“The End of Owln’s Malt” by A.A. Garrison

I. Suicide

It was early July when the signs assaulted the Small Town of Owln’s Malt. Unassuming pasteboard squares, they advertised a debate for Bill 41D on the last of the month, to be held at the fairgrounds. The signs had been noted by the authorities because there was no such bill, nor a permit to use the fairgrounds. Thus had begun an effort to subvert this fraud, with peace officers ordered to extirpate the signs on sight. The only leads on the perpetrator were reports of a man in a greatcoat and wide-brim hat installing the signs while offending the eye. He became known as the Sign Man, and Rodney Feet was the policeman who found him.

* * *

It was the seventeenth, exactly two weeks before the imaginary debate, and Officer Feet happened upon the perpetrator in the town’s desolate greenbelt. The Sign Man was tall and slender in his greatcoat and slouch hat, the brim like wings extended. At his hip a shoulder-slung satchel chocked with signage. He walked airily along the shunpike curb.

Rodney radioed in as he crept at the Man’s heels, studying. The Man continued without turning, sure in his step like a thing unobserved. He eventually stopped, planted a sign proclaiming the fraudulent debate, and went on. Rodney pulled over and stepped out. The Man walked.

“Hey,” Rodney called from his open door. He hooted his siren for a single note and set his lights to blinking. They held purchase in the charcoal dusk. The Man stopped and turned, unhurried.

Rodney halted as though meeting a wall: the Man wore a ragged truss of bandages from the neck up, strips hanging in threadbare little arms. A mottle ran down the unface, coppery like old blood. Two wise blue eyes regarded Rodney from deep in the wrap.

“Howdy,” Rodney intoned, a generous distance away.

The Man answered by extending a handheld tape recorder and clicking it on, the little spools spinning. “HELLO,” said a voice like crumpling paper, stressing the speaker. The tape ran.

Rodney looked at the tape recorder as one might a fecal mound. “You the feller been puttin’ up them signs?”

The slightest delay, then the tape recorder said, “YES.” The lights strobed patriotic colors.

Rodney chuckled despite himself. “Yer gonna have to come with me, partner,” he said reprovingly. He plucked the newly inaugurated sign and laid it reverently to ground.

NO,” said the tape recorder. “YOU ARE TO COME WITH ME.” The words in a mechanical lilt, rendering each a short sentence.

Rodney straightened, his face stone. “Nice trick, wise guy.” His eyes circuited the Man and the proffered appliance. “What’s my badge number?” he said, smirking.

The recorder read off the correct four digits.

The smirk went away and Rodney unbuttoned his service revolver and he and the Man stood staring, the tape recorder hissing quietly.

“Stop that shit,” Rodney said. “Give me ID.”

IT IS IN MY BAG.”

With sudden rage, Rodney grabbed the device and slung it to the spectating woods. He panted and sweat, as though this had entailed great strength. “Give me the ID!” he shouted, gripping his sidearm tight.

The Man’s empty hand remained momentarily extended, then he took to the satchel and excavated a small laminate square that reflected the strobes like his trackless face.

Rodney reached tentatively and, with the hand not on the gun, accepted the driver’s license. His eyes flickered between it and the uncountenance above. The license profiled one Jason Bowie, white, thirty-something, mustachioed, his complexion fine and light. Rodney started to confirm the address, then thought of the tape recorder and didn’t.

“You stay right there, fella,” he said instead. The Man did not move.

Rodney backed to his cruiser and radioed without looking away. Jason Bowie stood sentinel in the descending gloom, his unblinking eyes holding Rodney’s even at distance. Rodney had to several times repeat what he said.

Dispatch confirmed backup, and Rodney hung up the radio and returned to Jason Bowie, yards between them. By aid of a card, Rodney read him his rights and instructed him to put his hands behind his back.

Mr. Bowie did not comply.

Rodney braced his legs. “I ain’t gonna ask you again, fella.” His eyes wide like eggs.

Jason watched, the bandages fluttering where a nose should be.

“Hands behind yer back!” Rodney shouted. His heart punched blood.

Jason reached into his pocket, and Rodney raised the gun unfired in twenty years of service. “Behind yer back! Behind yer back!”

Jason’s gloved hand emerged with a folded scrap of paper that fluttered with his bandages. He tendered it suggestively, like emolument for some work.

“Don’t want that paper,” Rodney snarled. He canted his head and radioed a code, leering. “You best gimme them hands, son. You won’t like the alternative.”

Jason shook the paper a little, as one might tempt an animal with food.

Rodney swallowed, then inched forward with his gun not lowering and snatched the paper and recoiled. Jason’s arm lowered with the exactness of a lever thrown.

Rodney toweled sweat with his wrist, not unfolding the paper. “What is it?”

No reply.

“Tell me, you freak!”

Rodney by degrees unfolded the serrated scrap, revealing writing that he didn’t want to read but did anyway. In sharp block letters: I TOLD YOU. YOU COME WITH ME.

Rodney looked up to find Mr. Bowie charging, hands laced ominously, the greatcoat horizontal with speed. A gasp of alarm, then the hands flowering, a foul mist in Rodney’s face, like sand but burning.

Rodney screamed and coughed and shot, stumbling to the curb, fire inside him and the world fading.

* * *

The phone came first, a distant shriek, rousting him from what felt like sleep but wasn’t. Rodney flounced, clawing for the radio at his chest, but there was no radio, the skin bare and smooth. His eyes opened to a blear of movie-screen white, amorphous forms within it. He was warm and pleasant, and supine on what could be a bed.

The phone rang again and he shot upright, head whipping in wild cuts. The world resolved into a bedroom filled with nothing he recognized, a highboy and a desk and a chair, pictures of people not him. He swung out his legs and found carpet and stood, doing so easier than he had in decades. The surprise sent him back to the bed.

“Margaret!” he cried out, but his wife of thirty years did not answer, nor did anyone else. He sounded different, the voice strong and carrying. He touched his face and pulled back: his fingers described another man. The phone rang.

He returned experimentally to his feet, seeing the world from higher than he should have. He was naked, and when he looked down, his paunch was absent. He could see his genitals for the first time in many years, except they weren’t his genitals, the phallus longer and nested in hair far too light. He touched it and felt the touch and screamed.

“Margaret!” he shouted in that other voice, and set off madly from the room, awkward on his too-long legs. There was a hall servicing more rooms, everywhere a house unknown, the penis not his dangling. He streaked through a kitchen and another bedroom and a den and a living room, all peopled with objects as foreign to him as his new person. The phone continued throughout, muffled but plangent.

Rodney crashed into a bathroom and approached its vanity mirror. The light buzzed as though dying. He snuck a peek at the mirror like a scared child: a cheek and some jaw…a crop of blond hair…a blue eye that widened. He grunted from the impossible reflection, shivering though it was warm. His heart hammered and his new hands ran all over him. He licked wet his lips and found prickly and realized he had a mustache.

The phone rang again and he spun to the noise and screamed, “Shut up!” Nowhere was his gravelly smoker’s-rasp.

In time, he steeled himself and stepped fully before the mirror, and framed in the glass was the blonde young bust of Jason Bowie, as seen on his driver’s license. Rodney stood in the mirror for what could have been hours, the phone incessant.

* * *

When the initial shock had passed, Rodney returned to his bedroom of origin and opened the highboy and dressed in clothes that shouldn’t have fit but did. On a nightstand was an eelskin wallet containing cash and receipts and the driver’s license he’d once held with other hands. “Jason Bowie,” he said out loud, then winced at the alien voice. He decided not to talk unless he had to.

He looked outside, and there was a large lawn hedged by woodlands that could belong to Owln’s Malt. It was by then afternoon and the day was resplendent and clear, the sun and sky in order. It offered a cold comfort that he accepted.

The phone had not stopped in the hours since his awakening, and he took to answering the appalling thing. He went to the kitchen and tried the phone there, but it wasn’t the one ringing. He listened and traced the noise upstairs, but the only upstairs phone wasn’t ringing, either. The noise continued, coming from higher still. The attic.

Above the hallway was a pull-down ladder leading to a hot and musty apartment. A hanging bulb threw waxy light over the many things consigned there, boxes and racked clothes and rude mounds of loose articles. The noise was louder here and he pinned it to a jagged pylon of boxes and things. Dominating the end of the rectangular apartment, the totem was founded by a steamer trunk, foreboding to search. There was no phone cord.

After discarding a few boxes, Rodney narrowed the noise to the trunk. It was large and wood, battened with metal stringers and tawny with age, sealed with a combination lock. Rodney jerked the lock twice and gave up. He had started back downstairs when he realized he knew the combination.

“Eighteen, twenty-nine, eleven,” he said aloud, the motivating thought as peregrine as his voice. It seemed to come from Jason Bowie’s brain.

He swung back to the chest and spun in the sequence and the lock opened. The hasp squeaked, and Rodney held the uncoupled lock dubiously to his face. The phone rang immediately after, as though in congratulation.

The trunk opened like a clam, wood straining and the perfume of old pine, and inside was an unmarked wooden crate mummified in duct tape. The phone rang again and the crate shifted slightly. The ring was much clearer now, a single angry note like the noise a child makes when cold. Rodney grabbed the crate with the reservation one would show a living thing.

He carouseled it in his hands, finding no cables to speak of. It rung again and he almost dropped it. The duct tape was wrapped five-ply, firmly sealing the lid. Rodney found the tape’s lip and unwound recklessly, the glue smacking. He came away with a melon-sized ball of the stuff and tried the lid but it still didn’t give. It was nailed shut.

It crossed his mind to locate a cat’s paw, but then the phone screamed and the noise stabbed him and he cried out and threw the crate at the near wall, the cordwood shattering and a black thing amongst it. There was a moment of silence and then the phone rang again, now loud and true. Rodney went to the wreckage and toed through it.

The phone was a candlestick model, black and tall, of a vintage preceding Rodney’s birth. It was dignified but fell short of decorous, the plastic enameled with scratches and old fingerprints. Rodney stood for many more rings before touching it. The earpiece hung from the hook like the cup of some ugly flower, quivering with each ring. After some false starts, he answered.

He assumed the awkward two-handed pose he’d seen in movies, and did not say hello. He listened.

There was a heartbeat of static, then a cruel voice blustered from the coned earpiece: “TO MEET QUOTA OF SOULS YOU MUST DO AS INSTRUCTED.” The words in one immutable string as though typed.

Rodney had heard this voice before. The tape recorder. He blinked. “Hello?”

FIRST ASSUME HABILIMENTS PROVIDED.”

Rodney blinked again, and his eyes narrowed. “Now you listen to me. I don’t know who you are or what the piss this is, but –”

He silenced as a sick jolt entered his head, electric and hot and red, like fingers pounded. He dropped the phone and pratfalled to the floor, his hands sandwiching his temples. He tried to scream but all that came was a feeble noise like something dying. The queer pain lasted only a second, but it was minutes before he returned to his feet.

He stared at the phone for long afterward, chewing his new lips. His head tingled, but he seemed otherwise okay. He very slowly retrieved the phone and cupped his ear.

No sooner had he done so than the voice returned, as though in wait. “FIRST ASSUME HABILIMENTS PROVIDED.”

Rodney closed his eyes and did his best to process this, failing. “I don’t understand.”

A short burst of static, then: “HABILIMENTS PROVIDED OUTSIDE RESIDENCE ON THE STEP GO GET THEM.” When Rodney didn’t immediately move, the voice added, “NOW.”

Rodney lowered the phone a little, a little more. He closed the clamshelled trunk, set the phone politely on top, and went downstairs.

He traipsed through the big empty house, saying “Walk” over and over like he might forget. He was clumsy in Jason Bowie’s rangy body, barking his shins and knocking things over. “Walk,” he said. “Walk, walk.”

The home’s foyer was embalmed in elegance, all terrazzo and mahogany and stained glass. Hung paintings and male-friendly knickknacks, a clean doormat that said WELCOME. The lordly door opened to a porch, one newel post draped with a plastic dry-cleaning shroud that bulged in the middle. Rodney looked around, took the clothing, unsheathed the plastic.

Inside was a flowing black greatcoat and a slouch hat.

* * *

Rodney contemplated the supernatural phone, his face ugly with fear. He thought of picking it up and screaming threats and imprecation, then remembered that nightmare bolt in his head. He instead reassumed the device and said, “I have the clothes.”

WEAR THEM,” the voice belched.

Rodney tapped the trunk, thinking…then lowered the phone and blacked himself in the coat and hat. There was a looking glass nearby and it described the man who had been planting the phony signs, minus a mask of facial wrappings. He shuddered, an acidy feeling in his stomach.

He picked up the phone. “I’m wearing them.”

NOW LISTEN CAREFULLY, JASON BOWIE,” the voice said instantly, perhaps segueing from a sentence just spoken.

I ain’t Jason Bowie!” Rodney howled into the pedestal mouthpiece, eyes trained down as if it were sentient. He was at once answered with the reprimand tasted earlier, lightning attacking his skull and sizzling. He made a stuttering groan and folded to the floor, hands atop his head as though holding it on. “Uh-huh-huh-huh-huh,” he groaned. “Uh-huh-huh-huh-huh.” His feet kicked.

When it had ended, Rodney went to his knees and took the phone with abject hands. “What do you want?” he said in meek increments. That fugitive tingle was back in his head. He pawed at it.

NEAR YOUR RESIDENCE IS A BRIDGE AND UNDER THE BRIDGE WATER AND IN THE WATER A DECEASED CREATURE CONTAINING A THING.” A considerate pause. “GO GET THE THING.”

Rodney closed his eyes and shook his head, his brow knit. “Wait, a bridge? And a…a creature?”

The voice repeated its instruction with identical cadence and diction. Then, after a second pause: “GO GET THE THING.”

Rodney nodded, the ridiculous hat flopping. “Okay,” he said. “Okay.”

* * *

There being no car at the Bowie residence, Rodney walked down the gravel drive, looking for a bridge. It was now late afternoon and clear and hot, and he sweat copiously from under his coat. His head tingled more with the sweating and he wanted to scream. He eventually came to a road that he recognized.

It was County 5, a beltway around Owln’s Malt. The area was an exurb of the town, and Rodney at once knew the destination bridge. It was a friendly arch of cobblestones, extant since he could remember, bridging a babbling creek that flooded in heavy rains. Some cars passed and he didn’t know whether to flag them down or avoid them entirely. “Walk,” he said. “Walk, walk, walk.” He cried some.

He heard the creek before he saw the bridge, then there it was, same as ever. A truck snuck up from behind and whoofed over and disappeared. Rodney went down the bank and into the shin-deep flow. “Dead creature,” he said. He stooped, glanced under the arch, stood unhappily. “What in the hell.”

He tarried briefly along the bank, arms akimbo, then stooped back under the arch. He could see a feet-long oblong within the shadowy little grotto, off to one side. A sweet stink like spoiled fruit, car exhaust. The top of the arch came only to his shoulder, so he ducked at the necessary angle and crawled underneath, splashing water. He grabbed the shape, finding it soft and wet, then yanked it loose and crawfished out. He’d recovered a small decaying dog.

He ugh‘ed and dropped it in disgust and stood looking down. The dog had once been white but was now a grayish tinlike not-color, fur in nappy twists, the little eyes missing. It sent up a smell that made Rodney’s eyes water and his head tingle worse.

He parsed the voice’s instructions, then put off the next part as long as possible. When he could wait no longer, he bent to the dog and, straining, eviscerated it into several crude pieces that didn’t look like they would fit back together. It came apart with the brittle of a walnut shucked, bones and ligaments tearing in desiccated snaps. Rodney went tailor-style and perused the apportioned beast, absorbed in this work. A car passed, and the driver gave Rodney a look.

Beyond the crenelated ribs was a shriveled stomach, small with rot. Rodney took it in both hands and grimaced and split the wormlike organ, producing only a curdled spit of green. He moved on to the intestines and the pooch’s general viscera, but there was no Thing to speak of. He at last came to its emaciated bowels and tore into each, issuing ropes of unborn feces that smelled like nothing else. Upon opening the final bowel, he was surprised by a length of metal. He cleaned it in the nearby creek and was left with a key. It was short and jagged, with a slogan imprinted, like those used for padlocks.

He considered the key, gleaming in the sun like found treasure, and put it in his pocket. He gathered the dog and returned it to its grave before walking the sweaty mile back to Jason Bowie’s house.

* * *

When Rodney got back, the wireless phone did not ring, which suited him fine. He put the recovered key on the kitchen table and realized he was famished. The kitchen yielded sandwich fixings, and he ate drearily, like a child forcing down vegetables, drinking milk and belching. He compiled a second sandwich and ate it while canvassing the home.

The first object of interest was a calendar he hadn’t noticed before, hung in the kitchen and flipped to June. All but the last day was X‘ed out, placing the date at the thirtieth of June instead of July seventeenth. He didn’t know what to think of this, so he didn’t. He moved on to the other rooms.

The bedroom of his advent yielded no clues, nor did a spare bedroom upstairs. The master bathroom was jammed with prescription medications, but otherwise infecund. There was a den that would have been comfy were Rodney in his own body, in it a leather-bound ledger and a small teak box, set over a coffee table. The ledger was filled with writing, and the box had painted on it DO NOT OPEN in loud uncial letters that Rodney heeded.

The box was insubstantially light. He put it to his ear and shook and heard nothing, then set it down in favor of the ledger, which proved a diary. Starting at the August of the year prior, it described the mundane life of Jason Bowie, a young investment banker who couldn’t find the right woman and suffered from mild depression and had stopped drinking recently and felt stupid for keeping a diary like a sad little girl. Rodney thumbed through to June of this year, where the writings changed drastically.

The entry for the twentieth of June, in a chicken-scratch scrawl:

There is another world beneath this one, a terrible world. I had a long talk with it tonight, picking its brain — if it has one, that is — and it told me things I cannot repeat. I think I’d lose it if I did, if I haven’t already. I’ll just keep it at this: the ostensible is a lie. Work. Love. Kids. Drugs. There’s an underbelly to reality, and horrid things live there. I want out.

Rodney turned back time and determined the change to have occurred at the start of June, the eleventh, when Mr. Bowie had found an antique telephone left curiously on his stoop, one that rang without being plugged in. He had answered it and was greeted by a “voice that makes my dick shrink.” The next two weeks were marked by long conversations with the voice and queer errands at its behest, followed by many hours with a shrink that Bowie eventually ceased seeing. He had submitted the phone for the shrink’s scrutiny, and it had kept silent. There had been many prescriptions and they had done nothing.

June twenty-second:

They called again today. Or it. Whatever. I didn’t want to answer but it gave me one of those god-awful shocks, a bad one, so I gave in and picked up. It tried to send me back to that storage locker, with the mindfuck wall and those weird signs and things. I told it no way and it shocked me again and again but I still didn’t go. I pissed myself. My head hurts. I’ve been crying. I threw the key into the woods and it landed in a pile of shit. Let’s see it make me go there now.

June twenty-fifth:

The phone rang all yesterday. I tried smashing it, but it’s abnormally strong, so I put it in a crate and nailed it shut. As soon as I figure out what happened to my car, I’m taking the phone and strapping it with rocks and throwing it in the lake. I am unhappy.

June twenty-seventh:

Another thing showed up on the stoop today, a box. It says ‘do not open’ on top. I think they’re playing with my head. There haven’t been any more shocks, but I don’t know if that’s good or bad. Haven’t been sleeping. Want a drink.

June twenty-ninth, yesterday, in a helter-skelter hand barely legible:

More shocks. The phone is ringing ringing ringing. Won’t stop. But I won’t answer. Won’t. They can kill me for all I care. I called my sister for help and she yelled at me. Can’t stop crying. Ring ring ring.

The rest of the pages were blank. Sweat bombed from Rodney’s brow, wetting the paper. The phone rang from upstairs.

* * *

Rodney considered the absurd phone for nearly a half-hour. He didn’t want to pick it up, and wasn’t going to, but then another evil jolt touched his brainmeat and he cried out and answered.

The voice spoke the precise instant the earpiece was in place: “IN THE STORAGE FACILITY IN TOWN IS A LOCKER NUMBER NINE GO THERE AND FOLLOW INSTRUCTIONS WRITTEN.”

Rodney remembered reading of a locker in the diary. He nibbled his lips. “What’s in the locker?” he heard himself ask.

MATERIEL FOR SOUL-STEALING ENTERPRISE.” Pause. “GO.”

Rodney set down the phone and went downstairs, fielding a monstrous headache.

He had grabbed the key and started out the door when he realized it was a long walk to town. He took out Jason Bowie’s wallet and found cash and counted it. After employing a phonebook, he used the kitchen’s phone to call a cab.

* * *

The sun was westering and red when he arrived at the sprawl of storage lockers in the heart of Owln’s Malt. The cab was a green van and the cabbie accepted Jason Bowie’s money, commenting on Rodney’s clothing before disappearing loudly. Rodney entered the large cyclone fence cribbing the perimeter.

The lockers were small and plain, fitted with green panels that rolled up. Rodney found number nine and unlocked it with the requisite key. As he started rolling the panel, it did so by its own accord, a low mechanical whum from inside. The door raised to its limit. Rodney didn’t enter.

He tried to see in but the locker faced east and the dying light gained little purchase. A wedge of polished cement floor, a depthless black throat. Strange-smelling air wafted out to bite his nose, mildly ammoniac. He stepped in then out, feeling like a mouse daring curiously placed cheese.

Squinting, he just made out a coffee-colored door terminating the corridor, looming in the gloom. He stood looking longer than necessary, then rounded the cellblock of lockers for the building’s side. After daring a scratchy jungle of weeds between the wall and the fence, he ducked around the back, and there was no exit door. Back at the locker, he again stood ogling the door.

“Uh-uh,” he said to the locker.

He had started away, intent on the police department where he had just yesterday worked, when another angry jolt caged his head. The impact voided his legs, and he went summarily to his back as though finding ice, his skull whacking the pavement. Stars danced before him.

“All right, all right!” he shouted, after regaining the faculty to do so. He tottered to his feet and approached the locker’s maw, his head tingling in its maddening way.

When he’d ventured two steps inside, the panel door shrieked shut, oniony light spilling from no palpable source. Rodney about-faced and tried the door, but it would not raise. He flattened against it, looking frantically about. The corridor was narrow and cement-floored, walled with bare cinderblock, the light painting dull colors. It was entirely unremarkable but for the far door he didn’t want to open. He lifted the slouch and toweled sweat, hesitating forward. Yesterday he was a police officer named Rodney Feet.

He inched to the door and poked it with one finger, and it was indeed wood. Stained pine or mahogany, he couldn’t tell. The knob was bronze and gleaming, and it turned when he tried it. He opened the door, and was unsurprised to find more darkness instead of a dusking summer evening. He hesitantly ventured inside. Shocks, shocks. When the door slammed behind him, he didn’t even jump.

More mysterious lights flicked on, placing Rodney in a second blunt corridor, this one strewn with things and constructed of an echoey metal that screamed NASA. It was markedly colder here, and reeked of the pungent odor he’d scented earlier. There were no windows. By the door was a cardboard box of pronged signs he recognized instantly, wishing he didn’t. He took one out, read of the debate for Bill 41D, to be held at the Owln’s Malt fairgrounds on July thirty-first, and slid it back without reaction. There was a note on top: TAKE WITH YOU, in oddly made block letters that he also recognized, from Jason Bowie’s note. His head spun in nauseous swirls.

Beside the box was a table offering a rectangular terrarium. Inside, a shrub-sized mushroom periodically rained a dustlike substance, the dark motes collecting over a paper lining. Atop the glass was a second note: COLLECT SPORES AND TAKE. Rodney moved along.

Next was a rotund burlap sack placed languidly over the floor, its top cinched into anal folds by thick hemp rope. The bag moved a little, and there was a sound like breathing. The note on it said IGNORE, and Rodney did his best to.

There followed more inexplicable things to be IGNORED, and finally a strange white brick tucked in a corner. Rodney picked it up and found it of no familiar material, on it a small inset rectangle of rambling red characters. It reminded him of a working stopwatch, one bank of characters moving quickly, with two more in slower intervals. He set it down and read its accompanying note: TAKE WITH YOU. There was nothing else in the room.

At the terrarium, he bundled the spores in their papers, pocketed them, and took to the other things. The brick was easy, but the box of signs was bulky and heavy. He would have to call in another cab.

He opened the giant mahogany door to begin the extraction, but stopped in the jamb: the floor dropped off beyond the threshold. He poked his head through, and eventually ascertained Jason Bowie’s attic. The sallow hanging bulb, the tumuli of things, the trunk and the magical telephone. Rodney wanted to question this, but a sneering resignation had replaced his care.

He schlepped over the signs and tossed them through the door, the box somersaulting beside the incumbent junk. The brick was easier by comparison. The door was set high on the attic wall, and he had to lower himself down. Once he was safely in the attic, the door slammed behind him in the way he was becoming accustomed to, wind upsetting his hat.

The door sat dead center over the gable wall, incongruous but somehow not. He couldn’t remember seeing it there earlier. He tried it and it opened to a superb cerise dusk, the outside air cool on his face. He looked out disinterestedly, then closed the door and set the red-blinking brick on a table.

The phone rang from across the room.

* * *

Rodney spent his next week sowing the spurious signs, per the phone’s faceless voice. He initially resisted the request, but capitulated after an outrage of shocks. The minutes-long grand mals were insufferable, effacing any illusions of volition, and he became a zombified shell knowing only obedience. The phone was God, and Rodney worshiped with his hands. Owln’s Malt learned of Bill 41D.

The phone lay silent until July 8th, when it roused Rodney from a madman’s sleep. Black in his coat, he stumbled from Jason Bowie’s bed and to the attic, in the automatic manner of a butler or nurse. It was light out and may have been day, the world a hell of screaming rings and phantom memories.

Rodney took up the phone, his eyes wide and sightless.

THE BRICK IT GOES SECRETLY IN THE FAIRGROUNDS’ AMPHITHEATER GO NOW.”

“The brick,” Rodney slurred. He’d forgotten the brick, along with most else.

The voice repeated its machine-gun command, perhaps interpreting Rodney’s answer as a question. When it said nothing more, Rodney hung up and found the curious white brick across the attic. It shone red.

He said “the brick” again and took it in both hands. It was vaguely cylindrical, reminiscent of a miniature quonset hut, its red display dancing gamely. He hefted it; it didn’t weigh much. The device reminded him of something he either couldn’t remember or chose not to in fear of shocks. Only when he got downstairs did he place it as a bomb.

“Bomb,” he said aloud, then covered his mouth like a child who’d spoken vulgarity. He braced himself for shocks, looking wildly about and pissing a little, but none came. He set the brick over a table and stood watching it.

Bomb. Signs. Fake bill.

Fairgrounds. Bomb. Signs.

Bomb. Fake bill. Bomb. Fairgrounds.

The thoughts tumbled through his head like ghost-laundry, making it hurt. In his stomach a feeling like things fighting. He swallowed, and looked yearningly to the kitchen’s unmagical phone, not quite thinking what he was thinking.

Bomb bomb bomb bomb

He dashed for the phone, intent on calling someone — himself, the other Rodney Feet even — regarding the phone-God’s scheme, but a preposterous shock arrested him in his tracks. Rodney cried out, shaking, diving more than falling, the residual motion sliding him like a hockey puck. He crashed into the wall with a strained noise — “Hum-wah!” — and then lay thrashing, feet pedaling and hands clawing air.

And still he tried for the phone, rising fitfully. The hurting pangs continued and he grit another man’s teeth, taking to one knee, a “Hum-wah!” with each inch and his insides wailing. “Hum-wah! Hum-wah!”

He somehow grabbed for the phone, his arms curled in a fiend’s reach, and the catastrophe abruptly cut out, perhaps on a switch. Rodney poised and breathed, gradually stopped gritting his teeth, his jaw clicking audibly. After a puzzled few seconds, he jackrabbited upright and crushed the phone to his ear. He dialed a 9 and a 1, then froze: the teak box had floated in from the den.

It appeared like some gruesome fly, hovering in precise increments to stop inches from Rodney’s head. He had time to read DO NOT OPEN before the box exploded something like acid over Jason Bowie’s face. There was a psssst! and smoke and fiery pain. Rodney howled.

He went clumsily fetal and alternated screaming and trying to, his hands brutal claws that scratched. He shook and flounced, smelling a chemical odor much too strongly, suggesting an altered nose. His legs cramped unnoticed. He couldn’t blink but could still see, and he noticed something amidst the rubble of the box, inches away. It looked like gauze and a spray bottle.

He stopped shrieking long enough to coax the spray bottle into his claw-hands. It was heavy with liquid, and labeled SPRAY in those fearless block letters. Rodney tried to do so, failed, and repeated this twice before misting a phenomenally soothing substance over what remained of his face. An odor like lavender, spring.

He sprayed it liberally and then again, and the pain was as if never there. He caught his breath, spat some muculent slime. The knot of gauze offered no instructions but he needed none. When his legs had stopped cramping, he went to the bathroom mirror, where a creature of unclothed red muscle stood.

He moaned out from a mouth cured of lips, crying in every respect save tears, but eventually he reconciled with the meat that was now him, and bandaged himself shakily. Once done, he held audience with the Sign Man.

The phone rang as Rodney fixed the last of the gauze, and the voice said, “THE BRICK IT GOES SECRETLY IN THE FAIRGROUNDS’ AMPHITHEATER GO NOW.”

This time, Rodney hung up and went.

* * *

Rodney’s second week as Jason Bowie passed in a blur of unknowing, his mind like something eaten and shat. After secreting the brick in the fairgrounds’ amphitheater, he knew only the signs and their planting. There were dozens, and he proliferated them with vegetable tenacity. He slept sometimes, despite his lack of eyelids; sometimes inserted food into what was once a mouth. The spray bottle saw regular use. He did not think about calling himself. He did not think about calling himself.

Rodney didn’t notice when July 16th rolled around; dates had ceased for him. He spent the day disseminating signs and then returned to Jason Bowie’s home. The phone was ringing when he entered, and he made for it before even spraying his face. He put the earpiece to what remained of his left ear.

A MAN COMES,” the voice said.

“A mah,” Rodney said. His vowels were blunted now, his n’s silent.

A POLICE OFFICER RODNEY FEET.”

The phrase brushed something in Rodney’s fractured mind, but he refused to acknowledge it. Shocks. Shocks. The shocks.

TOMORROW HE COMES USE EQUIPMENTS PROVIDED.”

Rodney didn’t have to ask where the equipments would be.

The voice then told Rodney what he was to do, finishing with, “DO NOT FAIL.”

When Rodney remained silent, a shock went through him and he whimpered and shook. The voice repeated, “DO NOT FAIL.”

“Do ot vail,” Rodney droned, his tongue numb.

The voice said nothing more, and Rodney hung up. Waiting for him on the front doorstep was a handheld tape player and a tape he’d heard and a note he’d read.

He took them inside, pocketed the bindle of mushroom spores, and slept for a time. He was very tired.

* * *

On the evening of the 17th, Rodney was again out advertising the debate for Bill 41D. There were now other signs interspersing his, some admonishing the town to vote no on the Bill, others lending support. Rodney had not planted these signs; he wondered if there really was a Bill 41D. He didn’t think about it much. He didn’t think much.

He was unaware of the police cruiser until the door slammed shut. A voice from behind: “Hey.” Rodney turned and there was a man, a police officer. Rodney both did and did not recognize the face. He would not recognize the face.

“Howdy,” the officer said, standing at distance.

Rodney did as the phone-God had said and presented the tape player, clicking it on.

The officer asked if Rodney had been putting up the signs, and the tape player answered. The lights flashed primary colors.

Smirking now, the officer told Rodney to come with him, but the tape player refuted this, making the officer go taut. He then asked the tape player to recite his badge number. The answer registered on his face.

The officer said “Stop that shit” and fingered his gun in a way familiar. “Give me ID.”

The tape player said more, but Rodney didn’t hear. He wanted to plant his signs.

The police officer turned red and snatched the tape player and pitched it away, furtive clatter like fleeing animals. “Give me the ID!” he screamed, his voice cracking.

Rodney rummaged in his sign-bag and came up with Jason Bowie’s driver’s license. The police officer took it bad-temperedly, told Rodney to stay there, and repaired to the jackpot cruiser. Rodney stayed. Eventually the officer returned and told Rodney to put his hands behind his back, then yelled and imprecated when Rodney refused.

Rodney long suffered the officer’s shoutings, and at last produced the phone-God’s epistle, as instructed. The officer whipped up his gun. Rodney was not afraid.

“Don’t want that paper,” the officer said, though his eyes said otherwise. “You best gimme them hands, son. You won’t like the alternative.”

Rodney offered only the note. The phone-God had made no mention of surrender.

The police officer excruciated forward like a plant growing, then swiped the note and yelled more, his fine spittings made red and blue in the flashes.

Rodney did not answer, and would not. He secretly emptied the mushroom spores into his hands.

The officer read the note, and Rodney lunged soundlessly, catlike in grace. The officer looked up just as the spores rouged his face, Rodney’s hands like some misbegotten flower.

The officer screamed, swatting blindly. He remained so as the gun raised and clicked and fired into Rodney’s eyehole, the head a jigsaw forever unmade.

II. The Traveler

Walter was forty-five and a stockbroker when he one day awoke in the body of an eleven-year-old farmboy living thirty years previous. The first year was marked by strife and yelling, a bald dispossession, constant pinching. Dreams within dreams. However, due to a fierce will to survive, Walter resigned himself to this wizardry and lived a second adolescence. By sixteen he had developed a slight career as a prophet, prognosticating world events via memory; by his twenties, he had graduated to stocks, buying generous amounts of future giants such as Apple Computer and Microsoft. This lasted until he was once more forty-five, except incredibly rich. Then he again awoke in another’s body.

It was a girl’s this time, also eleven and from a hardscrabble farm family living three decades earlier. The fate was easier than his last such experience, thanks to the savoir-faire of his seventy-nine years, yet it still presented difficulties, namely his new and sometimes painful sex. He repeated his gig as a limited psychic, as well as his move to stocks after saving some investment capital. No one would call him Walter until he’d made his first million.

He grew into a strikingly beautiful brunette, the kind he may have once married. He had a ball, sexually, making liberal use of mirrors. Still, he craved a companion, which led him to join the developing lesbian movement, which he had twice witnessed from afar. He donated much of his wealth to lesbian studies, becoming a matriarch of the community and meeting more wonderful ladies than he ever had as a man.

But there was a hole inside him, remaining unfilled in spite of the endless money and his outrageous sexual antics. So, at the age of 33/101, he undertook a spiritual journey, to try and understand his bizarre fortunes. He dabbled in several faiths and dogmas, subscribing to none particularly, and came to settle on simple meditation. It was then that he received his answer.

* * *

Walter was seated amongst many in an apartment meditation outfit, lotused and svelte in his spandex, when the vision came. He abruptly opened his eyes and stood and said, “Corner,” in his sultry female voice, after which he made for the door.

The organizer stopped him. “Where are you going?”

“The corner,” Walter said, and descended the apartment high-rise for the bustling city streets. He soon occupied the street corner designated in his vision, crowded and loud. Men gave him lascivious glances he couldn’t blame them for. After several minutes, the spodomancer arrived.

“Walter,” the spodomancer said in greeting. He was tall and bearded, his genteel olive complexion giving back the sun. His ghutrah was a festive plaid.

Walter acknowledged him. “Who are you?”

“I’m the spodomancer. Come.” The spodomancer started away.

“Where are we going?”

The spodomancer didn’t stop. “Where the ashes say.”

“And where is that?”

“I don’t know.”

The spodomancer walked in purposeful strides. Walter followed.

Two blocks later, the spodomancer ducked into an alleyway where he went to his haunches and set fire to some paper before sifting its ashes, reading them. “This way,” he said, heading across the street.

Walter bent to the ashes, himself, but saw nothing of import.

They went several blocks before the spodomancer ignited a second piece of refuse, a small crayon picture now, the work of a child or invalid. When it was no more, the spodomancer squatted and read with great concentration.

“How do you read the ashes?” Walter asked. He had learned much in his long life, but spodomancy had evaded him.

The spodomancer gestured Walter close and explained at length the ancient practice: the hidden order of the cosmos, the illusion of chaos, God in all things, as above, as below. The ashes are inside you. Walter listened intently, and soon understood the basic concepts of the craft. He and the spodomancer left the child’s picture and traveled deep into the dying city, burning many more things, each edifying Walter in the ways of spodomancy. Before long, the man let Walter burn and read his own specimen, getting it half right. The spodomancer read it correctly, and they were soon at their journey’s final station, a tall brownstone at the city’s periphery.

“What’s in there?” Walter asked.

The spodomancer shrugged. “Let’s find out, hmm?”

* * *

The spodomancer led Walter up two flights of steps and down a dark hallway where the doors had no numbers, boards creaking underfoot or missing completely. The spodomancer banged on the final door, the ninth, and it was punctually cracked. A shiver of movement within the slit, suggestions of eyes.

“Walter,” said a voice like ice and stone mixed.

“Yes,” Walter said, and stepped forward, intrigued.

“Come.”

The door opened fully and Walter passed through, met by a tall figure lost in a flowing brown habit. The spodomancer began to follow but the monk put out his hand: “Not you.”

Unconcerned, the spodomancer repaired down the hallway and burned things.

Inside the apartment, the windows were either nonexistent or boarded up, and the monk carried a phallic tallow candle in a bronze holder, its dull light showing little. He preceded Walter through dark emptiness: other monks similarly dressed, no furniture to speak of, a smell like old licorice, the air pleasantly damp. Then came a back room, where more monks tended a nude and blindfolded young woman chained to the wall.

“The sibyl,” said Walter’s guide. “Ask your question.”

Walter was taken aback by the captive, speechless. After finding his tongue, he asked the question that had plagued him these many decades: “Why have I been three people?”

At this, the sibyl moaned and twisted, testing her restraints as though just finding them. Her beaus consoled with gentle words and water toweled. “Easy,” they said. “Easy.”

She shocked straight, suddenly composed. “The path leads,” she said with a voice learned in the greater world.

The words at first meant nothing; then Walter understood. He put a hand to his breasts. “Oh my,” he said, and swooned to the floor.

The world vanished, replaced by a questioning black that could be sleep.

* * *

He awoke in light. Sunlight, warm on his face. But it wasn’t his face. He’d made another jump, and he knew it at once, from prior experience.

Walter startled in his seat, the body cumbersome, resentful of his bidding. He patted his chest, found it flat and male, and performed a similar analysis of his genitals. Male, also. He felt conflicted.

His eyes adjusted to show a white room dispersed with people, most staring but not at him. Old and young, colorful, all in drab fatigues suggestive of captivity. An attitude of repose. Strange catcalls from the room at large.

Walter said, “Where am I?” but it came out a vomit of malformed syllables loud enough to echo.

“Mister Feet?” said a voice from far away, and it meant nothing to Walter.

He shifted in his seat, assessing this fourth body of his. It felt older than his previous flesh, stockier, of a generally poor kilter. It was white, had a slight paunch, and wore a terrycloth bathrobe over pajama pants and house slippers. He sent a hand to his head and found corn-silk wisps of hair.

“Mister Feet!” the voice repeated, elated now, female and nearing. Walter turned to find a youngish nurse-looking woman, her hands laced at her chest. “You’re awake!” she cried. Some of the others were looking now.

Walter coughed out something like “Yes.” The man’s throat was shit compared to Walter’s last, and he suddenly missed her.

After more surprised-sounding words, the nurse scampered off to fetch “the doctor.”

Walter fixed on a frightened-looking woman alone at a table, a game of checkers before her. “Hey,” he said. “Hey.”

The woman stared raptly at the matrix of game pieces.

“Hey,” Walter said. “Where am I?”

The woman darted her eyes at him but said nothing.

“Hey. You. What is this place?”

The woman shot up and walked briskly to the other side of the room, taking the checker game with her. She sat and puzzled over it.

“Yer in Owln’s Malt,” said another voice. A frail gentleman of untold age, haggard and careworn. His wrinkles had wrinkles.

Walter searched him. “Owln’s Malt,” he said, struggling with the odd phrase. “What’s Owln’s Malt?”

“A town, Mister Feet,” the other man said, with a John Wayne cadence. He was wearing a huge Stetson that Walter had somehow missed. “And this here’s its loony bin.”

Walter committed this to memory and thanked the man, making him nod stolidly. The nurse returned shortly after, followed by a short man in shirtsleeves and glasses.

“Mister Feet!” the short man said, and wrangled a chair. “The sleeper awakes!” He carried a hardwood clipboard. It snapped loudly.

Walter returned a wary look and said nothing. He felt to be the object of a circus attraction.

“I’m sorry, where’re my manners?” the short man said, extending a hand. “I’m Doctor Langley.” He glanced at the nurse, something passed between them, and she disappeared.

Walter took the hand and shook it to the best of his ability. “I’m…Mister Feet,” he said uncertainly.

The doctor sent a placatory smile. “Yes. Now, Rodney, how are you feeling?”

Rodney Feet, Walter thought. What a name. His last had been Mary Smith, or something. He said he was feeling okay.

The doctor nodded and said “Good” too many times, writing. “Do you know where you are?” he asked, his pen poised.

“Owln’s Malt,” Walter said, then added, “Or so that guy says.” He indicated the cowpoke he’d spoken with, and the man stirred as though implicated in a crime.

“Yes, yes,” the doctor said. “Owln’s Malt. Good.”

* * *

The doctor asked many questions, all addressed to a Mr. Rodney Feet, and Walter had no answers. From what Walter could gather, Mr. Feet had been involved in some trauma that the doctor refused to divulge and consigned to the local sanitarium, a vegetable. After the doctor had exhausted his questions, he ushered Walter to a room with a bed and a dresser, the latter stocked with more drab clothing. Walter remained there the rest of the day. The hospital creeped him out.

Dinner was called at some latter time and Walter was summoned to a small cafeteria where residents ate and moaned and danced. He found he was hungry, and ate heartily the provided meal. Sitting alone was the haggard fellow he’d conversed with in the day room, eating with his hat on. Walter moved beside him.

“Hey,” Walter said. “I never introduced myself. My name’s Walter.” He gave his hand, and the other man shook it dubiously.

“Name’s Pete Vern,” he said, “but I’ll be damned if you ain’t Rodney Feet. Yer that feller who kilt the Sign Man.” The plastic star on his chest failed to gleam.

“Yeah, well, just call me Walter,” Walter said. His brows knit. “Now, who did I kill, exactly?”

“The Sign Man, the sumbitch that put out them signs got everyone all riled up,” Pete Vern said. “Word is you shot ‘im square in the eye and went catertonic, like it freaked ya out real good. I don’t blame ya, myself. Can’t be too pretty shootin out a body’s eye.” His mouth moved funny, pus-yellow teeth looking out. Salt-and-pepper nose-hair clogged each nostril.

“You don’t say,” Walter said, stroking his stubble. He’d missed stubble during his tenure as a woman. “What’s the date?”

Pete Vern’s face squint and looked skyward. “I do believe it’s Joo-ly 29th.”

“What year?”

Pete lifted his hat and scratched a bald head, then told Walter the year. It was a decade prior to when he was a woman conferring with the sibyl.

Walter again thanked him, and soon the people were herded up and sent to their rooms for the night.

* * *

The male ward contained a single, communal toilet, appallingly clean. Walter awoke in the night, made use of the facilities, and ran the washbasin. As he washed, he noted the mirror and the middle-aged man limned there, hands-down the most homely of his experience. He acquainted himself with his new person and then dried his hands and started away; however, his reflection remained after he’d left, its eyes following him. Walter went still.

He and his reflection stared at each other, then the man in the mirror said, “Come here, Walter.” The voice was muffled and dulled, as though traveling through glass, and identical to Walter/Rodney’s.

Walter, annealed to such peculiarity, returned obediently to the basin. “Who’re you?”

“I am God,” said his reflection.

Walter could think of nothing to say.

God stared. “I have work for you in Owln’s Malt, Walter. A sinister force has set in motion the destruction of the town, intent on a harvest of souls. You must stop it.”

“Okay. How do I stop it?”

“I cannot tell you that, Walter,” God said. “It is part of your learning. You must figure it out on your own.”

Walter soured. The path leads. “On my own. Not even a hint?”

God shook His selfsame head. “Sorry, Walter. No.”

Walter loitered by the mirror for several minutes, awaiting elaboration. Then a fly lit over his face and he swatted it away and his reflection did the same, and he realized it was once more only that. He splashed some water on his face and returned to bed.

* * *

The next morning, Walter checked himself out from the hospital and called a cab from the lobby pay phone. The cab was a puke-green van, and only as he got inside did he realize he had no idea where he was going. He commissioned a ride to a coffee shop in the middle of town, paying from what money he had. It was the 30th of the month.

As Walter sipped bad coffee and watched passing Owln’s Maltians, contemplating ways to combat a soul-harvest, he remembered his being an amateur of spodomancy. He at once bought a Zippo and a newspaper that read, TWO DEAD IN LATEST RIOT, then burned the front page and read the ash, alone behind the cafe. He called another cab afterward, getting the same van.

The drive was long, and Walter both frustrated and mystified the cabby with a sequence of stops and burnings, but an hour later they arrived at the Owln’s Malt fairgrounds, a ruined swatch of earth spared desolation by a misplaced wooden amphitheater. The scenery was miserable and dead, half-fallen fences all around. There was trash.

“You with that debate they’s doin’ tomorrow?” the cabby asked, when they had at last parked. He wore a red armband conspicuously over his shirt.

“No sir,” Walter said.

“You goin’ to vote against it, right?”

Reading a quiet malice in the man’s eye, Walter answered, “Yes.”

The malice evaporated, the man’s face losing years. “Yessir,” he said. “Good man. Cayn’t let them towelheads win.”

Walter bade him to stay put, then got out and burned more. The cabby paid no attention, perhaps inured to this.

Per the ashes, Walter took to the crude amphitheater. The wooden stairs wobbled some, like a three-legged table he’d known in some childhood. He inspected the grandstand, the shell, a lectern with a soapbox pedestal, and finally opened a trapdoor to the undercarriage. It was dark, but a flickering red light alerted him to a kind of white parcel duct-taped under the boards. Weird characters flickered from a tiny screen, like the tallies of some demon cash register. He pulled it free with an offended screech.

Before embarking the cab, he burned more of his dwindling newspaper and received the next clue. He got inside and said, “Is there a storage facility around here?”

The cabby said, “Sho is,” and keyed the van.

* * *

Once at Owln’s Malt Self-Storage, Walter got out, burned, then asked the cabby to tot the fare. There was just enough money to cover it, and the van puttered off. He put the blinking parcel-thing under his arm and made for locker number nine.

He found it placed inextricably between numbers seventy-two and seventy-four, in the far reaches of the complex, locked. Walter had separated some newspaper and sparked his lighter when he remembered how to shim a padlock, a skill he’d acquired amidst his centenary on earth. He combed the premises, found a soda can that fit his needs, and used Mr. Feet’s pocket knife to carve it appropriately. The lock popped on his third try.

He had begun raising the panel when it did so on its own accord, opening to black. Walter entered and again lit his lighter, now for light, and the panel roared shut, phantom lights beaming on. A tall mahogany door interrupted the chamber’s far wall, not indecorous. He walked over to find cold and stinking air issuing from its threshold. He had one piece of newspaper left — the front page, detailing the town’s upheaval regarding a Bill 41D — so he burned it. The ashes told him what to do.

The door led to a dark nothing that became a small metal room filled with things Walter ignored. The door whammed shut behind him like the locker panel. Following the ashes’ instruction, he laid the busy parcel on a table there and then doubled back through the door of his ingress. He had nearly stepped through when he realized it opened to an enclosed apartment that was not the storage locker.

There were boxes and clothes and things, serried together like teeth in a mouth. Broken-down antiques. A Victrola horn large enough to stow a child. A body-length mirror. It reminded him of attics he’d seen. There was a single high step, and he rappelled over the ledge, struggling in Rodney Feet’s rotund body. The door snapped shut as though on a timer.

As Walter took his first step, a phone rang from the end of the room, an old-timey candlestick model crowning a steamer trunk. Walter walked over and picked it up.

A voice answered hugely: “YOU THINK YOU HAVE DEFEATED ME HA HA YOU HAVE ACCOMPLISHED NOTHING HA OWLN’S MALT IS DOOMED HA HA.”

Walter said, “Hello?”

The voice hadn’t stopped: “YOU HAVE FAILED, TRAVELER, THE BOMB MEANT NOTHING HA HA FAILED. THE SOULS ARE MINE HA AND YOURS WITH IT HA HA.”

The voice blabbered on, and Walter hung up; the sound was atrocious. It rung immediately after, and he let it.

After leaving the attic, he toured a quaint house that appeared empty, hallooing without response. He thought it might be Rodney Feet’s, but some framed diplomas indicated a Jason Fitzgerald Bowie. Walter located a newspaper and then went outside and burned and read. With a nod, he laid in the grass and closed Rodney Feet’s eyes, waiting.

There was a staticky feeling, then a popping of the ears and a sense of lift, and when Walter opened his eyes, he was someone else.

III. The End of Owln’s Malt

Some said it would legalize prostitution. Some, gambling. Others marijuana. Minority factions claimed everything from liquor by the drink, to tax reformation, to deviant pornography. Pastor Richard Zane, based on information delivered by The Most High, declared it an effort to reintroduce prayer to public schools. Only a choice few labeled Bill 41D a hoax, with just several authorities and elected officials amongst them.

Things heated up the week after the signs’ materialization, when a Dr. Peter Cleveland rolled into town, confirming Bill 41D as an effort to make Owln’s Malt a toxic waste dump. With fire-and-brimstone zeal, the squat man appeared on local cable to condemn all in support of this blasphemy, volume and platitudes his only instantiations and the only needed. The other signs cropped up within days, imploring Owln’s Malt to vote yes or no on the upcoming Bill.

These signs soon graced homes and businesses and car windows, and by the middle of July, the town’s many camps and clans had conflated into two: those for the Bill, headed by Pastor Zane, and those against it, headed by Dr. Cleveland, who artfully dodged any question of his credentials. And despite there being no consensus on what, exactly, Bill 41D sought to accomplish, the solidarities were no less strong. A line was drawn, and the Public likes lines.

The first violence arose amongst the least of Owln’s Malt, in the elementary school playground. Randy Craig was seven, and the son of a stern, God-fearing man who ardently supported Bill 41D, as all upright Americans should, lest the terrorists win. So when Michael Stroup, eight, and the son of a dirty opponent to the American Way, refuted Randy’s counsel to vote yes, the two came to blows, resulting in a black eye, a bloody nose, and an impacted urethra. It would be an omen of all to come.

More bloodshed came three days later, July 15th. An accountant by the confusing name of Miller Tom, a proponent for the Bill, was jogging when he caught Frank Jenkins uprooting vote-yes signs and replacing them with vote-no’s. Pointing led to shouting, and shouting to shoving, and shoving to a dislocated jaw and a combined total of nine broken ribs. Neither man would press charges.

The next incident came the following afternoon. The pro-Bill Stevens family lived next door to the Williamses, vocal opponents of the legislature, on the grounds of it promoting child labor. Contradictory signs picketed each yard, and there had been ugly looks. On the afternoon in question, the families’ respective housewives were in their respective gardens when Brenda Stevens assaulted Clare Williams with a spade, for reasons unstated but all too clear. Clare was left in critical condition, with several punctured organs and a partial mastectomy. Brenda was jailed for attempted murder.

Then, on the 17th, Sergeant Rodney Feet shot and killed Jason Bowie, the purported “Sign Man” responsible for introducing Owln’s Malt to Bill 41D. Afterward, both factions claimed Jason Bowie’s membership and presented him as a martyr, which led to auxiliary feuds via the local press and television networks. On the 19th, a protest was held outside the courthouse, attended by both groups, a forest of pasteboard signs and clever slogans in evidence. It ended in a riot, hospitalizing two dozen. Several mufti police officers were amongst the crowd, along with a judge and the clerk of court.

The first homicide was Billy McCandless, the local satellite TV peddler and a quiet but firm vote-no, since public masturbation should remain illegal. Billy’s business was run from a cinderblock duplex, shared with a pizza parlor owned by Frederick Styles, who plastered his restaurant with expropriated vote-yes signs. The murder occurred on the 21st, when Mr. Styles refused Mr. McCandless’s order for a large white pie. The men argued over the phone, after which Mr. Styles went next door and shot his neighbor in the head, followed by himself. For the next two days there were matching vigils held at the empty storefronts, resulting in harsh language and more fighting. Dr. Peter Cleveland used the murder to demonstrate the inherent insanity in all favoring Bill 41D, while Pastor Zane replied with choice scriptures that only vaguely denounced the crime. The landlord was left with two vacant businesses.

On July 23rd, Pastor Zane formed the Faith and Family Coalition, a Bill-supporting organization bent on “informing Owln’s Malt on Bill 41D with a sensible, faith-based approach.” Concerned Citizens for Owln’s Malt was created in answer, headed indirectly by Dr. Peter Cleveland, who was, admittedly, not a citizen of the town (and was by then rumored to be a polygamist and child-molester wanted in six states).

A day later, the 24th, a certain Robert Jones filed a complaint with the authorities. According to him, after he had attended meetings for both the FAFC and the CCFOM, disseminating literature proving there was no Bill 41D in existence, his life was threatened on multiple occasions, via anonymous phone calls and an epistolary brick sent through his window, accusing him of hating America. Dr. Cleveland, on his now-regular cable broadcast, responded to Mr. Jones’ claims by suggesting he go say that in Russia and see what happens. This was met by a sweep of hoots and applause from the in-house audience, American flags waving avidly. Robert Jones was harassed to the point of leaving town.

The week preceding the debate, a plague of entropy spread through the once-quiet farming town. More children savaged themselves into hospital visits. A home and at least one business were burned in relation to the Bill. Many pets went missing. A Dillon Staple went on hunger strike until the Bill was taken off the books, failing to receive press. Letters threatened the lives of public officials denying the Bill’s actuality, and also went unmentioned. A hostage situation developed, its aim unclear, and it managed a spot on the evening news before being defused by authorities. The FAFC began handing out armbands, and the CCFOM followed suit. Dr. Cleveland set a FAFC armband aflame during his TV show, thus conceiving both a fresh riot and a flood of donations.

On the 26th, the local government unfurled a campaign to gently inform the Public of there being no Bill 41D, nor any plans to introduce one. The Public retaliated with protests and wild cries for impeachment, led chiefly by Pastor Zane, who demanded to speak with the authorities so that he may read them the very text of the Bill, as dictated by God Himself. Another riot ensued when he was refused, on the grounds of him being “shithouse-crazy.” The government’s truth campaign lasted less than a day, due to a bomb threat that emptied city hall.

The third riot continued for nearly forty-eight hours, resulting in a million dollars’ worth of looting and injury. A dozen civil servants resigned out of fear for their lives, and were harried much like Robert Jones. One, a twenty-three-year-old secretary by the name of Carolyn Murphy, was left in a coma by a thrown rock, followed by a cry of “Damn Communist!”

The 30th saw an uneasy quiet befall Owln’s Malt, as though the town was biding its energies for the upcoming debate. However, this ended when the body of Sergeant Rodney Feet turned up on Jason Bowie’s front lawn, mysteriously deceased. Inexplicably, it sparked outrage within both factions, and the town was put on a preemptory curfew. Rodney’s widow, Margaret Feet, went on Dr. Cleveland’s program to tearfully declare that Rod-Rod was no bastard vote-yesser, and that those in favor of the Bill were disrespecting her dead husband, for reasons never clarified. Dr. Cleveland patted her shoulder, and, as his donation address crowded the screen, invited those crazy nutjob yessers to mosey on down to the fairgrounds tomorrow, to settle this once and for all.

They did, and the matter was in fact settled.

* * *

In ones and twos the town reported to that squalid plot, the camps congregating as leaves in water, armbands steering newcomers to their kith. By late morning there were hundreds; by noontime, two thousand and more. No smiles amongst them and the eyes like stone, an air of noir that only grew. They stood before the amphitheater in wait of what wouldn’t come, the crowd fissured in the way of canyons and schoolyard children.

The leaders arrived at high noon, to cheers and boos and rumors of violence. The man known most recently as Peter Cleveland assumed a foldout throne amongst his wives and henchmen. Pastor Zane made itinerant treks of the premises, rallying the Faithful. The crowd was restless and morose, murdering with their eyes.

By two o’clock there was no debate still and no clouds and no more patience, the people multiplying, the armies swelling. The crowd soon initiated an informal debate, cried accusations and general disparagement, fists pistoning, recriminations, passionate threats, scrawled signs that accomplished nothing. Three o’clock saw a plenary of the town, boiling with a bloodlust not new.

It started with a thrown shoe, a casus belli like none other. The footwear described an arc between the two wedges, disappearing with an embellished scream and a writhe of movement, waves in a pond. Fingers pointed, mouths worked, and reciprocation followed, commencing an enraged rain of thrown objects — rocks, trash, fugitive clumps of dirt. A soiled rainbow bridged the gap, then the throwing mysteriously stopped, the front lines bulging. Screaming and rude babel, attitudes of loathing, a two-fisted craze upon them.

And then they charged with arms flailing, howls of release and some foul ecstasy, the two bodies now one. A cataclysm of sweat and clothes and hair, armbands declaring enemy and friend, teeth gnashing and not a protest amongst them. The bodies grappled, fell, kicked, bit, trampling their own and others and the silent earth. Heard battle cries: “Down with the Nazis!” “Let freedom ring!” “Death to all yessers!”

Tommy Mathis was a mechanic and a mechanic’s son, three hundred pounds going on a thousand, a refrigerator that could hate. A black armband on each ham-hock bicep, the limbs savaging all innocent of these fatigues. He saw an armband of Satan-red and growled and cut a terrible shape with his fist, cold-cocking an elderly man who had once taught English. A red woman came in a harridan whirlwind and he gut-punched and face-punched and broke the frail neck, leaving her a twisted sprawl. Tommy snatched up a hickory cane and took to swinging, denting skulls and removing eyes and cracking arm bones, until the wood was in pieces. A red-banded shape on the ground, squirming still, and Tommy impaled it with half the cane, blood wetting him and the ground. He javelined the rest to the crowd at large and roared and stalked and killed.

Rollie Craps, a red band proudly about his forehead, had bought the brass knuckles decades previous, to employ against any unwise enough to mock his name. He had not used them for years but now they saw play once more, voiding jaws and noses and creating four-ringed marks that would stay a long time. He fought until the recalcitrant hulk that was Tommy Mathis scored a roguish backhand and sent him concussed and bleeding to the killing floor.

Quinton Yellow was an unfetching nineteen and perennially single and wore a night sky of zits. He kept a baseball bat in his truck and now sent it into faces and kidneys and knees. He wore a black armband but held a general contempt for his fellow man and so swung without prejudice.

Anna Peck was nine, and small enough to remain invisible in the panoply of legs. The armbands were too big for her but a man in a black one had punched Daddy and made him stop moving and she loved Daddy so she hated the blacks. Daddy had given her the Uncle Henry knife when she was six, because everyone should have a knife, and she knew how to slice and carve and so she did. She was short and could only reach the crotches, but that seemed to do the trick.

The captains of this war at first kept to the sidelines, in the fastnesses of their retinues. Then Dr. Cleveland caught Pastor Zane’s bespectacled eyes, communicating a keening hate, and like suitors the two broke from their guard and onto the amphitheater grandstand, rancored and vile and faces burning. The corpulent pastor dwarfed his opponent, but Dr. Cleveland was spry and faltered none, in his eyes or with the swagger stick he waved. They stood growling and then the pastor cried a tuba note and charged, his flabby arms spread like one pretending flight. The doctor bared his teeth, swung high, missed, and was tackled like a sandcastle in a wave, the swagger stick clunking to the ugly planks. The men snatched and rolled and kicked, clawing flesh and air blindly and both shrieking. The doctor scored a ruinous groin-blow and scurried out for his swagger stick, the wood at his fingertips just as the pastor hammered his elbow with both hands, the joint left screaming and out of true. The pastor retrieved the weapon and used it repeatedly, punishing swings cracking bones easily. Laughter like dark verse.

When the doctor had not quite stilled, Pastor Zane intruded the man’s ribcage and removed the black heart hidden there, humors spraying forth and the pastor bathing thusly and drinking some. He then raised the heathen trophy to the wrestling throng, terrible and gibbering and bibbed in blood, the cannibal minister of a pervert’s church. “Kill!” he shouted in bloviate hymn, to the crowd, to the heavens, to all living and dead and dying. “Kill! Kill! Kill!”

Drawing sustenance from this victory, the black-banders obeyed their leader’s command, leaving none breathing lest they lack breath themselves. A contingency of red-banders answered with signs of surrender or decampment, but the unregenerate refused them passage, dragging them screaming into the fray, the shade of their armband irrelevant. “To the death! To the death!”

A bloodstained apparition raised and lowered a carmine sword and slowed at nothing, roaming the battlefield like some death-fed machine. A bare-chested ogre dual-wielded severed arms, employing the dead joints for clout, clubbing relentlessly in the crisp summer sun. An androgynous form worked a red-painted pitchfork, inflicting trigram streams the color of its tines, schooled in hate and bloodshed forever. Children mimicked their elders, identical in violence and cunning like small mirrors made living, young masters of that unlearned craft. The fairgrounds turned red.

For an hour the internecine raged, rising and falling to rise again, the cadavers outnumbering the fighting. In time, armbands and associations were ignored and the war raged indiscriminate, the battle-tranced warriors requiring only movement as criteria for their offensives. “Kill!” Pastor Zane chanted. “Kill! Kill! Kill!”

The first uniformed police arrived at four o’clock, as the sun drowsed and the rolling scuds of dust had yet to settle. Outnumbered, they called for backup without interfering, all guns unlimbered. There remained a ragged melee involving four hundred of the five thousand Owln’s Maltians, weltered shapes swinging fists or crude weapons, the odd body falling dead. More police arrived, wielding bullhorns, and they made demands to this pugilist horde, only calling attention to themselves and inviting battle.

With a red-gloved hand, Pastor Zane indicated the interlopers and implored his army hither, at last quitting the stage to lead the charge. The police were twelve and made a wall, calling out thrice to “drop your weapons and get on the ground,” but still the raving charged, a crazed and walleyed tribe. So the police fired, felling the front line in rank, the bodies pluming dust that coated their successors.

Pastor Zane ended in a riot of tumultuous flesh, striking a profane arabesque that might have been two men dancing, then to the ground and no more. His death signaled an end to the carnage, as though a light had been cycled, and the gunfire ceased. Withdrawn from their lunacy, the living desisted for the wilds, no more than fifty in number and none innocent of blood spatter, a gamboling calico of filth and gore, veterans of some secret apocalypse.

Then came a wondrous silence, scents of cordite and blood and upset earth, the world a gossiping madness. The policeman held mute audience with this new necropolis, the constituency of the county laid to waste before them. A brooding sun overlooked the standing and the fallen all, like the God in architect of these cruelties, the blood laid cold like so much in this world. None spoke.


A. A. Garrison is a twenty-eight-year-old man living in the mountains of North Carolina. His short fiction has appeared in too many places to list, most recently as the cover story for Something Wicked, and on the Pseudopod webcast. His first novel, The End of Jack Cruz, is to be released in 2012. His website is synchroshock.blogspot.com.
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