Squishy Tendrils by Chris Rhatigan

Tyler ordered five shots of espresso.

Two weeks of drinking had somehow failed to erase the reality of final exams. He needed all the help he could get for what was bound to be a long night of gorging on information. Information that he would promptly yak up the next day, hopefully on paper.

They were taking forever with his drink so he went to take a slash. He was unzipping his fly when he noticed the checkerboard floor tiles in front of the urinal were rather shaky. Four of them, all uneven, grout between the tiles reduced to dust. He crouched, lifted each tile and stacked them in a corner. There was a piece of cardboard underneath with the message PLEASE DO NOT REMOVE scrawled in black magic marker.

So, of course, he removed.

Revealed a human head. Bald guy with a mustache. Eyes opened wide, like through death they’d learned how to scream. Smelled pretty rank, but not as bad as he’d expected.

On close inspection, the guy kind of looked like Dr. Phil. If Dr. Phil had been decapitated and his head stored under the floor of a coffee shop bathroom. Tyler made it to the toilet, upchucking whatever lingering booze and pizza rolls were left in his system. The barista working out front was in his molecular biology class – she wasn’t that hot, but if he vomited all over the floor and she was the one who had to clean it up… well, that would be bad form.

He washed up, making certain not to look at the head on his way out, and approached the counter. Haley, the girl from his bio class, handed him his espresso and smiled.

“Here ya go!”

“I don’t know how to say this, but, well, I lifted up the tiles by the urinal—”

She was already back at the espresso machine, noisily frothing milk.

“What?”

“There’s a head under the tiles. In the men’s bathroom. A human head.”

“Oh, that?” She laughed brightly.

“I’m not joking. Go look for yourself.”

“I know you’re not joking.”

She set a cup on the counter.

“Double non-fat sugar-free mocha mint latte!”

“You don’t think this is a big deal?”

“Of course not. It’s been there—guess I don’t know how long. At least since I started working here.”

This only raised more questions, but he chose not to ask them. Instead, he went to the police station five blocks away, chugging the scalding espresso the whole way. This was totally not his problem and he needed to dump it on someone else as quickly as possible. A cop sat on a bench in front of the station slurping a can of Fresca. He was pudgy and wore one of those police hats you never see anymore.

“Excuse me, uh, sir.”

The cop lifted the funny little hat and wiped his brow.

“Hiya. What can I help you with?”

“Well, you know, it’s about Mr. Beans.”

“That’s on Fourth, right?”

“Yeah—” “Oh boy,” the cop said, “they have those blueberry scones. Yup, sure do. Real good stuff there.”

“Maybe they are, whatever. Look, there’s a human head there. Under the tiles in the men’s bathroom.”

“Sure is.” The cop nodded very fast. Slurped his Fresca again. “Head’s been there a long time.”

Was this some elaborate practical joke?

Tyler felt like one of those robots in an 80s movie that keeps repeating “Does not compute!” until it explodes.

“Don’t you have to, I don’t know, investigate this? I mean, what the shit?”

“Now you watch your language, young man.”

“It could be a serial killer or something!”

The cop laughed. “It’s not a serial killer. It’s just a head. Can’t kill anybody.”

*

Tyler returned to the coffee shop, his heart bursting with stress and caffeine. This whole ordeal was consuming valuable cramming time and he needed to put a stop to it. He weaved through the crowded tables to the bathroom. He picked up the head. It had been severed from the neck haphazardly—the bottom a ragged tear of gray skin and squishy tendrils. He went back to the tables. Plopped the head between two chatty blondes and it rattled their cups and saucers. He pointed at the head and broadcast to the shop’s patrons.

“This was in the bathroom. For some reason, nobody cares about it! Not this barista. Not the cops. But look at this—fucking look at it!”

No one did.

Instead, they looked at him. Eyes of green and blue and brown and hazel all blinking, one after another, as if they were programmed. Someone tapped him on the shoulder. It was the cop. He had a plate with a half-eaten blueberry scone on it.

“What are you doing disturbing all these nice people? Why don’t you get a move on?”

The cop nodded at Haley, who went around the counter and picked up the head. She returned it to the hole in the bathroom floor, replaced the cardboard sign and the tiles. Then she made a note for the manager and tacked it to the bulletin board in the back office:

Time to reseal the bathroom floor.

*

Chris Rhatigan is the co-editor, along with Nigel Bird, of the crime anthology, Pulp Ink. His work has appeared or will soon appear at Beat to a Pulp, Shotgun Honey, Dirty Noir and other iniquitous dens. If you dig short fiction, he strongly recommends that you check out his blog that is about that very subject, Death by Killing. 

16 thoughts on “Squishy Tendrils by Chris Rhatigan”

  1. One Mr. F. Kafka would turn a backflip when he read this. Nothing like a great piece of The Theater Of The Absurd to make my morning perfect. Knocked it outta the ballpark — er, Starbucks — buddy! Just plain out cool.

  2. My bizarro friends would love this story. It’s so cool that you can flex many genre muscles with ease and style.

    One could look at this as “ignoring the pink enormous elephant in the middle of the room” story, IF the head didn’t have “squishy tendrils”. Yeah, the squishy tendrils disturbs me the most. Perhaps the head was really some kind of alien source that was controlling the minds of the people around it. They were all blinking (as if programed). Or perhaps they were the aliens programmed to look innocent. Nice little puzzle here, Chris. Perhaps we should call up Dr. Phil (‘s head) and ask him what he thinks! 😉

  3. I especially liked everyone’s calm reactions to the news of the severed head. Absurd and excellent, like a vivid dream.

  4. I tnink that you’ve got a terrific metaphor going on here. Good stuff! Did you ever think of having Tyler cut the tendrils off and see what happens?

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