Our story this week is spoiling for a good time. Enjoy a delicious exploration of the human condition, “Bad Meat” by Chip Houser!

Chip Houser (he/him) has stories in Bourbon Penn, PodCastle, Daily Science Fiction, and various other markets. “Dark Morsels,” a chapbook of his very short fiction, is forthcoming from Red Bird Chapbooks. He’s a graduate of Odyssey, a practicing architect, and an avid walker of slow dogs and an equally avid yet even slower hiker of mountains. Links to his stories and other oddities can be found at chiphouser.com.

Cover art by Bo Kaier

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Bad Meat

by Chip houser

Chuck rushed along the crowded jetway, dodging the ever-shifting tides of people. The flight attendant said the closest restroom was past the last gate, by the food court. Hopefully he’d make it. He should have known better than to fly, his bowels had been a wreck lately and the turbulence turned them to water. But he had a soft spot for his niece, Molly, and wanted to be with her when she started chemo.

Squeezing between a slow-moving knot of squabbling vacationers and a pacing businessman on his cell, Chuck pushed past a young man selling noise-cancelling headphones, and in front of a woman standing staring up at the flight monitors. He was sliding between a rolling suitcase and a blue-vested attendant pushing a wheelchair when his foot caught on something, and he fell hard onto the terrazzo. The impact jarred his bowels free with a damp squelch.

Hell no.” A deep voice somewhere behind him. “That’s not right.”

Too mortified to look up, Chuck could tell by people’s feet they were giving him a wide berth. The wheelchair he’d tripped over had stopped. A thin-legged kid sat in it, one hand covering his mouth. He was trying not to laugh, but not doing such a good job. With his big eyes and spiky magenta wig, he might have looked cartoonish if he wasn’t so clearly sick. His skin was drawn and translucent, the bones of his hands protruding fan-like, like the pallid tail of a fish.

Behind him, the deep voice said “Hell no” again. It was the blue-vested attendant, who lifted a walkie talkie to his mouth. How humiliating.

The kid was about Molly’s age. At least he got him to laugh, maybe forget he was sick for a bit. That’s something.

Chuck pushed himself to his knees. The air in the terminal was cool against his jeans, the denim glued to his butt and thighs.

“I didn’t mean to laugh,” the kid said. He was leaning forward now, holding out Chuck’s shoe.

He couldn’t quite bring himself to make eye contact as he took the shoe. “Sorry,” he muttered.

“It’s okay,” the kid said. “It was an accident.”

Despite himself, Chuck laughed. That kind of word play always reminded him of Molly.

The kid’s face scrunched up. “Oh no, I didn’t mean it like that.”

“All good, kid. Sometimes you just gotta laugh.”

The crowd gave Chuck plenty of space, clearing a path as he hurried to the restroom. Mercifully, there was no line. He ran into a stall, barely getting his jeans down in time. It felt like victory. The diarrhea was brutal, like hot, angry tendrils scrabbling to escape. He closed his eyes and took long, slow breaths. His insides had been a mess for a while now, a couple of months, maybe, but not this bad.

His jeans vibrated. It had to be Molly, she was so excited to see him. Chuck dug his phone out. He’d missed a bunch of her texts:

You’re over Pennsylvania right now!

It says your plane landed—hurry! His place is so boring.

Can’t wait to see you Chunkle!

Chunkle. That always made him smile. When Molly first started making words, she had repeated his name over and over, Uncle-Chuck-Uncle-Chuck-Uncle-Chuck, and eventually out came Chunkle.

Chuck replied:

Looking forward to seeing you too, Mols. On my way to baggage claim.

Chunkle was just the start of Molly’s wordplay. When she was six or seven, a few years before the leukemia, she’d invited Chuck to go camping in the backyard. He’d looked at the small tent, at the setting sun catching the cloud of swarming bugs, and said, “This is going to be spectacular.”

Unaware of his sarcasm, Molly had said, “No, Chunkle! It’s going to be tentacular!”

That moment alone hadn’t quite made what followed worth it, awake all night in a tent with a broken zipper and Molly insisting the flashlight stay on. She’d loved every minute of it, though. Chuck had reminded himself of that for weeks as he applied and reapplied calamine lotion to his bite-riddled flesh.

“You’re the best! When we’re together we’re Team Cholly,” Molly had said when he promised to be there for her first treatment. “Chuck plus Molly is Cholly. Like jolly. Get it?” She was the silly one, the smart one; Chuck was happy to be her audience.

Another bout of diarrhea hit. In the stinging aftermath, the nausea lingered, a steady, toxic heat pulsing through his abdomen. Chuck bent forward, trying not to groan, palms sandwiched between thigh and stomach.

When Chuck felt marginally better, he pulled his jeans off one leg at a time and hung them on the coat hook. He tried to salvage his underwear, pressing wads of toilet paper on the soaked areas. In the distance, someone screamed. Probably someone out in the terminal.

“Christ,” muttered someone by the sinks, “get your kid under control.”

Everyone in the restroom laughed.

The laughter stopped when another scream joined the first, this one long and deep and clearly not a child. Then another, and another, and the sound of glass shattering. Stampeding feet.

Then, gunshots.

“We got us a shooter,” someone with a gravelly drawl said.

Stall doors slammed and locked. A horrified silence held in the restroom as the occupants listened to the distant, muffled cries, bullets impacting with unidentifiable crunches and crashes of things soft and yielding or hard and brittle. Chuck dropped his underwear, the sodden fabric hitting the tiles with a wet slap. He stepped up onto the toilet seat.

A man ran into the restroom, his breathing heavy. “Where’s the goddamned backup?” He yelled. “Those things are everywhere. Marco, Sylvia, Tom, all—”

A wet gurgle, the squeak of a sneaker. Something plastic shattered on the floor, leaving nothing but the crackle of static.

“Sweet Jesus!” The man with the drawl yelled. The stalls racked back and forth once, twice, three times. The man kept screaming through it all, until he didn’t, the following silence broken only by a crash near the sinks.

Chuck’s heart pounded. What the fuck was happening? Was he really going to die half-naked in an airport restroom coated in his own shit? The toilet auto-flushed regularly as Chuck knelt on top of it, washing his exposed underside with cool air.

The man in the stall next to Chuck was whispering, a soft, desperate rhythm. Some kind of prayer. Before Chuck had a chance to recognize any of the words, the man yelped and slammed to the floor. His fingers scrabbled across the bottom of the divider.

Chuck hopped down and grabbed the man’s wrists. “I got you.”

The man had thick fingers. A gold wedding band. Inch by inch, Chuck pulled him further into his stall. Carefully pressed white cuffs. Blue enameled cufflinks. Up to the elbows, then the top of his head. Dark curly hair. Thinning. The man’s dark eyes were wet with fear, but his whispers were calm, words not meant for Chuck.

“I got you,” Chuck said again. He held the man tight, pulling as hard as he could. Chuck’s legs weakened against the rhythmic tugging. The man’s spine popped like tiny, muffled firecrackers. He couldn’t see what had the other end of the man and didn’t want to.

“My daughter,” the man said, his wide eyes locked on Chuck’s, “she graduates—”

Whatever was pulling the man gave a mighty yank, and he was wrenched from Chuck’s grasp. Chuck slammed into the divider and landed on his side. He reached for the man, but watched helplessly as he slid away, fingers clawing at the tile as he was dragged away. Chuck scooted backwards, pulse hammering in his throat. The thing dragging the man away was some kind of gigantic tentacle.

If it weren’t so impossible, so horrifying, it would be spectacular. Tentacular. Chuck’s laughter echoed in the restroom, far too loud in that small room swimming with bodily fluids. This was way worse than camping, he thought, which made him laugh harder. What was wrong with him? People were dying, lots of people, his legs were caked with his own shit, he was sitting bare-assed on the filthy floor of a public restroom, and he was suddenly laughing so hard he was crying. Must be a stress reaction. He tried taking deep breaths to calm down, but it didn’t work. He knew he needed to calm himself, to get back up on the toilet and hide, but the image just made him laugh harder.

He stopped mid-laugh when the greasy, brownish-black tentacle, broad as his thigh, wound into the stall. It probed his sopping underwear, recoiled, then rose before him. The tentacle smelled sharp, like ammonia. It hovered, swaying back and forth like an enormous cobra about to strike. The underside of the tentacle was covered in pulsing suckers, circular and pale.

What was it waiting for?

The tentacle dipped forward and Chuck thought: this is it. The tentacle suddenly whipped backward, slapped against the partition, and shot back under the divider.

What the hell just happened?

Chuck waited, expecting the tentacle to snatch him and haul him away to a horrible death by constriction or suffocation or whatever tentacle things did. But nothing happened. When the screaming eventually stopped, he stepped down. The restroom was quiet, other than the slosh of water from a broken pipe somewhere. He did his best to clean up the half-dried mess coating his legs—was all that blood his?—but toilet paper didn’t cut it. He needed paper towels. Lots of them.

He opened the stall door and peeked out. Other than a few abandoned rolling bags and a cellphone buzzing across the water-slick floor, the restroom was empty. Mirrors were shattered. A paper towel dispenser lay cracked and soaking in a sink. A chunk of the countertop was missing, blood smeared across the ragged edge.

He washed up as quickly and quietly as he could, keeping an eye on the entrance, then searched the abandoned bags. Surely their owners wouldn’t begrudge him their clean pants. Better than a middle-aged man standing naked in the middle of a public restroom. He found a pair of enormous paisley pajama bottoms. Ugly, but perfect. They even had a pocket for his phone.

Chuck leaned against the wall by the opening to the concourse and listened. He heard voices. Not close, but definitely people talking. Cautiously, he looked out into the terminal.

There was no sign of the giant tentacle, or the creature it was attached to. An explosion of abandoned objects scattered across the water spreading outward from the restroom: a shattered tablet, masks, purses, the splatter of a green smoothie, glasses and jackets and hats, sodden newspapers and magazines and sandwiches. Not ten feet away the wheelchair kid’s magenta wig lay like a sea anemone in the tide. Chuck picked it up. Damn, poor kid. Because he didn’t have a shitty enough deal. Written in Sharpie on the inside: Roger.

A red silk skirt glided raft-like past him across the floor, water carrying it toward the broken glass and twisted mullions of what had been the exterior wall. Out on the tarmac, a huge plane lay in a bent heap, twisted like an empty beer can.

The voices were coming from a group of fifteen or twenty people huddled around a TV near the food court. Everyone there looked old or sick, shoulders hunched in loose clothes, mouths hanging open as they stared at the TV.

Chuck walked over, staring at the images playing across the screen. A clip of what looked like bad science fiction, a sunset sky filled with hundreds of enormous octopi floating down, their bodies ballooned like umbrellas followed by shots of giant tentacles pulling people from glass towers in Hong Kong, off docks in Hamburg and bicycles in Mumbai, dragging flailing tourists across the sands of Giza. This was happening everywhere. 

Christ, did the tentacles get Molly?

A horrible thought: it would be a sort of mercy. He was disgusted with himself for thinking it.

He walked closer to the crowd by the TV. They looked like the least likely people to survive whatever just happened. Which was another awful thought, and he knew it. The kid – Roger – was there, sitting in his wheelchair without his blue-vested attendant.

Chuck was flooded with relief. He walked over and held out the wig. “Glad you made it, Roger.”

“Oh hi,” Roger said, taking the wig. “Nice jammies. You feeling better?”

That seemed like a bizarre question given the circumstances. “What just happened?”

“A giant squid invasion from outer space. Pretty wild, huh?”

“The news said octopus.”

“Big surprise, the news is wrong. They’re squid. Torpedo-shaped head, ten arms not eight. Still a cephalopod, but way creepier. Plus, better aerodynamic shape for flying and those blades for directional control.”

Chuck had no idea what to say to that. “Where is everyone?”

“What do you mean?”

“Who’s in charge? Where’s the police or TSA or whatever? These people all look sick.”

“Obviously?” Roger said, in that way kids had that made you feel stupid.

“I’m not following—” Chuck jerked when his phone buzzed. It was Molly, a call not a text. “What the fuck?” Chuck said, then to Roger, “Sorry, it’s my niece. Hello?”

“Chunkle! Something terrible happened.” Her voice was pitched higher than normal. “A giant slimy thing dragged Mom away and the doctors and nurses were screaming and running and things were breaking—”

“It’s okay, Mols. I’m here. Slow down.”

Roger was sitting forward, listening. Chuck noticed he had a fresh oval scar line on the back of his head, just above his neck.

“—and I was dopey so maybe I was hallucinating? But it felt so real! I don’t know what happened or what I should do and I’m alone and full of tubes and wires and needles and I can’t move and there’s no one here to help and I’m scared and—”

“Mols.” Chuck said. “It’s going to be okay. We’ll figure it out. We’re alive, we survived. Can you sit tight until I get there? I’m leaving the airport now.”

“Please-please-please hurry.”

“Be there as fast as I can.”

“Okay. Okay.” She took a deep breath. “Love you, Chunkle.”

“You too. We’ll get through this—Team Cholly, remember?”

When he hung up, Roger said, “What’s hers?”

“Her what?”

“What kind of cancer does she have?”

Chuck looked at him, confused. “How do you know she has cancer?”

Roger looked at Chuck for a second or two, then waved his hand at the other survivors. “It’s sort of a theme.”

“What, cancer?” As soon as he said it out loud, he knew it was true. How had he not put that together? “But I don’t—” he started to say, then stopped. Of course he did.

“It’s okay,” Roger said, “you’re still alive.” He fist-bumped Chuck’s knee. “Welcome to borrowed time.”

Mols would like this kid, he had some spice to him. “I better get going, she’s all alone.”

“Yeah.” Roger looked around.

“Is your mom or dad or someone coming to get you?” As soon as he said it, he felt like a bastard. “Sorry, I didn’t—”

“It’s okay.” Roger ran his fingers through his deflated wig.

“Look, I’ve got to go. Molly’s scared and alone.”

Roger nodded. His hands were still.

Chuck couldn’t just leave him here. “You know, if it’s not too weird, you’re welcome to come along.”

“Thanks, but I’m good,” Roger said. “I think staying here in the middle of this disaster make sense. You should totally leave me.”

“Sure, I understand—”

“Seriously? You think I want to stay stranded in this smashed-up terminal?” Roger pulled on his wig. “Let’s go.”

“Oh, that’s right. You’re a smartass.” Chuck grabbed the handles and pushed the wheelchair through the terminal. “Leukemia,” he said, following the signs toward ground transportation. “Molly has leukemia.”

“Mine’s pilocytic astrocytoma,” Roger said. “I guess they didn’t get it all. What about you?”

“Not sure,” Chuck said. “Hey, maybe when we get there you can help me figure out how to unhook Molly from those machines.”

“Sure,” Roger said. “Chunkle.”

“You heard that, huh?”

“She sounded pretty upset.”

“She’s scared, but she’s the stronger half of Team Cholly.”

“We’re going to have to work on that, you know. The name.”

“What’s wrong with it?”

“Well for one, I feel left out.”

“Fair point. That’s Molly’s department.”

“Maybe we should live on a boat.” Roger said.

“Okay,” Chuck said. “I’ll bite. Why should we live on a boat?”

“Then we could be the Cholly Rogers.” He barely got it out before the giggles won.

Chuck groaned, mostly for effect. “A little dark, isn’t it?”

“Look around lately?”

“You and Molly are going to get along great,” Chuck said, pushing Roger’s wheelchair through the sliding doors into the passenger pickup zone, which was full of abandoned cars.