SUBTEXT: A Revisionist Fairy Tale Wherein We Discover That The Pied Piper Has Yet Another Bug Up His Ass
Thinking back on it later (of course, the things had him trapped in the attic by then--so much for hindsight), Graham realized that there had been harbingers but, like everyone else, he'd been too busy to notice.
(What was that? There -- you in the back! What did you say?
Ah. Yes, I see. Good point. That was what they used to call a "hook", a set-up, a grabber. That's right, this is going to be one of those lurid little horror stories, the kind that single-handedly infected and destroyed Literature as we know it -- but not to worry, I promise you it won't be one of those melodramatic types where the narrator ends with something like, 'The thing is coming through the door and I don't think I can arrrrgh!' That would be beneath us. Now, pay attention, there may be a quiz later.
Where was I?
They came in this order:
A storm front had moved in the previous Wednesday night, bringing torrential rains and high winds that caused a county-wide power blackout lasting nearly six hours. Actually, the storm didn't so much move in as drop down out of nowhere. The next day's paper reported that the National Weather Service radar had detected no storm activity in their part of the country for the last four days. People chalked it up to the accepted incompetence of most meteorologists.
That Thursday not one book was checked out of the Cedar Hill Public Library, but by closing time the audio-visual department was emptied of every record, videocassette, and audio tape.
Friday, the Cedar Hill Advocate sent out its daily run of 65,000 copies, 30,000 of which were delivered to the homes of subscribers, the remainder to news stands, restaurants, and bookstores. The publisher nearly had a hemorrhage when the circulation manager called at four a.m. Saturday morning with news that none of the 35,000 non-subscription copies had sold.
Saturday afternoon, the bookstore at the Indian Mound Mall had a record sales day. It wasn't until an hour before closing that employees realized the customers had bought out the audio book section but failed to purchase a single novel, self-help book, or magazine.
Between 3:00 p.m. Saturday and 5:30 a.m. Sunday, the emergency room at Licking County Memorial Hospital treated 700 people for severe migraine headaches; almost twice as many called the hospital switch board to complain of the same and request medical advice.
And sometime before 8:00 a.m. Sunday, the Cedar Hill Public Library burned to the ground, incinerating every last one of the unborrowed 204,000 books and periodicals on its shelves.
Later (ever notice how this shit always occurs after the fact? The old storytellers used to call that "irony" but it never really worked) Graham realized that a person would have to have been clinically brain dead not to catch on.
He'd been listening to the morning news over breakfast. A local radio reporter was doing a live interview with the mayor, who was saying what a tragedy the loss of the library was but that the city would do everything in its power to rebuild it. As the interview came to a close, the reporter asked, "Do you have any comment on rumors that Councilman Tate's resignation is connected to his refusal to head your re-election campaign?"
"I've heard nothing to that effect."
"A recent Advocate article stated that you had fundamental reservations about authorship of Tate's anti-pornography bill. Was that a source of tension between you and the Council President?"
"Joshua Tate is a fine councilman and his loss will be deeply felt by the city, but I have to restate that I think it was in the best interest of the ununnghhh ... uh, the best interest of all concerned that ungh ... arrghhh..."
Graham looked up.
"Mr. Mayor," said the reporter, "are you all right?"
"Must have something caught in my grmph ... my phwagomp!"
The sound of retreating footsteps, then the reporter said, "This has been Erin Moore, reporting for craaah ... reporting for WCLphhhwchmm ...." Then a series of grunting, slobbering noises that sent Graham into a small laughing fit. He reached over and snapped off the radio.
"You people really ought to learn to clear your throats," he said.
Julie, his wife, came out of the bedroom, dressed only in her robe, poured hersclf a cup of coffee, and joined him at the table. "What's so funny?"
"Looks like our Council President resigned."
"Because of that pornography business?"
"That's a shame. Oh well, at least the legislation passed."
Graham stared at her. Julie knew this particular issue was a sore spot with him. He didn't much pay attention to the nudie mags which had started the whole thing but when it came down to someone giving a bunch of fanatics carte blanche to ridicule the lifestyles and beliefs of others, well then ....
He told her about the interview, feeling his smile fade as he watched her. She looked worn out, used up. Dark crescents spread under her eyes. She was pale and jittery. Graham reached over and took her hand. "The headache again?"
"The headache still. I've had this damn thing since Saturday."
"Got anything you can take for it?"
"I've swallowed half the medicine chest. Ibuprofen, cafergot, nothing helps. It's like someone's drilling into my skull with a rusty corkscrew."
"Want me to call the doctor?"
"I already did. She phoned in a prescription for me. From what she said, I gather most of her patients have been complaining about headaches. She thinks it might be some kind of bug going around. Would you mind driving over to the pharmacy before going to work and picking up the medicine for me? I called off work for today."
"Sure thing," said Graham, grabbing his coat. One of the perks about owning your own business was that you could come in late and not have to worry about the boss chewing you a new asshole. He leaned over and gently kissed Julie. "Relax today. Maybe you can soak in the tub, finish reading your book later, if you feel up to it."
She was holding a paperback copy of Stephen King's Misery that she'd started a few days ago. She was less than a third of the way through, which Graham for the life of him couldn't understand; the damn thing had kept him up all night.
"I haven't had much time to read," said Julie, half-heartedly opening the book. "Too bad someone can't figure out a way to put books into a pill or something. The people who write these goddamn things must think the rest of us have as much free time as they do." She gave a weak smile.
Graham started out the door, turned to blow her a kiss, and watched her open the book to a dog-eared page, stare at it as if she'd never seen it before, then flip back to the beginning and start at page one.
Julie glanced up. "Nothing. I'm just going to read my book."
"But you've started it already."
"No, I haven't."
"I gave it to you last Tuesday, remember? You laid in bed and read until midnight."
She gave him one of her 'You're-such-a-scatterbrain' smiles and said, "Look, I've got one mother of a headache. I'm not going to make it worse by arguing with you. I know what I've read and what I haven't, all right? Now will you please go fetch my drugs?"
Graham raised his hands in surrender. "On my way, oh literate one." He went out the door, climbed in the car, and drove off, deciding to stop by the shop first and tell Randy and Glenn they'd have to run things today; he was going to stay home and take care of his wife.
Graham's upholstery shop was located just off Fifth and Cedar, not far from his house. He went inside to find Randy and Glenn already hard at it. The morning mail waited on his desk: six bills, five checks, and a flyer.
The Cedar Hill Citizens for Community Values were sending everyone in town a list of the "objectionable material" they were attempting to have "voluntarily" removed from bookstores and libraries. Graham bit the inside of his cheek and shook his head.
Five months ago an adult bookstore had opened on Route 79, sending the ultra-Conservatives of the community into a moral frenzy. Council President Joshua Tate introduced zoning legislation that would make it impossible for any adult-oriented establishment to open business within Cedar Hill City Limits -- disregarding the fact that had they wanted to open business in Cedar Hill in the first place, they would have. The legislation passed unanimously, giving birth to the CHCFCV, a group that made the Moral Majority look like biker gang groupies. Graham, like most, ignored them at first, but now they were getting dangerous; several prominent businessmen and "community leaders" were backing them no-holds-barred, giving the CHCFCV more power than Graham thought possible in this day and age.
He opened the flyer and scanned the list, not at all surprised to find several of King's books--Misery included--there, along with the Golden Oldies of Objectionables: Vonnegut, Salinger, Melville, Conrad, Dickey, Lawrence, Mailer, Carroll, on and on and on. Even The Wizard of Oz ("promotes Humanism and unbelief in God") and The Chocolate War ("gives children a dim and depressing view of life") made the grade. A total of fifty-nine books were on this "preliminary" list, more would certainly follow. There were also magazines, many of which--besides the nudies like Playboy and Penthouse and their ilk--had a marked Liberal slant. Graham wadded up the flyer and tossed it into the trash, thinking, The Dark Ages never really left us, did they?
(This sort of thing used to be called "backfill" in the old days, a way of sneaking peripheral information into a story so the writer would come off as intelligent and socially aware--but we all know where that got us, don't we? Stop whispering among yourselves. Thank you.)
"Hey, Graham," said Randy, walking over and brushing sawdust from his face. "Can you tell me what the hell this order says?"
Graham took the sheet and examined it. A standard re-upholstering order for a sofa, with added specs on shortening the legs and adding another slat for more support. He started to read it back when he noticed that it was in Randy's handwriting. He pointed this out.
"Manoman," said Randy, shaking his head. "Must be this headache. Can't see a thing."
"Neither can Julie. That's why I came in. I'm gonna stay home with her today. Any problems, call me there."
"She feelin' that bad?"
"You know how you feel?"
"Only too aaaugh-phwt-craa ... excuse me. Only too well."
Graham stared at him for a moment, shook away the cold sensation trickling down his neck. "Well, she's worse. Looks like somebody drained her blood."
"Must be something going around." Randy looked again at his handwriting on the order. "Pretty bad when a man can't read his own grrrmp-ungh writing, huh?"
Graham looked over at Glenn, who was standing in front of the table saw massaging his forehead. "How are you feeling?"
"Qwertiuop, ssssqaw," replied Glenn, his eyes never meeting Graham's.
Only then did Graham remember that both Glenn and Randy were members of the Cedar Hill Baptist Church, one of the CHCFCV's strongest supporters.
He started to leave. "Well, uh ... if you guys get to feeling any worse, give me a call and let me know. You can close up and go home."
"Gwrrrp," said Randy, turning away.
Graham stood in the doorway for a few more moments, listening as his two employees grunted and snorted at each other like a couple of Missing Links, oblivious to any language but their own.
He went out to his car and was just sliding the key into the ignition when a voice said, "Good morning, Graham."
He turned to see Jimmy Murphy standing by the door, smiling. Jimmy was thirty-two and had Down's Syndrome. He was employed by the city to do various odd jobs around the downtown business district, a job he'd gotten through the Association for the Advancement for the Developmentally Disabled--unofficially referred to as 'Tards-R-Us. Jimmy's usual form of greeting--and one that Graham had grown accustomed to--was something like Guhd mowring. Graham knew that the AADD offered speech therapy but never thought it could produce such quick results. He still wasn't sure he'd heard correctly.
"Jimmy? Is that you?"
"You were maybe expecting David Hume?"
Oh boy ....
"Are you feeling well, Graham? You look pale."
"Uh ... fine ... fine, Jimmy. How are things over at the group home?"
"As well as one could expect. Several of us have been sick the past few days but we seem to be getting better."
"Oh, really?" said Graham, gripping the steering wheel as if it were a life raft. "Sick how?"
Jimmy smiled and tapped a finger against his temple. "Headaches. Dr. Williamson seems to think it was group anxiety or something nebulous like that. I just laughed at him and quoted something Van Gogh once said: 'Everyone suffers here, be it from pain, loneliness, madness, fever, or despair; we understand one another like members of the same family.'" He shrugged. "Dr. Williamson got very quiet after that. He seems surprised that we're all showing such vast improvement."
Graham clenched his teeth. "Well, now ... isn't that nice? It's great that you're so much b-better." He looked at his watch with what he hoped was nonchalance. "Oh my, look at the time. I've got to get running, Jimmy. Busy day."
Jimmy lifted his broom and trash bag. "Tell me about it. Another day, another seventy-three cents. And I was thinking about opening an IRA." Then, with a tip of his hat, he was off to carpe diem.
Trying not to give in to the panic rising in his gut, Graham drove over to the pharmacy, noticing that every house along the way had at least two untouched newspapers lying on the porch.
The pharmacy was fairly busy for so early on a Monday but it gave the day a much needed sense of normalcy. A woman was standing at the counter while the clerk rang up her items, a police officer was purchasing some chewing gum and candy bars, the pharmacist was on the phone, and various shoppers were cruising the aisles. Graham got the pharmacist's attention, handed him the prescription, then turned his attention to the magazine and book rack. He was flipping through the latest Rolling Stone when a woman came up behind him and said, "Excuse me, but what does that say?"
Thinking he was blocking her view of something on the rack, Graham stepped aside, noticing that the Books On Tape rack was empty.
The woman tapped his arm.
"Pardon?" he said.
"I asked you what this said." She held out a tabloid newspaper--Woman Forced To Perform Oral Sex On Bisexual Alien While Husband Watches-- and shook it at him in anger. "Read it to me."
"I'm just waiting for a prescription."
"What does it say?" shouted the woman, socking him with her chubby fists. "Read it to me! Read it to me!"
Graham stood there and stared at her, confused. The woman stumbled to the side, breathing hard and fast, scattering spit as she snarled and fell against the police offcer.
"What's going on here?" said the officer.
"This woman came up to me and--"
He never finished the sentence. The woman turned and began grunting and snarling in the offcer's face, showering him with saliva, making sub-human noises. The officer looked at her intently, politely nodded his head, and replied with a series of sounds resembling those made by a boar.
Graham started moving away from them but was blocked by two old women who thrust copies of People and Better Homes and Gardens in his face.
"You can shglooovwhmpf read!" said the first.
He tried to push past them but something came down against the side of his head and sent him crashing to the floor. He rolled over and saw the police officer standing over him, gun drawn and pointed at his nose.
"R-r-reeeee ... eeeeed," said the officer.
Several people came down the aisle and gathered around him, each shoving some kind of printed matter in his face.
Graham reached up and snatched the first magazine he could find, opened to a random page, and began reading.
" ... and for a r-really c-c-crispy crust, add an extra spoonful of--" His voice caught in his throat. He swallowed and looked up into the crowd.
They looked like human beings, but their eyes had the sheen of a spoiled cat watching someone open a can of tuna. Their breathing was deep, guttural, wheezing. A few of them were drooling.
He turned to another page and squirmed away from the officer, who looked at him in awe.
"'Now you too can s-s-save t-time with voice mail, available through your local--'"
"Ooooooooooooohhhhhhh-unnnnnnnngh," whispered the crowd.
Graham scooted farther down the aisle as he read and chanced a quick look over his shoulder; he was almost to the door.
"'Laugh along with the Cosby clan, weeknights on Channel 43!'"
The crowd smiled, drooled, moved toward him.
"'Want to lose those extra pounds but d-don't have time to exercise? Then our LAY-Z-FAT program is for you.'"
They began clawing at themselves, shredding their clothes and howling.
"'No time for reading really long novels? Then let Embassy Books on Tape fit literature into your busy schedule.'"
He lost his balance and fell back, nearly dropping the magazine.
Many of them were naked now and convulsing, clawing at themselves.
The door was just a few feet away now.
"'Depends® for bladder control,'" he read from the ad. "'They're not just for old people anymore.'"
The crowd advanced, drooling, baying, grunting, cackling, slobbering. Graham closed his eyes and for a moment imagined himself in a barnyard--then he felt the cool glass of the door pressing against his back.
The officer, on all fours now, raised his gun and fired.
The bullet missed Graham's head but blew out the door glass; a knife-like shard wedged in his shoulder; a steady flow of blood coursed down his shirt.
The crowd went wild, jumping and grunting, flinging their arms loosely into the air like a bunch of gibbons.
Graham reached over and ripped the glass out of his shoulder with a scream, scuttled to his feet, and ran for his car. He leapt inside and locked all the doors just as the group exploded out of the pharmacy in a maelstrom of shattering glass. One naked old lady drenched in blood, vomit and feces threw herself onto the hood with such force that her head cracked the windshield.
Graham threw the car into reverse and flew backwards with tires screaming but the old lady hung on, pounding her fist into the crack until the glass belched and fell into Graham's lap. She rammed her arm through the opening, her clawlike hand raking across Graham's face. He jerked the wheel to the left, fishtailing the car and throwing the old woman off his hood; she shot away and crashed through the window of a nearby liquor store. Just as he was slamming the car into drive, Graham looked over and saw her stand up. A heavy stream of urine shot out from between her legs as she threw back her head and bayed with something like joy, then began jumping up and down, screaming and spluttering gibberish that might have been a song to accompany her filthy, primitive dance.
The others from the pharmacy joined in.
Graham ran three red lights on his way back to the shop. There was a first-aid kit in his office and he was bleeding too much to risk the drive over to Licking County Memorial.
He pulled the car to a choking stop by the front door; the engine whirled, scraped, and rattled. No way in hell he was going to turn it off, not now. He threw open the door, ran into the shop, and stopped just short of a scream when he saw what waited inside.
Randy lay naked and dead on the floor in a pool of filth, a section of drill protruding from his right eye socket. Crouched above on the table saw, Glenn looked down and smacked his lips. Something long and shiny dangled from the corner of his mouth. Graham saw that part of Randy's stomach had been chewed open.
Glenn turned toward him and rose up, a panther ready to pounce. Remembering what had saved his ass at the pharmacy, Graham squatted down and reached into his trash can, pulling out the CHCFCV flyer, and began reading it as he backed toward the door.
"'The m-moral decline of this country is at hand. Every day we are subjected to a perverse parade of violence and sex on television, in rock music, and, worst of all, in the printed matter which is available to our children.'"
Glenn squinted his eyes, cocked his head to the side, and purred.
Graham kept backing up. "'We of the Cedar Hill Citizens For Community Values are urging the people of this city to help us put a stop to the influx of obscene and morally questionable material that has been insinuating itself into our lives and tainting the foundation of the American way of life.'"
Glenn squealed, wiggled his ass, and defecated.
Graham dropped the flyer, spun around, and vaulted for his car. A hideous scream followed him as he slammed shut the door and pulled into the street, hitting sixty-five before he was to the corner. He looked in the rearview mirror and saw Glenn bolt from the shop on all fours and run after him.
He rammed the car up to eighty.
And Glenn wasn't that far behind.
Graham screamed up to eighty-five and heard something under the hood snap; smoke billowed from the front end. He took a deep breath and nearly choked on the fumes. Small tongues of fire licked at the shattered windshield. He looked in the rearview mirror once again and felt his heart try to squirt out through his ribcage.
Glenn was closing fast.
Graham whipped around the corner but Glenn continued running in a straight line, suddenly no longer interested. Hitting the brakes and craning his neck, Graham saw Glenn run into another crowd of naked, writhing, snarling bodies, each scurrying on all fours and fighting over red, wet strands from some dead thing at their feet. Glenn ran over to another squatting man, sniffed his ass, then mounted him in a seizure-like embrace.
Graham turned away and sped toward his home.
There's more to the story ... go on to Part 2
This story was first published in Cemetery Dance in 1994.