Serialized Fiction: Monsters, Part 4



Parts 1, 2 and 3 can be found by scrolling down through the weeks of headlines. We ended last week as Freya gave birth in the park after being knifed by a mugger.

The next week, Haakon came over and brought a bottle of Scotch so expensive Matt had only ever seen it in magazine ads. “Don’t thank me,” he said. “It’s Theodora’s treat.”

He stood there, one hand in the pocket of his raincoat that cost as much as some houses, looking at Matt expectantly.

“You know, I’ve got morning shift at St. Mary’s,” said Matt.

“Well, I don’t, for Christ’s sake,” said Haakon.

Matt opened the bottle and poured them both chintzy doses in coffee cups. Haakon rolled his eyes and swirled his cup until Matt poured him a bit more. “That’s better,” he said. “Here’s to you, then, mate, the hero of the hour.”

“I didn’t do anything,” muttered Matt. He took a cautious sip of the liquor and considered it. So that was what gold tasted like.Haakon tossed his off and looked at Matt until Matt poured more.

“Winning Yankee modesty,” said Haakon, sipping more moderately. “Shucks, ma’am, it weren’t nothing.” Matt had an idea he was trying to do John Wayne but it didn’t make it past the English accent. “You’ve always looked after Joan, Matt. Now it seems you’ve saved Freya as well, not to mention young Daisy.”

“Daisy?” said Matt.

“The baby.” Haakon sent his second Scotch the way of the first. “Freya was going to name her Peace Gandhi Grey. I said why don’t you just bloody call her Flower Power, and Theodora settled the matter by calling the kid Daisy, which we all like.”

Matt looked into space.

“What is it, then?” said Haakon.

“I didn’t save the baby,” said Matt. “If anyone did, Theodora did. But I don’t know how.”

He remembered his despair that day in the park, spring coursing through every blade of glass, life pulsing in the very air, and in his arms the first infant he had ever delivered, still and bloody and uncompromisingly dead.

Haakon looked at him steadily for a minute and then, seeming to make a decision, reached past Matt and got the bottle of Scotch.He poured himself at least eight ounces and then, as an afterthought, topped off Matt’s cup, too. Matt picked it up and sipped cautiously. Haakon drank about half a cup at a swig.

“Listen,” he said. “Theodora was in the war. She saw the Germans make people dig graves and then shoot them so they’d fall in neatly. She was in concentration camps. She got Freya and me in a place like that. She said everybody else in our town, every man, woman, and child, had died, and we said how come we didn’t die too? And she said, ‘Because I wanted you to live.’ So I guess it doesn’t strike me that odd she nursed Daisy back to health. Theodora tends to get her way.” He slammed his cup down. “Are you saving that stuff for Christmas?”

Matt poured. He didn’t know Haakon well but he was able to understand he probably didn’t usually drink this much. The man was nervous, and trying to tell him something.

“I’m going to marry Joan,” said Haakon. “I’d hoped we could get clean away. This outfit I work for, they’ve got operations in South America and California, oh, all over. But Joan saw Freya that day and got it into her head I was a cad, so there was nothing for it but to introduce them. Then Theodora, well, she’s part of the package, Freya’s never more than eight feet away. And then of course the lot of them stuck together like glue. Joan lost her mother and now she’s found Theodora and – oh, hell, bloody women! There’s no getting round them. You hear this tripe about women’s liberation these days but in our family they don’t need liberating, I do.”

That seemed to exhaust the subject as far as Haakon was concerned, and he left genially drunk an hour later. “I know you fancy my bird, mate,” he said. “Who wouldn’t? She’s the most fanciable girl in America. Come to the wedding!”

He’d drunk too much to drive and Matt waited until he heard the click of the door across the hall to make sure he was only going to Joan’s. Then he leaned against the counter and drank the rest of his Scotch, thinking.

After a brief stay in ICU, Freya recovered quickly from her stab wound and soon appeared as fit and flaky as ever at Joan’s apartment, better-looking every day as she regained her figure with miraculous speed. “I shall never forget that you saved me,” she told Matt.“Would you like to sleep with me?” Matt sputtered. “Well, send me a bill, then,” she said airily, and Matt never did figure out if she was joking.

Daisy was an extremely satisfactory baby. Freya brought her every time she visited, and Daisy laughed and gurgled and cartwheeled her dimpled little arms. She had big blue eyes and her newborn black fuzz soon turned cotton-candy blond. Joan couldn’t keep her hands off her, and Matt wondered how many of the projected forty babies she would present to Haakon in the course of time.

Theodora often turned up, too. Freya had moved in with her not after she was released from the hospital but after the first time the baby cried all night. “My flat-mates were going to give me the shove anyway,” she said. “All that back-to-nature stuff, then they freak out at the smell of a dirty nappy. Besides, when Theodora picks her up, Daisy pipes down immediately. Theodora’s magic with the brat.”

Matt’s eyes met Theodora’s and something passed between them. Matt looked away quickly but Theodora just grinned. He had a felt a certain awkwardness with her since that day in the park.

Matt was invited to Theodora’s house on Mother’s Day Sunday. The party was a mixed-up celebration meant to commemorate not only Theodora’s (foster) motherhood and Freya’s launch into the biological state, but also Joan’s 25th birthday, which was coincidentally the day before. Then, of course, Haakon and Joan were to be married the next month, so the engagement was to be toasted as well.

It was a party Matt would remember for the rest of his life.

Some of Matt’s ancestors were supposed to have been wealthy but his own parents were schoolteachers and he had never seen the way the rich lived. The minute he stepped into Theodora’s house he knew he still hadn’t. The house itself was grand enough but inside filled with this and that that had caught Theodora’s fancy. There was a good Oriental rug with a dragon on it, and some elephant lamps, but they were next to a whorehouse-red sofa that clashed with them and there were shelves and shelves of books that nobody had ever dusted. Matt had wondered if there would be servants but there weren’t even caterers.

The guests were eclectic. There were some hippie friends of Freya’s strumming guitars and smoking dope in corners, anxiously querying whether each appetizer was vegetarian but lapping up the champagne as fast as anyone else.

There were a couple of ad agency types from Joan’s office, bright, brittle young people Matt had never met, and a few bewildered-looking engineers who apparently worked with Haakon. The rest were gypsies.

There were gypsies providing entertainment. Some were playing music, and there were a pair of exhibition dancers doing exotic dips and swoops. Others were simply guests and Theodora seemed right at home with them. One older man Matt gathered was important among his clan Theodora introduced him to as Tommy, which seemed odd as the man spoke less English than any other Tommy Matt had ever met.

“Make sure everyone’s got champagne,” Theodora told Tommy before she left to greet new arrivals, “but for Christ’s sake don’t let your lot steal the salt shakers this time.”

“Is joke,” explained Tommy when they were left alone.

“You mean they don’t really steal the salt shakers?” said Matt.

“Only the young ones, and is just for practice,” said the old man. “Theodora is honored friend to the Roma and is great – how do you say? – magic woman.”

He wandered away before Matt could question him further.

Matt was due at St. Mary’s at eleven for the late-night shift and so only drank sufficient champagne to lubricate himself for dancing. Exhibition dancers should never be allowed at parties where ordinary guests were expected to dance, he thought, they were too intimidating. But all the gypsies were flinging themselves around to the exotic strains of their music, and the hippies were making a stab at it too although the ad agency types stood around looking disapproving and the engineers looked more bewildered than ever.

So Matt thought what the hell, and he had a trot around the room once with Joan, once with Freya, once with Theodora and once with a bold gypsy lass who took his arm like an armed guard and led him irresistibly to the floor. He had no idea of the steps; gypsy dancing seemed to consist mostly of stomping and flailing, to Matt’s mind very much like the modern rock ‘n roll dances he was beginning to see on television. He was pretty sure he was making a fool of himself but so were others; Theodora danced with a champagne glass in one hand and her cigarette holder in the other.

Then food was served, more champagne was poured, and presents were given. Baby Daisy was fetched from upstairs where she had apparently been tended by a gypsy woman, and Freya held her as Tommy made a speech in his own language. The engineers looked bewildered to the point of catatonia, and Theodora translated, “He says the Roma give Daisy the gifts of long life, great beauty and much wealth.”

Everyone cheered. Matt thought the gypsies might or might not be able to grant long life but between Freya and Theodora the rest was covered.

Then Freya made a little speech, in English, thanking Matt for saving her life and delivering her baby. “Theodora says we can’t give you much, you’re too proud, but I made you this and I hope you’ll always wear it. It’s been blessed by the head of my coven and some of the Roma women added their spells, too. It will bring you professional success and a happy family life.”

It was a wooden amulet on a silver chain and depicted an enormous pair of tits. Matt thanked her politely, let her kiss him, and hung it around his neck, then tucked it underneath his shirt when he was sure she wasn’t looking.

The high point of the evening was when Joan presented Theodora her finished portrait. The painting had been covered with a cloth which Joan snatched away with such pride ofaccomplishment that Matt hoped she didn’t notice the by-now stunned bewilderment on the faces of the engineers.

Everyone else made a better show of it. “Far out, man,” said a hippie, the gypsies cheered, and Joan’s advertising coworkers applauded with suitable congratulations. Matt did his best. The picture was in Joan’s usual vicious reds and virulent greens and looked more like a landscape than a woman’s face. Possibly Poland. But Theodora seemed quite pleased.

After that, the gypsies started dancing again and Matt set his champagne glass down firmly and wandered outside for some air, only to interrupt Joan and Haakon in a stolen kiss on the patio. “Sorry,” he said, and Haakon mumbled something and went back inside, but Joan turned to him smiling. “I could tell you hated my painting,” she said.

“Oh, I just don’t understand modern art, that’s all,” said Matt, smiling back. Joan looked especially pretty in a fire-engine red miniskirt with boots of the same color, having dressed in her best for the occasion. “Hey, I just realized. It’s your birthday. Why didn’t you get a present, too?”

Joan blushed. “I did, an amazing one, but Haakon gave it to me yesterday. He thought it would be tacky to give it to me at the party. Come and I’ll show you.”

She picked up her champagne glass and led him around the house to the driveway, where she showed him a Mustang convertible that in color matched her dress. “I know, I know,” she said as Matt gaped. “Girls aren’t supposed to accept anything from suitors but flowers and candy, right? But I mean, like, we’re getting married. Plus my old clunker was on its last legs and Haakon was tired of fixing it for me.”

Matt cut short her embarrassment by hugging her and kissing her cheek. “Well, congratulations,” he said. That wasn’t the sort of thing Matt did much, and it embarrassed them both further. They stood there awkwardly until Matt said, “My present to you is good advice: Don’t drive the thing after you’ve been drinking champagne. I don’t think you have much of a head for it.”

“Point taken,” said Joan. “Let’s go find something nonalcoholic to drink.”

They went back inside and found some of the hippies clustered around a bowl of pink-lemonade-looking punch on the table in the big kitchen.

“That looks good,” said Matt brightly. “There’s no alcohol in it, is there?”

“No, man,” said one of the hippies. “Just, like, acid.”

Matt thought he meant the citric kind.

Later, Matt thought that if the young man had said “LSD,” he might have gotten the idea. The Beatles had just put out their smash hit Sergeant Pepper album and Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds was one of the songs on it. On the other hand, the drug culture was new then and Matt, busy trying to be a doctor, hadn’t paid much attention. He might have just assumed LSD was an artificial sweetener.

Joan hadn’t even been listening, she was off foraging through the cabinets for glasses. The hippies were drinking their punch from paper cups but there didn’t seem to be any more. She came up with two big ugly metal glasses from the 1950s, the kind that made everything taste worse.

Haakon came in while they were cracking ice cubes from a metal tray with a lever. He glanced at the hippies clustered around the kitchen table. They were all very young and except for the fact that they were passing around a joint they would have looked like children sipping Kool-Aid. Very timid or perhaps stupid children, because they all looked a little scared and no one was saying anything until finally one said, incomprehensibly, “I am so, like, tripping.”

Haakon turned away in disgust but didn’t connect the comment with the punch bowl, either. “Is this the Temperance Society?” he said, but he got himself a glass of the punch too, on the grounds that he might want to drive home that night. He wandered out again to the party.

Joan and Matt lingered a while in the kitchen, where there was food laid out on the counter, but it was impossible to engage the hippies in conversation, they were too zonked. One kept shivering though the sun was still up and the room very warm, and another actually drooled. If that’s what smoking dope did for you, Matt thought, he would steer clear of drugs. He looked around and noticed Joan had gone out, and he followed shortly thereafter.

In the living room it was louder than ever. Haakon was in a corner trying to entertain his coworkers, which meant shouting at them about the weather over the music. A few of the gypsies were still swaying or stomping to the music but the exhibition dancers were sitting on the sofa, smoking cigarettes. Even had Matt not seen them performing, though, he would have known they were dancers because of the way their bodies kept reverberating from the couch up to the ceiling and back again in gleaming metal waves, reminding Matt of the toys called Slinkies.

He thought that calmly and without surprise. Then he thought: What?

He glanced back at the dancers and this time saw only a pair of good-looking human beings wearing a lot of jewelry. In relief, Matt allowed himself to exhale.

Then they started doing it again. They couldn’t help it, they were high energy, Matt thought, but the little electric pings they made as they expanded and contracted and bounced off the ceiling irritated his ears and he turned away and looked across the room.

Where some slender celery and carrot sticks and fiercely sharpened pencils were talking to an icicle, all of them holding champagne glasses but not drinking anything. The advertising people, he realized. He held his breath, worried that a noise might snap them.

Matt was still himself enough to realize he wasn’t seeing things normally, and that alarmed him, but what really frightened him was the gypsies. Some of them had the heads of foxes or wolves and even the ones who looked the most reassuringly human would turn out to have cloven hooves or a long, gleaming tail if you looked too close. Matt found one with absolutely nothing wrong with him but while he looked the man glanced up and grinned knowingly at him, showing a gold tooth, then fanned out his huge peacock tail, which stared at Matt with a thousand eyes.

Matt shouted and stepped back so fast he hit his head against the wall. Stars came out of it the way they do in cartoons, and for a minute they dazzled him and he was blind. Then his vision blinked back and he saw Theodora across the room, a wart on her nose, stirring a cauldron. He shut his eyes firmly.

When he opened them again he saw that the old lady was doing nothing more sinister than getting a bottle of champagne out of an ice bucket. She was weirdly but festively dressed for the occasion in a patterned purple caftan and she had no warts anywhere.

That was a relief, but then Freya, baby in tow, moved over to her and Matt noticed for the first time that they were the same person. First there were two women, one old and ugly and one young and beautiful, then their edges start to blur and mix like watercolors. Theodora put her thumbs under the cork of the champagne bottle and pushed and there was a pop and a flume of bubbles, and somehow during this operation Freya had melded into her, baby and all.

Matt knew what was coming then, it was inevitable. Joan crossed the room in slow motion, at first intense in primary colors, red boots, red miniskirt; then she was abruptly gone, subsumed into the trinity.

“No!” said Matt. He ran across the room, shouting, “Come out! Joan, come out!”

To be continued ....


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