I knew something was up with MacInnes as soon as I shook his hand. He hadn’t been in my office for a few years. Time must’ve been ruthless with him. Deep gullies fell from the corners of his mouth making an exaggerated frown, and the majority of his hair was grey, the original red only a suggestion now, a souvenir. He looked exhausted, beaten.
His palm was sweaty as it met mine – anxiety, I guessed. I shake a lot of hands, so I know these things. To quote Tom Jones, it’s not unusual. The room was air-conditioned, but it was insane outside and he’d arrived late, flustered. My secretary had ushered him in immediately. He didn’t meet my eye as we shook, glancing down at our linked hands instead.
“Hello Leo,” he muttered.
I didn’t mind him using my first name. I’m cool with that. He’d started out as my boss, after all.
As soon as I relinquished the handshake – which always happens when I decide, not them – I sensed something was awry. I rubbed my fingers against my palm and felt something there, something damp and filmy. Although it was pretty uncool to do so, I examined it – it was a reflex, I guess – and saw that it was a layer of skin. His skin.
Freaked out but trying to retain my composure, I sat down, said nothing about it.
“Well, Paul, you’ve perhaps guessed what this is about,” I said instead. “There’s no easy way to approach it, I’m afraid. But then, you of all people know that.”
He slumped in the chair across the desk from me. Something fell from his head, bounced on his shoulder and slid down his upper arm before tumbling to the carpet. He turned his head to try and conceal it from me, but even though the desk obscured my view of where it had landed, I knew what I’d seen.
It was his left ear.
“Of course, Leo,” he said, putting his hand up towards the side of his head, trying to make out he was simply replacing a stray strand of hair, rather than stopping his glasses from falling off.
“I hope you won’t think I’m shitting you when I say it wasn’t my choice,” I continued, determined not to get distracted. “I’ve been getting squeezed by head office for months now. It’s just not…not happening here. Not the way they want. Not the way anyone wants.”
“No, no, of course. I understand, Leo.”
He crossed one leg over the other. As he did so, his lower leg came away at the knee – shoe and sock in place – and cartwheeled across the room, leaving an empty trouser leg dangling freely. The leg – his leg – came to rest over by the filing cabinet. Miraculously, it landed the right way up, shoe downwards, leaning against the bottom drawer. But for the ragged skin just below where the knee had been until a few seconds before, and the blood running down his shin, it could’ve been a prosthetic. Who knew he had such hairy legs?
Our eyes finally met. He said nothing, just uncrossed his leg – carefully – and cradled his head where his ear used to be.
“You’ll…er…you’ll get the standard package, Paul,” I said, peeling the extra layer of skin from my palm beneath the desk. My own hands had begun to dew with sweat.
He nodded, though only be a few degrees, like he was afraid what might happen if he was more vigorous.
“I tried to cut you a better deal, I promise you,” I lied. “What with all your loyalty to the company over the last – what is it? – twenty-five years?”
“Thirty-one,” he said.
“Human Resources just wouldn’t buy it,” I continued. “You know how things are. When it’s my turn, I’ll probably be lucky to get a thank-you.”
I thought he might at least smile at this, but he didn’t. Then I noticed a small crack beginning to open up in his forehead. It quickly grew, splitting his skull, following the centreline of his face, moving downwards. I could see shards of bone and brain flying off, then teeth pinging out of his jawbones.
“Paul?” I said. “Are you OK?”
His entire body was cleaving down the middle. Buttons flew from his shirt. Organs spilled from his torso as the skin opened, and flopped out – first into his lap and then between his legs and onto the carpet. I thought I recognised a liver, but then it could’ve easily been something else. His vertebral column parted like the teeth of a zipper.
He wasn’t going to answer. He wasn’t going to do anything at all. I could see why they were letting him go.
I stood up for a moment so that I could see beyond the desk. The right side of him had toppled forward and down to the floor, while the left had leaned over and was resting on the arm of the chair.
I picked up the phone, scrolling through the internal directory to find the cleaning department. They’d be really pleased. I was about to press the number but I stopped. “Priorities, Leo,” I said to myself.
I dialled H.R. instead. They weren’t paying me nearly enough for dealing with this type of shit.