Horror & Dark Fantasy

Best American Science Fiction and Fantasy 2017

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Fiction

A Diet of Worms

A Diet of Worms

You’re not the kind of person who shows up late to work, but today was a piece of shit, so it’s seven thirty and your mom is finally dropping you off at the movie theater. It’s a weeknight, only one person in the box office selling tickets, so you shame-walk past a line of your fellow high school grads enjoying their last summer break before college. You hope you can sneak in without anyone noticing and grab some popcorn, because you missed dinner and you’re starving.

Nope.

The floor manager is Yamilet, and she stares you down from concession while you creep into the break room to clock in. You turn to go and there she is, smiling with her big shark teeth like you’re a little fish.

“Your shift started at six.”

“Yeah,” you mumble. “My mom’s car wouldn’t start, and—”

“I already wrote you up,” she says. “You can sign it later. Go clean 1 and 16.”

“It wasn’t my—”

“Did I stutter? Go. Now.”

You go. She doesn’t need to be such a bitch, you tell yourself. You can’t wait to get the hell out of there and see your girlfriend. You can’t wait to quit and get a real job. Maybe tonight. You’ll finish your shift and tell Yamilet to eat shit and die. The more you think about it, the better you like the idea. You’ll get through this one last night, and that’s it.

Now you’re the one smiling.

Old Man Lemuel is at the doorman’s stand, tearing tickets. You grab a walkie-talkie and your copy of the schedule, folding it so you only see the start and end times and the theater numbers.

“Who’s in projection?” you ask Lemuel.

“Is Peter, you know,” he says. “Mister Leon is in the office.”

Worst threesome of managers ever: Yamilet the hardass, Peter the comemierda and Mister Leon, general manager, king of rules. If he’s here, it also means you’ll have to play his stupid theater-checking game all night.

“Who’s closing?” you ask, your stomach suddenly tight with horror.

“Is Yamilet and you,” Lemuel says.

Yeah, that’s what you thought.

You flip to the end of the schedule and see the last movie starts at 12:45 and ends at . . . 3:25. The Queen in Red, one of those history movies schools come to see on field trips, but no school means no one watching so it’s in the smallest theater, 12. You want to kill whoever made the schedule this week. Probably Mister Leon.

First you have to clean theaters 1 and 16, and they are absolute clusterfucks, both of them playing big dumb summer fun movies: Time Riders Versus the Nitro Bears for kids, and Capital Vices for kids whose parents didn’t give a shit if they watch rated R movies. Yamilet takes over at the door and sends Lemuel in to help, but he’s so slow you might as well be alone.

It’s like someone set off a popcorn and soda bomb with candy shrapnel. You use your broom to scrape a million crushed pieces of chocolate off the sticky floor, sometimes smearing them into a shit-brown mess you have to clean on your hands and knees with paper towels. Four soda spills means a trip to the supply closet for the mop and bucket, bleach burning your nose until everything smells like a swimming pool. Yamilet radios you once a minute to ask if you’re finished yet, which of course makes it take twice as long.

On the plus side, you find an unopened box of sour gummy worms and slip it in your pocket for later. It’s like winning a sweet three-dollar lottery.

Finally you’re finished, so it’s time to start checking theaters. People used to lie about having done it, so Mister Leon goes into every house and hides a keychain by the emergency exit, way on the opposite side of the room. You have to collect all the keychains like some kind of shitty video game and bring them to the office so he can hide them again for the next rush.

You will never, ever level up.

You fall into a rhythm, wandering up and down the dark halls with their cosmic carpets, blue and purple and abstract yellow stars. Cardboard standees lurk in corners and posters for the movies line the walls, back lit and begging for attention. Customers pass you on the way to the bathroom or concession, but they don’t see you because they don’t have any problems to bitch about. You go in and out of theaters like an annoying ghost, shining your flashlight around the exit until you find the stupid keychain, glancing up to see if anything is on fire, then leaving.

You walk into the last theater on the schedule, number 12. The Queen in Red. It’s hot as balls, like the inside of your mom’s car after you and your girlfriend make out. AC must be busted again.

You grab your walkie-talkie. “Projection,” you say. No answer. Who knows what Peter is doing. Smoking on the fire escape, probably.

You watch the picture on the screen, a lady’s face in profile, zoomed in so close you can only see the bottom of her nose, her mouth, her chin. Perfect red lips drink from a wine glass, drink and drink like the wine is never going to run out, and you stand there staring until a burst of static from your walkie-talkie wakes you up.

You see Lemuel sitting front row center, shadows hanging on his face like in an old vampire movie.

“Did you go on break already?” you ask.

He doesn’t answer, just stares at the screen. Probably can’t hear you, he’s so old.

Great. Now you won’t get to eat anything until after eleven, except maybe that candy you found. You bet Yamilet did this to spite you for being late, and you still have to sign that stupid write-up. You are so going to enjoy quitting later.

As soon as you leave the theater, something feels off, but you can’t figure it out. You drag your dustpan along the carpet so it scoops up stray popcorn while you walk. The standee in one corner catches your eye, and you stop. Capital Vices 2: Escape from Hell.

That can’t be right. The first movie just came out, it was in theater 16 . . . You unfold your schedule and stare at the movie titles, and sure enough, there it is. CV 2 ESCAPE HELL. So what’s in theater 1? TIME RIDERS GHOST. You stagger over and see the poster outside, NOW PLAYING, and sure enough it’s Time Riders Versus the Ghost Ninjas.

The world seems to tilt ten degrees left, like you took a shot of aguardiente and it just hit. Your mind races through three years of memories like a reel of film unraveling onto a dark floor.

“Shut your mouth, flies will get in.” Yamilet is at the doorman’s stand with her cartoon shark smile. She takes your wad of keychains and waves you away. “Go check the bathrooms. And you better sign that write-up before we close or you’ll get another.”

The write-up. You almost forgot. You were late because your daughter was sick, and you didn’t want to leave your girlfriend alone at the urgent care, and no one would trade shifts with you, and you were closing so they wouldn’t let you call out. Stupid shitty job. You can’t wait to quit at the end of the night. Yamilet can shove that write-up directly in her stinky asshole.

“I tried,” you say, but your throat is so dry you start to cough.

“Spit it out,” Yamilet says.

“I tried to tell projection that the AC in 12 isn’t working, but he didn’t answer.”

She whips her walkie-talkie out. “Projection,” she says. “Can you check the AC in 12?”

“Yeah, sure,” is the immediate reply.

Yamilet looks at your walkie-talkie. “Let me see that,” she says, yanking it off your belt before you can respond. She fiddles with it and hmmphs. “Battery’s dead. Go get a new radio from box.”

You cross the lobby, wishing you could take a break to play one of the fighting games blasting its music at no one, and knock on the back door to the box office. Whoever’s inside doesn’t answer, so you head for the exit to bug them from the front. Except the door is locked for some reason, so you can’t get out. You rattle the bar but nothing happens. Outside, a line of teenagers stares at you like you’ve gone crazy. Your cheeks get hot.

“What?” Now the girl in box has opened up, and for a moment you have no idea who she is. Your stomach twists. It’s Claudia, she started a few weeks ago, grabbed your ass once until you told her you had a kid.

Then she tried to grab your crotch.

“I need a new radio,” you say.

She points at two of them sitting on their chargers and goes back to selling tickets. You take one and hurry out; her last body spray bath wasn’t enough to cover up the vinegar of her sweat. You probably smell like bleach, so who are you to judge.

The bathrooms are the usual gross mess of toilet paper on the floor and piss on the seats, but the men’s bathroom near the front does one better. The toilet in the handicap stall is clogged by shit and something else you can’t identify, and plunging it doesn’t help.

“Usher, where are you?” says Yamilet through the radio.

“Men’s bathroom,” you answer.

“Hurry up and go clean the theaters letting out.”

“One of the toilets isn’t working. Just send Lemuel and I’ll catch up.” But as soon as you say it, your mouth sours. Old Man Lemuel died a year ago, heart attack. He lived alone in an efficiency, and they didn’t find him until he missed work and someone called the cops. Tonight the other usher was Jeff, who’s underage so he already went home.

“Are you high?” Yamilet asks.

You don’t answer.

Out of frustration, you stab the wood end of the plunger into the toilet and poke around, touching something sort of soft, squishy. Carefully, nose wrinkling from the smell, you fish out a pair of disgusting underwear. Not even dude ones; these are lady panties, kind of like shorts but lacy and possibly silk. You toss them in the garbage and try not to barf, not that you have anything in your stomach since you haven’t eaten in forever.

You wipe up the drips as best you can with paper towels and wash your hands, avoiding your reflection so you don’t have to see what a fucking shit-cleaning loser looks like.

Yamilet gives you the stink-eye when you pass her at door. “What was up with the toilet?”

“Somebody tried to flush underwear,” you say. “It was covered in sh—crap.” No cursing. That’s automatic dismissal. You’ll save it for the end of the night when you quit.

She laughs in your face. “Aw, poor little baby, playing with caca.” Her scowl returns in a flash. “Don’t worry about 5, 9, and 12. We didn’t sell any tickets for those.”

Once you finish, you think maybe Yamilet will let you go on break, but she laughs again and tells you to check the theaters first. You don’t even remember seeing Mister Leon hide the stupid keychains again; he must have been right behind you while you worked. Probably checking up on you, too, making sure you did a good job cleaning. What a dick.

So you take your trusty flashlight and check theaters. You wonder if they’re ever going to change the peeling purple wallpaper in the hallways, or scrape up the old gum crusting the space carpets like tiny black holes. Your sneakers make soft snick-snick sounds on the tile floors in the dark even though you try to move quietly. As you grab another keychain, you think maybe you could duck out for a minute, run next door to order food and be back before anyone noticed.

Instead, you pull the sour worms out of your pocket; you can eat them while you walk. Your memory lurches again, but it can’t seem to right itself this time, and you’re left with a feeling like mental vertigo. The box you hold is still wrapped in plastic, but the color is a bit off, not as bright and shiny as you expected. The expiration date is a year ago.

Why would you be carrying around expired candy? You remember finding it while cleaning, and then . . . What? It doesn’t make any sense.

You feel a strong urge to throw it away, but instead you put it back in your pocket.

One more theater before you can go on break: 12, The Queen in Red. Some kind of art film, blah blah teenager hooking up with an old guy, totally not your thing. Or anyone else’s, apparently, since it isn’t selling any tickets. But the rules say check every theater, so Mister Leon puts keychains in all of them, even the empty ones.

It’s still hot as balls, like when you steamed up the bathroom at your apartment earlier to help your kid breathe. You go straight for the keychain so you can get the hell out already, but there’s this sucking noise everywhere, like surround sound, only it’s inside your head and you feel like you’re going to barf if it doesn’t stop soon.

You look up at the screen and it’s a close-up of a face from the nose down, bright red lips pursed around a straw, drinking soda from a glass bottle. The never-ending soda. It’s probably supposed to be sexy. Your urge to barf rises.

There’s a different sound, a counter-suck that pulls you out of your thoughts. Claudia from box sits in the middle of the theater, drinking a soda of her own out of a plastic cup she probably brought from home. She’s not so bad looking, you think. You could sit with her for a minute, share her drink, see what happens. She looks down at you and winks before going back to watching the movie.

What the hell are you doing, idiot, you tell yourself. Get the keychains and go on break already. You’ve still got like five hours left on this stupid shift and you need to eat.

The door sticks as you try to exit but you get it open after a few shoves. You head straight for door, not even bothering to sweep up the few stray kernels of popcorn on the worn-out carpet. Not like it makes a difference. Fewer people coming here since the new theater opened a few miles away. You’re amazed this place is still around.

“I’ve been calling you,” Yamilet says when you pass her. She’s wearing enough makeup to scare little kids, but it doesn’t make her look any younger.

You check your radio. Dead again. With a sigh, she hands you a spare.

“I’m going on break,” you say.

“You can’t,” she says. “You have to do the closing chores while I cover box.”

“But what about—” You swallow the name Claudia like a mouthful of vomit as your head spins. Funny you’d remember her all of a sudden. She died, what, twenty years ago? Car accident, freak thing where a stray piece of rebar went right through her eye. Game over.

“Did I stutter?” Yamilet asks. You shake your head. You can’t wait to tell her off at the end of the night when you quit. “Start with bathrooms,” she says. “You can do walls last.”

Walls. What the shit. You gripe about it under your breath while you sweep up the bathrooms one last time. You gripe while you clean the thirty glass doors and windows in the lobby. You gripe while you grab the big rolling dumpster and start collecting all the trash in the building. Such a stupid waste of time, cleaning all the walls in the lobby and hallways to get some extra life out of the shitty wallpaper. It’s going to completely screw up your knees and back, which already hurt all the time, even when you take enough ibuprofen to aggravate your ulcer. Being old is hot garbage, but what are you gonna do? It is what it is.

That’s the kind of thing your mom says, drives you crazy, and look at you now. Sounding more like her every day. Since she retired, she won’t stop complaining about how she thinks she has Alzheimer’s, not since your grandmother died of it last year.

You’re the one starting to worry about your memory, though. You keep having these moments where it’s like you forget what year it is, like your life passed in a blink but your brain is still processing what happened even though it’s long over.

And yet nothing changes, not really. You’re still at the same stupid job, cleaning the same shitty theaters, listening to the same ads on loop in the lobby every twenty minutes. Even the movies are repeating, remakes of the stuff that came out when you were just out of high school. You eyeball the standee for Capital Vices (“Sin Is Always In”) and wonder why you never quit and got a real job.

And you still have to clean all the damn walls.

You grab a roll of paper towels and some degreaser and get started. Up and down, back and forth, from the concession stand all around the lobby. Your shoulders ache before you’ve even finished that single room. Your legs shake from squatting over and over. There is no end to the number of walls, and you still have to go through all the hallways.

You could leave early, you think. You haven’t torn a single ticket, anyway. The movies run on timers since they switched to digital projectors, so if you don’t sell, they won’t play. You can tell Yamilet to suck it, and maybe you can catch the last bus home so your daughter doesn’t have to put more miles on her car picking you up. And eat something; you feel like you’ve never been so hungry in your life.

You remember you have some sour worms in your pocket, and you pull them out.

You’re not sure whether it’s the exhaustion or the degreaser fumes, but you feel incredibly dizzy all of a sudden. The candy in your hand fades like an old Polaroid, until the color is washed out and wrong. The logo seems to warp as you stare at it, stretching and rippling, as if it’s trying to become something else.

Yamilet pokes her head out of box. “Go turn on the house lights in all the theaters. I’m locking the doors. And don’t forget to come back and sign that write-up.”

She can eat that write-up for all you care. This is it. You’re almost free. You put the candy back in your pocket; you’ll figure that out later.

You grab your walkie-talkie and start back at theater 18, flipping the overhead lights on for the cleaning people and to make sure no one is hiding inside. The switch from dark to light makes you wince as your eyes adjust, but it also feels good, like your soul is getting brighter. You go from theater to theater, bringing that light with you, like a god using your power to drive out the shadows lurking in dingy old corners.

You come to the last theater. Good old number 12. The Queen in Red. It’s a horror movie that takes place in a spaceship, with the crew either being hunted by aliens or going crazy thinking there are aliens when it’s just one of them killing the others. You kind of wanted to see it, actually, but you haven’t had the time, and the last thing you want to do when you’re not working is come back to the theater.

As soon as you walk in, a wave of heat hits you, like when your mom tries to save money by turning off the AC. You realize the movie is running, which is weird because you don’t think any tickets were sold. Must have happened while you were checking the other theaters, and Yamilet forgot to radio you. Now you’ll have to stay until the end of the night. Damn it.

Your shoulders sag and you feel so, so tired.

Might as well see if that stupid keychain is in here, though you didn’t notice Mister Leon pass you at any point to hide it. Didn’t he retire? You’re not sure anymore. You don’t have your flashlight because you didn’t think you’d need it, so you follow the dim floor lights into the house.

Hell, maybe you’ll even stay and watch the movie.

The picture is so black that even with the light from the projector, you can barely see where you’re going. The emergency exit light is out, too. Sweat starts to drip down your forehead, wetting your armpits and back, as the air fills with the sound of heavy breathing. Yours? No, this is a horror movie. A good one, because you’re certainly scared.

You look up at the seats and you could swear they’re full, every seat in the house, dark figures sitting up straight as statues. Ridiculous. One of them flashes the barest glint of white teeth like a shark smelling blood, like Yamilet.

You turn to face forward and there’s nothing; it almost looks like a hole, a doorway, the blackness in the center somehow thicker than in the theater where you stand. You take a step toward where you think the exit is.

Then the sucking sound starts.

You freeze, panic squeezing your chest. You start to back away, back toward the floor lights and the ramp that takes you out of number 12. You want to run but your legs are tired, your joints popping and throbbing, your heart banging like your landlord’s fist on your apartment door.

You finally make it to the exit, and for the longest moment of your life, it doesn’t open.

Then you’re out, into the hallway where the old cosmic carpets have been ripped up, leaving only bare concrete until the new floors are installed. Your breath comes in gasps, and you almost lean against a wall for support until you remember they’re covered in a wallpaper-stripping chemical. For the renovations, now that the theater is under new ownership.

“Hey, you okay?” someone asks, grabbing your arm. You nod. You feel cold, so cold, but you’re still covered in sweat. Your vision blurs.

In moments, someone’s brought you a chair and a glass of water, and someone else barks orders into a walkie-talkie. Young people you don’t recognize, until you do, but you still can’t remember their names. On the tip of your tongue.

“I’ll be fine,” you insist. “I just need to call my daughter to pick me up.”

She can’t, though, because she doesn’t live here anymore. She and her wife moved years ago, with your sweet little grandson that you only get to see when they visit. Little? No, he’s a teenager now, isn’t he? And you, you live a few blocks away so you can walk to work.

Why is it so hard to remember anything?

“I’ll drive you,” says a nice looking girl who could be about your daughter’s age. You think she might be a manager. “Come on, let’s go.”

You shake your head. There’s something you have to do first. “I have to sign my write-up,” you say. “Yamilet wrote me up and I can’t leave until I sign it.”

Your three saviors share a look. “Who?” the manager asks.

“I think she used to work here,” another person says.

“Are you sure you don’t want to go to the hospital?” the third person asks.

“No,” you say. “I just want to go home. I’m so hungry.”

Then you remember: you have a box of sour gummy worms. You’re not supposed to eat candy—bad teeth—but you’re old and who gives a shit. You wriggle the box out of your pocket and stare at it. They don’t even make this candy anymore. Where did you get this? It expired ages ago.

You start to laugh, and it turns into a cough and you keep laughing anyway, until your lungs feel like wet paper bags. With trembling fingers, you claw open the plastic wrap.

The smell of decay fills your nose, sweet and vile like overripe fruit, and you open the box you’ve carried your whole miserable, brief life.

The worms inside writhe like living things, but they’re not, not really. You slide one out and take a bite, and to your delight it shrieks as it dies in your mouth. It feels like a kind of victory, though you’re not sure why.

Despite the horrified protests of the people around you, you eat every single one, smiling like a shark.

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Valerie Valdes

Valerie Valdes

Valerie Valdes copy edits, moonlights as a muse and occasionally plays video games if her son and husband are distracted by Transformers. Once upon a time, she attended the University of Miami, where she majored in English literature with minors in creative writing and motion pictures. She currently teaches for The Brainery, which offers online writing workshops focusing on speculative fiction. Her latest work is published in She Walks In Shadows, the first all-women Lovecraft anthology by Innsmouth Free Press. Join her in opining about books, BioWare games and robots in disguise on Twitter @valerievaldes.