Edition 11: Serial Fiction: Intangible (Part 6 of 6) by A. A. Garrison
The end has come. All Hack’s machinations hang on this moment. All Jeannie Tuttle can think about is her mother, dying in the sterile hospital bed. How will it all end? SY
IX. March, 1990
Hack hangs over the hospital bed, spectating, unseen. The subject’s mother lies motionless, her bleak aura reflecting her health. The subject herself kneels before the woman, that jade energy pulsing brilliantly. Her cries upset the nether, like cartoon lightning bolts rising from a wound.
Waiting patiently in his secret space, Hack studies her burning aura, the love pulsing there, ripe as a honeydew: she is ready for harvest. All that lies between him and the energy is a psychic barrier: Free Will, a wall impenetrable by even the mightiest magician. But that will soon be no more, and of her own volition.
The subject cries poignantly and Hack waits, paying audience to the tender scene. Then the physician arrives, just as foreseen, and the stage is complete.
Jeannie Tuttle knelt primly beside her dying mother, memories coming like a waterfall: her sixth birthday, when she’d broken her arm and Mom had talked her through it; a gamut of colds and ’flu, when Mom had cared for her despite her own contraction; Jeannie’s first date, Mom’s heart-to-heart regarding men and “wandering hands.” She remembered the hardships following the divorce, when Mom had worked two jobs to support their little family. And yes, Mom had been…taxing, later in life. But that seemed irrelevant now, like a traffic ticket during an earthquake. Now, Jeannie would focus on the good, on Mom’s small sacrifices and saving graces.
On the love.
She hunched over her mother’s failing body, and for the first time in many years—perhaps her life—she prayed. While Mom had given Jeannie a lot in life—more than she’d asked for, at times—there hadn’t been much in the way of spirituality. “God can have His church, and we’ll have what we have,” Mom had said during one of their few forays into such territory. “He’ll have His and we’ll have ours, and that’s the way it is, Jeannie Mae. Don’t let no man be your meal ticket.” So, lacking a focal point to direct her prayer, Jeannie offered it to the only godhead she knew: Abraham Lincoln.
She steepled her hands, pious in spite of her tears. It was awkward, the praying thing, like writing with your left hand, but she went forward with it. Dear Mister Lincoln, if you can win me a contest, you can save my mom, she said without saying, ignoring the absurdity of pleading a 150-year-dead president. She finished with Save her, please and a quick amen.
And in good time: the door cycled, and Dr. Lincoln Mills’ sticky footfalls approached from behind. Jeannie rubbed her face dry and turned to the man, finding him clinical as ever. They regarded each other awkwardly.
“Nurse Lewis has briefed you on your mother’s condition, I assume?” he asked, delicately. His voice yielded a mote of concern, but only that.
Jeannie nodded. She breathed deep and sniffed loudly, growing then shrinking.
The doctor returned a nod and sucked his lips, straightening his glasses when they were already straight. “I know this is probably the worst time to hear this,” he said, examining the room’s far wall, “but we have a…decision to make.” His eyes flickered between the cardiac equipment and the bed.
Jeannie immediately comprehended, and immediately shook her head. “More time,” she said, the words choked into one.
Dr. Mills nodded somberly, then pointed out a button on the nightstand. It looked like a game-show buzzer. “When—if—you’re ready…”
Jeannie stared at her unconscious mother, not acknowledging the hateful button. “Okay,” she breathed.
Dr. Mills turned to leave—but then wheeled around to Jeannie, ungainly with surprise. Did you hear that? he began to ask, but Jeannie’s repose said she hadn’t.
The doctor hesitated, then fell on his haunches, investigating where he thought the voice had come from. Hey, down here, it had said, palpably human, and from the floor, like someone was trapped underneath. The voice was male, gruff, with a weird accent he couldn’t place, but how…
The doctor scanned the floor, careful not to disturb the vigil at his left. There were some tangles of dust, the expected dirt…then a greenish gleam like the verdigris of old copper, jutting from the floorboard. Using a fingernail, he eased out the kiss of metal and held it speculatively to his face: a penny, well-seasoned from the looks of it. Its front was all scratched up.
Then a nurse was at the door, imploring him with her whole body. “Mister Daniels in one-nineteen is seizing,” she said, and Dr. Mills at once forgot about floor-people and discarnate voices.
He hurried from the room, setting the penny face-up over the respirator.
Hack watches the doctor relinquish his found penny, thus exiting the shaman’s scheme. It brings something resembling pleasure; the plan is flawless, as will be the harvest. Hack would congratulate himself, if only there’d been any doubt.
He waits, eyeing hungrily the woman’s pulsing green glow.
What if she’s still awake in there?
The question tilted Jeannie’s scales, in favor of the dastardly call-button that would end her mother’s breathing. Mom wouldn’t want it this way. There was some Cory in this conclusion, sure, but it was no less true. Mom wouldn’t want to be a vegetable, a prisoner in her own body. Wouldn’t.
Jeannie palmed the buzz-box, the metal cold in her hand. She deliberated it some, hovering her thumb over the oily button … and depressed it, briskly, before she could have second thoughts. There was a feeling like vomiting inside.
She’d want it this way…
The thought repeated itself, but felt no more true. It was wrong, she knew, though she had no idea why. All wrong.
The respirator breathed, indifferent to her plight: huuungh-huuuuh.
A minute elapsed, and the doctor’s urgent footfalls preceded him into Room 111. “I assume we’ve made a decision?” he asked daintily, sounding like a morose waiter.
Jeannie said yes, and returned the buzz-box to the nightstand. Off, she thought but didn’t say, the command heavy in her head. Such an ugly word, off. The relationship is off. All bets are off. Take it all off. And now, she’d be turning her mother off, like a light. Jeannie shivered.
Dr. Mills stood expectantly beside her, playing pocket pool in his coat.
She made his eyes, and the treacherous word traveled through her throat, too much like a bullet in a gun. It got all the way to her lips, souring them—and then she noticed the penny, staring from atop the respirator. Her eyes grew, and she had time to think, More Lincoln, before she discerned the penny’s scrawled little arrow, pointing inerrantly forward.
To the respirator’s ON button.
Understanding socked her in the gut: like the park plaque, and the moving van, and the banner at Budd’s, and Dr. Lincoln Mills, and the thousand million other synchronicities that had assaulted her over the last few months.
Can I trust you? she asked Lincoln’s ghost, or the Lincoln-god, or whatever had been haunting her days. Gears churned from within, the tumblers of an organic lock, and with the same quiet certainty of the penny’s message, she knew the answer was yes.
And so she trusted it, the Lincoln-thing, whatever its provenance. She trusted it. She believed.
Off returned to whence it came, and Jeannie told Dr. Mills to leave the respirators going. “She’ll get better,” she added, her confidence stone.
She unfolded a chair and sat.
Hack grins joylessly as he is awarded the subject’s trust, that which cannot be begged or bartered, only connived. Like striking lightning, a fulgurate vein of energy tethers Hack and the young woman, who has so mulishly opened herself to him. The shaman tests the rainbow link, tugging it like a rope, and it holds strong. The gambit is a success; the subject has been penetrated.
The girl’s defenses drop like a sheet, and Hack wastes no time.
His light-body extends diaphanous arms, intent on the girl’s most precious of energies: the love so carefully nourished these past months. Light-hands access the gelatin substrate of Jeannie Tuttle’s person, and there it is, the love-energy, warm and seductive, a thing impossibly rare. There’s some hesitation, the insistent pull of fruit divorcing the vine, and then it gives, dribbling into Hack.
And so it is done, the harvest complete. Hack is relieved, but unsurprised.
The energy stowed safely inside him, Hack turns his attention to the subject and her newly divested aura. With Hippocratic tenderness, he examines the psychic cavity left by his reaping, so much like the physicians in this place. The wound is a gaping lacuna in her light-body, open and raw; but it will heal. He has not harmed this innocent, not permanently.
Thank you, he thinks to the subject, and watches her twist in search of the words’ source.
In conclusion, the shaman dispels the illness infecting the subject’s mother, as is only fair. A fetid black ball of energy leaves her, winking into oblivion, and her aura at once shows life.
Rest now, dear one, the shaman commands the ingénue who had served him so well, again making her squirm with alarm. Then he is gone.
X. April, 1990
“A pleasure to see you again, sir,” the driver says in valediction, genteel as ever. Hack returns the sentiment and the elevator closes, depositing him deep underground.
Hack’s hobnailed brogans clack on the checkered tile, dueting with his briefcase’s jingling handcuff chain. Infantile cries echo down the corkscrew passage, joining the ensemble. Hack enters the domed chamber he’d known months earlier.
The client again commands his spherical desk, as though he’d never left. “Greetings, shaman,” he says through his theatrical mask.
Hack sits, the handcuffed briefcase in his lap.
The client’s eyes light on the case, teary blue stars in the black behind the mask. “Let’s talk turkey, shall we?”
Hack slots a key, releases the handcuff, and slides the attaché onto the desk. He then produces a second key, which he keeps. The interstellar eyes migrate to it.
“The money,” Hack says. A statement.
Hack stares, implacable. “Escrow.”
A silence unfurls.
Abruptly, the client consults the desk and produces a phone without buttons. He lifts the handset, issues loud instructions, and hangs up. The phone disappears as if it were never there.
The client leans in his chair. “Moved into the specified accounts,” he says, with a lilt. His eyes never left the key.
Hack gives a careworn nod, stands, and flicks the key to the masked man across the desk. The client swipes it from midair, slapping something that isn’t there.
“One drop, no more,” Hack tells him, and starts back the way he’d come. His cleated shoes clatter against the floor. The door thuds shut.
The briefcase hisses open, spilling a serene jade light into the murky room. Inside, a vial of glowing emerald fluid is in the suitcase’s core, tucked into a surround of charcoal foam. The client stares in absolute wonder, his mask painted green.
With the zephyr grip one would show a newborn, he removes the vial and holds it to his ersatz face. The glass is thick, dense, reinforced with wire mesh. The darling liquid remains stationary when moved, viscous as molasses. The vial’s top doubles as a dropper.
One drop, no more.
Trembling fingers unthread the top, and a tremendous odor pours forth, distinctly female, nearly physical. The dropper draws the liquid, and the mask’s faux-mouth sprouts a tongue. Deliberately, soberly, he squeezes a drop.
The substance plays over the tongue and down his throat, tracing a warm, gentle zigzag. Then, suddenly, the organ goes numb, and a stupendous shock rolls through him. The eyes widen in the dark of the mask, and he moans, deep and sensuous, the report of a first kiss. A thousand smiles bathe his mind, pulsing and electric, pervading him like silt in a puddle. A surreal heat burns from the inside out, making him new. There is happiness; there is security. An immutable hope like the promise of tomorrow. And, that warmth. Such warmth.
He relaxes fully, a ward of his massive chair, shaking and moaning in an ague of pleasure. I feel green, he thinks, again and again. The experience excels mere intoxication; it is transcendent, spiritual, a release like death.
A thought comes as he drifts, the three words that saw this bliss come upon him: A woman’s love. This a woman’s love. I am tasting a woman’s love.
The shaman has delivered.
Coherency falters, the world a cloud that no longer includes him. His faculties dissolve one by one, and there is only the green; that perfect, torrid green. He distantly remembers the open vial, and doddering hands struggle it closed, restoring the sumptuous liquid safely to the briefcase.
He then opens a desk drawer, removing from it a single item: a porcelain mask. It is identical to that hiding his face, except this one is Comedy, its cheerful twin. He wrestles off the incumbent and sends it plangently to the floor, as one would cast off a crutch, Comedy taking its place.
The man sighs, perhaps completing a great work, then resumes losing himself fully in the substance.
A.A. Garrison is a twenty-nine-year-old man living in the mountains of North Carolina. His short fiction has appeared in dozens of zines, anthologies, and journals, as well as the Pseudopod webcast. His horror novel, The End of Jack Cruz, is available from Montag Press. He blogs at synchroshock.blogspot.com.