A chapter from Th. Metzger’s novel Shock Totem, to order from Amazon click here.
Brian was on his bed, doing the Prong and listening to the invisible Negroes inside his head. Usually, the music came loud and hard, big slabs of greasy funk from the Other Side. Inside, deep inside, he gave a powerful grunt and let loose another blast of heavy funk. He was singing and listening, in the audience and on the stage, cooked down to a black vinyl disc and stretched to a slender metal arm with a needle at the end, all at the same time. “Oh bay- bay, oh Cherry Jelly bay-bay” The bass was slapping against his hypothalamus. The snare drum was snapping in his forebrain. “You got the power! Oh bay-bay, you can do the Prong all night long.” He was shaking his booty but not moving a muscle.
He looked up at the end of the song and saw Ollie standing in the doorway, afraid to cross the invisible line. He’d been there off and on all day, angrier and uglier every time he came back.
“Supper looks really bad today, Brian. Beets. And cherry pop. And spaghetti. And you’re going to have to clean your plate right down to the shine.”
Luckily, Ollie was too stupid to know that today wasn’t a red day. Brian could eat all the beets in the world today. Yesterday had been a red day. Then he would have bitten his tongue out and done just like Billy in 21F did—monkey crouch on the end of his bed, ticking like a time bomb about to go off—and not let one drop of red beets or red Jello or red spaghetti get past his lips. Ollie just liked to talk ugly and look ugly and make everyone on the ward hate his guts.
Brian smiled and nodded. That made Ollie even madder. But he didn’t cross the line. He just stood there in the hall way sniffing like a dog for some hidden food or maybe a piece of evidence. They found evidence in Victor 21P’s room, wound up in a napkin behind the dresser. And it had already started to stink. Brian didn’t see Victor for a while after that. He hadn’t been in the TV room or the gym or crafts class. Then he came back and wouldn’t say a thing about where he’d been and what they’d done to him.
Brian started wiggling a little bit and doing his good foot dance, but not enough to give Ollie an excuse to call in the rest of the orderlies. Brian always knew how far he could go. And then he stopped, just like Ollie knew to stop at the line across the doorway that Dr. Haak had drawn with her finger. She’d told Ollie not to take one step over it unless he wanted to go back to wherever it was that he came from.
As long as Brian could remember, Ollie had been in the Red House, just as ugly in the old days but with a little more hair. He’d been there longer than anybody else, even Dr. Haak. Even old Herb the Chinese man with the finger nails and the red eyes in 21R. Ollie had always been there, but it hadn’t been so long before that he’d started in on Brian. Maybe a year or two. He wasn’t exactly sure when it had begun. And every day it was getting worse. Putting his fingers in Brian’s food when he handed the tray to him, making comments and laughing when Brian was in the shower, grabbing him by the nose and flinging those pills down his throat and making him open wide to make sure they were really gone. Ollie was always there, but since Dr. Haak had drawn that line on the floor and started having Brian come see her almost every day of the week, Ollie was getting really ugly.
Another orderly showed up and walked right past Ollie, into Brian’s room. He said, “Okay, let’s go. The doctor wants to see you. Time for treatment.” Ollie waited, sniffing now loudly like a bull and as soon as Brian was past the line, he grabbed him and told the other orderly that he’d take care of Brian. The first one didn’t care. It was a long walk, anyway, down to the new treatment center. So he let go and then Ollie and Brian were alone. “Looks like you’re getting to be the star attraction around here. You think maybe Dr. Haak has got the hots for you? What would you think about that, spaz? Wouldn’t you like the doctor to be hot for your body? Or maybe you don’t even know what to do with her when you’ve got your clothes off and you’re all alone with her.”
He held Brian tightly, squeezing his upper arm hard enough to hurt but not hard enough to leave bruises. He knew better than to do that. Ollie was good, really good, at going just far enough but not too far. He’d made that mis take only once before, using his pacifier on Brian when he wouldn’t eat his macaroni and cheese on a yellow day. Rumor said that Ollie almost got kicked out of the Red House for that. Somebody, probably Dr. Haak, had come down really hard on him for treating Brian that way. He didn’t see Ollie for a couple of weeks after that incident, and it wasn’t until three months later that he’d been reassigned to Brian’s floor. He’d learned his lesson. Dr. Haak had probably put him in the cradle and hot-wired his cortex. Ollie wouldn’t like that. It would be too much for Ollie, so he learned to behave himself and squeeze tight but not too tight.
Brian was awfully white, veins and cords and tendons showing through like he was covered with tissue paper and not real skin. Bumps made bruises. Scratches made wounds that bled too long. And brush burns hurt for a week. Ollie knew all about that and made sure that he didn’t go too far.
They walked for a long time in the dim, cold halls. It was taking them longer than the last time they’d gone to the new place. Ollie wanted to be alone with him, Brian could tell that. He didn’t let go. He steered him left and right and left. He was talking, but Brian could hardly hear him.
“You’re her little lamb now, aren’t you? Her little white lamby, just like on Easter morning. How does it feel to be her lamb, huh, spaz-boy? How does it feel? Don’t you want to be her little lost lamby?” He was snorting the way he always did when he thought he was being funny or clever. Brian laughed. Sometimes that made him be quiet. But Ollie didn’t pay any attention. He just went on about sheeps and rams and things that didn’t make any sense.
They went up a flight of stairs, then another one, winding around and around until the light had gone almost all away and all of a sudden it was back, bright and hot on his face and they were standing inside a little round room. Nobody had been there for a long time. It smelled of dust and dead flies. It was about the size of Brian’s room, but there were no corners. They were high up, very high, inside one of the towers. Ollie pulled him over to the window and pointed. Brian could see a long way, miles maybe. He hadn’t seen that far in a long time, too long to remember very well. From his room on the ward all he could see was the side of the building and a few pine trees. But up there in that tower it felt like he could see forever. It made him feel good, big and airy and bright as the scene Ollie was laying out in front of him.
Brian felt one of his words bubbling up, filling him. “Discharge, owww! Say it, say it.” But Ollie wouldn’t say it. He didn’t care if Brian was hooked on the word. Maybe he was going to lock Brian in that room, looping around and around with the word dragging him like a fish on a hook. Maybe there’d be nobody to say the word and Brian would be stuck there forever. “Discharge, discharge. Say it!’’
Ollie had a bad look on his face. He was still holding on, tighter now, tight enough to leave bruises and then Dr. Haak would know everything. Ollie didn’t seem to care anymore. He hated Brian’s words. He hated to hear them and he hated to have to say them to get Brian to be quiet. Ollie pushed Brian up against the window, and he felt the scummy dust against his nose and forehead. He was looking down on tall trees. He could see workers on the lawn, but they were tiny and their machines sounded like little toys.
“Do you know what, lamby-boy? Nobody ever comes up here. The janitors don’t even have the keys. Nobody bothers with this place. How about I just leave you here for a few days and you can be all alone? You can say-it-say-it until you’re blue in the face, but nobody’s going to find you here. I could tell the doctor that you got lost. How about that? Wouldn’t you like to spend some time here? The doctor might even forget all about you being her little pet.” He was holding Brian with both hands, hard against the glass as if trying to push him through. “Did you know I used to be her pet? Is that news to you? Or does she talk about it behind my back? When she tells me to get out and the two of you have your little time together, does she talk about the old days?” The sun was directly ahead, hanging over a green mountain. Brian was looking straight into it. He didn’t blink. He wanted all the light to go inside him. The sun was getting an aura, and the mountain too, a halo of hot light just like before his seizures. Ollie’s voice was getting far away. His hands were tight like the pacifier, tighter than the clamps in the cradle, but Brian could hardly feel them. Ollie was shouting and he could feel the spit on the back of his neck, and it was burning through his hair, through his skin, through the bone, and right into his cortex. Ollie was shouting, but Brian could hardly hear a thing. He was hanging on the edge there, as if Ollie had pushed him through the glass. He was dangling there, hundreds of feet off the ground, and even outside the sounds were muted. The lawn mowers and the hedge trimmer were still like little hissing whispers, The cars on the road and the delivery van honking its horn at the gate were far, far away. Their sound was blocked out, smothered by the sound the sun made.
Then Ollie had shut up and let go. Then they were face to face, but Ollie wouldn’t meet his eyes because he always lost in a stare-down. Ollie was quiet all of a sudden, as though he’d looked at his hands and seen what he’d done and there was no way to hide it now. His fingerprints were on Brian’s skin now, invisible but still there. Coming up to the surface slowly like a picture developing. And Dr. Haak would know what he’d done and it would be all over.
The room was round again. It smelled like dust and an attic full of dead people’s clothes again. Brian wasn’t look ing at the sun anymore, but the glow was still there. Not burning like Ollie’s acid spit on the back of his neck, but a broader heat. It was smoother, making the little black scorch marks fade away, healing them up. He was looking straight at Ollie and now he had the aura.
Sometimes the aura made people look like twins, or triplets, all trying to fit into the same spot. Sometimes it made them shiny and hard like a mirror full of fire. Sometimes it made them go away completely and only have a shadow left behind. Sometimes it was invisible, but an aura all the same, making everything else around it shaking as if seen through water.
Now Ollie had it and he looked like the sun. It hurt to see him. But Brian looked anyway because sometimes everything hurt—to touch, or look, or smell, or remember— and the hurting was okay. Ollie’s lips were moving. Sound was going into the air and into Brian’s ears, and they were the same old words Ollie always said, about the good old days and how beautiful Dr. Haak looked and how much she loved Ollie but couldn’t show anybody because it was a big secret. The words were going into his ears, but he didn’t hear a thing.
Ollie reached out, grabbing, and then they were going back down and around the spiral stairs, first through the place where there was no light, then back where everything could be seen. Ollie was hurrying, pulling him faster and faster down the long halls where the echoes didn’t seem to go away but bounced in the dust and piled up by the walls.
They passed a saint standing with her face into a corner like she’d done something wrong, and she had the aura too, a real halo. It was carved out of wood like her face and body and clothes, but there was another part to it: spiky light and hissing like the gas fire rings on the stove in the kitchen. The saint said something that made Ollie even more afraid. And then they were running, Ollie sniffing for air and Brian pulled along behind like a kite, not even touching the ground. Ollie’s arm and Brian’s were knotted together as the string, and he was flying behind, getting lighter and lighter until he was just a cross of skinny sticks with a diamond shape of tissue stretched across it.
The saint was yelling that Ollie was in big trouble and Ollie was snorting for air and they went around a corner and found that big wooden door with the knob like an iron star.
Ollie stopped to catch his breath. He straightened out his white jacket and licked his hand to smooth down his horns of red hair and
whispered, “It’s just our secret, right, Brian? That room up in the tower, that’s just for the two of us. Let’s not say a thing to the doctor or she might get mad at us both.”
The fire had gone off Ollie’s face. The aura was somewhere else, hiding or resting up like it did sometimes. “It’s just our secret, right? We don’t want to make the doctor upset.” Brian nodded, and his head was a bell, a big black iron bell like at the top of steeples in the big churches. It rang loud and long, and then the door swung open.
She knew something was wrong the second she turned around from her desk and looked at them. “You’re late,” she said.
Ollie was good at lying, but she knew it was a lie anyway. “We had a little problem up on the 17 ward. I had to help Otto get it straightened out.” She could have called right then and found out he was lying, but she didn’t bother. She knew everything about Ollie. He didn’t have to open his mouth and she still knew what was in his mind.
“We’ll talk about it later.” She got up and led Brian to his chair, strapping on the blood-pressure cuff. Ollie stood unhappily to one side, waiting. The doctor ripped the cuff off and led him directly to the EEG setup. “Come on, we need to get him ready.” Ollie helped her paste on the electrodes and ran a quick scan over the control panel. The needles started to tremble and the graph paper started to crawl forward. She pushed Ollie out of the way and took her place at the board, adjusting the levels. “He’s peaking,” she said excitedly. The paper moved forward, with Brian’s brain rhythms printed there in red ink. “He’s only produced this pattern a few times before.” She wet her lips. One hand was clamped between her knees, as if to keep it from doing something wrong. She fiddled with the dials with her free hand, then got up suddenly and started to yank the wires off Brian’s head.
“Get him in the cradle. I don’t think we have much time.” Ollie helped Brian to stand and unbutton his shirt for him. Ollie wasn’t just afraid of being punished for taking Brian to the round room. He was afraid of what Brian could do once he was strapped in and discharging. He yanked down Brian’s pants, then picked him off the floor to get them clear of his legs.
Soon they had him in the cradle, and the needle went into his arm, pumping in muscle relaxant so that he wouldn’t break any bones once the seizure started. There were times when they knocked him out and all he remembered after ward was the taste of gas and a prickling sensation on the skin of his neck. But this time he was going in wide awake.
A new set of electrodes was glued to his scalp, a clip placed on his earlobe and a monitoring patch attached to his chest. Dr. Haak shone a light into his eyes, and he saw the reflection of his blood vessels on the walls, on the ceiling above him, and on the doctor’s face. The light vanished and then he heard her say, “He’s slipping. I think he’s pulling out.”
Brian knew what she wanted from him. He knew that look on her face just like the look people get peeking in the shower room or flipping through a dirty magazine. Once one of the orderlies had left a magazine full of naked women in the TV lounge and they’d divvied it up, everybody on the ward getting a picture or two. Brian had one that showed a woman—or a girl, he wasn’t very good at guessing ages—in a steamy bathtub. Her body was just visible below the surface. She was very pale too, or the light made her look that way. Brian had hidden the girl as long as he could, sneaking her out to look when none of the staff were around. But Herb 21R squealed about the magazine, and the orderlies made a sweep through the ward and confiscated all the pictures.
Now Dr. Haak was looking at him the way he had looked at the girl in the bathtub. And Ollie was looking at the doctor the same way. She had the aura now. Softer, more like liquid than fire, and truer too. It seemed to really belong to her, as if it had been traveling, hunting, and finally had found its way back to its true place. It hummed like a light bulb. It sang him a lullaby to make him relax.
She told Ollie to go to his place by the other control panel, and when he was stationed there, checking over his gauges, she pressed her fingertip to her lips and transferred that touch to Brian’s. As she pulled her hand away, he saw a blob of light throbbing at the end of her finger. She smiled at him, just as the girl in the picture had smiled at him from her smoky bath.
From where she stood, she could just see the EEG read out. She took a final look, then closed her eyes as if praying and flicked a small red rubber-coated switch.
The blast hit Brian like a spear of fire, the barbs tearing their way into his flesh. The hot juice cut his body like hundreds of razors. He thrashed and writhed, but the juice didn’t get wrung out of him. It went deeper in, curling and boring like a worm in a piece of poisoned fruit, trying to find its way out.
Dr. Haak took her finger off the switch and the current was cut. Brian flopped back down onto the plastic sheet, now sticky and damp. The doctor took her place again above him, and from the look on her face it seemed it was she and not Brian who’d been run through by the spike of electricity. She was sweating. Her eyes were bright. She yelled instructions to Ollie, then went to the console again and readied herself to drive in the spike again. Over the hum of the transformers and the hum building steadily inside of Brian, Ollie shouted back some readings from his monitor. Dr. Haak pressed her finger again on the switch, routing the voltage into Brian’s brain. He convulsed as before, and when that blast had passed, she was nearby again, shining her little flashlight in his eyes. She turned his head onto the side and pushed a hard rubber probe into his ear, as if trying to look directly into the areas of his brain that she’d just seared.
“One more time and he’s done,” she said, checking the other ear and then returning to her place. She flicked the switch a third time and the last blast tore through him, as if sent directly from her hand, through the wire, and into his flesh. It came and it went, but still the crackling fire remained in his head.
Above the noise he heard her shout at Ollie, “Get out! Now!” He must have argued, because she disappeared for a moment, yelling threats at him. Then Brian heard the door slam and the dead bolt slide into place. Dr. Haak returned, tore the monitor pads off him, but left the electrodes pasted on his scalp.
“You’re ready, Brian. We’ve got you right where we want you.” She unfastened his leg and chest restraints, and, working her hands flat under his back, flipped him over. Though lying on his stomach, his face pressed against the clammy plastic sheeting, he could still see her hovering above him.
Using a pair of needle-nosed pliers, she plucked the two small rubber rivets out of the back of his neck. Then she squeezed a glistening drop of conductive jelly into each of the open holes and slid the silver-tipped ends of the cable into the shunt. Instantly he felt protected again, though the route to his brain was actually more open now.
It was raining inside his skull. Light-filled clouds were passing in the inner sky. A moon, two moons, opened like his eyes and he saw through them: Dr. Haak with the looped length of cable in her hands, two sharp prongs on the loose end. She was happy. Or as close to happy as she could get. Brian liked it when she was happy. He liked to give her what she wanted.
Pulling the long, thick braid on the top of her head and fastening it there with a carved bone comb, she let Brian see her shunt. The two black dots on her neck, identical to his. She pulled out the little stopper and dipped the free ends of the wire into the jar of jelly. She was working blind, using her fingertips to find the holes. Wincing, taking a little gasp of air, she slid the ends of the cable into her shunt.
“This is it, Brian. Are you ready for the big time?” The storm was still inside him. Clouds moved across the moons and he went blind for a moment. But he knew what she was doing. He’d seen her do it before: place a flat rubber plate between her teeth, position herself in the big padded chair by the control board, and reach for the switch. Her finger was gentle. She didn’t want to hurt him. It lingered on the small red button, stroking. Then slowly, carefully, it pushed forward and the blast surged into him again.
First came the cold fire. She’d explained it to him as extreme high-frequency power, but for Brian it seemed more like a net or second skin, thousands of thousands of needles penetrating him as the one great needle, Dr. Haak’s hot spike of love, went in and out and through him. He was giving her back what she’d given him so many times before.
“Chorea, say it, say it.” She didn’t get mad this time. She didn’t mind that he had another one of his words. She said it, and her voice sounded like a snake’s hiss, the tongue red-gold and full of special venom.
The cold fire passed and then he was stretched on her invisible rack. His limbs out of their joints. His veins and arteries split and squirting redstreams. His brain tissue coming apart neuron by neuron. And then he hit the wall.
He hit it and went through, like the dogs at the circus who jump through the flaming hoops. His skin burned off his back. His flesh burned off his bones. His bones turned to shafts of light.
And he’s through.
He goes through the wall, converted to light, and lands on all fours. And he’s moving, crawling like a baby with a four thousand horsepower diesel where his heart should be. He’s racing on the filaments, crawling at light speed: the rail worm, baby sixteen drive-wheel Soultrain. He’s got glowing bones for crankshafts, a stream of greasy black smoke coming out the two holes in the top of his head, and a baby’s hungry scream instead of a whistle. He gobbles the rails as he flies above them, starving mouth-breather sucking hot iron into his stomach and spewing it out behind as coils of black funk.
He goes into a tunnel, boring into the rock, the glistening ore lode Mother Earth and sees a light at the end. But it’s his own eyeball, four stories high and oozing hot matter, glassy, molten muck and spikes out the top like halo rays. And he’s out again.
Back on the surface. His steam blast shrieks loud and long, like the Godfather of Souls getting up for the down stroke. He takes it to the bridge, screaming, “Got a brand new bag!” and he feels the thrust. His whole steel tonnage rocketing off the rails. Into the sky. Leaving them behind like twin trails of baby’s milk, hot and rank.
His hands and feet are wheels, and they’re all in flame as he tears over the tracks. The ties rattle off like xylophone slats and the rails flap behind him like spaghetti. The caboose falls away, then the freight cars and the tender, all consumed to feed the fire, feed his hunger. He’s just a hot wad of power streaking through the Ictus. Dendrites, neurons, synapses, every circuit in the system his domain for speed and thrust.
Then comes a short instant of stillness, his last breath before hitting the final lap. He’s running silent but carrying the loudest message: I got the power, I got my mojo working, I wanna wanna wanna be your man. He sees the end of the wire, the spot where the rest of the world begins. He sees the two holes where she begins and he slams on through. Into her main line, delivering the hot load directly from his heart to hers.
Soon enough, too soon, it was over. Brian was limp, cold, and hungry. Dr Haak was in her chair, unconscious. Her hands were knotted in the cable. She’d been clinging to it the way a priest hangs onto his rosary. Her hair was a mess. Her lips were bright red, redder than lipstick. Her skin was flushed. Brian could see the tip of her tongue, small and pink. She was beautiful that way, all the stress and worry cooked out of her.
Brian lay in the cradle until she woke. He didn’t try to untangle himself from the straps and electrodes. He just waited, watching the sunlight move on the stained glass, tracking through the pictures of miracles and saints.