Horror & Dark Fantasy

Best American Science Fiction and Fantasy 2017

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Fiction

The Misfit Child Grows Fat on Despair

Fate arrives disguised as choice.

As if you could actually say, Screw this, I’m out of here, or just get down on your knees like everybody else.

But John’s got to shrug and go, “Hmmm.” He knows that even here at the end of the line, holding his pitiful check for $188.92—boss took out forty dollars for the broken dishes even though he was the one who slopped soapy water onto the kitchen floor—watching the teller tremble with the eleven-gauge in her face, standing behind some weight lifter with muscles coming out of his asshole and piss pooling over his shoes, and despite what he knows is going to happen after this, John realizes Mr. Teddy Bear has got to be eaten.

Teddy doesn’t like how slow the terrified twenty-year-old teller is moving and continues shrieking at her, “Move it. Hurry, goddamn you, hurry! I saw that! You put a dye pack in there? Did you?”

Of course, she hasn’t; she can’t even move or speak, hyperventilating like that. She’s too much a daughter of television and can’t do anything much besides keep her arms straight up over her head and pray to Christ in Spanish. The gray stretch marks on her underarms clearly mark how much weight she’s gained and lost after her first couple of kids, but her pouty full lips are especially sexy now, the lower one quivering with the name of Jesus.

Teddy’s rubber bear mask doesn’t fit him all that well. His beard is so thick that the mask won’t rest flush against the steep angles and planes of his contorted face. It lifts an inch or more whenever he speaks, which allows the sweat that’s been puddling in the curves and hollows of the rubber to drip out all at once. Spittle works its way out of the thin mouth slit. Ted tries to wipe his eyes clear, the back of his hand mopping the bulging forehead of the growling bear head.

Teddy’s partner, Mr. Lucifer, might hold things together for another minute or two—if only his easy, muted voice can settle the situation long enough to soothe Teddy and the frantic teller. He’s got to get the other cowering folks in the bank to follow his orders, lay down on their bellies, hit no silent alarms, and just face the walls.

“Ladies and gentleman, hush please.” The devil repeats himself twice more, and a respectful amount of Southern flavor seeps out of his hanging cadence, friendly and mannered like he might be talking to a group at a church social. His red mask has curved horns, a wide smile, and pencil-thin mustache. The voice matches it perfectly.

“Gentleman and sweet ladies, if you’ll let us get on with this, we’ll be gone in no time a’tall. This here is government money we’re taking, not yours. We’re working men, too. Now just lay back and relax, and we’ll all be on with our day before you know it.”

“It’s a dye pack. I saw it!” Teddy shrieks, hitting a high note that rings around the small enclosed room, picking up speed. “There! There it is!”

John is the only bank patron still on his feet, but the smash-and-grab thieves haven’t noticed him standing there yet, as two old women and the weight lifter sob against the floorboards. John is a prime three hundred eighty-four pounds of graceful obesity and dire energy, almost as wide as he is tall (about five seven), dressed entirely in black: well-ironed jeans, a fine button-up, long-sleeve shirt and tie, standing so near the lacquered bank slip table in the center of the place that he appears to be a part of it. He is as immutable and immobile as obsidian.

His arms hang loosely at his sides, his massive hands open for when he has to hug the dead to him.

Teddy Bear isn’t having any of it though, still screaming and finally realizing the teller’s already out of her head, her voice rising and begging the Mother of God to save her. Those heaving, swaying breasts are doing things to Teddy, who prods one tit with the barrel of the shotgun. Without benefit of a bra, it jiggles for a while before finally settling.

Mr. Lucifer is about to say something else, but it’s already too late, all the choices have been made. There’s only one way out now as Teddy pokes the girl’s other breast and she lets loose with a screech. The slobber pumps freely from his mouth slit, as he gives a braying laugh and pulls the trigger.

No one ever gets used to the hypnotic sight of flesh and fluid applied to an area where it shouldn’t be. Everybody in the bank lifts his head and watches as her lower jaw alters into cherry gel rushing across her chest and the cash drawer in one violent splash. The corpse wheels completely around on its toes, revolving one and a half times in a pirouette, before taking a final awkward step and pitching forward.

Most of her teeth are somehow intact, though, and a handful of them do a slow slide across the floor until they stop just outside the growing circle of the weight lifter’s piss. John can’t help himself as her ghost floats past him, still praying as her breasts finish bouncing, adrift and being reeled towards and aurora of seething golden light that hovers and opens just over her body’s left shoulder.

His enormous hand flashes out and he eats her.

The bank manager has seen this sort of thing before, and he enjoys murder. He’s done in one ex-wife already and is getting ready to do in another. He hides his smile well, but not in so dark or carefully guarded a space that John can’t see it.

The weight lifter is sort of thrashing around on the ground, his muscles so taut that it looks as if he might snap in seven places before this is all over. A security guard stands there with his gun in its holster and his hands straight out in front of him, wrists twirling, ass angled to one side like he’s at a disco doing the bump and having a pretty good time. A few people continue to moan and murmur, so far down on the floor that they’re licking it.

The dead teller is already inside John, and he can feel her settling into Gethsemane Hills, her arms still over her head and standing beside Manfred Filkes, the mailman who’d died from an aneurysm walking up John’s driveway six years ago. Filkes is digging the look of the frightened teller, who sways on her feet as she touches down in the middle of Juniper Boulevard. Filkes had been a pedophile, his mail cart full of illegal photos and magazines that would have sent him away for twenty-five years if only his brain hadn’t burst. His madness is palpable and unshifting, the primeval energy of hate and lust rising from him like heat from a brick oven.

Filkes goes after her, even though she’s well out of his preferred age range. He manages to get one of his pale hands on her throat before John can get the thin John, the true John, down among the ghosts to slap the shit out of Filkes all the way across the cypress-lined street. Filkes can’t get rid of his mind full of baby rot even now, and cowers and sobs as he goes ass backwards over a plastic flamingo planted on a well-groomed lawn.

The dead teller, whose name is Juanita Perez, is too shocked to cry anymore, staring through her fingers at the true John, muttering passages out of the Bible, but getting a lot of the words wrong. Almost everybody does. He whispers and tries to comfort her, saying, “It will be all right, Juanita. Be calm. I won’t let anybody hurt you here.”

This place is no different from anywhere else in the world, the John inside himself tries to explain, and he’s right. When Juanita can finally move again, holding a palm to her bruised breast and glancing over at Filkes sitting on the curb, who’s bleeding heavily from his broken nose, she discovers large signs looming above her in the starlight.

This is the town of Gethsemane Hills, population now 1,604, including thin John, who comes and goes, but is always on hand to keep things from spiraling too far out of control. About six square blocks of suburbia, where people occasionally still say hello to you on the street.

There are no hills, but the name is the only one this hometown could have. There is power in names. It is a perpetual twilight of coiling shadows, violet-drenched dusk, and a blood-soaked sun, always with a gleeful moon glowing. Streetlights take the form of the gaslit globes of nineteenth-century London. There is no smog, but there’s a smoggy feel. The yards are flawlessly landscaped, flower beds weeded and fertilized, gardens tilled, rooftops all recently reshingled, the dogs well fed. John takes great pride in the place and does all the work himself.

Indistinct, silent people sit on their stoops and front porches, watching Juanita closely. A few insubstantial shapes rise and begin to make clumsy eager gestures, stopping and starting and abruptly stopping again. These are the ambiguous movements of the uncertain, who see no reason to act but are propelled by memories of action. There is some laughter though, as well as angry men’s giggling, and a few whispered entreaties.

A hand flashes out, silhouetted in the always failing sunlight—the fingers are crooked, the hand little more than a claw, damaged by arthritis, tension, or heaving doubt. Juanita whirls, gazing around at the rows of dimly lit duplicate houses, each of the similar staggering shadows weaving a bit, forward and back. They are waving to her, and then they recede. Doors are closed quietly—locks are thrown, televisions squawk, and children are tapping at upstairs windows, begging to be let out.

Mr. Lucifer scans the bank one more time, finally noticing John standing there in the middle of the room. He shakes his head because he can’t figure out how the hell he’d missed the fat guy in the first place. The devil points his nickel-plated .38 and says, “Excuse me, sir.”

“Be quiet,” John tells him, “or I will eat you.”

“Pardon me?”

“Shh.”

“Hey, now, we’ll have none of that. You might have some trouble doing squat thrusts, but even a fella your size ought to be able to get down on the ground when he’s told.”

Teddy Bear doesn’t look up. He’s intent on getting the other cashiers to empty the banded stacks of cash into his oversized rucksack. Juanita’s corpse propels them on so that everybody is really moving now, shoveling money like crazy. Rolls of change fall and break open, so Ted stomps on rolling coins and picks them up. John sees everything that needs to occur actually happening in about eight seconds. If he had a stopwatch he would click it . . . now. The arching, wavering lines of chance and force of will solidifying into a pattern he can put to use.

He takes a step sideways as thin John, the true John weaves and thinks of ushering the lovely Juanita to bed. His heart is hammering and the flush of ticklish heat is flooding his groin. His breathing begins to speed up and a light sheen of cold sweat forms on his upper lip.

Her house is already picked out at the end of the block: a one-story cottage with a bouquet of freshly plucked forget-me-nots already in a vase on the dining room table. Photos of her kids are framed on the mantel, and their crayon drawings are held in place by magnets and exhibited on the refrigerator door. He’s filled a bookshelf with some of the greatest volumes of poetry and classic literature. He’ll teach her metaphor and symbolism and the definition of subtle underpinning. A single white rose lies across the pillow of her queen-sized bed. The vanity is laden with lace undergarments, stockings, and garter belts. There are condoms in the nightstand drawer, along with several brands of spermicide and tubes of lubrication. He likes the way her rack bobbles.

Juggling some change, Mr. Teddy Bear steps over Juanita’s lower jaw, still expecting to find dye packs everywhere. His eyes are flitting like mad, his eyelashes swiping against the rubber loudly. He spots Lucifer’s .38 and follows where it’s pointing until he spots John calmly standing before them. Somehow the bear mask manages to contort. “Get on your knees!”

“I don’t do that,” John tells him.

A large splash of sweat falls out from the mask and threads through Teddy Bear’s beard. “You don’t . . . ?”

“No. Never. Not for anyone.”

“You grotesque fat piece of shit freak!”

John is lissome and quick without ever showing his speed, even while he’s in motion. It’s funny and impressive to see him bringing it on. He reaches into his gully-deep pocket and draws out his nail clipper, carefully stepping around the weight lifter’s yellow zone of urine. Ted has been holding the shotgun crooked in his arm for so long that as he turns, he wavers and spins two or three inches too far the other way, and John is already reaching.

The devil politely says, “Hey, now . . .”

The timing is impeccable, as if John had seen this happen many times before, perhaps in a recurring dream. Ted has to correct himself and bring the shotgun back again, as if to take John in his tremendous stomach.

The bank manager is hoping for more viscera and mayhem; maybe the loan department supervisor he’s been banging will get it in the head next. In his mind, he runs scenes of bloody ballets, old women being blown upwards onto their tiptoes, hoisted through the air eight or ten feet, and splattering across his desk. He’s getting jittery just thinking about it.

But John has already slid inside Mr. Teddy Bear’s space, too close now for Ted to do anything but growl.

The security guard lets out the squeaky yip of a toy poodle because he understands this is the moment of finality. So does everyone else, even those not looking, breathing dirt in the corners beneath the teller windows.

John grabs the barrel and pushes it aside, carefully aiming it toward Mr. Lucifer. His other hand rises, holding the nail clipper, going up and inside for Teddy’s throat. If Ted hadn’t been so pumped during the robbery, his arteries and major veins wouldn’t now be so thick and pulsing. It would’ve been a lot more difficult for John to lunge in there and clip Teddy’s jugular.

The pain does what it’s expected to do. In his agony and panic, the arterial spray spritzing the bank counter and showering Plexiglas, Ted yanks hard on the trigger and blows off the greater percentage of Mr. Lucifer’s face.

One long line of blood spurts across John’s shirt before he can move Teddy Bear’s head far enough to one side so Ted’s spraying throat only paints the checking account brochures and tray of free pens with the bank’s name on them.

The blackness of his shirt and tie is so complete and wet with sweat that the blood doesn’t stand out at all. This is also how it should be. He opens both his immense hands wide hoping to catch Mr. Lucifer’s soul, but despite the fact that the devil’s got considerably less face than the dead Juanita Perez, Lucifer lives on. Thick colorful fluids bubble up as his esophagus gurgles wildly to clear a path to air.

The bank manager is in such a state of arousal that he nearly passes out from the force of his orgasm. He can’t wait to get home and murder his wife.

John hisses in expectation, hands clenching and unclenching, but Lucifer isn’t about to let go. There’s only one eye left in the sparse wedge of his face, and who knows if it can see anything. But it peers at John, gazing sullenly and all the while still blinking.

Teddy, however, is waning fast. He coughs and tries to lean back away from the counter, but John holds him there against the nice marble tile so that no more of the slackening slurp of blood gets on his clothes. Ted’s heart gives three final hesitant beats before giving out.

The aurora of roiling power opens again, dragging at Mr. Teddy Bear’s soul, but John’s enormous arms snatch the floating Ted out of the air and haul him from the draw of the raging eddy. John can’t help but give a smirk. From that golden light ushers the voice of a wounded man who suffered and offered what he could before the eyes of the world, and now rages with all the condemnation he can, claiming, “You are not the way.”

John laughs as he always does, watching the maelstrom dissipate and diminish, because the voice is his own, but full of contrition and fear.

Mr. Teddy Bear touches down in Gethsemane Hills and doesn’t take off his mask. He stares wide-eyed through the tiny slits and groans, “Oh, oh my, oh my sweet Jesus on the cross, take me home.” His voice, when not incensed by frustration and cocaine, is soft and almost melodious.

Juanita Perez takes a step toward Ted because her murderer is now the only connection she has left to the lost world of the living. The sign above them is covered in a blur of black motion and soon reads POPULATION 1,605. The house across the street has an open front door.

Thin John, the true John says, “You’re home,” and shoves Ted toward the house. First he’s got to pass some guy on the curb with a broken nose. He looks sort of familiar, like Mr. Filkes, the son-of-a-bitch mailman who sodomized Teddy when he was eight. He’s still got teeth-mark scars on his shoulders and thighs.

Inside there’s half a key of coke already laid out in lines on the dining room table. His favorite video, Scarface, is in the VCR, and the television has surround sound, two motherfucking-huge speaks attached, and two others on either end of the couch. Teddy doesn’t know what to do and tries even harder to hide under his mask, going a little more insane.

John eyes Juanita Perez, licking his lips. The nerve endings in his fingertips are igniting. Some of that K-Y jelly is cherry flavored, and her ass has a very nice slope to it. He smiles and takes her wrist, leading her to the new house.

When Juanita begins to struggle, he wraps his bony fingers in her hair and drags her down the block. Her mind not quite numb enough to let her pass out and fade from this awful endless twilight of corrupted colors. She starts to sob and works up to a scream, even while John’s ripping her clothes off, leaving the rags draped across the perfectly trimmed hedges, the blooming azaleas.

Kids are banging on their windows, watching, excited and sick. Juanita’s front door shuts and the whole neighborhood can hear laughter and squealing prayers for hours to come, with the revolting odor of cherries on the wind. They turn up their television sets and air conditioners.

John gains a full two-and-a-half pounds and goes up to the counter, slipping his check into the small deposit slot. Mr. Lucifer is still crawling and gagging on the floor, staring at John with his one eye and trying to back away.

John toes Juanita’s teeth aside. The horrified cashier stares through the Plexiglas at him as he continues to click the nail clippers.

“Cash this,” he tells her.

He is filled to bursting with the juice of despair and wants to buy himself a whore tonight.

Tom Piccirilli

Tom PicirilliTom Piccirilli is the author of more than twenty-five novels including A Choir of Ill Children, The Cold Spot, and The Last Kind Words.  He’s a four-time winner of the Stoker Award, two-time winner of the International Thriller Award, and has been nominated for the World Fantasy Award, and twice for the Edgar Award.  Marilyn Stasio of The New York Times Book Review called The Last Kind Words “A caustic thriller…the characters have strong voices and bristle with funny quirks.” New York Times bestselling thriller writer Lee Child said of Tom’s work, “Perfect crime fiction…a convincing world, a cast of compelling characters, and above all a great story” And Publishers Weekly extols, “Piccirilli’s mastery of the hard-boiled idiom is pitch perfect, particularly in the repartee between his characters, while the picture he paints of the criminal corruption conjoining the innocent and guilty in a small Long Island community is as persuasive as it is seamy. Readers who like a bleak streak in their crime fiction will enjoy this well-wrought novel.”  Keir Graff of Booklist wrote, “There’s more life in Piccirilli’s THE LAST KIND WORDS (and more heartache, action, and deliverance) than any other novel I’ve read in the past couple of years.” And Kirkus states, “Consigning most of the violence to the past allows Piccirilli (The Fever Kill, 2007, etc.) to dial down the gore while imparting a soulful, shivery edge to this tale of an unhappy family that’s assuredly unhappy in its own special way.”