Imago: Sample

by Amy Sterling Casil

Chapter One

Katie Jacques paused in the hall beside the door to her grandson Harmon’s room. He was inside, singing.

“Katie, Katie, give me your answer true…”

She supposed he was singing about her. Harmon always used her first name. He was an unusual boy. He often told her that he intended to grow up and run the world.

She knocked lightly. The singing stopped.

“Come in, Katie,” Harmon said, his voice wavering between boyish treble and callow adolescence.

“It’s cold today,” she said. “I thought that you might like some after-school hot chocolate.”

She bore two Campbell’s soup mugs on a tray. One held his hot chocolate, the other plain green tea for her: no sugar. The Campbell’s mugs were Harmon’s favorite. He said that he liked the little soup-boy, with his bright red and white checkered suit. At sixty-four, Katie Jacques could still be called a beautiful woman. She’d long since passed the point of caring about that, but she saw her young-old face reflected in the mirror over Harmon’s bed, and smiled even so.

He’d been working on his town model again. Once, she had suggested that Harmon turn it into a model train layout.

“That’s for wussies,” he replied in a calm voice. She never mentioned it again.

“I just finished the new church,” he said, pointing at a three-sided Spanish-style structure. “That’s the Baptist church. Next, I’ll do the Catholics.”

“It’s wonderful,” she said, leaning over the model, which took up much of the north wall of Harmon’s spacious room. The house was too big, she thought, remembering her childhood room, with its narrow girl’s bed and white Queen Anne coverlet. She’d barely had enough room for a gold velvet-covered stool and her cheap Sears dresser, with its cracked white paint and fake gold trim, that peeled off after a single summer season. Harmon’s room seemed larger than the entire house she’d grown up in. But of course, she could say nothing of that to him. What child would understand something like that?

“Here is the church,” he said, playfully. He sipped some of the hot chocolate, then laced his fingers together.

“Here is the steeple,” he added, bringing his forefingers up in a point.

Katie laughed. They’d played that game before he’d even started kindergarten. Now, here he was in sixth grade. Her heart jumped. She ruffled his hair and sipped her own tea.

“Open the doors and see all the people!” Harmon turned his hands over and waggled his fingers. Then he lifted the roof of the model church and showed her the “people” inside. Dozens of tiny Disney characters, all lined up neatly. Goofy, Donald, and the Seven Dwarves; Mickey and Minnie stood by the altar.

“Look at them!” she exclaimed. “How about this?” She put one hand over her nose and pretended that she pulled it off.

Harmon didn’t respond. He replaced the church roof, staring intently at Katie, and re-laced his fingers, waggling them once more. They moved furiously back and forth. Then, he moved his hands to and fro, as if he was rocking a cradle.

“What are you doing?” she asked, still laughing.

“Guess,” he said, grinning, his green eyes shining happily.

“You’re playing Rock-A-Bye Baby,” she said.

His eyes darkened.

“A fishing boat?” she asked, her voice wavering.

“No,” he snapped. “Look!”

“I don’t know,” she said. Please, let him not be getting angry, she thought. His eyes were narrowing. The fingers still waggled. Then at once, they went stiff. He thrust his hands in her face.

“I set the church on fire,” he snapped. “And they’re all running away!”

Katie shivered.

“But as you can see,” he added; “They didn’t quite make it.”

His long, sensitive fingers curled back and forth, twisting, almost writhing.

“Oh,” Katie said, sipping her tea. “How creative.”

Harmon was still for a long moment, then he swept the Baptist Church from the table in one brief, graceful movement. The delicate foam board walls shattered, spraying Katie’s legs with white powder. The steepled roof skittered across the floor. The Disney figures — all ceramic — tinkled as they tumbled to the hardwood floor. Minnie’s head rolled away. Goofy’s body slid toward Harmon’s bed, while his legs remained by the ruined model.

Harmon smiled. Then, he cracked his knuckles.

This was in the Spring of 2005; eventually Harmon did finish all the models, including a mouse-ear silhouette on the double doors of the Catholic church.

o0o

Max Prinn’s brother Joe worked as a programmer for DisLex, and Max had already heard about DisLex chairman Harmon Jacques’ PerfectTown, even though he wasn’t supposed to know a thing about it. When he and his wife Cindy ordered their first season pass to the Magic Kingdom, he called ahead to ask if there was any chance, any at all, that they could get into the PerfectTown on their first visit.

“My brother works up in Sunnyvale,” Max told the operator. Mentioning the DisLex headquarters usually produced great results, especially when Max was calling about the bill or service.

She put him on hold for twenty minutes while he rinsed the dishes and tore his junk mail into halves, then quarters. Just as he was throwing the mail in the recycle bin, she came back saying, “are you one of the Gold Star Preview Winners?”

“Yes,” Max said. He felt only a tiny twinge at the lie.

“Can I have your confirmation code?”

So much for that, Max thought. A shred of brightly-printed junk mail that he’d missed fluttered to the kitchen floor. He bent, picking it up, then said, “uh” to the operator, who sighed in return.

“Is it this?” he asked, reading the numbers printed above the postal bar code on the address label, right below where it said “Prinn Family or current resident.”

“Let me check,” she said. The phone clicked. A few seconds later, she returned. “Mr. Prinn, our database seems to be down. I can’t —”

“My brother told me that it was a really great ride,” Max blurted. “He’s worked on parts of it. They’ve all been —”

The operator laughed. “I’m sure if your brother is up in Sunnyvale, it’s okay,” she said. “Why don’t you just give me your GoldStar card number?”

“Sure,” Max said. He had that memorized; it was his social security number plus three extra digits.

“Well, I see that,” she said. “At least that’s working. I tell you, I don’t know how they expect us to do our work, with this network broken down all of the time.” She sounded middle-aged, but good-spirited. Maybe she’d had the same kind of training that Max had. He sold home water purification systems over the phone and the net.

“You have a nice voice,” he told the operator.

“Thank you!” she replied. He imagined her beaming. Max, you have a gift, he thought.

“Smile when you talk,” he added. “Smile from the wrists down when you type!”

“That’s right,” she said. “Every day.”

“DisLex is lucky to have somebody as nice as you working for them,” Max said. He paused. Maybe that had been a bit too much.

He heard something rustling in the background, then the tell-tale clicks of a keyboard being worked.

“Your passes will be out today,” she said. “Just press the print button on the autoscreen when you download them.”

“Oh, thank you!” he said, amazed that his heart was pounding. Wait until he told Joe about this! Why, Joe wasn’t even going to get to see the PerfectTown for months — this really was a special preview for the GoldCard promotion winners only. A hundred of them, or something like that.

“And your daughter is how old?” the operator asked.

“Seven,” Max said. “She’s in second grade. Christian school, here in town.”

The line clicked again. “I hope you enjoy the preview,” the operator said. “You’re one lucky man!”

“Yeah,” Max said. “Thanks!”

“You know to check your printer before you start,” she added, with the smile still in her voice.

“Sure,” he said.

“Because it’ll only print once, then the file is gone. We can’t issue you another file.”

“Right,” Max said. Darn right he’d check that printer. Imagine going to all that trouble to get the first passes to see the PerfectTown preview, then buggering up the damn print job? Not Max Prinn. He and Cindy and little Tina were going to be the very first ones to see it. He pictured the jealous faces of the guys at the country club, and Cindy’s bright blue eyes widening in surprise. And how excited Tina would be. Nothing was too good for Max’s girl. He’d be right there holding his baby’s hand while they saw the complete simulation of the future. According to Joe, the tiny people that the computer created were actually alive. They thought, lived, moved around — had feelings — everything!

“Thank you so much, ma’am,” he said to the operator. “Could I have your name?”

“Marilyn Chen,” she replied. “C-h-e-n.”

“You’ve done such a great job with the network trouble and all,” Max said. “I’m going to tell my brother about you the next time we talk.”

“Oh thank you, Mr. Prinn,” she said, her voice fluttering. “It’s been a pleasure helping you!”

“Likewise,” Max said, breaking the connection. He straightened his collar and called upstairs.

“Hey Cin! Cin! You’re not going to believe what I just did!”

o0o

Ten days later, Max, Cindy and Tina piled out of their forest green Chrysler vancruiser and trotted to the gates of the Magic Kingdom. It was a spring Tuesday, so there were only a few dozen people in line. The season pass got them in the gates, where an electric cart waited. The cart had a striped awning that reminded Max of a fruit-flavored gum he’d chewed as a kid.

“It’s so cute!” Cindy said. “Look, Tina! It’s waiting for us.”

A standing sign printed with “GoldStar Special Preview Members” stood next to the cart.

“Red carpet treatment,” Max said. Cindy smiled up at him, her freckled nose wrinkling. Tina grabbed his hand. His heart jumped a little, feeling her small fingers in his.

“Come on, honey,” he said, helping her into the cart. Cindy followed, then he sat on the edge, resting his feet on the running board, getting comfortable.

A balding man in the back extended his hand. “Ray Martinez,” he said. “Can you believe we won this thing?” His wife smiled benignly; she looked as if she’d missed her morning cup of coffee.

“Yeah,” Max said. “Incredible luck.” Cindy elbowed him, rolling her eyes. He’d told her the whole story.

“You know,” Martinez said, leaning forward conspiratorially, “I got my lawyer on them because they were dicking me on our bill. We live in Palos Verdes. They keep trying to force through the water surcharge.”

“Yeah?” Max said, deciding that Martinez was one of those types who lived to make trouble.

“The lawyer sent a registered e-mail, and the next day, boom! Sally got the message that we’d won the tickets!”

“Ha!” Max said.

“Really?” Cindy said, turning around.

Martinez started to say more, but Tina, tugging on Max’s shirt, interrupted.

“Look, Daddy! Goofy’s going to drive us.”

“No,” Max said. “That’s my namesake.”

“Oh, yeah,” she said, voice full of awe. “That’s the teenage boy, Max.”

“Name’s Max Prinn,” Max said, turning to Martinez and his wife. “I had to take a lot of jokes about this guy when I was growing up.”

Martinez’s wife whispered something, and the blank look on his face faded. “Yeah,” he said. “Oh, yeah! That one’s called Max.”

“All right,” the driver said, his elongated, putty-colored dog face bobbing up and down. “Let’s hit the road! We’re off to see the PerfectTown.”

“Whee, daddy! Whee!” Tina cried as she curled against him and the cart set off. Cindy smiled and ran her hand through her wheat-colored hair. They were traveling at least five miles an hour through the oldest part of Disneyland: Main Street USA.

They passed the old Mister Lincoln exhibit. It was closed now; Max had heard from his brother Joe that it was going to be preserved as a museum. Max saw a character in an unusual costume standing beside the old brick building. The guy’s clothes were ragged, and he wore some kind of ugly mask that resembled a wild pig.

“Hey, who’s that?” Max asked, leaning forward and tapping his cartoon dog-headed namesake on the shoulder. The cart slowed as cartoon-Max turned.

“Who’s what?” he asked.

“Over there,” Max said, pointing at the figure. The guy crouched. He was skulking! No Disney character ever walked like that, like some knuckle-dragging freak.

“By Mister Lincoln?” cartoon Max asked. “Yeah, I see him.” The cart came to a stop, its electric motor whining down. Cartoon Max pressed his cheek and started speaking softly. Max heard most of what he said.

“Intruder by Mister Lincoln,” he said. “Can’t believe they’re everywhere. I thought they cleared them all out —”

Max suddenly understood. The man he’d seen was no Disney character, he was a viral freak, and the Magic Kingdom had been invaded. Was there nothing and nowhere safe? He pressed Tina close to him.

Cindy’s eyes were wide. She’d seen the figure too. Tina looked up at Max and said, “what’s wrong, daddy?”

“It’s a bad man,” he said. “They’ll take care of him.”

“Why?” Tina asked.

“Oh, honey,” Cindy said, leaning over to kiss Tina’s smooth, dark head.

“I can’t believe they’ve gotten in here,” Martinez said. “Damn freaks!”

“Hey,” Max said, turning and raising one brow. He looked at Tina, then back at Martinez. The message was unmistakable: watch your language around my little girl. Martinez’ brow furrowed, then he sat back, putting his arm around his wife, frowning. Max hoped that he was embarrassed.

“Daddy, I’m scared,” Tina said. Her small shoulders were trembling.

The driver turned, waggling his dog ears. “Hey, sweetie,” he said. “Don’t be scared. You think my dad would let somebody do something bad here? Or Mickey Mouse? That’s just a guy who’s lost. We’ll help him find where he’s supposed to go.”

“Really?” Tina said. She looked up at Max, her dark eyes full of uncertainty, and also wonder that Goofy’s teenaged son had spoken to her.

“What’s your name?” Cartoon Max asked.

“Tina,” she said in a tiny voice.

He extended his big, three-fingered glove. “Pleased to meet you, Miss Tina,” he said.

“You’re so sweet,” Cindy exclaimed. Max smiled at the driver. He was good — Max couldn’t believe how quickly he’d smoothed that over. Half a dozen security men in bright blue jumpsuits were approaching the Mister Lincoln building.

“That was fast,” Martinez said.

“See those guys?” Cartoon Max said, pointing at the security men. “Those are our helpers. They’ll help that man find his house.”

“Did he run away from home?” Tina asked.

“I think so,” Cartoon Max said.

“Then he’s in a lot of trouble,” Tina said. “He might get a time out.”

Max grabbed Tina and hugged her fiercely. Cindy put her arms around both of them.

From the back of the cart, Martinez said, “You’ve got a great family.”

Max turned and nodded. The men in the blue jumpsuits were entering the closed Mister Lincoln exhibit. Another group had appeared, starting down the narrow alley to its side where they’d last spotted the intruder. The freak.

“I can’t believe that this is a problem here,” Cindy said to Cartoon Max. By that, she meant the derelict: the freak.

“Well, it’s not a problem for us,” he said. “We’ve got everything under control.”

“I’m sure,” she said in a tart voice. She looked at Max: he’d hear what she really thought later. Cindy was a little bit on the liberal side and often expressed sympathy for the freaks.

“Come on,” Cartoon Max said, turning back to his steering wheel. “Let’s get this show on the road!” He finished with a silly laugh.

Moments later, they were at the end of Main Street, turning the corner to Tomorrowland and the PerfectTown.

o0o

Their PerfectTown guide was a lovely young woman with porcelain skin, smooth blond hair, and perfect teeth. Max noticed Cindy’s expression when she caught sight of him looking at her with a pleasant and possibly dreamy expression: the set jaw meant that he’d hear about that later, too.

“I’m Marisa,” the guide said in a soft, modulated voice. “I’ll be your guide to where the past meets the future: DisLex’s PerfectTown.” Max wondered how it was possible that a dress with a Peter Pan collar and a neat bow at the back could look sexy. It did.

They followed the guide down a long, padded ramp. Fifteen-foot high, seamless metal doors opened with a whispery rush as they entered what the guide Marisa called “the lobby.”

“Tina, look!” Max said, lifting his daughter up.

Beside him, Cindy took a deep breath. “My God,” she said.

They stood on a balcony that overlooked the PerfectTown. The guide’s words seemed to fade. For the town that lay at their feet under what seemed to Max to be a transparent bubble appeared to cover several square miles. Max felt his stomach grow light with vertigo. How had they managed to build something like that — under Disneyland? It looked bigger than the entire above-ground Magic Kingdom. He shook his head, trying to make visual sense of it.

“It’s huge,” Martinez said, rushing to the railing and leaning over. “Look at that! I see a park, and over there — look! You can see the cars!”

“Houses,” Cindy said in a breathy voice. “Thousands of them.”

“There’s a steeple,” Tina added. “Daddy, I see a horsie!”

“It doesn’t look like a hologram, does it?” the guide asked.

“No,” Max admitted. “It doesn’t.”

“They look real. Look! That man in jogging pants is scratching his head, wondering what to do,” Cindy said. “Honey, look!” She guided Tina’s small dark head to see the man. Tina’s brow wrinkled.

“I can’t see him,” Tina said. “I see the tall man in black with the funny hat.”

“Yeah,” Martinez said. “It’s Cesar Chavez.”

“You!” His wife poked him in the ribs. “That’s a little girl. She’s dark, like this one here.” She pointed at Tina and smiled a tight little smile.

“You’re all seeing something different,” Marisa said. “That’s the way it works. The simulation shows itself differently to each person who comes to it. There’s never been —”

“You mean Tina sees the horse, my wife sees the guy scratching his head, and I see the cars and churches?” Max asked.

The guide nodded, flashing her polished smile. “You must be interested in technology and architecture,” she said. “Children are —”

Tina grabbed Max’s sleeve and tugged. “It’s not a horsey any more,” she whispered. “It’s a big brown dog now.”

“Is he friendly?” Max asked.

Tina nodded.

“You must be wondering,” the guide said, gesturing over the bubble of the town with one pale, slender arm, downed with hair in the lambent light, “where do these things come from?”

“I figured it’s all a computer program,” Martinez said. Max looked briefly at him and wondered how the other man could interpret the figure who’d ambled into his view as Cesar Chavez. Aside from the one-foot height difference between the two cultural heroes, the tall man with the black knee-length coat and stovepipe hat was so obviously Abraham Lincoln that even Tina could have recognized him.

Cindy started giggling. “It’s a clown, Max,” she said. “And his nose is falling off!”

“You’re absolutely right,” the guide told Martinez. “It is a computer program, but the most sophisticated program the world has ever known. The figures you see are real. They change as you look at them, and as they interact among themselves.”

“Interact?” Max asked. Cindy looked at him; he could tell from the way that her eyes narrowed suddenly and the pupils contracted that she was fascinated, but also fearful. He grabbed her hand and squeezed it, and drew Tina close.

“Daddy, now the doggy ran away. I just see a little boy. He’s wearing a blue striped shirt and dumb-looking tennis shoes.”

“That’s nice,” Cindy said, smoothing Tina’s hair.

“Yes, as far as they’re concerned, they all live in the same town. A real town. The PerfectTown,” the guide said. “They’re called imagos. That’s an unusual word that has several meanings.”

“Images?” Cindy asked.

“Yeah,” Martinez said. “Like the movies, only three-dimensional.”

“A movie made with dolls,” his wife said. “I guess this is —”

“The world’s most expensive puppet show,” Max said, laughing.

The guide smiled at him. It reminded him of the way his second-grade teacher had looked at him when he’d come up with the wrong answer.

“No, they’re not puppets. They think. They can do things for themselves. They live, get married, go to church and school — even have children. Or, something like that,” she said. “They’re changing right now, even as we watch them.”

“There’s something not right about that,” Cindy whispered in Max’s ear. “It reminds me of a poem I read. Or maybe it was an old TV show. There were all these dolls trapped in a —”

“Shh!” Max silenced her, because the guide was continuing with her explanation.

“An imago is the mature stage of an insect,” the guide said. “Like a butterfly, coming out of its cocoon.”

“We had silk worms at school,” Tina said. “They spun their cocoons, then they came out as pretty moths while we were at home asleep.”

Max began to wonder if the guide was one of these imagos herself, as he watched her lean over and pat Tina’s cheek.

“I don’t see any bugs or butterflies,” Martinez said.

“He just saw Cesar Chavez in a black suit with a stovepipe hat,” Max whispered in Cindy’s ear. “Cesar Chavez was four feet tall.” She slapped his arm, rolling her eyes. He grinned to himself.

“An imago is also an image. Something as real as, but other than, the the world that is.”

Martinez started laughing. “I get it now,” he said. “It’s like that old game. What was that? Sim Town?”

The guide turned her lovely face toward him. “It has its basis in something like that,” she said.

“So, what if somebody pulls the plug?” Martinez made a nasty popping, snapping noise back in his throat, like a lightbulb burning out.

The guide shrugged. “There is no plug,” she said.

“How can it —”

“It’s alive,” she said. “The PerfectTown grows each day. It is part of the DisLex central computer, but completely separate from —”

“From our bills?” Max said.

The guide nodded. “The computer is now divided in two parts. It has —”

“Mama, listen!” Tina exclaimed.

“Don’t interrupt,” Cindy said, leaning over.

“No!” Cindy said. “A song. Can’t you hear it?”

Everyone turned toward the PerfectTown.

“I think I can,” the guide said.

“It’s the little boy,” Tina said. “He’s singing.”

At first, Max heard only a bare whisper. Then the song grew louder. He could almost make out the words. “I hear it,” he said. “I think.” Then he turned to the others. “Do —”

“I do,” Cindy said. Her hands reached for Tina’s shoulders and she drew her daughter to her. Max had never seen quite the same kind of look in her eyes. He moved close, but something in his wife’s eyes pushed him away like a magnetic repulsion. She covered Tina’s ears. The boy’s voice filled the room.

Katie, Katie give me your answer, true I’m half crazy, all because of you You once were my dear grandmother But you just could not stay true Katie, Katie When the sun goes down, I’ll burn the city Then I’ll murder you

“Oh, my God,” Cindy said.

“Look at the kid!” Martinez cried.

“Tina, don’t look!” Cindy crushed Tina’s head into her belly and stared down at the PerfectTown, her eyes growing wider and wider.

“He’s burning that church,” Martinez’ wife said.

“Are you nuts? Look at him! He’s running after that lady with a knife.”

“Holy —” Max’s oath was cut short in utter shock. It was like a dream, one of those dreams where you try to scream — something is chasing you — something horrible and dark, with foul breath and claws — and you can’t quite get away, and you can’t scream, or say a word — nothing. Not ever.

The kid in the blue striped shirt and geek tennis shoes cut off Mister Lincoln’s head with a machete.

“He’s got a bottle now, with a cloth sticking out of it,” Cindy said.

Somehow, Tina managed to squirm free. Max didn’t know how. Cindy shrieked, but it was too late.

“He hurt the doggy, Mama!” she cried.

Max hoped he would never again see anything like the expression on his daughter’s face.

The guide’s hand was over her mouth. A quarter-inch of bloodshot white showed all the way around her big, pretty blue eyes.

She spoke into her wristband. Max watched her pale fingers trembling. Her lips were trembling as well.

“You’ve got to stop this,” she said. “Control — we have a —”

Max heard something coming back from her wrist, but he couldn’t make out the words.

“It’s a boy,” she said. “Some kind of insane boy.”

Again, the buzz of a voice just beyond Max’s hearing. The horrible song continued. And changed. Grew dissonant. Stopped rhyming. Became a chant. Like something they’d sing in a blasphemous monastery where the crosses hung upside-down. There were words that he didn’t want Tina to hear. Words he was sorry that he’d heard, especially in the Magic Kingdom. Other words he didn’t know, but which chilled his body deep inside to hear them all the same.

The guide’s voice broke through, high and desperate. “It’s his imago. No — it is him. He has blond hair. A knife. A bomb. Sword-thing. I don’t —”

“We’ve got to get out,” Max said. He grabbed Cindy’s shoulder and spun her toward the double doors where they’d entered, lifting Tina by the waist.

“What should I do?” The guide looked around and gestured toward them.

“The doors won’t open,” she said. “They’re programmed not to until we’re —”

“Like Hell they won’t!” Max cried. He looked at Martinez, who gaped at the carnage below them, his wife clinging to him as she gasped and wept. “Help us!” Max yelled at the older man. Martinez moved one leg forward with excruciating slowness. It was like one of those cold-sweat dreams. Max began to wonder if he’d made any sense at all, or if his words had been heard.

“We have ten more minutes,” the guide called toward them. She was wringing her hands, then she opened them toward Max, Cindy and Tina, pleading. “We can sit and wait. Look away from it. It will stop. They said it would —”

Max felt a sharp rush of pity for her. She was young. He knew it wasn’t her fault; knew also that she was as frightened as any of them were. He remembered the man who’d been killed in that terrible accident on Space Mountain. The Magic Kingdom took a lot of pride in the fact that nobody had ever been hurt badly there since, not even nuts who tried some crazy stunt, like trying to kill themselves by flinging their bodies from the bridge of Snow White’s castle. It was a different Magic Kingdom now than it had been when he was a kid. Back then, it had been the happiest place on earth. Now it was perfect. DisLex, not Disney. Hell, they ran the whole state. Power, water, trash, newspapers, satellite, net, movies…

Max looked back at her a long moment, and then he realized that Martinez had moved and was standing by his side.

“Together,” he said, looking at the older man. Martinez looked out of shape, but his shoulders were big. He had some weight to put toward it.

At once, they rushed the double doors.

Max felt the pain in the meaty part of his back, right where you were supposed to punch someone if you really wanted to hurt them.

“Chingadera!” Martinez swore, rubbing his shoulder.

Max knew that was a really bad swear word in Spanish, but he had never quite been sure what it meant.

“Madre de Dios!” Martinez continued. “That won’t move,” he added.

Max knew what Madre de Dios meant.

When he looked toward the guide, she was sitting in a fetal position, her arms wrapped around her knees, head resting above that. Her eyes were closed and she was rocking back and forth.

The song was now a series of long, keening wails, something like what Max thought you’d hear coming from a ward for the criminally insane.

“Mama, Mama,” Tina said, over and over. Cindy held her tight. Fear and a mother’s fierce protectiveness had made her face as taut and expressionless as an Aleutian mask.

“For God’s sake,” she said through her teeth. “Get us out of here!”

Max sensed something amid the wailing roar. Later, he could never had said what made him turn away from the Armageddon of the PerfectTown, away from the double doors, and away from the guide, but he did, all the same.

To see a sliver of light, perhaps two hundred yards away, in the opposite direction along the rail that kept them from falling into the PerfectTown. Or PerfectHell, as he would later term it.

The sliver of light grew until Max could make it out as a door, and it was not artificial, but natural light.

He grabbed Cindy’s wrist and spun her. Martinez turned as well. His wife’s wailing, which had joined the horrible death-cries coming from below, softened.

A hand beckoned through the door. Something about the hand was not quite right, but Max didn’t question that. He grabbed his wife’s wrist. This time, she took Tina and carried her like a baby, though she weighed seventy-five pounds, and he heard Martinez breathing heavily as he followed.

Max pulled up short as they reached the door. He put one arm out, protecting Cindy, Tina and the Martinez’s, stopping them from going any farther.

Because there had been something wrong with the hand at the door. The fingers were wrapped in gray-yellow rags, twisted, and grimed with oil and filth. The hand led to a thick arm in an army surplus jacket, and the face that peered through the door at them was nothing any decent person could look at without shuddering.

Their rescuer was a freak. Max didn’t know if it was the same one they’d seen on the way in. It probably was the same one, he thought, because this was a pig man and there weren’t many of those. Or so he’d read. Or heard.

“Look man, we’ve just had a bad experience. If you’re going to try to rip us off or infect us, you’ll have to come through me,” Max said, steeling his voice. He felts his hands ball into fists.

The freak shook his head.

“I was outside. I heard screaming,” he said.

It was almost impossible to believe, but the voice that came out of his diseased face was normal, even gentle. He sounded educated.

“You’re not going to —” Max blurted.

The pig man averted his head. Maybe the brief movement was something that an animal would do if it was in trouble, or wanted to defer to a stronger beast. Max guessed that was what he was to this freak: a stronger form of beast.

“Goddamn freak!” Martinez blustered. He pushed his way past Cindy and Tina, his wife in tow. He was shaking his fist.

“I heard the bad noises,” the pig man said. “I know how to get in and out. I thought you might need some help.”

“Max,” Cindy whispered. “Don’t make any trouble with him. He was just trying to —”

Max put his hand on her cheek, then looked back at the pig man, who was truly one of the most filthy, boil-ridden, bristle-tufted and twisted creatures he’d ever seen, and that included pot-bellied pigs at the Los Angeles County Fair and embalmed creatures sewn together at the Museum of the Weird in Hollywood, and slowly, he smiled.

“Thanks, man,” he said.

“No problem,” the pig man replied, swinging the door open wide and stepping back as far as he could to let them all pass.

Inside the PerfectTown, the hideous, wailing, shrieking song stopped.

The guide screamed once, then she too was silent.

Chapter Two

On a discreet palm screen, DisLex chairman Harman Jacques watched his new assistant Julie Curtez checking her makeup in the mirrored surface of the outer doors to his office. It was amazing what people would do when they thought no one was watching. Someone told him once that character was what people did when they thought they were alone.

“No one’s ever alone,” he whispered.

He liked the thought that Julie thought she was alone, though. After a moment, he released the doors and let her in.

“I suppose I picked a great day to start,” she said, standing in front of his desk, her arms folded at her waist. She meant the PerfectTown mess.

Harmon swiveled in his chair to face her, and as always, he smiled inside at her polished good looks. Like a good girl, she wore her gloves. He wore none, of course, but unlike most others, he had no fear of the Human Mutational Virus, or any other nasty bug that might be festering out in the mire beyond his air-scrubbed office and his clean, perfect world.

“Somebody told me once that you might as well learn to firefight in a maelstrom as a bonfire,” he said as he stood. Harmon wasn’t about to entrust the PerfectTown public relations disaster to the good people down at the Magic Kingdom.

“We’ll take my Lear down there,” he said. “We’ll pay a personal call on Max Prinn and his family. I assume the packages have been shipped?” Julie nodded. The first order of her day had been to gather gifts for the Prinns: a peace offering after their visit to the PerfectTown had gone so horribly wrong.

“You’ve watched Prinn on the newslinks,” Harmon said as he started from his office, waiting for her to pass in front of him as one of the tall doors silently opened. By her smile, he could tell that she appreciated his consideration. Amazing, how women thought about these things. Letting the lady go first meant that he was able to enjoy the view.

“Yes,” she said, looking over her shoulder.

That hair, halfway down her back, and so black and soft and smooth.

“What do you think of the man?”

“I think he’s like the guy who said he found a rat in his Coke,” Julie said.

Harmon laughed. “Exactly.”

“So,” she said, “we have a new hometertainment system for the family, a complete set of the original character dolls for the little girl, and the home décor choice kit for mother.” She paused in the hall. He came close enough to her to catch the bare scent of her perfume: something of spice, and perhaps gardenias.

“Very good,” he said. “I’ve got this.” He slipped the DisLex Platinum card from his pocket and flashed it at her.

“I don’t even have one,” she said, her brow furrowing.

He smiled. “You will.” Then he added, “This one is charged for a year. They’ll have everything free.”

“I think that should win them over. It was all an unfortunate error — imagine those bugs in the program,” she said in her light, soft voice. How hard she had worked to eliminate her Chicana accent; to speak as well as anyone on the newslinks.

Imagine that, Harmon thought. Bombs away. What a bad boy I am. Then, imagine you in my arms and us inside of each other.

“There’s the other matter,” he said.

“Yes?” She raised one fine dark brow.

“The freak,” he said, hardening his voice. The worst part of the whole mess was that the two families had been “saved” by the mutant pig man, who should never have been in the Magic Kingdom at all. It was too late to pass him off as some type of aberration; the independent newslinks were featuring story after story of people who’d also seen mutants at the Magic Kingdom. Been accosted by them, hit up for money — or worse.

Not that Harmon believed any of it, but the truth didn’t count on the news; not even DisLex news. The Board insisted that there be “controlled chaos,” which meant “let the reporters do what they want.” Tradition. Journalistic privilege. Whatever. Right now, it was a worse problem for the company than even the PerfectTown mess. Freaks, in the Magic Kingdom. People wouldn’t want to expose their children to that type of thing on a thousand-dollar family trip. But Harmon had a plan. He’d coopt the Prinns. Maybe they’d even have a friendly reunion with the pig man, a deformed, infected vagrant named Tommy Lee Tucker, now safe and sound at Harmon’s other PerfectTown: Camp Roberts. Which wasn’t exactly a camp.

“Him,” she said. Her gloved hand went to her neck.

“Give me your glove,” he said, suddenly. He didn’t know why he said that. Suddenly he thought about his other assistant, his best man Dick. And Dick was turning his back. Go away, he commanded. Dick obeyed.

“You don’t need the gloves when you’re with me,” Harmon said. “I’m safe. You’re safe.”

He watched her lower lip tremble. Kiss it, he thought. He heard himself saying more things, comforting things. Things of confidence and safety.

She would not give him her glove. He could hardly continue to insist. Later, he thought. A little later.

And he changed once more. “I’ve had the pig man interviewed,” he said. “He’s been taken to Camp Roberts, and he’ll be perfectly safe. Perhaps he’ll even be cured.”

“What?” she said, starting to laugh nervously. “Camp Roberts? Is this a new resort?”

“It’s another project,” Harmon said. “Out of your area. Camp Roberts is just the start.”

Julie’s dark eyes narrowed. “Maybe we shouldn’t fly down so quickly,” she said. “How can I know what to say if there’s this much that I haven’t been briefed on?”

“I’ll tell you on the way,” Harmon said. “In one way, it’s a whole world for you to discover. In another way, I can tell you in a few minutes.”

They had been walking slowly, and between one step and the next, she stopped, crossing her arms.

She took a deep breath. An expression came over her delicate face, one that he couldn’t quite decipher. Then, she spoke.

“I… I’m not comfortable with this. What if they have questions? I might say something wrong. There’s so much I don’t know — the pig man being taken to this camp? Why? How?”

Harmon smiled, holding her eyes with his for a long moment. He read many things there: apprehension, uncertainty, and quite a bit of fear. Also fascination.

Just kiss her, he thought.

Inside his head, Dick the imago spoke a single word. “Animal.”

Harmon forced Dick’s imago away once again, but he did not kiss Julie. Instead, he put his bare hand on her arm and gripped, not too hard, feeling the warmth of her skin through her sleeve.

“We’re changing things, Julie. The world as you know it is no longer there. All that you see,” he said, continuing to look steadily in her eyes, then breaking the contact when he thought the moment was right, “is veneer. Like a layer of mahogany on a cheap pine table. Tissue-thin, covering something very different that lies beneath.”

“Sir,” she said, her voice cracking. She looked at his hand on her arm, but she did not pull away.

“Don’t be afraid,” he said.

Her eyes went wide.

“Take off your gloves,” he said.

He felt electric. Trust me, he thought. Let me tell you. Let me love you. Be inside my body. I want to be inside yours. The scent of her perfume hit him. He stood in the moment, and caught a bare tendril of her skin and the fear on her. And the excitement.

I don’t have to say I’m a God for you to believe it, he thought.

She pulled her arm away, but gently. Then, she slipped one glove from her hand, her fingers slender and the color of pale creamed coffee beneath. He took the glove, then he took her bare hand in his, and he kissed it, smiling up into her eyes. He let his lips linger on her warm skin.

“You’re safe,” he said. “There is no virus here, nor anywhere I go.”

She gasped.

“You will always be safe with me.”

“Mister…” she said.

“Harmon,” he told her.

She was silent. She began to speak, but he lifted her hand and pressed her fingers to her lips.

“I’ll tell you everything,” he said. “And you’ll meet my other assistant, Dick. You and he are the two halves,” he said.

“Halves?” she whispered.

“Body and soul,” he said.

“I don’t know,” she said, and other things of astonishment, and backing away.

But Harmon had already taken her bare hand. And he had kissed it. The sense of it still burned on his lips.

In the Learjet, she busied herself with the list of gifts for the Prinn family. Harmon sat silently watching her, making no pretense of work.

“I do trust you,” he said at last. “You’ll make a marvelous impression on the family. Remember,” he said, smiling slightly at her. “They should believe that you and I are the best of friends.”

She looked up from her computer with an expression he could not decipher. “My husband might not care for that,” she said. The words hung in the air-conditioned cabin. Harmon preferred never to think of her husband Frank, that wetback beaner in a thousand-dollar suit. He said nothing. After a moment, she continued. “There’s a new item here.”

“Yes?” Harmon said in a mild voice.

“A house. In Palos Verdes.”

Harmon nodded. “Corporate property.”

“Mister…”

“Harmon,” he said. “That’s one of our model homes. Safe, gated and virus-free.”

She nodded. “I’m familiar with that program. This is a very generous gift. With the other items, we are now up to about half a million dollars in —”

“Money’s not the issue,” he said. “Confidence is.”

“Our customers.”

“And you. Look down there.” He indicated one of the jet’s windows with his finger. Julie rose and went to the window. “Do you see?”

“I see something down there. Buildings. Looks like a lot of wilderness. A lake. Are we south of Monterey and Carmel?”

“Yes,” Harmon said. “Just north of San Luis Obispo. That’s Camp Roberts.”

“That’s where you mentioned — where the pig man who rescued the Prinns is,” she said. “It doesn’t look like a camp. It looks like some kind of —”

“It was an old military base. We’ve taken it over. Exclusively for victims of the Human Mutational Virus. They’re safe there, and they’re being helped.” He grinned at her.

“I had no idea,” she said. “They have places to live there? Work?”

He nodded. “We’re working on a cure,” he said. “We can rewrite their genetic structure, given enough time and enough research on the proper models. That’s where the PerfectTown comes in.”

“Harmon,” she said. He liked that she was trying his name out in her mouth, even if she sounded very uncomfortable. “I had no idea. But how can the computer do —”

“Later,” he said. “If you look down there, you’ll see what an ideal environment it is. Natural beauty, great weather, even their own water supply.”

“An old military base,” she said. “I think maybe I have heard of it.”

“Possibly,” he said. “I’m sure you’ve driven past it.”

“Yes,” she said. “I believe that I have. You say they work down there, get exercise and so-on?” Then she smiled at him, and Harmon felt warmth in his chest, and in other places.

“Oh yes,” Harmon said. “They’re running all the time. Things like that.”

The jet flew south, and Camp Roberts faded into the distance.

Chapter Three

Tommy Lee Tucker the pig man was Camp Roberts’ seventh runner. Under the knife-bright Central California sun, three DisLex guards squinted through their mirrorshades while Tommy broke from Dorm B jogging group. He veered past the pea green barracks, straight toward the electrified fence.

Tommy was fifteen yards from the fence when the nearest guard raised his Remington 870 twelve-gauge and took aim at his back.

“Hey, man, he’s headed for the fence!” called another guard.

Tommy didn’t turn. His ankle gave as he hit a ragged chunk of cement, hidden amid the tall spears of sawgrass near the fence. Time seemed to stretch as he fell to one knee. The internees watched: fish twins barely out of their teens, the three other pig men, the bear man who liked to brag he’d been a technodance dee-jay, and the dozen other freaks of assorted sizes, shapes and colors who occupied the bunks in Camp Roberts Dorm B.

The guard in the tower slammed the alarm button and screamed down at the others, “Stop the runner!” One guard, open-mouthed, stared at the tower instead of Tommy. One who had been trotting broke into a full run.

He paused and brought his hand to his mouth. “Damn it, he’s gonna fry!”

Tommy was on his feet again, limping. He turned back, eyes like black olives in his fleshy pink face, and held up his right arm, fingers forming a “v.”

That night, when the XO debriefed the security staff, the guard who’d trotted after Tommy, a forty-five year-old divorcee named Karl Hehle, insisted that Tommy had flipped everyone off. Meantime, in Dorm B, the freaks whispered in their bunks, evenly divided as to whether Tommy had given a peace sign or a victory sign. No one was going to ask them for their opinion, but they argued anyway.

Karl Hehle was within twenty feet of the running pig man. He stopped, went to one knee, and took aim with his twelve gauge. It was a riot gun and he was armed with it in case the freaks got out of hand and decided to charge. It wasn’t the kind of gun anyone was supposed to fire at a running target. Running away, at any rate.

“Hey, freak,” he yelled. “The fence is on.” Then, he squeezed the trigger and discharged a sandbag. The sandbag hit Tommy square between his shoulder blades. Tommy’s arms flew up and his chest slammed into the fence. Some of the freaks said later that a blue spark shot from the back of his head. Not everyone saw that, but everyone saw the flash. Everyone heard the sick, crackling sizzle. Tommy’s sneakers smoked as he jerked like a dancing puppet. The freaks made a few steps forward, but everyone knew not to touch him.

Raymond the dog man started to cry.

“Fried shit,” said Karl Hehle, cradling his weapon.

The tardy guard who’d been gaping at the tower arrived and took out his comm. “Runner on the fence,” he said. “Sector five jogging track. We need the truck.”

Three miles away, the comm roused the Camp Roberts paramedics from their backgammon game. The tallest of them swore under his breath as he crumpled his can of Sunkist Orange and tossed it through a miniature Lakers hoop into the recycling bucket.

“Another three-pointer,” he said. They were still laughing about the lucky shot as they climbed leisurely into the truck and pulled on their gloves and masks.

“You know what’s the worst?” the driver said as they bounced along the one-lane ribbon of asphalt toward the jogging track. “They stink so damn bad.”

Yeah, yeah, the others agreed. Lewis Starr, Jr., the tall paramedic who’d made the three-pointer, was wishing he had another Sunkist Orange. “Like barbecue,” Lewis said, staring out the window at the rolling green hills. Come summer, the grass would be golden brown. The fires would begin. Lewis Starr was from South Carolina and he’d eaten a lot of barbecue. The favorite meat there was pork, cooked for hours with brown sugar and vinegar and a touch of crushed red pepper. They called it chop meat or pulled meat. People drank Pepsi while they ate it on a squishy white bun with coleslaw on top. When it got seared in the pot with some melted Crisco it smelled just like one of the runners did after they got racked up on the fence. Lewis Starr kept his thoughts about pulled meat and barbecue to himself.

His thoughts grew even worse when they got to Tommy Lee Tucker and Lewis Starr saw that he was a pig man.

They had finally turned the fence off and Tommy Lee Tucker’s charred corpse lay crumpled in the grass. When Lewis Starr bent down, he saw that the pig man’s orange polyester coveralls had burned clear through to his broad chest, and the fabric and flesh had sealed together in a blue-black welt. Karl Hehle stood by, gabbling about how he’d tried to stop the disaster. Lewis couldn’t read the pig man’s I.D. off the coveralls. It had been blackened away, except for the last two numbers.

“It was Tucker,” Hehle said. “I saw his face. Man, he was the one that rescued that family. I saw him on the news.”

“They’ll make certain tonight when they count heads,” Lewis replied. The pig man’s face was turning purplish. He looked like a black hog. Maybe a little like a black man. The one who rescued the family? Yeah, Lewis guessed he had heard something about that.

Back in South Carolina, they didn’t have many freaks. Nothing like California. When he’d left Carolina, Lewis had felt no misgivings about going out West and taking the job at Camp Roberts. DisLex paid well, and Lewis needed the money to get through medical school. It had seemed like a good idea at the time, even though before he had left Greenville, his oldest auntie had asked him whether or not he felt right being around all those “ugly niggers.” That was how all the church ladies of a certain age referred to the freaks; Lewis guessed it was because most of them were dark, or had dark fur.

Lewis Starr would never eat pulled meat again. Not with cole slaw, not with anything else.

The surviving freaks from Dorm B crowded around as Lewis and the others lifted Tommy Lee Tucker’s body onto the stretcher and wheeled it toward the truck. They knew Tommy Lee was dead but they still stared, some with angry glares, others with expressions of sympathy or sadness on their godawful faces.

“He shot him,” Raymond the dog man said, pointing at the guard Karl. “Then he hit the fence.”

“Damn murderer,” said one of the fish boys under his breath.

Lewis searched their faces. Then, he looked at Karl Hehle. Shiny mucus ringed Hehle’s mouth and there were flecks of food on his chin. A few paces away, Lewis spotted the mess where the guard had lost his breakfast. It looked like something a puppy might do.

It wasn’t Lewis’ business to ask anything, but he caught Hehle’s eye. “He was heading for the fence?”

“Yeah,” the guard said. “Everybody was hollering at him.” He looked at Tommy Lee Tucker’s body, then back at Lewis. “The stupid shit flipped me off.”

“Man, if they’re gonna do it, they’re gonna do it,” one of the other paramedics said.

Lewis cinched a black woven strap across the body. “Did you try to stop him?” Lewis knew the answer. Like all the freaks, the pig man was hot with HMV, the human mutational virus that made people pray for AIDS instead; worse than any killer out of Africa or Asia.

“Hell, yeah!” Hehle crossed his arms, indignant. The man reminded Lewis of his middle school football coach, only his crewcut was shorter, the skin showing bluish white beneath the bristly hair. There were liver-colored moles here and there on his scalp. Lewis figured that if the guard’s barber shaved too close, he’d cut one of those moles clean off. Maybe he had. There was a crusty scab above Hehle’s right temple. HMV insinuated itself right through torn skin. A little gob of spit from the dead man’s cheek could get on the guard’s fingers, then the guard might rub his head. Not that Hehle or any of the others would have thought that far ahead, or in that much detail. Hehle just wouldn’t have touched the pig man if he could help it.

One of the twin fish boys stepped forward. “It ain’t right,” he said in the wet, mucousy voice all the fish people had. Lewis had to avoid looking straight at the fish boy, because his narrow, almond-shaped eyes were not at all human. The pupils were too big, not quite round. Periodically, a bluish, filmy membrane would slip up like a window shade, obscuring both iris and pupil.

The fish boy grabbed Lewis’ arm. “Do something, man,” he said. “It ain’t right.” Lewis remembered that the fish boy’s name was something crazy, like an old-time rock star. Elton. Or Elvis.

Lewis shook his head. With a hard look on his face, Karl Hehle stepped in and shoved the fish boy aside. The others stepped back, unwilling to confront the guard.

As Lewis climbed in the truck, he looked over the group of freaks. “You all take care now,” he said, his voice sounding childish and sanctimonious, as if he had been back in church choir. “It’s all over.”

The fish boy’s weird eyes were full of impotent pain and rage. Lewis wondered if maybe that was how his great-grandfather had looked when they told him he never had owned his farm and called him a “squatter.”

The driver squirted Ozium into the truck as they left. It did nothing for the stink, just adding a sharp odor of chemical disinfectant to the stench of burnt meat. Lewis gagged, remembering the fish boy and the others. He had no idea what it would feel like, seeing your friend break and run toward a high-voltage fence. Seeing him fry, jumping around like a six-inch trout on a hot iron griddle.

Lewis knew about trout and griddles. Back in his locker, Lewis had the card of a man he’d met fishing a couple of Sundays before at Lake Nacimiento. Lewis went out early most weekends. He hardly ever saw anyone until he’d been out a couple of hours, but this man had been out on the lake one morning, with his line in the water, sipping hot coffee. They’d got to talking. Lewis had shared the man’s thermos of coffee, and he had taken the man’s card. His name was Frank Curtez and he said that he was a DA in San Luis. He had been interested in what went on at Camp Roberts. Said he’d heard some stories.

Lewis had almost thrown the card away. But maybe just from laziness, he’d thrown it in his locker. He covered his mouth and nose with his hand to stop the burnt odor. The man who said you’d get used to that kind of stink didn’t know what the hell he was talking about. Maybe he’d go fishing again on Sunday, out in that clean lake air. Maybe he’d call Frank Curtez. God knew he couldn’t stand by and watch another man rack himself up on that fence without doing something.

The body of Tommy Lee Tucker slipped from the stretcher as Lewis and the driver wheeled it up the steep ramp of the morgue. The other paramedics weren’t very careful about picking him up, and they let his burnt head slam against the cold cement.

Tommy Lee Tucker’s eyeballs had been cooked way back to the nerve and that makes changes in the flesh, no matter whether you were a freak or as tall, straight-limbed and normal as Lewis Starr. The eyeball slipped out of its socket and flopped wetly against Tommy Lee Tucker’s temple.

The driver started laughing. “Anybody for a couple holes of golf?” Everyone chuckled nervously except Lewis. An eyeball isn’t much smaller than a golf ball. It looks a lot bigger than most people think, once it’s out of someone’s head.

Lewis Starr always followed procedure and unlike two of the others, he still wore his rubber gloves. Very gently, Lewis pushed Tommy Lee Tucker’s eye back into place. He couldn’t shut the pig man’s eyes, but he drew the sheet up over his swollen face. None of the paramedics laughed.

The pig man’s cooked egg white eyes haunted Lewis Starr that night. He had to call that man, Frank Curtez, because if he didn’t, he knew that those opaque blind eyes would haunt him forever.

 


by Amy Sterling Casil
$4.99 (Novel) ISBN 978-1-61138-138-2

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