We're proud to present “The Cocoon” by Louis Rakovich, the latest crime fiction selection for The M.O.!
This submission received the most votes from our shortlist previews, expressing your Wishful Thinking to read the whole thing here!
Today, for the second time since my return, Gloria woke me up before going to work. Afterward I fell back asleep and dreamed about the cave. It wrapped around me like a cocoon, knitting strings of rock and soil over my face. I couldn't move; I waited patiently until the time came for me to get out, and then I woke up.
It's been four months since I left the cave. Gloria works for the both of us now, six days a week from seven to nine. But I don't think I'm deluding myself in believing she doesn't mind. I think I see a faint happiness in her, shining through the inconvenience and the late hours. I know there are pride and strength in her face which weren't there before. This scares me.
Sometimes I think of going back to work, but I can't be outside longer than a few hours. The people on the street recognize me, or I imagine that they do. I know I didn't imagine the tall, tall man—a mountain of white skin and sharp bones—who put his hand on my shoulder at the coffee shop and said, “Hey, aren't you the guy…?” and then the voice faded from his throat. He coughed and looked me in the eye. He said, “Life is strange. Strange and dark.” He handed me his card. He was a pastor; his eyes glowed with the same heat as my wife's new face.
Life is strange and dark. I think he spoke more of his own life than of mine when he said this. It must be strange to see a man, a man just like the rest of them, and remember a deranged, bloody animal. I don't envy the people who recognize me from the news.
I remember the reporter, her white raincoat and black hair. She was the first thing I saw when they dragged me outside. She's all I remember—a distant white figure and a woman's voice relaying the details of my disappearance.
The next memory is the hospital, and the doctor telling someone I couldn't see—probably Gloria—of the worms in my stomach. Then the policemen. They entered and ordered the doctor and the invisible Gloria out of the room. I told them the only conceivable thing. I told it how I had seen it told before, in the adventure stories I'd read as a child.
A week had passed, and the hunger had become unbearable. One of my colleagues suggested it, and I protested, but not for long, because as I did, I could see the two eying me from top to bottom, and I knew they were both thinking the same thing. We drew straws. One of the two lost. They fought between themselves and I watched. One died. The other stood up bloody-handed. He leaped at me, holding the same red rock he had used on the other. I dodged his raised arm, the rock was dropped. I picked it up and struck in self defense. Two days later, after much hesitation, I took the first bite. In the following two months, I kept eating, even after the meat had become dark and putrid and the stench penetrated every corner of the cave, for it was the only thing that stood between me and death.
That was my report, and it pleased the policemen. That was the story the pastor heard on the news. Only my wife knows the truth. The truth is the reason she works while I sleep, the reason she's still here after four months. She's gone mad, and so she loves the truth.
The truth is we never drew straws. It wouldn't have come to that. My colleagues were bigger and stronger than myself, and on that hunting trip, I had proved a coward and a weakling. If either of them had thought of it before me, they wouldn't have given me the opportunity to be saved by chance. I know, as I know that the sun's still in the sky, as the giant pastor knows the places of truth in the word of his Lord, that they would have eaten me had I not killed them first.
There was no hesitation. There was worry, and queasiness, and a suddenly foreign and heavy heart, but no hesitation. I waited in the dark, listening to the sounds of their breathing. Finally they fell asleep, and I lifted the red rock—it wasn't red at the time—and bashed their heads in.
It's true that I ate the two men. It's true that for two months I lived in pulsating, swaying darkness. Sometimes spots of light came shining through the rocks, but it was never bright enough, and I never saw my shadow. I drank the muddy water from the floor of the cave, I chewed the ever-darkening, ever-hardening meat. The stench settled in the roots of my hair. After one month, I became very sick.
I prayed that someone would find the truck. It stood on the side of the road, with everything we'd taken with us on the trip save for the clothes on our backs. We left it there, loaded and ready to go, just for a moment. One of the two suggested we take a look at the cave before heading home. Even for that alone, they deserved to die.
Sometimes, I'd think of the people who would find me, and for their sake, I'd stop praying. Rather, for their sake and for my own, because I knew that the man who left the cave would not be the one who had gotten trapped in it.
There were moments when, lying there in the stench, I thought I could feel some strength of spirit awakening in me, some power of endurance. When those moments coincided with the moments of delirium, I thought that the change had been brought on by the consumption of human meat. I thought of the brutes I'd killed and eaten, and I was proud, because I'd gone mad.
Now, my wife looks at me with the same madness. She does her best to steer me away from guilt; she says, “You only did what had to be done.” But something in her face gives her away. She's proud of me. She walks around carrying the secret that her husband is not as weak as she once thought.
Sometimes, I think her madness is God's peace offering. He knew I would commit horrors in the cocoon, and come out a different man, and so he gave me a wife who would welcome the change.
Sometimes, when I sleep, I think that what Gloria loves in me now is the power acquired from the meat. I dream and I think that the ghost of the brutes' strength resides in me, because I've killed them and eaten their bodies. In my dreams I go mad again.
Sometimes, I fear that I will bite off my own tongue in my sleep, and I remember the tongues of the dead men. Then, I think I've become my old, scared self at last. But I see the smile on Gloria's face and the heat in her eyes, and I know that I will never get back what I left in the cocoon.
Copyright ©2015 Louis Rakovich
Cover art: Tobie Ancipink
Louis Rakovich's fiction has appeared or is forthcoming in The Fiction Desk, Goldfish Grimm, Phobos Magazine and other places. He grew up in Jerusalem, Israel, and currently lives in NYC, where he's working on his first novel—a literary psychological thriller. You can follow him on Twitter at @LouisRakovich.