issue five

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(4240 words)
A novel of psychological suspense from the Editor of MCR
Daniel Bachleda
Photo by Brett Walker
Bad Effigy
It wakes him up in the night, at the foot of his bed, gurgling helplessly in its crooked squished throat.

He sits up and yells, at first, with a start.
It stands, slumped unnaturally on his bed, its slavering cleft mouth drooling clear fluids steadily, its sour lumpy form backlit in grotesque silhouette from yellow light flooding from the hallway. How it got in here, past the door, he doesn't know.

He can't remember when he first began to hear it shuffling its celluloid mass through his halls at night, searching for him with warm wet eye pits, reaching for him with pathetic shrunken stubs dripping with oily membranes where arms, perhaps, should have been.

He used to keep the hall light on to confuse it, to keep it occupied during the hours when he slept. He did not ever expect to wake and find it in his room. The fact that it has learned to open doors scares him more than mildly.

He looks at the bulbous fleshy mass and it blows mournful bubbles in its spittle.

He has not yet been able to figure out just what the thing wants, here, in his apartment. It has been appearing for weeks now. He tried to feed it, once, solely out of cautious curiosity. The only thing it would eat was rusted flooring nails, and immediately afterward it would wail and thrash pathetically about on the floor, knocking over a trashcan, vomiting putrid acids on the coffee table. It had alarmed him at first.

He runs a hand through thinning hair, head throbbing, hot.

He doesn't understand the point, the purpose for it being here, and the fact that it only appears when he is home alone, ailing in his creaking chair, slumped over the pile of pages, prevents any further discussion on the subject with any of his peers.

It only bares itself to him.

In the beginning, when the thing had first begun to materialize in his halls, and after the initial shock passed to curiosity, he had tried to communicate with it. He tried talking to it. He tried to study it, but the sick choking sounds emanating from its festering mass, the unpredictable spells of vomiting just made his stomach turn.

He tried to yell at it, shriek at it. He tried to scare it away, but it would always just move away from the source of the noise, hiding its blind misshapen face toward the wall, shivering, cowering until he gave up and left the room.

Now, he mostly tries to ignore the thick gurgling mumble haunting the rooms of his house as it pitifully shuffles and follows the lines of the walls into corners. He doesn't even go out anymore.

He sits on the edge of his bed, looking at the alarm clock, listening to the thing slurping up its own fluids in the dark. Not for the first time, he is tempted to touch it.

Before, in earlier days, he wanted to pet it, console it, show it somehow that he was a friend; he'd wanted empathy to bridge understanding. He'd touch it, and the slime-covered surface would deteriorate rapidly under the heat from his hand, wilting like black trashbag plastic down to its weak worm-like bones. These wounds would immediately ooze over and heal within minutes. It seemed to feel no pain.

He doesn't want to pet it anymore. He doesn't want to console it. He doesn't want it to think them friends. He wants to hurt it. He wants it to feel pain. He is tired anymore of finding with a toe the cold residues and trails left by the thing during the night. He is tired of cleaning up after it, and of the way it made the entire apartment and all his clothes smell like burning ammonia.

"What do you want!" he slurs at the thing, angry, still drunk. "Get out of here!"

Alarmed by the sudden shouting, the thing promptly jumps, quivers, and frantically pulls itself back toward the hall. It vomits at his door and disappears around the corner, whimpering to itself.

He used to feel bad for it. He used to take pity on it, such an underprivileged form of life, some poor mutant curse. He used to wonder what sort of god would create something like that. But now he doesn't wonder. Now he feels nothing.

He wants to feel nothing for it. He wants to not think about it. He wants to not hear it or smell it anymore in his apartment. He wants it to die. He just wants it to go away. He doesn't care whether it is heartless of him, cruel, even.

He hates it.

He rises from bed, steps immediately into the gelatinous trail, the mucosal liquid cold and stringy against his bare toes. He makes a disgusted sound, wipes the residue from his foot onto a shirt lying on the floor. He leans toward the floor, letting his eyes try to focus, is careful not to walk in it again as he steps out into the hall.

It slumps against the wall, spineless, almost at the end of the corridor. He can hear it sobbing to itself, the most familiar to him of the thing's vulgar behaviors. The endless squelching sob, the rheumy breathing, the wretched, low, shaky moan - it is this which makes him decide he is going to kill it.

       Probably the reason for such ambitious hatred, he knew, was mostly due to his most recent bender. The taste for such abandoned self-medication, possible now that he had quit his job, made him restless, tired, and irritable during his days, and frenzied, aching, and lonely at night. He had been an editor, once, the editor of a well-distributed quasi-avante fashion, fiction, and photography monthly, based primarily in Portland, Oregon. It was stupid, he knew, but it got him out of the house. It got him moving. It got him away from that old yawning chasm that his book was, anymore, letting it accumulate the dust and low light of his fading life's breath in front of the creaky chair.

After the thing began to appear in the halls, though, he was forced to quit leaving the apartment, appalled one day while coming home from the city by several written noise complaints, from extremely concerned neighbors, taped to his door. Apparently they had all been severely disturbed by a series of horrifying unearthly wailing moans emanating from his small apartment - a shocking disturbance that lasted through the hours while he had been at work. Three days later, people from Animal Abuse Services were asking at his door. He had never owned pets before.

Since then, drink seemed only appropriate for such a dismal turn of events in his life. Since then, his anger has only fermented in his drinking habit, growing more potent and abrasive through the passing of his hours.

He walks into the bathroom, turns the cold faucet on, bending at the waist to drink from the tap. Water is cool and rejuvenating on his hot drunk face.

He opens an eye while drinking to spot it looming near him at the bathroom door. He turns the faucet off and stands, slowly, staring at the heaving ugly mass as though to scold it.

"Animal Abuse!" He sneers, baring his teeth. The thing shrinks slightly, preparing to cower, tries to orient itself to the source of the sound. Its rancid smell is suffocating, so close to him, sinking lower in his lungs than precious oxygen. "You're so lucky," he growls at it. "You don't have to deal with what fuck-ups we are." He spits in the sink, disgusted. He wonders if indeed that were true: that the thing was unaware, possessed only of retarded attempts at motor control. He decides he doesn't then care.

A long tendril of drool stretches from its malformed mouth in a slow descent to the floor. It shifts its weight and makes a sound that almost has the illusion of cooing.

"Tonight, I'm going to kill you," he tells the creature on the floor of his apartment, and it gurgles playfully back.

He makes a pot of coffee while it murmurs to itself quietly in a shadowed corner of the kitchen. It sounds occupied, almost merrily distracted. He frowns as he tries to imagine ways to kill it, remembering what he already knows about it. What he wonders: where it might be vulnerable; what kept it alive; if living is what it was doing, at all. Not for the first time, he wishes he could just make it go away, or make it want to leave. He wishes he could just tell it to leave, as if it could understand even the most basic modes of communication. He wishes, pouring himself a cup of black, he could just beat it, shove it scornfully out the front door. The only time he tried this before ended in failure and dejection; the thing had just stood there, refusing coercion, rooting its sick flabby feet to the floor like suction cups.

He tried to lure it, once or twice, but he could never figure out what he had that it wanted. It seemed to keep to itself, barely acknowledging his presence, as if he were a guest in his own home. He's even tried praying to it, once, only once, as if it were some unfair Native American curse.

He sips at the steaming mug. The taste is acrid. He never learned properly how to make coffee. He wonders if he should - or even could - just relax a little and try to live with real people again. Of course, that would put an end to anything worthwhile to his writing, as it always had in his life; he'd lose the distance so needed to write anything worthwhile about proximities.

But what did that matter anymore? He hated his old book, his only book, the only book he had ever been able to write. He despised it as much as he despised the thing, and for far more personal and important reasons, and for far longer. Dead and rotting for years now, he knew not any longer why he continued dragging its corpse endlessly through his mind, running his fingers over it, combing every moldy inch looking for light.

He glares at the typewriter as it sits, perched on the edge of the table at the only other chair seated around. He heard it slurping to itself absently in the corner. He hated the strange relationship between the typewriter and the thing, how pleasant and quiet it would grow during his long sessions spent clicking away, coffee brewing and night rustling the curtains of an open window. It never sobbed or moped about when he typed, but would coo and sort of wobble back and forth in a dark corner, seeming in ecstasy. It was as if this creature was put here simply to find nourishment from his propensity for pathetic failure. He was being mocked: a trite god's private joke.

"I'll never give you the pleasure, again, disgusting lump," he mumbles to himself.

He sits, the typewriter in front of him, the unobtrusive green machine with its bent keys and other marks of frustration, its rusted underside and warped wheels. He observes the thing as it quivers next to him, hovering in anticipation, proof of some kind of sentience. This is what bothers him the most, that there is some kind of law and method, some kind of logic working in that fetid, mangled body. It gives reality to this thing, to see it subject to the same laws and limitations as his own existence in the world, grounded from endless possibility by the throes of the flesh, the work of gravity and hunger upon his days. He is angered that the sweet breath of life's workings transpired even to this foul form.

He looks over the thick mottled manuscript wondering how this has come to go on so long. He realizes where it has come from, what it does for him; hating this book has given him purpose. Writing further into it probes the surface of that purpose, searching for its warm core, its seed-bearing center. He fills out its history. He hears his own feeble voice echoing through its vaunted chambers and its crooked halls, calling for the names of things he has never found in this world. He searches for himself in those pages. He searches for something meaningful in those cries, something substantial to him in a great and confusing universe. The search gives him an illusion of progress.

But no longer will he hunch over in the dim light peering into those barren caverns, those snarled empty tunnels with their absence of light, mocking the density and poise of his intent, his original lust for translating to text the majesty, the grace, the play of people in the world.

He pours himself another cup of coffee, and as he stands at the counter, the thing scuttles blindly by. On impulse, he grabs a fork and plunges into the mound where he imagined its head should have been. It continues by, ignorant. He takes a pull from the mug.

Some time later, or maybe not, he finds himself at the keys again, percussive winds across hollow reeds in a field. But he is not in a field, and he is well aware of it. He is in his dark kitchen. The thing had clumsily misjudged the spatial existence of the table, jarring the mug of coffee off the edge, the steaming contents splashed asunder on the moldy mass of manuscript decaying in its funeral box beside him. Here, with his mind jarred from fantasy, he became aware enough to notice a strange reaction coming immediately from the thing; its surface rippled, or convulsed, as though disgusted. Indeed it did heave and vomit upon the smudged linoleum, nothing uncommon of itself, but it was the timing that made small red flags leap to frenzy in some part of his mind. The timing - it was a reaction to something, and it happened as the scalding coffee touched the paper. Was this the connection?

Glimmers of hope sparked all around the edges of his perception, like Fourth of July sparklers, the kind his parents bought him once-upon-a-when, lit patiently in the backyard, and offered to his eager small hands. His heart leapt with bliss - a child's pure elation - at the thought of finally knowing a weakness of the slobbering damnation, a way he might finally kill it.

At last he would be free again.

He would try an experiment. He took the first page of the manuscript - the dedication - now stained by time and coffee, a patina of neglect, which read: May you learn to find a better path. He held it aloft for a few minutes, studying it, as though from different angles it might take on alternate meanings. This was his time. This is a record of his blood, his folly, and his grasps toward self-redemption, self-validation: This was him! In each of its moments and kinetic hesitations, its formulas and degeneration, it was him. And what could it mean, that inscription, which seemed to imply a wisdom, hard-won and well preserved, that could keep a man from leading such a trapped existence such as his?

Where had he gone wrong? Not by any means innocent or naive, he at least started this work feeling eager and liberated. It was justified, had drive and inertia. He often wondered how it could be he who was truly writing the protean passage to effect, without becoming cloying and masturbatory. He wondered where he had lost it, had left the path for the foliage. He wondered where the time had gone, what it had gotten him. He notices the empty coffee mug with its sepia stain of use, lying on its side upon a smudged and wrinkled pile of paper. He can hear the thing making sounds like something between a grumble and cat's purr. He looks around his filthy kitchen and decides to drink more coffee and not think about such things. There are certain things a man cannot face alone, he knows, and time spent in a lonely kitchen at night is one of them. He has learned how to avoid this. He is a professional.

He fills his cup and comes back to the page, stares at it. A soft moan escapes the viscid surface of the mound, an almost irritated sound.

"Don't fucking bitch to me, you moldy bastard; I don't want to hear it," he growls. He can hear it shifting its weight in the gloom, trying to pinpoint the direction of his voice. He hears a large wet drop of something smack the linoleum.

Without further hesitation, he pours a small stream of hot coffee onto a corner of the page in front of him. As he had hoped, the thing reacted in the shadows much as before, but to less of a degree; a slight shudder of its bulk, barely perceptible, and a moist whine from deep within its mass were all that told. He now grasped the paper fully between two firm hands. This was his life, he thought, tearing the page in half abruptly, filling the kitchen with its starchy shriek.

The mound seized violently, a sharp agonized wheeze gusting from it. It turned to face him at the table without further confusion. He could smell a fresh wave of the thing's acrid scent.

"Oh you know right where I'm at now, don't you, you reeking heap," he said more than asked. The thing did nothing, just stood almost rigid, as if waiting.

He did not back down, either, but went to his kitchen counter, to a drawer there, and after digging around in two other drawers like it, finally produced in his hand a pack of matches. He knew what he might have to do. He didn't think about fear; he was a professional.

He sat back in the chair, always the same creaky chair, and calmly took a pull of his coffee. The thing still had not moved, attentive from the shadows. He breathed evenly. He tried to prepare himself for what he fathomed must be done: how can one man possibly be able to destroy a world, he thought. No one should hold that power. The coffee was black, bitter, with mud at the bottom. It was good enough.

He had no weapons, no way to defend himself should the thing turn ugly, he knew. He doesn't rise to find any, because there, in the night, finally, he had given up. He felt prepared for whatever was to happen, to any extent. He was sick of the way things were. Even suicide no longer retained its warding taboo, its cavalier dignity. For what was this life if unlived? he thought.

"Precisely that," he answered out loud behind a twisted smile.

In his fist, the left one, he held up one of the halves of the torn page; in his right, he held a match folded around the matchbook, in a position to strike with one hand. Once struck, he held it aloft and under the dangling scrap, positioning the mess over the trashcan. As the flame-kissed paper combusted, the mound let out such a shriek he dropped both paper and match into the can, surprised. The paper flitted to the bottom, ablaze.

The thing shuddered visibly, seizing erratically, which passed to a low steady rumble from its depths as the flames ran to ash in the trashcan. Something he had never heard it capable of, a growl, sign of menace, came rumbling from the shadows. He suddenly felt appropriately disconcerted; it had never threatened anything, and he realized he had no clue as to what it may be capable of in anger.

He stood, spent some time drinking coffee and barricading himself from the thing by way of the table and chairs, holing up in one corner of the kitchen, near the only window. It maintained its ominous threat from the shadows, trying to decipher the sounds of moving furniture as if half-deaf. He knew the way now, knew what hurt it - that the only weapon was the destruction of what he used to call dear, the stillborn breadth of his work, that parched abandoned quarry.

He drank his last sip of black, avoiding the mud, and hefted the leaves of the manuscript into the trash, where in the past he had thrown broken eggs, coffee grounds, old spaghetti, soiled kleenex, junk mail, rancid burger meat. He just dropped it in there like what it was - inevitable garbage - and poured a trifle of kerosene on top. He drew a deep breath, and struck a match.

"So long, you unfulfilled abortion, you un-culled mutant," was what he said before it all happened.

       The rest of it, before he woke up in the front yard, on a stretcher, was a blur. He remembers saying, "So long," and he remembers dropping the match. It caught instantly; he remembers vividly the shock of bright, curling the very edges of exposed pages.

He remembers then the utter transformation of the dark mound from gurgling blindness to a terrifying otherworldly rage, a howl as deep as Hell itself. It came charging, its mass barreling across the kitchen, bouncing against the stove and glancing off the refrigerator. He remembers the soft flesh of the thing spontaneously catching flame, too, from across the room. He remembers how fast it melted, the atrocious smoke pouring up toward the ceiling. And the wailing! The horrible wailing, panning from disturbingly low base waves to a manic screeching, the sound of tearing metal - he will never forget it!

He told the firemen who rescued him all about it, and about how it bounded frantically around the room, smearing the walls and furniture, the curtains and carpet, with burning translucent jelly. He told them how it lurched toward him from across the room, throwing itself wildly upon his impromptu dinner-set fortifications. And how it assaulted those measures, breaking finally into his chamber. He described the way the creature smelled in its immolation, a heavy black smoke hung in the air as strands of glue. He couldn't breathe.

He remembers throwing himself back toward the window, abandoning in all ways now the remains of his work blazing in the trash fire. He had his heart set on jarring open the painted-shut window by sheer adrenaline alone. It came at him wailing, thrashing, still blind but driven by rage and pain. He was suffocating in the noxious heavy smoke, strands were clogging his air passages; already his nostrils were full of the stuff. He was trying to tell his resuscitators how it felt as the wretched stinking mass knocked him down, how it smothered him, howling, a putrid mass liquefying, burning all the while.

He used to say words were not enough.

What did it feel like to wake up in the front yard on a gurney, oxygen mask strapped tight to the face? He tried not to classify it, right away; he had assumed this was the Afterlife - wanted to keep his possibilities open. Afternoon sun felt good on his skin, nourishing. They cleaned his face while he rambled, unblocked his nose, which was full of a stuff which, cooling, became much like rubber cement. They said, "You'll be okay!"

"I'll not take your word for it," he replied once he realized, not wholly pleased, he was indeed still alive. He sat up. The house was burning, spreading from a source fire in the kitchen. He had lost everything.

But what does a man really lose?

He did not ask himself that; he knew exactly what price was paid his liberty.

But he had to make sure.

When his story was told, the professionals smilingly ignored him, let him ramble, placing no faith in the delirium of an upset old man. It was only when he began to talk about the source of the fire that he attracted any attention. The team captain paid him a visit to report that no other bodies were found, nor any foreign materials like anything in the old man's description. The fire was almost out, by then.

"What do you mean?" he demanded, not understanding. "He's the thing with the fork sticking out of his head! Was there a fork on the floor in there, or not?'

The captain's stated opinion: that the blaze was incited by a small trashcan fire, promoted with a small amount of kerosene. He said he'd have to check again, but he found no forks in his initial survey.

Funny, it seemed then to him, he had never considered the possibility that he was simply stark mad, a regular old loon. Either way, he figured it no longer mattered what methods were taken in the thing; he was free, mad or not, and he felt good.

He was alive, had escaped with that which mattered most, but that which was also most taken for granted. He did not mourn the loss, the time, and terror - what else could he have done? He let the strain go, and felt again able. He knew he was alive and free to do anything that might come into his head.

Right then, he just wanted a good cup of coffee.


M  C  R

This work is copyrighted by the author, Daniel Bachleda. All rights reserved.