Three days after Tom Brewer’s portrait hung on the wall, it began to move. The sallow, crinkled paper encased in the frame depicted tales of the coastline: the Ferris wheel, the carousel, the boardwalk, all drawn with brisk detail in the lower backdrop of the rendered picture. Rising dead center, a profile of Tom’s head grinned smugly, exposing cherubic white teeth. Its eyes flickered something more than life, the dark pinpoints rolling exotically as onyx marbles.
Tom knew it was alive. He couldn’t deny the sensation of being watched. The ill-fated, threatening caricature of his face, floated free in the spaces above his bedside and below the ceiling. It was snickering; its ghastly pale face with jet black hair (features of a crinkled pug-nosed hare) twinkling a cheesy smile slated star-crossed fire even Jesus couldn’t deny. Evil—it reeked of evil.
It was his own face drawn, but it was not his face. Tom remembered the story well—a story his mother told him, tucking him in bed—of John the Baptist. He came before Jesus, yet he was beheaded. Who knew why God allowed him to fall to the wayside? As his head dropped, splashing scarlet red, he must’ve seen his own body, lying in its pool of blood, Tom was quite certain of this. That same disjointed feeling arose in his soul and pervaded the conversation the next morning.
“What’s wrong?” Tom’s mother, Susan, asked as breezy as sunshine, cooking her morning meal. She banged the frying pan on the stovetop as she mixed egg whites with milk and flour, pouring the batter onto the cast-iron. “You seem like you’ve seen a ghost.”
“Maybe,” Tom said, under his breath, playing with his food. “Dunno.” He sat in his chair and peered through the clear glass of the dining table. His feet never stopped twitching.
“Do you have the flu? You’re not talking as much,” Susan commented, flipping pancakes with a spatula. “You want one?”
“No, I’m full. I don’t feel so good.”
“You don’t feel so good?” Susan asked, making another fresh platter. “You don’t feel so good? Why don’t you feel so good?”
Tom shrugged and poked at the burnt toast with his fork. The spare, half-eaten bacon solidified and became harder. It was beyond saving now. Golden gleam of the crispy fat looked like a burned victim and every time Tom poked at it, he winced. Susan came around to the table and laid her hand on his forehead.
“You seem fine to me. You sure you don’t want any pancakes, sweetie?”
“Oh my God!” she cried in stricken horror, pointing to the round crepe building. “But, honey, these are your favorites!”
“I know,” Tom said, licking his lips. “Juss not hungry.”
“Okay?” Susan said, trying to figure out the anxiousness on his face. “Why? You’re not mad at me since I can’t come to the open house night?”
“Daddy’s coming…” Tom mumbled.
“Sure he will. Daddy will take care of you. I’m so sorry that I can’t be there with you.” Susan crossed back to the low simmering gas stove. “With work and all, I don’t want to miss anything, especially how hard you’ve turned yourself around. I’ve been hearing good things about you. Isn’t that right?”
Tom nodded, cheeks flushing.
“So Dad will come take care of you and look over your stuff.”
“Isn’t that nice, sugar plum?”
“No, I hate him.”
“You what?” A look of surprise came over Susan, and then anger. “What did you say, boy?”
“He’s not my dad.”
“I’m sorry I can’t be there like I promised, but I’ll make it up to you somehow. Okay?” She pressed on. “It’s just that I have been on a very tight schedule—you know?—been busy most of the week.” Something was smoldering, smelled of burnt batter; Susan scraped furiously to prevent further loss. “All right, Tommy?”
“But he’s not my Dad,” Tom said, and pushed back his plate.
“Are you thirsty? You want something to drink?”
“I don’t want to be with him,” he answered, stomach groaning restively.
“All right, fine. You’re getting water. Just plain old water. No orange juice—no nothing.” Susan poured her son a glass and sat across from him. She set her plate down and bolted chunk-size pancakes in her mouth, chewing as she spoke. “Get the orange juice out of the fridge, now, would you?”
“I said NOW!”
“Momma something attacked me in my bed last night.” Tom gasped at the brink of tears. “He said he was coming to get me.”
“Bring me OJ and we’ll talk.”
Tom Brewer walked to the refrigerator, shuffling slowly, opened the door and rooted in the back. He grabbed the carton on the lowest shelf and brought it out. Susan snatched it from his hand and drank straight from the container.
“So what happened in this dream?” she asked, peering over the table.
“I wasn’t dreaming, Mommy.”
“Is that right?”
“Right,” Tom huffed. His throat worked up and down, eyes glazing over, thinking back to last night. The drawers had shifted into a disemboweled snout, the shelves pulled back to show wrinkled clothes draped over the outcrop of frilly sun bleached hair. Its eyes were the crevasses within the folds, and its gaping mouth carved back in a sadistic glee of deranged sentient. “It was real.”
Tom’s pupils tracked his mother’s face, seeing only the rippling body and untidy sheets, as the cover rose in a misshapen hanged parishioner.
“They were real.”
“Who are they, Tommy?”
“My dad and my brother,” Tom whispered.
Susan’s hand jerked in an automatic reflex, knocking the glass over. It rose in the air and, falling, crashed back to earth. The most interesting thing happened (and when Susan relayed it over in her head, later, her disbelief turned to sudden unease) as she shrieked unable to stop herself. The glass had bounced off the parquet floor, not even shattering to bits and pieces. It rolled on the floor and came to rest at Tom’s feet, and the memories rushed unbidden with full force like the waves crashing against the cove.
——————————————– 2 ————————————————–
Her eldest son, Jake, was born eight years before Tom was conceived. He was just twelve when he was pulled in a riptide. Susan’s husband followed the same fate. Trying to save him, he was caught in the same whirlpool. Susan had screamed on the shoreline, kicking up sand as she ran back and forth at the edge of the beach.
Jake had waded out to wet, mossy boulder of a cape to search for abalones and common periwinkles. Susan couldn’t swim and watched the ocean fizz–slap around her son. He was only a few meters away from her when she looked up, but now was being towed out of the sandy bar. The vicious wave swamped over the bobbing frame, furiously keeping afloat with tiny, stick arms.
She could still see it now, as she sat in her workspace, finger rapping on the keyboard, a body floating, and two heads, one dipping under attempting to rescue the other one. They went under, both her son and her husband, into a sea of churning crosscurrent. Scummy lather foaming and creating a gyre of turbulent rotation, smash against the rocks, and, with that, they disappeared under the emerald foam.
Susan Brewer hung her head low as the monitor in front of her blurred, doubled, and blurred again. The accounting numbers on screen for her billing code job were arbitrary jokesters in life—simple digits with no meaning. The words spoken from Tom’s lips out-swam the digits.
Susan rubbed her forehead. Keeping the migraine at bay was useless. A name accosted her, just that name. She remembered Tom’s rangy demeanor, the hollowed cheekbones and the pale, anemic eyes, telling her something he could have never known because she had never mentioned it to him.
Jake, he had said. His name is Jake… like the lake… the lake of brimstone and fire…
The phone rang. She answered. It was the secretary asking if she was okay, she didn’t sound well.
Susan said she might have to punch out, but she could handle another hour.
Then the secretary said her fiancé Hal was on the other line.
After talking with him for a minute, Susan stood up from the chair and punched out, calling in sick.
———————————————- 3 ————————————————–
Later that night, Tom saw it again. It moved under the blanket sheets—a lump at the foot of his bed. He looked away from the covers, and then, stole a glance at the sheets, with wide, unblinking eyes. Heart pounding as if he was running the Colfax marathon, his throat itched maddeningly for a drop of water. He swallowed hard, perspiration matting his hair, and yet he still refused to budge. If he pretended to be asleep, the hunched shape would disappear also. It had to. He closed my eyes, and counted to three.
“One,” Tom mouthed. His throat bobbed. His pajama was soaking. What came out was a hoarse whisper, no more than a land breathing carp.
“Two.” The bed creaked. Something hideously grotesque flickered past the corner of his eye; an indistinct fuzzy blob hunkered at the far end of his bed. It was malformed in nature with blotchy, obsidian membrane, bulging in an ill-defined shape like a gnat’s eye. It was darker than its surrounding, squatting five or six feet from the spot where Tom lay frozen in terror. He shut his eyes…
“Three,” and opened them, again. His eyes bugged out in disbelief, as he witnessed a lumpy grey tissue (with a tunneled nose, and a crumpled face) rise slowly—oh so calmly—on the folds and mesa of the coverlet.
No!! Tom thought. It’s supposed to vanish on the count of three!
The lopsided head moved like a caterpillar on a pair of flaccid stumps, paddling on a ganglion of severed nerves and sliding limbs. It raised its head, once, bubbling, black pus flowing out of its exposed cranium, velvet hair stippling the top of its skull like ingrown byssus, as it slunk towards him in a jerking manner.
Please, let this be a dream—please!
He felt it on his lower calf, the weight pressing on top of his blanket, rustling, breath strangled in his throat. Tom kicked at his bed sheets, entangled around his legs, with no luck. His arms and legs were weighted down, held down with bags of sand. Tom opened his mouth to scream, but nothing came out.
Say something! Anything! Scream! Mom! MOMMM!!!
He tried. His lips refused to part. Oh how Jesus, he tried—but the only sound generating from his voice box were faint, glugging sounds like the wheeze of a gastropod. The mental circuits wiring the vocal cords had cut short, firing disintegrated synapses down to bluish cold lips. Tom whimpered, observing the irrational bulbous head with blinking, gelatinous eyes. He saw it clear as daylight; that was the horror of it all.
This was not a dream.
This was real
It loomed closer in his periphery, drawing nigh.
Get up! GET UPP! MOVE! DO SOMETHING!! DON’T JUST LAY thheerrreeee!!!
But I can’t… Tom moaned silently. I can’t move! Someone help me! HELP ME! MOM!! MOOOMMMYYYYYYY!!!!!
The world’s asleep, Tom Brewer. Thin prudish lips curled back into a smile, revealing glittering white teeth that did not move. Mommy’s dead, Tommy. You already know this.
She’ll be where we are soon. It murmured, creeping forward, wobbling closer. She’ll love every minute of it. And so will you.
What are you?! He glanced up at the ceiling, then back down again at the half-shadowed amorphous hump of shriveled face. Did he really think it’d disappear that quickly? Did he really? Whooo ARE YOUUU??!!!
Hot air blew into his face.
Sweat dampening his armpits, everything went slack as his eyelids slid open, and he watched the black, decapitated head pulsating in the shadows. It was the head of the great prince of darkness and son of perdition. It transformed halfway up Tom’s torso. Now, he was staring at his mother’s severed head, as the world turned a metallic grey, and he screamed into the abyss—into eternity.
——————————————- 4 ———————————————–
“Ahhh…” Mrs. Gault said, steering her past chairs and desks for parents, “You must be Tom’s mother.” In a corner, Susan eyed the small sleeping cots stacked up for nap-time and nodded. The cookies and chips, whatever that was left-over, were gobbled up—every last piece. “Right this way.”
“Sorry I’m late.”
Tom’s teacher led Susan to the corner of the room, a workstation full of bright crepes and colored paintings. On the north wing of the wall, a single portrait was pinned on a cork board. “I never thought you’d show up, Susan. Where’s Hal?”
“Oh, he couldn’t make it.”
Francine Gault raised her eyebrows. “Shouldn’t he be concerned about Tom’s progress?”
“I think so.” Susan paused and asked. “Has he been progressing?”
“That’s the thing. Please, come here. Take a look,” Mrs. Gault said and directed Susan to her son’s drawing. “Your child is very intuitive. He’s always curious about the littlest things. Sometimes, I catch him speaking to someone else.”
“Has he made any friends?”
“One in particular.”
“Who?” Susan wondered aloud, heart beating fast. She knew the answer even before the clown spoke.
“Jake, claims it’s his brother.”
Susan sucked in a breath and let out a tremble of conspicuous air.
“I see,” she said.
“I don’t mean to pry, but were you married previously?”
“No, not that I know of.”
“Is Hal his father?”
“Yes, of course, why do you ask?”
“I want to show you something,” Mrs. Gault said, directing their attention to the wall with the bulletin board. “Yesterday, I had the students draw a self-portrait. This was a class exercise for today, actually, and the parents were supposed to figure out who drew what picture.”
“Did they do well?” Susan asked, peering at the classmate’s palm tracks covering cork board in gusty blue, red, and yellow paints. Above it, taped on the wall, a low hanging crepe paper dangled with the words: CHOOSE YOUR OWN FACE!
“Everyone got it right the first time, yes.”
“I suppose that left-over one is my son’s.” Susan said, hooting with laughter.
Tom’s teacher’s smile turned grim. “The student’s wrote their names on the back. Tom didn’t write his name. He kept writing something else, so finally I crossed it out and wrote his name for him.”
“He knows how to write his name—I taught him how.”
“But do you notice anything out of place with your son’s drawing?” Mrs. Gault asked.
Susan edged up to the self-portrait. “No, I don’t see anything wrong.”
“The two stick figures near the bottom of the sand, who are they?”
The drawing was suspended with a thumbtack; Susan refused to answer.
“Tom says they’re his father and brother. He claims what he draws is Hell, and his brother and father are there, burning.” Mrs. Gault said. “Have you been teaching your son Revelations?”
“He’s been saying what now?”
“He’s become a bad influence on the kids. They’re talking about hell as if it’s a good thing. Also, your son’s been sleepwalking.”
“I’m sorry, but I didn’t come here to hear you talk poorly about my son.” Susan said, glaring at the teacher. “And about this sleepwalking incident, I’ve never known Tom to do anything like that.”
“It’s been recent.”
“Whether it’s recent or not, I came here to see my son’s work and progress—have you praise it—not tell me he speaks in tongue. Are you crazy?”
“I’m not lying, Susan.”
“Are you sure about that? Are you sure he’s not just wanting to use the restroom?” She countered, looking coldly at Francine. “You must have the wrong child. My child would never act that way.”
“All I know is your son needs help. Please get him some help. I’m just concerned about his state of mind.”
“Okay, fair enough. I’ll check up on him.” Susan said. “Right now, we’re leaving. Where is he?”
Mrs. Gault inhaled and led Susan to where Tom was sitting and drawing with crayons. The teacher bent over, placing her hands to her knees, skirt rising, and said: “Tom? You have to leave now.”
“Hey boy, your momma is here.” Susan said. “How do you feel?”
Tom looked up, peeked back down, and continued drawing.
“Put the crayons down, now, Tom. We have to go.”
Tom put down his red crayon and got up out of his chair. Susan gripped his hand tightly and pulled him out of the classroom. They went down the hallway and outside. When Susan arrived at her duplex apartment, on the very top floor, she pulled out the drawing from her shoulder bag. She had taken it off the corkboard before she left.
Save for the small figures in the background, it was a lame attempt to recreate the caricature from Laguna Beach hanging in Tom’s room. The only difference between the original and replica was the amount of hair drawn. In Tom’s version, the portrait of the face had long straggly hair piled on top of the dome shaped head. It was a blond color, just like hers. It was curly, just like hers. Through the paper, Susan saw something on the other side. She flipped the portrait over and, on the back, a name was blotted out with white-out, but she could still see through it. The shaky scrawl of Tom’s handwriting blazed up in Susan’s retina.
In the back was written Beelzebub.
—————————————— 5 ——————————————-
A scream pierced the night. Running footfalls clamored to the child’s room. It was small well suited for the dingy apartment of the upper story, nestled in the east chamber. The mother opened the door and rushed inside.
. Cold draft blew in through the opened casement window, fluttering the curtains. In the bed, the blankets were pulled over to the side and had fallen on the floor. There lay Tom rigid as a streamliner, thrashing his body, head flailing. Arms outstretched, he shrieked the most inhuman scream possible, eyelids dancing. Sweat drenched his pajamas, his eyes pulling upward to show white collecting wickedness, seeing something consecrated, not of this world. Sweat poured over his body like baby oil.
“Hey, Tom. Tom!” Susa Brewer shouted with a grating annoyance. “Snap out of it! It’s just a dream—a nightmare.” She approached the side of the bed and shook her only child. His skin felt sticky yet cold. How? The flu? Was he down with the influenza?
Tom’s eyes flew open and he stared at her, pupils shrinking from the ceiling lights and whimpered: “Momma, what happened?”
“You’re here,” Susan said, brushing his damp hair aside. “You’re safe here with me,” and double-checked the opened window. Nothing could get in since it opened with a crank on the bottom hung sash, so why was she so fearful?
“Where am I?”
“In your room, Tom. You okay?” She walked to the far end of the bed and twisted the window shut. “Did you open this while I was away?”
Tom whispered, moaning. “I won’t go back.”
“God, it’s freezing in here.”
“I don’t want to go back,” he murmured.
“Go back where, honey?”
Tom pointed at the portrait hanging on the wall, stolid, full of waxen features and vulpine grin. Her son was losing it; he was imagining things because I wasn’t there for him as much as he’d like.
“What are you looking at?” Susan asked, turning to follow her son’s petrified gaze. A soft breeze rippled the curtains. “The portrait? Are you looking at your portrait?”
Tom’s upper lips quivered.
“There’s nothing to be scared of, Tom. It’s just a caricature, honey, a caricature, you know what that is? Why would you be afraid of something like that?”
“It is too!” Her son broke out crying and blubbered. “It is too, real!”
“There’s nothing there, now. It must’ve been a dream.”
“No, it is here.” Tom cried, gasping for air, shoulders hitching in a low tremor.
“What is here, Tom?” Susan said, crossing her arms, and rubbing her face. “There’s nothing here, babe.”
He pointed a shaky finger at the far wall where the portrait of her son hung in a wooden frame. The bulging forehead and the flicker of a muddy cornea revealed cherubic innocence and lips drawn back, flashing pearly white.
“That? That’s just a picture someone drew, Tommy, remember? We bought that at the beach?”
She remembered the wide-brimmed fisherman’s hat, and the man sitting in the nylon, folding chair in front of the easel, and feeling a tinge of attraction. She could feel his eyes on her long, smooth legs as she set her firstborn son down for the composition. In his quarters that night, he introduced himself as Hal Benedict, a good guy who gobbled her up more than gabbed.
“You said you wanted to have your face drawn. And the guy who drew it gave us a five dollar discount. Remember that?” Susan ruffled his hair. “You were happy about that.”
“That’s not me, Mom.” Tom persisted. “It’s not!”
“And why do you say that?”
“Something’s wrong with it.”
“I know,” Susan said with a nod. “You wouldn’t keep still. That was the problem.”
“It’s cursed—it’s alive!” he wailed, tears shedding. “You have to believe me.”
“Don’t be silly. Pictures can’t come alive, especially self-portraits. It took him nearly twenty minutes to finish drawing this,” She strode across to the wall, and laid a finger on the portrait, tracing the contours. “You’re lucky he didn’t take any longer than he did, so be thankful. He gave you life. Don’t you like the colors, Tom?”
He remained silent, eyes as large as Petri-dish, and crawled underneath his blankets.
“No matter,” Susan said. “If it continues to bother you, I’ll remove it, okay?”
“That portrait is you, Tom. I don’t know why you think otherwise.”
“All right. You go to bed now like a good boy.” Susan reached to the door. “I’ll be seeing you in the morning.” She flicked off the lights. “G’night honey.”
From the bed, came no answer. The room was thrown into the blackest of black darkness where there was no return.
————————————— 6 —————————————–
Susan woke up from a dream in a stranglehold. In the dream, she was a priest, baptizing a boy child. It kicked and screamed, as she dipped it in a basin full of holy water. When she brought him up, she realized it wasn’t water, but red wine and the scent of ancient nails. Streaks of prism color shimmered up from the largest of all abalone shell. She held the mollusk by the feet, dangling him, his hairless head dripping a cascade of baptismal fluid. She heard a strange pitter patter noise and shallow breathing, down the hallway, away from the altar. Something creaked close to her. It was approaching in slow, schlepping steps.
Susan awoke with a start. The stench of urine assaulted her senses as she inhaled a whiff of the cloying ammonia and tried not to gag. In the eldritch shadows, Susan saw her son next to the bedside, eyes adjusting to the dark. Tom stood facing the wall, adjacent to the headrest, tinkling.
“Jesus, Tom—how old are you?”
He made no attempt to respond; his eyes chivied back and forth under half-opened eyelids. He looked shriveled and his face blanched with a chalky pallor. Naked, except a pair of underwear, Susan noticed dollar quarter bruises on his back and neck, becoming vine-like as they traveled higher. Eyeballs kept chivying up and down like illustrative heartbreak, back and forth, under the layer of skin and eyelashes fluttering. Her heart seized with sub-zero frost.
Are you crazy?
(have you been hurting him?)
No, he does not sleep walk.
(your son needs help, please, get him some help)
There’s something wrong with him.
There was nothing wrong or aberrant about her son, Susan thought. Sure, it looked like bite-marks, but that was only where the fire ants had gotten him playing out in the backyard, all by himself.
But that was weeks ago. The scars had already healed by then. The scratches on his arms looked nothing like the attack of fire ants. They were splotchy red as if someone had taken a thin razor and sliced open the skin without drawing blood. Susan watched her son make a stabbing motion with his hand, turn around, and shuffle out of her bedroom in slow disconnected steps. She watched him walk down the corridor to his room and lie down on his bed, stepping over the low side rails, muttering an incantation. Susan followed her child into his room and her gazed settled on the opposite wall instinctively.
The caricature of the child in the portrait wasn’t Tom. She had known this for many years, putting on the impression contrary to what her son believed. The caricature was of Jake. Hal had drawn Jake when he was little and, now, Susan wept bitterly.
He wasn’t supposed to die, only that bastard… only that bastard…
The perfect plan Hal had Susan concocted had backfired. Only her husband was supposed to drown, not Jake, dear God, not him. She missed him. Even if she had wondered why he was born only to perish underwater, she missed him terribly. In the end, she left the portrait hanging for another night. And then, the end came for Tom the following night.
———————————————— 7 ————————————————
The voices were one. They were all in him and coming from him. She recognized her husband and Jake gurgling upward like an open fissure from Tom’s little voice box. The same speech patterns of his deceased family members flowed out in legion of lesions, as Tom wailed and filed his teeth, grinding and gnashing his canines.
“Honey, are you okay?” Susan Brisket asked as her son writhing under the sheets, tightening her robe. “It’s just a dream—it’s all over, now.”
She stood at the side of the bed, assessing the rumpled sheets rise and fall. “Tom, stop acting like a monster and come out from under there. Please.”
A deep rumbling croak uttered from its depth, leaden and squealing. “No, fuck you!”
“Baby, get out from under there. Who told you that? Who told you to use words like that?”
Vulgarity twisted in the bedspread, rising and falling. “You,” it cackled, then, here was Tom’s real voice, unaided, brittle with heart, came lisping out. “Help me, Mom. Help me. It’s got me.”
Susan grabbed the bedspreads and yanked the coverlet off of the (fetus) boy lying on his side, convulsing uncontrollably. Restraints that were simply belt buckles and his father’s ties had unclasped themselves and were gone. Tom sprang up, angry-dark, tottering with gleeful rage, throwing the sheets over her, suffocating her, obscuring her vision. The white sheet seemed to have taken a life on its own, as it choked her breathing, the fabric becoming hands. Susan was thrown against the wall, rising two feet off the ground, arms flinging upward and out in surrender. She flayed about, thrashing her head, shrieking in her mind. Please stop, please! Tell it to stop! Tommmmyyy!!!
She couldn’t see, but she heard the voice from the depths of hell, clotted, purple, and bruising pillory. His slate tongue flicked and, she heard him from two inches from her face, the blanket sheets smothering her mouth and nose.
“Hell is a fun place, Mother… better than heaven!” Susan smelled sash cloth and ashes. She prayed incessantly, relentlessly, never ceasing to repent and pray God for deliverance.
“Mother, God can’t help you,” It moaned, screeching with laughter. “There is no God.”
Blood drained from her face and began to leak down her nostrils and out her ears.
“You killed us. Now pay for our sins.”
And then, finally, miraculously, as it had whipped her off her feet and onto the wall like a malevolent magnet, it (whatever it was) let her go, and she dropped with a sudden thud. Susan scrambled out of the blankets, screaming—a scream that pitched continually out of her soul like gambler’s tossed dices, chattering, never-ending.
“We are all waiting for you,” it said, as it leapt out of the apartment window. “Join us…”
When the screams died down, and Susan ran to the window, she discerned a small cadaverous figure at the bottom of the concrete pavement, looking back up at her with lambent eyes.
“Tom! Get back here! Tom!” she shouted from ten stories away. “Where are you going?”
Down at the foot of the stairs, the thing smiled a leering grin and rasped, “Search for my father—my real father.”
The cock crowed three times, and it was gone.
Oh dear God. Susan thought, heart squeezing with terror. Hal!
Dawn descended and the rain began to fall. Somewhere off in the distant thunder crackled and boomed, lightening striking the top of the Susan’s flat. It flashed brilliantly, and, in the light, she saw the portrait of herself hanging, and its eyes moved just the way her son told her.
Archive for: July, 2013
Three days after Tom Brewer’s portrait hung on the wall, it began to move. The sallow, crinkled paper encased in the frame depicted tales of the coastline: the Ferris wheel, the carousel, the boardwalk, all drawn with brisk detail in the lower backdrop of the rendered picture. Rising dead center, a profile of Tom’s head grinned smugly, exposing cherubic white teeth. Its eyes flickered something more than life, the dark pinpoints rolling exotically as onyx marbles.
For one hundred pounds I will sell you my soul…
There was nothing that Julian Hart loved more than getting something for nothing. He had dedicated his life to just that; setting up convoluted deals in which people unwittingly bought things which they already owned. All it ever cost Julian was time and ingenuity – and he had plenty of ingenuity to spare.
When he saw the advert in the newspaper, Julian was horrified – horrified, that is, that he hadn’t thought of it first:
For one hundred pounds I will sell you my soul.
And then an address – somewhere in London, judging from the postcode, he thought. Nothing else.
Was that what a soul was worth? He wondered. A high price for something so inconsequential; something, perhaps, which did not even exist. Julian tried to imagine what kind of man – or woman – would want to purchase a soul. He already knew what kind of man would sell it; a clever man. An inventive man.
The kind of man Julian simply had to meet.
Julian looked again at the address; it was not far from where he lived. He tore the page from the newspaper, folded it neatly into his pocket for future reference and then promptly forgot about it.
Andrew King was not an impious man. Nor was he an especially intelligent man. He was, on the other hand, especially poor.
It had not been his idea to place the advert – it had not, in fact, been Andrew who placed the advert at all.
“The only thing you have of value is that blimmin’ soul of yours!” His wife had growled.
“And that more valuable than anything else a man can possess.” Andrew had told her. Perhaps he even believed that – and certainly if you asked him he would tell you that he did.
“Not more valuable than a roof over our heads and full bellies.” Andrew’s wife’s belly was fuller than most, but he didn’t tell her that. He would have liked to but, although he was not an intelligent man, he was not so foolish as to commit marital suicide.
“If you spent as much time working as you did polishing pews with your backside, I’d be a wealthy woman.” She continued.
“Man shall not live by bread alone…”
“Man shall not live at all if he doesn’t have a little bread!” Andrew’s wife scolded. “And man shall not keep a woman like me by the purity of his soul. Gawd, it must shine like silver, the way you keep at polishing it!”
“A soul is worth more than silver.” Andrew had told her. “More than its weight in gold…”
What is a soul worth, Andrew’s wife had found herself wondering the next morning. She wondered a great many things in the mornings since all of her chores were by now so familiar that she could have done them blindfolded. Where would you find a buyer for a soul?
Certainly, there were stranger things bought and sold in London. If you went to the right place, you could sell your honour for fewer than five pence. But surely a soul would be worth more than that. At least, a soul like Andrew’s must be.
They let her place the classified for free. The young man who noted down her address was pink-faced with merriment at the idea. A soul! For sale!
“You must sell us the story afterwards!” he insisted.
“Of course.” If she could sell a soul then she was certainly prepared to sell a story. As she made her way home, she found herself wondering how much she could charge per word. A woman like her did not give her word cheaply, she thought. For as many words as a whole story would need, she might well be able to charge a whole pound.
“I have come for your soul.” The man said in a deep and foreboding tone – or, at least, in as foreboding a tone as he could muster.
“Well you can’t have it!” Andrew told him. He slammed the door shut and then apologised to it. On the other side, he could hear the man laughing as he made his way down the street.
“Why did you do it?” He asked his wife. “Surely you knew…?”
“Don’t you come all clever with me!” Andrew’s wife blustered at him. “How should I know that trying to sell your soul to keep your dear old wife in bread and butter would end us up like this?”
They had been knocking at the door all morning; jokesters and ministers and all manner of curious people, all wanting to see the man who wanted to sell his soul.
“By rights you should be thanking me!” She told him, although she didn’t explain why. Perhaps Andrew would have asked if there had not been another knock at the door.
Andrew King was a well-mannered man. Too well-mannered to ignore a knocked door if he was on the un-knocked side of it. Wearily, he drew himself up to his feet and made his way out to the hallway.
“Is it taken?” The man twitched as he spoke, as if at a moment’s notice he might leap up and flee down the road in search of a burrow in which to take cover.
“What – ?”
“The soul, man! The soul…” He spoke the word ‘soul’ with the same covetous reverence with which another man might say ‘diamonds’ or ‘princess’.
“I – ”
“This is the right place, isn’t it? You are selling a soul?”
“Yes. I mean to say no. Somewhat…” The man was becoming twitchier by the moment. It was infectious, in a way. Andrew could feel the urge to twitch creeping up all over his skin. The man looked so uncomfortably forlorn that Andrew couldn’t help feeling sorry for him.
“Perhaps you’d better come inside.” Andrew said.
The man hesitated on the threshold of the door, as if simply by passing through into a house he was committing some unspeakably unthinkable crime, before entering.
“Have a seat.” Andrew gestured towards a chair with one arm and the man flinched back as if struck.
“I’ll stand, if you don’t mind; I prefer to stand.”
There was an uncomfortably polite moment as both men waited for the other to speak.
“Who’s this?” Andrew’s wife asked.
“Is it taken?” The man asked again, as if the sight of Andrew’s wife had somehow jolted his memory. “The soul – is it taken? Do you still have it? Can I – can I see it?”
“I – ”
“Of course you may!” Andrew’s wife interrupted him. “Do you have the money?”
“I have it.”
“Why do you want a soul?” Andrew asked. The man’s eagerness was making him feel more and more as if he were about to become the victim of some bizarre kind of robbery or other.
“No reason.” The man told him.
“One hundred pounds worth of reasons.” said Andrew’s wife.
“Then sell him your soul.” Andrew told his wife.
“Ah! But is my soul worth that much?”
“I’ll take them both.” The man said. “One hundred pounds for each of them. I have the money with me…”
“Take hers,” said Andrew, “you can’t have mine.”
“He means, of course, that you can’t have his for just one hundred pounds. Mine – huh! – yes, mine you can certainly have for that, but my husband’s soul is polished like silver. It is a beautiful soul and you will be lucky to have it at two – no! three – hundred pounds.”
“I’ll take them both.” The man repeated. From his pocket, he took a handful of crisp bank notes and began to count them out onto the table.
“Four hundred pounds,” he said at last. “Now can I see them?”
“Of course you may! Andrew – show the gentleman the mettle of your soul!” Said Andrew’s wife. “For myself, I carry mine with me always. Look – here it is.” She held out her hands, cupped together as if to hold some precious trinket or other.
“I – my soul is a part of me. I can’t just take it out. I can’t – ” Before Andrew could stop him, the man had taken hold of his hand and was examining the palm as if it held the very secrets of creation.
“Yes,” He said at last. “I’ll take them. Both of them.”
“Hand over the money and they’re yours.” Andrew’s wife promised.
“Oh! But – the contract. There has to be…” The man patted at his coat from top to bottom. When one of his pockets made a scrunching sound, he reached in and produced a tattered piece of paper. “Like this.” He said. He unfolded the contract and tapped at it with his finger.
“Write one down and we’ll sign it – do it on the back of this one if you like. It doesn’t matter.” Andrew’s wife told him.
The man produced a pen from his top shirt pocket and smoothed out the piece of paper as much as he could. On the blank side he wrote:
We, the vendors, condemn our souls to the possession of the holder of this contract for the price of four hundred pounds and no pence (which has been received in full).
“I’m not signing this.” Andrew said. “’Condemned’; what exactly do you mean by that?”
“Hand over the money and I’ll sign for us both. I’m his wife, after all.”
The man pressed the money and the pen into Andrew’s wife’s hands.
“Sign!” He said. “Sign!” Andrew noticed how wide his eyes were. The man licked at his lips.
“No. I’m sorry, but you can’t have mine. I never intended – ” Andrew tried to snatch the pen away but it was too late. ‘Mr and Mrs King’ his wife wrote.
“There.” She said.
The man snatched up the contract and tucked it into the same pocket from which he had taken it out.
“Two souls.” He said in a voice which was almost dream-like. “I have two souls – and you have none!” He laughed, then. A terrible laugh which went on and on until tears ran down his cheeks. “None at all!” He pointed at them with one trembling finger. “You are soulless. Soulless creatures. I have two souls and you have none at all.”
“I never agreed to this.” Andrew said.
“As if that would make any difference! No – you put your soul in her hands and she gave it away for pittance.”
“Two souls.” Andrew’s wife repeated. “Not three?”
“Two souls, dear Madam Soulless. I had none of my own.”
“What Satanic creature are you, then?” Andrew made the sign of the holy cross as best he could. The man laughed.
“No Satanic creature – no more than you yourselves are. A Satanic customer, you might say. Two souls – two of them!”
“What have you done?” Andrew turned to his wife. “Woman what have you done?”
“Two souls!” The man repeated once more. “I sold my own for a pittance – and for a portion of a pittance I have purchased two more!”
It wasn’t until Julian walked past the house itself that he remembered the newspaper clipping. He pulled it out of his pocket to check that – yes – this was the right place. The paper had become brittle and torn around the edges – had he sent his overcoat to be washed with it still in there? He wasn’t sure.
Since I’m passing by, he thought. There’s no harm in knocking.
“If you’ve come about the soul then you’re too late.” The man who peered around the door at Julian Hart had wide, red-rimmed eyes which moved constantly but never seemed to blink.
“No, Sir – not at all! I came to congratulate you on your singular ingenuity.”
“Oh.” The man said. “I see. Well – “
“I myself have considered following your marvelous example…”
The door seemed to fling itself open as if it had been pushed outwards by tightly coiled spring.
“I will buy it.” The man said. “I’ll – come in! Please come in!”
Julian stepped into the house and closed the door. The man was already half way down the corridor – Julian followed him and found himself in a modest living room. A wild-haired old woman slept in a chair in one corner. To her chest, she clutched a small bundle of filthy bank notes.
“Quiet.” The man said. “Quiet – don’t wake her. I will buy it from you… but you mustn’t wake her.”
“What’s this then?” Julian asked. “A trade in souls? I sell it to you for sixty and you sell it on for one hundred?”
“I’ll pay you double that for it. Triple. What do you weigh, sir? I’ll pay you your weight in gold when I can get it. Just – do you have a piece of paper, sir? There has to be a contract. It has to be – “
“What’s this?” The woman was awake. She eyed Julian hungrily, the way a half-starved dog looks up into a butcher’s window. “What’s this? A man?”
“Dear lady, I’ve come to sell your… your husband?” The woman nodded. “I’ve come to sell your husband my soul. A foolish venture you may think, but – “
“Whatever he’s offered you, I’ll pay double.” The woman seemed to leap out of her chair, gripping at Julian’s wrist with sharp- nailed little hands. “Double that, if I have it. Can I see it, sir? Can I see?”
“You’ve woken her!” The wide-eyed man sighed. “I knew that you would – I knew…”
“Ah!” The woman squawked. “Ah! You would have bought it and left your dear wifey to suffer, would you? Would you?” She looked up at Julian, her hands still tightly locked around his wrist. “Sir, you must forgive me. You must – “
“You must not give it to her!” The man hissed. The woman turned to glare at him. “You must not – woman, if you don’t release him, I’ll tell – “
“Tell what?” Julian asked.
“Fool!” The woman almost shrieked. “You soulless, mindless fool!”
If it was an act or a scam of some kind, Julian couldn’t work it out. No matter which way he turned it in his mind, it didn’t seem to fit.
“Don’t give it to her!” The woman moaned and dug her nails still deeper into Julian’s wrist.
“Just – just show it to me. Please – before you go. Just show me…”
“How – ?”
“I’ll show you how, lovely sir. You just let me and I‘ll show you how.” The woman crooned. She twisted Julian’s wrists together, pressing his hands so that the fingers formed a cup.
There were marks on Julian’s wrists where the woman’s nails had dug into him. One of them had broken the skin and a prickle of blood had risen up to the surface. His hands shook a little, although he didn’t notice them.
He had sold so many other things in the past. – most of them things which had never belonged to him. Those which had – his dignity and his pride – had not seemed to matter at the time, although now he feared that they were simply small parts of something much more valuable.
“He doesn’t have one.” The woman had pushed away his hands. “No more than we do – who did you sell it to?” She had asked him. “What did you get? How much – ?”
“I – ”
Julian didn’t know. Perhaps he had never had a soul to begin with. How would you know? What difference would it make?
Except that now he knew for certain. He knew that he lacked.
Was it visible – obvious to everyone but him? Beauty, he knew, was in the eye of the beholder. Was soullessness in every eye but yours? What would they do if they caught him? What would they do to him?
Somewhere behind him, he heard the crazed laughter of a soulless creature and the desperate sobbing of another.
Bio: Rebecca L. Brown is a British writer based in Cardiff. She lives with her partner and two cats.
The central Machine of the New Regime was struggling to process the mass of data flowing through its memory. Each byte of information flooding from the millions of voting terminals had combined to simultaneously jam its pathways, dragging its process to a slow march, degrees away from a total crash. An unheard of malfunction. Unthinkable. Frantic technicians struggled, dancing in panic, to free up memory, closing down all none essential programs, anything to alleviate the immediate danger of shutdown. Systems governing weather monitoring, tidal predictions and some of the low level accountancy algorithms were swiftly terminated. The damage could be assessed later. The morning after. Engineers stood back and watched the technicians at work, happily dictating the theory but useless to intervene, handing over such menial tasks as running code to their inferior colleagues.
The voting had been expected to be close. The electorate hadn’t disappointed. Those supporting the right wing challenge of the Progressive Fascist Party had voted in force, pushing the issue right to the brink of the central computers processing power. Unease at their revolutionary policies spiking dramatically. The ruling coalition were cutting it very fine. High level officials were worried. Whispers of a coup by the army, or special police or one of the more radical monastic sects were rife. Even the level one citizens, disenfranchised by various acts and repeals, usually uninterested in politics and the acts of state, had their televisions tuned to the result. Waiting. As the technicians struggled to avoid the unthinkable, plan and counter plan were formed and redrawn behind the closed doors of power. The world was watching.
At the chess game no one was concerned with politics. Focus was firmly fixed on the two players. The crowd of old intellectuals and retired revolutionaries all had been cut adrift through one misdeed or the other, an academic paper deemed to be blasphemous, a small act of pointless resistance, graffiti on the subway. Most were removed from the new society, happy to attend an illegal gathering, proud to be continuing a fine tradition of supporting the game years after it had been banned. Allowed to only those at the highest level. Somewhere deep in the libraries of the great monasteries stilted games continued, but for research value only. In the disused shopping centre the contest was living and breathing, each small twitch and sigh watched intently, move and counter move silently applauded in the minds of defeated men. In closed corners a few hushed comments mentioned the election, serving only as a backdrop to the larger issue of the night. And this would be a ranking match. A real decider.
The two opponents were striking in their difference. One smiling contentedly, happy in his pursuits, the other crouched over the board, effort etched on every wrinkle of his face, concentration scratching his brow. Grand Master Zamyatin betrayed his famed intellect with the nervousness of his play. His heavy white beard, lending him the air of antiquity. The small dark glasses only added to the effect. But behind those lenses his eyes continued lurking, screened from his opponent and the watching public. His simple black suit and heavy working boots completed the dishevelment, simple in its small normalities. He shifted repeatedly between moves, the leather of the chair’s upholstery moaning softly at such constant agitation. The white pawns he had drawn to begin with being lifted and replaced with a wide degree of variation. Quick and aggressive at moments of panic. Followed with long periods of inactivity as the Grand Master mediated on the next possible move. As the game progressed the moments of alarm were becoming more and more frequent. Zamyatin feared the end could be close. Just beyond his fingertips.
The young boy’s alternative style changed the game he played, gentle, more fluid. His composure was unnerving. Bright aggressive attack and slow defensive block, completed in the same breath, a moments consideration before a soft glide of his small hand. His legs dangled over the edge of the large chair, unable to reach the ground, swinging slowly back and forth in a small pendulum, tick, tock, constant like his play. His colourful shorts and bright T-shirt, advertising the latest animated feature film the authorities had released, featuring a family of talking dogs, compounded the contrast. The boy smiled continuously throughout, infectious, his sightless eyes staring above the head of his opponent, off to some lost face in the crowd that would remain unseen. His father sat behind him on a tall stool offering silent support, unable to speak, gagged by the strict conditions imposed for ranking matches. Not that support was required. The bright neon light of the advertising viddie-boards overhead played in shadow across his face.
Things had improved for the staff of the central Machine. The engineers could breath easier, their votes would be counted. The technicians had managed to free up enough memory to get the machine processing. Working slowly, chewing the data carefully, methodically, pulses streaming, calculations predicted that at it’s current speed it would take approximately two years to tally the remaining votes. This had worried the engineers at first, but further explanation calmed them from the frenzy which was initially launched into. Blind panic after blind panic. Serious problems in this endeavour could cost them their jobs, their vote. For the technicians failure could carry an even higher price. In dark corners dictators in waiting were growing anxious, heated phone calls shared with their military backers. Various ministers of the ruling coalition fishing out their favourite general or commissioner of police for quiet reassurances.
In the apartments of the vast housing towers, strained eyes were locked on their screens, glancing to digital clocks above artificial fires to reassure themselves that the announcement was late. Something extraordinary was happening. An old propaganda film about the roles and responsibilities of a citizen, seen many times before during compulsory broadcasts, was being rerun. Excitement was growing. Even the tired teenagers had dragged themselves down from their roof world of possibilities to view the great event. An election happened once in a lifetime, filling them with lost feelings, strange hope gripping the hearts of even those that had seen the worst before and had tried to forget. Changes, maybe new beginnings, a chance for another way. Bizarre ideals of a brighter future, not seen for a generation, teased their lips, waited to fall forward into an uncertain new world. Everything the New Regime had promised and failed to deliver. A new belief that could only be stillborn.
The owners of the more opulent mansions, beyond the city walls, nestled away in small coves near sheltered shores were less impressed. They knew little would change. The status quo would have to be preserved. Their way of life depended on it. Shallow dreams, hidden in forbidden books of political theory had to be suppressed. The cobwebs of the system were not about to be brushed away by a new wind. They sipped their synthetic wines and watched with interest the old film portraying each worker as an integral part of the machinery that held the foundation together, and laughed.
The endgame was upon them. Grand Master Zamyatin had been pushed back again and again. Bright excitement ran through the crowd, unsure what they were witnessing. The boy’s unsensing smile continued as each piece was moved, growing sinister in its intensity, the lips turning too high at the corners. The row of captured white pieces, lay in a straight line in front of the boy, to the side of the board, shadowing his own black forces, poised on the verge of taking one of the remaining white rooks, condemning the Grand Master to a slow and lingering death. A desperate defensive manoeuvre by the old man saved him briefly, but it was a small stay of execution. The boy’s father edged closer to his young charge, anxious to have it ended. Looking up Zamyatin caught the eye of the judges, already beginning to usher the overbearing parent back to his designated position. The smile of the boy flickered momentarily, sensing the commotion, offering the old man nothing, before returning brighter than before, normality regained. A waving hand from the judges urging him to continue, eager to be done also. The risks were high. Lingering could have consequences.
The technicians continued to shut down further, none essential, programs. The estimated time frame for the calculations to run their course now stood at about three weeks. Not quick enough. In the haste several more important circuits were shut down in error, switch A for switch B, resulting in loss of power to four sectors of the city. Two public hospitals were without supply for ninety seconds until one of the internal diagnostic programs noticed the error and quickly checking protocol brought back up power online. The delay proved fatal for five patients on operating tables. This would not be highlighted to the maintenance staff for several weeks, but they were assured such losses were acceptable in the larger plan. The processing time had now been reduced to two hours. A second propaganda film, “ Promises of The New Regime.” was played. The lengthening delay proved too much for the short attention span of the teenage roof dwellers as they slipped away from crowded living rooms, returning to their twinkling fires, inevitable clashes with the authorities back on the schedule.
The lights surrounding the chess game flickered, the naked bulbs announcing the frantic redistribution within the supply grid. The Grand Master’s destruction was almost complete. Reduced to three pawns, his queen pinned down, he was out manoeuvred and out thought. There was no escape left. The judges had already advised him to concede on three occasions, aware of the unnecessary risk they were all taking, but the old man wasn’t done. Those at the edge of the crowd had already started to drift away, satisfied, searching out sanctuary from the empty city, their minds turned again to everyday matters, the impending result, dark whispers foretelling of hidden violence should events take an unforeseen turn. The streets were no place to be if the night turned dangerous. Still the Grand Master hung on. Even the boy’s stone exterior had started to crack, small fractures, but visible, an uneasy movement at the corner of his smile, his sightless eyes drifting from their fixed point.
Activity at the central Machine had slid to a halt. All the prodding and investigating, the closing of programs and the reassignment of vital duties, could not change the conclusions the diagnostic programs were indicating. The technicians had run out of options. Huddled with the engineers in informal conference they laid the decisions out to be evaluated. Only by shutting down one or more of the core responsibilities could the result be calculated within the required time. The suggested targets were rated and rerated. With haste forced upon them and reports of growing unease from all sectors of the city starting to filter through, the decisions were made. The aftermath would have to be swept up later, the excuses fabricated to fill the twenty four hour news stations. The required circuits were pulled and the heavy flow of electrons began to free up, running quickly through the stretched pathways, scorched torrid with the overload, burnt bright with strain. The entire crew sweated cold with relief.
On every available screen in the city the propaganda film was interrupted, the announcer’s cultured tone bringing relief to an impatient population. The delay had been short but imperfectly timed. The masses wouldn’t wait. The build up was cut to a minimum as further tales of unrest circled, a prison riot in one of the western sectors apparently out of control. Finally it was ready. The central Machine downloaded the result directly to the broadcast, as the law dictated, pausing for nanoseconds, allowing several safety programs to ensure the validity of the outcome. All was in order. The result was closer than most had expected, only one percent separating the opposing groups. Tight but inevitable. The ruling coalition held. Small pockets of resistance, breaking out in the Progressive Fascist Party’s heartland, far to the south of the city, were quickly controlled, the young mobs scattered throughout the vast industrial farms, running before the special police units that had been on standby for such eventualities. The central Machine nearly crashed for a second time, struggling to cope with the massive power surge as billions of induction kettles were switch on in unison, the proletariat desperate to slacken the thirst, now the excitement was at an end. Further redistribution was required but the grid held. On project roofs the teenagers huddled around their fires, continuing with their games unaware. The authority drones, until now busy in suppression, would be visiting soon.
The lights of the shopping centre gave out, plunging the game into darkness. In the panic most of the onlookers bolted, fearing a raid, crashing through window displays of sports equipment, charging down mile long grocery aisles attempting to escape through any route offered. The players didn’t rise, only a small flinch in the face of the young boy announced he was aware of the changing circumstances. The Grand Master continued to stare at the board, the pieces barely visible as his pupils dilated, making the most of the little light crawling from clouded corners. With a single pawn and a trapped queen, he was in deep trouble. But his king had not been captured yet. Barely breathing. He would fight on. The senior judge, brandishing a torch, broke the heavy silence.
“ I fear we cannot continue in these circumstances.”
“ Then the game is ours.” The boy’s father rose from his position, joy stretched across his grey face. Zamyatin held his nerve, restraining the anger from infecting his voice.
“ I am not defeated yet.” The boy’s mouth moved to answer before a light touch from his father silenced the infant outburst.
“ Your position is untenable. You would have lost.”
“ Have I lost yet ?” The judges shuffled their feet, cowered by the situation. Again, the boy made to speak, another light touch halting him.
“ I think you should be pragmatic here.”
“ I’ll think for myself thank you.” Silence again. Turning to the senior judge the old man decided to force the issue. “ What is the rules governing a situation like this ?” The judge hesitated.
“ Well this really is rather unusual….” No way out, escape, acceptable compromise offered itself and the Grand Master wouldn’t be short changed.
“ But ?” Another pause. “ What do the rules stipulate ?” The boy’s father was anxious, aware of the most likely outcome.
“ In a situation such as this….. I’m afraid the rules dictate…..” The judge looked towards the blind boy, unease dripping from his gaze. “The rules dictate the game is abandoned and a rematch being arranged within three months.” The boy howled with a pale cocktail of frustration, hinting at hidden capabilities that frightened the old man, leant towards dangers beneath. Rising from his chair, he glanced down on the child, satisfied with his escape. The judge continued, “I really am very sorry. But those are the rules as set down.” The Grand Master couldn’t resist a parting shot, his prevailing reserve crumbling.
“ I will enjoy preparing for our next encounter.” The quick movement of the boy almost caught him, lashing out with strange ferocity, his small white teeth bared in an animal snarl, filed to a point behind lips red with blood. As his father struggled to restrain him, hatred burning from his damaged eyes, Zamyatin stepped back from the table, for the first time shaken, caught cold by his opponent. The child was crying, whimpering and twisting, a caged, injured beast.
“ I think you better leave.” The father’s voice worried Zamyatin. Accepting the advice he disappeared into the gathered shadows, the child’s growls still hanging around his head in a hissing cloud.
Far to the south of the city, sitting quietly in his study, deep in the heart of the sprawling Progressive Fascist’s complex, the party leader sipped on a glass of syntethic brandy. He had just finished talking to his silent backers in the monasteries. As expected they had confirmed that their official line would be they had never supported him, had never spoken to him or any member of his party. He had had his chance, they said, and the chance was gone. Better luck next time. There would be another election in ten years, if he agitated correctly. Then maybe they would reconsider their position, but for now the matter was closed, the issue was dead. His contacts in the military had been even more silent, initially refusing to take his call. Finally, he got through to a junior officer who made the mistake of speaking to him. An error of judgement that was to catch up with him in the following days. Forget it, had been the advice. No one was going to back a loser. Keep a low profile. Who knows what time might bring. The young officer hung up. No amount of further calls would be answered.
The Fascist party leader weighed his option. His chances of escaping untouched by the purge that would inevitably follow were slim. A long stint in the political prisons was not appealing. His party was dead, it’s support scattered, disorganised, it’s heavyweight backers in the hierarchy running for cover, wary of the coming sanctions. They had even more to lose than a self made political renegade. Their names were at stake, their reputations. He took his only option, finishing his brandy before straining to the task. Swirling the heavy liquid around his mouth, he teased out every last pinch of bitter taste. His secretary found the body twenty minutes later, the sound proofing of the study muffling the shot. Placing the tea tray on the desk she touched the revolver, still warm from use, and sighed. A terrible end.
Grand Master Zamyatin retired, undefeated, six weeks later, his place amongst the immortals of the game secured. He enjoyed the sea view from his apartment high in the towers on those days the conditions would allow. The central Machine hummed quietly on.
Rod Serling might have said: Presenting for your consideration one Mr. Harrison Banes, an overweight and lonely postal worker. By any normal measure, an unremarkable young man. However, there are other measures. For you see, Mr. Harrison Banes happens to boast more than a nodding acquaintance with … The Twilight Zone.
Scene One (the time – 1970s, the place – California)
Harrison Banes prepares to leave for work. He stuffs his lunch into grocery bags. Shaved and combed, he takes one last look in the mirror. Uneasy, frightened, this is the night he’s been dreading. He does not want to face it. Or maybe he does. Six of one, half dozen of the other. Let’s leave it there. Moving to the door of the messy one room studio apartment, he pats his pocket to feel for his keys. He grips his lunch grocery bags, flips off the light switch with his elbow, and exits the, let’s face it, crummy dump.
A hot night, true. Sweat cascades, drenching his shirt. Harrison Banes sits rigid, his ridiculous bulk wedged into his VW bug. Harrison is fat, hugely obese, and at this moment, when the terror of believing something bad awful will happen to him in the wee hours of the morning as he works stuffing mail into post office boxes, he tries to bury fear with comforting thoughts of food. He reruns the dinner memory of chomping on an extra large La Barbara’s chewy cheese and meatball pizza, his mouth glistening with grease, a rivulet running down his neck and congealing. A stripe of congealed fat? Whoa, but yes. Pleasures are found where they’re found. He invades one of his lunch grocery bags, digs out a carton of powdered donuts, tears open the box and devours the donuts. Moaning mouth breather. I’ll not pull punches. He wipes his mouth across the back of his hairy ham of an arm. Yes, a big, fat slob. Too, too true. He rumbles a low long belly-shaking belch. Hunched over the wheel, Harrison Banes feels safe momentarily in food heaven, his favorite place to be. He drives to work. The three airplane tire inner tubes of fat looped around his middle squeeze together when he bends to retrieve his lunch grocery bags from the floor of his car, now parked in its usual post office space. He opens the door, struggles free, and enters the building. He leaves the grocery bags in the breakroom. They won’t fit into his puny cube of a locker. Dark thoughts fill his head. Doom. Gloom. And yet, ever beneath, the curiosity. He looks up to find himself standing in front of the time clock. He withdraws his card from its slot and punches in on the click of midnight.
Several months earlier, Harrison spends his first night on the job. The graveyard shift supervisor, wearing a top hat and tinted granny glasses, introduces him to Manny Gonzalez, who is moving to days and whose duties Harrison will be inheriting. Harrison watches the guy sitting in front of a case full of cubbyholes and holding a bunch of letters in his left hand and flicking them with amazing speed and accuracy into the holes with his right hand.
“You throw letters in here first, then take ’em to the boxes. Saves you walkin’ all around, dealin’ ’em out one at a time. Boxes get a lotta mail have their own space in the case here. Space gets twenty-thirty letters, put ’em in the box. ‘Stead of twenty-thirty trips, one trip. Why don’t you start workin’ those flats?”
“Flats. Flat, like letters, but bigger. Like manila envelopes and such. We throw ’em in that case. Why don’t you start on those?”
The first letter arrives on July 8th. Harrison picks it up on his second walk around to the distribution clerks and the machines. He dumps the mail into the waist-high basin of his case back in the box section, perches his massive bulk on the stool, grabs a handful of mail and starts throwing. The machines grow quieter, and everything around him fades as Harrison stares at the black envelope he holds in his hand. Box 3053, but no stamp. This goes to postage dew clinging to sunrise grass, green. Harrison, sitting in the tree above the blue, and yes, babbling brook, stretches his wings, first left, then right. He stretches his legs, first left, then right. He fluffs out all of his feathers, shudders and smooths them back down. He chirps, sings. He is hungry. He flutters to the grass below and stands quietly, his head cocked to one side, listening intently. He pecks quickly at the dark moist earth under the grass and brings up a worm. He eats it. He feels nothing short of lovely.
“Did you happen to notice throwing a letter in a black envelope last night?” Harrison asks all the distribution clerks. They say no and ask why. “The damnedest thing,” he mumbles, “just the damnedest thing.” And walks away.
His coworkers are friendly to him, and he is cordial in return, but they do talk about him on their breaks. “There are some strange folk working nights,” one says. And you’re one of them, thinks another. “Banes is a good worker, but pretty far out there. What do you think about that black letter thing? Do you think he’s doing drugs or something?” “He’s doing more pizza than drugs. Did you see what he did to the 4th of July buffet? God, can he eat.”
Harrison asks Ross, day crew and in charge of the box section, about 3053. He wants to know about the guy who rented the box. Oh, Harrison knows the name. He went right over to the files and looked up the information after his first funny experience. EL DIABLO ENTERPRISES. What the hell? El Diablo Enterprises, my ass!
“Business purposes, I remember. A few weeks back. Just a normal looking fellow. Business suit. Conservative.”
“Do you know when he picks up his mail?”
“Nope. He doesn’t seem to get much mail.”
“He’s had some.”
“Yeah. Last night.”
Thirteen days pass, and nothing strange happens. Harrison’s routine returns to its usual monotony. He sleeps all day, wakes up at six, goes out for burgers or pizza or both, comes home to eat ice cream and watch television.
On July 22nd, there is a great surge of mail for no particular reason, and Harrison, alone in the box section, works in a sweating frenzy, trying to keep up with the staggering volume of letters. He is throwing so fast that his eyes barely have time to register on the scrawled white 3053 on the dark gray envelope before he is settling sleepily down in front of the fireplace after standing at the window and looking out onto the moonlit, frozen landscape, tall pines black shadows against the night and cold blue snow. He licks his paws and purrs, stares into the fire with his amber eyes. The yellow-red flames seem somehow cruel.
What the hell is going on? Harrison Banes checks box 3053 every night before he does anything else. There is never anything in there but junk – dear occupant stuff. And each Monday midnight when Harrison returns to work from his weekend off, the box is empty. Someone is cleaning out the junk. What happens to the letters? Harrison doesn’t know. He only knows that when he comes down out of the trance or sleep or whatever it is, he finds himself sitting on the stool peacefully, hands resting, right on left, atop his great globe of belly. And no letter. Not on the floor, in the trough or in the box.
When you are a fat guy, you worry a lot. Or maybe you don’t. But Harrison does. He worries about Mandrake Schwartzkraft, whose sharp spiky signature in red ink coils at the bottom of the file card for box 3053, El Diablo Enterprises. Mandrake Schwarzkopf, sure. Tell me another one. He takes the card out often, looking for something he hadn’t seen the previous dozens of times he’d examined it. But it is always the same. The address? He’d jumped on that right away first thing. Find the address, go out there and – and what? The address is a vacant lot, a gap between two duplexes in a seedy part of town.
Two letters, and now Harrison waits for a third. Some kind of a drug? LSD? What does he know about hallucinogens? Nothing. He’s never even smoked pot. But then, after all, what the hell is it hurting? It is scary to think about, but it isn’t so bad. In fact, Harrison begins to try to think more about peaceful, quiet natural scenes. But he can’t do it well, being a suburban city boy, and that frustrates him and makes him want another letter even more. And more.
He gets it on the fifth day of August. A gray envelope melts in his hand, and he licks off the honey. He had many bee stings, but the honey-eating orgy had been worth it. He moves heavily through the thicket and plunges into the hot sulfurous pool. His ageing bones feel the healing waters massage. He goes limp and lets out a long groan of contentment. What’s that? The roar of the younger grizzly. This is his place now. Banes has to pull himself from the pool and leave before the strong one finds him there.
“That fat guy, Banes, has changed,” they said. “He was kinda friendly when he first came on. Now he hardly says a word to anybody.” “Guys who are alone like that are sometimes very moody. I know. I had an uncle like that.” “Who cares about your uncle? I’ll take Banes any day over Sarge. At least Banes works. In my book, Sarge is the one who might come in here shootin’ one day. I’ll tell you one thing for sure about Sarge. He’s got the hippie scared.”
Two weeks later, on August 19th, he sees a sickly 3053 scrawled on the letter, which is light gray. And bitter cold. His ribs stand out, and he walks stiff-legged, panting with his red tongue lolling. His mate and the pups are dead, shot. Only he is left. And he knows it won’t be long before they get him, too. They are on his trail. He can hear them. He coughs blood on the snow and staggers crazily. His foot finds a hidden rabbit hole. His leg snaps. He howls in pain.
And so Harrison Banes does not want to go to work on the night of September 2nd. Or maybe he does. He senses it will be there. Two weeks. Every two weeks like clockwork the letters appear. He has done his calculations. It will be there. He might be counting on it. He puts his timecard back in its slot. He walks down the aisle and nods mute greetings to Bertie and Marge. The mail from the 11:30 truck is there to be cut and readied for distribution. He does it. Now he has to face the box section. He picks up the mail from the cases and the machines with a blank I-might-as-well-get-it-done-because-why-not expression on his face. He sets the tray of mail down at his case and adjusts the stool. He sits down and picks up the letter in a snow white envelope of fog through which he peers, trying to see ahead and keep his balance on the precarious rocky cliffs. He decides not to move until the mist rises, and so stands secure on his graceful, well-formed black hooves. His silky white beard captures moisture and sways in the gentle breeze. Harrison Banes shakes his head and bleats, his horns nicking the face of the cliff. The mist clears, and the mountain lion on the ledge above launches into the crisp morning air.
“Didn’t anybody work on the goddam boxes last night?” rages Ross at the supervisor. “Where’s Banes?”
“He was here at the start. But when he didn’t come over to help on the 1:30 truck, I went over to check it out. I figure he got sick and went home, but he never told a damn soul. What a hassle. I called his pad. No answer. I took a look, and his car is still out there. The vibes are bad, man. I don’t know what the story is.”
“I don’t either. And another thing – why does it smell like a goddam hospital over there?”
“Oh, yeah. I’m coming to that. I sent Marge over to catch up, but she said she wouldn’t work with that stench, and she was right. It stunk! So I sent Sid to deal with it when he came in this morning, and he deodorized the place.”
“Stench? From what?”
“I’m not positive, man, but you know, it freaked me. Bad scene flashback. You ever smell a goat that’s been dead a little too long?”
Bio: Steve Shilstone is an elderly benign hippie lite loon with a middle grade fantasy series of ebooks, The Bekka Chronicles, available from http://www.wildchildpublishing.com http://bekkaofthorns.com http://dochortonsloondiary.com