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Vague Visages Short Stories: The Caveat by Dan Thorn

The plan was simple. He would propose to Dina in Radium.

Gerald would have preferred his own version of a holiday: a geek movie marathon and a case of Diet Pepsi. Who needed mountains when he had the throne of Gondor and the Shire to whisk him away? He had heard the Rockies were spectacular, but hey, so were E.T. and Indiana Jones. He could have happily lived out his days watching Spielberg flicks in his apartment. Until, of course, he met Geraldine. Could you believe it? That was actually her real name. He started calling her Dina because “Geraldine” was so similar to “Gerald” it made him paranoid. It was like the meeting had been orchestrated by someone else.

He didn’t meet Dina in a bar or a nightclub. He didn’t like bars. Actually, he despised all public places. He found love the modern way, enlisting the Internet. (Imagine what E.T. could have done on the world wide web). Gerald unabashedly advertised his love for Tolkien on Plenty of Fish. The online dating world was beautiful because it expedited the screening process. Not on his end, obviously. It allowed women to screen him. He could advertise himself with unflinching clarity; a thirty-eight-year-old with his uncle’s “invisible hairline,” deliberately large glasses worn in an attempt to subvert societal narcissism. He was an HMV manager, and rented a basement suite for $700 a month. He liked comic books, video games and aliens.

After months of fishing futility, Gerald connected with the lovely Geraldine. He liked the fact that she too broadcasted her shortcomings. She had a thirteen-year-old son whom she frankly admitted could be “more persistent than Gollum.” She managed her own cleaning service (and ironically didn’t care for laundry), was unapologetic about her sedentary, fast-food lifestyle and wasn’t interested in meeting Mr. Right. Best of all, she out-geeked Gerald. She preferred Robert Jordan to Tolkien, and confessed that she had an unmanageable addiction to World of Warcraft.

Two love-birds, forcefully stereotypical in their geekdom; people who made a show of attending Comic-Con and smirking at the suits on Eighth Ave. They both agreed that Calgary was as pretentious as it was phony. Theirs was a breezy, low-maintenance relationship.

Of course, Gerald knew enough about good fortune to acknowledge that it only came in spurts. He figured his romantic fantasy was due for a Mordor-type detour. What he didn’t expect was the kind of detour that Dina’s son, Syd, had in mind.

Gerald’s first impression of Syd was lukewarm. The kid was very emphatic about the fact that his name was spelled “Syd,” not “Sid,” and that under no circumstances was Gerald allowed to play pop albums in his presence. Metal or nothin’, bro.

That was their first meeting. Gerald figured Syd was simply at that intolerable age, infatuated with his own gloom. Apocalyptic existentialism, bro. Skulking around with bangs down to his kneecaps, lurking in the recesses of his room and listening to heartwarming renditions of death metal (namely, Dying Fetus). So be it. Every good life had a caveat. After a few weeks, Gerald and Syd developed an understanding. It essentially involved ignoring one another whenever possible. Gerald figured he had neatly evaded the dark, teenage cloud.

Until, of course, last Saturday.

*

It was around seven or eight in the evening. Dina had run out to get chips while Gerald reclined on her couch, scanning Magic: The Gathering prices on his iPhone. He had already become more comfortable in her habitat than his own. She lived in a small two-level townhouse. The living room was on the lower level (her den, as she liked to call it), where she spent her weekends watching the Space Channel and playing World of Warcraft. The kitchen was on the upper level, separated by a small staircase and wooden railing along the perimeter. Past the kitchen at the end of the hall was Syd’s bedroom, guarded by a perpetually closed door.

Suddenly, Gerald got a prickly-necked feeling. It startled him so badly that he sat up and looked around. He didn’t see anyone in the living room, but he could definitely sense a presence. He shifted his gaze to the kitchen.

There was Syd, staring at him through the railings. Gerald hadn’t even heard him leave his bedroom.

“Can I help you?”

Syd turned around and skulked back into his room.

What the hell?

Gerald groaned and shuffled towards the staircase, prepared to rip into the little creep for scaring the hell out of him. He reached the foot of the staircase and began climbing.

By the time he reached the fifth step, he found himself wheezing. He carried too much paunch at the best of times, sure, but he wasn’t an elephant. A simple flight of stairs shouldn’t have winded him so badly. He continued his ascent, clinging to the railing, counting the stairs. Nine, ten, eleven… thirty-eight, thirty-nine. What in God’s name was going on? He looked up, into what could only be described as an optical illusion. He was no further ahead than when he started.

“Syd, what’s with your stairs, man?”

No response from behind the closed door, besides the bleak wail of Cannibal Corpse. Baffled, Gerald gave up. He plodded the six or seven steps to the bottom of the stairwell and returned to the living room, where he collapsed on the couch.

*

“Whaddya think, Gerry?” Slurp, smack.

“I dunno, Dina. Not sure I have time for a summer holiday.”

It was Friday night, the beginning of a typical tinder-dry July, a traditional dinner at the Olive Garden. Gerald and Dina liked it because they could sedate themselves on carbs before passing out in the Globe Theatre, watching obscure independent cinema.

Gerald eyed Dina with some concern. She had been perspiring a lot lately, oily droplets, especially on her hands. Gerald liked hand-holding, but had taken to discreetly wiping his palm on the sides of his pants afterwards. Dina had also acquired this habit of licking her fingers, like she was dependent on their excretion for sustenance.

“You’re saying you can’t get time off this weekend?” Dina stuck her index finger in her mouth and nibbled on the skin like someone trying to de-bone a chicken breast. Her flesh looked saggy and amorphous.

“Is your hand okay, Dina?”

“Pardon?”

He could see from her sour expression that he shouldn’t have asked the question. “Sorry, never mind. Weekend… yeah, maybe. I have a morning shift on Saturday. I could probably take Sunday and Monday off.”

“Oh, that’s perfect. Let’s hit Radium, then.”

“Radium? Where’s that?”

“Are you serious? It’s in B.C., Gerry. You know, hot springs. Syd and I go every summer. He asked if you’d be coming.”

“Really? Syd said that?”

“Uh, yeah. Is that so surprising?”

“Kind of. I figured he didn’t like me. Every time I see him he’s got his earphones in and he gives me these nasty looks. What’s he listening to these days — Satan’s Fetus?”

“It’s not Satan’s Fetus, it’s Dying Fetus, you dork.” Geraldine kicked his shin.

“I’m sorry, I’m not up to date on my death metal.”

“Really, you should come. It’ll be our first trip together.” She seized his hand with putty-like fingers.

It was a tender gesture, both literally and figuratively. Gerald realized how much he really did like Dina. Perhaps it was finally time to buy that ring he had talked to his mother about.

*

Driving in his musty Honda three days later, Gerald simply couldn’t ignore his disdain for Syd. It wasn’t the jealous boyfriend thing; it really wasn’t. He swore he would never become the kind of petty man who resented his girlfriend’s kid. It was something else. He could have sworn Syd was concocting some kind of sinister plan, muttering Satanic incantations in the backseat.

Under normal circumstances, Gerald enjoyed driving. He could almost appreciate the crisp freshness of the pine trees and the solemn swell of the foothills. It certainly trumped his apartment, which could most aptly be portrayed as a stagnant marsh. The stark majesty of the Rockies was truly Tolkien-esque. Sadly, Syd’s presence defiled the experience. The insolent child lurked morosely in the backseat, beady green eyes and studded lip ring.

“God, Gerry, you’re so quiet today. I figured you’d be chatting my ear off about the Misty Mountains by now.” Dina pinched his arm. Her fingers left an oily residue on his skin.

“Just stressed about work, all the turnover we’ve had lately. Wouldn’t you know it — minimum wage doesn’t motivate kids anymore.” Gerald cringed at the phony tenor in his own voice.

Suddenly, Syd spoke up; the first words he had uttered all afternoon. “Speaking of stress, what’d you think of my test, there, Gerry?”

“I beg your pardon?” Gerald glanced in the rear-view mirror, trying to repress a sudden fury. He could feel it, percolating through the sweat glands on his face. “What test?”

Syd wouldn’t even look at him. He just sat there with a smart-ass smile on his face, like he had only proffered the comment to incite Gerald.

“I asked you a question, Syd!”

“Shit, Gerry, what’s with you today?” Dina clasped her hand around Gerald’s forearm. Her sweat congealed into droplets on his arm hair. “Syd, don’t pester him, okay?”

Gerald retracted his arm. He could have sworn Dina was starting to melt. “I’m fine.” He looked ahead, trying to channel the serenity of the Rockies.

“She’s getting ready now,” Syd whispered. “Behold the spawn of Lucifer.”

“The spawn of what?” Gerald abruptly pulled over, leaving a trail of screeching rubber.

“Would you chill out? He’s just listening to music. He’s not even talking to you!” Dina looked at him with a perplexed expression on her glossy face. Was that sweat dripping from her forehead or actual skin?

“He’s threatening me, I swear to God. Aren’t you, Syd?”

Syd remained unresponsive in the backseat, swaying his head to the rhythm of some undoubtedly demonic tune.

“Seriously, Gerry, if you’re this wound up, I don’t even want to go. Maybe we should just turn around.”

Gerald clenched the steering wheel, sifting through an onslaught of malevolent thoughts. Syd was about to pull another one of his magic tricks. Had to be. Gerald scoured Dina’s face for some kind of clue. Was she involved too? Surely there would be a tell-tale sign in her expression, a flicker of deviant light behind her eyes.

What he saw instead was disappointment. Someone whose excitement had been muzzled by an inconsiderate boyfriend. He had finally found the right relationship and now he was looking for ways to ruin it. Her eyes were beautiful; something he didn’t acknowledge often enough. Even if she did appear to be transforming into a puddle of goop on his passenger seat.

“I’m sorry, Dina. I’ve just been so tense the past few days.”

“It’s okay, man.” Dina held his hand. Her fingers felt as malleable as play-dough.

“Dine, what’s with your –”

“You ready to drive without killing us now?” She retracted her hand before he could finish his sentence.

“Of course.” Gerald frowned but pulled back onto the highway.

He was entering the Realm of Gondor now. The winding tunnels Dina had mentioned lay straight ahead. The ring he would give his future wife was stowed safely away in his suitcase. Aragorn and Eowyn, betrothed at last. No need for any more dour thoughts. Forget the gnawing suspicions. Forget the staircase and Syd’s comments and the slow deterioration of flesh in the passenger seat.

“Ooh, the tunnels. Aren’t they fun, Syd? Remember how I used to honk when we drove through these?” Dina huffed with laughter, splashing large sweat droplets all over the windshield.

Gerald cranked the A.C. “You okay, Dine? You’re sweating buckets.”

Syd remained typically catatonic. Just a normal teenager; that’s all it was. Too self-centred to notice anyone else. A brat, but certainly not an evil one.

“What do you think, Gerry? Want to carry on our family tradition? You are the newest member, after all.” Dina clasped Gerald’s hand again, soaking it in sticky liquid.

Just a woman who didn’t tolerate heat well. After all, a human being couldn’t possibly turn into a liquid. Gerald entered the tunnel and laid on the horn. Dina chortled, suddenly sounding more Orc than human. A black shroud engulfed the vehicle, darker than the bottom of a well.

“Doesn’t this remind you of the Mines of Moria?” Dina’s voice sounded far away.

Yes, of course. That’s what it was. The Mines; a far cry from Gondor. Gerald’s throat-constricting paranoia returned. The faster he drove, desperate to escape the tunnel, the more oppressive the blackness became. Like he was plunging downwards into a cavernous throat. The road twisted around itself. He became aware that the tunnel was a perpetual circle, like he had hitched his car to someone’s gigantic carousel. He removed his foot from the gas pedal but the vehicle continued accelerating. He heard a muffled choke from the backseat.

“Dina, what the hell’s going on?” He removed his hands from the steering wheel and the horn’s blare intensified until it became something else entirely, a sound like a pig at slaughter.

A blotchy glow illuminated the vehicle, incandescent, a collage of color and frenzied images. A pungent scent permeated the vehicle, like a dog’s breath after a duck-meat dinner. Gerald knew the tentacle was coming before it splattered across his face, a cold smack of thick slime. He seized the sticky coil and slung it at the windshield. It splattered against the glass with an audible squelch. A translucent, squid-like fetus writhed in the passenger seat where Dina had sat thirty second ago.

Syd smiled in the backseat. Unlike Dina, he had not changed form. Instead, the blackness simply revealed his true aspect: a teenage boy with smoking wreaths of flame where his eyes used to be, twirling like twin Ferris wheels.

Gerald tried to scream but emitted a dusty wheeze instead.

The tunnel twisted, a circle tightening like a noose. The wreaths in Syd’s eyes smoldered, and the creature in the passenger seat slopped its tentacles across the dashboard.

He didn’t know what possessed him to do it, but Gerald grabbed one of the creature’s tentacles and clung to it. He imagined he was holding Dina’s hand in the movie theatre for the first time. He imagined placing a ring on her finger.

He felt a sudden detachment, like someone had peeled a layer of dead skin off his body. It was a profoundly satisfying sensation, like emerging from a hot shower. The flaming glow in Syd’s eyes slowly faded. The tentacles slithered from Gerald’s grip, as though exhausted. The darkness gradually gave way to summer sunlight, and the Honda emerged from the tunnel. Gerald seized the steering wheel and pulled over.

Suddenly, he felt a warm hand on his shoulder. Dina’s hand. Dry, normal flesh.

“What’d you think of the tunnel?” Dina sat in the passenger seat, looking no different than she ever had. Her eyes implored him. I hope you’re okay with this.

It was the part of herself she couldn’t advertise on Plenty of Fish; her most significant shortcoming. Gerald knew all fantasies came with a caveat. The old Gerald, the tunnel virgin, would have left the car and fled.

Instead, he calmly turned the key in the ignition. “I’m fine, Dine, perfectly fine.” Just a minor upset, that’s all it was. A new set of parameters.

“You good to keep going?”

He thought about it for a moment. “That depends. Are there any more tunnels?”

She laughed. Oh, the cheekiness of it. How nice it was to shed the paranoia and rediscover a sense of humour. Gerald smiled sappily. He was prepared to slip a ring on a tentacle if it meant marrying the exquisite Geraldine. Something had changed inside that tunnel, and he knew just who to thank.

He looked in the rear-view mirror and winked at Syd. For once, the kid responded in kind.

Dan Thorn (@DanThorn3) lives in Calgary, Alberta. He has had fiction published in Jitter Press, Sanitarium Magazine and DarkFuse Magazine.

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