freaknest: chapter one
the demographics of subaqueous light


lance olsen
© 2000

 

Dr. Jarndyce Mizzle-Sluggbury, the one-hundred-and-twenty-three-year-old Klub Med executive who’d wealthied himself fat and greasy as a bacon-wrapped chunk of filet mignon through his company’s seminal investigations into cryonics (in 2021 he was instrumental in tugging back one Anna Tesler-Huntington from the brink of 2001 smack into a bout of spontaneous psychosis), debarked from the beetlish black cab outside his Knightsbridge flat at 3 Hans Crescent across the street from Harrods’ counterfeit-gothic façade.


He slipped the brown-toothed driver his ebony cybercash slab and stood rubbing the side of his bearded face, loftily contemplating the deserted street, a good hundred meters of which he owned.


Safe-zone floodlights eradicating the night around him.


The driver returned the slab with a rotten-nubbed broken lampoon of a smile, and the doctor mounted the cement steps leading up to the massive heart attack that would drop him in less than nine-hundred seconds.



But Dr. Jarndyce Mizzle-Sluggbury had other matters on his mind at present . . . nothing precise, nothing especially important . . . just a gentle kaleidoscopic tumble of images and sounds from the last few hours . . . laughter washing over the shiny table top at his weekly dinner with colleagues at the private club up Kensington Road . . . approving quips about Great Britain’s recent adoption of an isolationist policy spawned by the collapse of visa enforcement, the resulting population influx from Hong Kong, and the increasingly eerie sense those bleeding chop-chops had nudged the reals into something resembling minority status . . . smoked oysters from the ponds south of London glistening on beds of crushed ice, rosy mounds of steak tartar garnished with capers and spring onions piled on a spinach-leaf carpet, lobster bisque, dab of Iranian caviar on a buttery biscuit, warm moist bread, a decanter of dark port, small sweet lemon sorbet intervals to cleanse the palate along the flyovers and roundabouts of this expansive gastronomical motorway . . . and, finally, the honeyed sparkle of a slender glass of champagne raised in salute to Guy Fawkes Day, a refreshing breeze of general merriment despite this dreadfully humid November and dreary political wind blowing in from the Far East . . .


Dr. Jarndyce Mizzle-Sluggbury loved food almost as much as he loved the idea of Great Britain. He loved to become one with food, merge its being with his, sense its wet mass peristalsize down the back of his throat, through his digestive tract, on its course toward uniting with his cellular mechanics, spirit and matter joined in a flash of alchemy.


He loved the smells of it. He loved the textures, the hues, the heft, the multifold recipes for its composition on the plate.


Food for Dr. Jarndyce Mizzle-Sluggbury was fine art.


It was also the reason he weighed as much as a Shetland pony . . . why, with his short white hair and long white whiskers and rotund squat neck and capacious keg belly and pygmy thin legs, he reminded his colleagues of the main character in a Christmas pageant.


Genetic manipulation was why food hadn’t murdered him. Dr. Mizzle-Sluggbury employed his wealth accrued from his cryonics work for Klub Med (as in Klub Medellin, as in the Medellin Cartel, an economic entity that diversified after most previously illicit drugs were legalized over the course of the first two decades of the new century) to extend his life in time in a method analogous to how food extended his presence in space. On a weekend holiday to a Swiss clinic on his ninety-eighth birthday, he had his genes twidgled to snip back his cholesterol-absorption capacity by eighty-nine percent while generating immunity to most airborne pollutants, many sexually transmitted diseases, most cancers, malaria, and TB.


With eight-hundred seconds left to live, Dr. Jarndyce Mizzle-Sluggbury halted before the slick white door to what used to be the Colombian Embassy, a six-story red-brick affair with white-trimmed bay windows and white wrought-iron balconies at each level. The overall effect was, he realized for the first time as he voice-activated the petabyte nano-puter that was his wool tie, wedding-cake-like.


The door awakened and asked him to step forward anot
her four centimeters. He did. A thin red beam pinpricked out the peephole and flittered over his features.


“Face-recognition positive at three-thousand loci,” a little girl’s voice said in a polite Oxbridge accent. “Welcome home, Dr. Mizzle-Sluggbury.”


The latch clacked. The door swung open. Dr. Mizzle-Sluggbury stepped into the soft yellow light and familiar music of his foyer. Gabrielli’s trumpets emanated from the gray-green fitted carpet. An inviting scent of apple cider perfumed the air. The door swung shut.


Dr. Mizzle-Sluggbury, content and eiderdown snug, ambulated toward the kitchen, the notion of a cup of Earl Grey and an ultrasonic shower before bed waving primly to him from the distant borders of his awareness.
The tidy narrow foyer and hall were done in off-whites and olives and boasted a coat rack, two small indecipherable watercolors in gilt frames, a beveled mirror, and two cherrywood drop-leaf tables, on each of which sat a lace doily and an electric oil lamp.


The electric oil lamps sensed his presence, glowed brighter, and greeted him as he toddled past.


“Welcome home, Dr. Mizzle-Sluggbury,” they said in unison.


“Thank you,” Dr. Mizzle-Sluggbury replied.


In the kitchen the Wedgwood breakfast setting, designed to keep the meals it hosted at a steady temperature, heard his voice and chimed in.


“Welcome home, Dr. Mizzle-Sluggbury!” it pipped.


“Welcome home, Dr. Mizzle-Sluggbury,” said the translucent fishbowl light on the ceiling as he appeared in the doorway and surveyed the small pink-and-white room.


“Welcome home, Dr. Mizzle-Sluggbury,” said the Maracaibo microwave atop the white-tiled counter next to the Omsk coffee grinder next to the Malindi faucets, one for hot water and one for cold, which also saluted him, as did the miniature fridge, stove, dishwasher, juice-maker, and even Panasonic bubble hoover in the closet.


“No calls, no messages,” the phone added after all the other appliances had quieted down.


The help had departed for the weekend and wouldn’t return till Monday morning. These next hours were all his . . . to putter about the flat, vada the telly, do a crossword puzzle or two. There he was, alone and glad to be alone, and there was Mr. Charles Dickens waiting for him upstairs in his library, and for these next twenty-four hours he could extract his self-adjusting monocle from his waistcoat pocket, slip into his silken smoking jacket, nestle into his recliner, and live as if his king and queen were something more than history, deference something more than memory, reality still built upon solid atoms with hard little bodies and predictable little trajectories.


“Tea, please,” he said, with three-hundred seconds left to live, remembering for some reason the woman he had seen from his front window this afternoon, down on her hands and knees across the street in her one-by-two-meter garden, cutting her cucumber-green grass with shears, precise clips, and that component of the microwave which needed to understand the doctor understood him, filled a compartment of itself with water, agitated its molecules, and spritzed the boiling product into a waiting faux-porcelain cup at the bottom of which bobbed a tea strainer packed with Earl Grey.


“Cream, sir?” it asked.


“A bit. Yes.”


Hot white stream hissed.


Dr. Mizzle-Sluggbury again rubbed the side of his bearded features which didn’t work anymore, consequence of the muscle virus that surfaced long before the holiday to Switzerland and took his wife, and took his son. Humming along with Gabrielli, he removed the strainer, picked up the cup and, cradling it in his two hands, executed an exploratory sip.


His heart stopped.


His face turned red as if he’d just scrubbed it with a cheese grater.


The cup bounced on the tiles and yipped.


Dr. Mizzle-Sluggbury’s mouth widened and his hands fluttered up to his chest.


Next thing he knew he was lying on his back on the kitchen floor, subaqueous light smarming around the blue-white ceiling, aware the status of his demographics was shifting.


The impressive fact was how little the shift hurt. In Dr. Mizzle-Sluggbury’s imagination, heart attacks had always taken the mass of great lumbering elephants perching on one’s chest. Only it wasn’t like that at all. It was more like strolling into a blast-furnace and then strolling out again. Sensation vanished. Consciousness became a hairy fly, and the hairy fly whirred up and around the room, agitated, disorientated, banging into walls, bouncing off reflections, clambering for the cool light it sensed burning just beyond the frontier of existence, peering down occasionally through its compound perception at the well-dressed walrus peering back, palms flat on the floor, stubby legs spread in an unrefined V, mouth a pink orifice in a cumulus beard.


The fly flew backward in time—to this afternoon, to that woman clipping cucumber-green grass with shears in her garden—and zigzagged about her face. She was in her sixties. Her long gray hair was tugged into a braid that corded down the rear of her blue-gray Mao suit almost to her buttocks. Her face was plain, without makeup, without sunscreen, and gravitational entropy was well into speaking its language upon it, except for the neat slice of red lipstick she wore across her mouth. When she raised her head and hand to swat away the fly, she noticed Dr. Jarndyce Mizzle-Sluggbury standing at his window, arms by his sides, observing her, and the smileless swat blossomed into the polite shadow of a wave before she lowered herself again to her business. Dr. Mizzle-Sluggbury nodded back, seeing, not the stranger across the street, but his wife, Cynthia, laboring in their own garden at their old flat in Chelsea the afternoon the doctor had told her her muscles were infected with the new viral form of muscular dystrophy that would gradually replace her healthy tissue with scarring and fat.
She was dying, the doctor said, and there was nothing to be done about it.


Jarndyce accompanied her home. Cynthia stepped out of the car and walked straightaway into the house and appeared in her blue-gray Mao suit and went directly to work in the garden, snipping, chopping, digging, patting, hewing, kneading. She wouldn’t stop. The dusk came and she wouldn’t stop. The dark came and she wouldn’t stop. Jarndyce observed her patiently from the window, waiting, knowing she needed to touch everything she could.


Now Dr. Mizzle-Sluggbury became aware, as if from very far off, of a nibbling at the legs of his trousers. He attempted to employ his peripheral vision to determine what was happening.


The Panasonic bubble hoover, sensing an accident, had rolled out of the closet and released its cockroach bots to clean up whatever mess it might find. It had located the spilled tea and slurped the puddle dry. It had located the dropped cup and carried it back into its stomach where the maid would discover it Monday.


Then it located Dr. Mizzle-Sluggbury himself, lying motionless in an unnatural pose, and tried to raise him off the tidy tiled floor.


The hoover had never encountered such a large load of trash before and the lifting wasn’t going at all well. So it deceased and, cooing and burring, processed this information.


A microsecond later, the cockroach bots switched programs and began their meticulous banquet.


It occurred to Dr. Mizzle-Sluggbury he could summon assistance if he could only open his mouth and utter one word: help. The phone would hear him and, comprehending the significance of the situation, ring up an ambulance.


Only it seemed his whole organic electrical system had short-circuited in one momentous thunderbolt.
His lips were numb.


His tongue was a lump of liver among his teeth.



Then he was that fly again, missiling from the stranger’s head across the street and farther back in time . . . to the soggy interior of a hired orange-red Fiat alongside a road no wider than a footpath in northwest Scotland on the Isle of Skye.


Within the Fiat sat Cynthia, himself, and his son Jarndyce Jr. They were on holiday and had seen more castles, shipyards, and farm-shrimp ponds than they quite cared to. They were on their way to a remote eighteenth-century inn Boswell and Johnson once visited on a craggy precipice overlooking Loch Snizort to play croquet and watch gray birds. They had just passed a solitary white farmhouse with a black-tiled roof and stand of evergreens in a dense fog when they rounded a corner and thunked into the rectangular-bodied ewe.


Condensation clouded the windscreen. Irregular droplets bifurcated. Dr. Mizzle-Sluggbury heard his family breathing.


“Right, then,” he said.


He looked at Jarndyce Jr., twelve and blond and cod-eyed, and swung open the driver’s door.


He stepped into dank rimy air.


Jarndyce Jr. hesitated several pulses and followed.


They walked back over cracked asphalt to where the ewe lay. The impact had skidded her down the road and knocked one of her eyes out of her black mask. Bright blood globbed around her nostrils and mouth. Her rump was stained the color of thousand-island dressing. She panted rapidly. Her legs moved as if she thought she were still running.


Dr. Mizzle-Sluggbury loftily contemplated the animal, wandered off, and returned with a stone the size of a loaf of bread.


“Sometimes we’ve got to finish what we’ve begun,” he explained to his son. He handed him the stone.

“Sometimes we’ve got to do what we’ve got to do, and sometimes what we’ve got to do isn’t a pleasant thing in the least.”


Jarndyce Jr. looked at the stone, at his father, at the sheep. His eyes grew wider, intuiting for the first time how dangerous adults really were.


“Sometimes dying is part of not dying,” Dr. Mizzle-Sluggbury said. He looked over his son’s head: a ditch, an incline, moors sliding into silver light. “Go on now.”


Jarndyce Jr. cupped the stone in his hand. He examined the ewe.


“Fast and sweet,” Dr. Mizzle-Sluggbury primed. “Think of yourself in the same position. What would you ask if you could ask one favor?”


Jarndyce Jr. lowered himself onto his knees next to the ewe. Dr. Mizzle-Sluggbury observed his son observing himself. This was a moment, he knew, that would enter his son’s history.


Jarndyce Jr. raised the stone in both hands and brought it down heavily on the ewe’s head.


He raised it and brought it down.


Nothing changed.


The ewe scrambled horizontally, trying to rise. Its skull dented a little. More salad dressing appeared, this time around the exposed ear.


The boy looked at what he’d done, trying to organize his actions in his mind.


Dr. Mizzle-Sluggbury didn’t let him.


“Again . . . quickly.”


Jarndyce Jr. stared at his work.


“But it won’t die, daddy.”


“Of course it will. Go on.”


“It just keeps living.”


“You must hit it harder.”


“I’ve hit it hard as I can.”


Jarndyce Jr.’s nose sapped; he was about to cry.


“Put your back into it.”


“But I . . .”


“Pick up the stone and put your back into it. Think of yourself there.”


Jarndyce Jr. struck so hard the stone bounced out of his grip. The ewe flinched . . . and, snap, there came a clatter of two-toed hoofs on asphalt, a disgusted huff.


The animal was up, shaky, teetering, surveying its surroundings with its one good eye.


Before either his son or Dr. Mizzle-Sluggbury could internalize this, the ewe clopped in a half-blind half-limp toward the edge of the road, down into the ditch, and up into the tangled heather on the opposite side.
A moment, and it was lost in the fog.


 

Dr. Mizzle-Sluggbury came to understand that day just how much some things wanted to live.


Which was the kind of lesson he forgot soon as he could, part of his own complicated psychic survival reflex, till years later, in 2021, after his wife Cynthia was gone, and his son Jarndyce Jr., when, one amber afternoon in his lab on the top floor of his Knightsbridge flat at 3 Hans Crescent on the corner of Basil Street, Anna Tesler-Huntington’s lids slipped open, and her eyes swiveled about wildly, trying to place herself in this future, trying to comprehend what existence held for her beyond death, beyond the long horrific series of icy nightmares that had structured her inverted reality for twenty-three years . . . and simply couldn’t.


Her eyes rolled up.


Her body began to buck.


Insect-egg foam formed on her lips.


And Dr. Mizzle-Sluggbury saw something staring back at him from the bottom of her black terror he’d never expected to see: the bearded features of his own vaguely puzzled specter of a face.