Theophrenia / 12 September 2000

[This is the aborted beginning of a novel, FYI, so don’t get all excited for a tidy conclusion.]

It was day seventeen of the plague. Hugo, his head a mechanical specter within gasmask and headphones and spectacles, was juggling several illegal activities at once, including sitting in the palm of the Hand, being out after curfew, operating the prototype Khamsin 702 microphone, and using said microphone to surreptitiously record nearby conversations. He made minute adjustments to the black box that sat in his lap. He was having difficulty breathing and the star-shaped rash on his chest was throbbing in time with his heart.

“… ridic … ver … alac …”

Snipped syllables were coming in here and there, perhaps from the town hall? The hardware store? Hugo couldn’t quite identify the voice, but he had it narrowed down to a half-dozen or so people. This was one of his talents that the fine people of Fortalia supported financially, in unmarked envelopes. That and the ability to disappear within a town of a thousand people. That and a trunk full of black equipment that promised to hear any hidden ugliness.

“… urpose to this mal …”

Hugo’s fingers moved with the speed of an hour hand, slowly turning several unlabeled knobs, backlit needles twitching erratically. He’d have to modify the little lights this thing gave off when he got back home. Totally unacceptable for field work. Basically saying: Looka me, Merry Christmas.

The distant squeals of static sharpened, rode the asymptote, then resolved into the unmistakable voice of Mister Henry Ell. Thin, hoarse. Noisy sibilants that were not, Hugo knew, the fault of the microphone. He laughed silently, another professional habit. The gun-shaped Khamsin, which had arrived that morning along with the rest of the town’s mail from the past week, accepted any sound without the barest whisper of hiss. It did not judge, it merely transported, leaving no trace of itself behind. It was Hugo’s ideal.

“… ilous attack. Brutal, unhinged. They’re madmen. Can you—I mean, the level of will—”

A second voice, quieter, as if murmured right into Hugo’s ear (god bless the Khamsin / with its sleek machinery / of pure emptiness): “There’s no way. No. Way. Nuh-uh.” That was Dryden Emmet, no question. “Who’s left? Morey? Not a killer. Anyway can’t tie his own shoes.”

Mister Henry Ell, palsied: “There’s plenty left. And plen—”

And then a million sparrows taking flight, or a million faulty circuits firing, a sound broad and rich and as always taking visible form inside Hugo’s head, inside the twin oceans of his earcups, a vast noise of tiny motion, jerky and random. What the everloving? And whatever it was, it whisked Mister Henry Ell and Dryden Emmet away with it, right as things were getting juicy. Burrowing holes in their conversation until it fell apart into white noise.

Hugo thought it might be a new variety of seizure coming on and instinctively moved to tear the gasmask from his face, desperate to breathe in some fresh air, wipe away the droplets of sweat that felt like slow spiders on his cheeks. But then he glanced skyward and saw the blankness of the gigantic plastic tarp that arced over the entirety of Fortalia. There was no fresh air. He was trapped in here with the plague, while the outside world danced and sang and played merry tunes and filed reports and gave speeches and sat in traffic jams and did whatever else the blissfully unafflicted did out there.

He slumped against the middle finger of the giant stone Hand, the ancient sculpture looking as if it had burst through the earth, only to clutch fruitlessly at dead air there in the center of the town square. Hugo again had the thought, and rest assured that he wasn’t the only one, that he was a poorly painted figurine inside a snow globe, choking on the fetid water, and he was running to avoid the synthetic flakes of the mystery disease, and Fortalia, pop. 1,000 was embossed on the black plastic base, and the number had been crossed out and replaced with 989, and he wanted to know what giant Hand was shaking and shaking it.

Hugo slid down the statue’s articular capsule and tucked his gear into the black satchel that dangled from his shoulder. Celer manus dei twice circled the base of the Hand. It was warmer and quieter here in the square than usual, the seal cutting off the easterlies that usually wound through town as winter approached. Hugo indulged himself by undoing the top button of his shirt and loosening his tie a few centimeters. The straps of the gasmask were making the back of his head sing. Tiny tufts of dark hair stuck out here and there, curling in the artificial humidity.

The suit had belonged to his grandfather as a young man and was black and unadorned and had several unusual and hidden pockets. Hugo had first worn it to the funeral, surprised at how comfortable it was. He crossed and recrossed his legs, jauntily placed an arm along the back of the pew, leaned forward in simulated prayer. No constriction whatsoever. The cuffs rose up just the right amount, the seams breathed with erotic elasticity, the lines were sharp and the angles just so. This suit, Hugo knew, was not just for special occasions. This was a uniform.

Hugo was extremely careful that first time in the bathroom with the suit, this being the cramped bathroom in the rear of the church, the one with the poster over the toilet that said, “The eyes of the Lord are upon the righteous, and his ears are open unto their cry.” He washed and dried his hands thoroughly and pat down an errant cowlick and then he had a thought, a simple thought that burst through the others and demanded attention. It went: Stop prettying yourself and get back out there and pay your respects. Hugo felt a surge of guilt, but couldn’t quite bring himself to unlock the brass knob and let all that death back in, all the stilted conversations he was going to have for the rest of the afternoon. He leaned in closer to the mirror and rubbed his eyes, trying to redden them.

You can fool the others but you won’t be fooling me, Hugo thought, and that’s when he realized these were not his own thoughts but the rich, broad voice of his grandfather, choked with tobacco. These were the thrashed tones that were never to be heard again since the vocal cords were lying, dry and dormant, in the coffin a few rooms down the hall. You wear this suit, you deal with a man straight, and suddenly Hugo found his finger jabbing at himself in the mirror. You. Hear. Me. A syllable with each jab, fingerprints that were not his own smearing the glass.

Hugo scurried outside, the smell almost hospital-like, sinuses swollen with the muted tones of condolences. His twenty-year-old mouth, then untainted by even a single cigarette, was filled with smoking ash. He spit on the carpet, a dark lavender nightmare, before returning to the chapel. Alison, his twin sister, shot a glance at him as he sat down next to her, rolling her tongue in her mouth, trying to get the taste out.

This was five years ago, five years ago when Hugo saw the suit wearing him and decided that it would be his uniform from now on. Five years of ghostly ashes, the muddy flavor of some Piloto Cubano, a flavor to which he’d grown accustomed. “Well where you going all spruced up?” the old ladies would ask him, tickled, and he’d smile and nod and give them a thumbs-up. Five years of dealing with men straight, at least in terms of their crookedness.

And so Hugo, the well-dressed eavesdropper, backed into the darkness between streetlights, just like in the movies. The polyethylene sky a washed-out shade of yellow. City Hall, a single-story, steepled building north of the Hand, was sheathed in more plastic, a fat and flexible tube leading from its front door, down the three stairs, and over to the courthouse which had recently been converted to another infirmary. It’s as if City Hall had been consumed by some enormous worm which was just now getting the serious digestion underway.

Hugo happened to know of a sub-cellar in City Hall that was off-limits to pretty much everyone but which he’d used for impromptu makeout sessions back when Anna was still around. He had a hunch that was where Ell and Dryden were hiding out. He’d have a better idea if the Khamsin wasn’t so good. The thing picked up sound so clearly that it practically eliminated any ambient acoustics, leaving Hugo with few clues as to the environment he was recording. His gloved hands twitched slightly, as if already grasping for the tools, sterilized and demagnetized, that would make the necessary modifications.

A car made its way down deserted Upper Street, the main drag that sliced Fortalia into two equal parts. Hugo wished the mike was still hooked up so he could test it on moving objects, especially since it was the sheriff’s car not being driven by the sheriff. Some guy from the Department, Hugo figured. Ostensibly looking for curfew-breakers like himself but really hoping to find someone else in the throes of a seizure, someone else who might finally vomit up an explanation for what’s been going on.

The cruiser made an abrupt left turn, as if trying to ditch a shadow. Curious, perhaps, but then again, every activity for the past 17 days had been supersaturated with menace. Suspicion was measured in milliseconds, millimeters. For years, everyone in Fortalia had been convinced that someone, probably someone nearby, was trying to kill them, and to have it finally confirmed with no clear culprit was both maddening and comforting.

Hugo had absorbed so much guilt during his quarter-century that he’d become a broken-down mirrorball, fragmenting any accusation into a thousand new reflections, a thousand new trajectories. He had risen above suspicion, for the most part, since he heard every whisper and shriek within Fortalia’s city limits. In fact, his ears were ringing with insurance scams and rigged elections and faked results and faked orgasms.

A month or so ago, he’d begun a search for a sort of palate cleanser, a nice aural sorbet that would carry away the small-town intrigue and ready him for something new, letting him hear sound as if for the first time. But then the Plague came along, invisible, tasteless, and Hugo breathed it in, and the star-shaped rash appeared on his chest, and three times so far he’d gotten extremely hot and dizzy and the world bled its colors into monochrome and then he woke up someplace else, several hours later. His dreams during those hours were unprecedently vivid, and he labeled them, with his usual compulsion to organize, “Part I: The Headache,” “Part II: The Cage,” and “Part III: The Bargain.”

And now, if Margaret Ball is any indication, he had nothing to look forward to except the lesions, the hemorrhaging, the hallucinations, and the one long seizure into the great beyond.

He pulled off the gasmask and flung it across the street. It hit with a hollow slap and rolled toward the gutter. He took deep, angry breaths. What, was he going to get more terminal? He was dead. He was dead and he was wondering if this would be his last second, or this, or this. These are seconds he should be biting, pummeling, sucking, spanking and instead he’s out here, in the middle of the night, testing audio equipment that will lie dormant soon enough, or, if his last will and testament is followed, will be buried with him, humming with life and transmitting any sound to a loudspeaker bolted to the headstone.

a shovel somebody get a fucking shovel posthaste i repeat

Hugo started to cross Upper to fetch the gasmask and stumbled off the dark curb, spraining his ankle. The pain was sweetly electric. He sat there on the asphalt for a moment, feeling like a dummy, a victim of his decaying body. He’d spent a lifetime pursuing grace and precision, wanting more than anything to be The Elegant Genius Robot, and now his meat was betraying him.

Another car, smaller and awkwardly shaped, squealed around the corner, its brights filling his head with blue dots. He rolled out of the way, but knew it wasn’t going to be that easy. There was no mistaking that car, even when preceded by blinding light. Its front-left tire crushed Hugo’s gasmask as it came to a halt, the engine wheezing, stricken by emphysema, not a Western rhythm to be found. It took a few moments for the driver to make her (for Hugo knew the gender despite the person in question being buried within a layer of plastic, a layer of steel and glass, a secondary plastic layer, and the piquant rubber of another gasmask) to make her way through the gear that allegedly protected her and her car from the diseased air.

Alison unzipped the outer layer and stuck her head through the opening. Her voice was muffled but he could get the gist of it: “Are you dead? Are you OK? Are you dead?”

“Yes, of course,” Hugo said, easing himself onto the curb.

“Ih oo acher egg ursum?”

Hugo had more trouble interpreting this one. He cupped a hand behind his ear and tilted his head. “Eh?” Like all around them was the deafening roar of the presidential chopper.

Alison’s hands hesitated a few inches away from her gasmask. Her eyes were chattering away, transmitting a complex mishmash of phrases. These eyes were precisely the same color as Hugo’s, Pantone 294, and even in the washed-out light of the orange phosphorescents, he knew just what they were saying. I’m sorry scared do not particularly want to die away though once you’re gone I please don’t please sorry.

“Save it,” Hugo said, using their old trick of responding to something unspoken, which always baffled the people who crowded their peripheral vision.

Alison withdrew into her plastic-wrapped car, then raised the mask to her forehead. The skin around her nose and mouth was streaked with red lines, making her look older than necessary. Her face was also identical to Hugo’s, a nice clean oval save the jutting angles of the jawbone, thin lips and eyes that hovered around a long, narrow nose. The main differences being an agreeable lack of stubble and the barest shadow of a depression against her left cheekbone where Hugo’s prenatal foot had been lodged. “My leg is killing me all of a sudden,” she said.

“I tripped,” Hugo explained. “Sprained my ankle.”

She looked at him for a moment. “Hugo, you know tomorrow’s the big game. You know everyone’s counting on me.”

“I know,” he said, knowing that Fortalia had never had anything even approaching a big game and that if it did, Alison would rather inject hot air into her veins than participate.

“And Mom’s wide awake. If that tells you anything. She’s wide awake but has vowed to roll over and die at any moment. I haven’t seen her this upset since this afternoon.”

“I’m giving you two options, then,” Hugo said, raising the index fingers of each hand.

“Give them to me in alphabetical order.”

“You can take me home and seal me off in my room, where I won’t be able to hear Mom anyway. And that leaves you to sit and hold her and cry all night. OK. Or you can take me to the magic store where we can listen to something I recorded just now.”

Alison dangled an arm from the steering wheel. Hanging from the rearview mirror was a tree-shaped piece of cardboard that smelled of whiskey. “You ignore every single command I give you,” she said, each syllable clipped and solid.

“Allie,” he said, getting up. “Let’s roll. Let’s go cruising for chicks.”

“Don’t breathe on me. Get in there,” she said, stabbing a thumb at the backseat. “That’s Hugoland back there. This conversation is over.” She pulled the mask back down as he unzipped the rear partition. “Eyad ditoomah eighted ismorn.” The magic store was pretty much one of the last places she wanted to go right now, but the thought of Hugo wanting to play something for her was so comforting, so grounded in how things were supposed to work, that saying no would feel like stumbling into full consciousness after teetering on the edge of a mild, pleasant dream, suddenly feeling the aching weight of gravity.

Hugo crawled into the cocoon that used to be the backseat of the ‘77 Gorgon, the all-too-familiar crinkle of nonporous plastic filling the car. He had to ride supine, head bent against the sheathed armrest. When he was a kid he’d ride this way, too, to avoid motion sickness, and to watch the upside-down telephone poles fly by, the black cables between them gracefully arcing up and down, spreading and weaving like a cat’s cradle. He’d wish, sometimes silently and sometimes loudly and at length, that everyone else in the car would just shut up for a second so he could listen to the drones made by the engine and the tires along the road and how they’d intertwine and create this unsettling symphony of vibration. Alison, who typically played the AM radio at top volume to drown out her car’s wails of combustive agony, kept it silent this time out of a kind of guilty respect.

The magic store was once an slim alleyway between Polly’s Shoe Emporium and Hardy Insurance Global. The Mayor, back in the spring of 1986, took a deep drag on a brown cigarette and exhaled a white tornado into the sky, fffffhhhhhh. He almost flung the butt into the alleyway as he passed but stopped in mid-fling as he became acutely aware of the eyes on him, eyes everywhere, all the townsfolk with that dark crease between their eyebrows, their eyes hard little trapezoids. Didn’t they have anything better to do than sit around and judge him twenty-four hours a day? It’s paper and tobacco, my friends, straight from God’s heart to ours. Surely a well-meaning sparrow will pick it up within the hour and use it to line its nest..?

But no, and this alleyway became just another blight upon Fortalia’s skeletal downtown. Nothing good comes of alleyways, said the Voice of the People, its grating tones constantly echoing through the Mayor’s head, keeping him from one-hundred-percent total relaxation. It keeps the garbage cans out of the general walking area, he protested feebly. I guess you want stabbings here in our fair town? asked the Voice. I guess you want shady goings-on and the selling of narcotics? I guess you want hoboes?

And that’s the word they’d use, too: Hoboes.

So, without even being asked, the Mayor took the mighty silver pen from its crushed velvet box and signed a paper and an extremely narrow two-story building was erected there between Polly’s and Hardy, and Vickers was the highest bidder and now we have The Cauldron of Mystery and I mean, goddamn, can’t maybe just one of these people just go for a simple name for once, maybe? Can’t someone just face the facts and tone down the grandiosity, for once?
Vickers died three years later but not before setting aside an entire week to implant his vast knowledge of the dark arts into Little Vickers, which is what everyone called him.

“Little Vickers,” Alison said, “I don’t want to infect your hidey-hole here.”

“No no no no, that’s just it,” Little Vickers said, his voice just a handful of notes too high, his chin a riot of experimental facial hair, his pupils swallowing light whole. “I’ve been consulting the cards for days now and I think the infection phase is long gone.”

“The cards.”

“They’re being unusually explicit.”

They were slouched in the cramped room above the Cauldron of Mystery, three lanterns casting jittery shadows from the piles of cardboard boxes, rubber masks, periodicals (Legerdemain Quarterly, The Journal of the Society of the Hidden Cloak), and unmarked, pleatherbound books that crept out from every wall. Hugo, now wearing Alison’s gasmask, sat near the stairs atop a large, oaken trunk that was held together by thick, straining straps, as if some silent, unimaginable being was even now struggling to get out. Little Vickers and Alison were both sitting on his tiny bed, and Hugo was once again impressed with Vickers’ skill at sleight-of-hand. He could’ve sworn there were plenty of other places to sit when they walked in, but as Vickers cast his sizeable shadow across the room, it was like the clutter multiplied and there was but one single path that Alison could take.

Vickers moved a little closer to her then, and suddenly there was a deck of cards in his right hand. A slight movement of his thumb and they were fanned out with mechanical precision. “This is what’s called a Petroski deck,” he explained, “or a black hole deck, I’ve heard it called that, too. See, look. The hearts and diamonds are black, and the spades and clubs are red. There are two extra cards, too, they’re sort of like jokers, but they’re called the Jungle and the Desert.”

Alison glanced at Hugo — she was typically more interested in watching people’s reactions than in what was causing said reactions — and saw him buttoning his top button and reassembling his tie. This wasn’t necessarily a good sign. “Airda ittum?” he asked.

“Where’d you get them?” Alison translated.

“Oh, it was my father’s, of course,” Little Vickers said. “They were stuffed near the bottom of the Box of Things I Was Not Allowed to Touch. And get this, they were inside a severed hand, like this nasty old mummified hand that was still holding onto them for dear life.”

Hugo let out a muffled titter and Alison caused the bed to wheeze quietly as she inched away from their host.

“I know, huh?” Vickers laughed. “You don’t even want to know how I pried them loose.”

“That’s right,” Alison said.

Joshua Green Allen

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