The Man in the Back Row

06 March 2015

A short story written one afternoon in September 2014.

Peter liked to pick his nose. He had liked to pick his nose from an early age. For as long as he could remember, in fact, Peter had been repeatedly told by his mother and by his teachers that picking his nose was bad for him. He had been told that picking his nose would make his nose cave in and his brain fall out, that he would eventually lose a finger up there, that he would struggle to get a girlfriend, that he wouldn’t be able to keep a job presuming he got one, that the only friends he would ever have were terrible manners and dirty hands.

But he liked it all the same. In class, Peter would sit at the back so that he could pick his nose in peace, seen by the teacher but none of the other students. He liked to wait till around mid-morning to start. By that point, he’d come to learn, the mucus had had time to accumulate and dry, and he was especially a fan of slowly negotiating his way through it, sometimes with his thumb, sometimes with his forefinger. Peter liked how each digit did what the other one couldn’t, and he liked to take his time getting through the mucus over the course of a whole morning or afternoon.

Often, picking led to more picking. The mucus never ended on some days. It just kept coming. Sometimes, Peter imagined that there was no mucus left, that he was picking for the sake of picking, that he was all picked out but carried on picking anyway because the sensation and movement might cause more mucus to gather, and he would pick that too. On good days, he found, picking at the dry, crisp mucus long enough caused it to turn more gooey.

Peter liked to inspect the mucus once it was out of his nose. His mother had said this was particularly gross but it didn’t really bother Peter because he’d once caught his father sniffing a piece of dental floss after using it and that seemed to him to be even grosser. Plus he had overheard some of the other boys at school once discussing their toilet habits and they had all laughed when one of them admitted to always looking down into the toilet before flushing it. That also seemed grosser than inspecting your finger after picking your nose.

Besides, Peter reasoned, it wasn’t as if he was infecting others with his mucus. He wasn’t coughing on anyone, sneezing on anyone or even breathing heavily on anyone. After inspecting his finger he would put whatever he’d scraped from his nose into his mouth and swallow it. Previously, on the odd occasion that someone caught him doing this they had cried out to the teacher in disgust, but Peter was better at concealing such movements now. They had become more involuntary, more skilled. It was less a formal ritual than an unthinking habit. Peter picked, inspected, ate. There was little fuss to be made. It didn’t taste gross, it didn’t taste nice, it was just something he did.

But Peter’s favourite place to pick his nose was the cinema. The darkness provided natural privacy for him to pick at his own leisure, watching the film while giving his nose a more rigorous poke than daylight allowed (Peter never went out of his way to upset people with his nose picking). In the cinema you couldn’t really inspect it to the same extent as you could outside the cinema, but you could still eat it, if indeed you could call it eating. Peter didn’t chew on his mucus, he just sort of swallowed it, without much fuss.

One day, at the cinema, Peter began to pick his nose like normal. As usual, he began with his right thumb, to scrape away at anything on the outside interior of his right nostril. Then, when this was sufficiently done away with, Peter put his right forefinger into the same nostril to scrape away at the inside of his nose. Today there was a particularly dry lump of mucus that was difficult at first to get off. Peter had to put a little extra effort in to get it off.

When it did eventually break away from the inside wall of his nose, however, it seemed immediately as if it had also brought away a part of the nose’s inner lining with it. Peter instinctively and without alarm poked around a bit more, and indeed, with a little more alarm, realised that he could now push his finger up his right nostril, through the little wall and into his left nostril. Peter couldn’t tell if the realisation of this preceded the physical pain that accompanied it, but a sharp sting surged down the centre and entire right side of his face.

For a moment, Peter sat there as normal, facing forward and watching the screen like everybody else in the cinema. He wondered if anyone else had noticed him writhing in the pain that had quickly enveloped his face. He wondered at the same time as this if he had in fact been writhing in pain at all. It seemed as if he hadn’t been. Though he could feel the severe pain enveloping the centre of his face, it seemed as if the film he was watching on the screen had kept him from writhing. It was as if he wasn’t allowed to react to the pain he was feeling.

Peter decided to act. With precision and care, he tentatively poked his finger into his nose again to assess the damage to his nose. He felt a warm trickle of what he took to be blood gathering inside his nose. He poked his finger in further, felt some dry mucus, gently scraped and tugged at it to see if it would cause more damage, to see if it was mucus or in fact the unlined wall of his nose that he was picking at. Peter felt a throbbing in his skull. He heard a rumble between his ears. It seemed to be in front of him and inside him at the same time, as if some violent incident was gathering around his nose. Instinctively despairing, Peter knew at once that he had made a terrible mistake.

* * * * * * * * * *

Katie and Stuart both liked it when they were tasked with cleaning the same cinema between two screenings. Katie liked it because Stuart didn’t keep making lewd reference to her breasts like the other boys they worked with. Stuart liked it because Katie had big breasts. Katie had wondered about asking Stuart to join her one night after work for a few drinks but had decided against it after worrying what the other girls might say if they got wind of it. Stuart was a nice boy, she thought, and she didn’t really mind the spots around his mouth and nose, but those things meant a lot to other people and Katie didn’t really know if they were meant to mean a lot or not. Besides, she thought, Stuart had had numerous opportunities to ask her out too, and since he hadn’t, he was most likely not interested in her. Stuart knew down to the marrow in his bones that Katie was the most beautiful girl he’d ever meet.

Katie and Stuart came at the end of the film to stand through its credits. Katie stood with a big black bin liner and said thanks to everyone who put something into it. Some of them said thanks, some of them didn’t, one woman complained about how cold it was inside the cinema and an elderly man said it was too hot. Stuart stood ready with a sweeping brush. When the credits ended and the full lights went on he would have eight minutes to clear the drinks, popcorn, nachos, dips, sweets and crisps from in between the seats, under the seats and in the aisles.

When the credits ended Stuart sprang into action. He heard Katie kindly saying to a patron who was still sitting at the back that he would have to leave so that they could get the cinema in working order for the next showing. Stuart continued sweeping away, pleased to be hearing Katie’s voice, which he found did funny things to his stomach and chest. Katie asked the patron again. Stuart looked up. He was about seven rows away from the back and one aisle over from the patron.

Even in the light Stuart couldn’t make him out. Was it even a human? Katie must have a better angle, he thought. Katie called out to Stuart that the man must have fallen asleep. They both laughed. Stuart asked her to go and wake him. Katie laughed and refused to, pointing out it was a man and that it was therefore better if Stuart did it. They laughed some more as Stuart continued sweeping, making his way up to the back row and along to the next aisle as he did so. Katie called out two more times to the man in the back row. When Stuart finally got there he vomited immediately.

Katie began to laugh but realised almost instantly that she was doing so out of fear. She called out to Stuart and began ascending the stairs that led to the back. Stuart doubled over, retching violently. Katie asked what was wrong. No reply came. Was the man dead, she asked Stuart, knowing already that he was. Stuart didn’t answer. As Katie neared the back row her legs stiffened, her stomach dropped, her heart rattled like some horribly petrified pet against her chest, wanting no part of what was about to happen. Stuart tried to warn her, tried put his hand up and cry out, but he was vomiting what looked like bile. It was a shade of black Katie had never seen before.

It was less a man, she saw, than a mound of rotten flesh, of viscous fluid, that seemed to be shifting form and shape even as it stayed fixed to the spot, dead and alive at once. Katie let out a shriek that seemed to startle the figure before her. She could make out its arms and its legs, and it was sitting on the seat as any human might. But where the head was meant to be was a frothing vortex of innards, of brain and mucus, and all of it seemed to have half-eaten what resembled a skull. The whole thing was bubbling over and consuming the body sitting in the chair. Katie shrieked again. Stuart looked up at her. His face was a faded lilac. Katie saw the confusion in his face. He didn’t seem to recognise her.

The shriek, they both realised together, was still permeating the air, like the stab of a violin cut off prematurely, its faint trail of a note continuing aimlessly to the heavens above. And all around them, darkness.