Seven Men (in Various States of Fabrication)
Horace was horrified of humans. But he understood, as so few were able, how vital the species was in keeping down the surging population of insects. He was, in fact, just as frightened of bugs as he was of people—and nothing thrilled him more than secretly aiding his two unwitting nemeses to wage certain-yet-civil genocide on each other.
To that end, Horace had spent every waking moment of his post-graduate life striving toward two objectives. First: engineering a catastrophic pandemic virus to be transmitted to the human race via insect bites and venomous eggs laid in mass-produced foodstuffs and pharmaceuticals. Second: formulating a commercial bug spray that would cause exponential, excruciating, sexually transmitted fatalities among the insect populace. He tinkered in his lab for decades before perfecting both; the day he succeeded, he celebrated by taking a long bath in aftershave lotion and masturbating with a fistful of Saran Wrap.
The following morning, like a general charging into battle atop a great warhorse, a spent-yet-refreshed Horace straddled his Exercycle and switched on CNN, keeping his eyes peeled for the first faint inkling of his imminent global cleansing.
"Uh, say that again?"
Zak stared at his shoes, swallowed a burp. "I pissed in her sink."
"And that's why she broke up with you?"
"Pretty much, yeah."
Jeff laughed so hard he spit a little. "You dumb fuck. What the hell were you thinking?"
"I wasn't thinking," said Zak, as if that explained everything. "I was casting a spell."
"Oh, man. That is too much." Jeff grabbed another beer from the cooler and pointed it at Zak. "Look, you need help. You can't just go around pissing in people's sinks. And you especially can't tell people that pissing their sink is some kind of magic. You didn't tell her that, did you?"
"Well, no. Not at first. I mean, I did eventually. I had to tell her something, right?"
"Yeah, but . . . the truth?"
Zak shrugged. "The truth was the only thing I could think of."
"Wow, man. That's really deep. Christ."
The two leaned back in their lawn chairs on Jeff's balcony and drank in the view of downtown. The sun was setting, and the city was drained of sound. They both made popping noises with their beer cans.
"Look, Jeff, I probably ought to get going. You know, work and stuff."
"Yeah, totally. Get the hell out of here. You're freaking me the hell out anyway."
On his way out of Jeff's apartment Zak ducked into the bathroom, locked the door, shat in his friend's shower, and rinsed it down the drain while spritzing it with freshly spit Listerine. Then—with his library card in one hand and his bike-lock key in the other—he carved intricate glyphs in the foul-smelling steam while silently mouthing the names of angels.
Ojid stumbled down the street in the predawn calm. He shivered; his clothes were soaked with fluids. Plumbing and wires dangled from the soft layer of fat between his breastbone and nipples. It was over, and he still walked.
The street was an emptied eggshell. The wind scoured the city's dead skin and blew it toward the horizon. Ojid limped past the corner apothecary, Mr. Breen's, where he used to shoplift ginger syrups and tar candy when he was younger. He held the old man up once, too, with a bread knife, when he was a teenager. But he wore a mask back then, and he didn't cause his victim pain.
As a grown man, Ojid only went into Breen's to pick up his mother's medicines once a month. But old Breen always remembered him. "It's the Kim boy," he'd say, "come to rob me of my sweets once again." The old pharmacist's jests always embarrassed him, especially when the two of them were alone in his dingy shop, the bell on the door still tinkling faintly from Ojid's entry. Breen would fix Ojid with a look the old man was apparently fond of, a grimace limned with hunger and fear and pity.
But that was before, so long ago. With drops of fresh blood like red gems glittering behind him and the sun thrusting its ulcerous corona over the city's jagged, cracked skyline ahead, Ojid squeezed his eyes shut and wished he could hear the old man's voice again.
His glasses were thicker, his skin thinner. There was loose flesh dangling from his chin. His hair had grown long and white and was pulled back in a ponytail. He had, of all things, a fucking goatee. But the ritual had worked. There was no mistaking him.
There was no mistaking me.
The two of us ordered iced coffees and took seats at a table in the far corner of the shop.
"How was your trip?" I asked blandly.
"As well as can be expected," he said.
"I'm sorry about that. The trip, I mean. But I only had a small window of opportunity, and I had to take it."
He smiled. I wondered how many of those teeth were still real. "That's quite all right, Andrew. May I call you Andrew?"
"Well, I go by Andy, actually."
"Ha. Of course." He squinted. "You're, what, 30 right now?"
"Yes, 32. Still Andy. It's a boy's name. Hold onto it as long as you can." He chuckled with a wisdom I wished I felt. "It's kind of strange, though, isn't it, how our younger selves, in a way, give birth to our elder selves?" He sipped some coffee through his straw. I could almost feel it trickle down my own throat.
We stared at the same spot on the table, absently folding our straw wrappers into tiny paper accordions.
"So," I said, trying to sound jovial, "time for the interrogation. Are you ready?"
"Yes." He stared at me. "That is, 'yes' is the answer to your first question. Liz is gone. Long gone."
My stomach dropped.
"I know how you feel, Andy. Trust me. But it's for the best. And it gets better after she leaves. Much better. Eventually, that is."
I swallowed. "Um, when? When does she . . . when do we break up?"
"I don't think I ought to tell you that. In any case, it'll probably happen a lot sooner now that I've told you."
I glared at him.
"Doesn't everyone dream about this, Andy? 'If I could only go back and tell my younger self what I know now?' But it's not so great when you're on the receiving end, is it?"
Andrew fidgeted in his chair for a second. Then he sniffed, got up, and ambled off toward the bathroom. His back was a bit bent. I made a mental note to start using better posture.
"Sorry that took so long," he said when he returned to the table a few minutes later. "I almost forgot what free running water was like."
The future. Right. Holy shit.
"What's it like?" I asked, trying not to sound too eager. "Thirty years from now, I mean. Who's president?"
"Some asshole. What does it matter?"
"Good point. Okay, what about the war?"
"The war? That's a strange question. No one even calls it 'the war' anymore. It's just . . . the world. The way things are. I don't think there won't be 'the war' ever again."
Barrel of laughs, this guy. "So let me get this straight: You have to pay for running water in the future?"
"Sure. But don't you have to do that now, anyway? It's called a utility bill."
"Yeah, at home I do. But not at a damn coffee shop."
"Well, that'll change. It's no big deal. You just don't use as much water, that's all. You don't use as much anything. Unless you're rich, of course."
"There's still rich people, huh?"
"Oh, yeah. Rich people. Reality TV. Global warming. Homophobes. Spaceships to the lunar colony twice a week."
He smirked. "No. Not seriously. We haven't even made it to Mars yet. Too many problems down here, too much garbage and baggage to deal with. The future? Shit. We can't afford the future."
"Yeah," I said, kind of bummed. "I guess I know what you mean."
We tipped back our plastic cups in unison and crunched the remains of our ice cubes.
"Andy! Andy, is that you?" A voice called from across the coffee shop. Fuck. It was Christie. Or Chrissie or Christine or whatever. A friend of Liz's. Liz had so many friends, I could never keep track.
I flashed a half-assed grin. "Hey, what's up?" I nodded back at her. She finished at the register and walked over to our table with a big, whipped-creamy cup in her hand.
"How have you been? How's Liz? Hey, are you guys going to Eric's barbecue this weekend?"
I shrugged. "I don't know. Probably not." Then I thought for a second. "No, I mean, yes. Yes, we're definitely going. We'll definitely be there. Me and Liz. The two of us."
She nodded idiotically. "Oh, shit, I'm so rude." She looked at Andrew and then back at me. Andrew, me. Andrew, me. Her eyes widened. "Is this your father?"
"Actually," I said, kicking myself in the shin from the other side of the table, "I suppose you might say I'm his."
V: Mr. Magnolia
Mr. Magnolia arrived home from the weekly torture orgy, fed his goldfish, and went to bed, first making sure his bandages were secure so that he wouldn't wake up in the morning glued to his sheets.
As he drifted off, he could feel the claret ooze like syrup from a dozen fresh interruptions in his skin. The clear, sticky discharge, he mused, was the afterbirth of his blood, the ambrosia that fed the dreams of godhood he hoped to conjure.
The last thing Magnolia pictured in his mind's eye before he rolled over, winced, and sighed himself to sleep was the sign. It hung on every wall inside the private club he'd just returned from. It hovered over every link of chain, every crusted sawtooth, and governed each ejaculation of lymph and unmasking of bone. It was a gentle commandment, the maxim that guided all who operated under it.
"Cut into others," it read in golden letters both extravagant and restrained, "as you would have them cut into you."
Ice cannot harm me, nor fire. Swords and pitchforks fall blunt against my skin. My thews, taut and thick, are knotted with monstrous energies. There is a furnace in my breast, a flintlock in my spine. My name is Calel. I never wanted this.
But I cannot remove what God has seen fit to install in my body. I often feel as though I am his finger, as if there is a vast, intangible fist behind me through which courses divine love, divine will, divine might.
And then abruptly, in the midst of such rapturous delirium, I remember. I remember where I come from. I remember who I am. As base as it is to hold one's soul at arm's length from heaven and covet it so, I cradle what little is left of myself as if it were a sick child, wasted from thirst and hunger.
But at night, I forget. At night, I fall. At night, the cape calls.
When Art's biography was published, he refused to read it. First of all, the author—one Quentin Algonquin, obviously a pseudonym, and a tacky one at that—hadn't even bothered Art with advance notice of the project, let alone an interview of any kind. Furthermore, Art was a middle-aged man, balding, drably dressed, given to hemorrhoids, and employed by a failing pet-supply store. In short he was, by his own estimation, the least compelling subject of a biography imaginable.
Art harrumphed as he studied the stack of display copies of the book—Profiles in Cabbage: The Un-Arthur-ized Story of Arthur Mitchell Murtha, a hardcover with an embossed dust jacket that bore a photo of his childhood self, big-eared and runny-nosed—in the window of the bookshop four doors down from his place of work. It was part of a larger display of new biographies: The names Horace, Zak, Ojid, Andrew, Mr. Magnolia, and Calel adorned the spines and covers of the others. Around Art, the strip mall was silent, half abandoned, littered with vacant storefronts that gaped like missing teeth in a fossilized jaw.
Anyone who would go through the trouble of writing about my dull life, Art assured himself as he continued down the sidewalk, must be in dire need of a life of his own. In the very least, the decision to unilaterally chronicle the veritable nonexistence of Arthur Mitchell Murtha (and, presumably, the other six poor souls stacked in the window display) shows a poverty of judgment that surely must reflect in this Algonquin character's very acumen as a biographer.
After all, reading lies about oneself is bad enough; reading lies poorly worded is another thing entirely.
Jason Heller has been writing sporadically since his epic poem about alligators was published in Humpty Dumpty's Magazine when he was 8. His weird fiction and poetry have appeared or are forthcoming in Sybil's Garage, Apex Magazine, Expanded Horizons, Kaleidotrope, and others. He's also the Denver editor of The Onion A.V. Club and plays guitar in a punk band called The Fire Drills. They do the worst Cheap Trick cover you've ever heard. Find him at jasonmheller.blogspot.com.