feel like there’s something wrong with me, but I don’t know how to deal with it.”
Miranda kissed him on the forehead.
Katausky smiled weakly. “Thanks.”
She took his hand in hers. Her fingers were slim in a way that made him very happy.
Miranda left to go to work. Since he was exhausted, and since it was Friday, Katausky decided to just call in sick. Mr. Pauli didn’t answer, so Katausky left a message. He didn’t know if Mr. Pauli knew his home number, but the only thing he cared about was getting to bed.
He slept until 5:00 in the evening, then jumped up and showered quickly before running downstairs and setting water to boil for pasta. Miranda arrived a short time later.
They ate, talked about her day, talked about his day (such as it had been), then went upstairs and got back to work. By this time, Miranda was starting to feel the effects of missing sleep completely the previous night, a full day at work, and a pasta dinner. Katausky, out of his mind with disbelief as words hurtled like lemmings off the cliff edge of his tongue, offered to let her sleep in his bed. She murmured thanks and slunk off to his room.
Katausky worked through the night again. He was starting to relish the pursuit of the ultimate goal of cleaning the entire room out, and he thought he could now see that end result down a twisting and turning maze of work sessions.
Midway through the night, he heard a tapping down the hallway. He took the latest bag of shredded paper to the staircase and tossed it down to the first floor. He followed the sound of the tapping to a door in the hall. His memory kicked in too late as he opened it.
The little silver man shot out of the empty bedroom like a jackrabbit. Katausky yelped and half-jumped at the creature, convinced it was going for the sleeping Miranda. The silver man darted around him and headed straight down the stairs and ran smack into the front door. Katausky picked himself up, paused to make sure the noise hadn’t woken Miranda, then hurried down the stairs himself.
The little silver man was running into the front door, head first, over and over again. Katausky kicked at it, but the creature darted around his foot and smacked its head into the door again. Katausky opened the door and watched the little silver man run out into the night.
Katausky wanted to open his mouth and say “Good riddance.” Instead, he locked all the locks and pulled the piano bench in front of the door.
Miranda spent Sunday with him, and they continued to slowly cut down the thick forest of paper.
11. Monday morning was not the morning Katausky had envisioned. He woke up remarkably early, since his sleep schedule was way out of whack, and decided to go on into work. He could not find his keys for the longest time, and then, once he had found them, he couldn’t find his wallet or his list for the day’s activities. Even so, he still made it in a couple hours earlier than usual.
The mill was shut up tight as a clam, which threw him off again. Everyone who worked at the mill for more than eighteen months received a key to the front gate, one to the main building, and another to their own office or office area. Katausky used his office area key every day, since he always arrived before the Badger, but he had never used the big front gate key. He found that the key fit the lock, but it took a lot of jiggling and twisting to get the damned thing to open.
The lock on the front doors to the main building was more accommodating, but Katausky had a devil of a time finding light switches. He stumbled down hallways, back and forth, until he finally managed to create a trail of light from the front doors to his office.
His head was thumping from lack-of-caffeine, so after he opened his office and flipped on the lights, he headed down to the employee lounge to make coffee. He made an entire pot of the crap coffee they had sitting in the cupboard, carried the entire pot back to his office, filled his mug, and set the pot on a coaster.
The pile of work on his desk was incomprehensible, one big white smear.
There was a knock at the outer door of the office, an event so improbable that Katausky jumped in his chair. He leapt up and ran to the door. Cracking it open, he said, “Yes?”
“Harold Struthers, U.S. Department of Labor,” said a man. “Are you Mr. Katausky?”
“This is my associate, Mr. Barton. May we come in?”
Katausky admitted the two men. Mr. Barton, the shorter of the two, dressed in a black suit with a skinny black tie and wearing blue athletic sunglasses, shut the door after a quick scan of the hallway.
Struthers was tall and lanky. His suit was grey, his tie was green and fat. He produced a wallet with an identification card in the little plastic window, which Katausky looked at, but couldn’t really see.
“You’ve heard the rumors?” Struthers asked.
“The U.S. Government is investigating your company and several other companies in the state for use of illegal chemicals in the paper-whitening process. Specifically, we have strong reason to believe that these companies have purchased large quantities of Yellow 667B, a proprietary agent used in the 1950s to cheaply whiten paper, banned in the 1970s, and now back in use on the sly as a cost-cutting measure.”
“I don’t have anything to do with whitening. I’m a Wood Purchaser.”
Struthers grimaced. “We know that, Mr. Katausky. Unfortunately, the people at your company who are involved with whitening aren’t talking. We suspect that Management has them locked up against us.
“I’ll be honest,” Struthers admitted, “we’re a little desperate now. I need something, anything, to convince our superiors to keep our investigation open.”
“I don’t know what I can do to help,” Katausky said.
“Well, for example, we suspect that Yellow 667B interferes with executive functions in the human brain. Have you noticed a pattern of coworkers retiring early due to sickness, specifically a sickness that impacts their mental function?”
Katausky felt a far-away memory tug at the back of his mind, and then it was gone. “I... That’s a hard question to answer, isn’t it?”
“Just an example, Mr. Katausky. Really, we’re after anything that might point to the presence of Yellow 667B. Have you noticed anything at all that struck you as out of place?”
Katausky took a deep breath. “I don’t know anything about our company, but you might want to talk to Mike Sullivan. He works over at the Pine Island Mill, in Ashland, or he did. I’m not sure what he’s doing now.”
Both Struthers and Barton produced notebooks and started scribbling. Katausky waited.
“You’ve been a big help, Mr. Katausky,” Struthers said. He produced a pair of red athletic sunglasses and perched them on his nose. “We’re gonna track this guy down and get his statement. He’s gonna be a hero.”
“Wait, don’t you want to hear what else I have to say about it?”
“You’ve given us plenty already, Mr. Katausky, but the time has come to talk to someone with Impaired Executive Function. He’s gonna be a hero. Me too.”
Like twin flashes, Struthers and Barton were gone. Katausky ran to the door, but was only able to catch a glimpse of the pair turning a corner and heading for the exit. He briefly considered going after them, then turned back toward his desk, with the intention of downing the rest of the terrible coffee.
The Badger stood before him, in the middle of the office.
“What are you doing here?” Katausky asked.
The Badger shrugged. “I was trying to nap behind the boxes in the back, but instead I’ve been lying there listening to that asshole and his nonsense.”
“I’m not sure-”
“But you don’t know anything at all, do you? So why did you say anything? Why don’t you just leave it to the people who do know something? Why don’t you just leave it alone? Put it out of your mind.”
“I can’t,” Katausky said.
The Badger held the bridge of his nose with several fingers and closed his eyes, as if he had a headache of tectonic proportions.
“Are you alright?”
“I’m fine,” Harvey Stamp IV said, but his voice sounded oddly different.
“What are you doing here?” Katausky said again, hearing his own voice as a faint radio broadcast.
“I work here,” Harvey Stamp IV said, now pinching the end of his nose with one hand. He half-fell against the outer wall of his cubicle, slid along it, and finally dropped backwards into his desk chair.
“Are you drunk?” Katausky asked.
“No,” the other man said, waving him away with his free hand. “Go away. I’ve got to get to work. I need to get these reorders to Mr. Pauli before lunch, and there’s about five hundred of them.”
“You don’t report to Mr. Pauli.”
“Yeah,” Harvey Stamp IV said, waving furiously at him, trying to hide his head. Katausky could see sweat pouring down the man’s exposed cheek. “I meant Mr. Lowell. I work for Mr. Lowell. Everybody knows that. I know that.”
“Are you sick?” Katausky asked. He was picturing himself taking the Badger to the hospital in his own car, spending the day in the emergency room with a man he despised, rather than getting things done here at the office.
“Never felt better, Jackass. Why don’t you go over there to your desk and work instead of bothering people? Why can’t you just leave people alone?”
A fiery arc of fury lanced its way across the front of Katausky’s brain. He took one step closer to the Badger’s cubicle.
Suddenly, Harvey Stamp IV reared up out of his chair, stumbling back, and then forward and out of the cubicle, hobbling to a stop in front of Katausky. Katausky could see him clearly, and yet couldn’t. The Badger was holding his over-sized button nose (a fake, Katausky could see now), trying not to let it fall off his face. The sweat was a shimmering curtain on his face, and thin streams of blood were visible here and there, coming down from his hairline, which Katausky realized was a wig. He was wearing a silver chain around his neck.
“You want to help me?! You want to help me?! Why weren’t you at the funeral?! What was so important that you couldn’t come pay your respects to your best goddamned friend?!”
The silver chain glinted and Katausky felt a cold deepness open in his stomach, as he remembered a hand reflecting sunlight into his eyes with a silver object, revealed, in between flashes, as a police badge, set in a leather case. He saw, as if from a great height, a similar badge sitting on a pile of leaves, not too far from a police cruiser with its smoking front end folded around a tree almost up to the windshield.
“Go away,” Katausky said.
“What’s the matter, Jackass? You don’t want to help anymore?”
“I don’t want you to be here.”
“You think you can just wish me away?”
“You’re not real.”
“You don’t think I’m here? Let’s go ask Mr. Pauli if I’m real. Let’s go ask Mr. Lowell. Maybe we can talk to both of them and tell them what you said to those government assholes.”
“You can’t be here. You’re gone.”
“I am here. Look at me, look at me!” He took a step toward Katausky.
“You’re not real. Get the hell out of here. You’re not real.”
“You better believe I’m fucking real!” the Badger said, his fake nose flying off. “I was real when they put me in the ground! I was real when you fucking abandoned me!”
A second head, Sully’s head, pushed its way out of the Badger’s shoulder, tearing flesh and muscle, and spraying an oddly small amount of blood. “He betrayed me more recently! He abandoned me when he found out I was sick! Let me hit him, please let me hit him!”
The bifurcated man swung a fist at Katausky’s head.
Katausky was already turning away, ducking, because he didn’t want to see the face beneath that horrible fake nose on the original head. He didn’t care if the man hit him.
But nothing happened. Katausky looked up to find himself alone. He looked over at the Badger’s cubicle. All of Harvey Stamp IV’s stuff was still there. There were blood spots on the desk, and on the floor below. The chair was even lying on its side, just where it had fallen as the Badger had leapt to his feet.
12. Katausky got the hell out of there, but he didn’t know where to go. He had never taken a sick day in his life until the previous week, and couldn’t bring himself to take another. He walked over to the Accounting office, hoping that someone had opened the doors so he could sit next to Miranda’s desk until she arrived. The doors were closed. He headed down the hallway to a men’s room and locked himself in a stall for a few minutes, before feeling trapped and escaping down to another wing of the main building.
Morning seemed to linger forever in the anti-dusk just before what could properly be called dawn, and for a while, Katausky was worried that no one was going to come in, or that the day would somehow never come to pass. But on his third trip down to the Accounting wing, he saw people. And then Katausky did something irrevocably alien to his constitution: he began talking to his coworkers.
The first person he came across was Janice, the morning-shift custodian. He bore down on her like a bat out of hell and she shrieked and bumped her cart, sending mop water shooting across the hallway floor. This was a moment of pure joy for Katausky. He lost himself in the task of helping Janice clean up the mess, and by the time the floor had been cleaned to practically sparkling, he had magically made a new friend.
Barely conscious of the blood-pounding fear driving him to stay on the move, he left Janice behind and traveled quickly toward the big warehouse area, where the pulping was done. The physical laborers were already there, and Katausky walked around and looked each one of them in the eye, said his name, asked for theirs, and then surprised himself by standing up on a chair and taking coffee orders for everyone.
He was in the middle of transporting the third and final tray of coffees from the cafeteria when he spotted someone unlocking the door to Accounting. He dove into the warehouse, handed the coffees to the first person he saw, and then hurried back into the hallway and sprinted to Accounting.
The person he had seen turned out to be a little middle-aged woman name Myrna. He didn’t recognize her from the previous week’s embarrassing scene with Miranda, but she brought it up almost immediately once he introduced himself.
“Would it be okay if I just sort of sat by her desk?” he said.
“Oh, yes, that would be sweet,” Myrna said.
Katausky flushed in equal parts embarrassment and happiness. “Thank you.”
He found a folding chair in the back of the room, dragged it over to Miranda’s desk, and made himself comfortable. Every member of Accounting who came through the door gave him a big smile, and he tried to smile back. Eventually, his face began to hurt, and he stopped trying.
He watched the doors, trying to will Miranda to walk in. It was 10:30 and people started to suggest to him that maybe she had stayed home sick. At 11:30, people began to leave for lunch. At 1:15, people asked him if he had really been there half the day. At 2:03, Myrna asked him if he was going to be in trouble.
Katausky was frozen. He couldn’t bring himself to leave because he was convinced that Miranda would walk in as soon as he was out of sight. He couldn’t call her because he’d left the scrap of paper with her number on it at home, and he hadn’t memorized the number, and he didn’t know why he hadn’t, because he always memorized important phone numbers and shredded the paper version, and why had he never gotten a cellphone? He couldn’t bring himself to go back to his office in case the Badger reappeared there.
Because he was frozen, and because Miranda continued to not walk through the door, he sat in Accounting until closing time. Myrna was the last one there. She took her time putting on her coat and gathering her things, but finally told him very politely that he would have to leave.
“If you are really worried about her, you should give her a call or stop by her place.”
Katausky thanked her and gave her a big hug. Myrna emitted a little “oof” of surprise, then hugged him back.
He avoided his office entirely, heading straight for his car. The wind outside was biting, suggesting the first teeth of winter. He hunched up his shoulders and wished he’d been smart enough to bring a coat that morning.
The moon was up, even as the sun had yet to go down. Katausky found the daylight moon more natural than the nighttime moon, a circle of faraway mountains rather than an unearthly glowing sphere. He stopped to look at the moon through the haze of the dying daylight.
He drove around town, not entirely sure where to go. He had never seen Miranda’s place, and realized he didn’t even know where she lived.
At 8:30, he put down the volume of Nietzsche he’d been reading at Drinker’s Books and got back in the car, knowing that he had no choice but to go back to his house.
He pulled into the driveway a little while later and turned the car off. He sat for a while in the dark just watching the house, itself dark and silent. Finally, he got out and checked the mailbox, finding it empty.
He stood there for a long time, thinking about Miranda, running through endless scenarios in his head. She had been in a car accident and was laid up in the hospital. She had been in a car accident and was dead. She had quit her job and moved back to Vermont, not wanting to tell him because she was in love with him; not wanting to tell him because she hated him and never wanted to see him again. She’d started cleaning her own apartment and a stack of boxes had fallen on her and paralyzed her from the waist down, from the waist up. She’d joined the Marine Corps, the Peace Corps, and the circus. She was crucified, died, and was buried. Or maybe she’d only been a walking mental figment, as he fervently hoped the Badger had been.
He closed his eyes, and with an immense effort, pushed all of these thoughts down and collapsed them into nothing. Opening his eyes again, he found himself on the front stoop, curled in a fetal position. He stood up, wishing that the moon would go down, that the darkness of night would never end.
13. Katausky opened the front door. The interior of the house was all walls and no floors, furniture and other possessions slip-sliding around corners and out of sight as the entire structure contorted like an upset stomach. He tried to turn away, but found himself trapped inside, the door closed behind him. He reached out to keep from falling, and his fingers grasped the doorknob. He clutched the doorknob with both hands and hung there stupidly, suspended above a writhing landscape of the pieces of his house.
Far below him, other doors and drawers and cabinets flew open, spilling out streams of paper. His eyes jarred his brain into the realization that the walls were folding, and unfolding. The space below him got bigger by fits and bursts. But the flow of paper was faster, and soon it was a churning sea, rising to meet him.
His arms hurt. The sound of a voice came up to him from below, muttering syllables he could not decipher. He looked down to see Harvey Stamp IV sitting cross-legged on an ottoman like a crazed monk riding a raft on the rising lava inside a volcano.
The Badger was dressed in the silver suit of the little tuxedo space man. As he looked up from his perch on the waves of paper, Katausky could see his eyes, both darkened crystal orbs, the same as the bubble head that the little man had worn for so long.
“You’re not Alex. And you’re not the Badger; there’s never been any such person.”
“So you think you know everything,” the silver man said. “You are become Death, believer of everyone’s bullshit.”
“I don’t believe any of your bullshit. I’ll give you one chance to tell me who you are.”
“Only an utter ass makes threats when he’s clinging to a doorknob for dear life.”
The silver man smirked. He held out his left hand and gestured at the gushing sheets of paper with his right. “Take my hand, and all that you see below you will be yours.”
“No more bullshit. Tell me who you are.”
“Wouldn’t you rather hear what happened to your little girly?”
The silver man suddenly looked angry, but he said, “You folded your brain thirteen times to bring me here.”
Katausky cried laughter. “You’re a figment from my childhood.”
“Maybe that. Maybe a virus, or a poltergeist, or a renegade molecule.”
“Not before I issue my verdict. You have folded your brain thirteen times, and then unfolded it. Your crimes are as follows...”
The Demon spoke with the deep, multilayered voice, and several smaller versions of its head (which also bore some resemblance to people from Katausky’s past) formed out of the swirling paper below to deliver the list.
“You made the first fold after your father told you about my hidden fortress. Your sin was not taking a direct interest in seeking me out.
“You made the second fold when the bird crapped on your face and everyone laughed at you. You’ve always wanted to get away from people, but that incident fueled your rage and allowed you to fold your brain again. Most people can only manage the one fold...
“You made the third fold after you found out about Sully’s condition.
“The fourth came after the nightmare with the monkey.
“Fold five was the moment when you were trapped at an unacceptable level of security with your Dumping Room.
“Fold six had to do with the Woman Who Could Not Possibly Be Interested In You.
“Fold seven happened after your first encounter with Harvey Stamp IV.”
“Which was you!” Katausky said. “Does a fold count if you were the one to provoke it?!”
“Silence!” the Demon roared. “I’m not finished with the list!”
“Finish it then!” Katausky yelled. “No, don’t finish it! Shove it up your ass!” He slapped himself on the forehead. “But please, please, please finish it first!”
The Demon started to whisper, “The eighth fold was...,” but the words dissolved into a hot wind.
The Demon opened his mouth and Katausky knew that he would hear him loud and clear this time, but instead of words, balled-up pieces of paper began to pour out of his expanding throat.
Katausky found himself sitting on the ottoman, the Demon reduced in size, back down to the original miniature, silver-suited figure. The little man climbed up on Katausky’s face, followed by other members of the miniature menagerie. The figures surrounded Katausky’s mouth and grabbed at it, forcing his jaws wide open. Another group appeared behind, muscling a long, writhing tube of paper toward him. The miniature figures forced the tube into Katausky’s mouth and down his throat. His airway completely blocked, Katausky felt his vision pinch, felt a sort of hollow pressure pressing outwards inside his head. Oh my god, he thought, I’m choking. This is what choking feels like. I’ve never choked before in my life, and my first time is going to be my last. Oh my god.
The writhing tube of paper circled around, in layers, brushing, cutting his esophagus, trying to pull him apart from the inside. On his cheek, he heard the excited babbling of the miniature figures. The little silver man said, in the Badger’s full-grown voice. “Not so self-centered now, huh? Death is supposed to hurt. It hurts the dying, and the living left behind.”
Beneath them, the voice of the Paper Demon thudded in a sub-basso rumble, “Me the Demon, thee the feast, me the Demon, thee the feast...”
Behind the little silver man, the miniature version of Grandma Halstead held a lit match like a torch. Katausky knew she intended to toss it down into the clutch of paper making its way down to his stomach.
Strength rushed back into his arms and he batted the miniature figures from his face, stopping long enough to tug the match out of his grandmother’s hand, still lit. He grabbed the tube of paper and yanked at it. Concentrating on his gag reflex, he caused the tube to reverse course in a sudden tug. He repeated the action, again and again. Puking to save my life, he thought. The tube of paper came free with a sickening squelch, followed quickly by the little bit of semi-digested food left in his stomach. His eyes were blurry with queasy tears.
Katausky reached up and found the front door’s knob with his hand. He started to bring his other hand up. A quick feeling of heat in his finger tips reminded him that he was still holding the lit match.
With a melancholy pain, thinking about all the years in his mother’s house, he let the match fall down into the swirling papers below. As though the papers had all been soaked in gasoline, waves of flame burst and spread throughout the entire slanted geometry of the house. As the fire licked at his feet and melted the bottoms of his shoes, Katausky reached, trying to grab the doorknob with both hands again.
Instead of the doorknob, his free hand found slim fingers that changed heat to golden warmth, and pulled him up into cool darkness.
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