Read an Excerpt
What the #@&% Is That?
Life is hard in forty million B.C. beneath the apple-green heavens. Something is always trying to eat the monkeys. A shadow ripples across the forest canopy to confirm this fact. The monkeys screech and scatter among the lush treetops. The black shape veers out of the sun in pursuit. It closes the gap at an astonishing rate.
Branches slap together and howlers howl. The shadow snatches a few of the slower troop (rending treetops as well) and glides away, trailing pitiful monkey screams.
The forest is still. Eventually, birds trill and buzz in a thousand tongues. The monkeys also call to one another and the survivors make their way back to the central group for commiseration. The troop settles. The monkeys return to cracking nuts and eating fruit and picking each other’s nits. One watches the cloudless apple-green skies, although the memory of why soon fades.
* * * *
Bryan murdered a squirrel a few hours into his eleventh birthday. Uncle So-and-So handed him a pump-action air rifle for a birthday present and the kid shot the first animal he saw. Which happened to be a semi-tame gray squirrel nibbling an acorn on the sidewalk in front of Bryan’s house. He pumped the action twenty or thirty times, aimed with his tongue sticking out, and squeezed the trigger. Lucky (?) shot blew that squirrel’s eyeball to jelly. A little kid laboriously pedaling a tricycle witnessed the slaughter with a vacuous smirk. This was the brat who’d recently learned how to burn ants with a magnifying glass.
Bryan felt surprised and a little bit sick for a few minutes. The family cat, Heathcliff, also known as the Black Death, swooped in and nabbed the squirrel’s corpse and Bryan forgot the whole thing.
The universe would have its vengeance. It had begun to wreak it eons before Bryan was ever born.
* * * *
Snow fell on Providence all afternoon. Made a mucky slush of the walk from school. Bryan ordered baked tuna at the grill where Lovecraft had eaten whenever Weird Tales sent a check, which was sufficiently infrequent to qualify as a special occasion. Came back to bite both of them in the ass.
Bryan stood a shade under six feet. Burly Scandinavian stock. Curly hair and precisely trimmed beard, colored blond out of a bottle. Forty-five years made him as good as any vintage LP. He didn’t smile, but he didn’t not smile, either. He’d worn his lucky cardigan to dinner. Black and white, separated by a jagged divide, animals fighting, the two wolves of the soul from Native American folklore locking jaws. He’d worn a knit cap, black. He’d worn black-and-white knit gloves to match the sweater. He’d worn glasses, rimless. Not necessary, yet the coeds liked the look. The glasses said philosopher, poet-wunderkind; he was a professor of Pawhunk Community College Nonfiction Writing Department these past four years, so it seemed appropriate. He’d worn a gold band, although it signified nothing since he’d never married and never planned to (God help him if Angie ever twigged to the truth). Merely a prop from his community theater stint. The coeds liked men with wedding bands. The band said, I could fuck you if I wanted to, but I’m not gonna try, because well, look. He’d worn buckskin pants. And moccasins. With fringe.
Angie, his eye-rolling girlfriend of a decade, served as the English Chair at Brown, and good for her, although he routinely mentioned she could do better and tried to ignore how her eyebrows shot up. Late that autumn, after much subtle manipulation on Bryan’s part, they celebrated her thirty-fourth birthday with a cruise to Nova Scotia. Serendipity! He wanted to research a nonfiction crime author who lived there, anyway. Angie toured thrift shops and outlet malls while he spent the weekend plying the down-on-his-luck author, one Buford Creely, with booze and picking (pickling?) the fellow’s brain about a sensational murder case from the 1960s and ‘70s. Thirty-nine missing persons, a secret grotto littered with skulls piled into pyramids, and skulls on stakes. Unsolved, cops baffled, movie-of-the-week fodder. The kind of lurid material the faculty at Pawhunk frowned upon yet were stuck with in the infrequent event one of its professors girded his loins and took a stab at publishing.
The vacation arrangement worked out great, although Angie seemed moody after they returned to his apartment in Providence. Meanwhile, Bryan was positively energized and stoked to sequester himself in the spare bedroom (his den) for a week or two to go at a new essay, which is exactly what he did.
This was the first evening they’d been together during that hectic stretch.
“Eat up, sport,” she said, watching him put away another fork-load of the tuna. “You’ll need your strength tonight.”
She smiled, pure flint. “Got some bad news. Skylark Tooms passed away. Remember her?”
“Rich, attractive. Dad was a clothing designer or . . . ?”
“She died in an industrial accident the other day. Burned alive. Like this damned steak.”
“I’m sorry your friend is dead.” Through a mouthful.
“Friend, no. We weren’t close since school. It’s been on the news. A whole port town was destroyed. Train derailment. Chemicals. Nobody can get close.”
“Awful, awful.” Another chunk of delectable, flaky salmon glazed in garlic and lemon. This bite almost lodged in his throat. It left a metallic aftertaste. Bryan’s eyes smarted and he quickly sipped water to ease the lump in its passage.
“I’m over it. A shock, is all.” Angie appeared oblivious to his struggle, utterly consumed with her own concerns.
Bryan recovered. He signaled the waiter and ordered crème brûlée and a cup of black coffee. Delicious. “Did you want something?” he said, dabbing his lips with a cloth napkin, vaguely piqued she hadn’t offered to do it for him like when they first dated. She’d acted the part of a depraved concubine then.
She smiled and shook her head.
After dinner, he called a cab to save them from another slog through the gloppy streets. Back at his place, he put Boys in the Trees on the stereo (antiquing for the win!) and broke out a bottle of kinda good wine. Angie watched from her perch on the arm of the leather couch, where he’d begged her pretty please not to sit a million and one times. Her manic-pixie haircut, thick-rimmed glasses, and red lipstick seemed brutally severe. However, she rocked an angora sweater and tartan skirt combo, and that made up for the rest.
He wiped his sweaty face with his sleeve. He pried the cork loose, poured half a glass, and drank it while sorting his phone messages. Three—two from Mom, and the last from that drunken author Creely. Mom said, I love you; why don’t you ever return my calls; Creely said, Get in touch soonest; you got my number, and hung up. From all the hooting and yelling in the background, the author sounded like he’d used a payphone at the local tavern.
Bryan’s stomach felt the slightest bit queasy. He burped and the metallic taste returned. He did himself up with another quarter glass of cabernet sauvignon, glanced over his shoulder, and saw that Angie remained poised and smiling as if she’d slipped on a reasonably lifelike mask of herself in one of her better moods. Ah, yes, he should pour her a stout one, keep her in that happy place.
Angie accepted the too-full glass without comment. She balanced it on her thigh.
“Your engagement ring,” he said. “You’re not wearing it.”
“I’m not?” Again with the flinty smile.
His stomach burbled. He made his apologies and beelined for the bathroom. His reflection in the mirror was an ashen nightmare. He dropped his trousers and sat on the commode, head in his hands.
Angie knocked on the door. “FYI, I don’t fancy you anymore, Bryan. Ten years in Chinese Hell should be considered time served. It’s your turn on the spit.”
Bryan would’ve retorted, but at that moment, his guts began to convulsively evacuate their contents. He groaned.
She continued in a pleasant voice, quite unlike her customary tone. “Do you recall that dream I mentioned? The one where I was a knight traveling the land on a fearless steed and lopping heads with a talking broadsword? Probably not. That’s the problem, Professor. Had it again last night. I am now convinced time has come to cut bait and pursue other life opportunities. You always say I can do better. Kudos. Kudos, you heartless motherfucker!”
His vision contracted. His breath whistled. He clutched his tightening chest and toppled face-first onto the tiles. The descent took forever.
“Don’t be melodramatic. Whining isn’t manly. I mean, hell, Bry. I’m the one who should be pissed. Ten goddamned years.” She sighed, and if Bryan hadn’t simultaneously been suffocating and shitting himself, he might’ve imagined her pressed against the panel, wistfully tracing the grain with her nail, enacting the breakup scene that comes at the end of act two of every chick flick. “FYI, I’ve already met someone, so please do fuck right off and don’t pester me with calls. We’re flying to the Caribbean in a few hours.”
Bryan clawed at the door in a doomed gesture. He vomited. Angie’s engagement ring rode the sluice from his guts and floated in a puddle of bile and salmon under his nose. He blacked out and had a vision of lying helpless among reeds while giant herons pecked his liver to itty bits. Angie, clad in a shiny chainmail bikini, leaned upon her equally shiny broadsword and smiled contemptuously. She stroked the pommel with her thumb and said, “Who’s sticking it to whom now, you silly bitch?”
* * * *
“Collapsed lung,” the beefy nurse said with supreme indifference. “You aspirated a shitload of vomit. Not good, bro.”
Bryan woke, after a fashion, in a hospital bed with the monotone report in progress. Tubes clogged his nose and throat. Cottony wooziness softened the interior of his skull. No, aspirating a shitload of vomit did not sound good at all, he had to agree. He closed his eyes and had a foggy recollection of his eleven-year-old self standing in the drive, pellet rifle in hand while the squirrel twitched its last. The tops of the sycamore (sequoia?) trees rustled and monkeys screeched fearfully. A shadow blotted the sun. A ten-foot-tall Martian descended from the belly of the mother saucer on a cold white beam. The Martian took his eleven-year-old self’s pulse while brandishing a shiny chromatic blaster in the other hand. Nice shooting, Tex, the Martian said via telepathy. We hate those damned things where I come from. Heathcliff snatched the squirrel and darted away. The Martian telepathically laughed with savage gusto and Bryan’s nose bled.
“Go back to sleep,” the beefy nurse said, and snapped his fingers.
Bryan went back to sleep.
* * * *
A few days and several sketchy diagnoses later, the beefy nurse said, “That’s a wrap. You’re officially mended. There’s your clothes.” He turned the light off as he left the room.
Darkness shifted to light. Bryan hobbled into his apartment on a set of cheap hospital crutches with no memory of how he’d arrived. His muscles and nervous system remained mysteriously at odds, causing spastic tics and farcical nightmares starring aggrieved monkeys and an endless green hell of jungle. His reinflated lung felt seared and scarred. He wheezed at the slightest exertion.
The weekend dripped through his veins and cocooned him in a gray malaise that precluded research, much less actual writing. He possessed trace memories of whatever had flickered ceaselessly across the television screen. His condition remained so moribund, he only left five or six increasingly strident messages on Angie’s answering machine. Between stretches of torpor, he obsessed about her and his new rival, picturing them on a Caribbean beach sipping rum and laughing at his misfortune.
On Monday, Frank Mandibole, a former college chum and infrequent confidant, rang. Mandibole said the situation sounded intolerable and that he’d be over right away with proper medicine. The man arrived within moments. He pranced through the door and laid his hand on Bryan’s forehead. “Gracious! Not a moment too soon. Let’s take a ride, get some fresh air in your lungs. Hang around sucking in Providence, you’ll eventually go the way of Uncle Howard.”
“I feel half-dead, Frank.”
“It’s Tom. To-om! I don’t go by Frank anymore. Try to focus on the positive. We’ll throw a few things in a bag and wheee all the way to Mom and Dad’s house for some R and R.”
Bryan didn’t argue the point. While generally the same height and composition as his old self, Mandibole no longer precisely resembled the “Frank” of school days. He’d trimmed his hair and shaved off the mustache. His skin gleamed the way a doll’s skin does. In fact, his features (and helmet hair) were decidedly action-figure plastic. There’d been rumors of an accident. Obviously, he’d had work done. He wore a black-and-white cardigan that also seemed annoyingly familiar, yet not.
Bryan lacked the strength to protest the car ride. Anyway, how much worse could it be than lying around his apartment sloughing into eternity?
* * * *
They hopped onto the interstate and cruised south, then west, into the wild lands of the Empire State. Mandibole’s car had a rusty pink paint job. Compactly European, a tin can on bicycle wheels. Bryan didn’t recognize the make or model, nor could he decipher the faded pennant on the radio antenna. Polka music burped and barked over the radio, interspersed with commentary that sounded Russian.
Mandibole said, “I’ve a theory regarding your illness. You’re not superstitious—you gave up bowing to altars and thumping holy tomes, yes? Hang with me for a second. What if you’re punishing yourself subconsciously?”
“Punishing myself for what?”
“For bailing on the Mormons. Unresolved guilt.”
“All my guilt is resolved. I’m a confirmed atheist. Happily.” Bryan massaged the swollen glands in his neck. Bundled in a parka, scarf, mittens, snow pants, and snow boots he still shivered. The landscape stretched brown and bare on either side of the highway.
“Uh-huh. When I first met you, I knew something was amiss. Absolutely knew it. You were kind of head-shy. Ponder this: Leaving the fold, running off to college . . . screwing, smoking, educating. Kicking indoctrination takes a stout heart and a dedicated support system. Nobody helped you, did they? You packed your bags and split the family homestead in the dead of night with nary a kiss-my-ass to anyone. Cold turkey off the LDS teat. Traumatic, right?”
“Of course, Fra—I mean Tom. I had a few dark days.”
“Surely that left a scar.”
“Be realistic, friend. Unplugging from a cult is tricky. People who detach from rigid, hierarchal religious organizations are prone to depression, alcoholism, suicide, you name it. Botch the deprogramming and, well . . . Exhibit A in my passenger seat.”
“Really, that’s not related to my situation.”
“If you say so.”
“Getting away from the church meant getting away from my dad. That’s a net gain, I assure you.” A sense of déjà vu overcame Bryan. He recalled vivid fragments of this very conversation from years before—he and Mandibole tossing darts at a college pub, blitzed on draft beer and sharing life stories. He tried to recall Mandibole’s tale and drew a blank. The main thing that stuck in his mind was that his friend had been blond, taller, and cheerfully evasive.
“Daddy issues. Revealing, although not the nut of your predicament. My father worked for the FBI.” Mandibole adjusted his glasses. Thick and square, straight from a 1960s NASA control room. “He vetted the suicide letter Hoover’s boy sent to Martin Luther King.”
“The suicide letter. The feds wrote a note detailing the reverend’s alleged infidelities and gave him thirty-four days to ‘do the right thing.’ By which they meant blow his brains out. My dad proofread the letter, made revisions, and got it up to snuff.”
The music changed and broadcasters argued in Spanish. Fields and barrens ceded to hills and forest. Sunlight ebbed. Mandibole made several turns that propelled them along dilapidated roads through increasingly rustic habitations. After the last town had disappeared from the rearview for the better portion of an hour, he pulled into a yard before a quaintly ramshackle two-story house. Some of the windows were boarded. The gutters were stuffed with twigs. A squirrel sat amid the twigs and glared. Bare-limbed trees encroached upon the yard, their roots exposed in the muddy soil. Patches of snow glowed like bone.
“This is the summer house. Mom and Dad lived here until 2010. I bolt here every few months and hibernate.” Mandibole climbed out. He snatched up a stone and drilled the squirrel in the head. The creature fell, boneless, into the bushes. He chuckled and came around to Bryan’s side. “Easy does it, pal. Bit of a climb, I’m afraid. Now, now, struggling only makes this more embarrassing. You’re a bag of bones! Don’t they feed you at the hospital?”
Bryan gave in and allowed himself to be carried like a bride along a flagstone path, up nine rickety wooden steps, across a covered porch, and into a foyer. The house smelled of dampness, algae, and unidentifiable spices. Tall ceilings and narrow passages, with nooks and crannies galore. Antique black-and-white portraits full of crabby subjects. The whole scene—Mandibole, the house and environs—could’ve been drawn by Gorey. Mandibole propped Bryan against the wall. He swooped around like a bat, flicking on lamps here and there. This pallid light pushed back the gloom and held it in tenuous abeyance. He hauled Bryan’s suitcase and overnight bag in and stacked them near a dusty player piano.
“Kitchen’s that way. Parlor’s over there. The couch folds out into a bed. I advise against the stairs in your delicate condition. The cellar is absolutely off-limits. Phone is in the hall. Sometimes it works. No Internet, sorry.”
Bryan summoned the strength to speak. “Why does the mailbox say SMITH?”
“Eh? I didn’t mean this place belonged to my parents. Here are your crutches. Okay? Okay! Got to run. Make yourself at home.”
“Wait, you’re leaving? I thought—”
“Hell yes, I’m leaving. I wouldn’t stay in this creepy shithole for a million bucks. Weather is supposed to be warm tomorrow. You’ll find the garden to be the tonic to cure your ills.” Mandibole adjusted his fedora and ducked through the door. He called, “Remember, don’t go down into the cellar. The amontillado isn’t worth a broken neck.”
As the motor’s whine receded, Bryan tried to piece things together. Why had he agreed to lay up here in the boonies? He hadn’t, not in so many words. Life caught him in a bore tide and swept him to this peculiar shore. He thumped his way into the kitchen and wearily rummaged through the tall pine cabinets and a deep, dark pantry. Dark because the light bulb was dead. Plenty of canned goods and pilot bread. Who ate pilot bread these days? He heated tomato soup and rustled a bit of not-too-moldy cheddar and a loaf of bread from the buzzing refrigerator. The fridge was an old, decrepit model: lime green exterior, pale and fluorescent-lighted interior. Spartan other than the cheese, a bottle of murky milk, and dubious items sealed in plastic containers. There were half a dozen eggs nestled on a side rack—four cream-colored hen’s eggs, a pale blue pigeon egg, and a crusty black petrified egg. He took the lump of cheese and closed the unit, killed the pale, deathly light and the strident buzzing.
Yes, yes, soup and grilled cheese. He slumped at the kitchen table and ate every damned bite in defiance of his queasy guts. Ten minutes later, he puked onto the sixty-year-old linoleum. Ting! went Angie’s damned engagement ring as it rolled across the floor and into the shadows of the sink cupboards. Novocain numbness filled his mouth. He located his cell phone and tried to dial Angie. Tried, because the moment it powered on, the screen went into video mode and there she was on a beach blanket, taking it doggy style from an oiled dude in sunglasses and a ponytail. Bryan cursed. He stabbed impotently at the face plate until it went black.
Those movies where the emaciated, shipwrecked hero staggers along a beach, step by agonizing step? Such was Bryan’s voyage into the parlor. He collapsed onto the sofa and surrendered to a tidal surf of terrors thudding against the break-wall of his conscious mind.
The administrative secretary at Pawhunk CC called him, or maybe he imagined it. Either way: “You’re fired.”
“I’m on sick leave!”
“We don’t honor sick leave. Fired, squirrel-killer. Don’t bother cleaning out your desk. We burned your shit.”
Tom Mandibole emerged from the shadows and tiptoed across the parlor. His plastic features had altered to mimic those of Bryan’s father circa Bryan’s childhood.
Mandibole knelt in an uncannily mechanical series of motions. “If you devour the raw heart of an enemy, you gain his courage. But! If you consume his living brain, you acquire his memories. My gods, the Smiths were fusty!” He smiled and ran his wormy tongue up Bryan’s left nostril, kept wriggling deeper.
Bryan gazed in terror at an enormous black form detaching from the sun. If words were possible, he would’ve cried, What the hell is that? Instead, he screamed and screamed.
* * * *
The house seemed much cheerier by daylight. Its crooked edges were blunted, its remnant shadows less sinister. In some respects, the place reminded him of his childhood home—Mom in her flour-dusted apron, Pastor Tallen on the step wagging his finger, and the serial puppy murders, ritual suicides, and forced sodomy. Reminded him of how Dad sometimes hid under the bed while wearing Mom’s nylon stocking over his face, and the homemade blood transfusion kit he unpacked when they played Something Scary.
Bryan managed to gain his feet after a bitter contest with the crutches, which were carved from the antlers of a stag. Their tips dug grooves in the floor as he maneuvered down the hall. His muscles ached, his head ached, and pain knifed him in the bowels. His breath gurgled and his throat constricted. His hands twitched with palsy.
Greatest blow to his vanity came from a direct, hard look into the mirror. Formerly shot with gray when left uncolored, his hair and beard were bleached white as dirty snow. Could this explain Angie’s unceremonious decampment? Had it been his hair all along? Bryan made a mental list of his symptoms and feebly attempted to correlate them with various diseases. Epidemiology wasn’t his area of expertise, and thus he could only speculate as to whether he’d contracted AIDS, syphilis, hepatitis C, or something worse. It could always be something worse. He didn’t speculate for long, however. Walking from parlor to bathroom and back again taxed him to the core. The notion of peeling off his musty, sweat-sticky clothes and taking a hot shower made him want to vomit again. That reminded him: another sandwich?
Crazed, scotch-guzzling has-been author Buford Creely awaited him in the kitchen when, after hours or days had dragged past, Bryan made it there.
“You gonna die if you don’t eat, kid.” Creely slurred so it sounded like eat a kid. He wore a brown tweed jacket. His eyes were possum-red and glazed with cataracts from staring at crime scene photographs for too many years. The evil of the abyss and so forth. “Fuck it. You ate last week. We gotta do somethin’ about your nerves. Gotta do somethin’. C’m’ere, squirrel-killer. You’re fresh outta agency.”
Bryan contemplated fleeing. He immediately lost his balance and fell. His right-hand crutch spun across the floor. He feebly brandished the other at Creely. “How did—why?” Each word was a tooth pulled with tweezers.
“Eh, your dad sent me. Your old man, remember him? Was him did all them slasher killin’s back when. The Headless Horseman of Halifax. Didn’t have the heart to break it to you earlier. Frank said you deserved the truth. Frank abhors a lie.”
“Not Frank. Tom . . .”
“Who in blazes is Tom?” Creely knelt and cradled Bryan in his bony-flabby arms, lifted him to the kitchen table, and set him there. “Relax. I know what you need. Hospital didn’t help, did it?”
Bryan shook his head.
“Right, you need real medicine. Old medicine. See, kid, you can barely move. Gotta drop some weight.” Creely smiled a boozy, reassuring smile as he unbuttoned Bryan’s shirt and removed it with the tenderness of a father undressing his son. “On three, roll to your left.” He counted and then turned Bryan over. “That hurt?”
“Yes!” Bryan said it as more of a protest rather than an assertion of fact. The fear of further pain or, worse, humiliation provoked his anxiety. “Mr. Creely, Buford . . . You have to be careful. The spine is delicate.”
“Nothin’ to worry about, kid. You’re already beyond fucked. Good news is, my family learned acupuncture from the Chinese. Fix you right up, yes indeed.” The old man banged cupboard doors and rummaged through shelf drawers.
Bryan mouthed the word acupuncture in horror with his cheek pressed against the tablecloth. In an act of great willpower, he lifted his head and looked over his shoulder. What he saw did not prove comforting. “Are those knitting needles?”
“Stifle yourself. Hold real still.” Creely raised both arms and then hammered them downward.
The twin bolts of agony ripping through Bryan’s lower back had a psychoactive effect. He departed his body. The kitchen windows transmitted a pristine white glow. White gradually dulled to rose, then crimson, then black. The blackness absorbed him. He sailed on a cosmic breeze until a pinprick of pale white radiance flickered ahead. The flickering candle flame steadied and grew. Angie and her lover fucked on a white sand beach bordered by a black gulf of water. The man glanced at him: Mandibole wearing a shiny white shirt and a huge, cruel grin. Angie turned her head—also Mandibole’s superciliously grinning face. Bryan’s eyes popped open. Returned to the shabby, dim kitchen, he tried to scream but couldn’t suck in sufficient air.
“Huh,” Creely said. “Well, hell. Whoops, I guess.” The author’s footsteps clipped rapidly away. The front door slammed.
Blood pooled around Bryan’s hips and dripped from the edge of the table. Enough blood that he felt as if he were partially afloat in a kiddie pool. He tried to lift himself and realized the darning needles had gone clean through the small of his back and into the wood of the table. He cried.
Snow fell against the windows, and after a while, it grew dark.
Light engulfed the room and gushed into his eyes.
“Ten years! Nary a tear. But now that you’re nailed to a table, look at the waterworks. I mean, really.” Angie circled. She had dressed in white-and-black earmuffs, a white-and-black pea coat, black pants, and white Wellingtons. “What a mess, what a bloody mess. Proud to wallow in your own gore, I suppose. Really showed me, haven’t you?”
“Please help me.”
“Addition by subtraction. Are you ready for that, squirrel-killer?”
“Angie. Please.” Bryan’s right arm refused to work. He feebly pawed with his left, supplicating a goddess of torment.
“Fine. Fine, Bryan. This doesn’t mean we’re back together.” She sighed and yanked the needles free. “Oh, you asshole. This coat is ruined.”
Air, and everything else, hissed out of him.
* * * *
Winter had slinked into the mountains. A warm breeze shushed through the treetops and awakened Bryan by thawing his frozen, glaciated innerscape sufficiently for a stray thought to escape the merciless grip of entropy. Pine sap, grass, and perfume tickled his nose. He opened his eyes. Angie hunkered before him, pristine but for several drops of blood on her coat and galoshes.
“You’re in a bad way,” she said.
He’d been stripped naked. From the blackened thighs down, his body resembled an unearthed Egyptian mummy, or one of the petrified corpses of climbers that adorn the slopes of Everest. His feet had ballooned and split at the joints. The nails were gone. Pus seeped. He felt absolutely nothing. Oh, inside he screamed unceasingly, but it didn’t hurt.
“Call an ambulance,” he said. Barely said. His lips cracked. Possibly he’d only projected the thought at her.
“Are you crazy? The ambulance drivers around here are surely not. They wouldn’t come within a mile of this creepy shithole for a million bucks. Nope, it’s home remedy or death. Worse than death, actually.”
“Ambulance,” he repeated. How shiny and plastic her hair flowed in the light like mud, how shiny and plastic her lovely face seen through a muddy filter. Differently familiar, it provoked queasiness.
“Gangrene,” she said. “On its way to your heart. My opinion is, your heart’s already rotten. Nonetheless, I’ve a filial duty as your ex-fiancée. You made me call you Daddy often enough.” Angie hefted a serrated cleaver. A relic from some Civil War surgeon’s grim bag of atrocity tools. She poked his leg. “These have to come off. That’s how you regain mobility. Give to get, sweetheart. I’ll do the first, as a favor. After that, you’re on your own.” She set the teeth of the blade against his left thigh and began sawing. His flesh made small corkscrew piles on the floor. Only a dim tugging sensation reached his brain. He screamed anyway.
The femur cracked. Sweat dripped from the tip of her nose as she made several final strokes, gesticulating with the frenetic grace of a concert violinist. “Done!” Angie shoved the severed limb aside and wiped her brow. “Easy-peasy. You’re a total dipshit with tools, I know, I know. Just . . . Do your best.” She pressed the cleaver into his hands and, despite his cries of protest, assisted with getting a groove started. “Keep going, Bry. That gangrene will eat your innards if you fail. Ciao, stumpy.”
He persisted, albeit sloppily, after she kissed his forehead and left. His hands, both of them swollen and plum dark, operated independent of his delirious mind. There was something childishly compelling about the repetitive action of sawing—almost akin to the morbid pleasure in shooting a woodland critter or dismembering a bug, except he was the woodland creature in this instance; he was the bug. Amputation would free him from the trap, this sundew house.
Plop went the right leg onto the deck. Birds twittered encouragement.
Yes, this seemed a slight improvement. He dragged himself, hand over hand, inside and through the kitchen into the parlor. His body felt light, although the journey took several days if the rotating carousel of sun and moon could be trusted as a guide. He left a red trail through the parlor and to the box television. He clicked the television on and then rested. Some kernel within his dimming soul craved information from the outside world. It yearned for even the sterile contact of cathode rays. He crawled to the couch and lifted himself onto its bleached flower-pattern cushions. The TV played in jittery black and white. Static snarled. Davey and Goliath. The Muppet Show. Mr. Rogers. Lamb Chop. The actors spoke in Russian or Spanish or Slavic or the click-click buzz of hunting insects.
A dark-haired toddler pedaled a red tricycle into the room. The child wheeled close to the couch and stopped. His shiny hair and plastic features glowed with roly-poly good health.
“I know you,” Bryan said in a perfectly clear voice. His breathing came easily. Still woozy, still full of pustulant anxiety (and pus), yet he grudgingly admitted that the compulsory mutilation had alleviated the worst symptoms of whatever disease gripped him. “Yes, you were there. I know you.”
“As I know you,” the child said.
“Wait. Who are you?”
“But you know. Feel better?”
“Yes. It’s a miracle.”
“Leeching is good for the soul. You aren’t really better. Daddy said it’s only temporary. You’ve got the gang-green.”
The putrefaction of Bryan’s hands had corrupted his arms to the elbows. He’d done his best to ignore this latest incursion of rot and enjoy the cartoons. Now the meddling kid had ruined everything. “What am I supposed to do? It’s in my arms, for fuck’s sake.”
“Everything must go.” The boy rolled over to the couch and handed Bryan a serrated penknife. “Daddy says to do a good job. Bye!”
The sky darkened and clotted and the windows became opaque with purple. Bryan sniffled bitter tears. He gripped the toy knife between his thumb and index finger and made the first, tiny cut. Better still.
Months oozed past. Years. Once his traitorous limb was severed, he dropped the knife and took a few breaths. Yes, better. Lighter. Addition by subtraction made increasing sense with a come-to-Jesus shock of epiphany. The next stage presented a challenge to his transcendence. Not wildly intelligent, but plenty clever, went Bryan’s family motto as mumbled by drunk Dad.
He raised his remaining bicep to his mouth and bit in. Angel food cake, food of the gods.
* * * *
“I am impressed. Truly.” Mandibole retrieved Bryan’s severed arms and studied them. “My grandfather trapped wolves along the Yukon. Leg-hold traps with nasty teeth. Those wolves, ah my. Rebellious critters chomped their own legs to get free. Humans really are animals with a fancy operating system, aren’t you?”
Bryan concentrated on Sesame Street. He frowned when Mandibole clicked the screen dead.
The man dressed in a soot-tarnished three-piece suit. His profile could have been Bryan’s father’s during his prime belt-buckle-swinging days. He clucked his tongue at the filth and grime: the holes in the ceiling, the windows melted to slag with age, mushroom beds where carpet once spread, the wasp nests, and termite-riddled beams.
“This joint sure went to seed,” Mandibole said. “Stupid me. You’re Bryan the Amazing Torso. I can hardly expect you to push a broom. You can’t even wipe your own ass. Entropy. There’s a secret to life. Entropy. Our dads are the gods of our puny universes, and yet even they are powerless beneath the cloddish tread of enervation and heat death.”
“I’m at peace.” Bryan’s belly distended with a feast of his own muscle and marrow. Perfectly sated for the coming ages and divested of humdrum, mortal concerns such as fear and happiness.
Mandibole threw back his head and laughed. His helmet hair didn’t stir, nor did his eyelashes flicker. “Not so fast, chum. Are you blind? The rot is in your chest. It’s creeping toward your brain. We must act fast, else you’re a goner. Or worse.”
Bryan waggled his stumps with bewilderment. His serenity evaporated, replaced by petulant misery. “What do you expect of me, Dad? I can’t chew my own damned throat.”
“A bit more commitment would be nice. No matter.” Mandibole leaned over and retrieved the rusty penknife. “I used to tie your shoes. In for a penny.”
“Wait,” Bryan said, too late. Despite years of accreted cynicism, he was profoundly surprised at how much blood remained, albeit momentarily, in his body.
Mandibole finished the job by twisting Bryan’s skull until it popped free. He whistled as he carried his trophy into a lush garden amok with brambles and bushes. He offered Bryan’s head to the dark and ominous tree that lorded it over the smaller plants of the kingdom. The tips of its thorny branches pierced Bryan’s ears and lifted him until he hung like a piece of bleeding pomegranate, a gaping manikin skull.
Constellations drifted and the sky became green. The house went under the burgeoning jungle. Heat and steam and green, endless green. The pomegranates in the great tree possessed distorted faces. The newer heads, raw and brash, could speak at first. A wrinkled and ruddy soul dangling next to Bryan said, “Ezra Tooms, goddamn you cretins! Ezra Malachi Tooms! I’m a rich man! A powerful man!”
A howler monkey descended from its leafy berth and plucked that shouting fruit-head and promptly chewed it to gushing smithereens. Such were the risks of making a scene in paradise. Not that it mattered. Sooner or later, the animal would crap, the seeds would grow, and in a hundred years or so, Mr. Tooms would again blossom on the vine, on this tree or another, sadder and infinitely wiser.
Later, as happened every epoch or two, the sun divided and a vast, Godlike hand extended with greedy eagerness. The monkeys gibbered and screamed and fled in all directions while the hand made itself a claw and tore loose swathes of canopy. Hundreds of monkeys, and squirrels, and bright-plumed birds tumbled toward the sky and became tiny silhouettes inhaled by the sticky maw of a child leaning over the colossal handlebars of his trike.
Bryan could do nothing except exult in this recurring terror. Tears of red juice trickled from his bulging eyes. He was gravid with seeds and they stifled his mindless protest. Whenever he screamed, red seeds dripped from his mouth, splattered upon the soil, and found purchase.
Over time, inconceivably deep geological time, the sentient fruit of his tree and the trees of the surrounding jungle multiplied. Each became a perfect version of himself, howling and gibbering in a mute, eternal chorus. Eventually, he grew to accept it. His multiplicities spread inexorably across the infinite and took root everywhere.
—For Michael Cisco