Vague Visages Short Stories: A Delightful Partner by D.M. Palmer

Editor’s Note: All of Vague Visages’ short stories are free-to-read.

The blindfold is lifted. My pockets are searched and my bag is taken by a short, stubbly, balding man whose gut leaves a circular imprint of sweat on his grey dress shirt, its open neck inundated with a curly grey tuft. My eyes adjust to the harsh strip lighting and I look down a long, white-walled corridor with doors on the right. The man keeps my bag and leads me down the corridor, breathing heavily and noisily, his shoes squelching on the threadbare carpet.

Over the past six months, an entire industry has sprung up to explain the behaviour and subsequent disappearance of Mike McCarran. Elaborate theories have been expostulated, motives unpacked and outlandish lines of inquiry pursued by the usually level-headed hacks of our most respected news feeds, all in an attempt to shed light on an event which has become the morning star of every subsequent feed cycle. But there is an absence at the core of this story which precludes resolution. The protagonist has vacated the frame.

It was in this maelstrom of speculation that I was contacted anonymously about the possibility of interviewing McCarran. It went like this: I woke one morning to hear wheezing and retching. I followed the sound to the bathroom, to find a cat choking in my sink. I cleared the docile cat’s windpipe, in which had been stuffed the document detailing the offer, and instructions to return the document by the same method. I was informed by a similarly distressed feline that I would now be placed under consideration. I’m still not sure how the cats got in. The next day, I received by the now-familiar means a location in the Innovation District, where seven of my fellow hacks were assembled, informing me they had received the same overture. I can’t go into the specifics of what followed — an airtight NDA ensures that — but I can tell you that to be where I currently am required me to temporarily put aside the niceties of personal friendship and professional integrity. The story required no less than total surrender.

The man takes out a key and wrestles with the lock, grunting and cursing under his breath. I am mesmerised by the tributaries of sweat flowing from the folds in his back. When he finally does get the door open, it takes me a moment to break the spell. He stands in the doorway, running a hand across his head and adjusting his underwear.

“Ms. Korchek, it’s time now.”

He takes me inside and closes the door behind him. I hear him struggling with the lock on the other side.

McCarran is sprawled on the bed. We look across the room at each other. McCarran is barely recognisable as the man who rose to global fame on the back of The Video. His skin is moist and greenish. It is only the eyes that betray him; the same penetrating stare that has become so beloved by platform rats looking to score easy shock points with its reproduction.

“Don’t recognise you. Who you with?”

New Pragmatist.”

“Subversive shit-rag. Can’t believe they chose you.”

“We have a high slap-rate.”

“Among subversives.”

Other than the bed, the room is furnished with a chair, a nightstand and a lamp. It is windowless, chilly and musty. There is a drop ceiling and the same strip lighting. On the whitewashed cement wall behind the bed is the faint red vestige of a word: FORESTFIRE.

I carry the chair to the foot of the bed. He picks up the book spread across his thighs and puts it on the nightstand. I look down at his black socks. His grey sweatpants, t-shirt and body give off a meaty, metallic tang. He seems much smaller, like a monument you’ve only seen before in photos. There is something deflating in his worldliness — hardly surprising, given the inordinate space he has occupied in the public consciousness.

The chair begins to wobble on the pocked concrete floor. I shift my weight and adjust my posture. He hikes up his knees, until they seem to hold in place the deep ridges which protrude in a slanting promontory across his cheeks, and wraps his arms around them. His greasy shoulder-length black hair has assumed a translucent quality under these lights. His arms are wrapped to the elbow in seeping bandages, his long fingernails have been bitten to barbed tips, there are scratches on his carelessly shaved cheeks, chin and top lip.

“So you want me to be ashamed, is that what this is?”

“I’m here to go beyond The video.”

“Then what will you do with that information? Twist it for your own subversive agenda. You’ll tell the story the way you want to tell it no matter what I tell you.”

“So you may as well give me plenty to twist.”

I smile. He adjusts his chin between his kneecaps.

“You weren’t so keen for the back-story when you were spreading The Video about like a mad woman’s shit.”

“Well, I want to get into that, too…”

“I seem to remember quite a few think-pieces about what The Video says about society on New Pragmatist.”

“We covered it like every other outlet.”

“Yes, you just fell into line.”

(New Pragmatist ran twelve pieces pertaining to The Video in the first two weeks of its uploading, as compared to The Daily Slime’s seventeen and The Serum’s twenty-two — Ed.)

“So you’d better give me your name.”

“Joyce. Korchek.”

“You related to that guy who invented those moulded plastic chairs they have in cheap restaurants?”

“My father.”

“Didn’t he piss all his money away?”

“We’re not here to discuss my family.”

“It would be good to go beyond the chair.”

He smiles, but in an apparent attempt at mocking mine, tilting his head as I did, flashing his jagged brown teeth.

I ask him about his daily routine. He straightens his legs and rests his head against the wall. He speaks as though he has been asked this questions thousands of times.

“Three meals. If you can call them that. And if that fat shit-hound can be bothered to bring them. He leaves his thumbprints in the mashed potato, the greedy prick. Total media blackout. I’m stuck with this for entertainment.”

He takes the book from the nightstand and holds it up so I can see its creased and sun-bleached cover: The Python Psyche: Uncoil Your Inner Predator by Col. Calvin Samael.

I sympathise that it must be hard for him to be so cut off, given his former profession. Leaked documents revealed that McCarran worked for something called The Lifestyle Institute, to write disparaging reviews and comments for products and articles which contradict the Institute’s evangelical values. He was one of 3,671 people on the Institute’s payroll.

At the mention of this he grows animated.

“I left a minimal footprint. Could tailor content to my client’s wishes. Had a good turn of phrase. It was a labour of love. A self-sacrifice. Keeping subversive values at bay. Those people never go away, they just get better at hiding in plain sight. Burrowing into the culture.”

The Lifestyle Institute has bankrolled and co-ordinated campaigns against everything from The Toast Temple to The Snuggle Bunnies. McCarran went by various usernames: 4glorystag4, gallantrogue86, thewettemplar, etc. A well-slapped example of McCarran’s output for the Institute is his review of Hats 2: The Brothers Brim on the Shankr platform:

“Another grotesque example of the subversive credo being injected into our children’s bloodstream like a slow toxin. It gleefully makes fun of the values upon which this country was founded — strength, unity, heroism, expansion, service, deference.”

McCarran was hired by the Lifestyle Institute after losing his job as a packet stacker for Tentaclos. He was dismissed when his packets were found to have been stacked in such a way that left them vulnerable to external compromise. The speed with which he was recruited by the Institute after such an infraction is significant. Though quite how remains unclear.

“Just a stroke of luck,” he tells me.

Soon after, McCarran took up residence at the Hotel Venelux in the Little Abyssinia district. He is estranged from his wife and two children. He bristles when I ask him about this.

“You won’t understand this, Joyce, but people who stand for something have to make sacrifices for their beliefs.”

Little Abyssinia became an unlikely haunt for the glitterati with the opening of superclub Glory Box; the brainchild of famed “leisure terraformist” Alban Neesh. Neesh turned the former plasma brokers into a favoured stop on the celebrity set’s endless international bacchanal. McCarran’s ground-floor room at the Venelux looked onto the frontage of Glory Box.

“Those degenerates just loved to slum it down there. With their bodyguards, of course. They could fall out of there and crash at the Venelux. Of course, the rents tripled.”

I ask him how he afforded it.

“I had support. The lights from the street kept me up. There were dealers on every corner. Sad-desperate cunts running up and down the corridors looking for stars.”

At 04:27 on July 24, Lilith Dow — star of Rum & Raisin 2: the Big Scoop and The Gog Prophecy — left Glory Box after sharing a private room with Geraldine.7, $w0li0 and Karac Perhacs. Dow’s bodyguard broke through the photographers gathered around the door. Dow and her bodyguard crossed the road to a waiting car. As they approached the car, a gang of star seekers came from the entrance of the Venelux and began to pursue them. Dow and her bodyguard began to run. The star seekers blocked the road and surrounded the car, shooting footage on their Devices. Another group of star seekers came from a nearby Telepathy Booth. A fight ensued between the gangs of star seekers over the territory surrounding the car. Dow collapsed against the railings of the Venelux, striking her head as she fell. Her bodyguard tried to resuscitate her, but Dow had taken a fatal dose of Bizarro Dolemite.

McCarran watched from his window at the Venelux. He appeared on the News Feeds, describing his partial view of Dow’s final moments alongside footage captured by the star seekers.

In the following days, mourners descended on Little Abyssinia. “The spot where she snuffed it was surrounded with all kinds of shit. Bunches of flowers; big fuck-off teddies; tubs of ice cream; bottles of her fucking perfume; weird paintings; fucking awful poems. It stretched all the way up the street. The buildings over the road projected her face onto their walls. The flowers started to stink of piss. The chocolates and the ice cream attracted the rats. The die-hards camped out, sang songs with their fucking candles, fought off the rats. I didn’t think it could get any worse. Then it did.”

We all know what happened next, but McCarran went underground before anyone could get his version. All we had was The Video.

“It became die-hards versus try-hards.”

I ask him to clarify. He smirks, leans forward and wipes his mouth on his right arm.

“Of course, Joyce, this was after you lot had all fucked off to cover the funeral.”

(Our archives illustrate that New Pragmatist provided extensive coverage of the outpouring of grief in the aftermath of Lilith Dow’s death — Ed.)

“All these bougie cunts from Donjon Ridge showed up, and it turned into a pissing contest. Who can bring the most colourful bouquet, or the biggest teddy, or the most lifelike rendering of the bitch in fondant. The die-hards tried to keep their spots, but their shit got buried.”

McCarran continued to submit content to a variety of platforms on the hypocrisy of our grief.

That was until the morning of July 30, when McCarran woke to darkness. It was only when he went outside that McCarran realised the light from his window had been blocked out by the leg of a giant figure. The figure was modelled on Dow as Ruth Rum from the Rum & Raisin long-loop franchise.

“The roof of the Venelux went up to its arse. Apparently, that Alban Neesh had it built and airlifted in the middle of the night. That cunt had them all in his pocket.”

The figure looked down blinking and parted its lips.

“Do not mourn me. I will live forever. Honour me by visiting the many small businesses in Little Abyssinia.”

The figure lifted its left arm to its mouth and blew a kiss. Glitter sprayed from its mouth, showering the crowd that assembled to witness this message every fifteen minutes.

“You braced yourself for it. The room started to vibrate. That’s when you put in your earplugs and held onto something.”

I ask him why he didn’t leave, like the other guests.

“I was instructed to remain. To document the precipitous moral collapse inherent in the rise of Dowism.”

The movement that became Dowism grew over the next few weeks, as pilgrims flocked to witness the figure and bathe in the glitter that submerged the streets. Dealers got into the devotional tchotchke market, manufacturing small plastic likenesses of Dow to be worn around the neck — actually modified Snuggle Bunnies toys. Pressure was placed on Gov. to preserve and protect the spot as a Site of Holy Import.

I ask him how he was recruited by FETTA (So-Called) — Freedom from Ecclesiastical Terror and Tyranny Alliance.

“People of affinity find each other.”

I press for details. He wipes his mouth on his left arm.

“I’m sure it was all in those pilfered documents you’re so fond of using in your little pieces.”

“There’s surprisingly little in there.”

“Maybe they’ve been misplaced.”

FETTA (So-Called) broke away from The Toast Temple over its proposal to accept the Dowist Church into TESCO — the Tax-Exempt Status Council of Oversight.

Which brings us to The Video. It seems inconceivable that a time existed before we were familiar with every frame of The Video. It requires a supreme labour of memory to dredge up the initial shock and disgust we felt on witnessing it for the first time. The time before The Video is a prelapsarian idyll through which our more credulous selves gambol.

“I wasn’t the one who proposed it. It was Rino (Carboni, FETTA (So-Called) co-founder). But I was the only one with the stones to go through with it. We’d done some minor sabotage, but we were rightly viewed as a fringe of a fringe, totally ineffectual. It was time for a defining gesture.”

“Did you think through the implications?”

He rubs the back of his neck, tilts his head and sighs.

“I’m sorry if it offends your delicate sensibilities, Joyce, but victory is not won through dialogue or logic or appealing to your adversary’s better nature.”

“Do you consider it a victory? You’re this generation’s Gavrilo Princip. You’ve driven everything to hell.”

“So much for journalistic objectivity. I hate to break this to you, but it was already hell for a lot of people.”

“I came here to create something human…”

“You don’t need that. You have The Video. The Video articulates everything. I used to comment on a lot of New Pragmatist content. You play to your audience expertly. You flatter their prejudices. You create a whole different reality. So you want me to say sorry for all the people in The Video? You want me to break down and bare my soul for all the consumers of New Pragmatist? That’s your reality, love. So now you have your title: McCarran is not sorry for The Video. Can you imagine the slap-rate that’s going to get? The outrage that will stir up? How it will remind the troops why they’re fighting? Your reality is sustained by mine, Joyce.

And vice versa.”

“Of course. We’re locked in a dance of death. You’re a delightful partner, Joyce.”

The breeze cools my blindfolded face. I hear turbines in the distance. Hands grip my waist and push down my head. Something cracks under the wheels of the car. The roads stabilise and the sounds of the city fill the overheated car.

The city is dimmed as The Music strikes up, so familiar that it seems to be coming from an internal chamber, a singular composition, a memory suspended in the air.

The car stops.

The Voice begins.

“Do not mourn me. I will live forever. Honour me by updating your kill-score on the Gov. Casualty Log.”

D.M. Palmer (@MrDMPalmer) is a writer based in Sheffield, UK. He has contributed to sites like HeyUGuys, The Shiznit, Sabotage Times, Roobla, Column F, The State of the Arts and Film Inquiry. He has a propensity to wax lyrical about Film Noir on the slightest provocation, which makes him a hit at parties. The detritus of his creative outpourings can be found at waxbarricades.wordpress.com.