Monthly Archives: October 2016

Alligator Man

“You know what they call this stretch of the interstate? Alligator alley. Doesn’t that just bounce? Alligator alley. That’s like the name of a weather girl. ‘Alligator Allie and News Copter 5!’” he joked.

She shook her head and tucked her shoulder into the gap between the passenger seat and the door.

“Me and my friends used to drive this way in high school,” he said, “it’s fucking scary, right? We loved scaring each other. Here—”

He flicked the headlights off.

She let out a noise and hit his arm.

“That’s not funny,” she said, laughing.

He grinned and turned the lights back on. “You see what I mean?”

She rolled her eyes. He hit the window switch and rolled the rear passenger window down, letting a warm, humid breeze roll into the car. She pressed her forehead to the cool glass of the window.

“So what’s out there?”

“Right now? Nothing.” He rolled the window up again because the windshield was getting cloudy with moisture. “Just everglades. Swamps.”

They drove on in silence for a few miles. No cars passed them, coming or going.

He chuckled a little. “Hey, when I was in high school, there was—”

The headlights illuminated a heap next to the highway. As the car drew closer, they were able to pick details out in the headlights. A tan Datsun, stopped without emergency lights.

“What the…” he muttered under his breath. He put on the signal.

“What are you doing?”

“Just seeing. Don’t worry.” He put the car in park, unbuckled himself, and got out. He left the door open behind him.

Her eyes followed him to the car, saw him peer into the driver’s window with his hands cupped around his face.

There was the sound of a branch breaking.

She turned and looked out the open driver’s side door. It seemed like she should have been able to see a few details of the opposite side of the road, of the trees and the swamp beyond, but all that was there to see was a wall of black. By the time she looked back at the Datsun, he had gone around the far side. The car rocked as he hunched by the passenger door. Once, twice.

She almost called for him, but the sound backed up in her throat like phlegm.

He walked back to their car. Only, instead of going around the front, cutting through the headlights, he went around the back of the car. She tracked him through the mirrors.

“What was it?” she asked as he got back in.

He kept his face turned away from her as he buckled, waiting until the car was rolling to pull his leg in and finally close the door.

“Oh,” he said, “nothing.”

The silence was thick in the car. There was something she felt she needed to ask, but couldn’t put it into words. He was humming aimlessly, something that rumbled low in his throat.

“Anyway—what was I saying?”

She grabbed at this invitation to return to normality. “When you were growing up?”

“Oh yeah.” He kept his face at a three-quarter turn away from her, but even so she could see his cheek stretch as he smiled wide.

“When I was growing up, there was something they called the Alligator Man. He used to hunt people along this here highway. Stalk people nice and slow. Nobody’s really sure he was a man anyway. Nobody saw him and lived.” He cackled a little.

She folded her arms. “Nevermind. I don’t care anymore.”

He went on regardless. His voice had become creaky and pitched low in his throat, like he was putting on a voice to scare her.

“They called him the Alligator Man ‘cause of what he’d do. He’d take you, and he’d stash you somewhere underwater. To soften you up. Just like a ‘gator. They would find people with chunks missing, all swollen with swampwater.”

She sank down further in her seat. “Stop it. You’re not funny.”

He went on, cadence of his voice smooth and even. “He was never caught, like I say. Just trawled up and down this stretch of highway, up and down. But do you know why they really called him the Alligator Man?”

She didn’t answer.

He drove on, rolling down all the windows so the wet, warm air invaded every corner of the car.

“Why?” she whispered.

Because,” he said, teasing the word out nice and long, “because he acted like an alligator. You ever seen an alligator hunt?”

His voice had dropped lower with each passing phrase. She tried leaning forward to see his face, but he shut off the dashboard lights.

“No,” she admitted.

“An alligator likes to lie nice and still on the water. That way it looks like a log or something harmless. Right up until it’s ready, it’s still as a stick. Alligator Man’s like that. Only, he don’t look like a log or a stick.”

His accent, which had been nearly extinct when they met, was oozing full and thick from his throat.

“He look like somethin’ harmless. Somethin’ folk reco’nize. So they let him get nice and close.”

He put on the signal. The car slowed as it bumped onto the red dirt of the shoulder. She looked around.

“Why are you stopping?”

“This is where we stop.”

He shut off the car, the headlights, everything, and turned around in the seat to face her. She couldn’t make out his face or any features, the night was so dark.

She held her phone up, finger hovering over the flashlight app.

“Are you sure you wanna do that?” he asked. His voice was a low rumble in his chest now, like scales dragging across something as they slipped into the water.

She turned on the light.

It was the last thing she ever did.

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Prelude to an Exorcism

An older, stocky man opened the front door. “Dr. Elliott, I presume?”

Elliott offered a small, formal smile and a limp handshake. “Sure. Father, doctor, whichever you feel comfortable with, Mr. DeLuca.”

“I feel much more comfortable with you here now, father.”

Elliott had trained his senses to pick up on minute, ephemeral details. Was Daniel DeLuca a bit too enthusiastic? Did his smile match the reflex-crinkle of his eyes? Was his handshake firm, too firm, or phoned in?

DeLuca nodded crisply, though no one had said anything. “It’s so good that you’re here.”

He went in for a hug. Elliott chose to dodge nimbly around his other side, as if he had mistaken the gesture. Families under stress were more inclined to be physical with strangers, seeking the comfort denied them in their own home. Elliott tried to avoid undue familiarity whenever possible.

DeLuca took his coat, hanging it up on a coat rack that also held a white woman’s duffle and a brightly-colored child’s parka. The parka had a light layer of dust on it.

The front hall was sparse in both furniture and decor. There were a few nonthreatening landscape paintings, the customary bowl of random wicker balls on a table, but nothing besides that. No clutter. Few human touches.

DeLuca had come to stand just a little too close to his right flank.

“Father Corsey tells me you were a newspaper editor?” Elliott said politely, using pretext of turning to face DeLuca to put some distance between them.

DeLuca nodded. “The old St. Louis Spirit. Deader than disco now. They have an online component manned by a skeleton staff.” He leaned forward, negating the distance Elliott had bartered. “Right around my severance was when the troubles started.”

DeLuca’s face changed from an excess of enthusiasm to sorrow so quickly it was almost farcical.

“Fiona was very…affected by the change,” he related in a whisper. “To see her father fall from primary breadwinner of the household must have been quite a blow to her delicate constitution.”

Elliott made a note on his mental notepad and then underlined it. “So around….”

“Four months ago. It’s been horrible.” DeLuca seized Elliott’s hand in his own, suddenly clammy grip. “She won’t even let me touch her anymore. She won’t eat. She says such…horrible things.”

Elliott cleared his throat. “Well, the diocese has sent me here to evaluate your situation, to see that an exorcism is indeed the best course. We do not make these decisions lightly, Mr. DeLuca—”

Daniel, please.”

“—and only advise it as a last resort.”

For a few moments, there was only the barely-audible rasp of Mr. DeLuca’s breathing. He smiled with glazed eyes.

“Once you meet Fiona,” he said, “I am sure you will advise the best course.”

As they struggled up the narrow staircase, Elliott saw a woman flit ghostlike down the end of the hall. DeLuca stopped just before the top of the stairs, his back a solid white square like a limestone block.

“Margerie,” he said under his breath. Then, in a louder voice, “he’s here now. Get back to your room.”

Elliott swiped his tongue along the bottom right corner of his mouth. “Your wife?”

DeLuca made a dismissive motion with his hand. “She’s not taking it well, either. Possession is hardest on the mother. Maternal instinct demands you bend to the child’s demands, but giving the demon what it wants only serves to prolong the possession.”

Elliott sifted the statement, storing certain parts in their own bins. “So, is your wife providing primary care to your daughter?”

DeLuca chuckled low, shaking his head. “She’d give her the moon if I let her. No, the only one with a key to Fiona’s room is me.” He held up a brass key from the lanyard on his neck.

Elliott frowned thoughtfully. Something he had picked up on during the course of their walk was the lack of church memorabilia. Usually families stocked up on crosses, Christ figures, anything they could. DeLuca’s key hung where a crucifix normally would be. He held off on remarking on this.

“Could I see her, please?” he asked, “I would like an interview, if that’s okay.”

DeLuca took the key from his neck and twirled it on his finger. “Ask and ye shall receive.”

He stuck the key in the knob and turned it slowly, keeping eye contact with Elliott the entire time. As the door swung open, a draft played around their ankles.

The lack of memorabilia in the rest of the house was compensated for. In spades. Someone had scratched crosses into the wall, gouging them deeply into the plaster in a variety of sizes and lengths. Someone else had sloshed a bucket of white paint over them, sloppily, so that the room still smelled of latex and acrylic.

The sole piece of furniture was a bed pushed against the wall. Leather restraints, the kind used in mental institutions, crowned each bedpost. A slip of a girl lay in the middle of the bed, limbs stretched to meet each restraint. Her hair was greasy and her pale limbs covered with scratches. She wore a white, stained shift and a rosy gold crucifix hung around her neck.

All in all, Elliott mused, a picture straight out of Hollywood.

The girl on the bed stirred, flesh of her throat flexing. Her eyes rolled down to display the whites above her iris, much like a startled horse.

Elliott turned and found DeLuca looming in the doorway like a disproving stormcloud.

“I would like to conduct the interview alone, if it’s at all possible.” Elliott said.

DeLuca didn’t move. His gaze was pinned to the girl on the bed.

“Please,” Elliott said, lightly pushing his chest.

DeLuca backed out of the room, still facing the bed. He left the door ajar. Elliott gently pushed it closed.

The girl on the bed lay perfectly still as he approached, putting him in mind of a fawn trying to look like dappled sunlight on leaves. There was no chair, so he crouched by her side.

“You’re Fiona?” he asked.

The girl swallowed, nodding gently.

“Can I ask you some questions?”

Her eyes strayed to the door. He nodded without following her eyes.

“We can talk quietly, if you like,” he whispered. “Have you seen a doctor recently, Fiona?”

A headshake.

Elliott motioned to her scratches. “Did you do this to yourself?”

Another headhsake. “He did this.” her voice was like the flutter of a moth’s wing.

“He?”

“The demon. He comes to me at night.”

Elliott nodded, tentatively turning her wrist in his hand. There were lacerations from the restraint, some old enough to be scars, some fresh and red.

“When did this…demon manifest itself?”

She blinked.

“When did you first notice it?”

“When daddy got fired.” Her eyes flicked to the door again. “He showed up. It left a space for him to squeeze through.”

Elliott frowned. She hadn’t said anything about her crucifix. Usually, even the people undergoing a mental collapse in the guise of religious mania discarded the cross.

“Who made these scratches on your wall, Fiona?”

“I did.”

“And who gave you that lovely necklace?”

Fiona said something under her breath. Elliott leaned closer.

“Don’t let him know you can hear me,” she murmured. “He made mom tie me down.”

Elliott rubbed her arm, mindful of her scratches. “I’m going to try to get you some help, okay Fiona?”

Fiona blinked. She did not seem especially sad or happy to hear the news. She seemed as if all the energy had been drained from her, through some monumental effort. Elliott clasped her hand.

“I will be back,” he promised, “with more men like me. You will get help.”

Fiona blinked. Her eyes were the clear blue-green of thick bottle glass. “That’s what he wants,” she whispered.

Elliott rose, knees creaking. He shot one last look at Fiona before he opened the door. Her eyes had risen heavenward, or perhaps only ceilingward.

Elliott slowly turned the knob, mindful of a series of creaks suddenly starting at the door and ending at the hall. DeLuca stood at the stairs as if he had always been there.

Fiona’s mother poked her head out a side door. Her eyes carried such heavy bags they looked bruised. The marks on her neck were not bags, however. They were purple-green and clearly finger-shaped. DeLuca shifted on his feet and the woman darted, shutting the door behind her.

Elliott did not disguise the fact that he saw her. “I’d like to speak to the girl’s mother, as well.”

DeLuca shook his head. “No use. She’s too close. Wouldn’t provide anything useful.”

“Still…” Elliott let the  statement hang in the air.

DeLuca did not answer. Instead he turned and ambled over to the banister, looking down over his first floor. Elliott joined him.

“I don’t like to make decisions based on such small crumbs. I’d like to hold a series of interviews. With her, her mother, some school officials, perhaps another medical official. Has she seen a psychiatrist or someone like that?”

DeLuca made a noncommittal motion of his head.
“Then, of course, I will review the information gathered here with the diocese, possibly consulting—”

With a single, deft motion, Daniel DeLuca reached over and broke Elliott’s neck. He held the body while it spasmed. Then, with calculation and care, he tipped the body over the bannister so it landed head-first on the floor.

He listened for a moment, nodding as if agreeing with something  inaudible. Then he calmly went to the hallway telephone and dialed a number.

He smiled placidly as the phone rang six times.

“Hello?” he forced distress into his voice. “This is Daniel DeLuca. My daughter has—has—oh my God, I think it was an accident! She just ran and pushed—” his voice broke. “Please, can we move the exorcism up? I’m at my wit’s end, I don’t know what to do. She won’t even let me near her anymore…”

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The Borges Enigma

Torque, Or the Kingdom of Luceria and the Search for the Absolute Center, does not exist. Purported to be a lost work of the Argentinian author Jorge Luis Borges, it is not cited in any catalogue and has never been beheld firsthand by any living source. The sole reference to this work comes from a review by one Chandler Robert Means, who left the typed review on his desk and then promptly disappeared. Means was the book reviewer for Damned Yankee, a now-defunct New York publication. The review spans over two thousand words, nearly four times the allotted wordspace for Means’ column. Why he chose to review the book so expansively, and the nature behind the review’s subject, are lost to time. His coworkers did not observe Means entering or exiting the building, and took the overlong review of a fictitious book as a creative resignation letter.

The contents of the review are thus: Means summarizes the career of Borges, noting a fondness of his earlier works but chastising the wordiness of this book. Torque is written as being nearly 2500 pages. Borges, it should be noted, was primarily a writer of short fiction. Means spares a few words for the cover design, chiding the “low-rent Aubrey Beardsley” that covered the book with an irritating floral scroll.

The summary of the book runs thusly:

Torque, or the main narrative of the book, follows Sigmund Frey on a voyage aboard the fastest known ship in the universe. He is undertaking a journey to Torque, a planet supposedly in the exact center of the universe. Sigmund takes time out to muse on the meaning and origin of his own name in Nordic myth as well as the concept of the hero’s journey, both recurring subjects of Borges. After an altercation with a meteor that appears to bear the face of an old man, Sigmund takes up a novel he found on the ship. Thus begins the second plot of the novel:

The book Sigmund reads concerns the kingdom of Luceria, and the exploits of a knight also named Sigmund. The kingdom has entered into an era of unprecedented peace, and so there has been little room for spiritual growth. The minstrels of the court run dry of material. Historians are reduced to re-recording accounts that have already been committed to print. The king of Luceria charges Sigmund with finding the exact center of the kingdom, alleging that this will bring the glory so lacking in his reign. Sigmund is ambivalent, but relents after he meets with the king’s daughter, a woman so beautiful she must remain veiled at all times. She promises Sigmund her hand if he completes the task, and so he agrees. The next day he rides along the beam of his compass, ignoring roads and thoroughfares to travel in a straight line. After changing horses twice, he reaches a crumbling ruin occupied by an old man. The old man claims the ruins were the first castle of Luceria, and he the first king of Luceria. The princess is not the king’s daughter, but the old man’s, stolen during his defeat. When Sigmund asks after the center of the kingdom, the old man leads him to an iron door which he unlocks with a key that is shaped like a sword.

Through the door he finds yet another country, this one shining brighter than Luceria. Sigmund examines the portal and finds that things that should rightly exist on the other side of the door, such as the wall of the castle, do not. The old man tells him that the country is the “inner” Luceria, and that if he is to find the center, he must ride through. Seeing little other choice, Sigmund does. He follows his compass in a straight line until he comes to another door, which opens to reveal another impossible country. He does this innumerable times, and slowly comes to realize two things: that Luceria bears the same root as the name Lucifer, and that he is in fact in hell, dispatched by Satan in the guise of the king’s beautiful daughter.

Sigmund Frey reflects on the book’s parallel to his own situation, realizing that his own quest is likewise doomed to failure. For if the universe is truly infinite, consisting of an infinite number of circles, then every point is the center of the universe. He also muses on the possibility that the book was included as an act of sabotage, intended to demoralize him from his journey’s goal.

The nesting of narratives, the meta-narrative, and the geometry of infinity are all favorite subjects of Borges. But no record of the novel exists anywhere but in the review.

Means ends the unusually lengthy review with a complaint that the book ends abruptly, without so much as a philosophical conclusion, let alone a satisfying narrative climax.

The existence of the review as a fond tribute to the author is ponderable. Borges himself was known to review books that did not exist, and his use of the meta-narrative to show fiction’s effect on real life and vice-versa is well observed. The plot appears to borrow heavily from several of his more well-known short stories, the most glaring of which is The Library of Babylon and its description of infinity as a circle. But the question remains why Means would choose such a subject for his last review. What was his intent? Where did he go? And what was his ultimate fate?

Means was never seen again. The review currently rests in the collection of one Reginald Lucero, the former owner of the Damned Yankee. Never appearing in print, the review serves only as Means’ epitaph, one last enigma for an enigmatic man.

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The Birdcatcher

He was a birdcatcher. He caught birds and gave them to pet shops and zoos and private animal collectors. He fished the skies with invisible nets, and kept his quarry in bamboo cages. The place he fished was a migratory path, so he never wanted for variety.

He did not think himself a cruel man. He would pull each bird from the net by hand, shushing them, cradling them, making sure they knew he would not hurt them. He called the birds “sweetie” and “darling” and spoke to the caged birds as he did his household work. He ate simple meals and lived in a modest hut far away from other people and thought his a fine life indeed.

He caught tropical birds and native birds and introduced birds and admired them all equally. He did not own a single book, but he knew some birds by sight. He had to. One could not sell a shrike like a finch. Sometimes he could not identify a bird by sight alone, and sometimes he released those. But some were far too beautiful to pass up.

On this day he thought a piece of colored foil from a candy wrapper had flown into his net on the wind. Even when he laid hand on the golden bird he barely believed it. The thing was not just a bright color, its feathers had precious iridescence. There was a small comb on its beak, and its talons were long and unkempt. A male, he thought. The king of birds.

That tickled what little fancy he had. He collected the other bird in the net, a plain brown little thing, and brought them inside in the same basket.

He had a large cage for parrots and the like, he put the golden bird there. The brown bird went into a cage with others of its size, finches and tanagers and on. They immediately clustered together in the corner. The golden bird (the bird-king, he decided) had nowhere to hide. There were no nests in the cages because he liked to see the birds from all angles. Bird-king’s plumage was too big. It couldn’t move well around the cage. He fed it a mixture of dried insects he gave to all birds and poured water in a dish and left to go tend to his nets.

A storm was darkening the sky. On his small motor scooter, he suddenly felt very small. He hadn’t seen the storm brewing that morning. Compassionately, he thought of the birds still in the nets and revved the motor.

A medium-sized black bird was halfway through an opening in the net. He had never seen anything with such oily black feathers.

The bird twisted its head to look round at him. Its blind white eyes gave him a start. The bird let out a chuffing distress call as he twisted it out of the net. He held it carefully, afraid of its serpentine neck and sharp beak.

The bird surprised him in another way. It puffed out its breast feathers, revealing white reflective patches that mimicked a face with bared teeth. He nearly dropped the bird. Instead, his hands slipped and the bird’s wings were free. Now as it flapped he could see more iridescent patches, something that looked like slashing claws as it flapped. The shapes made an uneasy feeling in his stomach. He let the bird go, watched it fly erratically as it chittered like a bat.

Moving down the net, he saw a flame-bright bird with a small, nondescript grey head. No, he realized as another head rose from the opposite end, two birds.

The smaller clung to the bright bird like a small child, nearly invisible in the plumage. The larger bird had bright yellow eyes and violet cheeks, and it fanned out a bright red crest as he approached.

The smaller bird was not stuck in the net, he realized. It clung to the larger bird, but it would not leave. Was it a mother and child?

No. Years of experience had taught him that it was the males who flaunted bright plumage, to attract and distract from their plain mates. He laughed as the little lady flitted away and back again. He had never seen such a pair before. Perhaps if he set the male in a basket, the female would follow.

No. As he lifted the male from the net, the female flitted out and back again. Her beak must have been razor-sharp, for she opened a gash on the back of his hand. He cried out, dropping the male. Both birds took wing, the female orbiting her mate.

The next one was a duck. He rarely sold a duck as a pet, and he would never sell a bird as food. So he had no intent to capture it as he drew closer.

The duck was pudgy, with teal plumage and mad little red eyes. It hissed at him. He made shushing noises as he drew close. The duck began sounding in its chest, a low rumble better suited to a large bird. When he did not withdraw, the duck began extending its neck. And he saw that it was not a duck.

No bird had ever had a neck this long. He had seen flamingoes, herons, storks, and shoebills. This one was almost all neck. Its little body would have been comical if it hadn’t started thrashing wildly about, hissing the whole time. He backed away, but it continued thrashing until it broke free from the net. It flew away with a piece of netting still necklacing its throat.

The next bird was very nearly at the end of his nets. Its black and white plumage made a disc-like crest around its whole head, so that it looked like a coin. He approached it with caution.

It did not knife him with its long, straight beak. It just stared at him with its white eyes, pupils expanding and contracting as he worked to free it. He cautiously took it from captivity, one hand pinioning its wings, one hand grabbing its head just above the neck.

The bird looked at him through one eye. Its beak curled back, curling open outwards like a steamed pea-pod, opening to reveal comb-like rows of teeth.

He shouted a little and threw it. The thing recovered marvelously, tucking into a dive before swooping back to dive-bomb his head. He ran for the scooter as the thing followed, screeching. He didn’t bother to cover the scooter when he got home, just killed the engine and ran for the hut with the thing close at his heels.

Once the door was shut, he breathed easier. The first drops of rain hit the roof. He lit a fire and heated water and prepared for the storm.

The birds huddled in their cages, the finches in their little cluster, the bird-king in his corner.

He rested hands on the cage and felt sad for the bird. What kind of home could such a magnificent animal hope for? Would it fall into the hands of collectors? He had a vague notion that someone might like to study it.

As thunder rolled across the sky, he decided that science was better suited for other things. The bird-king belonged with someone who appreciated it, who would feed it and take care of it for the rest of its long life.

He made tea as wind shook the hut. Today had been a strange day. Strange birds. Strange weather.

The afternoon grew dark as night as he lit a lantern and sat with his birds. The finches he would sell to a pet shop. The tanager had a private collector waiting for her. The Treepie had a place at an aviary.

Something knocked on the window. He looked out and found the disc-headed bird, beak deceptively straight again.

It knocked.

He sat in place because he did not know what to do.

Something knocked at the door.

Before he could get up, knocking started on every surface of the hut; the tin roof, the thin walls, even the door.

He flattened himself against the back wall. The caged birds became agitated, sounding and flitting from perch to perch.

All except for the bird-king.

He looked at it long and hard, the kind of look that drinks in every detail. Then he opened the cage.

The bird-king cried out and struck his hand. He did not curse or strike back, because that was not his way. Instead he shushed it as he firmly but gently pressed its wings to its body.

He tucked it under one arm and walked to the door. Beyond the screen door were hundreds of little mad eyes. All different sorts of birds, all clustered together on every available surface.

He considered the moment, that all men must hold a precious thing for just a little while before they must free it, before he opened the screen door.

The birds surrounding his house immediately took flight. He let the bird-king go and it followed, sounding.

For one single moment, the wind ceased as the golden bird flew with bedraggled feathers. Light broke through the clouds, and the bird-king swam through them as it called. Then it was a yellow spot on the horizon. Then it was gone.

The wind picked up again.

The birds were back, sounding trills at every window, every door. He backed into the hut.

He had let the king go. Surely they would see his good intent, forgive the blasphemy?

Something trilled behind him.

The finches stood apart now from the little brown bird, such a dull, plain brown that it might lie for days in a field undiscovered. It moved its head from side to side, studying him from wise, black little eyes.

And he considered, in that moment, about how sometimes the more important things are hidden in plain sight until the wind tore through the hut like the downdraft of some immense pair of wings.

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