by Joe Mankowski
Aaron looked out the front window of Rodolfo’s Pizzeria. He could see the lights to Barry’s Diner across the street turning off. It was late, and in Ash Falls, that meant only the weirdos would be out looking for food.
Aaron turned his attention to a clock decorated by tacky, plastic grapevines. It was nearly eleven. He stared at the minute hand with disdain. Some knock-off Pavarotti album was playing over the speakers. He wished Maurice would turn it off after normal business hours. None of the timber workers, drug addicts, or gangly teens gave a crap about Rodolfo’s aesthetic.
The pizzeria was a counter-top dive bar with a false liquor license on a good day. It had white floor tiles, stained by blotches of marinara sauce and a glass display case for the ‘fresh’ pies. There were two sets of plastic lawn furniture covered in parmesan cheese and a few stools to the right of the cash register for seating. It was a wonder anyone ever came in. The slices were over-priced and often reheated. Aaron stayed because Maurice paid him under the table and gave him hours that worked around his college schedule – even though Aaron hadn’t taken a class in two semesters.
The store phone rang.
“Yeah?” Aaron said.
“I can see you on the camera, Ron. Quit leaning on the counter,” snapped Maurice through the phone. “Look busy. Start mopping the floors or something.”
“I’m waiting for a Mister Don Calriss to pick up his pizza order,” Aaron said as he checked the order slip and pizza box beside the register. The pizza was already cold.
“Don’s a regular. He can wait.” There was an audible shuffling of papers. “I can’t give you a raise if you don’t earn it.” The line went dead.
The threat of not getting a raise nearly made Aaron laugh. He had worked cashier for three years now, and only received a ten-cent raise after working his first year for the scumbag. Aaron didn’t put the phone back on its station. The machine buzzed monotonously. If Maurice wanted to criticize his work ethic again, he’d have to leave his broom closet of an office.
Aaron stared out the front window of the shop again. He watched a few cars roll by. Barry’s Diner was completely dark. Only the red ‘Closed’ sign was visible. A streetlamp flickered. When he looked back at the clock, it was five-past-eleven. Swearing under his breath, Aaron pushed his way through the kitchen door to fill the mop bucket.
Two days’ worth of dishes were sitting in the kitchen sink. The drain had been clogged since the Friday before last. The plumbing was backed up to the point wherein the piping was secreting black liquid through the faucets. Flour and cheese were smeared on the floor. Two flies buzzed around a ball of dough Maurice had forgotten about.
Beneath the sink was a yellow mop bucket. The smell of it up close was a nauseating concoction of spoiled dairy and ammonia. Beside the bucket was a tub of bleach. Aaron tipped the rest of it in.
“Maurice, we’re out of bleach!” he shouted.
There was a disgruntled sound from the office attached to the kitchen. Aaron could hear his boss struggling to stand under his own weight. “What was that?” Maurice said.
“There’s no more bleach.”
The owner of Rodolfo’s stared at the empty can for a moment. “Buy more.”
“Then pick some up tomorrow on your way in. Take some cash out of the drawer, and bring me a receipt.”
Maurice waddled back into his office and slammed the door. Why don’t you do something other than sweat in your swivel chair you lard, thought Aaron. He pushed the mop bucket towards a hoseline and turned the water on. There was a gurgling sound of fluid being backed up. Aaron swore again and reached for the mop, which was caked in flour.
As he lifted it, a family of worms dropped onto the floor. They were pale, thick, and white with a waxy texture. They flopped and squirmed, but Aaron paid no attention to them. The were all over the kitchen.
Finally, the hoseline began to dribble water.
The bell to the front door chimed.
“Door!” Maurice called from his office.
“I’m going,” Aaron said. He left the water running, assuming if he took long enough the bucket would overflow and do half his job cleaning the floor.
Aaron approached the counter. “Welcome to Rodolfos,” he said.
“Hi’yah. Ordered a meat-lovers.”
“You’re Mister Calriss?” Aaron thought the man looked familiar, perhaps he was a Tuesday regular – the one day Aaron didn’t work. Either way, the guest looked sickly, like an addict, but still well fed. Aaron assumed the man had ordered the pie for only himself. He noticed the guest scratching at some hives on his neck. Tapeworm, thought Aaron, or maybe an infection.
“Ay’yuh,” said the guest. He tossed a crumpled twenty-dollar bill onto the counter.
“It’s twenty-six ninety-nine.”
Mister Calriss snorted. “Is Maurice in?”
“No,” Aaron lied. He was told to always lie.
The man squinted for a second and lifted his nose a little as he inhaled a bit too much. Aaron had the awkward sensation the man was trying to smell him. “You jus’ tell ‘im I stopped by. Don’t forget. Don Calriss came in tuh see ‘im.”
Mister Calriss dropped another crumpled twenty onto the counter. Aaron punched the buttons on his register and gave the guy his change.
“This pizza is stone cold, ya know.”
“The order was for an eight o’clock pick up,” Aaron replied.
He grunted again. “Can ya warm it up for me?”
“The ovens are off. We’re closing.”
Mister Calriss sneered out of the corner of his mouth but said no more and left. A minute or so after, Maurice appeared. He was holding a brown leather bowling bag.
“I tried calling you from my office, but the line was dead.”
Aaron picked up the phone and gave it a shake. “Cord must be loose.”
“How much did you charge Don?”
“Twenty-Six,” Aaron said.
“And he paid it?”
“What an idiot,” Maurice laughed. He grabbed a fistful of napkins and dabbed at his balding head, then the stubble on his chin, and lastly the folds between his neck. He looked like a pig roasting in spandex. The napkins fell to the floor.
Aaron stepped aside while his boss closed out the register. He watched as Maurice removed the till and poured everything into his bowling bag. “What time did you get in today?”
“Six,” Aaron answered.
Maurice reached into his cash bag and pulled out the two crumpled twenty-dollar bills and gave it to him. “For tonight,” he said. “And pick up bleach tomorrow.”
“I’m going home to count this. Lock up at midnight. Finish mopping. Take out the trash, and exit out the back door.”
“What if a customer tries to pay with cash?”
“Tell them we only accept cash until eleven.” Maurice grabbed an empty pizza box and a black marker. “New house rule. Write it down and tape it to the display case. No one argues when there’s a sign.”
Maurice left through the front door a few minutes later with his bowling bag tucked tightly beneath his arm. Aaron watched him go, before walking into Maurice’s office where the knock-off Pavarotti album labeled Italiano Muzico was being played. He flipped the audio-player switch to ‘Off’.
He looked around Maurice’s office. It hadn’t been cleaned since the day Aaron had been hired. There were tin-foil wraps filled with burger grease and white worms. He found stray fries that had been kept warm in the crease of Maurice’s folding chair. A paper stack of overdue bills and health-code violations were so high it seemed as though eviction was an empty threat. And then, of course, there were the posters of swimsuit models taped to the walls.
Aaron felt the heel of his right shoe squish a rogue worm. Its guts popped and confettied the floor like black pus from an aged zit.
Back in the kitchen, Aaron could hear water splashing onto the floor. He covered his mouth and nose with his arm. A pool of brownish water was spreading beneath the sink and metal racks holding sacks of flour. The backed up piping was now affecting the hose. Aaron made his way to the faucet valve and twisted it off, then picked up the nearest phone.
“What?” came Maurice’s voice through his cell phone.
“The hoseline is spitting out brown sludge.”
“I’ve called the City’s water department, they said a plumber would be by this week. I ain’t paying out of pocket for the Ash Falls issues.”
“So mop with sludge water?”
“Better than nothing,” Maurice said. The line clicked and went dead.
Aaron smeared the water around the kitchen floor. Some of the worms that had been inhabiting the mop swelled as they, too, were wiped towards the drain. He did his best to mash them through. Aaron emptied the trash bins around the pizzeria, then propped the back door open with a brick. He stepped out into the alley.
A single lamp tried to illuminate the dark stretch between buildings. Aaron always got the creeps when he had to take out the trash at the end of the night. The dumpster was halfway between the back door of Rodolfo’s and the street. Everything was twisted in shadows.
There were usually weird things happening in the alley. Aaron had seen it all. People shooting up green syringes of who-knows-what, hairy men wrestling to settle a score, women with wild hair drawing symbols in chalk and foaming at the mouth. Only the weirdos of Ash Falls came out at night. Only the weirdos seemed to inhabit the alley behind Rodolfo’s. Except tonight, for some reason.
Aaron looked around. There wasn’t another human in sight.
Something scurried across the ground. A cat or a fat rat, Aaron wasn’t sure. But then, the sound of more scuttling followed. Out of the sewer grates climbed nearly two-dozen rats. They all clawed at each other and the pavement. Aaron pulled out his phone and turned on its flashlight.
The rodents were covered in a blackish oil and ooze. Their eyes were red. Some had hairless patches, while others had visible gashes. This wasn’t the first time Aaron had seen rats in the alleyway. Knowing how they hated light, he waved his phone at them. They scurried off and out towards the street.
A door behind Aaron slammed shut. He turned around to see the back door to Rodolfo’s closed. “Crap,” he said to no one. The door automatically locked from the inside. Aaron hurried towards the dumpster. His cell phone revealed clusters of wax worms along the way. The rats, he assumed, had brought them up through the sewer system.
When Aaron reached the dumpster, he found mounds of trash ignored by the city’s waste disposal department. There were dozens of bags piled high around a rusted metal bin. The infestation of worms continued there. They were fatter around the dumpster, like breakfast sausages. Aaron could see them nursing on the waste.
They had mutated; evolved ever so slightly with little tentacle appendages wiggling around the surface of the garbage bags. They probed and prodded for openings. Aaron tossed his bag to them and left the alleyway.
Thankful for not locking the front door to the pizzeria, Aaron returned to his counter. The grapevine clock read ten-to-midnight. He drummed his fingers on the surface of the empty register and stared out the windows. There were no more cars driving by. No one walking along the sidewalk or peering into the pizzeria. Aaron thought about his couch, his game console, and the case of beer in his fridge. Looking up at the security camera, Aaron noticed that the recording light was off. What Maurice didn’t know, wouldn’t bother him, Aaron reasoned. He had already been paid for his shift anyway.
Aaron reached into his pockets. He couldn’t remember where he had pocketed the money. Feeling through all of them, he wondered if he had set it down in the kitchen while mopping.
Aaron retraced his steps. He checked the office and his jacket that had been hanging on a hook by the door. He poked the pizza dough to see if it had melted over his two twenty-dollar bills. Aaron’s money was lost.
In his frustration, he kicked the mop bucket. It crashed against the back door, which popped open, and rolled out into the alleyway. Had the door been open the whole time? Aaron wasn’t sure. He had seen it closed. He had heard it slam shut. The brick, perhaps, had kept the door from latching completely.
Looking out into the alleyway, Aaron thought about when he had taken his phone out of his pocket. His money could have fallen out at that moment. The rats had been creepy enough to keep his attention from his money tumbling away in the dark.
Aaron turned his phone light on again. He wedged the brick more securely in the door. Scanning the pavement, he moved his phone from side-to-side. He saw the mop bucket overturned. Its bleach-sludge-concoction spilled out towards the large sewer drain. He aimed his light at it.
The gurgling of sewer water traveled through the storm-drains below. The smell of sulfur and stale water hung in the air. There was a slight tremor underground. Aaron ignored it.
Through the metal grate, Aaron saw it. His money was stuck to black gunk on the inner lining below. The mop water had washed it through the grate, but not all the way down. Getting on his hands and knees, Aaron surveyed the best way to get his money. Maurice wouldn’t pay him a second time for losing his day’s wages.
Aaron slid his hand between the bars. He could feel the damp air clinging to his skin. The underside of the grate was caked with the black ooze that had coated the rats and their fur. Aaron had to hold his breath as he lowered himself closer to the ground. His wrist and forearm slid down. It was difficult to see how much further he needed to reach. Aaron contorted his body and placed his phone over the grate. The light shined down directly. Hundreds of worms wriggled in the muck below.
The back door to Rodolfo’s slammed shut. Aaron swore as he twisted his head back. The brick was lying flat against the pavement. Next, Aaron’s phone began to vibrate. It shook the metal grate and teetered off balance.
“No, no, no! Shit!” Aaron screamed. His phone slipped through the gap and fell to the depths of the sewer below. He heard a faint splash. The light zapped out.
Aaron removed his hand. A worm had crawled onto it; one of the nasty, sausage-sized ones. He felt its little tendrils probing along his skin. Aaron brushed it off and crushed it with the heel of his shoe. The popping of its guts was audible, like an exploding ketchup packet.
Without a key, Aaron had no way to get back into the pizzeria. His house key was in his coat pocket. His phone was now destroyed. His money was gone. Aaron was on the verge of giving the mop bucket another swift kick when another worm groped at his ankle.
Aaron went to swat it away when he realized it wasn’t a worm at all, but a tentacle. A thick, arm-length appendage that reached out through the grate. The dim alleyway lamp illuminated its white, waxy coating. He screamed. More were beginning to feel their way out of the sewer. Dozens, then hundreds. Their slimy flesh slurped at the pavement. Aaron reached for the mop bucket and slammed it on the tentacle that had latched itself around his foot.
There was a shriek from beneath the storm drain. In revenge, the other tentacles lashed out towards the bucket. Aaron felt it being pulled from his grip. Then, in fear, he watched as the yellow plastic was crushed. Aaron tried to back away, but his foot stepped in a puddle of mop water and the splash alerted the monster that he was still there.
The cover to the storm drain rumbled. The tendrils lashed out at Aaron again, this time grabbing both of his ankles. They bit into him like leeches, pulsing and sucking on his skin until it was torn open.
There was a loud crash and the sewer grate was tossed free. A long, translucent, slithering creature with black veins pumping beneath the surface of its flesh appeared. There were no eyes or snout, just white flesh covered in mucus and a mouth – a gaping hole at the top of its head that reared itself towards Aaron as its tentacles continued to grope and suck at his ankles.
Aaron couldn’t move. He was paralyzed. A cold wave of numbness washed over him from his ankles upwards. All he could do was stare at the ten-foot worm as it revealed rows of jagged teeth with chunks of undigested flesh caught between.
Aaron couldn’t even scream. His throat was being squeezed by longer tentacles that had found their way through the drain. The creature’s tongue unraveled itself through the center of its mouth; boiled and black. It spat mucus onto him, and then, from the back of its throat it vomited thousands of its own spawn.
Aaron closed his eyes as the new vermin made a feast of his flesh. Then the monster leaned over him and swallowed him whole.