Heart of the City

The little fat man, with a face like a soft pat of butter, was touching James now at the elbow, and raised a glass of champagne at him.

“I don’t know where you get your energy,” he said, and James tried to remember his name, but it was very late, and James was very tired. The election had been called in his favor, decisively, three hours ago, and more than anything Mayor-elect James Reardon wanted to go home, wanted to go back with his wife to their house and sleep.

Instead he was standing with the little butter man, listening to stories of this and that encounter with these or those famous someones, and understanding that he was being added to the man’s collection.

“Indianapolis fuels me,” James said, smiling broadly and pulling his arm from the fat man’s grasp. His hand bumped into the apple Susan had given him, which he’d slipped into his jacket and forgotten. James had a bad habit of chewing pens, and Susan worried one would explode in his mouth and stain his teeth before a speech. The apple was a preventive measure.

The fat man stepped back and was about to explain himself – explain what he wanted, how the new mayor might help, how far his organization might stretch a few city dollars – when James was saved by his campaign manager, Tom.

“He can’t be rude,” Tom said, “but I can. You’ll excuse us.”

And James shrugged apologetically, even as he quickened his step.

****

“Let’s take a ride,” Tom said, ushering James toward the back door of the hall they’d rented for either the celebration or the wake.

“It’s two in the morning,” said James. “I don’t need a cigarette. I need to sleep.”

James was in the habit of sneaking the odd smoke in the campaign’s Lincoln Town Car during the worst of his stumping, and Tom encouraged it, seeing no more shame in a cigarette than in a cup of coffee or shot of B12. But this time he shook his head and kept pushing James toward the door.

“Little more serious than a smoke break.”

“Is everything okay?”

“It will be,” said Tom. They stepped outside where a car was waiting, idling in the back alley beside a bright orange dumpster. Tom opened the back door for James, then slid in beside him. They were good as alone in the back seat, a dark glass divider separating them from the driver. Tom knocked on the glass three times, and the driver pulled away.

“This is going to be a little disturbing,” Tom said, smiling, and then his smile widened and he reached into his mouth and wiggled his teeth until the white veneers came free. He pulled a small plastic case from his pocket and slipped the veneers inside. James tried not to stare, but he’d never seen Tom’s teeth like this. They were little black things, small and awful looking, and seemed strangely dry, like day-old charcoal. Tom ran his tongue over them and bit his lips together. “You have no idea how much better that feels.”

“Will we be long?” asked James. “I don’t want Susan to worry.”

Tom shook his head. “Not long. There are things you need to know, now that you’re mayor. Things about this city. Well, all cities, but tonight we’re only concerned about Indianapolis. Do you know where we’re going?”

James stared out the window. They were heading straight south now on Meridian, into the heart of the city. “Assuming we don’t stop, the Circle.”

“The Soldiers’ and Sailors’ Monument, specifically,” said Tom. He was reaching into his jacket again, and this time he produced a small paring knife. “You still have that apple? The one Susan gave you?”

James took it from his pocket and rubbed the lint off with his pant leg. Tom took it gratefully and sliced off a thin piece, using his thumb and the blade to bring it to his mouth, the flesh of the apple bright against his dark teeth.

“Tell me, James,” he said, working through another thin slice. “Why does the angel face south?”

The monument – an obelisk with an angel atop the peak – had been the site of more than a few photo ops for James, and he remembered Tom’s coaching, the year it was built and by whom it was designed and that the angel faced south to greet troops returning from the Civil War. He parroted this answer, but Tom shook his head.

“I haven’t lied to you often,” said Tom, “but I did lie about that.”

****

The Circle was almost deserted when they reached it – a police car idled beside the curb, and a late night cyclist looped in front of them before they parked, but otherwise it was empty. James had never seen it so vacant. If he were possessed of more vanity, he might have imagined his city sleeping hard, as exhausted by the election as he was.

James and Tom stepped out of the car. The driver stayed put behind tinted glass. A moment later, the idling police cruiser blinked its headlights, then slowly pulled away, finally disappearing around the other side of the monument. Now it really was empty, and James began to wonder if this might be some kind of bizarre surprise party, if Tom somehow had the means or the will to empty the Circle solely for his benefit, but this idea seemed even more vain than the last.

“She faces south,” said Tom, staring up toward the peak of the obelisk, “because that is where the Ancient Ones slumber.”

“Sorry?”

Tom lowered his gaze and smiled, sadly, the pink of his tongue vivid behind his crooked black teeth. “They’re coming, James, and we are their elect. We will be privileged when they return for the world that is theirs.”

“Wait,” said James, trying to string some sense between the words falling from Tom’s lips. “Does this have to do with the AARP?”

Tom laughed, then gazed back at the obelisk.

“This might be easier,” he said, “after you meet Big Sue.”

****

They got back in the car. The driver didn’t take them far; they stopped again outside the Chase tower, the top aglow beneath twin spires. Tom led James up the outside steps, then produced a set of keys and unlocked the front door casually, as if they were just arriving home.

“Where did you get those?” James asked, after they had entered the lobby. Tom paused, hand half in his pocket, before pulling the keys back out again.

“These? They’re just the keys to the city.”

James shook his head. “It’s not funny, Tom. I’d like you to explain what’s going on. I’d like you to explain what the hell we’re doing inside the Chase tower in the middle of the night, and why the entire Circle is practically evacuated.”

Tom was holding the paring knife again. James didn’t remember it in his hand before, but it was there now, all at once. James felt the skin of his neck tighten like a drum, the silver hairs along his spine beginning to stand. He took a deep breath, felt the ache of nicotine-hungry lungs. He was tense, he was tired, and Tom was being impossibly vague. James tried to shake off the nerves.

Tom seemed to sense something amiss, because he stood staring at James for a few moments before raising his hands slowly, knife in one, the other empty. He put the blade against the tip of his index finger at the last knuckle, and held the finger in place with his thumb. Slowly he pressed, until the blade pushed into the skin like it was cutting into soft wax, or firm butter. James watched, frozen, as Tom rotated the blade around the ends of his first two fingers, before pulling the tips off to leave nothing but bones, black bones, the same charred color of Tom’s teeth.

Tom stood those few steps away, then he was there, on top of James, the bones of his opened fingers sunk into James’ chest so that he could feel them, feel their heat like coals and the scrape of them against his sternum. Something awful poured into James, but he couldn’t move. Tom’s lips were pursed.

“This is always the awkward part,” Tom said, chagrined. “Never quite know what to say.”

****

They were in an elevator. They were going up.

Two holes were burned into the flesh of James’ chest, but they burned like ice, and the cold had begun to spread. His body moved sluggishly, following Tom like an automaton, but his mind was in a panic, and for a moment he almost believed he was dreaming, everything feeling thick around him the way it did when he tried to run or scream in a nightmare. Tom was humming.

“You have a decision to make,” said Tom, and though James didn’t want to listen, wanted to fight and push this thing in his friend’s body away, the words came into his head with an electric clarity. “There are some good years left. Big Sue – don’t call her that, of course, it’s short for S’zuzarael the Unspeakable — has some maturing still. But when she’s grown out of the larval stage, James, they will come. And if we are very, very good, and if we serve them very, very well, they will show us the mercy of killing us first.”

James managed a noise. The noise was a whimper.

“The technical explanation,” said Tom, going on languidly, “is that these are hyperdimensional entities that consume the interplanal consciousness of advanced intelligences. They came to our plane, oh what is it now–” Tom checked his watch “–a quarter billion years ago. So they’ve had to wait, until a sufficient enough intelligence evolved. That’s us, you realize.”

The cold in James’ chest was spreading into his guts, into his shoulders, making its way slowly into his limbs. Through a colossal show of will, he managed another whimper.

“The tower spires?” asked Tom, as if this had been what James was getting at with his pained noises. “Well, when you’re a hyperdimensional entity in larval form, you need a bit of help materializing your existence. The spires transmit on a 12th dimensional frequency in which time presents as a liquid, and conscious thought is a form of non-Euclidian space. Sorry, as I said, this gets a bit technical. So think of it this way – the spires are like an enormous rabbit ear antenna, and when they pick up the signal Big Sue comes in a bit clearer. When there’s no more static, she’ll be ready to be freed. And that’s when the Ancient Ones wake.”

The elevator began to slow, and then there was a soft jolt as it stopped. They’d reached the tower’s top floor.

“Blah blah blah,” said Tom. “I do go on, don’t I? Come. Let’s meet the beating heart of your new city.”

****

Then it was after. After Big Sue. After his bones had turned. After so many other things that night. They were in the elevator again, going down. James felt himself waking up. The ice was fully in his bones now, and though he could feel it in every inch of flesh and muscle it no longer bothered him. He was coming back to himself. They had stepped into something vast and awful and incomprehensible, and it had roared like a deafening static of dying stars and broken hearts and shrieking blackness that thickened and waned and wailed. He remembered all of it. He remembered none.

“She is the engine of our city,” said Tom. “All that grows here, all that thrives, it all feeds on her. And when Big Sue is big enough, she will feed on us.”

James found himself nodding. James found himself choosing to nod.

“You do have a choice,” Tom said, as the elevator slowed toward the ground floor. “Gods consume wills, not bodies. If you don’t choose to join us, the city will survive, and you won’t be the first mayor to have died in the early days of his term.”

James moved his tongue across his teeth, which felt dry and cold in his mouth as he smacked his lips, and Tom grimaced and reached into yet another pocket. He pulled out a set of veneers very much like his.

“You’ll want to wear these from here on,” he said. Then he pulled out his own, to demonstrate how they fit. James followed suit, and Tom gave him a wide, charming grin. “There, now. We match.”

****

Susan Reardon was still awake when her husband came home. She sat on the couch, a cup of hot tea on the end table beside her, a half-eaten apple on the plate in her lap. She was flipping channels, wading through a sea of infomercials and late night preachers and static to find something, anything, that would help her kill the time.

“I’m going to kill him,” she said, as James quietly pushed shut the door behind him. “He didn’t answer his phone, not once. Did you hear it ringing?”

“Hear what?” asked James.

“Tom’s phone,” said Susan. “Oh, James. You look terrible.”

He gave her a weak smile and shrugged, then began to pull the jacket from his shoulders. Susan set down her plate and came to him, helped him off with the jacket and then off with his tie, helped him unbutton his shirt. James didn’t protest. He watched his wife as she struggled with the topmost button, fighting to tilt it through the buttonhole without popping loose the thread. She caught him looking and smiled.

“You smoked,” she said, touching the two holes burned into the chest of his shirt. James took her wrists and eased her back before she could see the scars on his chest. She stared at his hands. “God almighty. The temperature must have dropped. You’re freezing.”

“It’s been a long day.”

“A long, good day,” said Susan. “You’re it now, Mr. Mayor. You’re the new heart of the city. Are you ready?”

He blinked at her, gave another, more feeble smile. Susan, lovely Susan, whose hands still held his tie between them. She took his hand again in hers and began to lead him gently toward the bedroom, so that her husband could sink finally into a well-deserved sleep, but he paused and looked at the end table, eyes fixed on the apple.

“Are you hungry, James?”

He said nothing, but stepped around her. His fingers lit first on the apple, then on the plate, before finally brushing along the table itself.

“What are you looking for?” she asked.

He stared a long while at Susan’s snack, then picked up what was left of the apple and held it between them, the fruit no larger than a fist. White noise spilled from the television, screen wild with static.

“A knife,” said James softly. “I need you to bring me a knife.”

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