Karl feels heavy. He’s overweight, as he has been for years, but that’s not why he feels heavy. Every part of his body, from his fingers to the tips of his thinning hair, feels like it’s weighing him down. It’s a struggle even to lift his arm to pick up a potato chip from his plate.
It’s not the heaviness of gravity that pulls him downward, though, but the leaden struggle of continuous fatigue. He has been tired for months. He’s tired enough that he can’t sort out whether it’s getting worse or whether he’s just gotten worse at dealing with it.
The muscles of his arms and hands have that sort of vibrating weakness that makes it feel almost impossible to life anything. It’s like he worked every fiber of them particularly hard and they never recovered. They aren’t sore, for which he’s thankful, but they are next to useless.
There are knuckles of fatigue driving into his thighs and calves, relentless in their assault, and a full, giant fist of it residing in his head in place of his brain. It makes it impossible to concentrate. He feels like he’s coasting through his life, unable to focus on his job, his hobbies, his friends, or his wife.
He knows that his exhaustion is affecting his marriage, but he knows it in a distant way, because his mind is too tired to think about the consequences. He can scarcely hold his eyes open if, at any point, he’s sitting. He doesn’t have the energy to spare to do much other than force himself to stay awake.
Maggie must be bothered, though. He doesn’t have the wherewithal to decide whether she’s angry, worried, or feeling neglected. When he comes home from work at 3:00, he falls immediately to the couch to take a nap. He rouses himself for dinner, forces himself to stay awake for an hour or two afterward, and then goes to bed, still in his clothes, because he’s too tired to take off anything but his pants. He drags himself out of bed the next day to repeat the process.
In a way, he’s forgotten about Maggie. It’s the exhaustion at the root of that, and nothing else. She feels like a ghost just passing through at the edge of his consciousness, someone who eats dinner with him while he puts all of his strength into lifting his fork. He can’t recall any of the conversations they’ve had over the past few months, or whether they’ve had any conversations at all.
Maggie isn’t the only one who feels like a ghost. Karl has phantom memories of the people he sees at work. They don’t seem real, because he moves through conversations with them on autopilot, not really listening to or processing anything they say, because he’s spending so much just to keep his mouth moving through the reflexive things he’s trained himself to say.
Maybe it’s not everyone else who’s a ghost. Maybe it’s Karl. He’s so tired, and he does so little else other than sleeping. The small part of him that manages to force thoughts through the thick cotton puffball of sleepiness in his mind wonders if he is, in fact, dead. He might as well be, he thinks, for all the interaction he’s having with the world.
It is when he falls asleep at the dinner table, with his knife in the midst of cutting his steak, that Maggie finally reacts to his behavior. Perhaps she has reacted before, and he didn’t notice, or thought that he had dreamed it up, but this time, she pierces through his fog.
He can’t remember her words, even just after she’s said them. He thinks he’s responding. He at least feels like he’s answering. His mouth goes through the motions. He knows that she’s angry, or something. There’s a heat in her words he hasn’t felt from anything since the fatigue overtook him.
“You haven’t showered in days,” she says, and that cuts through all the way into his consciousness, because surely... This morning... No, maybe it was last night? Or yesterday morning? He can’t recall, but he isn’t the sort of person not to shower.
She pulls him away from his steak. That’s okay. He’s hungry, constantly, but eating takes so much effort. Chewing, especially, is just so much work. But going up the stairs, where Maggie drags him, is even more work. By the time they reach the top, he is out of breath.
He doesn’t register where she’s taking him until they’ve already arrive. The bathroom. She shuts the door behind them, even though it’s only the two of them in the house. She’s always been that way. Private. He feels a confusion born from outside of his exhaustion as she begins to take off his clothes.
Maggie is private. Perhaps too private. They’ve never showered together. That’s the sort of thing that usually has Maggie blushing in embarrassment. When they make love, she turns off the lights and draws the curtains, so that they won’t see each other naked. Yet here she is, undressing him in the fully-lit bathroom.
He’s too tired to feel anything other than confusion and, maybe, a tiny hint of wonder. Karl blinks, trying to focus on Maggie’s face and sort out why she’s doing what she’s doing, but then he gets distracted. The open air touches his skin, and it feels fresh and new. When was the last time he changed his clothes? Maybe Maggie is right, and he hasn’t showered in some time. He shakes his head, trying to clear it enough to remember whether he’s even been putting fresh clothes on.
Maggie already has the shower running. When did she turn it on? Something about standing naked in front of his wife has stirred Karl into a more wakeful state than he’s experienced since the fatigue began. He feels exposed. He’s suddenly very aware of the size of his stomach, which Maggie hasn’t seen since he started gaining weight and stopped going shirtless in the summer.
She turns him, pushing him toward the shower. Her sharp gasp stops him in the middle of stepping over the wall of the tub. He wavers and nearly falls, just managing to catch himself.
“What?” he demands, fearful of what mark his fatigue and neglect has left upon his body, that she should react in such a horrified manner.
“Stay still,” Maggie says.
The panic in her voice compels him to listen, though he stands now with on foot resting on the edge of the tub and one hand supporting him by its grasp upon the corner of the wall. Maggie flings upon the doors to the cupboard below the sink. From inside, she grabs the box of plastic gloves. She tears two of them out of the box. Her hands tremble as she struggles to don them.
“What is it?” Karl demands, his anxiety now high enough to reach all the way through his exhaustion and sink its claws into his brain.
“Hold still!” Maggie says firmly.
With one hand on his shoulder, she grabs something on his back.
Karl grits his teeth. There is pain, but there is also wide-eyed terror because whatever she has gripped in her fist is not a part of him. There’s something attached to his back, something he never felt or noticed until she grabbed it.
Maggie pulls. By the force of her grip upon his shoulder and the pain that radiates from the middle of his back, Karl knows she is putting all of her strength into her action. He feels his flesh tenting upward between his shoulder blade. Karl growls and reaches for the towel hanging next to his head. He bites down on it.
In a flash of pain, something tears loose. Karl’s eyes roll upward and now it isn’t exhaustion that numbs his sense of the world, but pain. More things tear free, ripping away from his flesh. It feels like slivers being yanked free. Big, hooked slivers that don’t want to give way.
After the tearing comes a raw, burning, sliding sensation, like Maggie is pulling his veins out of his back. Karl realizes, suddenly, that he’s not just growling. He’s screaming into the towel.
Then Maggie jerks and pulls away, her grip on his shoulder released. His back is on fire, but he turns anyway, needing to see her and, though he fears it, whatever she now holds in her hand.
“Oh, oh, oh,” she exclaims, voice full of disgust and panic. He wants to tell her to stop, as she rushes toward the toilet, the thing held in her hand, but he can’t muster the energy. There’s too much pain and fatigue and shock still within him.
It looks, in the glimpse of it he catches, like a grey slug, smushed up on one end, with a cluster of tongues hanging from a gaping mouth, almost like a grotesque, fleshy flower. Sharp, bloody teeth poke out from between the tongues.
Maggie drops it in the toilet. Karl reaches out weakly, but she flushes. Its disappears in a swirl of water.
Karl drops slowly to his knees, then falls to the floor. As he fades from consciousness, he realizes that he still feels fatigued, but in a light way, as though the molecules of him are buzzing around and ready to float off into the world. Then, for a time, he feels nothing.