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Just as the glazier left, an hour or so ago, he gave me a gentle, pitying look, the sort of expression you make when you’re sympathetic and confronted by someone who is having a bad day. I wonder what sort of red-eyed, tangle-haired impression I made on him.
I’m sitting on the back verandah, watching my second coffee go cold and trying not to confront this new reality. Mondo is sitting a little way over from me, occasionally giving me one of those mournful looks dogs give you when they know they’re in trouble, but they’re not quite sure why.
I don’t feel upset anymore. I can feel that ebbing away, being replaced by anger. Anger at the Vile, anger at the games of these other interdimensional spirit beings, and anger at my own life being convoluted more than ever.
‘Just who are you?’ I say stiffly.
Mondo pricks up his ears at the sound of my voice.
‘I’m Mondo,’ he says, in a slightly surprised tone.
‘Don’t give me any more of that bullshit!’ I snap. ‘Whatever you are, you were in my cat, and now you’re in my dog. I want the truth, and I want it now!’
‘I am telling the truth, Carrie,’ he protests. ‘It’s just me, Mondo. There’s no one inside me.’
‘How can you expect me to believe that? First Argyle starts talking, then he stops, and now you’re taking over from him. What am I supposed to think?’
Mondo looks pained. ‘That’s not what’s happened. Argyle was really scared. Of course he didn’t tell you that, but he was. The Vile knew that he was helping you, and he knew the Vile would kill him the next time they met. So he went back to being an ordinary cat. I don’t know how.’
‘So what are you? The second shift?’
‘Well, something like that. Please don’t think that Argyle was a coward, Carrie. That’s just the way cats are. He just couldn’t handle it any more.’
‘Neither can I,’ I mutter, ‘but I don’t have that option.’
Mondo gives me a hopeful look, and edges closer. ‘I’m here to help you. The Vile still thinks I’m just a dumb dog. We’ll work something out together.’
He’s winning me over. Half absent-mindedly, I reach out and pat him. His tail thumps happily against the verandah boards. It’s hard to stay angry with a dog.
‘So if you’re not possessed, how are you suddenly talking, Mondo?’ I ask.
‘It’s kind of hard to describe,’ he admits, hesitantly. ‘I woke up this morning feeling normal, but as soon as I moved, something changed. I felt as if my mind was trickling outward, expanding in all directions. I suddenly found I could think about things. Memory, reason, abstraction… it was all just there. It felt new, but totally natural. As if it had just been hidden from me all my life.’
He looks at me, hoping that I understand. My expression obviously tells him otherwise. He sighs.
‘Let me put it another way. There was a time, back when I was on the farm, when I gashed my leg on some barbed wire and needed stitches. The vet put a big plastic cone on my head to stop me biting at them. For a long time all I could see was the world right in front of me, and all I could smell was plastic. Then one day they took the cone off, and suddenly I could see and smell everything all around me. Suddenly my world was huge again. This morning was sort of like that.’
‘So you’re not possessed or anything,’ I qualify. ‘You’ve just suddenly… evolved.’
‘I have no doubt that some agents of the spiritual realms are responsible for it, both in me and in Argyle,’ he replies. ‘I guess it’s easier for you this way.’
‘Maybe,’ I say, and take a sip of my coffee. ‘So, what are we going to do?’
‘Ah,’ Mondo says hesitantly. ‘That’s where I’m going to need help.’
‘Great,’ I mutter.
‘Don’t worry, we’ll think of something,’ he assures me. ‘I’ve only had sentience for a couple of hours. Give me a chance to grow into it.’
I spend most of my day on the computer, dealing with mundanities like email and literature searches. I find that the loss of Argyle has sobered me, but with Mondo here and Raff’s assured presence at night, my fear of the Vile has calmed. It hasn’t vanished, of course. The idea of him even existing makes my skin crawl. But knowing that I’m out of his grasp for the moment puts my mind at comparative ease.
Mondo spends his day sitting on the back verandah, apparently thinking. But he comes up with no concrete plans to deal with the Vile.
Raff arrives in the early evening. As he comes in he calls out, ‘Honey, I’m home!’ and smirks at the whole retro-patriarchal role he’s playing. He treats it as irony, but I think that, at some subconscious level, being my manly protector actually appeals to him. It’s like a suit of clothes that he’s never worn but which fits him perfectly when he eventually slips it on. Of course if I asked him, he’d claim that such a role is an outmoded piece of bourgeois gender politics. That doesn’t mean that he doesn’t secretly, at some level, enjoy it all.
If Raff is being my unreconstructed male, it seems only fair that I slip on my metaphorical apron and make dinner. His hair and face are encrusted with sawdust, thanks to a sander he was using on one of his projects, so he goes for a shower while I try to do something creative with minced beef and pasta.
Mondo is sitting on the kitchen floor, alternating between thinking about our predicament and gazing longingly at the beef on the counter. Suddenly he glances at me and says, ‘Where’s Raff?’
‘Taking a shower,’ I reply. ‘Why?’
‘Look up,’ says Mondo.
I do as he says. A school of brilliantly coloured creatures, sort of like armoured jellyfish, are slowly drifting through the kitchen just below the ceiling. They have hard, iridescent carapaces, and long flat tentacles that trail behind them like medieval banners. The colours are breathtaking, deep and saturated, rich scarlets and cobalt blues, viridian greens and velvety purples, shot with strands of silver, like the text of an illuminated manuscript.
‘Potha,’ Mondo reports softly. ‘They’re integral to most human beings.’
But at the end of the school one potha struggles, floating erratically in the stately wake of its companions.
Its tentacles are stripped and tattered, dangling limply behind a seemingly scorched and flaking carapace. Even as I watch it falls further and further behind the others, until it is alone in the room, inexorably sinking toward the floor. I reach up, and it melts away just before it comes within reach.
‘No need to ask what was wrong with that one,’ I say, feeling dead inside.
‘I guess not,’ Mondo replies. ‘The Vile must be on his way back. You should be safe with Raff here.’
‘I know,’ I say. ‘But it doesn’t make seeing these things any easier.’
Raff senses my sobered mood as we eat, but he seems to attribute it to the general fear of the ‘serial killer’ that hangs over Parambah like a foul mist. After dinner we leave the TV off and play backgammon, sipping tumblers of port and listening to Mahler on the stereo. As usual, Raff plays with chaotic abandon, losing pieces all over the board then suddenly leaping forward after a lucky dice roll. I play my careful game, keeping my pieces safe until a good roll lets me trundle forward. He trounces me in two games; I narrowly win three.
All I can think of as we prepare for bed is that the Vile is coming. I trust what Argyle and Mondo told me, that I’ll be safe if Raff is here, but even the thought of the Vile recalls all the terror; of the pale fingers at the window, of Argyle’s screams, of the blank face of the little girl on the television news.
It seems like a ridiculous time to make love, but we do. Gently, briefly, without speaking or fuss. Two people in a climate of fear, finding refuge and comfort in the warmth of each other.
When I wake, the room is so different to last night that it momentarily feels like another room entirely. The womb-like darkness is gone; the bright new windows admit cascades of white moonlight. Everything is in faded, dream-like versions of the colours I know are there, from the washed-out burgundy of the bedspread to the pale green of a dress thrown over a chair.
Tonight I also hear a sound that wasn’t there last night; the pestilential croon of the Minions. I turn away from the windows, but then I see a patch of silvery light drifting across the wardrobe.
I force myself, or maybe some other force compels me, to turn and look out the window. The Vile is there, with a dozen Minions clustered about him, all staring at me. The Vile is tall and thin, dressed in a long black cloak. His sleek skin glows with its own metallic light. His head is long and bald and shark-like, but his eyes are his most startling feature. They are large and perfect, like an exaggeration of a human eye, and dazzling blue, as if a thousand blue bottles had been shattered and mixed together and lit from within.
The unnatural beauty of his radiant blue eyes makes the ugliness of the rest of him all the more abhorrent. I have a feeling that this is the way he wants it. Now that I can finally see him, I feel calm. It’s not a pleasant calm. It’s like the calm at the centre of a cyclone, dead and incongruous. But it’s calm, and it’s better than terror.
Smiling, he reaches out his arm to take hold of the window catch, and as he does I move my body slightly so that he can see Raff sleeping next to me.
The effect is instantaneous. The Vile’s hand freezes, and his eyes widen in cold fury. Frustration and anger seem to boil off him in stinking clouds, and the Minions shrink back from him and quail in fear. He looks to be on the verge of smashing the windows and lunging in to tear me apart, but the threat of Raff, lying there, fast asleep, just barely holds him back. I can see his taloned fingers quivering against the window pane, making a tiny, chittering noise.
Then, without warning, his stare alters. The hatred seems to morph into something else entirely.
His stare is deep and searching, as if those gorgeous eyes can see straight through me to other things beyond. Very slowly he opens his mouth, wider and wider, showing small sharp white teeth arranged in rows all the way down his throat. I guess he does it to frighten me, and it does.
His hand has ceased shivering, and he holds it up so that I can see his fingers. Every finger is tipped with a claw, but the index finger has a huge, grey-green talon. He raises this finger to the glass, and very slowly drags it down.
The screech of the talon against the window pane is faint yet excruciating. The small sound fills the whole room, and the furniture and fittings seem to vibrate with it. Raff doesn’t move, but he frowns in his sleep, as if a pleasant dream had suddenly started to sour. All the while, the Vile stares at me and smiles.
I grip Raff’s hand to steady myself and, for once, this causes him to stir. It’s not much of a movement, just a troubled shrug, but the Vile’s eyes flash with alarm, and he pulls his hand away from the glass.
The Vile recovers his composure quickly, and rests his claws casually on the outer window sill. His eyes do not leave mine; he holds me in an unblinking stare. He raises one hand and strokes his throat with the back of the talon, before drawing it down the centre of his body, in a parody of what he would do to me if he could. Then he moves, very slowly and deliberately, his eyes ever fixed on me, his mouth ever smiling, until he vanishes around the corner of the house. The Minions melt into the shadows under the trees.
Everything I see is now exactly as it was before. My mind instinctively tries to pretend that nothing has happened, that I just had some sort of dream or hallucination. It’s a natural feeling to have, I suppose. But I don’t let instinct control me. I look at the long scar on the new window, and that’s enough to make it all unavoidably real, and I begin to tremble with delayed fear. Soon after, I begin to cry, quietly and profusely. It helps. I cry myself to sleep, and Raff sleeps on as if all is right with the world.
In the morning Raff brings me coffee in bed, then only has time to wish me a good morning before running away to some appointment. I stay in bed for a while, marveling at how peaceful and ordinary the room looks in the daylight. With the sun shining on the grass and flowers outside, it seems that nothing more dangerous than a butterfly could come through the windows. Only the meandering scratch on the glass suggests otherwise.
I walk outside and give Mondo his breakfast. He may have attained sentience, but he bolts his dogfood just like every other dog.
I go for a shower, and when I come out I find Mondo sitting in front of the television, intently watching the morning news with the remote control by his paw. When the commercial break come on, he stabs awkwardly at the remote, sending the TV skittering through channels of cartoons and infomercials before landing on another news program.
‘What are you doing?’ I ask him.
‘Watching the news,’ he says, unhelpfully.
‘By the way, thanks for asking, but no, the Vile didn’t kill me last night. He just stood at the window flashing his teeth and claws at me.’
Apparently dogs don’t get sarcasm. Mondo gives me a perplexed stare until the irony dawns on him with all the speed of continental drift.
‘I know that the Vile was here, Carrie, and I saw what he did. I was hiding under Raff’s car, watching. I didn’t want to make the same mistake Argyle made and reveal myself to him too early. I would have come running if he’d tried to hurt you. And I would have bitten him, claws or no claws.’
‘Okay, I’m sorry. Thanks, Mondo. Um… speaking of Argyle, have you seen him?’
‘Not since last night.’
‘I hope he’s okay. He was so worried about the Vile returning.’
‘He was right to,’ Mondo comments. ‘The Minions found him last night and tried to grab him, but as soon as he saw them coming he shot straight up the nearest tree. But it only took them a few moments to realise he’s just an ordinary cat now. He should be safe.’
‘Poor Argyle.’ I throw myself into an armchair and finish drying my hair with a towel. ‘So, why are you watching the news?’
‘I’m trying to find out if the Vile killed anyone after leaving here.’
‘Have you discovered anything?’
‘No. That’s what worries me,’ he mutters. ‘As I see it, there are three things the Vile could have done after he left you. One, the most likely, is that he killed someone living alone and unable to scream, and the body hasn’t been discovered yet. Two, he isn’t tied down by the same laws of physics as you and I, and he could have traveled to some other city where the murder wouldn’t be linked to those here. Three, the least likely, he’s found a sewer or abandoned building to hide in for the day.’
‘Why is the third option so unlikely?’ I ask.
‘You’ve noticed how the creatures you’ve seen only stay here for a few moments? It’s hard for a spiritual being to maintain a physical form for very long. If he stayed here all day, he’d be too weak to attack you tonight. No, he has killed, and he violates another dimension as we speak. He will be back at full strength when he returns tomorrow night.’
The thought makes me feel about a hundred years old. ‘We can’t let this go on, Mondo.’
‘No,’ the old dog agrees solemnly. ‘We can’t.’
The Tip Jar