Horror & Dark Fantasy

COSMIC POWERS

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Fiction

The Spook School

It was the twenty-hour flight on which neither Gordon nor Melissa slept a wink, and the strong Greek coffee at the Athena Tavern they both chugged down at Melissa’s request, and the long-seeming walk in the plish across Kelvingrove Park at Gordon’s insistence that took them to the museum. A wayward cinder got into Melissa’s contact lenses, and she was exhausted, and jittery from the caffeine, and excited to finally be meeting her lover’s parents, and it was her first trip to Scotland, and if we’re being entirely honest, Melissa was a bit of a fanciful creature and always hoping for some transcendent experience, so she got one. Really, truly, the sacred rose in Charles Rennie Mackintosh’s famed gesso panel The Wassail did not wink at her as she and Gordon stood before it. She imagined the whole thing in the back of her mind, which made the front of her mind startle, then shut down, and so she swooned, falling to the floor like a pair of empty trousers after the belt was whipped out of its loops.

“I love it here,” Melissa said later. “I do wish people would stop calling the bathroom ‘the toilet’ though. That makes me think of the commode.” Melissa had spent a while bent over the tiny European toilet in the “toilet” of Gordon’s parents after she woke up. “I could live here, otherwise,” she said. She drank the tea Gordon had prepared for her.

“Live here on the couch, being waited on, hand and foot?” Gordon asked. “I’m sure you’re meant to, my faerie queen.” Gordon was like that.

“It just seems . . . quaint.”

Gordon snorted. “Don’t call anything ‘quaint’ in earshot of my mum and dad, honey bee. In the United Kingdom, ‘quaint’ means ‘fucking terrible.’”

“Lovely?” Melissa tried.

“Aye, that’s much better,” Gordon said.

“When I showed Customs my passport, the officer called my pic ‘lovely.’ I didn’t know whether to feel complimented or offended, until they called your passport lovely too.”

“Am I not?” Gordon struck a pose: pursed lips, knuckles under chin, shoulders jauntily angled.

“You are.”

Gordon’s parents burst into the kitchen, bringing rain and wind with them. Gordon stood to greet them and Melissa waved from the living room couch. They were a matched pair, almost spherical in their rain gear, and chattering in thick Glaswegian accents.

“Are you feeling a wee bit better?” Gordon’s father called out to Melissa.

“Mostly, yes. Thank you,” Melissa said. She had come to their home semi-conscious and muttering about roses. Now she tottered into the kitchen and accepted more tea while politely refusing a little something stronger offered by Gordon’s father. “Suit your own self,” he said, then after a swig added, with a wink, “So, got . . . spooked, did ya?”

Mackintosh and his wife Margaret MacDonald, her sister Frances, and Herbert MacNair were called The Four in Scotland, and they were acclaimed for infusing their art with Celtic, Asian, and outright occult imagery. Over in London, where the entire political and cultural apparatus was then as now bent toward the diminishment and marginalization of all things Scots—to hear Gordon talk about it anyway—they were christened The Spook School. That’s what got Melissa so keen to visit Glasgow in the first place. To see the art up close and in person.

“I guess I did, Mr. Paterson,” Melissa said. Gordon reached over and squeezed her shoulder. “But I’ll be back at it tomorrow.”

“Bring a pillow in case you try for another kip,” Mr. Paterson said to Gordon, winking. Everyone chuckled but his wife.

“I never could ken all the fuss about The Four,” Mrs. Paterson said. “We had to study them in school—class trips and such. It all just looked to me like they made some lovely drawings and paintings, and then stretched them all out and bleached half the color away. But you’re Greek, no? Much more interesting art among the Hellenes, I think.”

“Greek-American, yes,” Melissa said. “But . . .” But when you’re raised among cheap plaster miniatures of bone-white statuary; when tin reliefs of the Acropolis feature on every wall; when even your flatulent theias are named Aphrodite and Artemis; when all your relatives smell of the deep fryer and shout at the television news because they personally were the ones who invented democracy, you just get tired, you see, ever so tired of . . . “I guess I’ve always liked Celtic things.” She shot Gordon a smile. Mr. Paterson took the opportunity to wax poetic about his perverse support for Rangers—Gordon rolled his eyes and sharply warned him “Dad!”—and the stupidity of anti-sectarian regulation that made singing songs a criminal offense, though with the caveat that “Billy Boys,” with the line “we’re up to our knees in Fenian blood” (which he sang quite well, in a steady tenor) should likely remain out of bounds. By the time Mr. Paterson had exhausted himself, his wife had finished preparing the traditional Scots meal of reheated take-away curry served on her own plates. Gordon drank Irn-Bru with his, like a child.

If this were a story, after dinner Melissa and Gordon would beg off pudding and report to Gordon’s childhood room—untouched since he went off to America—and try to catch up on sleep. And the excitement of the day, with its embarrassing medical emergency and attendant barking of the Polish nurse to just “Pick yourself up and get on with your holiday!” would combine with the curry and Mr. Paterson’s terpsichorean endeavors to entrap Melissa Poulos in a portentous nightmarish dreamscape of Spook School art come to life, seeking to devour her. And perhaps this was indeed the dream she dreamed, but from Gordon’s point of view all the evening consisted of was her elbow in his nose, her knees jammed up against his chest when he tried to throw an arm around her, some snoring, a mouthful of her curls as she turned away and presented her back and arse for spooning. Then she managed to bark his shin. There was likely more abuse than that, but sleep finally took Gordon as well. Neither remembered their dreams, which is indeed the most common result of the human subconscious attempting to process proximity to genuine occult phenomena. It’s the nightmares you don’t recall even having that get you in the end.

In the morning, Melissa impressed the Patersons with her ability to roll her r’s. She had a light breakfast, in the manner of an American, while the Patersons ate full Scottish, including haggis. Melissa tried a bite and decided that it wasn’t so bad after all. “Haggis has a poor reputation thanks solely to propaganda,” Mr. Paterson explained. “English propaganda, swallowed and then regurgitated by their fellows in America.”

“If you dislike the English so much, Dad, why do you support Rangers?” Gordon asked, his question both petulant and well-rehearsed.

“I never cared for haggis myself,” Mrs. Paterson stage-whispered to Melissa conspiratorially. “It shows from the taste!” Mr. Patterson said. And with that, Gordon and Melissa whisked themselves out of the flat and headed to the city centre and its museums. Glasgow’s venerable yet primitive subway loop served to bring them over to Kelvingrove from Ibrox. Melissa was less keen to walk in the dreach today.

“Are you concerned?” Gordon asked.

“About the rain?”

“No, about the . . . ?” Gordon said. Melissa had told him about the winking Mackintosh rose, and they had silently agreed to tell neither the medic nor the Patersons about it. The end result was that they hadn’t the chance to discuss it privately either.

“I just feel really good about today,” Melissa said. “The Wassail really is beautiful. I need to study it closely. Did you notice that the figures in the center formed the outline of a scarab?”

“You tossed and turned all night.”

“No, that was you,” Melissa said. “I hardly slept a wink. It was like sharing a twin bed with an excitable circus seal.”

“Likewise, I’m sure, madam.”

Melissa said, “I want to see the panel again. There’s a lot of hidden meanings in it. Do you know that wassailing was originally a type of Yuletide home invasion scenario? Madness of crowds and all that.”

“And if the rose winks?”

“We passed any number of roses in that gallery. It’s a motif. I think I saw a billboard with one when we got our tickets.”

“Not the original, though.”

There were many things Melissa could say to that, quoting Benjamin and the age of mechanical reproduction, the fallacy of the notion of the original, and especially how that fallacy related to art nouveau in general, with its emphasis on using modern technique and “craft” over traditional visions of originality and artistic creation, but the argument required significant nuance, and clearly Gordon wasn’t in the mood.

Nor was Melissa. “Why are you ignoring everything I say?”

Gordon huffed as the subway stopped at Kelvingrove. “I know all about it. I’m a Weegie; I know all about getting drunk and rowdy, and I’ve not had a drink in two years, three months, and eighteen days. I’ve been marched through Kelvingrove as often as you were brought to see that big whale hanging in the Natural History Museum back in New York; I’ve heard all the mystical bugger. It’s just that, you know? Bugger and bullshite. Plenty of Americans come to Scotland looking for fairy circles, or highlanders cutting a path through heathery moors with their huge cocks, or their great-grandma’s chamber pot. You fainted, all right? That’s all. And I don’t want you fainting again, you ken? I worry for you, pet.” And with his rant over, they were through the gate and through the turnstile and past the frowning faces of the teachers bringing children on a field trip to the museum and standing before The Wassail again. Melissa was pleased that somewhere in his juvenile belligerence Gordon used the word ken with her, as that sort of thing usually embarrassed him back in the States. Pet too was nice, but not nice enough.

The Mackintosh rose winked at her again. This time, Melissa steadied herself and winked back. The women, elongated limbs as diaphanous as the gowns they wore, shimmered as if a breeze was moving through the plane of gesso. The scarab formed by the outline of their figures seemed to scuttle. Right then, thought Melissa, and she excused herself to go to the ladies’ and told Gordon not to worry; she was feeling rosy, haha, get it?

In the woman’s restroom—Melissa still balked at the word Toilet on the sign—she dug into her purse for the fingernail clipper, as the TSA has seized her full-size nail file back at Newark International. She decided to start with the upper lip frenulum, and with the help of her reflection in the mirror, she clipped right through it. There was a lot of blood, but the other woman using the long row of sinks just stared down at her hands and started scrubbing roughly, refusing eye contact. By the time Melissa had pulled her lip past her nose and up to her prominent eyebrows, the toilet door slammed resoundingly shut.

Her mouth gaping open like the loose hood of an oversized sweatshirt, Melissa popped her skull off her C1 vertebra and placed it in the sink before her. Then she righted her face and reached in to her throat with both hands and with a decisive yank, got the rest of her spine out. That went in the sink as well. It was getting quite messy, both inside and out, but Melissa had withdrawn plenty of Scottish £100 notes in her purse to make it worth the while of the clean-up crew. (Gordon had objected to getting Scottish notes, which many English shops south of the border won’t accept, but Melissa was just the sort of annoying romantic that insists upon them.)

Melissa withdrew her pelvis via what method she couldn’t help but think of as “the hard way”, and the ribs, which had collected in the cavity of the structure, spilled out after and clattered about her ankles. The long bones of her limbs were the hardest to remove—it was a bit like trying to nail one’s own lonely self to a cross—but she managed it, legs first through the anus, and then arms out her mouth. She was looking quite good, Melissa was. A foot taller, easily, and floating several inches above the ground. Her clothes were a bloody puddle of cotton and denim at her feet, and her metacarpals and metatarsals littered the floor like so much windshield glass after a fatal car accident, but Melissa knew that she’d receive a gown just as soon as she joined the festivities. She’d hardly be the only nude in the Kelvingrove Art Gallery and Museum, and surely the field trip of school kids had broken for lunch by now, no?

She sauntered back to The Wassail to the sound of screams and the thumps of matrons and patrons falling faint to the floor, but it was Gordon’s unearthly howl of rage and fear after she caressed his shoulder to say both hello and good-bye that finally caught Melissa up as if in a gale, and sent her flitting into the paint, to join the eternal parade.

Nick Mamatas

Nick Mamatas

Nick Mamatas is the author of several novels, including I Am Providence and the forthcoming Hexen Sabbath. His short fiction has appeared in Best American Mystery Stories, Year’s Best Science Fiction & Fantasy, and many other venues. Nick is also an anthologist; his books include the Bram Stoker Award winner Haunted Legends (co-edited with Ellen Datlow), the Locus Award nominees The Future is Japanese and Hanzai Japan (both co-edited with Masumi Washington), and the forthcoming Mixed Up (co-edited with Molly Tanzer).