“The Big Reveal” by David Stevens
When he heard the cracking before the lights had even been doused — a noise he would later realize was the sound of small facial bones breaking — when he looked up and saw the man’s face turning into someone else’s, the boy stopped paying attention to the stuffed horse he had been pulling hair from all afternoon.
As much as it was able (given it was being reconstructed in a manner any fair observer would admit appeared both painful and surprising), the face of the man displayed both confusion and a wish that this was happening to anybody else in the universe other than him. On the other hand, the boy’s face showed excitement and a profound gratitude that finally, something interesting was happening.
How the words had bored him, the endless speeches about higher realms and astral aeroplanes. He had seen an aeroplane, he had, flying low enough that he could make out the top of the pilot’s head, and that had excited him too, even more than the steam train they were travelling on, but his father had pulled a blind down over the carriage window with an emphatic “Eyes front, Paddy!”, and that was how he knew the aeroplane was from the War, and Must Not Be Spoken Of. This though, this was .
How does he do that? It was far more effective than Madame Patel with that sac hanging from her throat — “She’s thyroidal” his father had explained later. Frogoidal more like, he had thought — and her garumphing and baritoning Swami Mushywushy from beyond the grave. Or the ones that would have you believe the dead were crickets, communicating with finger snaps. This one was good. Paddy looked forward to his father explaining it afterwards.
The man stumbled, reached for a chair beside him. As he turned, Paddy caught the stink.
The boy’s eyes bulged. He did not know what to do. He was forbidden to make any noise. He could not imagine what would happen to him if he laughed out loud. But this! It wasn’t like one of the old ladies overestimating the power of their sachet to cover up a fart. Now he heard the squirt, and felt the trickle of reaction through the group. Stench! Nothing like this had ever happened before. This was truly grand!
“I say…” Paddy’s father began above the growing turmoil, rising from his seat, and Paddy panicked, worried that his father’s decency would bring it all to a close.
The old man was so ordinary, his collar frayed and his fussy eau de cologne cheap, but how his skin flowed! Amongst the racket — a man shouting, one of the black clad widows choking like a greedy rooster — Paddy watched, amazed. A new face was pushing itself out through the skin of the old man, an image solidifying on the parchment of a developing photograph.
Paddy wondered why he had worried so much these last years. He had been so afraid that he would forget. Now he knew the memory had always been there, just tucked away, ready to be awoken by the smell of horse liniment or an unwashed rugby jumper. He recognized it straight away, the face in front of him that he had thought he had lost forever.
“Hullo, Jack!” he exclaimed, delighted at the appearance amongst them of his brother, dead these five years past at Gallipoli.
Jack did not appear very happy. He appeared a rather fierce version of the opposite of happy, his newly formed features casting round the room, beaming an anger that would admit to no compromise with lesser emotions.
All round Paddy the group had fallen silent. How they had dressed back then. All starch and broomsticks up the arses, he reflected across the many years that had passed since. Everything so uncomfortable, all hard edges and rigidity. Even as a boy he had worked it out. None of them believed what they were seeing with their own eyes. Flitting from clairvoyant to medium to seer, from darkened parlors to draughty town halls, not buying any of it. For some it was fashionable, for some (his parents, he supposed) it was duty. They did not want certainty, because what do you do with a definite answer that is not the one you were after? All they sought, he realized, was a tiny nugget, something to roll between their fingers in the small hours, to get them through to morning. And if The Great Howdidhe turns out to be a flop and doesn’t even leave you with a crumb of hope, there is always next time to look forward to, I hear Professor Shermer is the genuine article.
But then here it was, bone-cracking, face-altering proof from beyond the grave. Here was his brother, draped in the skin and clothes of a very surprised charlatan (as he thought of him years later, with no animosity), and only Paddy was happy to see him.
Jack’s eyes bugged, at horrors the mere mortals could not see. He shook, no doubt at some cosmic frequency known only to shamans. The old man’s fingers were erect, his spine straining to contain it all. The lips moved, and Paddy, his guts and eyes watering, shifted closer. Whether they wanted a pronouncement from beyond or not, his brother would not fail to provide. Paddy turned and saw the fear in the adult’s eyes, his mother sobbing. He felt the chill in the room, and his own mood shifted. Now he wished those lips would freeze, wished his brother gone. The world pivoted.
Jack erupted. “IT’S ALL FUCKED” his young voice screamed through the old mouth. “FAAAHRKED!”
The room span, with Paddy at the still center of a whirlpool, taking in all the detail. The swears were the least of it. The old man fell. Pink froth bubbled from his nose and lips. Chairs fell at the sweep of his feet, the juttering of his hands.
The old man was a potato after fungus had done with it. He retained his shape, but Paddy knew that if he leaned over and prodded him, that his finger would sink in, and the mush beneath would ooze out, rising up over Paddy’s hand and up his arm.
Something was dry within though, some husky kernel, because then the man burned. Little licks at first like lit spirit, then his father had him, dragging Paddy back as the flame shot up and drenched the ceiling.
They all ran from the man, even the raven widows who hadn’t run for sixty years, squawking their way through fallen furniture and the dingy hallway to the street.
They had called Jack forth, but only in a half-hearted, mealy mouthed way. What was different today than any other time?. They had pulled, but what had pushed from the other side?
It was the same everywhere, they would soon learn. It was the summer that mediums burned all over Europe and America, all the channellers and bone clickers and ectoplasmic emitters, burning as the dead screamed through them, and the world learned the Truth.
For Paddy, too, it was a turning point, though perhaps a little more mundane. It was the last time he let anyone tell him what to do.
Initially filled with his usual remorse, two hours later Jeremiah was beating his father again. The old man lay there, silent tears beading down his face, squelching his own shit between his fingers after being interrupted daubing it on the wall.
All the lies the old bastard had told him. All will be well, son. All it took was a quick trip to the bottom of the garden to prove that one wrong. Down where the webs were thick and the wrigglers helpless before the approaching fat spiders. Jeremiah found no solace in the notion of being gathered to the bosom of Father Abraham, or anyone else.
“When we’ve been there ten thousand years,
It’s as though we’ve just begun…”
Forever. Jehovah, huge knotted beard dragging behind, eyes increasingly deranged. In the background the cosmos is collapsing, the last stars burning out, the galaxies dying. Still Jehovah persists, unable to do otherwise, his Father Time hair growing longer and longer. And there, in their millions between his twitching fingers, is humanity, being dragged along for the ride. Little playmates who had been created in the great loneliness, they would not be set free now. All those souls realizing the banality and inescapability of forever, not soothed, not salved.
During his studies, that most unfashionable of pastimes as the world of man wound down, Jeremiah concluded the Buddhists were right: escape the whole thing. Except that no matter how strongly held their beliefs were, factually, they too were now demonstrably wrong. There was no escape. There was only the first law of thermodynamics.
Perhaps it would have all remained academic, perhaps he could have been like the other boys, distracting himself from the horrors that lay beyond with dope and football and fucking, except for the rip that had tugged him beyond the surf, holding him as tight as old Jehovah’s clawed grip. Swimming at Bondi with his parents, and within moments, unnoticed, he was beyond the breakers, on his way to New Zealand.
Everything was reversed. He was under the sea (and in danger of staying there forever), but it was as though he was at the base of cliffs, staring into a clear tidal pool, the home of tiny crabs and colorful anemones. The universe is larger than our heads, yet we contain it within our brains: elephants, mountain ranges, the bowl of distant stars. Within the pool, he saw the feeding, the constant feasting on misery, all claws and tentacles and mouths.
Suddenly he was not the pinnacle of creation, but a dot, a living atom within the pool, and the mouths were all there for him. He saw his true place in that moment. A lance was coming to pierce his eye, an extension of some creature he could not yet fathom, to pierce and pierce again forever. Not in punishment, not in torment, but simply because, as Mr. Darwin had shown, wherever there was food, something would evolve to feed upon it. As the spear was about to enter, driven by the ever-humming engine, the 2 AM basement noise, he was pulled back, the pool receding, everything inverting again, His vision of eternity was replaced by the blurred face of his father, who dragged Jeremiah above the waves and pummeled his back until he vomited sea water.
The day, years later, when he took advantage of a distracted professor and snuck a peek through the eyepiece of the first necroscope to be manufactured in Australia. The day he saw his ocean pool again, stretching on forever, an infinity of tooth and claw.
Puffed, Jeremiah ceased the beating. His father immediately returned to the wall, smearing it with his excrement. Jeremiah’s sister had fled long ago. He wished her well and a long, long life, and hoped neither he nor anything else would ever find her. He watched his father concentrating on his art, wondering at the impulse. Reduced to a baby – less than. To go through the horror of life, knowing what waits at the end, and then to endure this indignity. What was the point of ending like this, this final indignity before the horror that waited?
Then it came to him.
Paddy sat in the glum of a similar parlor room, much, much older himself now than the medium who had burned that day long ago. More comfortable too, even putting the spontaneous combustion to one side. His chair was well padded, the fabrics soft. His parents were long gone, and he would not hear what they had to say, not for all the money in the world. His parents were dead, and everyone now knew what that meant.
The youngster sat across from him, dressed in the fashionable cast-offs of an earlier generation. One of his employees. A cleaner perhaps. Bartender in a brothel. Something like that. Not an enforcer. Scared little fellow. Paddy was sure he’d remember why he was here in another moment or so. They were all youngsters these days, not just the police, but even the white-haired politicians and judges (the few who remained) who had their hands in his pocket. To think that there could still be youngsters, that babies were being born into a world like this.
“Do you know what I’m thinking about?” asked Paddy, not sure what he’d do if the clown said babies. That would be a dangerous man to allow to wander about, someone who could see inside his head. Then he wondered if that’s why he was here, because he could read minds. It would come back to him.
“Death,” intoned Jeremiah. An answer of one syllable to stop Paddy noticing the wavering of his voice, but the quivering boot at the end of his crossed leg was giving his nervousness away. Still, to be expected.
“Wrong,” Paddy said, a big grin breaking his face. “I was thinking about fucking.” Jeremiah shrugged, uncertain, and the old man laughed louder.
“‘Death'” he mimicked in a serious baritone, far deeper than the young man had reached. “‘He’s old, he can only be thinking about death.’ Well, I was thinking about fucking. How’s that then?”
“That’s nice,” said the young man, shifting in his seat.
Paddy laughed a little more, before subsiding. “Well, I was thinking about death a bit as well. But fucking pays the bills. Pays for the bespoke. And the comfortable chairs.” He patted the chair beside him in demonstration. “Lovely.”
I sound like an imbecile, he thought. He hadn’t lived this long by letting weakness show. All he had to do was get through the next few moments without revealing he could not remember why he was meeting with this man. Nothing to worry about, though. If he failed, there were easy ways of covering it up. He wants to sell me something, Paddy knew that much for sure.
“You look nervous, boy.” The young man shrugged again, and Paddy carried on with his spiel. “You should be. I don’t like time wasters and con artists.”
The boy looked puzzled. “But you asked me to come.” He looked beyond Paddy, at the beefy shirt-sleeved lawyers sitting by the bookshelves, just outside the lamplight.
And I must be in the market, thought Paddy, otherwise the little prick wouldn’t have got through the front door. And there’s only one market I’m interested in these days…
“This room is new. It looks old, but it’s a recent addition. The parlors my parents dragged me to, until finally we met my brother again, five years after he died. The War, the Spanish influenza. All the ones that tried to escape, claw their way back. That’s the way I see it, anyways. Do you know how much trouble I had sourcing this chaise longue?”
Jeremiah looked about. He had just realized he had descended into a pool of sharks, and that he might never leave.
“Do you know how many charlatans have sat across from me, promising me my heart’s desire? Do you know what happened to them?”
“I can imagine.”
“I don’t think you can, with your logarithms and slide rule. You would need to be more of a creative type to put yourself in the picture.” Paddy smiled, looked the young man in the face. “I was there, you know. I was in the generation that learned the Truth. Do you know how many men have offered me eternal life?”
Jeremiah stood abruptly, hat in hand. “Sorry to have wasted your time.”
A novelty in a long life. A first — chickening out before the hard sell. “Young man, you must learn your trade. The craftsmen are all dying out. There are less and less sons for fathers to pass their skills onto. If you get through the front door, you don’t leave without trying for the prize.”
“Obviously we were both misinformed. I shall not trouble you further.” An attempt at dignity, but Jeremiah’s voice shook.
“Pathetic. I should have six kinds of shit kicked out of you for such a piss-weak effort. If this is the way you intend to live by your wits, you will soon starve.”
Lawyers began to shuffle forward out of the dark. From nothing but fear, Jeremiah spoke out. “Do you love your life so much you want it to continue forever? Would you want to be standing on a baked ocean floor 100 million years from now, picking crumbs from crevices while a swollen sun fills the sky? And every moment of every day, still fearing what comes after, still terrified?”
“So what are you offering?”
“Death. Close as we can get.”
“Faith couldn’t stick, but the way my parents raised me left a sense of duty.”
Paddy did not reply. He was jovial away from his own setting, a big kid on an outing, touching shiny surfaces, barely resisting pressing big red buttons. He paid for everything, so he figured there was no need to piss all over it to mark his territory.
The big reveal should involve a red brocaded curtain, but there it was, plain as day, a box big enough for half a dozen Houdinis to be struggling out of their straightjackets before their lungs gave out.
Jeremiah lectured. “The environment is sterile. Oxygen and necessary nutrients are piped directly in. Waste is minimal, and filtered from the water. As the body fails, the machine steps in and takes over from lungs and heart.”
“Delaying the inevitable.”
“Delayed by decades, and who knows what breakthroughs may occur in that time? The mind sleeps and deteriorates. Opiates and psychotropics are bled in, and the personality is drawn thin, like fine copper wire. Awareness dissolves. And as the body breaks down, the filter spreads the remains. If there is anything left for talons to hook into, if there is something left to suffer or be feasted upon, it won’t be you. Your essence will have dissipated. The self is long gone, there is no connection between what was and what is left over.”
“We never settled on a price, boy. What do you get out of all of this?”
Jeremiah looked puzzled. “The machine – the process. It’s an end in itself. It’s all I want. What could be more valuable. Everyone can escape now. Salvation through dissolution.” Declared like an election slogan.
“All of us tucked away in vats in warehouses, slowly dissolving?”
“People being unborn. Personalities and bodies unknitted, nothing left for the predators.”
“And who will care for it? Slaves?”
“Do you care?”
Paddy laughed. “No, no. Thought you might.”
Jeremiah looked about for something to mention.”The systems are simple. There are multiple back-ups for each part, numerous energy supplies. By the time any unit fails, civilization itself should have ended.”
“And you want to share this marvelous device with everyone?”
“Why not? When people understand, they’ll be clamoring to join us.”
“A long, ill-spent life generates enemies. Part of the pleasure of such a life has been contemplating the horrors those enemies will face in the great beyond. Some people count sheep. I go to sleep contemplating the unending torture of my foes.”
“But you’ll suffer too!”
“Oh no, son. You’ve sold me. I’m a believer. My lawyers have checked it all out. We’ll be able to reverse-engineer enough units for initial requirements. You won’t be forgotten.” His eyes lit up at his own thought, at his generosity. “We’ll call it the Jeremiah. Stamp the plates out and put them in pride of place, right there, in the corner of each one.
“But what else, son? I have made a large fortune giving people exactly what they want. I doubted you at first, I admit it, but look what you have done. You truly deserve to be looked after.
“Tell me – what is your heart’s desire?”
“This – to do my work.”
“But your work is done, Jerry. Come to me all who have labored, for now it is time to lie down and have a rest. Something like that. Haven’t been to church for a while. Not since my brother.”
Lawyers emerged from beneath pipes, climbed out of shadows.
“I know what you want. You do too. You just won’t say it out loud. Don’t tell me you’re shy.” Paddy looked around, swinging his head from side to side as though in a pantomime. “Come here then, and whisper in my ear.”
The lawyers held him now. Garment by garment, they peeled off his clothing.
“Cross my heart, I will not cheat you. I crush my enemies, but you’re not my enemy, are you son?”
“There are codes…”
Paddy nodded, reassuring. “And there is a sister, isn’t there? You don’t want her involved in this, do you?”
He didn’t. He spoke, and a lawyer recorded the numbers before entering them into the machine.
“Don’t be scared. This is an old, old story. The craftsmen sealed in with the Pharaohs to preserve the secrets of the pyramids, you don’t think they were left there unwilling, do you? You think their greatest joy wasn’t the sound of that great stone slab sliding into place, the last light disappearing?”
Jeremiah moaned “My father…” just as the mouthpiece was forced between his lips. The tube automatically began to snake down his throat, the trickle of nutrients starting already.
Paddy stroked his head, the grip of the lawyers tight. “Leave him be, son, leave him be. That old bastard has done enough, hasn’t he? Bringing you into this world…”
To be like a water plant beneath the sun, knowing but not caring, basking in endless warmth, floating alone in an endless sea. Nothing to disturb him. He did not fight as they lowered him into the chamber.
“Your work is done, good soldier. Time to rest. Let it all ebb away, just as you have always wanted.”
The chamber was sealed. Jeremiah’s naked body rotated in the amniotic fluid. Through glass, he saw the old man silhouetted, a glow of light outlining him. Jeremiah’s fingers drifted towards the glass, dragged this way, then that. He thought of his father, locked away safe in his room, painting with shit. Then he thought of him no more.
Colors changed. A rainbow spread before him. The smell of bread, then fried onions. Above, a red bi-plane monitored the trenches. Jeremiah heard the sound of machines, and dreamed of Paddy holding him to his breast, their hearts beating as one.
|David Stevens (usually) lives in Sydney, Australia, with his wife and children. His fiction has appeared in (amongst other places) Crossed Genres, Aurealis, Three-Lobed Burning Eye, Pseudopod, Cafe Irreal, Not One of Us, and the anthologies Love Hurts and At the Edge. He blogs irregularly at davidstevens.info.|