A New, Better Daddy
“Did you take your medication today, darling one?”
“Because you know how you get when you don’t. I know when you haven’t, and I know when you are lying, dearest.”
“I’m not lying, mother. I took the little red one when I woke up, and I took a half of a half of the little white one with breakfast coffee, and then I just took them both again.”
“Do you think you are going to feel up to going to school tomorrow? You have an appointment here with Dr. Tiberon at 4, but you could still make school if you can wake yourself in a decent amount of time.”
“I don’t like Dr. Tiberon. He doesn’t listen to me like Mrs. Sheldon used to. He just nods and writes a prescription. Do I really have to see him?”
“Darling...Dr. Tiberon is a great man. You didn’t used to even talk to me at all. Of course you have to see him. I haven’t heard you crying for weeks, and I know you are starting to feel better, despite how much you say you hate the way the medicine makes you feel. The other day, when that man on TV made that joke about the president, I even heard you laughing.”
Maxine sat placidly on the very center of her bed as her mother busied herself picking clutter up off of various flat spaces in her room and depositing them onto other flat spaces. Maxine’s eyes went from her closet to the door of her room, and then back again, constantly checking for changes. Her mother was wearing what Maxine thought of as her mother’s evening-wear-competition-ensemble: a blonde wig, a shimmering golden dress too short for the tremendous backside and cheesy thighs her mother had accumulated in her golden years, big fat pearls, and a push-up bra. The bra made mountains out of molehills, and made Maxine nauseous every time she imagined the man her mother said she was going to see tonight, a man who most certainly was not her dead father and who Maxine had never even met.
In her mind he was greasy and obese, and he was cupping her mother’s titties with his hairy, wristwatched, middle-aged hands - hefting the wrinkled sagginess to his mouth to suck. Maxine couldn’t decide what depressed her more - her own absolute and total lack of a love life, or her mother’s copious and seemingly satisfying one. Mrs. Reynolds went out nearly every night, despite her daughter’s condition. Perhaps to spite her daughter’s condition.
“I know how you stay up until all hours with the lights on,” said Mrs. Reynolds. “A grown girl like you...afraid of the dark.”
“Mrs. Sheldon said you weren’t supposed to tease me about it, mother. In my own time, she said.”
“Well. You’re not seeing Mrs. Sheldon anymore.”
“I will be back around midnight, Maxie. I want you to at least try to go to sleep tonight. You have school tomorrow.” Her mother was never home “around midnight.” Maxine heard her when she trampled home every morning around five, laughing and talking to herself in the hallway. Her mother slept all day, and sometimes Maxine made up stories about how school had gone when her mother woke up and asked about it. Maxine never slept. Maxine had not left the house in four months. At night, she didn’t leave her room.
Now the only people she ever saw were her mother, and Dr. Tiberon. He was well paid, but Maxine didn’t sign the checks.
“I am going to leave your supper at the foot of the stairs, which is going to be a little bit farther than last night. If you want to eat, you are going to have to get out of that little bed and go get it, okay sweetie? You may think me cruel now, but confronting your fears head on is good therapy. I know you used the handle of one of the umbrellas to pull your plate to you last night - I’m not stupid. There are no more umbrellas by the laundry room in the rack, now. I put them in the attic with your books and magazines, and your blanket and your teddy bear.”
“Mother, the noises are getting worse. I can’t do it. Not tonight. Can’t you just bring me my food, and tomorrow night I can try and go get it? Or at least don’t put it out so far. Last night, it was the talking again. My name and your name, mother. And other...requests. In that same voice.” Maxine shuddered.
It was too late to plead. Her mothers eyes had glazed, and cherry red fingernails were now gripping Maxine’s bedframe tight enough to make the aluminum squeal. Mrs. Reynolds closed her eyes and bit her bottom lip until it produced a drop of blood, like a fork jamming into a tube of paint. She licked it clean and smiled. Incrementally, out of reflex aversion, Maxine tried to push herself farther and farther away. Her mother didn’t notice. Right now, her mother wasn’t noticing very much at all.
“I have to go now Maxine. Perhaps tomorrow we can watch television again together. But only if you are good. Only if you eat all of your supper, and there are no messes.” Mrs. Reynolds receded into the darkness of the hallway, clacking along the wooden floor in her high heels, her legs looking very much like what might happen if the circus fat man decided fuck-me pumps were better than gloves for keeping one’s hands warm in the winter.
As soon as she could no longer hear her mother, Maxine leapt to the floor on all fours, rolling catlike to check underneath her bed and make sure that not only was there nothing underneath it, but that the fluorescent lights that lined the room’s ceiling were still capable of obliterating even the most insignificant shadow. Only children were “afraid of the dark.” It unsettled them, and made them wrap themselves in their covers, praying for the day they would be old enough to go to sleep whenever they wanted. Like, say, noon. Maxine wasn’t “afraid of the dark” - hell no - she spent every waking moment launching a full-on, beach-at-Normandy assault on each crevice and nook, each blotted smirch, in which the teeth of darkness could crouch and whisper. She wasn’t “afraid of the dark” because one only fears the unknown. She wasn’t “afraid of the dark” because Maxine knew the darkness was out to get her.
Tonight would be different.
She got out her supplies from behind the headboard: everything her mother hadn’t found yet. If only she could somehow make a phone call, she would be fine. She would call the national guard and have them carry her away like a queen inside a tanning booth divan. Mrs. Sheldon had been an idiot, but Maxine realized that Dr. Tiberon was probably taking too much of his own medicine, and that soon he would be doing exactly whatever her mother told him to do. Dr. Tiberon was the kind of man that looked like he would rather be cutting steak - handy with a knife, and turned on by the sound of cracking bone. Her mother and the man who was feasting on 52 year old peachfish every night would have the tiny little white lump that nested in the front of Maxine’s skull for dessert. It had to be tonight or never.
Popping some cheap speed from her dwindling supply - white crosses - she set herself to work.
She curled her bedsheet as tightly as she could around the towel bar she had prized loose while bathing. Nothing watched her bathe in her bathroom of blinding porcelain. She soaked the bulge with ancient nail polish remover from a half-empty bottle, trying to be conservative, but knowing ultimately she would only have one run at this. She got down on her knees, took out the book of matches with the last two left, a totem from a place dubiously called “Bill Bailey’s,” and twisted one off. She stared at it, sneering. Pleading. Praying.
“Light goddammit,” she urged.
She stuck it inside the book and scraped. The match sprang to life and she gently touched it to her makeshift torch. Kafloom. To Maxine, fire was its most beautiful under 75 watt incandescents.
“Alright,” said Maxine to herself, staring out of her door and into the hallway. “You are a bitch, Maxine. A stone-cold, granite-chiseled hardcore bitch. Nothing can touch you, and if it does, you are the kind of crazy bitch that will lop off its hand and make it eat it. Now get out there and show the night its own testicles dangling from a key-chain made of its scalp until it shuts up.” Maxine’s self-inflicted encouragement only caused her to realize more clearly her own vulnerability, and the facade began to crumble as the night’s silence became absolute.
First things first. If she was going to make it all the way downstairs and try and make it to the street to flag down a passing car, she would need to eat. Her head was light from the speed, and her jaws and tongue felt like she was chewing tin foil. It would be no problem - her supper was ready for her, hot and delectable, and conveniently located on the way down.
She thrust the torch out into the hallway. Its light was weak, but it succeeded in chasing shadows deeper down the hall, to congregate and to become darker where the light couldn’t reach. Maxine could see the switch for the hall lamp way down at the end where the stairs that led into the kitchen were. Between here and there were the steps into the attic, where her food was supposed to be. She couldn’t see or smell anything from the threshold of her bedroom, but if her mother had truly moved her food farther back tonight, then it would be on the first couple of steps, and she wouldn’t be able to see it from where she presently stood anyway.
She stepped out into the hall, crouching down as low as was comfortable, holding the torch as high as her arm could stretch, and subsequently cocking her elbow into a sharp, painful angle that forced her to look straight at the floor. She wished she had something better to wear than her frilly cotton nightgown, whose only purpose must have been to turn men off, maintain her chastity, and keep her from being able to run. What kind of passing car would stop to help an unbalanced looking teenage girl in an unappealing cotton frock? Had she been wearing a leather bikini, this would be a lot easier, she thought.
Already the walls were forming their faces and shapes in the flickering light, coaxing and cajoling, whispering and tickling. She couldn’t make out words, just a sustained, high pitched squeal, like a microwave defrosting a box of baby mice. She tried not to look, and not to listen, and just to concentrate on where to place her sandaled foot at the conclusion of each lifted step.
She was halfway between her bedroom and the attic stairs when she began to hear discernable voices. One was what sounded like random babbling agony, complete with curses and invocations to a deity Maxine no longer believed existed. The other was the voice that haunted her every waking moment, the voice that ensured she would never be able to sleep in this house again and which she was certain was either Satan, or some sort of serial killer whose ghost had returned for the single purpose of fucking up Maxine’s fragile teenaged head.
“Maxine...come play with me. It’s time to get cut, sweetheart. Time to spill some blood and to set some of that sweet-sixteen flesh of yours free. Come lose yourself to me. We can paint the walls with a delicious ocean spray of spinning bone and entrails flinders, like riding the paint can merry-go-round, Maxine. Come for me, Maxine...your mother comes...every night, your mother comes for me, Maxine...”
To her left, Maxine could see into the laundry room where the washer and dryer sat side by side like mesmerized onlookers at a particularly gruesome traffic accident. For some reason, it looked to Maxine like the dryer was actually on, although she couldn’t hear its usually deafening rumbling. She looked closer in an effort to block out the voices; to concentrate on something else. Squinting, she could see a shape moving in circles behind the frosted glass, tumbling end over end and banging softly into the glass with every revolution.
She switched hands with the torch in order to shed more light into the laundry room as she crept past. Still not satisfied, she reached inside the door and quickly flipped up the light switch.
Inside the dryer, a bruised and battered naked baby - a newborn, and hopefully dead - was spinning around like a pair of flesh-colored trousers, its lifeless little appendages flailing about in unhinged loops that sprayed droplets of blood onto the glass only to be wiped clean again by the baby’s thickly matted hair. Around it went, like a perverse rag doll prized for its grotesque authenticity. The worst part were its little fingers. Despite the putrifacted condition of the corpse, Maxine had no trouble recognizing the baby. What child doesn’t spend hours poring over their own baby pictures?
“This isn’t real, Maxine,” she told herself, staring, “Real is how incredibly hungry you still are, and how tightly you are still holding on to your own consciousness and sanity. Now get moving, and stop getting sidetracked. There is a full moon tonight - there won’t be another for a solid month.”
A thick trail of black blood led from inside the washing machine to the center of the room, where it pooled, and then led more thinly back into the dryer. The washing machine had tiny little hairs all over it and the whole room looked like what would happen if someone took the top off of a blender in the process of frapeeing cranberries and milk duds.
Maxine shut the door.
“You’re too clean, Maxine,” crooned the voice, “You were meant for me, hunny-bunches. Don’t try to wriggle loose, my dainty little fish. Why don’t you come upstairs and play?”
Maxine trudged forward again, both torch and chin up now. As she approached the attic stairs, the screams and shrieks of torment became louder and seemed to reverberate from every surface, echoing and rebounding shrilly into black infinity. She put her back to the opposite wall, and peered into the hallway that led up into the houses’ third story.
Her food was nowhere to be found, at least not on the first couple of steps. She squinted into the gloom, leaning forward with her torch, which had now begin to sputter and crackle, giving telltale signs that it didn’t have much life left in it.
She could barely make out a plate on the top ledge, right in front of the attic door, precariously balanced at the very top of the stairs.
“Come and get it,” said the voice, “Surely you have to be hungry. Carrying around all that sweet meat has got to give you an appetite.”
The plate began to levitate in the air, framed with a corona of sickly green light that Maxine assumed was supposed to make it look more appealing, but failed miserably.
“Fuck that,” said Maxine, turning away. She was hungry, but not a moron. She now focused her mind entirely on the switch for the lamp at the end of the hall. She began to run.
Her stomach growled, but she payed no attention. Her torch finally went out, and she dropped it behind her, reaching her stride. The hallway seemed to stretch on forever, like how a mouse must feel, thought Maxine wildly, being swallowed whole by an anaconda. She stepped on something furry and pliant, which gave out a horrific squeal. Utterly terrified, she leapt and dove, slapping at the switch with the flat of her palm, scraping the wall and shutting her eyes tightly.
After a long and protracted silent moment, with her entire body tensed to the point of breaking, she realized that she was still alive.
Light had flooded the hallway, and she began to breath again. Behind her was the prone form of Mr. Bear, her favorite childhood cuddle buddy. It must have been that which was doing the squeaking. She relaxed. No ankle-biting hobgoblins were going to be feasting on the tender skin of her calves yet.
“What are you doing down here, Mr. Bear?” She picked the stuffed animal up, and clutched it tightly under one arm.
She looked down the length of the hallway, hoping vainly that everything had gone away when flooded by the cold and penetrating electric light. She could still hear the rhythmic screams from upstairs, and deep in her underbelly the sour and curdled feeling of wrongness persisted. She quickly backtracked to the attic stairs and picked up the fallen towel rack for protection. It had burned a largish charred patch into the carpet and still smoldered slightly, but her wishful suspicions that the building would catch fire and burn down to the ground were proved to be without foundation.
“Come on, now. Come and see me, Maxine. I’m up here where it’s dark, and where are all the surprises are. Oh, and lookee here...a pimento cheese sandwich.”
A sandwich hovered in the air right at the foot of the attic stairs. Maxine swiped at with the towel rack, but it gently moved backwards to the next step, infuriatingly out of reach.
“Look, you bastard,” said Maxine, “As soon as I get out of here, you are extradimensional, transubstantiated, ectoplasmic toast. I am going to have this entire place nuked from orbit, and the radioactive ashes exorcized and sanctified by an entire platoon of Navajo shamans, voodoo houngans, and the Reverend Al Sharpton. You don’t scare me, if that is what you are aiming at, and if it wasn’t for practical considerations, I would have been long gone months ago.”
“Big talk, Maxine. You want to come say that to my... face?”
“Maybe I will.”
The door into the attic at the top of the stairs creaked open. The screams grew louder and more insistent, showing they were definitely coming from upstairs.
Maxine blanched. She stepped backwards, realizing that she should have gone down into the kitchen immediately when she had the chance. She began to move once more in that direction, her back against the wall, inching along steadily.
“Well now, I guess you aren’t so tough after all, huh Maxine? But did you ever stop to consider just where exactly you are finally going to be safe and sound from me and mine? What makes you think it is me who is the constant, and that I can be escaped so easily? No, Maxine-my-beloved-sack-of-princess-jerky, we are going to be together as long as you interest me, and I have to tell you, that once I make a friend, I am as loyal and committed as it gets.”
The wallpaper behind her writhed and rippled like something alive had gotten inside and was trying to thrash its way out. Maxine felt it on the backs of her bare knees, shrieked, and fell forward, right onto the bottom attic step. She grabbed it for purchase before realizing it was covered with a thin drool of mucoidal sludge, and then clambered up, away from the wallpaper, which had begun to move more quickly, forming shapes and patterns - teeth and eyes - that seemed poised to break through at any moment. She wiped her hands on her gown, and spun around to face the open, pitch black attic entrance. The screams that came from within were now practically deafening.
She twisted her head back around to face the mutating wall. The wall bulged: cheesecloth stretched over a doorknob. A picture in a glass frame of her father and grandfather in matching three-piece suits thwacked against the Sheetrock with a noise like somebody banging a bucket against a bedpost. It finally fell to the floor after a particularly violent ripple, only to be crushed into celluloid dust by a rampaging piece of animated floorboard.
She took an involuntary step backward and slipped on her dinner plate. Peas went flying, and her left sandal came loose, glued to the bottom of the plate by an overstuffed pimento cheese sandwich and congealed fruit cocktail. She grabbed at the banister, overcompensating due to the imbalance of only having one shoe, and fell right through the attic door, sliding on her butt, and banging the back of her head into something soft and mossy.
At first she felt triumph at not falling down the stairs and into the waiting clutches of the demon wall, but then again, here she was...up in the attic...
The shrieking had stopped.
The attic door slammed shut, trapping her in darkness. She immediately got to her feet and tried the handle while she could still see where it had been, but it didn’t turn.
She had dropped both Mr. Bear and her last match when she fell. But she was not alone up here, and there was enough light coming from somewhere to enable her to see, after a few moments. She turned to look, hoping that perhaps there was an open window. She would jump.
A tiny sliver of light streamed in through a slit in the corner, illuminating the single most hideous mistake of a misbegotten universe Maxine had ever seen. She froze in shocked suspension, so suddenly taken was she with the creature’s untenable monstrosity. During her effective imprisonment in the upstairs room, she had seen a lot of vicious, disturbing things she was pretty sure were illusions - but she was certain that the entity which lay before her was both real and malignant. She knew instinctively that it was the source of the voice - the commanding, horrible voice - and that it wanted nothing less then her immortal soul for its supper. It was a sort of gray, skeletal jelly - a cauldron of teeth and hair and flesh in which organs metastasised and burst, sending silver slime in runnels along the floorboards and carpet where it joined back into the primary organic structure like mercury. It was the size of a small car, and the attic sagged where it perched - festering and ostensibly retching at its own putridity.
Maxine opened her mouth to speak but found no words. She looked down and realized that grey jelly from the creature had pooled around her feet, and was sucking at her remaining sandal and bare foot like surf at the beach. She tried to pull away, but the jelly held her feet fast to the ground and started to tug at her, pooling now until it had covered her past her sock-line, making her feel like somebody had tied her shoelaces together and was tugging at the resultant knot. She could smell her own skin begin to sizzle, as if she had dipped her legs in a bath of hydrogen peroxide.
The creature grinned, forming a chin and mouth, displaying jagged upside-down teeth filled with little bits of shimmering golden pants. It felt to Maxine like she was slowly sinking into the toxic goop. She felt no pain.
“It’s time, Maxine. Come give us a kiss.”
She considered struggling, but instead, as she watched the creature hypnotically gyrate its mass, only began to feel a curious sort of empty shock. Like when a person realizes they are dreaming, and begins waiting for the fish to swim by or their 5th grade math teacher to attempt to engage them in an intense argument about whether or not to go to law school. She could fathom no more. The logical integrity of her universe had been popped, and she calmly awaited the moment she would awaken.
She saw her mother’s face rise up out of the churning grey muck. It was covered in both smeared lipstick and blood, and her scalp was smooth and without hair. Grey jelly fell off in tatters around her, and she was revealed to be naked and seated atop the creature, which had formed a cocoon-like chair that conformed perfectly to her mother’s dimensions.
“Maxine, this is your new Daddy. He is a great man. Look what he can do to me...just look...”
Her mother closed her eyes and groaned. The chair penetrated her with a silver outgrowth, a massive crystalline phallus, and began to shake back and forth like an automated paint-mixer. Her mother began to scream - the screams she had heard downstairs - not of pain or terror as Maxine had assumed, but of perverse, mind-altering, transcendental ecstasy. Maxine now also began to scream.
Her mother receded back inside the creature, still shrieking in bursts of joyous exultation. Tendrils from the creature jetted out and attached themselves to each of Maxine’s appendages. Maxine bucked and writhed, but the creature’s tendrils brought her easily to its mouth. Maxine could now smell burning hair and flesh where the grey jelly touched her skin.
“You are a virgin, Maxine. I can taste it in the air. Your mother told the truth, and for that she has earned a quick death.”
The squeals of sexual bliss from inside the creature stopped abruptly.
“It looks like I live for another thousand years, my little sacrifice. I’m so glad you decided to give yourself to me of your own free will and there was no need to get nasty. There is no darkness in here, now - just grey and silver...an eternity of grey and silver. For the next millennium, you will be my little project. A world of dark delights will soon be ours, Maxine. I am going to take it slow, so you don’t go insane too quickly. ”
The creature’s breath dragged Maxine out of her stupor. She knew her subconscious wasn’t creative enough to manufacture a smell so vile.
“This isn’t fair,” said Maxine, as she realized she was as awake as she was going to get. “Can’t we barter or bargain? Isn’t there something else you’d rather have? SomeONE else? I can help you get them - I’ll do whatever you want. Please? Please! Are you listening? Aren’t you just a figment of my fucking imagination?”
Maxine closed her eyes and began to pray.
“This is going to hurt, Maxine. A lot. But then it’s going to get worse.”
A tendril coiled around the back of her neck, and brought her close in a thick embrace. Eventually Maxine’s screaming stopped, too. When the jelly flowed into her mouth, it tasted just like warm walnuts.