“The Heartless Boy” – Fiction by Ed Ahern

pandoras_box-400
Pandora’s Box, Omoi Tsuzura and Yokubari Obasan – Tsukioka Yoshitoshi, 1880

We’re giddy to open the box of our Summer 2014 Issue and unleash its first excerpt! Ed Ahern‘s “The Heartless Boy” is a mischievous modernization of one of the world’s most famous myths, swirling with twisted humor, demonic spirits, and wisps of what you might call romance.

{ X }

TOM WILLMAN WAS BORN EXPERIENCING NO STRONG FEELINGS–in fact, no feelings at all. No love or affection. No hate or dislike. Certainly no fear. The closest he came to emotions were pleasing or displeasing sensations.

Tom’s parents, desperate for a smile, had him tested for a litany of diseases, but he proved to be uncaringly above average. They quit trying to show Tom affection by the time he was six, and by the time he was ten were providing only what was legally required of them.

He ate because the tastes were good and food kept him alive. He avoided the harmful and the idiotic, so no drugs or gluttony, but also no designer water or wandering chickens. He exercised and bathed because his body felt better, and exhibited an attractive trimness about which he was oblivious.

Girls in high school viewed Tom’s indifference as cool and his trimness as attractive, feelings heightened once they discovered that his lack of emotion gave him extraordinary staying powers. Tom viewed his frequent sex acts as pleasant consensual exercise.

The person who tried hardest to know Tom best was Arthur Lausten, the high school psychologist. Lausten, with no significant life of his own, compulsively coached people on how to live better. His recurring daydream was perching in a confessional and prescribing atonements.

Tom was required to attend frequent sessions with Lausten, who toiled through hundreds of hours trying to etch Tom’s stainless steel persona with the bristles of a verbal toothbrush.

“Tom, you appear to be neither sociopathic nor psychotic, but except for satisfying basic biological requirements you’re completely indifferent to your humanity.”

“What’s your point, Mr. Lausten?”

Lausten was desperate He pulled out a large folding knife, flipped open the blade and waved it in front of Tom. “What would you do if I threatened to stab you?”

“Run.”

“And if you couldn’t get out of the room?”

“Ask somebody to reason with you.”

“And if that didn’t work?”

“Hit you with this book end.”

“How do you feel about me right now?”

“That question is inane.”

Early in his freshman year a bully had cornered Tom on the football field. Tom let the boy hit him twice before retaliating, knowing that in order to avoid discipline he had to have the boy’s aggression witnessed. Then he broke enough of the boy’s bones that the boy couldn’t be aggressive again for several months. The onlookers noticed that Tom’s expression had remained calm.

At the graduation ceremony, Tom was approached by several girls and avoided by most boys. Tom perceived both the attention and avoidance as irrelevant. An unknown young woman was among those who approached.

“Mr. Willman, I’m Raissa Pandorapolis. I have a job offer for you.” The young woman curved aesthetically and looked no older than he was, although her eyes had the worry lines of middle age.

“Ah.”

“Am I correct that you’ll be leaving home and are looking for work?”

“Yes.”

“Am I also correct that you’ve had difficulties with pre-employment screening?”

“The human resource departments tell me that I’m inhuman.”

“Not me. Please join me for lunch while I explain my offer.”

Once seated in the restaurant, Tom began his questioning. “What sort of job is it?”

“I own and operate a– call it an entry portal– and I need help running it. You’d be a gatekeeper/ doorman to handle the rush hour traffic.

“It’s night shift work, with the traffic occurring between 11 PM and 3 AM. Outside of those hours you’re free to pursue your own interests, or do nothing at all. The clientele is a nasty lot, but can’t harm you if you’re careful. Given your indifference, I’m hoping that you can ignore their vicious comments.”

Tom’s parents had ordered him to vacate their house immediately after graduation, so he needed work and a place to stay. “What’s it pay?”

“$30 an hour, six nights a week. You stay at the house rent free. Payment is in cash, off the books, so you won’t need to pay taxes. You merely let the, ah, personalities in and out. They’re universally ugly and surly, but you should be able to ignore their abrasive traits.”

Suspicion was a way of thinking which Tom’s condition encouraged. “That’s three times minimum wage for a menial job. What’s the catch?”

“There a couple niggling conditions of employment. You’ll swear an oath of secrecy under penalty of immediate death, and failing to get the commuters in and out promptly is equally fatal. In other words you treat them like cattle and keep your mouth shut. You’re really quite well suited to the job.”

“How long would I have to sign up for?”

Raissa smiled. His question meant he was leaning toward acceptance. “The secrecy agreement is forever, but the initial term of employment is one year. Oh, and you can’t have any visitors in the house, and can’t bring in any kind of communication device: no phone, camera or tablet.”

Having no emotional distractions, Tom’s logical and intellectual capabilities were formidable. He reasoned that his expenses would be minimal and at the end of a year he should have at least $50,000 dollars in cash.

“For that kind of money it must be crooked. I’ve got no interest in going to jail and becoming somebody’s bum boy.”

“It’s abnormal or paranormal, but not illegal. At worst, you’d be driven crazy or torn to shreds.”

“Am I the first person you’ve hired?”

“No, there’ve been two others, a vicious sadist and a nearly-catatonic recluse. They both died screaming in anguish, so I changed my hiring criteria. Tell you what, I’ll stay with you for the first week. If you can’t handle it you’ll get paid for the week and just have to keep your mouth shut.”

Tom was terminally neutral, but sensed Raissa’s sharp-edged emotions. He assumed she’d lied and would kill him if he tried to leave after the first week. It was the only way she could be sure he wouldn’t talk. But Tom lived entirely outside of human emotions, and doubted anything he encountered could break through to him. Raissa needed him. Badly, or she wouldn’t be making accommodations.

“All right,” he said, “we’ll try it for a week. When and where should I show up?”

“I’ll pick you up this evening,” she said. And did. They drove for almost an hour before stopping. Raissa walked Tom into a house and locked the door behind them.

Tom looked around at a great room with shuttered windows that took up most of the ground floor. A large jagged hole in the floor made most of the room unusable. Tom looked over the edge, but the hole dropped into blackness with no visible bottom. On one edge of the hole a large circle and symbols had been painted on the wood floor. The circle contained a lectern, an easy chair, and battery-operated lights.

“Where’s the hatch or lid for this thing?”

“It’s, ah, symbolic. Step into the circle and stand at the lectern.”

Tom did so, and saw two bronze tablets on the reading stand.

“At 11 PM you read the left tablet, at 3 AM you read the right tablet. What could be easier? Just make very sure you don’t step outside the circle before 3 AM.”

He stared at the tablets. The top half of each had unrecognizable characters. The bottom halves had English gibberish syllables. He glanced at Raissa.

“The top parts are in Mycenaean Greek, pre-Phoenician characters. That’s for my use. The bottom half is the pronunciation guide in English. You don’t need to know the meaning, but you do need to pronounce everything perfectly. Otherwise you’ll be killed. Not by me, by the commuters. It’s as if you’d left them off at the wrong stop. Imagine how annoyed you’d be. Sorry, you don’t get annoyed, do you?”

“No. Okay, I’ll be killed if I step outside the circle while I’m working, and killed if I make a mistake in either reading. Recite one of them to me.”

Raissa stepped so close to Tom that he could feel her breath on his ear as she spoke.

Tom turned his head to look at her. “And you’ve been able to recite these for a long time without being hurt?”

Her expression deconstructed into sadness, as if she looked into the eyes of dead relatives. “For a long time. I was just a happy, inquisitive girl, but look at me now, trapped timelessly with evil for company, never to know love or have children. Is it any wonder that I’m testy?”

Tom, emotionally clueless, said nothing. Raissa’s face wrinkled into what he knew to be anger. “All right, simpleton, recite the incantations for me until I think you’ve got them down. Let’s see if you can last the night.”

Raissa commandeered the easy chair, leaving Tom to stand at the lectern. By the third repetition he pronounced the syllables correctly. Tom asked more questions.

“How many of these beings are there?”

“Do you know your Christian bible? Of course not. The phrase ‘My name is legion’ has no meaning for you. Thousands, Tom. Single entities transmute into several, and none. A swirling porridge of personified evils. Oh, except for one prissy little bitch.”

“Who’s that?”

“The exception that makes everything worse. The hope that you can endure these defilements. Sorry, of course not you, Tom.

“How will I know when it’s exactly 11 PM?”

“There’ll be a gong. You’ll have three seconds to start or be burned to ash where you stand.”

Tom, of course, viewed death merely as a timing issue. “Okay.”

“I almost forgot: Once they see that it’s you at the lectern and not me, some of them will probably double back and try to shock you into stepping out of the circle. You do, you die.”

“Got it. Do I need to do anything between 11 PM and 3 AM?”

“Stay alive. Oh, and the jug next to the lectern is in case you have to urinate. Do not, under any circumstances, piss into the pit.”

The gong rang, and Tom’s mouth strained to utter the harsh sounds. The pit’s blackness seemed to glisten, then break into shards. A suppurating odor washed into the room, but neither Raissa nor Tom vomited. Shapes boiled out of the pit, changing without pause from deformities to demons to grotesqueries for which Tom had no descriptive words. They spoke.

“Fresh meat.”

“A pretty boy this time.”

“Raissa lusts for him.”

“Play with us, pretty boy.”

Tom turned around and looked back into the room, now filled with apparitions. The shapes had exaggerated breasts and vulvas and penises. The smells of rutting overrode the aromas of rot. The shapes were now all pleasing and Tom felt his skin tingle as tactile sensations seeped through the protective circle.

He stood without words or expression. The shapes screamed and distorted themselves into broken, exposed bones and oozing lesions. The smell of pus ruled.

Tom was curious, another of his few human traits, and began to categorize the shapes and scents. The hoarse howling intensified at his indifference, punctuated by ear-shredding screams. Raissa sat quietly, watching the apparitions swirl. Tom got the impression that she was acquainted with all of them. After several minutes they dispersed outward through the house’s walls.

Tom turned to Raissa and noticed her staring at his ass. “Where are they going?”

“Into your world to inflict pain and terror. There’s never enough of them to go around. Ah, here comes Miss Prissy, late as always.”

A slender white shape emerged from the pit. The woman was gracefully formed, but Tom thought her androgynous. “Who’s that?”

“Hope. Bitch follows the evils and applies a little zinc oxide to the humans who’ve just been seared. Keeps them from committing suicide, which they’d be better off doing.”

A lurking apparition charged the protective circle, spewing yellow gobbets. But for Tom, the bile was merely sour snot, and he asked it, “What’s your name, slime-ball?”

Raissa sucked in air. “Careful. Exorcists ask for a demon’s name, Tom. Doormen just keep their mouths shut.”

The slobbering, evil figure was contorted with rage. Tom ignored it and stepped over to Raissa. They looked like teenagers on a first date. “I think you’ve been going about this all wrong .”

“Excuse me!”

“For one thing, Pandorapolis sucks as an alias. Look Pandy, we don’t learn much in high school, but we do get some rudiments of mythology. All you’ve done for two millennia is run these ethereal bed bugs through chutes, when you could’ve been whipping them into something more interesting. It’s past time for you to screw with their deformed little minds. You clearly hate the way you’re doing things now.”

“You can’t talk to me like that! I’m a demi-god.”

“Don’t think so. You’re just a human trapped into being timeless. I doubt you’ve had sex for several hundred years. We could fix that though, the chair is big enough.”

Raissa sputtered. “I’m going to kill you right now.”

“Don’t think so. Let’s let the week run out and see where it gets us.”

Raissa paused. “What do you mean ‘Screw with their minds?’”

“If you’re bored and frustrated with a couple thousand years of herding evil cattle think what they must feel like. What happens if you give them a day off? Or let them sleep in an extra half-hour? Or let them know they can work at half speed and you won’t report them? Or, maybe best of all, let them concoct their own deviltry rather than using an obsolete play book they’re bored with?”

“My curse is immutable.”

“Seriously? You’re already cursed, what more can happen to you? If something does happen at least it would be a change.”

Tom reached over and touched Raissa’s shoulder. She didn’t pull away. “Tomorrow night I’ll talk to one or two of them and see where we get.”

“You’ll kill us both!”

“You can’t die and I’m indifferent.”

The next night Tom picked out a blobular evil with open sores mounded like barnacles on an oyster shell. He turned to Raissa. “Okay, I can’t control it without knowing its name. What is it?”

She huddled back in the easy chair. “Alaputrius.”

“Hey, Alaputrius! What’re you tasked with tonight?”

The beast glowered but answered. “Drunkenness that causes self-maiming accidents.”

“And you do that every night?”

“Yes ape, since beyond memory.”

“Okay, tonight you’re doing initial drug addictions among middle-aged overweight men.”

“That’s Foulbreathea’s job. She’ll disembowel me.”

“Might be an improvement. But tell her/it that it’s okay for you to change jobs for one night, and if she has any problem she can talk to me.”

Like all classic evils, Alaputrius had no sense of joy or contentment, but he had plenty of greed and thwarted envy. “Wow. Okay, then. I’m on my way.”

An hour later Foulbreathea stormed in and Tom mollified her by letting her cause bed-wetting among adolescent girls at sleepovers. The assignment changes spiraled and by 3 AM over fifty imps had been short-circuited.

By the end of the week over 1,000 evils had been transposed, and even Tom’s considerable analytical powers were strained keeping track. Hope kept wandering in and out of the pit in confusion. Raissa had begun laughing at the changes, and on day five they began sharing the easy chair in post-3 AM trysts.

On the last day of the week Raissa looked down at a naked Tom. “I’m not going to kill you.”

“I presumed as much. How many of these suckers are there?”

“More than you can count, tight buns. Call it half a million.”

Tom noticed that the pit had started a rolling boil, throwing off steaming mounds of black pitch. “Raissa, is it supposed to do that?”

“Zeus Rex, no! Watch out!”

An ebon figure rose from the pit and without hesitation floated into the mystical circle, its voice rolling thunder. “I’ve received an employment discrimination complaint from Hope.”

“That bitch,” Raissa interjected.

The thunder resumed. “Hope’s pretty dense, but I gather that you two have been shuffling my deck without permission.”

As the figure spoke the pitch slid off it, leaving what looked like a nude, fat-saggy Arthur Lausten. “Not much to look at, I know,” it said, “but it’s the most distasteful image I could find in your mind. Anyway, what am I going to do with you two rutting little animals? Killing you creates dysfunction, and if I administer excruciating pain you’ll lose focus during the procedures.”

Tom’s expression remained calm. “You’re the Deus Ex Machina.”

“One of them.”

“You’re missing out on a great opportunity.”

Lightning flashed and the almost-Arthur Lausten glared. “Explain yourself very quickly.”

“For two thousand years the same evils have been inflicted on the same people, night after night. The humans get used to it. What we’re doing is making the evils of the world truly random: The drug addict becomes a miser, the murderer becomes self-abusive– but just for a night. They’ll never know what’s coming next.”

The figure could be seen to think. Tom added, “It’s the same amount of evil, after all.”

“Hmmm… all right, take a few hundred years to try it out. Let Hope in on the action so she’ll get off my back.”

The figure vanished and the pit resumed its impenetrable blackness. Tom turned to Raissa.

“For a being that powerful, it’s really stupid, isn’t it?”

“Shhh. Just enjoy things. It’s like a party where we get to mess with all the guests.”

Tom paused. “You understand that I’ll never feel affection or love for you, that we’ll always just be sexually active acquaintances?”

“I’ve been in worse relationships.”

{ X }

EdAhernED AHERN resumed writing after forty odd years in foreign intelligence and international sales. He has his original wife, but advises that after 46 years they are both out of warranty. Ed has had 44 stories accepted over the past 3 years.

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