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They came out of nowhere, emerging from cracks between shadows, sliding into normative reality like obscenely overgrown cockroaches. Suddenly, they were on the streets, everywhere, shuffling, brown paper bags on their feet, old newspapers wrapped around their necks for warmth.
For seven days they were the wonder of the world, then public interest waned. As alien invasions go, this was not particularly exciting. The invaders brought with them no weapons, no death-ray zap guns. Their agenda, such as it was, seemed to be no more ambitious than the looting of urban trash cans.
"Where do you come from?" said a zealous newspaper reporter.
"Come from?" said the one being interrogated. "It's in my file, ain't it?"
"Didn't I just tell you? It's in my file. Ain't it?"
They were all like this, the invaders. Semi-coherent, at best, unable to account for themselves. And, ultimately, not very interesting. Except to a few dabblers in the perverse. Such as Prussina.
"He asked me for money," said Prussina, still shaking, deliciously, from her close encounter with one of the invaders. "Why do you think he did that?"
"I don't think they have credit cards," said Entaglow, stating this as a hard fact, despite its extreme improbability.
"No credit cards?" said Prussia, delighted to find a notion so outre‚ that it could shock her. "But everyone has credit cards!"
"If they're human," said Entaglow. "But there's no evidence that these ... these entities are human."
"Then where do they come from?" said Prussina.
"Gene labs," said Entaglow. "They're overgrown jellyfish embryos. That's one theory."
"Embryos?" said Prussina. "I didn't know that jellyfish had embryos."
"Then you're six months out of date," said Entaglow, who had a connoisseur's collection of hot jellyfish porn at home, and was well aware of what was happening at the cutting edge of science.
"Fascinating," said Prussina, sniffing a little powdered bone. "You should paint one for me."
"A jellyfish?" said Entaglow, not at all sure that she would be able to handle such polymorphous exposure.
"No," said Prussina. "One of the, the - "
"The sockless ones," said Entaglow. "The newcomers."
"That's right," said Prussina. "One of those."
His name was Mac. He found his name when people spoke to him - "Hey, Mac, why don't you get a job?"
Why don't you get a job? A mortgage? A wife? A plasma TV? Two and a half children and a microwave oven? Oh, and a dog, too, why don't you get one of them?
He really didn't know. All those suggestions sounded good to him, particularly the one about a wife, but he didn't really know where to get started. Finally, he tried asking outright: "Hey, girlie, want to be my wife?"
The first woman he tried this on ignored him. The second set off a pressurized air alarm siren which hurt his ears, the third pepper-sprayed him and the fourth screamed and screamed until someone living in a third floor apartment building came out onto the balcony and emptied a bucket of cold water over her. After which Mac, who got more than his fair share of the cold water, gave up on the idea of a wife, at least for the moment.
He had no idea where he had come from. Maybe he was the overgrown spawn of a jellyfish, as several people had suggested to him to his face. Maybe he was God's revenge on the middle income brackets. Maybe space aliens had delivered him along with the morning newspaper.
"But, hey," said Mac, "any kind of life is better than nothing. Right?"
It wasn't much of a philosophy, but, for the moment, it was enough to be going on with.
To begin with, he didn't know much about anything. But, like the rest of his kind, he was learning. Fast. Brown paper bags? Socks are better. Or shoes, if you can get them. Bare feet are also possible, but they're a lot less fun than Disneyland, particularly when it's raining.
(For some reason, he knew all about Disneyland, just as he knew about the twenty-seven cures for warts and the boxing career of Mick the Speckle. The knowledge came hardwired, as if it was something genetic.)
"I'm from the government and I'd like to ask you a few questions."
"Umbrellas," said Mac, licking his lips. "Deeper than icecream. Wetter."
A knowledge of the sex lives of umbrellas also came hardwired, as did data on the eating habits of Adolf Hitler's dog.
"So where's my painting?" said Prussina.
"Here," said Entaglow.
"This?" she said, frowning. "This isn't authentic, is it?"
How she knew, Entaglow had no idea. But she was right. He had faked it. And faking it was evidently not going to be good enough this time.
"When I want a painting of one of the homeless ones," said Prussina, "I want the real thing, you know. I want it to stink and shiver. I want to see the lice moving on its eyebrows. I don't want this satinized product of your imagination."
"Satan?" said Entaglow. "Satan's got nothing to do with this."
"Satin!" said Prussina. "I said satin, not Satan! You don't even listen to me, do you?"
So they were in the middle of another of their shouting matches. Before they got divorced, Entaglow had really expected their divorce to cure the shouting match problem, but apparently he had been over-optimistic.
"So what's your name?" said Entaglow.
"Garlic," said Mac. "Garlic with everything. Even the beer. Deeper in the daffodil, the bee crawls. It's hot in there. Spare some change, buddy?"
Entaglow licked his caviar lips. Entaglow knew authenticity when he saw it. We get tired of our mass-produced ameliorations, our pain-free extractions, our sanitary disposals. We yearn (we're all rich enough, comfortable enough, to be romantic) for the unstructured anarchy of illness, decay, discomfort, turmoil.
"Here," said Entaglow, handing Mac a packet of condoms, the only barter item to hand in his cash-free pockets. "Take these. Designer label all the way."
"What am I supposed to do with them?" said Mac, eyeing this offering dubiously.
"It's just a good-faith token," said Entaglow, already feeling silly at having offered up such inappropriate trade goods. "Look, here's the deal. You let me paint you, I'll phone up for a pizza. Okay?"
"What's a pizza?" said Mac.
"Something worth waiting for," said Entaglow. "Trust me on this."
Half an hour later, Mac was asleep on the sidewalk, breathing laboriously through his mouth, a wadded condom stuffed in each nostril. (Not your idea of fun? Hey, don't knock it if you've never tried it.)
"Helpless," said Entaglow with satisfaction, imagining a little barbed wire bondage, a little electrojolt fun.
Anyway - time to work.
With his designer-label handkerchief, Entaglow wiped his hands. Then he took off his tie - for mysterious reasons, his genius required this ritual - and began.
"Entaglow?" said the cell phone.
"Go away," said Entaglow. "I'm busy."
"I can't go away. I'm here, not there."
"You know what I mean."
"But I've already opened the bottle," said the cell phone, sounding pouty, disappointed.
"Then put the cork back in," said Entaglow. "I'm in the middle of business."
With the quick ease of a consummate expert, Entaglow painted Mac. Technically, Mac hadn't given his consent, but he had gone to sleep, which was the next best thing, and Entaglow didn't want to wake him up and ask all over again, which would have run the risk of getting a "no". Rather, he just set up his easel and went to work.
First of all, he put a wash of white over the picture of Prussina's eyeless vagina being raped by the shadows - a caprice which Prussina hadn't seen, and wouldn't have liked anyway. There was plenty of time to blank out the monstrous act of the shadows, since Mac wasn't going anywhere. Mac, in fact, was unconscious after consuming a bottle of vodka.
While the white quickdry was drying, Entaglow took photographs. Snip, snap. Steal his soul. Can him. Alien offcuts considered as an exercise in canned asparagus ... good title for an exhibition?
The cell phone rang.
"I've told you already," said Entaglow. "I'm working."
"Told who?" said Prussina.
"Oh, you," said Entaglow.
"You sound disappointed," said Prussina. "Got time for lunch?"
Prussina, who did not know that he desired her, had come to desire her more and more during the seven years since their divorce, the seven years during which she had gotten richer and richer whereas he, by contrast, had barely avoided stepping onto the oblivion chute. Prussina, who did not know that he had arranged for the shadows to rape her fragmented anatomy.
"Lunch?" said Entaglow. "Sure."
"There's a government scheme," said Prussina.
"The aliens," said Prussina. "The sockless ones."
"They all have socks now," said Entaglow.
"We'll have to find a new word, then," said Prussina. "Let's call them ... I don't know. What do you think? How about ... poker chips. It's sort of right, isn't it?"
"It's sort of racist, if you ask me," said Entaglow.
"Well," said Prussina, "I don't know what race they belong to, but it's certainly not mine. Anyway - I thought we were agreed. They're not ... not part of our genetic alliance, to put it delicately."
"One must be so delicate these days," agreed Entaglow. "Back to the scheme, the government thing. What is it?"
"Simple," said Prussina. "Credit cards. Compulsory. If they use them, they're off the streets. Suites at the Ritz, whatever."
"But they can't pay," said Entaglow.
"So they go to jail," said Prussina. "Work quickly, please - in another month, there may be none left. None of the wild ones, I mean."
Mac was still there after lunch. No credit card yet, no jailhouse termination. Still there and still unmoving. Dead? Perhaps. No obvious signs of breathing. Call an ambulance? No. That would spoil the composition. We're invested in this guy. He owes us.
Ah ... the, the things have fallen out of his nose. He must be breathing through his nose. That's why he's not making such a racket ....
Entaglow painted. Slick as Picasso. Fluent as Rembrandt. But it's the Third Millennium, and there are billions of people on the planet, and competition is endless.
Sooner rather than later, the painting was done. Okay, then - how about calling that ambulance? But, strangely, the guy had gone. Mac had vanished.
And how is it you know his name, Entaglow?
Because it's not his real name. It's one I invented.
Maybe I invented the guy from whole cloth. Out of nothing. I'm talented enough, I think.
Which didn't explain the empty vodka bottle, or the lingering smell, something like a wet cat kept in a shoe box for six months. But, hey. The universe is a machine for delivering percentages, not a knot to unravel.
It had started to rain.
The rain was red. Why red? Rain is never red. No, it's ... it was just my eyes. Okay now. I think ....
Time to go. The camera would show if there had ever been anyone there in the first place.
When the photographs were developed, Mac showed up in the snapshots just fine, but minus his aromas. Using that documentary evidence, Entaglow fine-tuned the painting, working with a palette of mud, gangrene, police batons and mustard gas.
"George Grosz, eat your heart out," said Entaglow, full of self-admiration.
"Who?" said Prussina, when Entaglow made the same comment to her.
"Look him up," said Entaglow, irritated.
Bad manners. You shouldn't take slaps at the money. Even so, Prussina arranged for the painting to be exhibited in her gallery, alongside the disembowelled horse and the small Mexican embalmed in an oversized jar of marmalade.
Mac woke up in the small hours of the morning, confused. This place, wherever it was, really stank of boiled cabbage. And there was the weirdest sound of subterranean growling, someplace, which made everything shake, as if an earthquake was trying to break loose.
The world rollicked, like a mattress stuffed with wild horses. Mac tried to hold on, but his reactions were too slow. Hands closing on nothing, he rolled. And fell. Fell right out of the painting. Landed on the hard polished boards of the gallery.
Gee, that hurt!
What are these? Legs? So they are. Seem to be mine. Can I stand on them? Seems I can.
Mac stood, and found the remains of someone's party, including half a bottle of flat champagne. Was floating nicely by the time he found the emergency door and exited. Outside, a bicycle. But the bicycle was drunk, and over he went. Finally, curled up on the grating outside the restaurant, and went to sleep.
"He's gone!" said Prussina in dismay, staring the next morning at the gap in the painting where Mac had been.
"Someone painted him out," said Entaglow, when he was summoned to inspect the damage.
"No," said Prussina, licking a finger across the painting. "It's dry."
"Acrylics," said Entaglow.
"I want him back," said Prussina.
When you pay good money for a sockless person, you want the guy to stay put. What you pay for, you own.
"I'm in a bind," said Entaglow. "I've got - "
"Commitments, I know," said Prussina. "Then come here tonight. Get it done."
"Cleopatra commands," said Entaglow. "Her slave obeys."
And he did, he did.
Entaglow arrived late, a little drunk. He was such a technician that he could work even when he'd tied one on. But something happened as he was mixing his colors. The floor tilted, and he fell into a gulf of gangrene.
He was down on his hands, down on his knees. There was a broken bottle wedged in his heart. The shadows were coming for him. They were huge, red, shaped like dogs.
"What have I done?" said Entaglow in dismay. "What have I done to deserve this?"
"You insulted my priest at Guantanamo Bay," said the Voice of Explanation, loud as a shotgun in his head.
"I've never even been to Guantanamo Bay," said Entaglow. "I don't even know where it is!"
That was true. But there are some kinds of disasters - earthquakes, meteorites, Ebola fever - which don't really care if you're innocent. The shadows were that kind of disaster. And, a moment later, they were on him.
The next morning. The headlines were all about the launch of the Clockwork Chimpanzee, the new pan-European currency designed to replace the faltering Euro.
"It smells of boiled cabbage in here," said Prussina, searching, uselessly, for her missing picture. She wrinkled her nose. "I just hate boiled cabbage."
But she was rich enough to eat broccoli, so that was not really a problem.
This homelessstory homelessperson story, "HIS NAME WAS MAC," was first published when posted online by Hugh Cook on 2003 September 21 Sunday. Copyright © 2003, 2005 Hugh Cook. All rights reserved.
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honeymoon horror story
"The honeymoon suite," said the clerk brightly, handing over the keys.
"Thank you," said Benven.
On the way to the room, Lasella followed him. This didn't feel right. In her imagination, they had walked hand in hand, smiling. But, for some reason, after barely six hours of married life, she had gotten into the habit of following him.
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