Postcard Story: A Stern Talking-To

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Boy, you know what kids with grades like these end up doing?

Cleaning sex robots.

Middle school is Waterloo-time, kiddo. Your whole world gets decided here, not just by your permanent school record but by your heart. And as I’m looking over this report card, I’m seeing one thing.

You’ve got the heart of a sex robot cleaner.

You’ll ride to work every day in an old filthy bus with people going to jobs just like yours, but a tiny bit better. You won’t be in a jacket and tie but a jumpsuit, and you’ll carry your paper bag lunch into a building with no markings on the outside. Then you’ll take your station beside a stainless-steel table with a hundred other sex robot cleaners like a giant morgue.

Day after day, hour after hour, they’ll wheel in wooden crates that look like coffins, and you’ll have exactly 17 minutes per cleaning to keep up your quota. Some will take less. Some will take much, much more.

And we’re talking about a thorough cleaning. Thorough.

That doesn’t mean a once-over with a sponge before you roll her back in the crate. It means a tray covered in picks and swabs like at the dentist’s office. It means hoses of pressurized water and air to get stuff out of crevices. It means a drain underneath. It means a black light on a swivel arm so you can see every glowing spot.

You’ll snap gloves onto your wrinkled fingers and get to work on the first one, trying not to think about the much wealthier man who sent it in for you to clean. He got A’s in school, that’s why he’s rich enough to own one. That’s why he’s rich enough to pay guys like you to pick it clean.

They’ll probably smell, the robots. If you’re lucky, it’ll be cheap lavender spray. If you’re not, it’ll be the reek of sweat and feet and the things rich men pay others to smell.

Sometimes — maybe most of the time — they’ll be damaged, and you’ll wonder how it happened. You’ll disconnect a speaker that’s still softly moaning, and you’ll wonder how the skull got cracked or why there are twenty circular burns on the inner thighs. You’ll find a broken blade or some frayed rope in the bottom of the box. You’ll swab something out of the ear or the nose and ask yourself how it could have gotten there. You’ll check the feet and see they’re filthy, but that’s impossible because these robots don’t walk. They just sit and lie around and sometimes kneel.

You’ll wonder why almost all the robots are female.

That bus will take you home to an empty apartment. You won’t be living with someone, that’s for sure — years of seeing what men do to woman-shaped things will either scare you at your own potential or thrill you. Either way, you won’t love human beings. You may love some plastic parts you’ve stolen from work and keep under your bed. You won’t be able to look women in the eye.

When Thanksgiving and Christmas come, there will be nowhere to go. Your mom and I will be dead by then, and I’ll be damned if I’m leaving you the farm. Maybe you’ll treat yourself to a milkshake at the mall food court or a gray steak at a diner. You’ll probably read a book or something because you’ll still like that.

Eventually, you’ll die. If you’re fortunate, you’ll simply go limp one day and ooze from the top of your last half-finished cleaning to the floor. More likely, some nut desensitized to a decade of working there will come in after a rape and murder spree, and he’ll mow all of you down with an assault rifle laughing and crying at the same time.

That nut may even be you.

Either way, bleeding out into the drain or gasping your last breath, you’ll think, “I really wish I’d listened to my dad and done better in Social Studies.”

Your mom and I just want the best for you, buddy. So let’s shape up, okay?

Postcard Story: Acknowledgments

Such a book as this, plumbing the depths of everlasting human existence, could never be written alone, and the author is grateful to the following people and institutions without whom his expedition to Mosschase would not have been possible.

First, without the generous financial support of George M. Theerian, owner and president of the Theerian Wig Factory, this project could not have been executed at all. Though I never met his first wife Flora while she lived, she was clearly an extraordinary woman well worthy of her husband’s obsession with the postmortem persistence of spirit. I am sorry not to have made her acquaintance during our séances, but I’m told that women spirits deprived of their worldly bodies sometimes find my locus of masculinity too intimidating to confront.

The wit, class, and emotional sensitivity of the present Mrs. Theerian, the radiant Pauline, could well have been my bedrock during the whole ordeal of Mosschase House. From her knowing glances to her sublime taste in hats, I couldn’t ask for a greater companion. Her shoulder rubs were almost as exquisite as her insights.

My own wife Opal, of course, proved ever helpful as well, attending to worldly matters back in Sussex while I attended to the otherworldly ones.

David Darley and the team from Westinghouse were literally instrumental to our exploration: without their durable electrostatic detectors, temperature gauges, spirit condensers, radium lanterns, Victrola voice capture machines, or ectoplasm containment jars, we’d have been marooned forever on the island of ignorance. May they soon conquer the fickle bitch of alternating current!

Beatrice and Chester Kleiner, present occupants of Mosschase, permitted free access to their home for all six weeks of our investigation. Both graciously accepted the daily company of twenty spirit investigators, not to mention their equipment, their foodstuffs, their sweat-soaked waistcoats and cravats, and their often coarse language. Some of the men proved quite excitable, and I beg the good Mrs. Kleiner’s forgiveness for my torrent of obscenity in the face of the First Manifestation (see Chapter One). As for the wreckage of the south basement wall, I am sure the inevitable profits of this book can easily pay for that damage as well as the charred library mezzanine.

My gratitude runs especially strong for Emil Kleiner, that scamp cousin of Chester’s, whose home-brewed absinthe accelerated both our quiet nights and our active ones.

My sincerest apologies, too, to young Master Heinrich Kleiner. To eyes aching from the lack of sleep, a ten-year-old boy in pajamas can easily be mistaken for an apparition, and we pray that the burns from the Faraday Net have long since subsided. Chin up, little soldier!

Mosschase wouldn’t be a delightfully sinister heap of misshapen stones without the clumsy architectural stylings of Sir Quentin Montrose or the slipshod workmanship of Charles Gaston. Together, they built the perfect haunted house atop that lonely chalk cliff, knotted with ancient oaks and strangled by vines: a veritable spectral honey pot. Well done, gentlemen!

And, though I am loathe to do it, I suppose I must also thank Baron Gerhardt von Klaugh for the underlying psychic trauma that makes Mosschase such an embassy for the damned. While I can’t condone his practice of sewing shut children’s mouths or hanging their corpses as puppets, it certainly suited his former home for my purposes.

I offer much gratitude, also, to the generations of terrified servants, wide-eyed children, and gibbering drunks whose local gossip served like linguistic lenses, compounding mere rumor into legend and finally, wondrously, into reality. So, too, must I thank my peers among the spiritual sciences whose dim fumbling against the shadows on Plato’s wall saved me decades of false starts and blind alleys. Who’d have thought the answer, gentlemen, was simply to turn around? 

Then there are the mediums. Where to start? Clearly with the ones who were less than successful. 

Though poor Madame Vladovich’s spiritual eyes proved to be as cataract-clouded as her ordinary ones, I’m quite obliged for her energetic table-lifting. It isn’t easy for an eighty-seven-year-old woman to heft an oaken table with rulers in her sleeves, but she certainly did. Brava!

Little Wendy Wexham, God rest her soul, gave us the last few weeks of her consumptive life just to communicate with souls as estranged from life as her own. I hope she’s found her well-earned peace.

And, lo, the poor successful Erwin Haste: how sorry we were to have to send a bullet through your brain. Would that your open mind had not been so roomy for evil, my friend. Would, too, that the leather straps had held. May God forgive us for burying you facing down.

Harry the Gardener deserves my gratitude for his enthusiastic work with the pick axe. If I’m ever trapped beneath a wall of infant skeletons again, their tiny bone hands clawing at my face, you will be the first man I’ll telegraph.

To the neighbors, I will say I’m sorry. We did determine the awful truth behind the ghostly lights and the keening screeches at midnight, but ending them was beyond the charter of our expedition. We are planning a second excursion to your wonderful countryside, one dedicated to expelling this darkness once and for all. Donations for our cause will be heartily accepted by the publisher and passed on to us. Stay calm and carry on, good worthies: we’re on our way.

And finally, most importantly, I thank you, the discerning reader, the curious and adventuresome explorer, for your excellent taste. It is your enthusiasm for the outré that makes it all worthwhile.

Postcard Story: Mascot

There was no denying that Mr. Gandy was smart – there probably wasn’t a chemical compound in the world he couldn’t whip up like a diner cook – but golly, he was slow with the talking, especially in an emergency.

“A lot depends on what you’re trying to kill,” he was saying while Mason examined the label of Mr. Gandy’s latest guess at what he needed, something called Ratinol. “Is it big, is it little, does it have thin skin or thick fur, scales or a shell…are you sure you have no idea what you’re dealing with?”

The truth was that Mason had a very good idea of what he was dealing with, though not really how it came to be. What he did know for sure was that his folks were coming home from the tractor show in Duluth in the next two hours and the thing under the house had to be gone.

“No, sir,” Mason said, rubbing his hand through his hair. “I mean, just from what it leaves.”

“What does it leave? Nesting materials? Some kind of spoor?”

“Nothing like that,” Mason replied. “Just these wavy lines in the dirt coming out from under the house when it kind of flops or slithers out at night. Also, it seems to like to gnaw on the clapboards.”

“Who wouldn’t?” Mr. Gandy asked. “The houses in this town are built from some of the finest lumber in these United States. Can you get any sense of the size from those, uh, lines? Or the teeth marks?”

The thing under the house was exactly six feet two inches long and weighed the same amount as a middle linebacker on the Artonville Armadillos football team because that’s what it used to be, Otis Doransky. Whose parents were going to be so mad.

“I think it’s pretty big,” Mason settled on saying. “Like, person-big.”

“Oh, dear. That’s going to require a few pounds of something, then. Otherwise you’ll just make it sick and angry.”

Otis, when he was human, was not someone to be made angry. Which is why they chose him for the experiment to begin with. If anybody would psych out the Wrighton Wildcats, it would be Otis looming in his uniform and pads, his skin gone gray and scaly and his already-porcine face now turned blunted and pink. The trouble was that he psyched all of the guys out first and they jumped in their jalopies for home.

Leaving Mason with a backyard full of beer cans and a human-armadillo hybrid snuffling under the house for whatever armadillos snuffled for.

Mason checked his watch. His dad was probably turning the old Ford onto Highway 58 by then, less than an hour from home.

“I think this’ll do the trick,” Mr. Gandy said, taking a yellow can out from under the counter with a faded skull and crossbones on the side. “You’ll want to wear gloves when you’re handling this. I mean thick rubber ones. And you’ll want to bury them deep into the ground when you’re done along with the empty can.”

“Do I need to just spray it on him or what?”

If Mr. Gandy noticed that Mason seemed to know the gender of the thing under the house, he didn’t show it.

“Ingestion’ll be faster. You’ll need to prepare some kind of bait that it will really enjoy.”

As far as Mason knew, Otis’s favorite foods were T-bone steaks and milkshakes from McCrory’s. He’d have to stop there next.

“It’s not going to be pretty, just so you know,” Mr. Gandy said. “This basically jellies them from the inside out and it leaves the nerves for last. Nasty stuff. Invented by the Germans, of course. A couple of days after it feeds, whatever’s under your house will be a glob of reddish-yellow lymph that you’ll probably want to scoop out with a shovel.”

That was fine. Mason’s folks went to church on Wednesday nights, and there’d be plenty of time to—

“Or you can wait for it to just dry up and blow away. It looks a little like mushroom spores.”

That was an option, too.

“Anyway, I’m not really supposed to sell this to a minor, but you seem like you’re in a jam so…let’s call it five dollars.”

Mason pulled the bill from his jacket pocket. He couldn’t believe his luck. An adult who wasn’t going to rat him out. It was amazing.

Mr. Gandy snapped the bill taut between his fingers and slid it into the register. He didn’t press any buttons.

“We’ll keep this off the books if it’s all the same to you,” he said.

Mason nodded.

“Now good luck, young man. Don’t get any of it on you.”

“Thank you, sir!” he said, taking the can from Mr. Gandy. He tucked it under his arm like a ball on a short running play and headed out for his Nash.

After the bells on the pharmacy door stopped jangling, Mr. Gandy shook his head.

Boys would always be boys.