Monthly Archives: February 2016

A Special Case

Griselda puffed into being in a cloud that smelled vaguely of baked goods. Years of experience had taught her that children were more inclined to trust people who smelled of wholesome things. She fanned her butterfly wings, a recent addition to the costume. She could fly very well without them, but in this post-Disney world, well, certain terms just brought certain expectations.

Jacob Fremont lived in a brightly painted house on a cul-de-sac teeming with other children. Yet he was friendless and alone. Griselda looked over a yard abnormally neat and empty of toys.

Jacob, like any other child, had his share of sadness. She’d read it. At three, Jacob had fallen and hit his head so severely they thought he’d have learning disabilities. He’d recovered from it, but then at six his baby brother had died. Fallen into the lake where their family had been staying.

Griselda sighed. She often saw it. Children didn’t need magic so much as positive reenforcement. The other godmothers had rolled their eyes at all the pop psychology books, but Griselda could see the change coming over the children of this generation from a mile away. The woes of today were less forced labor by your family and more societal ennui.

What she would do, Griselda thought idly as she hovered over the house, is implement a regimen of activity. Get the endorphins flowing before addressing the deep-seated issues.

A boy that had to be Jacob was standing in the side-yard, next to an air conditioning unit. He did not seem to be hiding from anyone, yet he was concealed by the structure. He stood stock still and looked off into the middle distance. Griselda pasted a bright smile on her face. She’d mastered appearing so much that she could make it seem like a sunbeam spontaneously split into a rainbow, lighting up her dress and hair with color.

“Hello Jacob,” she said, bearing a look of wistful gentleness.

The boy did not react like any child ever had. He didn’t react. He simply looked up as if she were a low-flying bird that had hit the roof.

“Hello,” he said. His lower lids were droopy and showed an unusual amount of white beneath his iris.

“I’m Griselda, your fairy godmother,” she breathed, trying to channel maternal goodness. That term was such a gross oversimplification, but it worked for what she needed.

Jacob cocked his head.

“Fairy. From ‘fair folk’?”

Griselda gave a rewarding little laugh. “Yes! What a clever little boy you are.”

“I read it in a book,” Jacob said noncommittally.

He had not once changed his demeanor since the conversation started. Griselda’s heart went out to him. He was too young to be so jaded. He needed to believe in magic as a child, because if he didn’t he wouldn’t believe in hope as an adult.

Griselda risked coming a little closer and rested her hand on his shoulder.

“Jake, I’m here to—”

“Jacob,” the boy insisted, “not Jake.”

Griselda smiled again. “Of course. I’m here to help you, Jacob. Can you think of something you need help with?”

This was most important. Most godmothers blasted in, granting wishes left and right without any thought to the big picture. If you let children talk, they would be able to tell you exactly what they needed.

Jacob looked at her hand. He didn’t blink much.

“I have English homework. One topic sentence and three supporting sentences.”

She’d been hoping for a bigger psychological revelation. Help with a bully, a parent, a pet. But it was a start.

“I can’t do your homework for you,” she teased.

The joke didn’t make a hit. “Then what can you do?”

Griselda dithered. “Oh…lots of things. I can make it rain, or make it sunny. I can make things grow, or shrink them. I can make clothes and food and—”

“Can you kill things?”

Griselda stopped. “I…can’t…” No child had ever asked her that. Even the ones being beaten by their parents hadn’t.

Jacob shrugged. “Well…”

Griselda followed him back to his room and tried to help him with the assignment. His biggest problem in English was that he didn’t quite get correlation and causation. He could write that a mouse would eat a piece of cheese, but he couldn’t tell why or what might happen after.

Griselda hung back and observed for the rest of the evening. Maybe his brother’s death had induced a streak of morbidity in him. While his parents were busy cleaning up after dinner, Jacob turned on a horror movie in the living room and watched without a trace of fear. Afterwards, Jacob took himself up to bed without asking for a goodnight kiss from either parent.

Griselda went over her notes. Perhaps the death had been so frightening it dulled his ability to feel afraid of other things? She had a sneaking suspicion he had witnessed more than was on the file.

The next day Jacob rose at six am and prepared for school. He fixed his own lunch, dressed, ate breakfast, and sat on the couch reading until his parents rose. Griselda followed him to school. Jacob was like many children, in that he only did enough work to complete assignments but did not excel. The other children tended to avoid him on the playground. Odd. He didn’t seem like a bully. She watched as he paced to the far corner of the schoolyard and pulled out a book. He liked reading. Maybe he found life so disappointing he was trying to escape it?

After school he walked himself home, paying attention to all signs and traffic lights. He was very cautious for an eight-year-old.

Once home, he shrugged off his backpack and dove straight into homework. He gave a lingering look to the English packet and set it aside.

At dinner he ate the center from his toast and only half his peas. Then he brushed his teeth for three minutes, told his parents five, and went to bed.

Griselda was left scratching her head.

Usually, fairy grandmothers were summoned for times of extreme duress. True, not all damage was external, but it seemed as if Jacob had a fairly normal life.

Grizelda decided on an observation period of a week. Just to be sure.

After three days she was ready to pack it in.

The  parent’s actions when no other adult was around were usually the most telling of their parenting style. Jacob’s parents behaved more or less the same whether they were being observed by other people. Jacob’s father might make some halfhearted attempts to joke with his son, or Jacob’s mother might tease him, but either action brought the same indifference from the boy.

The only notable event  didn’t look anything close to mistreatment. Jacob’s mother was in the livingroom, standing watchfully near the boy. It was something the parents did often. Suddenly, she gathered Jacob into a hug. The look on her face was expectant. Jacob didn’t move, neither to reach forward and return the hug nor to withdraw. After a moment, Jacob’s mother eased away and took his face in her hands, searching it for something. Whatever her goal, she came away disappointed.

Griselda appeared before him late one Thursday afternoon. Jacob was in the yard looking at bugs with a magnifying glass.

“Jacob,” she said.

“Griselda,” he said, as if she had just rounded the corner instead of appearing in a shower of sparkles.

Griselda watched him angle the magnifying glass. Such careful hands. Such detachment. Like a miniature scientist.

“Are you finding some good bugs?” She ventured.

Jacob grunted and nodded, finding her no more interesting a sight than anything else in the yard.

“Jacob, I had some questions for you…” she said, drifting closer. This let her see the white-hot beam emanating from the lens, let her hear the microscopic screams and pops.

Griselda gasped and knocked the glass from his hands. Jacob stared at the ant trail below him, hand open, face darkening.

“That was mine,” he said, emotion finally tinting his voice.

“Jacob, that’s horrid! Imagine those poor little ants, just rushing around on business, suddenly burnt to a crisp.”

Jacob said, “I do.”

Griselda shook her head.

“Jake, I’ve been watching you,” she said, “and I think I’ve figured out what I must do with you. I think I’m going to have to teach you empathy.”

Jacob slowly raised his head, those strange eyes with their large whites settling hot and still on her face.

“My name,” he said distinctly, “is Jacob. Not Jake.”

“I’m sorry. But you really must learn empathy.” Griselda fanned herself. “This must be the first time I’ve been called to save a child from himself. Do forgive me if I err.”

“You mean you’ll be hanging around?”

“I’ll be staying, Jacob, until I see fit to leave. We may have a lot of work ahead of us—I can only imagine what your brother’s death did to you—”

“He didn’t do anything to me,” Jacob said slowly, “not after that. Before, he put my trucks in the water. I told him no, but he did anyway. That’s why I pushed him.”

Griselda momentarily lost altitude. Her toes grazed the tips of the grass.

“Wh-what?” she asked weakly.

Jacob beckoned her over. “Want to see another secret?”

Griselda bent forward, head spinning.

Jacob had something in his front pocket, wrapped in an old handkerchief. He peeled away the layers and then suddenly lunged and pressed it against her cheek. It burned.

“Iron is deadly to fair folk,” Jacob said over the sound of Griselda’s screams, “I read that in my book.”

She tried to pull away, but it stuck to her skin and it burned and it burned and it burned

 

After a while Jacob’s mother came out of the house and saw the bright mess on the lawn. She spoke in a tone dismayed but not surprised.

“Oh, Jacob. Another butterfly?”

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House Lovers

Whatever you do, don’t go to houselovers.org. Or, if they’ve moved, don’t try to find them. I’m dead fucking serious about this.

It looks like a joke. A message board, a bunch of pictures of houses. Like the people who are so into model trains they build entire cities for them to service. No, no, no, this is way worse.

We wanted to sell our house, get a yard big enough for the Malamute and Newfoundland. We always thought the place was pretty neat, not like the cookie-cutter colonials around us, but we were still surprised to learn it was actually the work of an architect of some note, called Woodrue or something. Great. Property value: high. Hopes: higher.

So we put it up for sale and did the whole song-and-dance ourselves(no realtor for us!) Tried to be home as much as possible to show people around. I think my wife first noticed how many of the potential buyers were just men by themselves. No family, no business card or anything like that. Thy just drove by the house and had to have a look inside. They were all very complimentary about the style. Way, way too complementary. One guy stuck in my mind, this desk-jockey type with a rust-colored beard gushing about how “masculine” the architecture was. My wife and I both had a bit of a laugh over it, shrugged it off, put it down to the architect’s fame.

They would run their hands over the walls and arches, creepy shit like that. One guy asked to use the bathroom partway through a tour and took a really long time. My wife went to knock on the door, see if he was okay, and swears she heard him moaning. We laughed at that, too. It was funny. Creepy, but funny.

My friend Pete was the one who found the site. I ran into him getting coffee in the morning and he said our house was on this website. He wouldn’t tell me how he found it, seemed kind of perturbed. But he told me the address. I looked it up later that day, called the wife over, had another laugh. It seemed funny at first.

You’d get pictures of a doorway followed by post after post of lecherous comments. The most innocuous shit got the worst of it. I saw one guy threatening to blow his load over a single step. And that’s probably the most palatable example I could give you.

Well, we found our house before long. It was relatively tame compared to other shit on there. The guy started out talking about our “luscious” house and how it was the only Woodrue left in the area. He criticized the garage(added on in 1975) and the fence we’d put up around the front yard. I barely warranted a mention. The real vitriol they saved for my wife, bitching that the decorations she’d put up had ruined the interior, calling her all sorts of horrible names.

Bad as that is, it still wasn’t the worst.

They were making plans to scope out the house. It wasn’t that we had a lot of closeted architect lovers in the area, these assholes were traveling out of state to see us. And they were done playing nice. One guy talked about jimmying the back door while we were gone so he could lick the hallway lintel. Another one debated poisoning our dogs before they scarred up the wood floor.

It went on like that, I think you get the picture.

My wife and I felt like we’d just got a death sentence. We turned off the computer and went to bed for a sleepless night. Every crack, every pop in that house made me jump.

We took the sign out of the yard and finally contacted a real estate agent. We told her to screen out any single people, families only. The flow stemmed to a trickle, but we were okay with that. I managed to resist temptation for a week before I checked the website again. I immediately wished I hadn’t.

God, they were angry. I mean, they were fucking furious. They tossed around plans to get us evicted, calling the IRS(they got a hold of one of my old tax returns, somehow) even just breaking in and killing us. All because we stopped them from being inside the house.

It’s weird. They spoke as if they had a right to see the house, like it was really theirs and we had stolen it somehow.

I didn’t tell my wife. I really should have, but like an ass I tried to handle it myself. I joined the site, made a post saying that I would call the cops at the first sign of any of them setting foot in my yard. I was immediately banned and the post deleted. In its place were a thousand posts mocking me and my wife, taunting us, detailing all the horrible things they would do to us for the crime of living in our own house. I got bombarded with emails and a that virus killed my computer and that was that for a while.

We took the house off the market completely. I invested in home security, my wife got a concealed-carry license, and we tried to live like we’d never seen the site. I decided to put an extension on the house, just a little room adjacent to the washroom, somewhere to put the dog food and hang up coats. I should’ve expected trouble.

My wife was out in the yard, weeding the flower beds. The dogs were shut up in the house and the contractors working on the addition had gone to lunch, so she was alone.

This truck pulled up, all white, no identifying logo. This guy got out. He was dressed like a city workman, hard hat and everything, and he was livid. He flashed a badge at my wife too fast for her to see and told her the addition to our house was against the city’s municipal grounds contract. She’d have to  come with him, now, or face civic arrest. He got my wife’s arm in both his hands, the dogs were flinging themselves against the front door, and my wife was trying to fight free and ask him what the hell he was talking about.

Luckily, one of the contractors came back. He pulled up, still drinking his shake, and hit the horn. The guy holding my wife’s arm dropped it and sprinted to the truck, backed out so fast he scraped the side of the contractor’s truck. The contractor saw to my wife, told her what I’m sure you’ve already guessed: there’s no such thing as a municipal grounds contract and the guy was in no way legit. I left work early and held her all night, neither of us sleeping once.

We forewent the formality of selling and stayed at her sister’s place while we looked for a new house. I checked the site, once, and saw they were keeping track of our movements, salivating at the prospect of being able to walk through the house with no human clutter.

Well, a developer was buying up land in the area, and I saw an opportunity too perfect to miss.  I took a bath on that deal, but the emotional reward was greater. The day after we took our last box away they knocked it down, built five McMansions on the plot. The last post I saw on the site was seething about how a great piece of architecture had been destroyed, condemning us and the developers to a long, painful death.

We moved into a place that was exactly like all the houses around it. Neither of us could really relax again, not after what we’d been through, but we made the effort.

I guess I should be thankful, living in a place that isn’t special anymore. But I can’t be. The scariest thing about this is how arbitrary it all is. What the hell is it that made our house special compared to other houses? Someone just decided one day that it was? And who’s to say they wouldn’t just decide one day that another house is too special to live in, start harassing those people? Christ. Who’s to say it’s only houses?

The other day, while my wife was in the yard tangling with the bermuda grass,  a lady pulled up beside the fence.

We had such lovely dogs, she said, such lovely, special dogs. Could she see them?

Fuck it. I don’t think moving will help this time.

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The Beamis Clock

The Beamis clock has been missing now for many years. Teddy, the family scion, ran into a bit of bad stock in the 20’s and had to sell off a few heirlooms. The New Hampshire house quartered the staff and Teddy himself sold off all but one of his automobiles. Ah, but it was the clock that stuck in his craw.

The clock had stood at the head of the upper hall for as long as I had been executor of the Beamis estate. I never thought to ask after its make and model, just as I had never inquired after the ostrich-plume fan in the sitting room or that hideous upright piano in the parlor. It did not strike me as especially rare or valuable, but Teddy reacted to its absence as if the reds had stormed Wall Street and strung up Charles Mitchell himself.

Teddy’s great-great had fancied himself a big game hunter. He was the one responsible for that garish tiger-throw in the parlor and, apparently, the clock as well. To hear Teddy tell it, Samuel Beamis had cut a respectable swath throughout the wilder parts of the world and retired with not a few enemies. The clock had come from parts unknown. The brass maker’s plate had been scratched out and a fourth hand added to the clock face for some esoteric form of timekeeping. Besides these features, the clock was supposed to resemble a run-of-the-mill bracket clock like you might have on your own mantelpiece. I suggested that, owing to its common appearance, the clock might have been unwittingly sold or given as a gift by an elder Beamis. Teddy suggested I was an imbecile fathered by the milkman, and there split our working relationship until Teddy’s end, leaving the rest of my account to pure hearsay and speculation.

Teddy began a turnover of staff after I left. Soon he was even unable to find servants outside of town because of the reputation the house had gained. The mahogany end table where the clock had sat was said to be perpetually free of dust, a nightmare for any maid, I suppose. Teddy himself was insufferable, prone to buggy-whipping house boys he deemed slow. If Teddy had died at this point, I would not have been surprised. Instead, Teddy disappeared, which was nearly as fitting.

They emptied the house of its three remaining servants and there was quite a spectacle of a trial. The maid wept on the stand of all the misdeeds Teddy would make her perform. I testified on another day and missed it, sadly. I simply distilled my employment by the Beamis family into a few sentences and left the stand unmarked. Quite unexciting, I know. The senior partner in my firm, Claude Stanley, had been the one to broker the Beamis family’s affairs before me. I can only speculate that he’d have much more exciting tales than myself.

As it happens, time passed. I made and lost several fortunes, fathered a family, and they promptly dropped me into a facility for the doddering and decrepit when it was my time. Of the Beamis family, I thought very little, though my mind was much sharper than my descendants would give credit for. The Beamis family manse had stood empty for lo these many years. Then, not too long ago, on a grainy television in the day room, I watched them take a wrecking ball to it.

There were protesters, of course. Nothing so old could go without gaining a few fans, even a rococo nightmare like the Beamis house. I watched them form a human chain as the great iron ball swung and knocked down the widow’s walk Elmyra Beamis had constructed, the grey slate roof, the white walls and decades of history. I imagined Teddy’s chubby face red with apoplexy and wondered if they would find his bones.

The house fell. But then, on the television, there was a speck caught in mid-air. Knowing my fellow inhabitants, it could have been anything spattered on the screen. But the speck persisted as the camera pulled away and showed the crowds gaping at the miracle. I could discern what it was well before the anchor with unfortunate hair identified the floating shape as that of a mahogany end table. He spoke of Samuel Beamis, Teddy’s forebear and the discoverer of the clock.

Yes, discoverer. Samuel had found the piece when breaking new ground on an extension of the house, next to three finger-bones and a gold ring bearing the initials TB. Teddy himself grew to inherit that ring, I had seen it on his finger the entirety of our acquaintance. I wheeled my chair closer as the newsman blathered about ghosts and the madness hung mid-air behind him. He tossed out rumors, a few I’d heard, a few I hadn’t. The tale of Teddy Beamis’s screams coming from an increasing distance seems pilfered from an Ambrose Bierce story. Likewise, the specter of a cheated maid pointing out the site of her remains is straight from M.R. James. Teddy’s disappearance became the tragic attempt of a scion to understand his family’s misfortune, though I doubt the real Teddy’s intentions were ever so altruistic.

In-between the time it took for the news crew to switch cameras, the table disappeared, leaving an entire crowd of people scratching their heads. The phenomena was put down to flying saucers, which were in vogue at the time, and I resumed my nap.

When my granddaughter Amelia arrived for her mandatory visit, I entreated her to take me out to the house. Somehow she bundled me and my chair into a taxi and took me to the site.

A chain fence separated our prying eyes from the ruins. A sign proclaimed it the future nest of a series of expensive condominiums. The carriage house still stood, and the cobblestone driveway was halfway ripped up. I could smell the history blowing over the wreckage. There I had taken toddy with Teddy. There I had been dismissed and had a few clods of dirt thrown after me.

I wondered after Teddy. If he had ever truly understood his need for the clock, or if he had only held a few threads of the tapestry as I have. Amelia draped a granny square knit from odds and ends about my shoulders, a gesture that made me feel older than anything ever had. If the air that had held the table had any leftover mystic qualities, I did not see them.

The evening wind rose up and amelia dutifully packed me away into the taxi. She told me she knew I was pining for my younger days (how she had extracted that from my ramblings, I’ll never know) and had a surprise for me. The face was scuffed and it failed to tick anymore, but she had found a lovely clock for my nightstand sitting just outside the fence of the construction site. As my lovingly larcenous grandchild put Samuel Beamis’s clock in my withered hands, I shook from what she deemed to be cold and exertion and bundled me into the taxi. I half-expected it to disappear in the night, but it still sits on the table where I set my false teeth, very real, very broken. The Beamis clock has come to roost with me, and though I had been there from beginning to end, I could not tell you how.

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Gladis Root

arum-drakontia

The Gladis root (Geminus clavapoda) is the only living member of the valliscidae family of rhizomal plants. Its only known habitat is a dry valley in the  northern part of Namibia. A German pharmaceutical company brought it to western attention in 1896, when a specimen of dried root was brought back to the country in a material-finding expedition. The root was named, rudimentary tests performed, and promptly left in a drawer in the company’s archives.

Rediscovered in 1963, subsequent tests showed the rhizome contained an anticonvulsant agent and led to another expedition to its homeland. The anticonvulsant was present in greater proportions within the fresh plant, so several cuttings were taken and propagated in Germany. By 1977 the pharmaceutical company had developed Glaxis, an antiepileptic, from the root.  

Unlike its notorious cousin Thalidomide, Glaxis passed the placental-barrier test with flying colors. But it was during the long-term clinical trials that Glaxis’s most defining feature came into the fore. After six months of testing, all of the patients taking the drug began to develop teratomas. The varying ages and genetic backgrounds seemed to have little effect on tumor growth or development: the two largest growths were harvested from a young woman(26) and an older man (72). These weighed in at a whopping six pounds and showed unusual tissue variety, the male patient’s growth alone showed traces of bone, neuron, and adipose tissue. After the trial met an unceremonious end, the pharmaceutical company quashed further mention of the drug and discontinued research, escaping the bad publicity Chemie Grünenthal had faced.

The Gladis root grows in the historic domain of the Twombi people, who referred to it as the “punishment root.” The root was reserved for only the most grievous offenders: those who committed acts of rape, incest, or murder. The offender would be made to ingest the root until they had developed their own “bad twin” who would then mete out punishment. These sparse details were collected by an anthropologist in 1957. The Twombi tribe has since disseminated into the larger Bantu culture, making correlation of such details now impossible.

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