Chapter 11 – Infection
In search of a form for its embodiment, the monster waited. It could not see, hear, smell, taste, or feel, but it did not stalk aimlessly. Mental disturbances could be monitored. Aberrations were its nutrition. Sensing appropriate stirrings of thought, it circled closer, adhered, and injected itself into the ephemeral substratum.
Curiosity, now infected, began growing into morbid fascination and achieved a degree of permanence. Neurons fired. Lurid fantasies were engendered. Sensations began trickling, then flooding, inward. Information was being gathered. Plans could be made. Soon the abomination would be able to speak and act. Muscle fibers twitched at its command.
Chapter 12 – Vacation
Angel wondered if she had awakened in paradise. It had been almost a week, and this impression had only grown stronger each morning. Nestled between flannel sheets, she absorbed the comforting atmosphere of the room which, temporarily, was hers. Could people really live like this? She wondered if this was what being someone’s daughter was supposed to feel like.
She and Tommy had not only respected the routine of their hosts. They had settled into it. Breakfast was often an individual matter, its time of occurrence determined by when one woke up. The morning meal ranged from gregarious to solitary, depending on the combination of personnel. Generally, the men were working on one project or another outdoors when she made it to the table. Janice had given her strict instructions to prioritize feeding and resting.
Everyone always took lunch together prior to a voluntary cessation of physical labor. Afternoons were devoted to reading and contemplation, and Tommy and Angel spent these hours together in the library. Evening dinners were a high point of each day. They were reserved for interesting conversations, often about what had been read recently. Winged wisdom, lofty and invisible, seemed to hover above the dining room table on these occasions. Just last night, there had been a lively discussion of Plato’s Republic and the training of a guardian class. This had raised questions as to the plausibility of teachers training students to be more knowledgeable than themselves, the restriction of individual access to information for the alleged good of the state, and why anyone would consider themselves qualified to make such decisions.
On this particular morning, Angel dressed quickly and went downstairs. Janice happened to be puttering about in the kitchen. She always happened to be puttering about in the kitchen until her guest was seated in the breakfast nook, and she never disappeared into the recesses of the house before preparing her something to eat.
“Good morning, Angel. What would you like this morning?”
Angel rubbed her jaw thoughtfully. There was no heat, and she knew what that meant. She had known internally before engaging in this action.
“I think something solid,” she answered. “Do you have any needle nose pliers?”
“Jonathan keeps a toolbox in the broom closet by the back door,” Janice answered in mild surprise. “It’s normally used for household tasks, so I doubt he would have taken it out today.”
With subtle determination, the young woman found what she was looking for and headed for the downstairs bathroom. Guided by her reflection in the mirror, she carefully untwisted the wires in her mouth. When she was about halfway through, there was a sound from the kitchen. The men were coming in for something to drink. Tommy went back toward the bathroom while Andrew washed his hands in the kitchen sink. He intended to clean up as well, but he stopped in the open doorway.
“What are you doing?”
“Getting ready to brush my teeth – finally.”
“The doctor said six weeks – minimum. It’s only been about one.”
“I know,” she stated as she continued untwisting the wires. “The breaks are healed.”
“Are you sure?”
She dropped her shoulders and looked at him as if to say, “Really?”
A sizzling sound came from the kitchen, then the enticing smell of thick slices of ham being cooked in a skillet. Janice called out.
“Would you like your eggs sunny side up? I can put a thin crust on their undersides by frying them in the meat drippings.”
“Tommy, please go and tell her that would be wonderful.”
He obeyed while she finished working on her mouth. With the wires and rubber bands removed, she gingerly worked her jaw up and down. It didn’t hurt, but the muscles which moved it had grown stiff. The restored movement was glorious. Minutes later, Janice was looking on in mild wonder as Angel consumed a meal that would have done justice to a two-hundred-pound man.
“Mrs. Andrews,” Angel began.
She still lacked the confidence of familiarity with her new surroundings.
“Janice,” she repeated obediently. “I’m ready to help with the housework.”
Chapter 13 – Spread
The leaves were turning in Missouri when the first of the bodies was found in a state farther to the west. It bore no identification. Forensic examination uncovered evidence of sexual assault, and the skull had been crushed by several blows with a blunt object, possibly a sledgehammer. These details were characteristic of a crime of passion, but the act had, in fact, arisen from forethought and planning.
Soon, it was necessary for Tommy and Jonathan to focus their outdoor efforts on raking leaves. On days when the wind was not blowing, the city government allowed the burning of yard waste. For a couple of days toward the end of this ongoing task, Janice and Angel assisted the men. Their evening discussions lingered over Aristotle’s Metaphysics and Tommy’s frustration with the author’s invented terminology. Though Angel and Jonathan tried to help, he found the work nearly impenetrable. The group’s mutual interest centered on the implausibility of an infinite regression of causes, and they considered whether this indicated the existence of some kind of ultimate source as proposed by the ancient philosopher. Eventually, they moved on to other matters.
One evening, Jonathan addressed a nonliterary question to Tommy.
“I understand why Angel hasn’t left the house, Thomas, but why haven’t you gone beyond the limits of our yard?”
“Maybe it’s because I don’t feel self-conscious here.”
“That’s understandable, I suppose, but you might be making too much out of that. I’ll bet your appearance won’t draw much attention at all in this town.”
“That’s a bet you’ll lose.”
“I doubt it. This town is used to seeing racial minorities, just not that often. There are also a number of group homes run by the state mental hospital. The residents – or clients, as the staff call them – can be seen walking around fairly commonly. Some are in need of supervision. Others aren’t. People who live here are accustomed to seeing them, at any rate. Throw in some substance abusers, the disabled and mentally challenged – I think you get my drift. Our population is visually inoculated.”
Tommy remembered some loose change – the only money he had left to his name – stored in a zippered pouch in his suitcase. He had forgotten about it when he and Angel had first stood in that aisle at Walmart.
“So you’ll bet?”
“I said so, didn’t I? The risk I’m taking on is only minor. There’s always a chance you’ll come across a heckler, but I doubt you’ll have any trouble.”
Jonathan’s face took on a competitive look.
“Okay, I’ll play. Tomorrow?”
They shook hands.
The following morning, Tommy took a long walk. He was out for over three hours. There were few people to encounter on the residential streets. One woman looked suspiciously at him as she worked in her yard, but he gathered from her expression that she might have done so with any stranger. Her wary reaction was insufficient to win him the bet. Besides, she had stared at him instead of looking away.
In a different neighborhood where the houses were a little shabbier, a couple of girls smoking on a porch called out and jokingly propositioned him. Though they looked to be younger than he was, hard living was already obscuring their youth. They and their pattern of speech were of a rougher cut. This in itself did not constitute prejudice, and they sounded as if they would have followed through had he accepted. There was nothing new or appealing in that, but their forwardness, while repulsive, was also uninhibited. Their relaxed, careless attitude indicated that they treated other men in the same way. He kept walking.
“Too bad, dude,” one of them called aggressively after him. “You’re pretty hot.”
Their laughter, intended more for each other and lacking any hint of ridicule, died away behind him. He came to Austin and walked eastward along this busier street. He was beginning to feel invisible. People in cars and trucks were not actively looking away from him. They simply were not looking at him.
Coming to a stoplight, he turned left and walked north on Washington Street. There were a number of Victorian houses here, some in better repair than others, and Halloween decorations were out on homes all along the street. Looking down Central Avenue at its intersection with Washington, he saw an old man driving on a small riding mower. Not long after that, a teenager on the opposite sidewalk was wearing headphones and singing loudly off key while making exaggerated, jerking motions with his arms and legs. He was oblivious of Tommy and almost everything else around him.
A few more blocks beyond this, the street pitched down a slight grade. An old woman, visibly overweight, passed by slowly on an electric scooter with four wheels and a metal basket on the back. The basket contained two grocery bags and a purse. She was evidently heading north after doing some shopping. It was possible that she had come all the way from Walmart, but Tommy was unaware of the Woods supermarket near the west end of town.
He turned left on Atlantic, walked a couple of blocks over a slight hill, and crossed Ash. There was a fairly large park with a swimming pool on his right. Beyond the pool, a small lake was bordered by a playground, a parking lot, and a walking trail. Signage identified this body of water as Walton Lake, and a small farm covered a rise beyond the north shore. Cattle could be seen grazing beyond a wire fence. Some group home residents were on a supervised walk through the park, and one of these waved to him. On another street, an old man on a porch waved languidly to him as well. Waving in this community seemed to consist of slightly raising one’s hand.
On reaching home – a funny sounding word, home – Tommy went back to his room, and then joined the others for lunch. Jonathan watched him with interest.
The huge man shifted in his seat, reached into his pocket, and flipped a quarter across the table.
“I’ll let you in on a secret,” the physicist offered, pocketing the quarter. “People don’t pay much attention to me, either. I’ve aged out.”
“It’s not the same as before,” Tommy mused. “I think I like this better. I’d rather be overlooked than conspicuously ignored, but some people even greeted me – in a way, I guess.”
Angel changed the subject.
“I started reading The Metamorphoses by Ovid,” she stated. “A lot of those stories were about the gods raping women, so I stopped. That’s not what I need right now.”
After a couple of bites, Janice offered an opinion of her own.
“Then you probably wouldn’t enjoy The City of God yet, either. You can’t get through Book I without reading Augustine’s discussion of women being violated by the Visigoths when they sacked Rome.”
Angel was encouraged by the fact that nobody had reacted with shock or discomfort to her comment. She was beginning to trust her surroundings.
“We actually read an excerpt of that in one of my philosophy classes in college,” she answered. “A number of us didn’t care for his argument.”
“That doesn’t surprise me. What he meant as consolation for sufferers doesn’t placate the modern mind, but I did find some statements I considered helpful.”
“Oh, one comes to mind. He wrote that crimes against the body don’t destroy the virtue of the soul. I approve of his saying that the victims hadn’t done anything wrong. That’s remarkably sensitive for when it was written.”
“It still is,” Jonathan concluded, “when you read about what still happens in some places.”
Angel’s pupils constricted, and she frowned at the tablecloth.
“Honor killings,” she muttered, “or girls being banished from their families. Some people blame victims right here at home.”
The odd, younger couple grew daily in their confidence toward the odd, older couple. Conversation, as well as prolonged silence, grew easier. The hospitable household was a secure environment, a place of belonging and of being valued. The chimera and his biologically toxic friend had each been raised by adults unworthy of the calling, but now they were in the presence of people who genuinely cared for them. Though this was gradually becoming obvious, they had no base of experience from which to interpret the feeling. They only knew that they liked it.
As their security with their surroundings became better established, they began to take extended strolls together, especially at night. They ranged widely, exploring the streets in different parts of town and making comparisons between neighborhoods. The small town atmosphere was novel for both of them, and they found these expeditions mildly enjoyable. This was similar to what they had done on the night when first they had told each other their stories, but their topics of conversation were usually less wrenching than on that occasion – usually but not always.
“Tommy?” Angel asked on their way home one evening.
“What is it?”
“You know how I never show permanent effects from being attacked?”
“Sure. I’ve seen it with my own eyes.”
She walked several paces without further comment.
“So why did you bring that up?”
“Sometimes I feel like Dorian Gray.”
“Haven’t read that one,” he admitted. “There must be a lot of books you read that I didn’t. You’ve been at it longer than I have.”
“But you’ve heard of it.”
“Refresh my memory.”
“He’s a character written by Oscar Wilde. He lives this awful life, but he remains youthful despite his dissipation. It’s his portrait that shows the damage, the real condition of his soul.”
“You don’t dissipate yourself, Angel.”
“No, but I was wondering if the damage done to me could be accumulating somewhere else.”
“Oh, I don’t know – like my subconscious or my emotions. I already told you that I try not to get attached, but it’s more than that. I rarely have strong feelings at all. Maybe I’m just weird. It bothers me sometimes. That’s all.”
“Maybe you feel more than you realize.”
“Maybe,” she agreed absently.
The trees of southern Missouri grew bare while the spree of rape and murder continued. It stalked the dry wastes of central Utah and progressed slowly eastward along I-70. Each body bore the same signs as the first. All were left hidden near county roadsides far enough from the interstate that no pattern was immediately discernible. It would take authorities in several jurisdictions quite some time to catch up and link the incidents. Victims remained unidentified at first because their remains were always deposited some distance away from where they had been abducted. This resulted in a slow filter of information which obscured the connection between missing person reports and the belated discoveries of the bodies.
Much has been said and written about the working of the criminal mind. The ability to explain offers a false panacea, an illusion of control. To explain is to insulate, to wrap oneself in a security blanket of informed familiarity. Factors such as economic and educational deprivation, genetics, physiology, and relational dysfunction are seen as problems which will inevitably yield to analysis and solution. In the case of these serial killings, however, the chain of cause and effect went deeper than any explanations which biology, psychology, or sociology could provide. The truth was inadmissible, too terrible to consider. Hideous, blunt, and stripped of intellectual adornment, it was so audacious as to remain hidden. The monster was finding its prey, and its hunger was insatiable.