Monthly Archives: August 2014

The Disappearance of Bobby B.

For all of you looking for an ending, closure, some little gotcha moment to tie things up neatly at the end, you won’t find it here. Because I didn’t find it. This is real life, a thousand times more messy and terrifying than fiction could ever be.

The story’s name was “The Disappearance of Bobby B.” It was originally posted on a 4-chan clone in the early oughties, in the thread “post your favorite Creepypasta based on real life.” As you can imagine, there were a lot of stories coasting in on technicality, a few “something like this happened to a friend of a cousin” tales. “Sarah O’Bannon” was posted, as well as the one with the kid hollowed out as a drug bag. Bobby B’s tale was posted some fifty entries in, to lukewarm reception. Understandable. Having read it, I find it falls into a lot of the pitfalls of amateur horror writing. It shows rather than tells. It gives us too much.

Your brother was found with ligature marks on his throat,” the policeman said.

I gasped. That could only mean that my brother was strangled! Some madman had taken his life after hours of torture as he sobbed and screamed for his family.

Where:

Your brother was found with ligature marks on his throat,” the policeman said.

I gasped.

Would have sufficed.

There are other things, too. The writer goes into too-loving detail about Bobby’s last few hours, probably thinking that adding more gore would up the scare quotient. It has somewhat the opposite effect; by the time the kid’s eyes literally pop out of his head and the cat gets one, you’re thrown out of the moment by the sheer absurdity. Jaded by the high volume of torture packed into a few paragraphs, the reader can be forgiven for laughing instead of cringing. The IP address behind that post never made another, and the thread shuttered after 305 posts.

How did I run across it? By accident. It was cataloged in a notorious online wiki(defunct) and I was clicking through the cryptid section when it popped up in the suggestions. I skimmed it until I came across the name Kentville.

I grew up in Kentville.

I went back to the beginning and read with more interest now. It was set in a year where I probably would have matched the age of the narrator, in the same neighborhood.

It gets weirder.

The story is told from the perspective of a man who had a brother a few years older than him. When the narrator was five and the brother eight, the brother disappeared off the street and was never seen alive again. After a few weeks of hope, the cops break down the door to a neighboring house and find him…in pieces. There’s a huge media circus, and the narrator finishes by recounting how scarred the experience left him.

There’s a bit of truth to all that. I did indeed grow up in the area described, but closer to the town hall. I had a brother who was seven to my five. There was a house in my neighborhood that had been abandoned after the occupant skipped a few rent checks. And when I was five and my brother about seven, he caught spinal meningitis and never made it home from school one day.

I remember it hazily: I was home from kindergarten with a fever and I remember my auntie came to sit with me while mommy went to the hospital. I remember they told me Bradly was dead, and that he was in heaven now and he would always love me. I remember being sad in a distant, five-year-old way. I don’t remember the funeral, probably because my folks wanted to spare me the spectacle.

I kind of laughed when I figured it out. It was weird, to be sure, but not unheard of: some guy from our neighborhood remembered my brother and decided to write(badly) his own little what-if story about it. I wasn’t even mad.

I figured I had to share this with someone, so I called up my aunt, who still lived in the area.

Her voice went thin on the phone. “Oh God, honey…I’m so sorry. I thought you knew.”

I stood there with the phone in my hand, shit-eating grin frozen on my face, slowly losing feeling in my limbs.

My brother had never made it home. He’d last been sighted at the corner of a street near the school, a crossing guard waved him across. Then, for all intents and purposes, he’d just dropped off the map.

The people I had taken for distant relatives in my fever haze were actually policemen. My mom lived on a steady diet of tranquilizers, so my aunt took care of me a lot during that time. She made sure to get me out of the house a lot, especially since my parents stopped functioning properly. I had written it off as them being sad at losing a son, but that day I realized it wasn’t mourning a loved one: it was hope, thwarted. It would have been better if my brother had died, in a way, because they were never able to let him go. Even after the birth of my little sister, my parents were never the same. There was always a reserve between us, like they were afraid loving us too much would get us taken away too.

I’ll give you my mom’s response when I phoned her up and asked her why she’d let me believe a lie my entire life, why she didn’t tell me what really happened.

“What would have been the point?” she asked, and hung up.

Well, not much to tell after that. I did a little cold-case digging for myself, but I didn’t have a lot to go on. No body, no ransom note, no evidence. For a while they suspected my dad. Hell, they even suspected my aunt for a while, they were just grasping at straws at that point because they had nothing to go on. There was no media circus because they never found a body. People disappear everyday, it’s not even headline material anymore.

I wish I could give you a little ‘aha’ moment here. I wish there was some dark, mustachioed gentleman who was always hanging around and making threatening overtures, but I had nothing. Whoever had done this had probably been careful, not making a presence in my brother’s life. Maybe it had even been spur-of-the-moment.

I went to the old neighborhood, knocked on doors. I even went to the house described in the story, still empty after all these years. Where the entrance to the torture chamber was supposed to have been, someone had cemented over and made a wine cellar. I toyed with getting the police to dig it up, but to what end? What was I going on, just a hunch?

With all my physical evidence exhausted, I turned back to the story, analyzing it line-by-line. It was written from my perspective, or rather, from what I might have felt like if my parents had told me the truth. It was over-the-top with grief, really rubbing it in how my brother’s murder had hurt me. It went into too-loving detail regarding my brother’s torture and death, into how everything sounded and felt. It was supposedly being told from my perspective years after the fact, yet the torture scenes were written in first-person.

Like I said, I wish I had an ending for you. But those only happen in stories.

In this story, the brother warns people that the killer was never caught because he’d been too smart, warns that he could be anywhere.

In real life I stare at my computer and I don’t know. I just don’t know.

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The King’s New Clothes

I was accosted while slumming on subway. Tedward nabbed my collar and whispered sotto voce:

“Stop me if you’ve heard this one.”

“Yield,” I said, “there’s nothing new under the sun. I may not have heard this particular iteration—”

Teddy shook his head. “You with your Schroedinger’s opinions. Keke darling has found a new painter, simply to die for.”

“That’s nothing new.”

“Literally.”

I folded the copy of the Times I had been using to hide my lunch. “Go on,” I said, “you’ve bugged my Watergate.”

The gist of the matter—once you boiled down layers of Teddy’s pith—was some new thing was painting abstract swirls that made certain sensitives collapse, gray matter no doubt leaking out their ears. At the show’s opening, six art reviewers alone were rendered pudding, to small loss.

“Breathtaking,” said I, “what’s the cheese?”

Teddy leaned in close, a conspicuous gesture for a conspicuous man. “They shuttered his show until they figure out how to play off the reaction. Private showing, you dig?”

“Dug. What time?”

“Whoa, whoa, whoa,” Teddy said, “don’t be forward. Keke planned a little soirée to show off a new body mod.”

“And to scalp the guests for potential entrance fees,” I said distastefully, “pass.”

“Everyone who is someone will be there!”

“Well,” I said, “seeing as I am someone who may or may not be someone, let’s just stick that in the box and gas it, shall we?”

He was still puzzling that one when I got off. Some people, I tell you. It’s almost not worth having associates, but then again, who else would you show new outfits to? The populi? Please.

 

Keke Cola had returned from yachting Europeward to her ancestral manse, a glass-and-crystal palace that would’ve made C.F. Kane turn green. She’d decorated for the party by garlanding the place with rafflesia; I was given a pink gas mask with Reagan’s visage as a party favor. My fellow raconteurs were pawing through the buffet table like a trove of ravenous beasts. If there’s one thing we love, unconditionally, it’s a meal gratis.

Alabaster was there, along with Verdigris and several other colors. Sister Mister shot me a meaty hoof, dressed in a copper lame top and upsettingly short denim cutoffs. Algonquin Jack was masticating a humorously large beef rib, dentures seesawing in his mouth from the effort.

Keke, as always, stood in the middle of a knot of people. Her dress was slit down the front practically to the floor, showing off the control-top of her pantyhose briefs. She had some large tortoiseshell lenses on her head, stopping every other word to sweep a strand of hair back with a hand holding a cigarette stem. If she wasn’t careful, she’d ignite all the aquanet undoubtedly keeping her wig anchored.

Keke threw her arms open when she saw me. “Mon amour, ma cherie, it’s been a bit of too long.”

She air-kissed both of my cheeks. Up close I could see she had Coco Chanel’d to such a degree even the trenches of her wrinkles were tan.

“So afraid you’d miss this,” she spoke with a gravely rasp prized by blues singers and gargoyles.

“And miss seeing Verdigris fill up on shrimp?” I said, “I think he’s even sown a pocket into the lining of his jacket for the occasion.”

Verdigris gave me the finger. Keke gave me an oh you slap on the wrist.

“Dear, darling,” she said with sudden gravity, “have you heard the news?”

“About our lord and savior?” I said, “ages ago. I hear his squiggles make people squiggly.”

But the mistress of the house shook her head. “No no, darling, not squiggles. The boy paints de la vie.

“That bad, huh?”

Another wrist slap. This was threatening to become threatening.

“I’ve been to his loft,” Keke pontificated, “and he has such a unique vision.” She leaned in close, flooding me with rosewater and old meat. “There are layers one must be au courant to see.”

“Sing it sister,” I said, nabbing a shrimp cocktail before they went extinct.

“He paints in colors only seen on certain parts of the spectrum. Infra-red. Ultra-violet.”

“Don’t forget concussion green.”

Keke whipped off her Diors. Beneath the glasses, her eyes had been bandaged heavily.

“Neat threads,” I said, “so you’ve finally decided to drive blind then? Or do the police pull you over walking, now.”

“I got my lenses removed,” the lady said rapturously, “so that I may see.”

“Now I smell what you’re spraying. What’s this, a new self-destruction fad? Why not try pogo-sticking off the space needle again?”

The lady’s sticky grin rearranged into a frown. “You mightn’t be jealous, Darling?”

“Jealous?” I said, “I? Why, we’ve all evolved beyond such human peccadillos. You might as well accuse me of knapping flint into a knife.”

Metz pointed at me with a half-eaten squid tentacle. “You’re Krushchevving!”

I raised an eyebrow at him.“You’re about two presidents too late for that slang.”

Keke darling had become carried away with mirth. “I never thought I’d see you get green for a grocer.”

“You aren’t seeing at all,” I said testily, “and when you get to the afterlife, phone me and let me know what Satre is wearing.”

Hoots followed me out.

“Just because you don’t understand it, doesn’t mean it has no merit!” Keke called after me.

 

“The hell I don’t understand,” I grumped as I got into the car. “I appreciate art. I live art. I breath art. I sweat art. I ma—I consume art.”

“That may well be,” Lady D sniffed, “but if there’s one thing I can’t stand, it’s a flash in the pan masquerading as a claymore.”

Mrs. Dumont had declined to attend the party, natch. There had been bad blood between the two ladies for decades now, something deeply injurious that neither would talk about. My guess? Something to do with shoes.

“What do you think?” I consulted with her. “you think we should crash the showing?”

Dumont gave me Bette Davis eyes. “Crash, gauche. We will destroy it.” She revved the motor.

I changed into black turtleneck and slacks while she drove us, following a map Candy Warhol had inked on a napkin for us the night before. The loft above the Roi en Jaune show was shuttered until further notice. What they hadn’t counted on was decades of Lady D’s espionage against her fellow man. Through a combination of flirting and threatening, she got us a spot in the neighboring parking garage. Four storeys above the cement, I fit together a contraption of her own making, kind of like a crossbow fashioned from old hangers.

“And what happens if it doesn’t work?” I asked.

“You die and leave a beautiful corpse,” she replied.

“Just checking,” I said, and lined up my shot.

Bull’s-eye, though the company who put the billboard up would wonder why their model had gained a single, dark nipple in the morning. I saluted Mrs. Dumont and swung across, barely shitting myself in sheer terror at all. Once I had landed and kissed the surface of the roof a few times, I gave the all-clear signal to Lady D. She nodded and sat back with a thermos of tea, a copy of L’Etranger, and a Kalashnikov.

I slid my slim jim between door and jamb, popped the latch, and I was in.

Getting caught at this point would mean worse than jail time: public excruciation. My ego was in a sling as it was. I shuffled here and there in a crafty fashion, seeing as my dignity had long ago fled to winter in the alps, and looked for something likely.

A light snapped on above my head. Ugh, florescent.

“Who the hell are you?”

The young man spouting this cliché had the remains of a patchy beard and one eyebrow shaved, as if he’d already attempted to disguise himself. His eyes were flat in the middle. So he’d already gone ahead and had the surgery. Yet he wasn’t dead? Curieux.

“I’m the ghost of Potter Stewart,” I said, “I heard there was a breast sighted somewhere in the area and I wanted to check if it was pornography.”

Understanding dawned on the young man’s face. “Oh, you’re one of those.”

I tried not to appear too ruffled. “If by those you mean ‘art appreciator’ then yes, I am.”

He squinted and frowned, I think the light was getting to him. “Look, what do I have to do to get this through your heads? The paintings aren’t supposed to kill people.”

“Did I say I came here to die?” I placed a hand on my breast. “I came here on recommendation of a friend.” Which wasn’t a total lie. “A dear friend.” Which was such a lie. “Who spoke highly of your art.” Truth enough.

The young man sighed and scratched his beard. “You know,” he said ponderously, “when I started out doing this, I had such high hopes.”

“I know,” I said, “developing your style, evolving your technique, and maybe selling a few canvases before you die.”

He shook his head. “No. I wanted to tell everybody the good news. And He came into my arm and showed me the way.”

Ah.

“Who did?”

“The King, man, he…” the young man looked down as if he’d find the words he wanted on the floor, racheting his hand. “it’s too…je ne sais quoi.”

“Ne gaspille pas ta salive.” I said, “show, don’t tell. That’s what artists do, don’t they?”

He gave me a smile that made me a bit wary. “Sure,” he said, and giggled.

Never trust a man who giggles and assents too easily. It’s how I got stuck with my last five cars.

I followed him to the sheeted area of the studio, where lithic rectangles overshadowed cans of linseed oil and mineral solvent. He touched each one reverently and he went, naming them.

Regalia. Cassilda’s Lament. Unmasked. Boiling Hali.”

He stopped before the last.

“This is it. The big one. This is the one that has been taking lives.”

He started forward suddenly, grabbing my lapels. “I never meant for this to happen, you know.”

“Sure,” I said, straining back.

“I mean that.” He breathed like a rabbit in a snare. “But…I’m happy it’s happened. Happy. Do you see? Now everyone will know the King’s message.”

“That’s really okay,” I called, as he ran forward and dragged the sheet from the canvas, “I’m really gone cold on the idea—”

The sheet hit the floor with a sound like a thought ending. I pondered the piece.

The young man wrung his hands. “Well?”

“You’re no Kandinsky.”

He frowned. Obviously that hadn’t been the answer he was expecting.

“I mean it’s good,” I said, turning to him, “but I don’t see it on a postcard anytime soon.”

He felt my forehead.

“Hello to you too.”

He took his hand away. “This is wrong.”

“Funny, my phrenologist said the opposite.”

He looked at the painting, back at me, and then at the painting again. His face got suspicious.

“You’re not colorblind?” he asked.

“Well, that would explain my failed airforce career,” I said.

He nodded, as if I had agreed with him outright. “You’re color—the painting doesn’t fucking work on you!”

“Watch your mouth,” I said, “children are within a five-mile radius.”

“This isn’t funny, there’s an entire section of the spectrum you can’t see! You can’t fully fucking appreciate the King’s fucking portrait.”

“Using that word constantly isn’t going to make its property value go up,” I said, “now listen—”

“Stew,” he said absently, looking up at the painting.

“Stew,” I agreed, “is this the only…masterpiece that has been causing these extra-vulgaris symptoms?”

Stew looked at me, eyes wary. It really wasn’t attractive, the flat look. Maybe he could invest in snake-eye contacts.

“Then I am correct in assuming it’s special effects were an accident?”

He went crafty, like a fifth-grader with a forged parental note. “It fucking won’t be,” he ranted, “when I learn to reverse the process and find what I did.”

“Such language,” I chided, tweaking his nose. “anyway, I’m taking it.”

“You’re what?”

“Actually I’m a Pisces.” I hefted a corner of the sheet and tossed it over the painting. “I have the most darling little alcove at home. This will fit right in. I’ll keep it veiled unless I have guests who merit a private display.”

“You can’t do that,” he said numbly.

I waved the kris that Lady D had loaned me from her extensive collection. “I can’t? Anyway, help me with this corner.”

Sheeted and tied, the painting flopped like a wayward kite to the ground. I waved to Lady D, who flicked a lighter at me. I shook my head sternly.

“I can’t fucking believe this,” Stew said, holding a can of what I hoped wasn’t paint thinner, “my only success is getting stolen by a fucking poseur.”

I slapped him lightly on the wrist. “I know you have a beef, Stew. But simmer down.”

I laughed my way down the stairs. I allow myself time to be corny when I’m alone. It helps me keep shtum in the public eye.

On the street Lady D had donned her battle beret, smoking a black cigarette and sitting on the canvas.

“One word,” she said, “and I can make it look like the Secession gallery.”

“Negatory, good lady,” I said, “I’ve decided to adopt it.”

She snorted. “And invite Keke Darling, I suppose.”

I tied it to the luggage rack. “I had thought of that, yes.”

When we were back in the car, Dumont turned to me and gave life to the utterance that every artist dreads:

“What’s it a picture of?”

“The stuff that dreams are made of, kid,” I said. If I craned my head a long way back I could just make out the forlorn silhouette of Stew the painter. Maybe it really was paint thinner. Maybe it was for the best.

“The stuff that dreams are made of.”

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Echo

This is how it happened:

I was in the dregs of a good nap and just this side of awake when the phone rang in the kitchen. I managed to stumble to my feet and find the door. Maybe if I had tried the knob with my other hand this would’ve gone differently. But I went for it with my left.

The hand still holding the phone.

I paused, looking between the phone in my hand and the door hiding the source of the impossible ring. I thumbed the button and put my ear to the receiver: dead. No dial tone, nothing.

The ringing stopped.

My dad spoke up, “Honey, I need you to get out here.”

I was wary at this point so I said, “Dad? Dad, what is it?”

“I need you to get out here.” His voice was firmer.

“Why?”

“I need you to get out here.”

I didn’t say anything.

Then Roger, my dog, started barking. Not knowing what the hell was happening and afraid that some weird burglar was out there, I called to him.

“Hush Rog! Off! Off!” Off being the command to get back in bed. Roger never disobeyed that command.

And then I noticed something else.

Roger was barking up a storm, but I couldn’t hear the sound of his paws on the wood floor. Rog is a jumper when he’s real excited, and he sounded pretty excited now.

Then my boss said, “I’m sorry, you need to get out here. You were scheduled today and if you don’t come in I’ll have to fire you.”

My whole body went cold.

“What the hell are you doing in my house, dude?” I screamed, “what the fuck is going on?”

Silence.

My mom: “honey, you okay? He’s gone now. Please come out.”

I dropped the phone. “Mom,” I sobbed. I wasn’t opening the door.

“Sweetie,” my granpa’s voice begged.

“Fuckface,” my brother snarled.

“Hey cutie,” my friend called.

I sat with my back against the door, arms pulled tight over my stomach.

“Go away!” I screamed. “go away go awayGOAWAYGOAWAY!!”

A knock. Not on my door, but on the hallway.

“This is the police,” a man’s voice said, “they’ve gone now. Please open up.”

My hand was actually halfway to the bolt before I thought twice and pulled it away.

The next voice sounded like Roger if you taught him to speak: “Let us in, let us in before we come in.”

I put my hands over my ears and chanted go away.

It felt like hours. It must’ve been hours, because the sun was low and orange by the time I heard the front door. Really the front door. I have never been so relieved.

Before I had a chance to call out to my family, I called out to them.

From the hall.

And, as I struggled with a door that stuck tight no matter how I pulled, I realized I didn’t need to come out anymore.

It had enough of my sounds

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Anatomy of an Outbreak

It is 3:05 in the afternoon, somewhere in the indeterminate future. There is a Sitatunga antelope staggering down grasslands in what was formerly part of Cameroon but now comprises part of a private super-ranch owned by five US holderates. The antelope staggers because one week ago it caught a virus, possibly from infected waters, possibly from a mosquito bite. Fever has burned out most of its brain, it is barely mobile. There is a herd of Cape Buffalo/cattle hybrids in the field as well, they give the antelope a wide berth. The Sitatunga staggers forward, compelled by some unquantifiable memory, or perhaps just driven by inertia. The virus has made it hydrophilic, its body swollen so much its joints can no longer bend.

On the other end of the field, machinery starts up. The Cape Cattle recognize the noise and run. The antelope does not.

The massive harvester spans the breadth of the field, running on elevated tracks so as not to despoil the vegetation. The sensors go by mass and weight. The antelope, having swelled up three times its normal size, is picked up and stored by the machine. Soon, the cape cattle join it.

Our patient zero rises at eight am sharp the next day. He is Phillip Morisot, and he has two weeks of life left. He is a music producer and lives in a resort village on the super-ranch along with his girlfriend Bismuth. Bismuth sells native art from the dwindling Fulani population squatting on the edges of the super-ranch. Phillip signs minor artists and is the primary breadwinner for the household, once he dies Bismuth will have only their small savings to live off of. This will not be a problem as she will not live long enough to see it run out.

This morning he showers in a cubicle that gathers his soapy runoff for recycle, shaves with a dry powder, and puts on a linen suit. Bismuth remains in bed, purple hair peeking out from beneath the comforter.

Phillip rides in a jeep to work, because he likes having the ability to cut across small swaths of grasslands and spying flashes of the ever-thinning wildlife. He has never seen a Sitatunga antelope precisely because this area was not their usual habitat. The sick antelope had traveled a long way indeed, addled by fever.

Phillip’s mind was not on the coming weeks, or even the next day. A particular teen idol, a pop singer toying with her own clothing line, was teetering on the line between them and a rival recording studio in Rome. The other studio had wined and dined her, taking her to the coliseum museum where she could see actual chunks of the ruin, and gave her a pizza with Ostrich meat and cashews on it. Phillip’s department is under pressure to top that, pressure Phillip doesn’t think he can live up to when even toilet paper had to be flown in to the village.

“—maybe they can get away with that kind of opulence up at pizzaville,” he says to his immediate superior over the phone, “but we’re a more modest outfit over here. That’s what people like about us. What about whathisname, the actor? He liked that we made the jacket covers out of hemp fiber.”

“All ancient history, Phil. Princess Whitebread doesn’t go for that hippie shit. She’s the kind of person who likes more frosting than cupcake.”

Phillip hangs up the phone with little hope.

That afternoon, the antelope is taken from the pen where it had been crammed along with the Cape Cattle. The entire slaughter process is automated, hence there are no witnesses to the sick antelope being decapitated, and certainly no one to stop its blood being collected for use in animal feed. The body is skinned by suction and sectioned into various cuts. The machines here have no sensors, so the unusual amounts of fluids and other oddities go undetected.

That afternoon Phillip takes the teen idol’s manager to Safariville, a popular restaurant made in the style of a chieftain’s hut, but much more spacious. It had been Phillip’s luck that the manager was already on-continent, doing a little publicity down in the Congo preserve. Phillip pretended to be impressed at snapshots of the man posing with heavily sedated elephants and hippos.

“It’s like this, Sammy,” Phillip says, “Princess might like luxury. Heck, we all like being spoiled. But this isn’t just about what she wants. It’s image, it’s about globalization. How’s it going to look if she busts out a magazine cover riding on the hood of a solid-gold Mercedes?”

“Well, we all know how that went down with the last guy,” the manager replies, and they shared a laugh.

The load of meat had been delivered to the restaurant still steaming. Now the chunks are sectioned into smaller slices by the kitchen staff. The chef who got the antelope meat is a local hire. They all are. Like the rest of the kitchen and wait staff, he cannot read English and as such does not follow the safety charts posted by law in every kitchen in the village. While the meat’s external temperature reaches 100 degrees Celsius, enough to carmelize the surface, the internal temperature never rises enough to kill off regular bacteria, much less a virus. With a pair of tongs, the chef flips the meat onto a waiting platter of pasta and salad. He dings the bell and goes back to cooking another steak without washing his hands.

At promptly 1:15pm, Phillip Morisot takes a bite of his steak. Years of smoking have dulled his senses of taste and smell, so he only registers the fact that the meat is oddly chewy. The manager gets a soy assortment, and now spends the remainder of the lunch chewing through what looks like a series of building blocks.

Phillip’s stomach’s protests are dismissed as foreboding. The conversation does not go badly, but no satisfactory conclusion is reached. The manager does not outright agree to anything, but Phillip knows that willful spending could be the death-knell to anyone’s public image. He spends the rest of the afternoon chewing digestive tablets and swearing off cheese.

While Phillip’s stomach digests the meat, the virus makes acquaintance with his stomach cells. The viral symptoms that might have been recognized in the animal are not present in Phillip. He has no sudden thirst for water, he will not wander in circles as the antelope had for days before meeting with the harvester. However, Phillip’s mucous membranes begin secreting an abnormal amount, which Phillip attributes to the poor air quality predicted for the day. Tissues pile up in his garbage as he waits.

Finally, at sunset, his computer chimes a video call. He puts it on the projector, so the manager is confronted with the hopeful faces of Phillip’s assistants, secretaries, and general dogsbodies.

“Hey there, Phil.” The manager is clearly taken aback by the spectacle, a thing Phillip had counted on. “Been mulling over your words. It is a bear economy right now. Just the other day they attacked that senator for wearing Gucci pumps.”

Andie, his head secretary, laughed disbelievingly, Ferragamo wedges on her feet hidden beneath a desk.

“I know it, Sammy, I know. And we’re all big fans of what you did with those singing boys, you know? Those clean-cut kids from the Bronx?”

The office loyally burst into praise for the singing group that had disbanded five years previous. The manager still considered it a success, judging by the flush of his cheeks. He waved the praise away.

“I can’t keep lobbing no-hitters,” he said, suddenly grim, “I know I’ll have to step wrong sometime, and if I can find a way to minimize my losses, I will.”

Phillip, equally grim, grips the back of his chair and orates over it.

“Sammy I’ve seen the numbers,” he says, “this chickie is really popular with middle America. Can you say that about anyone else in your stable? What about that rocker, the guy with the hair?”

“He’s platinum in Europe.”

“Yeah, but what about the US? I’m not saying it’s all about staying power,” Phillip wheedles, “it’s about globalization. Everybody knows Italy, they know pizzas and Gucci and all that art crap. But look at us down here! We’re a grassroots organization, we’re small, we’re local, we have to send away for our garbage collection! You’ll be doing us all a favor, and Sammy, you know how Yanks like to help the underdog.”

There was a long pause, during which Phillip’s stomach wouldn’t stop gurgling.

“You’re right,” the manager said, and the office let out a resounding cheer.

That night Phillip recounts the coup to his girlfriend while she makes their dinner of sprouted quinoa and lentil-based loafs. They eat on their deck made from centuries-old teak and drink a cheap table wine. That night he and Bismuth make love. Like all other occasions they made love, the only birth control they utilize is Bismuth’s uterine implant.

In the weeks to come Bismuth will nurse Phillip as he grows progressively worse, becoming delirious and weak, thinking it merely a bout of McKillup’s Influenza, which they had both contracted earlier in their lives. Indeed, for the first few months the virus would be mistaken for Mickey’s Flu, meaning that thousands are inoculated with vaccines that provide no protection from the virus. Phillip will die from what he initially thought to be a minor upset, as would Bismuth and most of the white population of the super-ranch. Those that have the money to circumvent quarantine bring the virus with them back to America, to Europe, and summer homes in Caribbean islands. The Fulani, by some genetic lottery, would prove resistant to the virus, as would small enclaves in the Congo, Liberia, and various other marshy environments in Africa.

That night Phillip goes to sleep happy, dreaming of the days to come.

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Tara

Before Scott woke up on Wednesday morning, he dreamed of Tara. And, like most nights he dreamed of Tara, Scott woke half-hard. He stretched luxuriously, enjoying the gentle tension of the sheets, but he would not complete the indignity. Many followers of Tara preached that love of the body was as pure as any other worship, but Scott found it vulgar and uncouth. Love for Tara transcended the physical, it was a more pure form of love.

That morning he teased himself, browsing news sites with pretense of watching the weather and social climate. He was in fact playing a game with himself, seeing how many clicks it took to get to Tara. He went from weather to sports to a pop piece about a soccer player marrying a model, who had once starred in an avant-garde film by a certain director, whose latest film would be about whales. Tara had loved whales and papered her adolescent room with them. Scott spent the rest of the morning happily browsing the various Tara webrings, snapping up every scrap of news. Tara had ordered out recently, from a burger joint Scott decided to patronize that afternoon. Sifters of Tara’s garbage found the regular assortment of maxi pads, no more scares like the pregnancy test found last month. Scott scoffed at their clumsy prying, but acknowledged that he found their info useful.

In the car to work, he switched on the scrambler that let him hear fellow Tarist’s stations. TRRA reported another police crackdown of a Tarist squat on Maple and Kilkenny, a block down from Tara’s current dwelling. Scott had played with the idea of joining other Tarists long ago, but realized he preferred to worship on his own. GRVS took callers describing their favorite Tara moments. An easy first was the press conference which had been Tara’s last public appearance. A construction worker shared Scott’s favorite moment, the time a photographer had caught her reading A Tale of Two Cities on the balcony. Scott had the photo and the book framed in his bedroom. One crank simply screamed “you’re sick!” into the phone until the host hung up. The guest host shot down caller theories that such calls came from Tara herself, there were plenty of young women jealous of Tara’s attention. TARA, the top rated station, called for a moment of silence for this day in history. Ten years ago, Tara had been revealed to them all.

Scott remembered blissfully the exact moment he’d opened the Times and the headline screamed back “ARE YOU THINKING OF THIS GIRL? THOUSANDS ARE.” The phrases “memetic virus” and “idée fixe” stuck out from the rest of the text, but the article rapidly diminished in importance as Scott found himself drawn back to the photo. He had never seen a more perfect photo. It captured the essence of Tara on flat paper, which was as close as most of them would get. The newspaper hastily issued a retraction later that day, but not before thousands of readers saw it and fell in love with Tara Grieves, Scott included.

Another crank caller snidely asked the host to describe Tara’s features.

“You see, it’s people like that,” the host explained, “that just don’t get it. Tara transcends simple physical form. Tara is beautiful, inside and out.”

Scott, like most people, only had a pleasant blur of her face inside his head. No matter how he tried, a few seconds after looking at a picture of Tara, he could no longer place her facial features.

The station led its listeners in the typical wellness prayer for Tara as Scott pulled into work.

Tim, the associate manager, blanched. “Scott. I-I thought you were on–religious leave?”

Scott palmed his back good-naturedly. “Just here to say ‘hi’ Timothy.” He handed Tim his collection of software and a pamphlet on Tara. To Janis he gave his audio books and another pamphlet. Garcia got his electric shaver, Frank his signed copy of a crime novel, Yulia his mother’s antique pins. Tucked within his gifts like little air fresheners were pamphlets and more pamphlets. He caught their worried, sorrowful gazes, knowing internally that they were still earthbound and couldn’t imagine the pleasure of Tarism.

Jeff the manager stopped him in the hall. “You know you’re not allowed to pass your shit out anymore, Scott.”

Scott held up his pile. “Yeah, it’s cool. I just had a few more things to give away.”

Jeff barred the way. “No, it is not, in fact, cool. Get the fuck out of here, moonie.”

Scott shrugged and let the pile drop from his arms. Whispers trailed out after him: “–sign of suicide? I mean, getting rid of all your possessions–” He didn’t hold it against them, it was an easy mistake to make. He wasn’t killing himself, he was shedding his old life.

Scott drove for hours. He stopped at the burger joint on the way. The fries were saltless and pasty, the burger tasted of nothing but the bun, but he was happy. When he finally made the turn onto Kilkenny, it was as if he had uncuffed a wrist. Some pressure he hadn’t even known was there eased up inside his skull, and Scott parked, blissfully uncaring of whether it was a parking space or not.

Yesterday, word had gotten out that security had changed shifts in Tara’s apartment block, which was empty except for her few rooms at the very top floor. The new guard was a transfer from Quantico, and had never been on containment detail before. All Tara’s guards worked with hour-long overlaps, so there would be a time in the afternoon where only the inexperienced would stand between the Tarists and she.

Scott was half-hard as he walked up to the building, but he brandished it with pride. These were his people, and many of them were in varying states of excitement. At least he still had on pants.

The crowd congregated around an obese man who wore Tara’s outfit from August 11, two years ago. His body had been wedged into a pink fitted t-shirt, jean shorts straining at his girth. With a megaphone fashioned from a Tara poster, he lead the group in an upbeat chant.

Scott clandestinely maneuvered around the back of the crowd and around the building. A Tarist had been killed some months ago trying to ascend the garbage chute, but Scott had it on good authority that the fire stairs accessed a window that did not latch. He found, with some frustration, that others had acted on the tip. The line was longer than Splash Mountain. Finally he ascended the fire escape, pulse pounding, in mind of the tale of Rapunzel. He would call Tara from her ivory tower, show her she was loved. The others didn’t matter, for surely she would see that he and he alone loved her correctly.

Once inside, it was only matter of following the press of bodies, letting himself be bobbed along on a stream of humanity. The crush of the crowd around the apartment door made getting to the front no easy task; he had to liberally apply his teeth and elbows to attain a front row seat. An immediate hush fell on the people when they heard that most promising of sounds: a deadbolt sliding back.

The young woman stepped out of the apartment, purse clutched under one arm. She was veiled with an opaque white cloth that draped all the way down to her skinny jeans. She froze, and a Tarist took the opportunity to slam the door shut behind her and bar it with his body. There was the sound of a summer wind as all Tarist took a deep intake of breath through their noses. Scott found vanilla and honeysuckle, as well as an underlying note of sebum and pesto sauce.

She struck out a hand. “Oh God, don’t! Don’t! What is wrong with you people?!”

There was a mixture of yells and murmurs as people assured her of love, their love, undying.

She flicked out a tiny pocket knife. “Get away! Please, just leave me alone! It’s not my fault!”

One intrepid soul snagged the veil from her face, and a vacuum formed as the Tarists breathed a disappointed sigh in unison. The girl with snub nose and hazel eyes staring back at them was not Tara. Disappointment ossified in the pit of Scott’s stomach. He turned and walked, unmoved by the wet crunches of the melee behind him. He stepped over a body wearing a security guard’s uniform and went back the way he came.

His faith had been tested. Had he jumped too soon? Loved too cheaply? Was he no different than these nuts?

Scott’s car had been towed so he walked until dark. Tara had not been there, an implicit lie if not an outright lie. The house had been guarded as if she herself had been in there, a false flag.

Scott had a sudden revelation as he ducked into an alley to avoid the lights of a police car.

It had been a test. He had not passed, but he had not failed either, had he? He had not taken part in destroying the false Tara, as those of more superficial faith had done. Tara had tested his love, but had it been diminished? Scott realized it had only whet his hunger to see her. Now he knew that Tara called to him and him exclusively, testing his mettle above those of his brothers and sisters.

An old crone in Tara’s bathrobe (September, five years ago) opened the door of an abandoned brick factory to him.

Scott smiled at the rabble within. “Children.”

He knew the way forward. He loved Tara.

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