The man in the seersucker suit loped along a hedge-strewn neighborhood until he came to a brick house. He looked to be about sixty and smiled through his horn-rimmed glasses as if beholding a wonderful hallucination. The briefcase in his right hand swung in time with his uneven gait and stopped abruptly with him at the home’s front door.
A gaunt, hollow-eyed man appeared after the second series of knocks and slowly opened the screen door. He sized up the visitor and sighed. “I don’t want any,” he said. His voice was thin and rough. “Whatever it is you’re selling.”
He let the door go, and the man in Seersucker placed his briefcase between it and the jamb. The smile never left his wrinkled, sun-worn face. The man behind the door rolled his eyes. “This thing have a money-back guarantee, the thing in your briefcase? Look at me. I could take it and use it to the best of my ability and be done before the warranty ended. I’m not your demographic, now get outta here.”
He said, “Jenna sent me. She says you need my help. She says you are hanging onto something that is not yours.”
The hollow-eyed man leaned back, pulled the jogging pants up on his slack hips. He groaned. “Come on in,” he said. Sunlight streaking through the tree limbs disappeared, leaving the man’s face in shadow and looking more grizzled than even before.
Smoke had created a faint blue haze in the small living room, and the hollow-eyed man took back to his cigarette when he sat in a dilapidated recliner on the far side. On the television, blood spattered across a surgeon’s hands, which were clad in thin white gloves, and some organ or another undulated amidst the carnage.
One of the old man’s knees popped when he dropped heavily into the couch, and he adjusted his striped blue slacks to accommodate the change in position. He stared apathetically at the controlled massacre onscreen. “Let me guess,” he said, never taking his eyes from the screen. “Lungs.”
The man in the recliner shook his head, his cigarette dangling in his thin, purple lips. “Liver. Half a gallon of vodka a day for twenty years.”
A silence fell over the room, and the man on the couch nodded absently. “Weight loss? Stomach pain?”
“Jaundice. Turned as yellow as a banana left out in the sun.”
The man in seersucker’s voice was as smooth as polished wood. “Leave it too long, and it turns black. Somebody steps on it, and the guts squirt out from around the edges. How long?”
“Said four months six months ago. These doctors-”
“They might as well be shaking a Magic 8-Ball in front of you, yeah?”
The hollow-eyed man smiled, revealing brown, damaged teeth. “Yeah. Something like that. They can’t believe I lasted this long. Doc told me that.”
“Yeah? That right?”
“I told him. Listen. I said, ‘You’re a man of science. Don’t come in here talking to me about belief.’ I said, ‘I’m the one who’s s’posed to survive on belief. Check your goddamn clipboard again, and don’t come back until you have something concrete for me.'”
“If only what?” The man on the recliner still smiled, still smoking, but there was no genuineness in the act. He looked like a man being told a story he didn’t quite believe.
“If only they knew.”
Recliner man looked down, as if learning some profound truth. “I guess you’re right. Is that why you’ve come? You mentioned Jenny. She put you up to this?”
For the first time, the smile left the older man’s mouth. He waved the hand not holding the briefcase in a little yes little no gesture. The hand was covered in black hairs and quivered when not resting on his knees.
“You might as well show. It didn’t work anyhow.”
“No?” At this, the briefcase-wielding man turned away from the televised surgery and eyed the other man. “I can’t tell.”
“Ha. Ha. No need for sarcasm. You can. You see me for what I really am. They don’t, the people I come into contact with. They’re too busy seeing this” – he gestured to his bald head and cavernous eyes – “so busy being fed up with pity that they don’t make any inferences.”
“But you feed on pity. If you didn’t have that going for you, what would you have? Your looks?”
“I never had looks.” A harsh sound came from him, like a laugh but somehow more reminiscent of an engine flooding out. His eyes lolled once, and for a moment it looked as though he might seize up, but he didn’t. He caught himself and regained composure. The old man in the seersucker suit never flinched, not once. “Girls always liked my laugh.”
“Can I see it? Could we both go back and see it?”
The hollow-eyed man cocked his head to one side. When he stood, a chemical scent wafted off of him, heavy as death in the house’s stale air. He said, “You didn’t come all the way here to not see it, I can bet on that.”
Hollow Eyes led the man in seersucker through a kitchen filled with dirty dishes and discarded fast food wrappers and down a hallway covered in peeling wallpaper. The older man noticed flecks of blood in a couple of places and said nothing. He didn’t need to. It happened to be a small trophy.
Down the hall and past the main bedroom and bathroom – which smelled strongly of vomit and fecal matter – they came to a small doorway. “Down the rabbit hole,” the hollow-eyed man said, opening the door. They went down some fragile wooden steps to an unfinished basement. It smelled of antiseptic, which turned out to be more pleasant than the stink upstairs, and was actually lit by artificial lighting.
The entire scene was revealed to the man in Seersucker. He laid the briefcase on the concrete floor and walked along the wall, tracing his fingers in the cracks between the cinder blocks. Cool, almost frigid air chilled his hands and tried to slip between the buttons of his shirt, though it was not necessarily the air which gave him chill bumps.
The older man cleared his throat. He said, “So this is it.”
“It is. Beautiful, isn’t it?”
“Depends, I’d say, on your definition of beauty.”
The hollow-eyed man chuckled mirthlessly. He leaned against a support beam. “By the way you say it, I assume you’d mean Jack the Ripper’s,” he said.
“Touche,” replied Mr. Seersucker, approaching the far wall. With every step, the sensation of sickness grew intolerable, bit by bit, and Mr. Seersucker basked in that feeling. Of discomfort. Of something working its way inside of him. Of a sickness that cannot be cured.
On the wall a glass case had been hung, one with a single door held by chrome latches. It had been bolted to the wall with cement screws to hold the case up. The wall itself was a light green color – what was it, seafoam? – and underneath two bulb lamps illuminated the displayed grotesqueries.
It was a collage of sorts, and it glowed as if radioactive. Parts of it anyway. The glass case was the size of a woman of medium build, and bones had been pinned to it like exotic butterflies. It was nearly complete and beautiful in its own way, as they had suggested. All that was missing were a few ribs, and because of a small backlight, a darkened shadow highlighted all the missing pieces.
“How many?” Mr. Seersucker asked. Hollow Eyes did not respond. “How many?”
“Oh, I’m up in the hundreds now. I try for as little repetition as possible. A few fingers here and there, but otherwise, yeah. There are two hundred and six bones in the human body. I’m getting there.”
“Admirable. Can I have a picture?”
Hollow Eyes flinched. The smile on Seersucker’s face broadened to a boyish grin, and he was already reaching for some item in his coat pocket. The other man had no time to react. The room exploded in a roar, and before Hollow Eyes could hit the ground, the gun was back in its holster.
Seersucker slit the throat and sawed off the genitals and then he went back to the case. The sickness returned, radiating from the bones themselves. This, he thought, might be the cure. It certainly hadn’t worked for the man with the hollow eyes, the disease gnawing at every available inch of him, but that wouldn’t preclude him from trying it.
And all those girls, every one of them. They would have gone to waste. But now, now they would get the proper attention from the man in seersucker. He lay at the foot the case and basked in its glow, feeling something growing within him. The smell of blood permeated the air, as the whispers of a hundred dead women spoke aloud in that confined space.