JP Behrens vs. David Pearce
A loud crack shattered the innocence of the day. Pale yellow slime leaked out. The smell burned the children’s noses. Ben dropped the egg with a small shriek. He glanced around to see if Adam, his best friend, noticed the girlish scream. Thankfully, Adam was just as terrified, backing away as the opening grew little by little. Two white talons emerged from the crack and pushed the shell open further before disappearing back inside.
Ben recovered from the initial shock and inched closer to look inside.
"No, Ben. Don't!" begged Cynthia, Adam’s little sister.
Ben waved away her concern.
He leaned in close enough to see inside the crack, but his eyes couldn't pierce the darkness. The claws appeared, tearing away more of the shell. A gray, green snout peeked out from the widening hole. Yellow slime spurted from the nostrils with a wet snort. Ben inched closer, curiosity overpowering his mounting fear. He refused to miss anything. The claws and snout retracted into the egg. The world paused.
As if someone hit fast forward, the shell exploded. Ben covered his face, screaming in shock as slime and shell forced him to the ground. Wild with panic, Adam and Cynthia clung to each other, dashing across the street to hide behind a nearby crumbling wall.
Ben lay frozen with fear. A large, seething reptilian creature stood on his chest. A clicking echoed deep within the beast. Two beady, black eyes stared into him. Dark drool dripped off the creature's sharp, skeletal frame. Needle-like teeth glinted under the warm sunlight. The creature leaned forward, its mouth hissing open. The whip-like tongue flashed out at Ben and flickered over his face, searching, tasting. Ben shuddered as cold terror froze his ability to think or breathe.
The creature's eyes shot up. A hungry growl clicked in its throat. Cynthia's hushed words caught the creature's attention.
Without thinking, Ben pulled the creature closer. His tone becoming stern and commanding as he said, "No, look at me. Don't you dare go after them." He was stunned by his sudden burst of bravery.
It regarded Ben, settled down on his chest, and whined. It nuzzled into Ben's chest, struggling to cuddle. Ben reached around the creature and, unsure if he should, hugged it closer.
"It's ok. Don't be upset."
The creature sprang up and screeched. It bounced around and whipped its tail like an over-excited puppy. Ben just hoped that it wouldn't try to scramble over his legs and chest with those razor-sharp talons.
Curiosity pulled the siblings from their hiding spot. They inched closer, pulled forward by youthful curiosity. When the creature noticed them, it growled low and threatening. Large spikes sprang up along its spine. Ben placed a hand on the creature's boney shoulder.
"No, these are my friends. They're ok."
The spikes retracted, but the creature kept a wary eye on the children as it found a comfortable place on Ben's lap.
"Ben, you can't keep it."
Ben scowled at Cynthia. "Why not? I found it."
"It'll think you're its parent. You have to get rid of it."
Wary, but enraptured by the new creature, Adam sidled up beside Cynthia. "I think it's too late for that, Cyn.”
The creature chortled in Ben's lap.
Adam touched the creature's head with only his fingertips. "If you're going to keep it, you'll need to name it, Ben."
"He's not keeping it," said Cynthia.
"Pet. I'll call it Pet."
"Ben!" Cynthia looked horrified by the decision to keep Pet. “You can't keep it. It could be dangerous."
"Its name is Pet, and if he was dangerous, Pet would have attacked by now. We're fine."
“How do you know it’s a boy?” asked Adam as he tilted his head to get a better look under the creature.
"You just called Pet a 'he'."
“Because there is no way a girl could be this cool.”
“Hey—! “started Cynthia.
"Quiet, Cyn,” said Adam.
Cynthia looked at her brother, tears welling up in her eyes. She remained quiet, but they could tell she wasn't happy. Ben shrugged it off. His father always said, “If you want to be number one. If you want to be an alpha. Be strong. Be a man.”
Ben ran his hand down Pet’s head and back, soothing the creature. The leathery skin was slick where the remnants of slime sloughed off. Along the spine, small ridges marked where the spikes appeared. As it fidgeted in Ben's lap, it’s talons poked and cut at his legs. Before his pants and legs became bloody rags, he maneuvered Pet to the ground. Once on his feet, Ben looked around, concentrating on the next activity of the day. With their new companion, the possibilities were endless.
"What now?" asked Adam. The question gave voice to Ben's thoughts.
"The park, maybe. I'm sure Pet would love all the equipment," suggested Ben.
"Too many people. We have no idea how they or Pet would react," said Adam.
Ben nodded. “There is that one field on the edge of town. It should be empty still.”
Adam thought it over. “It could work. No harm in checking it out.”
They took back trails, cut through the woods when possible, or rushed through open expanses whenever their circuitous path forced no other option. Even Cynthia offered suggestions to keep their new companion a secret from prying eyes despite her vocal misgivings.
The immense field offered the protection of isolation. Pet used the open space to run, jump, and chase the children around. Even as Cynthia squealed as if terrified of Pet, she continued to play and chase it in turn. Pet yipped in glee with its screeching voice. The children filled the humid air with laughter. The boys screamed and waved sticks through the dry brush. Bugs and dust flew through the air in every direction. Grasshoppers managed to take flight in an attempt to escape, but the boys chased them doggedly, Pet snapping and biting the slower ones, gobbling them whole.
A few minutes after noon, a cooling breeze broke the heat of the day and took the boys’ madness with it. In the middle of a chase, Pet skidded to a stop. Ben's laughter stilled.
Pet sniffed the air and its eyes narrowed. A growl exploded from Pet as it dashed toward the high grass framing the field.
"No! Pet, come back! What are you doing?"
Ben ran after Pet, stopping at the edge of a dried-up cornfield. He could see the stalks rustle, highlighting Pet's path.
"What is he doing in there?" Adam ran up and stood next to Ben. They both scanned the dried-out cornfield for any sign of Pet. Cynthia stood only a few feet back, a look of grave concern darkened her face.
"No idea,” replied Ben.
About twenty feet into the field, a tortured screech broke from the curtain of yellow-gold husks. The stalks thrashed the air in a chaotic frenzy. Within seconds, silence fell, and the corn settled back into a relaxed sway under the guidance of the cool summer breeze. Ben looked at Adam, worried about what might lay hidden by the weeds.
The sounds of ravenous crunching and slurping floated out of the weeds along with the smell of wet fur and raw meat. Ben wrinkled his nose but forced his way into the field.
"Don't, Ben. It may not be safe."
"I have to see, Adam. Pet could be hurt."
"It's not Pet I'm worried about."
Ben nodded. He understood and feared the same.
As he waded into the waist high, brittle stalks of grain, Adam’s eyes followed his progress, waiting for the darkness to swallow him whole, never to be seen again. Ben took slow, steady breaths and trudged carefully through the weeds to the place disturbed by Pet. As Ben closed in on it’s hideaway, the hard, dry earth softened. The soft soil turned muddy. Sticky red liquid dripped from the stalks. Ben swallowed, trying to dislodge the dry spot in the back of his throat. He took a loud, squelching step forward.
A ravaged clearing of broken, dried-out corn stalks opened up before him. Pet sat at the center, covered in blood and fur. Its long, thin tongue flicked out, lapping at the carnage. Ben attempted to choke back the vomit burning up his throat but was unsuccessful. He turned away, barely able to keep the sick from splashing back onto his pants. After a few final dry heaves, he wiped his mouth and stumbled back along the path he’d made in the weeds. Pet followed, writhing around, cleaning his body off on a bundle of dry brush growing amidst the long-forgotten crops. Watching Pet twist and turn, yapping happily, rolling around, Ben forgot all the horror and smiled. Pet wasn't a dog. It was something more. Something better.
The two of them emerged from the overgrowth, confronted the worried stares.
"Are you ok, Ben?" asked Adam.
"Yeah. He just went after a rabbit to eat it. Seems our Pet is a meat eater."
Cynthia groaned. The green pallor of her face reminded Ben of his own reaction on encountering the clearing. His stomach lurched at the thought, but he managed to stand strong. The last thing he would do was act like a little girl. He would be strong, like his father.
They left the field, the rest of the day consisted of running, whooping, and playing in the sun. As the day progressed, Cynthia never seemed to recover from the incident with the rabbit. The group stayed to the back paths and empty streets, always sure to keep Pet out of view. Only once or twice did it run off in pursuit of a squirrel or rodent. Pet always returned, no evidence of whether it caught prey or not. In those tense moments, Cynthia became ever more distant.
As the day wore on, they found themselves near a small cottage enclosed by a worn white picket fence, the home of Old Lady Winters. Cracked and chipping paint blanketed the ground like dandruff. Bright, colorful flowers and honeysuckle vines wrapped around the house and walkways. Ben glowered at the home, remembering that Mrs. Winters and her gossip had gotten him in trouble in the past.
"We need to go. If she sees Pet, everyone will know about him."
The others agreed. Just as they started to leave, Mrs. Winters turned the corner, groceries curled in one arm, a leash gripped in the other. Darling, her yapping poodle, pulled the bright pink strap taut, attempting to physically accost anyone within sight.
"What are you kids doing near my house? I'll not put up with any mischief. Is that you, Ben Thompson? I know you kids are up to something."
Winters' dog scampered forward, pulling the elderly woman in her squawking wake.
Pet issued a low growl from behind the children. Ben patted Pet's head, hoping to keep him calm until the old woman left.
"We were just passing by, Mrs. Winters. We'll leave."
"Not so fast. I want to know what you kids are up to. I see you all skulking about town.” One shaking, boney finger pointed at each child in turn, accusing them all of underage villainy.
"We're not up to anything," replied Ben. Pet growled louder behind the wooden slats of the fence.
“You have a dog with you? Probably some mangy beast you found. Best keep it away from my sweet Darling."
The poodle struggled against the leash, desperate to attack or harangue the newcomers. Ben stepped back, trying to calm Pet down before he decided to attack Darling in response. Adam tried to block Pet in, desperate to keep him hidden and contained.
"I'm going to tell your parents what you're up to." A twisted smile curled her features with evil delight.
“Why are you always butting your nose in everyone else's business, you old vulture. Leave us alone!“ yelled Ben.
Pet growled louder.
"Don't speak to me like that! Don't you have any respect?"
Darling scuttled at the ground, fighting to get free.
"Just shut up and go inside."
Pet tensed. The spikes along the ridge of its spine rose.
Mrs. Winters' grip on the leash failed.
"I said go inside!"
Darling broke free of Mrs. Winters' grasp. The deranged poodle dove around the corner. Pet broke free from Ben. Claws slashed and blood streaked through the air. Darling yelped in pain and ran for the house. Pet wouldn't let the attack end there. It pounced after the poodle, snarling, eager for the chase. Both disappeared through the small flapping access at the bottom of the door.
"My Darling! What has that monster done to my Darling?"
Mrs. Winters dropped her groceries on the sidewalk, hobbling after the two animals as quickly as her aged body allowed.
"Don't follow, Mrs. Winters. It's dangerous," cried Cynthia.
Ben started following after. "Seriously, Mrs. Winters, don't get involved, it’s too late.“
"Oh, my sweet Darling," repeated Mrs. Winters, over and over. She ignored the warnings of the children. Loud crashes boomed within the home. Mrs. Winters threw the door open and dissolved into the shadows. More crashes exploded from the home. A shriek cut through the clamor. Everything went silent.
The children didn't dare breathe.
Adam and Ben exchanged worried glances. Cynthia curled up on the ground as a defense against the gruesome reality. Ben took a step toward the open door.
"Don't," started Adam, his hand resting on Ben's shoulder. "Maybe we should just go."
"I won't abandon Pet."
Ben approached the silent home, trying to peer through the shadows swarming the entry. Before he could enter, however, Pet trotted out. Its tail wagged in a blur. A golden glint flashed in Pet's jaw.
"What do you have there?"
Pet leaned in and turned to the side. Tucked between gleaming fangs, cramped against a tuft of blood-matted fur, Ben found the gold object, Mrs. Winter's ring still wrapped around her withered, knobby finger. Ben grasped for the finger. A stubborn Pet refused to relinquish its meaty prize. Ben caught the ring with his fingernails and slipped it off. Pet swallowed the finger whole. The ring was green and flaking from years of neglect. Ben slipped the ring into his pocket, a trophy, and steered Pet away from the house. Pet wasn't covered in blood and gore like after the incident with the rabbit. Maybe Pet didn’t make as much of a mess. Who knows, the old lady and her yappy dog could be curled up, hiding in a closet deeper in the house.
What did it matter? They were threatening him and Pet. If Mrs. Winters managed to see Pet and tell everyone... God only knows what would happen. Ben approached his silent friends. Both of them crouched behind the dingy, white picket fence, Adam hugging and shushing Cynthia. She stared into nothingness, curled up in Adam’s arm, rocking back and forth, mumbling under her breath. Ben sneered at both his friends for their public displays of fear. No one should ever see you afraid or weak. That kind of behavior labeled you a victim. With Pet at his side, Ben would never be a victim.
“Well?" Adam asked.
"Nothing. Pet just scared them. They're shivering in a closet somewhere in the house. We should get out of here before she comes out."
Again, the children took back paths through the woods, out of sight of anyone who might see Pet. Each considering what happened at Mrs. Winters' house.
"So, what do we do?" asked Adam.
Ben answered, "Pet can crash in your shed for the night.”
“What?” gasped Cynthia.
“Why my shed?”
“I don’t have one, or any other place to hid Pet right now. I need time.”
Cynthia cried, "Please, Adam, don't. Pet scares me."
"It'll just be in the shed, Sis. Don't worry."
Cynthia refused to go home, instead taking a detour to a friend's house to spend the night. Adam told her to calm down, but she wouldn't hear it. She ran off and never looked back. Ben mocked Cynthia for her childish fears as she raced away into the purple-orange glow of dusk. When both the boys arrived at Adam's house, the last rays of the setting sun cast a blood red glow over the world.
"We need to be quick. I can't be late getting home again," said Ben.
They salvaged some beat up outdoor chair cushions found amongst the detritus scattered in the shed and arranged a makeshift nest on the floor for Pet. It tested out the new bed, dancing over the lumps, fidgeting its body into the pillows until they were just right. Ben and Adam exited the shed without a word. They exchanged worried looks, but there was nothing to do about the situation until tomorrow. Whatever suspicions Ben harbored about the danger Pet might pose, he wouldn't give up on the creature. Ben ran home praying he would make it through the door on time.
When Ben arrived at his house, most of the downstairs lights were on. Ben double checked the house number. The lights in the house illuminated his yard, giving small insects hiding in the grass something to leap towards. He stared at the ballet of tiny creatures exploring the area under the unusual yellow-white phosphorescence. At most, a soft electric blue glow shimmered within an ocean of electric starlight, a blotch of darkness marking his home in the night.
Ben turned the handle lightly, as always, trying to make as little noise as possible when slipping into the house. He immediately noticed the television was off and a symphony of aromas wafted down the hall from the kitchen. Residual fears vanished as Ben's youthful curiosity pulled him down the hallway.
His mother scrubbed the kitchen counter while humming an unfamiliar tune. On the small table used for eating quick meals sat a platter piled with steaming slices of meatloaf. In two smaller serving dishes sat macaroni and cheese and fresh steamed broccoli. Ben's favorite meal.
"Perfect timing, Ben. Dinner is finished. You hungry?"
"Yeah. Where's Dad?"
"Oh, he got held up at work. He won't get home until later. Sit down, let's eat."
Over dinner, Ben and his mother talked freely about their day. At times, they even laughed. Ben couldn't remember the last time they sat down as a family in the kitchen, laughing over dinner. After filling their stomachs, they put together a large helping of food for Ben's father, cleaned the dishes, and went to enjoy the quiet evening. The two talked together for a long while until a flash of light in the driveway signaled his father’s arrival.
"It's late, Ben. You should get up to bed."
Without hesitation, Ben dashed up the steps and entered his room before his father opened the front door. He heard heavy footfalls on the ground floor approach the kitchen. Already, the scraping and clacking of plates being arranged at the kitchen table filled the void his father's presence brought to the house. As the footsteps entered the kitchen, Ben's mother tried to sound pleasant.
"Your dinner is warming back up. How was work?"
"Christ, can't you do anything right? Work was work. How about you do your job and get my damn food on the table."
"Just a minute."
Something cracked against the window. Ben held his breath until another tap came. He peered into the night to see a small figure crouched in his backyard, hiding in the shadows.
Ben eased the window open, desperate to make as little sound as possible. Ben didn't dare whisper down into the night, fearful that his father might overhear.
The silhouetted figure crept forward. Adam emerged from the shadows long enough to motion for Ben to come down. Ben listened for the TV, but no hum of random shows buzzed through the hallways. He needed a way to get out of the house without being caught.
The drainpipe running down past his window was solid enough to shimmy down. Once on the ground, Ben crouched low and scurried across his side yard.
"Man, am I glad to see you."
"Yeah. Listen, you need to come and get Pet."
"What? Is he ok?”
"He was when I came to get you, but that may not last."
"What's going on?"
"Come on. I'll tell you on the way."
The two boys took off into the nearby bushes and cut through a number of backyards.
"When I walked through the door without Cynthia, I got yelled at. My parents were angry that she left to go to her friend's without asking and mad at me for letting her. I couldn't tell them why I did, so I just took the yelling."
Ben smiled at his friend.
"Anyway, Mom left to go get Cynthia and bring her home. After about an hour, she didn't come back. Dad called ahead, but Cynthia hadn't seen her. Dad and I went to get Cynthia, hoping we'd find Mom. We didn't. After Dad talked to Cynthia's friend's mom, they decided she should stay the night while we came back home to wait."
"Ok, so how does this put Pet in danger?"
"While I was upstairs, I heard Dad calling the police. If they come and search the shed, they'll find Pet. You need to get him out of there."
Ben took a deep breath. He couldn't let the police find Pet. They might hurt it. Adam was right. Pet needed to go somewhere else.
Back at Adam’s house, his father stood on the front lawn talking with two police officers. Ben had never seen a grown man look so worried. He felt as if he should understand, maybe even envy, Adam's life a little bit because of it.
"Listen, you go and distract your dad while I sneak back to the shed and grab Pet,” said Ben.
"I can't. He doesn't know I left."
Ben shrugged. "Just tell him you went back out to look for your mom."
Adam thought about it. "I guess that'll work."
Adam rushed out into the light while Ben slipped through the bushes. Ben heard Adam's father's shock at the sight of his son emerging from the night. Ben listened as words of reprimand and unconditional love spilled out. Ben wondered if his father would react the same way. He reached the shed with little trouble and opened the doors, hoping the rusted hinges didn't squeak. The inside of the shed was a black hole. No light penetrated or escaped. The smell of dried grass and dirt, tinged with a strange undercurrent of iron or copper, wafted out. Brushing it off as an oddity to consider later, Ben stepped into the darkness.
"Pet," he whispered.
Something heavy lay in Ben's path. He nudged it with his foot. It wobbled along the floor. Ben used his hands like antennae and found the mysterious object. He snapped his hand back, now sticky with a viscous slime. In the darkness, he heard his heart thundering.
A familiar clicking sound approached from the right. A thin tongue flickered over Ben's wet hand eagerly.
"Finally! We need to get out of here, buddy. Come on."
Pet whined at first. Ben thought it tried to drag something out of the shed with them. Ben reached out to find a medium sized, oblong ball covered in slime, ragged patches of fine thread, and hard rock-like protrusions. Pushing it away, Ben found Pet and pulled the reluctant creature toward the door.
"We can't take that, Pet. We need to run. It's too dangerous here."
Pet huffed understanding. They left the shed, closed the door, and made their way through the night back to Ben's home. Once they were far enough away, Ben tried to clean away the sticky substance drying on his hand. Under the light of the moon, he attempted to examine the black liquid. It appeared oily, so Ben assumed his hand grazed an old tool or car part, forgotten in the shed, covered in grease and motor oil. Crouching down, he rubbed his hands over the grass, wiping most of it away, and finished the job using his pants. Once Ben scraped most of the slime away, he motioned for Pet to follow. It only took a few minutes for the two of them to reach Ben's house.
Ben didn't want to risk being heard or seen on the street, so they snuck into the backyard through a small hole in the fence. The hole sat hidden behind a curtain of vines and honeysuckle, so only Ben and a few of his friends knew about it. Just a few feet to the left, a large, unused fire pit sloped into the ground.
"Get in the pit, Pet. I'll tuck you in and tomorrow we'll find something more permanent."
Pet only grunted in reply and trotted down into the pit. A large tarp hung limp from an old motorcycle his father always talked about restoring. Ben dragged the heavy tarp across the yard and covered the pit, careful to leave Pet the ability to move and breathe while protecting it from the elements.
As Ben headed for the kitchen door, he prayed that his father would be occupied with the television. Before Ben could see inside, a deep, angry voice exploded from the house.
"What do you mean the mail never came? What did you do with my paycheck, bitch?" A loud smack reverberated from the kitchen.
Ben inched forward. Unwilling to witness the scene unfolding before him, yet unable to resist, he peered through the filthy screen door leading into the kitchen.
"Jesus, Samuel, I swear it didn't come today. I don't know why. Maybe it's late." His mother choked back tears as she struggled to get away.
Ben noticed the glazed look in his father's eyes. The same fiery glaze Pet got just before running off to hunt.
His father turned away in disgust only to level his destructive gaze on Ben.
"You little brat, what do you think you're doing?" His father barreled through the door and grabbed Ben by the hair before he could respond. Pain ripped through Ben's head as the world spun until everything turned black.
"Answer me!" his father screamed.
A choked scream broke free from Ben. The sharp pain in his head made it hard for any intelligent thought.
"Stop it!" screamed his mother.
His father swung backward and knocked her to the floor. Ben could see a red blotch on his father's fist through the tears. The words "Answer me!" echoed over and over, louder and louder in the cramped, food and blood-spattered kitchen until the tarp caught his father’s attention.
"What the hell did you do this time, you little accident?"
"Nothing." Ben was only able to think in single word sentences.
He threw Ben back outside through the screen door. The menacing stare never wavered as Ben staggered through the night towards the tarp.
Ben drew the tarp back and Pet shot out from beneath. Ben screamed for it to come back, but Pet already raced through the door and into the kitchen.
Ben chased after, hoping his father wouldn't get angrier and hurt Pet.
Ben entered the kitchen out of breath. Pet growled at his father. Drool dripped onto the floor. Pet's tongue flicked out as it scanned his father.
"What the...?" was all Ben's father could muster as the horrifying beast slathered and clicked. Pet's eyes flared as it leaned back, ready to pounce.
“Dad, you’ll love him, I promise! He’s an alpha like us.”
His father blinked at Ben. A dumbfounded expression slackened his rage-twisted features. A gurgled scream was the last sound Dad made as Pet latched onto his throat.
As Pet and his father thrashed across the kitchen floor, his mom watched wide-eyed, curled in the corner, unable to speak or look away.
Ben smiled. Maybe everything would work out. After all, what could go wrong in a house with three alpha males.
His friends called him Viddy, but his mum called him David. His father had been David, but at the time of HIS death, Viddy had not yet been given a name. His mum needed to call him something she could remember, so David it was, and the doctor, Dr Palinurus, could finally send in the birth certificate. And David became Viddy, and everyone was happy.
Viddy was not an only child, although his brother made him feel like one. Mum and Big Bro against Viddy – a game of ice and fire. But Viddy played the game only to keep his mum's fire alive, her flame of being. Without him, she'd be dead. Big Bro never mattered, except to stoke the fire and stir up the ashes once in a while.
The doctor who had signed Viddy's birth certificate was the one who seemed to care most for him. He kept watch over the boy, making sure he kept to his diet (for Viddy was overweight) and giving him medicines to keep him under control (for Viddy was prone to quite exhilarating mood swings). For Viddy, and for those of us loving Viddy, life was a wild carnival ride.
Yeah, we all loved Viddy, and we love him today, for he is still alive, you see. In all of us. Dr Palinurus is our friend. But we have to keep Viddy's secret from him – from Viddy, I mean. The only ones allowed to tell him would be his girlfriend, Dido, and his best mate, Jules. They're good – they're great! – at keeping secrets. We all know Viddy, how he's trapped in the netherworld, the world between existing and living. The world between worlds.
So, here's how it happened.
Viddy was a regular at the skateboard park, where he would sit for hours just watching the others. He thought himself too heavy and ungainly to want to show off. He skated and BMXed a bit, but mostly alone, or with his friend Jules. Then one day he saw Dido. He had heard someone call out the name "Dido!" and he assumed it was a boy's name, because he thought at first the one answering to the call was a boy. She was thin and very agile, her clothes fitting loosely over her bony frame. Her hair was short, and she acted brave and confident. Viddy thought Dido looked cute, but he wasn't into boys, so he had paid her little mind. Until that day they got into a lift together.
"Hey! You're Viddy. Someone told me your name. Mine's Dido. Like the Queen of Carthage, you know."
He heard her voice, soft and musical, not rough or boyish, and Viddy saw that she was a girl. Anyway, named after a queen, she'd have to be.
"Your Majesty, I am indeed honoured." He gave an exaggerated bow, and she smiled long enough for him to notice it as he raised his head again. So he smiled. And then she showed him a bruise on her arm she had got from falling the day before.
"You're so skinny – I mean, in a good way. I'm so fat."
"No, you're not. You're what my gran used to call full-figured."
"Sounds like some rich bastard's bank account. Dido."
"Nah, I was just saying it. Names can be strange, like a label in a shop or a museum."
"You always so deep, Viddy? You have a deep, philosophical mind, I think."
"Is that to Your Majesty's liking?"
"Where are we going?"
"In a deep, philosophical sense?"
"Ha ha! That's funny. No, I mean now."
"I gotta get home. Check on my mum."
"Where do you live, Viddy?"
"Claragraben. And you?"
"Near Horburgpark. Good place to hang out. You know it?"
"Yeah. Went to a party in an old factory around there once."
"Yeah? Whose party?"
"I don't remember. Some older dude with drugs and shit."
"Hmm. You're not the type to do drugs."
"Oh no? My doctor's got me on all kinds of drugs. My mum, too. I take care of her, you see. At least I think I do. Or she thinks I do. I gotta go. We'll see each other around, OK?"
"Sure. Take care of your mum – and yourself, Viddy."
Viddy's world was expanding like a giant soap bubble or a crystal-clear balloon, filled with emotions he had never felt before. He saw it that way, too – clear. Nothing in his life clouded his vision – no fog, no smoke, no blurred squinting. The voice inside Viddy told him, 'This is called growing up. Adolescence. Puberty.' Viddy had always heard that adolescence was a time of turmoil, of confusion. But what Viddy was experiencing was clarity, even a sense of understanding, once in a while.
Dr Palinurus had put him on new trial medication a few months earlier, and the long-term effects seemed to be beginning to show. At his last appointment, Viddy had explained to the doctor how he felt different now.
"I seem to be growing outside myself. I mean, I feel like a – not a sponge – a mirror, reflecting other people. A sponge would soak them up. A mirror gives back what it gets."
"That's very deep, very profound. How old are you? Fourteen?"
"Yeah. That age when it all starts happening."
"In our society, yes. In some cultures you'd already be considered a man."
"Am I special, doctor? I mean, I feel normal, except that other kids my age are all suffering somehow. I look at them and I feel bad for them – not sorry for them, but I feel like I want to help them."
"And when they look at you?"
"I don't know. Everyone likes to talk to me, to tell me things personal."
"So – are you special? You're certainly precocious. You're smart. Clever. But so are lots of people, so that's not special, no."
"Is it the meds I'm taking? They're working? My moods seem pretty much settled down now."
"I mean, I still get rages and depression like before, but they don't take over like they used to. I can deal with them better."
"You can understand them. Like that booklet I gave you earlier explaining about chemistry in the body."
"Yeah! It made some sense even then, and now, I think I see what's happening. I think that's why I'm losing weight, too. It's like watching the meds work, seeing what's going on in my body."
"Viddy – are you taking other drugs? Street drugs? This is important, so tell me the truth."
"Yeah, sure. I take speed or shrooms once in a while, smoke weed, but not smash or spice, no. And you mean like drinking? Yeah, I like vodka. Mum drinks it sometimes, too."
"Do you ever take any of her medications?"
"I tried a few, but she needs them. I have my own. Besides, hers are more for her fits, her seizures. She doesn't like when I call them fits."
"Be careful with those. Does she take them herself, or do you give them to her?"
"Mostly I put them out for her in that tray you gave her with the compartments, and she takes them from that timetable on there. You gonna be seeing her soon, doctor?"
"Yes, of course. Her usual appointment. Next week, I think it is. You know, she was well over forty when she had you. You were a dangerous birth, but — "
"You mean she could have died?"
"But – it was thanks to you being a risk that we caught her epilepsy in time and could start managing it."
"So, I sort of saved her life."
"Very much so, yes. You see, life is strange. Full of — "
"Full of connections, like the brain. Things join up, doctor."
"How's school going?"
"It's boring. All the other kids do is goof off. I think the teachers like me. But it feels like pity sometimes. I'll try to finish Sekundarschule, but — "
"Sekundarschule? You must go on to Gymnasium! No question about it. What do you want to be?"
"Don't ask things like that just yet. I really don't know. You – you'd want me to become a doctor, probably. Even study with you and take over your practice, right?"
"You never thought about becoming a doctor?"
"No. Sorry. Just sounds too ambitious for someone like me."
Dr Palinurus shook his head sadly, wishing he could get Viddy to turn the mirror he had mentioned back on himself. Maybe then, the boy would see his strange gift of empathy and brilliance at connecting to people. Viddy had said that he could see the drugs working in his body. The image of a transparent medical model came to the doctor's mind. Was the boy just very imaginative or very good at describing what he was thinking? Or was Viddy being lost to the drugs themselves, becoming a pharmaceutical being? A chemical formula, a structure, a compound of benzenoid rings and mACh receptors? Was Viddy becoming addicted to himself?
* * * *
We, Viddy's old friends, had been seeing less of him over the next year or so, as he spent more time with Dido. We didn't mind, since she was a good sort, and she was good for him. Then she mentioned that she felt she was losing him, as well. Losing him? To what? – we all wondered. Yeah, the drugs, OK, but this was somehow even scarier, almost like we were losing our sense of him the way you'd lose your sense of smell or taste. He was fading away. Into a memory.
Outwardly, day to day, Viddy seemed normal, all there, but only when he WAS there. After he'd leave for home, to his mum, what lingered was a memory. We all seemed to notice it. I forget who mentioned it first, maybe it was Jules – Ju. We'd talk about Viddy as if he were gone away, maybe never to return. Of course, that's the risk we all take when we say, "See you later".
We live in hope, we leave in hope. Viddy made us realise how fragile we all were. Some of us really were at the point of breaking, from the inside mostly, but others were physically falling apart. Especially the ones we called 'Mountaineers' – those abusing K2. You get it? K2 is a mountain in the Himalayas. Then there were the Spice Boys – the gay ones.
Viddy was a sort of honorary member of each group. The only thing he really liked using was plain old weed. And he never tried smash or crystal meth, or maybe only once. His philosophy was to try something, but if you don't like it, leave it alone. Simple. He was generous in his philosophy. It seemed like he was always helping people, but in a sneaky sort of way, without them realising it. What's the expression? Helping people help themselves.
One day, a year or so later, Ju and Dido came up to me in the park with serious looks on their faces. We had spoken before about serious matters, so I knew what to expect. When my friends want to find me, I'm usually in the park by the Münster or at Pfalz watching the river. My flat and studio are nearby on Rittergasse. My name is Peter, by the way. I'm a studio musician, 27 years old, and I was the 'older dude' who organised the party that Viddy had told Dido about. He didn't remember me because I had stayed away from him. In the meantime, though, he and I had got close.
"Peter? Dido and I are sure that Viddy's sick with something."
"Yeah, he's losing weight and always seems so fragile, like he'd break if he fell down."
"Have you noticed his voice, either of you? When I first met him, his voice was hoarse and rough. He couldn't sing for shit. Now, it's at the point where I want to write a song for him to record. To capture the beauty of it."
"Yeah? Well, you're the pro. Of course, your stuff's way too classical for us. But maybe you should see what he says."
"The doctor told Ju last week that Viddy was stronger than before, but that we should watch for signs of too much change in him too fast. He might be getting stronger, but still too tense. Like a stretched rope. Does that make sense? Or a guitar string."
"You know, a guitar string is a good comparison. It has amazing strength – in one direction. But weaken it just the tiniest bit crosswise, and it'll snap in no time."
"Or like a chipped glass that doesn't ring anymore when you tap it. It clunks."
"So, what's Viddy doing? Do you think he's losing control? Or gaining control?"
"Himself, his life. His friends?"
"I think I'd let him take control over me. I trust him that way."
"Yes, Ju. You're in a special relationship with him. And you, as well, Dido. But Ju, I'd say there's almost a twinship about you and Viddy."
"We have the same birthday, did you know that? And the same middle name."
"Wow, Ju! I didn't know that. I've known you both for, what, five years now. And Peter, you, too. It's a strange world."
* * * *
When I saw Viddy again later that month, he and Dido had broken up (for the third or fourth time), so he and Ju hung out together most of their free time. They came to the studio with some lyrics and a basic melody they wanted me to hear. I had just bought some new drum pads, and they caught Viddy's eye. He went over to them and hesitated.
"Go on, man! Have a go!" He must have played drums before, because he was already working out rhythms I'd find hard. The odd thing was the way he sat on the stool to play. He hovered over it, balanced between it and the drum set. His eyes were closed. His hair had grown out, long enough to move a bit as he played.
I could tell he was in the middle of something impromptu, but he stopped suddenly, opened his eyes wide, and smiled at Ju and me. "I felt that coming," he said. "It's great to be able to express it."
"Viddy, you're the lyricist, right? Is it the rhythm you feel in the words? Are they like drum beats?"
"The pulse of life, Peter."
"Yeah. Like Ju says, we gotta create life's rhythms, turn them into a pulse, pumping blood through our bodies. Look at these veins, Peter. My skin is almost transparent now. Show him yours, Ju. See the difference? The meds I'm taking are like magic. I haven't shared with anybody, though. I promised the doctor, and he's someone I can't cheat on, Dr Palinurus."
"And you're sure he's being careful? He's watching over you?"
"Sure! Yeah! We talk about these things. Anyway, I signed a consent form. I'm old enough now. And my mum's not, uh, whatever it's called. I gotta sign for her now."
"Let's hear this song you fellows have."
So Ju picks up a guitar that's hooked up and plays a few chords. Viddy sits at a keyboard and fingers around a bit. Just warm-up. I switch on Record and wait. Then the song starts. It's a soft number, floating around like Viddy's fingers on the keys. Ju's got mostly bass sounds, background. There's a pause, and then Viddy starts singing.
Well, I said before how his voice had changed from rough to smooth. He sings tenor now, not a wide range, but pure and not strained or forced. I already know that I've got to record him. For myself, at least. For his friends. For the record.
Think of a boy soprano – he has a few years of singing like an angel, before his voice breaks. I feel this way about Viddy's voice. It won't stay like this forever. It will mellow, but it will age. I won't try to describe it. It's not translatable into words. It's eerie, haunting. And there I go, trying to describe it.
Viddy himself defies description in the same way. He has lost weight, his skin is turning translucent. He's moving more gracefully now, his limbs agile, lithe. His hair is very light brown, wheat, also becoming translucent. But the light that passes through it radiates the whiteness of crystal, the clarity of white gold. His eyes are pale blue, sprinkled with golden specks of the sun.
I mention gold because a new technology is available to record sound and image holograms using gold silk fibres spun by spiders. Fabric had been made with these threads long before anyone thought to develop the technique for other uses. The gold orb spiders are fed a special iron-rich diet and subjected to strong magnetic vibrations during their daily dormant stages. The webs they spin are harvested and twisted together to increase strength, integrity, and resilience. At a certain thickness, these multi-fibre strands can be used to record impulses magnetically, just as a tape or video recorder does.
The silk fibres are not, however, recording just sound and image but also, via electrode attachments, brainwave frequencies from the performer (speaker, singer, musician). These strands are then woven into a piece of fabric or cloth of a certain size. Next, the cloth is hardened into a plate with a glue derived from the spider's digestive juices. The plate is cut into a disc, and the resulting Hologram Crystal Mirror (HCM), as it is called, can then be played on a compatible laser reader or scanner.
Because these are holograms, any fragment of the disc contains the complete information bank of the entire disc, just as each piece of a broken mirror still reflects what the entire mirror does. Recent technological advances now allow for the HCM scanners to be implanted into a person's brain to read pieces of the hologram. Animal rights researchers have attempted to use synthetic silk fibres, bypassing the spiders, but with absolutely no success. The key to the technique evidently lies in the mind of the spider itself, which remains entirely unharmed.
So – this was how I recorded Viddy, over a period of seven months. Each session resulted in several hours' worth of silken strands, which were sent to a lab for completion. The finished 'cloth' was a compilation of 3539 strands (the 495th prime number – Viddy's favourite number). He sang all his own choice of vocals. Ju was along most of the time, playing guitar, sometimes on keyboard, as well. We still were waiting to begin the hardening process.
Viddy was becoming more and more ghostly as his meds and his drugs crystallised his body – not IN his body – they crystallised AS his body. I confronted Dr Palinurus finally about my concerns over Viddy's health, indeed, his life. "We are all worried about him, doctor. He's such a good lad. We all love him so much."
"As do I, Peter. Like a son. I must tell you something in confidence. It's a genetic disease he has, this weakness. He is aging faster than normal. The medication I give him slows down the aging process and strengthens what it can in the body, but eventually it will be too late. He will die an old man at forty or soon after."
"My God! But he still acts so young. And lively."
"He's taking massive doses of painkillers – mostly morphine – for his joints. That was why he had to lose weight. To lighten the load."
"Does he know?"
"He certainly know as much as I do – or even more. He seems to transcend his limitations as a human. He told me once that he never dreams. Of course, we all do, but I believe him. It's possible he doesn't need dreams to see beyond reality."
"He sounds almost supernatural. Have you heard him sing?"
"No, but his speaking voice is quite captivating, I know."
"I've recorded him singing. It's a spiritual voice – terrifyingly beautiful. I'm using that new HCM technique."
"The spider's mind. Yes, I've read about it. That transcends human limitations, to be sure. Have you finished a disc?"
"Not yet. I haven't sent it off for hardening yet, actually."
"Ah! Yes. With glue from — May I – I hardly know how to say this. It only just occurred to me. Yes. It might work."
"What is it, doctor? The glue?"
"It contains the spider's venom or juices, I think."
"Amongst other ingredients, as I understand it."
"Could it be – could something extra be added to it and not change the effect?"
"I have no idea. What do you mean? What would you add to the glue?"
"This will sound crazy. I was thinking of Viddy, some part of him. A drop or so, just symbolic."
"Symbolic. Are you thinking of – blood?"
"Or semen. But blood is better. Semen is not life by itself. Viddy's blood pulses through his body with every heartbeat."
"Can you — ?"
"I can get you some, yes. Take it to the lab, add it to the glue. Harden the material into a disc. The spider's mind merges with Viddy's blood of life."
"This is morbid, doctor. But I'll do it."
* * * *
For Viddy's twenty-second birthday, his mother had decided to give a party for him. Big Bro had joined a paramilitary group in Spain and had cut himself off from the family. Viddy was all his mum had left. But Big Bro had got wind of this party and had informed the police that there would be lots of drugs at the house.
As it turned out, the raid yielded little. The drugs were nearly all prescribed by Dr Palinurus, except for a few odds and ends some guests had brought. Viddy's father had hidden guns and ammo in the attic, which no one had known about until the police discovered them. They had obviously lain untouched for decades. The person most shaken by the raid had been Viddy's mother. She had had a seizure during the search, but one officer had recognised what was happening and helped Viddy keep his mum safe.
The most surprising outcome of the raid was the sudden shared trust that Viddy had established with the police. He knew what their job was, and they knew him. It was a trust built on sympathy. There was no love lost, but neither was there time wasted with petty worries.
Viddy's life had felt fractured before, but with each new experience in his life, he became aware of healing work done on his spirit, that breath of being that kept him moving toward the light. And the light was most accommodatingly patient, waiting for Viddy to arrive.
He had come to my studio a while later to celebrate, privately, the arrival of the HCM we had made. It was a solemn occasion, oddly enough. He seemed in awe of the power of the Mirror, and he treated it almost sacramentally. He looked at it – no, through it, into his own soul, it seemed. One was each as fragile as the other. It was the soul that was strong. Had Viddy seen his blood in the Hologram Crystal Mirror? His blood in the flesh of his being? His creation?
As we were getting ready to toast our musical accomplishment, Viddy got a telephone message from his policeman friend. They had evidently become quite close. Viddy's mother had had a panic attack, apparently, and had left the house in her dressing gown. Someone had later spotted her going into the Basler Münster. Yes, it was his mum. The identification had been positive. The Münster was just down the street from the studio. We ran there together.
When we arrived, the square had been cordoned off. No one was being allowed inside the church. Viddy's policeman was there, a young, soft-looking fellow, almost as young as Viddy. He saw us and discreetly pointed upward. A small figure was standing on the right tower, Martinsturm, about halfway up, on the upper balcony level. Above was what looked like the bell tower.
"Davey, she's alone. You should go up. She's just confused, I think, not – not — "
"She's scared. That's all."
Someone in the crowd had caught sight of Viddy's mum on the tower, and people started looking and pointing. Shouts were heard, awful shouts, disgusting shouts. Viddy was already inside and didn't hear them.
After a few minutes, he appeared on the outer balcony of Georgsturm, set to cross over to Martinsturm. His mother had not moved much during this time, most likely feeling the effects of the height. Viddy was able (where did he find the energy?) to scale to the level below his mum and get her attention with a whistle they probably used as a private signal. She looked down and waved to him, smiling. She seemed to be surprised but pleased at his arrival. But she started crawling over the parapet to get closer to Viddy. He shouted, "No! Mum! Stay there!", and disappeared into the tower.
Meanwhile, the young policeman had entered the church and was climbing Martinsturm. At every level, he would pop his head out and look up to assess the situation as best he could. Finally he was a level below Viddy, who was a level below his mum. The crowd had got quiet. My neck was aching from looking upward so long. I heard Ju's voice.
"Viddy! Viddy!" Viddy didn't hear him. It seemed long minutes before anything happened. Then Viddy looked down and saw the policeman. It seemed to strengthen his resolve, and he started climbing the outer structure of the tower toward his mother as best he could. If only he could have floated, have flown.
Viddy's mother had stopped her climbing, and she clung, as if frozen, to a carved iris flower or a trefoil, I'm not sure what it's called. Dido came up to me and got Ju's attention to signal him to join us.
The police crew on the ground had set up nets and pads to catch whoever might fall or jump. Both Viddy and the policeman were stretched out, looking up, when a pigeon circled Viddy's mother and broke her concentration. She reached out to shoo it away, losing her grip and her balance. Instinctively, both Viddy and the policeman stretched farther out, trying to catch her. As she fell past Viddy, his grab at her swung her out of line, and she ended up next to him when they both struck Detective Sergeant David Verne, aged twenty-three, just one year out of his training for Special Operations Branch. Three bodies fell to the ground, just one metre off target from the safety nets and pads. It must have been a fickle wind blowing them away like leaves.
Viddy landed on the bottom, catching the main impact of his mother and his namesake friend. His body quite literally shattered as it struck the ground. In his hand he held the HCM, which, too, shattered as it hit the concrete. No one moved for the longest time.
Paramedics appeared and ran to the scene, separating the bodies. Viddy's mum had broken her neck and lay twisted and lifeless. David, the policeman, was moving slightly, moaning and trying to crawl to where Viddy had crashed. His crystalline body lay in pieces, in shards, in mirror-like splinters, mingled with the broken bits of the HCM that contained Viddy's blood and his soul.
Viddy's Mirror is fractured like the wafer of bread at the Mass and is distributed amongst the faithful friends. If they dare, they have their fragment implanted permanently into the scanning devices in their brains by Dr Palinurus, now our high priest. Ju is his first acolyte. Dido has gone to spread the word of Viddy amongst the lost souls around Basel.
Perhaps you've seen her. Perhaps you've met her and heard her message of Viddy in the netherworld, the world between worlds, between existing and living. Perhaps you've listened and believed. Perhaps it's David Verne you've seen, protecting Viddy's friends. Perhaps Viddy is with you now. Perhaps we are all together, with our pieces of Viddy playing in our minds, singing in our souls.