This is the first speculative fiction story I’ve really worked on to the finish. It’s not where it needs to be, and there’s something embarrassing about working on horror, but it’s time to exorcise it completely. I’ve been herding the little bits of it around for too long and while it more or less hangs together, it isn’t what I would call good. I need to get better at both the drafting and the herding, so I want to empty this out of queue entirely to allow myself to focus on finishing other drafting and herding projects that are stacking up behind it.
By Andrew Hilmer
Our first offering to the god was a scavenger I caught digging through the recycling. He didn’t struggle much as my wife Jan and I dragged him down to the basement, but when I pulled the sheet off the living clay of the enormous head he screamed and fought. In the dim light of the lookout windows our god’s eyes opened wide, its lips parted and a flood of tentacles and chains with hooks flooded over its teeth to tear the offering from our grasp. The meal was pulled in, denim and shoes and stink and all. The god chewed and licked its lips clean with a glistening clay tongue. Its eyelids slapped when it blinked. Finally its jaws and lips rested in a slight smile and its eyes closed. Jan and I went upstairs.
The next day at lunch my supervisor Jeffrey came by the break room to address the shift. He was smiling and said that we’d dodged a bullet. Our management had planned to shift all our production to our partner overseas but Corporate had changed its mind about the schedule of the change. The target for our shift would go up. The night shift would be cut entirely but our jobs were safe. We all expressed relief except for Jason, one of our technicians. His wife worked nights.
A week later Jan and I had no trouble with the second offering even though we snatched her while I was driving us home, just a few blocks away in the afternoon daylight. The woman was young and strong but also small and very high. Jan had spotted the girl and her friends through a gap between the Java Hut and an abandoned strip mall. She grabbed my wrist, “Turn here and go around the block!” Except for the victim’s friends, the street and the gravel yard behind the strip mall had been deserted. The whole group had shot their veins at once and it was easy to walk into their little camp and swoop up the littlest. Jan cooed to her on the way back to my truck, “It’s okay honey, we’re getting you some help.” This for the benefit of the open-mouthed old woman at the bus stop.
We didn’t know what we got in return for the second offering until Jan finally realized, a few weeks later, what was making her sick. She looked up from the toilet bowl. “I think we’re preggers,” she said, “praise our Big Scary Head.” I knelt and held her hair. Later, we visited the god. It opened its eyes and the darkened irises swiveled to peer up at us under raised eyebrows. We didn’t have an offering. It closed its eyes and we let it be.
With more offerings life got easier. The estate of one of my uncles finished probate and we flipped his house for enough to pay off our own mortgage and cover the estate taxes. This was enough to turn our office into a nursery and finish the attic.
None of our offerings generated missing-persons reports. Only one inspired a search by private parties. That sacrifice had been a friendly young man who was traveling the country, learning to meet people and sell them magazine subscriptions. This particular young man was very well thought of by at least one person in his little group, or he owed them money, so they pulled their white van back into the neighborhood the same afternoon and canvassed. It was a Saturday and their investigation caused a stir of gossip in the large apartment complex nearby. I wanted to feed the whole vanload of them our lord, but Jan said no and they passed our house by.
My supervisor Jeffrey went in for a checkup and his doctor found a heart abnormality. He went on medical leave and recommended me to fill in for him. A couple months later I caught up with Jeffrey over the phone and he told me the bad news. His medical leave had become a layoff. When he’d filed the paperwork to keep his insurance going there was a problem and it turns out that he’d never been covered in the first place. I commiserated; it was a terrible thing to happen and he was in sad shape. Jeffrey didn’t have any close family or property since his divorce. I didn’t mention that the stock options were doing very well for us and the company had upgraded our health plan after Jeffrey had gone. After hanging up, I talked it over with Jan and she agreed that it would be the humane thing to invite him over for dinner.
Jan’s belly grew. I quietly pitched an idea to the owner of the company for closing the manufacturing floor and making more return from the facilities. We were already down to two shifts from four. Most of the tooling was at the end of its depreciation but in good enough condition to get a reasonable price. Our partner in Jakarta was interested in the entire line. The main problem was in deciding how to develop the property, but by chance I had met a building contractor who specialized in transforming industrial spaces into condominium lofts. In just a few months we got the permits past the zoning board, the tooling was crated, the company went to Indonesia and I was made a partner and manager of the condominium project.
We benefited from many strange and convenient turns but the overt weirdness happened only to ease our offerings. Everything else about our personal fortune seemed to come from confidence and canny judgment. Jan was moving up too, promoted from receptionist and part-time paralegal to office manager and de facto junior partner. She began organizing fundraisers and speaking for the Chamber of Commerce.
Less weird and more magical was an increase of energy and adventure and a rebirth of our physical life. We began exercising again. Jan went to her new club on a program okayed by our obstetrician. As her belly became round the rest of her firmed up. With me it only took a new pair of running shoes and track pants. I sliced through the cold morning air feeling the neighborhood wake up around me, absorbing its life into my plan for the day. After executing that plan I returned home every night and Jan and I would unwrap each other.
It was a good thing we had a second floor and attic to remodel; we could keep the entire ground floor between our god and the contractors. Still, we kept the basement locked and Jan had me throw a dust cover over the head of our god. We lost a couple of guys anyway, the carpeting subcontractors. They left behind a couple bottles of beer pilfered from the fridge, a cheap lockpicking gun and nothing else. Jacques, the contractor handling both the condos and our little remodel, was spitting mad that the two would disappear in the middle of the day.
After packing away the evidence of the missing men I returned the god’s gaze until its eyelids grew heavy again and I felt like I could flick the cover back over it. As I climbed the stairs my phone buzzed, “ITS TIME”. I went to meet Jan at the hospital.
Through it all, the renovation, the completion of the condo units and the birth, our lord remained unchanged, the head of a man molded in moist clay. It remained silent except for the occasional rattle of chains and blades far away behind its teeth and tongue. If Jan and I visited our god and we didn’t have an offering it might frown for a moment before its eyelids came back down. It spent most of its time asleep. If we waited and watched, the red clay moved its molded flesh in small, twitching expressions, like a dreaming animal. Though it lived it never changed and the head of our god continued to look as it did a year ago when Jan and I got curious enough to break down the brick cube that contained it.
But one morning the god stopped eating.
It didn’t appear angry or sick. Presented with the latest sad sack Jan had coaxed in off the street the god’s expression was of theatrical disgust, like a child presented with steamed broccoli without cheese sauce. Our offering sat taped to the chair in stained slacks and rumpled jacket, gagged and zonked on cheap wine and maybe something else. The victim was fascinated with the sight of the living clay. We couldn’t force the god to take the offering, nor could we set him free. We could only abandon them in the basement, god and man together. After adding more wine to the victim’s belly and additional knots and gags to his bindings I turned out the light and went up. Apart from the sacrifice it would still be a big day.
That afternoon we were hosting a dinner party for business principles of the condo project. Jan and I and the project manager, Jack Beamon, represented the owners. Three overdressed loan writers represented finance. Two real-estate agents represented the brokerage. Jan had our nanny and a helper from the caterer she likes to use. It would be a working party beginning with shop-talk, moving to a backyard barbecue followed by drinks into the evening.
Jack Beamon looked the part of Executive Partner and Project Manager. He was tall with prematurely graying black hair. He called me Jack Junior. “Excellent work selling the board on the project!” he said a few months back, “You remind me of when I was just getting started, leading with my balls and finding a better way.” Most of Jack’s compliments involved balls.
The “Junior” of “Jack Junior” was actually my idea. We were both named Jack and with me spending so much time in the management suite I caught one of the admins referring to me as “Junior”. I made a joke about it and the nickname stuck with Jack Senior. I’m pretty sure I’m older than Jack Senior.
I don’t have his height or his creepy rigid muscle tone. I do okay. My new suits fit well. What Jack Senior and I share apart from our name is clarity. Distractions and uncertainty and conflicting goals never seem to touch us. Jack Senior glad-hands very smoothly, he gives a handshake with an extra touch from his other arm, he remembers facts about people to recite at every meeting in the distant future. But whenever he speaks of a “better way,” he means a better way of putting money into his pocket. His clarity bends the light of the world back around to himself, completely unaffected by others. If I didn’t already have a god I might be following him instead.
After the barbecue buffet I found Jack Senior hovering in front of the basement door, gazing blankly through the beige paint, touching the deadbolt and the heavy hasp and padlock.
“Growing weed down there?” he asked, turning an unfocused and shining smile on me.
“A shrine to the healing power of crystals,” I said. But Jack’s lips curled symmetrically with interest rather than his usual skeptical disgust. “And storage for my plan to take over the world.”
That made his eyes focus for a moment and he laughed.
“Okay, Junior, secret project. I get it.” He rattled the padlock for a moment.
“Come on,” I said. “The caterer’s laying out pie.”
He followed me back to the yard.
After dessert the afternoon cooled and we moved inside. Jan sent the nanny home and went upstairs to fuss over the baby. The loan writers were siblings, second generation Guatemalan-American triplets whose father had built his contracting business into a minor real estate empire. Their papa had realized long ago that the bottleneck in flipping property was financing so he sent his earnest young triplets to the business and finance program at Alluvial Community College. After riding out the last real-estate crash Papa was retired to the golf course. The two young men were recounting their high-school days and teasing their sister.
“So our Papa, he raised us in the burbs, got us all through school and college, we got white picket fences and everything. He did everything for us to become extra-tan white people, but he didn’t plan so far ahead when we were born, right? ‘Jose,’ ‘Juana,’ and ‘Jesus,’ right? And we’re not even Catholic.”
Juana turned to Jesus, “What are we, anyway?”
“I think in ninth grade we were Methodist.”
Jose squirmed on the couch. “Speak for yourself, pagan.”
Juana and Jesus both laughed.
“It’s true!” Jesus said. “I started signing my homework ‘ZEUS’ in big capital letters. Like ‘hey-ZEUS’. It was the dorkiest thing.”
“Abuela beat your ass for blasphemy,” said Jose.
“No Jose,” said Juana, “She tried to kill him, or make us think that anyway.”
“Yeah, no joke.” Jesus was laughing. “She was half my size and four times my age—”
“—So she needed a weapon—”
“She got it off the porch, I think. A big rake. For cutting brush, right?”
Juana was laughing too. “For her it was bad enough Papa left St. Francis, but it’s like she thought you were killing goats or something.”
“Yeah, well, I did that too, I guess.”
This was new to Juana. “No! What? Really?”
“Well, no, but remember when Papa married Steppy Two, we roasted the two goats with the two pigs? I went with Papa to the butcher, right? That place out on 32? And the butcher was like, ‘Yeah, you ordered three porkers but one of them wasn’t so good. I got a couple fresh goats but no customers so I’ll give them to you for half price,’ and Papa was like ‘Sold!’ But the goats weren’t dead, right? And Papa told me to go with the butcher to kill and dress them, like he was when he made Jose go hunting with the Johnsons in seventh grade.”
Juana sat with her mouth open. “Shit!—Pardon me!—But I never heard about that. With you I mean. Did the butcher make you, you know…”
“No, no way, the butcher didn’t want me to mess it up. But him and Papa were buddies, right? So they made me watch. It made me think, you know?” Jesus sat on the couch between his sister and brother, gazing blankly.
“Abuela was mad about the blasphemy though,” said Juana.
“No kidding. I needed a shot and six stitches.
“No,” Juana said, “with Papa.”
Jesus squirmed. “She hated him no matter what. I really did it to piss off Steppy Two.”
Juana wrinkled her forehead. “The ‘Zeus’ thing? She never even noticed stuff like that.”
“Oh she noticed, but you know how cold she was when we tried to get a rise out of her. Damn. It’s the first time I actually saw someone rolling their eyes. Like the first time I realized what that was.”
Jose’s dismayed scowl finally broke, “So it’s been down to me to hold up all our reputations!”
“Oh Jose,” Juana said, “Let it go.”
I talked about my own aunt who had been certifiable and actually certified a couple times. No stabbings, though, just embezzlement and manic buying sprees that caught up to her and ensured her disappearance from regular life. She left behind a lot of second- and third-cousins to lose touch with. The story didn’t really lighten the mood.
The real estate agents were a family team too, mother and daughter. After pie, the daughter Joon had been missing for a few minutes in the kitchen with Jack Senior. They returned flushed and bleary-eyed. Between the wine and the stories from the triplets Joon’s mother had stopped looking so sharply at her.
Joon’s mom had her own story, about the tsunami of 2004.
“We were looking at this hotel in Patong, booked rooms and were looking around, just Joon and me, when everyone started running at the beach. To the beach, away from the beach, shouting. And we heard the ocean roar get louder and Joon went up some stairs to see and the look on her face!”
Joon’s mother clasped her palms to her face, mouth open, the kind of surprise you see on billboards.
“The hotel was all concrete, four stories high, so we ran inside and up to the top floor and looked around and we were just an island in the middle of this huge river rushing into the city, then out for like an hour. Everything, everybody, all draining out to sea. The hotel manager made drinks with the last of the clean ice while we watched.”
“I don’t remember it being a party, mom.”
“I didn’t say it was. It was horrible!
Mother looked at daughter. “The minute we were inside you started screaming and crying. You needed your mom.” To us she continued, “She was just a kid you know.”
“I was in high school! And you put me to work finding bleach and rationing all the toilet-tank water.”
“You stopped yelling.”
Mom looked back at us. “She missed her father.”
“You were so upset! And why not? It was the biggest thing in the whole world that year! Anyway. After that my James got cold feet about Thailand and we ended up stuck with forty moldy townhouses in Orlando.”
“We’re past that, Mom.”
“You bet we are! We have units people want and financing that doesn’t sit on money. You don’t even know how lucky I feel, working with my baby and turning things around. She waved toward Jack Senior and me. “Thanks to you.”
Jan’s warm breath materialized in my ear. “Don’t let Jack Senior get any more rowdy and don’t let him drive home. I mean it.” Then she headed back upstairs.
Jack Senior winked at me. “I know sweet nothings when I see them. Those weren’t sweet. Somebody’s in trooouuuuble.”
I found Jack Senior in front of the basement door again.
“There’s somebody in there.” Jack was so stoned I was glad Jan had borrowed his phone and called him a cab.
“It’s the TV I’ve got down there. It comes on by itself sometimes.”
“Ha. Tell me who it is. You and Jan have a Gimp?”
There was a horn outside, a double-tap.
“That’s you, I think,” I said, hoping.
“That’s us!” called Joon’s mother.
Jesus and Co. had gone an hour earlier, more-or-less sober and shining with sincerity. Jack Senior’s mask of control was wobbling under the influence. I left him to say goodbye to our sales force.
Joon’s arm was gripped by her mother as the young woman looked past me—for Jack I figured but I wouldn’t presume. “None of us should be driving, Joonie. If you can’t drive your momma home you can at least keep me from breaking my tailbone.” They picked their way through the sliding door of the taxi. “See you Monday!” I called, and they both waved back. “See you Monday!” Zoom.
Jan was at the door when I came back in. She hissed. “What did you tell him about the basement?”
“Nothing! He heard noise down there. We have to get him gone. Can you drive him home?”
She scowled. “I’m not getting in a car alone with him when he’s like that. We can’t leave the house by itself.” Then she looked at me. Pointedly. I felt the blood drain from my face.
“He’s not really the kind of person. And we need him. I can drive him home. Or we can wait for his cab.”
She frowned. “You sure?”
“Yeah. I only had a few and I didn’t smoke out with him.”
We were headed back to the kitchen when there was a loud crunch.
Jack looked up at us with his shoulder embedded in the wood of the door. He was looking more than just drunk or stoned. His eyes were darting around and he was shaking with excitement. “There’s somebody down there! Help me!”
Jan and I looked at each other. Then Jack’s expression changed.
“Hah! You do have a Gimp!” And he began to push through the thin, painted-over panels of the old door.
Then we all heard the creak of heavy footsteps coming up the stairs.
Jack stopped his destruction and stepped back, staring at the dark hole he’d made in the door. Jan and I looked at each other again and we began to move. Jan eased toward the knife block. Jack peered through the hole. I took a step up behind him.
Someone calmly, carefully began pulling the paneling of the door inward, discarding the broken pieces in the dark on the landing. The hole enlarged enough to crouch and crab through. Something dressed like the sacrifice from the morning came into the light. When it straightened it looked familiar. It had the face of Jack Senior.
Jack Senior looked at this version of himself dressed in ratty beige slacks and the sweat-stained, mis-buttoned shirt. It smiled at Jack Senior. Then out of the dark behind the doppelganger a tentacle looped out and wrapped two, three, four times around Jack’s midsection.
New Jack Senior stepped aside from the door and Old Jack Senior was jerked past him, fitting badly through the hole and hitting treads and rails with breathless grunts as he was pulled down into the dark.
New Jack Senior and Jan and I looked at each other as the noises in the dark got quieter.
There was a horn out front.
I looked at New Jack. “Your cab is here?” He smiled again and silently, soberly walked through the house and left. Jan followed New Jack and slapped the bolt on the door after him, her eye up against the glass to watch him get into the taxi. I stood back and kept an eye on the kitchen.
Jan turned back to me. “He’s gone.”
“I hope so.”
She made a face, “I’m staying up with the baby tonight,” and went upstairs.
I eased back into the kitchen. The fan over the stove was on. Jack’s pipe and weed and roll-up kit were on the counter. I shakily put the kit back together and slipped it into the back of the junk drawer. Then I pulled out my keys and undid the padlock and bolt on the door to the basement. I didn’t want to try to crawl through the jagged hole in the middle of it.
I clicked on the light and the stairs were a mess of torn wood and blood. One railing had been pulled completely off and hung loose, leaving one side of the stairway open. The bare bulb was on over the god and the shadows on its face were black and deep and still. The god’s eyes and mouth hung open.
“Is it okay?” Jan was at the top of the stairs, cradling Jackson to her collarbone.
“I don’t know. I think what was inside is gone. It’s all dry. The eyelashes are falling apart.”
“It’s out there walking around inside Jack Senior?”
“I guess. I really don’t think there’s anything here anymore.”
The mouth of the giant head was a frozen cave, a deep black shadow inside the dry, frozen clay lips and teeth. It still looked deeper than it ought to be from the outside. I was bending over, my hands on my knees, peering cautiously.
“What do you see?” Jan was next to me.
The maw was deep and dark. Far inside I could see something glisten and rattle and move.
Being gripped and slammed against the dead pottery, being pulled and bent the wrong way in the middle, my back breaking, the stretching of the skin of my leg and the pop of my hip dislocating, that was the most real moment of any life I’ve ever forgotten.
I came awake twisted up in soaked sheets, unable to draw a full breath. Kari was shivery and murmuring while I slithered out of the tangle and sorted the blankets around her. She twitched and grunted as I padded out to the bathroom. I knew from experience that if I tried to wake her from a dream she would be panicked and upset, terrified from a half-remembered nightmare. If I left her alone she wouldn’t remember the dream at all.
It was too early to make coffee and begin the day. I knew if I waited two hours I would only crawl back into bed and sleep until ten; I was supposed to be looking for work. Our tiny apartment was quiet and I was self-conscious of the early-morning creaks that might disturb Kari or the neighbors. I clicked the TV on, muted, but there wasn’t anything but the false, sunny brightness of morning talk shows. I spent a few minutes looking at the web but kept finding the same leads from yesterday and nothing new. I checked the fridge to see if Kari had food to take to work. There wasn’t anything ready so I made sandwiches and salad and loaded her Tupperware.
I looked back in on my girlfriend. She was still and quiet, drooling into her hair. Her sinuses made little duck-wheezes. I got out my ratty old running shoes and track pants, added another t-shirt for the cold, and for the first time in years went for a run.
It took a surprisingly long time for my noodeley legs to give out and I timed my return leg pretty well. As I cooled down in the rush of endorphin I berated myself for not training for so long. I would be sore for weeks.
The morning bloomed on my back as I returned along the nearby commercial strip back toward our apartment complex. A group of kids in hoodies and fingerless gloves were heading home after a night of partying. A clot of homeless with their carts and bicycle trailers were beginning to queue for breakfast at the mobile mission. A cop car idled by.
I stopped at the walk-up window at The Koffee Klatch. Looking down from his extra-large black SUV, a chiseled guy in workout clothes flirted with the barista, holding up the half-dozen cars in line. The paint on the hood of the SUV was faded and flaking. Behind him in line a young woman with drooping eyes tipped her head forward and rested her forehead on her steering wheel. The guy in the SUV caught me looking at the woman in the car behind him and he winked, his eyes opaque with irises that could have been painted on.