Shuddersome Shorts

Tales of Eerie Terror

#27


Welcome, all you couch potatoes! Be warned! Here's a devious diversion with a malicious moral to boot! It takes more than high ratings to satisfy...


The Many-Headed Monster

By Kevin James Miller
About the author


Peripheries was the huge new bookstore, a multinational built just off of McGovern Road, right across from Elmbrook Mall.

Inside Peripheries, Luke Vaughn was wandering around in its cavernous interior, trying to figure out what to buy Tina Hicks, his secretary. He wore thick glasses, and white was licking at the edges of his hair, near his flat ears. However, a few friends had told him he had a "delightfully boyish" quality, which Luke always thought had something to do with his stupid, weak, little voice and his huge, flabby chin, out of place on a reed-thin body.

It was in the back of Luke's mind to eventually, maybe, marry Ms. Hicks. He was not sure, however, how desirable a catch a principal at a suburban high school really was.

Luke thought it was good job. Five years ago, he had lost his temper at a school down in Mississippi. He had torn up a student's paper, and called him, "A socio-cultural, quasi-bohemian barbarian." Luke thought about doing things like that, still, but didn't.

Luke bumped into the man because there weren't that many other customers in the store and that's what absent-minded people, like Luke, did under those circumstances. (It was Luke's too-big chin that probably bruised the man--not Luke's skinniness.)

"Oh, I'm sorry," Luke said.

"Don't mention it," the man said. He seemed to be young, but he was bald (maybe his head was shaved) and wore dark glasses with tiny little frames. He also wore a leather jacket and gray tie. The clothes would have made a 14-year-old look middle-aged and jaded.

The man, in addition, carried a black briefcase with two white stripes. Luke didn't pay much attention to this, at first.

"Do you know where the nature books are around here?" Luke asked.

Ms. Hicks was always wearing shirts, dresses and jewelry with bears, wolves and owls as a motif, so Luke had half-an-idea of buying her a coffee table book of some wilderness somewhere for her birthday present.

"I think it's two aisles over and to the left," said the man Luke had bumped into.

"Thanks."

Luke smiled, nodded and walked away.

Very serious sort of man, thought Luke. Like some sort of high-powered businessman who hasn't unwound from the office yet.

On his way to where the bald man had directed him, Luke noted, with distaste, the number of books about television. Luke had all the usual prejudices of a professional educator regarding television--or the usual common sense, depending on your point of view. There had been a lot of pressure, last semester, from the Riveredge City Council, to set up a daily newscast in the cafeteria, from a big Eastern firm--"Just for teens!" Luke and his teachers had just finished a five-year struggle to reverse declining reading scores at Riveredge High. They weren't interested in...

Ah. "Nature Books." Here we go.

Luke walked around the corner.

And saw his mother standing before an open grave.

The first fact would have been merely surprising. The stout widow, with her long, snowy hair, was, Luke knew, at the retirement village in Florida.

The second fact, a chunk of the floor of Peripheries suddenly being dirt, and dirt with what was clearly a grave-shaped hole in it, was beyond impossible.

Luke took off his glasses for a moment, inspected them, and put them back. No. Nothing wrong with the glasses. He was seeing what he was seeing.

"Mother? What are you doing here? And is that what I think it is?"

"Luke! When am I going to get a grandchild?"

"Mother, I've really been trying my best."

"What's going on here?" asked a new voice, from behind Luke.

Luke looked over his shoulder. A young man, with a Peripheries employee ID on his silky white shirt, stood behind Luke. The Peripheries employee held an armful of children's books with "60% OFF" stickers on them. He had long brown hair, a little goatee and spoke with a feminine voice.

"You see this also?" Luke asked the young man.

"Yeah! "

"This is impossible!"

"Well, yeah," the young man said. "Except a couple of minutes ago, I saw something that I--"

"It's too late, Luke!" his mother cried.

A sucking wind came out of the grave.

It started to pull Shannon Vaughn, or what looked like her but couldn't be, into the grave.

Luke and the young man held onto to each other to avoid being sucked in as well.

"It's too late!" her cry went on, and down the old lady went into the grave.

And lady and grave vanished.

Luke helped the young man pick up the children books.

"You said you saw something a few minutes ago, like this," Luke said, pushing his glasses back up his nose.

"Over at the cafe," the young man said in that, to Luke, still absurd feminine voice. "My cousin got divorced from this jerk who was beating her up. I saw him come in and lunge at my assistant manager, Mary Beth, with a fork. I knocked him to one side, and he just vanished. And this jerk OD'd last month anyway--died."

A portly, red-haired gentleman that reminded Luke of his Uncle Pat walked around the corner. The Peripheries tag this man wore identified him as the store manager. "What's all this noise back here, Tim? Are you bothering this customer? You know, I still haven't figured out exactly what happened over at the coffee bar."

"Mr. Larsen," said Tim, "let me see if me and this customer can explain."

Both Luke and Tim told their stories, Tim compulsively running his hands through his long brown hair.

Oddly, Mr. Larsen seemed seriously interested in what they were saying.

"Was there anyone around during all this?" Mr. Larsen asked. "Anyone else?"

Luke thought back to the odd vision of his mother and the grave, and realized he had a slim awareness of someone a few aisles over, who had been doing something, but now Luke couldn't remember exactly what.

Luke told all this to the two other men.

"Hey, Mr. Larsen," Tim said. "Now that I think back, there was a guy in the magazines, right next to the coffee shop...Hey! I think he had a camcorder!"

Luke realized that all three men were now walking to the store exit. It was like there was some sort of mutual, unspoken recognition among all three that Luke probably just wanted to get out of there, and get home, and let the two employees sort out whatever was going on.

"Why did you ask that question?" Tim asked Mr. Larsen. "About somebody near by?"

Mr. Larsen hesitated, then sighed, the act shaking his chubby frame. "I have a friend up in Alaska," Mr. Larsen said. "A few weeks ago, he was out in this wilderness, cutting firewood, when he had this vivid hallucination of wolves stalking him--only wolves that could walk like men, and they carried weapons. You know, like a lupine Planet of the Apes or something."

"Freaky," Tim said.

"Most strange," Luke said.

"My friend has always been afraid of wolves," Mr. Larsen said. "And he said, when this thing happened, he swore somebody was close by, taping everything with a camcorder. And I had that impression, just as I was coming out of the Men's Room, a few minutes ago."

"What...did you see?" Luke asked

"A demon. Just like the ones in the drawings the nuns showed me, when I was a little kid."

Luke stopped by the front door. The other two men stopped also and stood near him, like they felt a sense, maybe, of things being unresolved.

Mr. Larsen tapped a roll of adhesive tape in his shirt pocket "Damn. I forget to use this to put up those reading group flyers."

"OK," Luke said, thinking of the detective stories he liked to read. "We got visions that are real enough for other people to see. They are, possibly, happening on a national scale, and somebody--plural, I guess--videotaping all this." He paused. "And it's all about fear." He looked at the other two men. "Anything else happened with you two, say, just before this happened?"

Mr. Larsen scratched his red-haired head. "Yeah," he said after a moment. "This bald guy. I bumped into him."

"Hey!" Tim exclaimed. "Sharp-looking leather coat? Briefcase?" Mr Larsen nodded. "Me too!"

"And me," Luke said. "And there he is!" He pointed out the window. All three men saw the young, shaved head, man with dark glasses with tiny little frames, and leather jacket and gray tie, and black briefcase with two white stripes sauntering through the parking lot.

Spontaneously, Luke, Tim and Mr. Larsen barreled out of Peripheries.

Luke thought they must have been like a long-haired, glasses wearing, bearded, fat six-legged caterpillar suddenly going for touchdown.

They closed the several yards that separated them from their prey.

They grabbed the bald man, by the arms and the neck, and slammed up against a waste receptacle at the far end of the parking lot.

"Uh...Excuse me!" the bald man said. "Can I be on my way here?"

"What's your game, buddy?" Mr. Larsen demanded. His red hair, to Luke, suddenly seemed the color of blood.

Luke used a free hand to find the stranger's wallet. He quickly found a business card.

He stepped away from the other men, cleaned some dirt off his glasses, and took a look at the card.

"'Paul Hartley, World Entertainment Network,'" Luke said.

"Why did you yank Android Squad off the air?" Tim demanded in his little girl voice. "Man, that show rocked!"

"Mr. Customer," Mr. Larsen said.

"Luke," Luke said.

"Luke, check his briefcase."

He fought hard for the briefcase, but got it when Mr. Larsen and Tim applied some extra pressure on Hartley's arms.

Inside the briefcase, Luke found an 8mm camcorder.

And another device. It was about the dimensions of a paperback book, but it was a metal box. It had a dial, with numbered settings up to 9. A tiny glass window on one end. A red button on the other end.

Luke looked around. He found a drain that led to the sewer system that ran under the parking lot. Luke got to his knees, and stuck the device into the sewer drain.

"Tell us what's going on, Hartley," Luke said. "Or my fingers get slippery."

"If you knew how much one of those cost!" Hartley blurted.

"Plop," Luke said quietly.

"We know how to make everybody's worst fears real!"

Tim and Mr. Larsen let go of Hartley and stepped away. They looked at him like he had suddenly grown an extra pair of arms.

Hartley straightened his gray tie, and pushed his dark glasses further up his nose.

"I don't hear anyone doubting me," Hartley said.

"Why should we?" Luke asked, still holding the device. "You did it do all three of us."

"Me to you three--and others operating all over the country," Hartley said. "Doing it to other members of the public. And making video of the results. You'd be startled how potent this technology is. We get incredible results on setting 3."

Hartley looked at the three men, who were obviously glaring at him. "Oh, please! Don't look so shocked! Don't you know what kind of thing gets the most TV ratings? Who wants to give me the sermon? Violates decency, privacy, encourages decadent values, blah blah blah. The public is the many-headed monster. What it feeds on, and I mean really feeds on, is the spectacle of the annoyance, embarrassment, humiliation, fear and terror of others, the less art attached to that spectacle the better. Fortunes have been built on this fact. And now, greater fortunes are being built on the fact that no matter how big the money was before, it's even bigger if we sell the annoyance, embarrassment, humiliation, fear and terror of real people, and just drop the pretense of fiction altogether. Politics, religion, romance, art. It's all gone. The future is nothing but entertainment. And look over your shoulders, boys, the future is right behind you. Nothing else."

Luke looked at the device, and looked at Hartley. "The beam or whatever comes out of this little glass window at the end?"

"Nice guess," Hartley said, smirking now. "You are correct."

"You always get what you need on setting 3?" Luke said.

"Yep," Hartley replied with a nod.

Luke tried not to smile as the idea was born. "What about 9?"

"Oh, the early tests caused this mass, psychotic--"

Hartley never finished. Luke grabbed the tape out of Mr. Larsen's shirt pocket. Luke slammed the device against Hartley's neck. He attached it there with loops of adhesive tape. He taped the red button down, and taped the dial at the 9 setting.

"Cool," Tim said.

"Mm," Mr. Larsen said. "So what happens now?"

"I don't know," Luke said.

Hartley clawed at his neck. "Get it off me! For God's sake, get it off of me!"

A hole in space opened up, right above Hartley. Luke, Tim and Mr. Larsen looked up into the space-hole.

They looked into a whole world--alien, but familiar. Somehow, and Luke didn't know how, they could, from this one, fixed perspective, view the entirety of this other reality. The image from the other side of the hole in space didn't cut away to another angle, or dissolve to something else, nor pan, zoom or tilt to frame itself differently.

To begin, there were, most importantly, the people, old and young and middle-aged. Black and brown and white, and the usual, but also shades Luke couldn't name. There were rooms in apartment buildings and houses--and that made up small towns, and suburbs, and large cities, and nations. People lived and died, loved and lost, cried and laughed. There were the usual clashes and messiness of humans being humans. However, those clashes and messiness, had, floating beneath it, a sweet, ephemeral symmetry, mysterious but real. This quality made no pain unbearable, and no loss a crushing defeat. There was, finally, a global harmony between nature and science, and technology.

Luke saw, almost hidden in all this, but definitely there when he put in a little effort and looked, a dance between the machines, the circuits, the digital flow and backwash--and, on the other side, the dance partner: the animals, the plants, the trees, the deserts, the oceans--and, completing a circle Luke didn't know was there until he made it with his looking, coming back again to people, to humanity, the masses, and what a terrifying, mysterious and lovely club to belong to. All anyone had to join was be born--and be wanted.

Hartley, still screaming, fell up into the hole, disappearing from view, taking the device attached to his neck along with him.

And then the hole in reality, that led to another reality, sealed up and vanished.

Luke popped the tape out of the camcorder, broke the tape in half, and put it down the sewer drain.

"I don't see why he was so upset," Tim said. "That looked like a pretty nice place, where he was going. I thought this was some kind of worst-possible-fear gimmick."

Luke shoved the camcorder to the bottom of the waste receptacle. He and Mr. Larsen looked at each other.

Luke was suddenly aware how much older he and Mr. Larsen were, in comparison to Tim.

"You want to tell him or should I?" Mr. Larsen asked Luke.

"I'm an education professional," Luke said. He turned to Tim. "Tim, from what we could see of the other world, did you get the impression there was anybody watching TV--or that TV even existed there?"

"Uh," Tim said. "No, now that you mention it."

"Well," Luke said, "There you go then."

The End.




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The Many-Headed Monster is copyright Kevin James Miller. It may not be copied or used for any commercial purpose except for short excerpts used for reviews. (Obviously, you can copy it or print it out if you want to read it!)