Secret, and self-contained,
and solitary as an oyster.
—Charles Dickens, A Christmas Carol
Darkness has its charms, and even in our own hometowns, the world at night can be as enchanting as any foreign port with its exotic architectures. Between dusk and dawn, the commonplace is full of visual delights that only the moon, the stars, and richly textured shadows can provide.
But pitch-black gloom offers nothing except the fevered images of our imagination. And when we share absolute lightlessness with a grotesque mummy that makes a squalling-cat sound through its mouthful of buzz-saw teeth, the desire for light becomes so intense that we might set ourselves afire to provide it, if we had a match.
Fortunately, I have no match and am spared self-immolation, but Jolie Harmony has her mini flashlight, to which she resorts (if you want my considered opinion) much too slowly under the circumstances. When at last she does switch on that little torch, she aims it at me, or, more accurately, at my knees, as I am sitting on the floor of the corridor when the lights go out and the desiccated corpse begins to shriek, but then I erupt to my feet as abruptly as a spring-loaded novelty toothpick dispenser offering an afterdinner wooden probe. The beam is so narrow that it illumines only one of my knees, and instead of shifting it to her left, where the monstrous remains were last seen, the girl angles it upward, to my face, as if she’s forgotten who she brought here and needs to confirm my identity.
Jolie is twelve and I’m almost twenty-two, so it is incumbent upon me to act like the adult in the room—or the corridor. I must not scream like a little girl, because the little girl herself isn’t screaming. Before this adventure reaches an end, being human, I will no doubt have made a fool of myself in any number of ways; therefore, the longer I can delay behaving idiotically, the less humiliating it will be when I have to face her for our good-byes just before I ride off into the sunset with my faithful companion, Tonto. So with more aplomb than I expect, I blink into the light and in measured tones I say, “Show me the mummy.”
The beam travels along my stiff arms to the pistol that I have in a two-hand grip, lowers from the pistol to the floor, and sweeps a few feet to the left, revealing that my blind aim is off-target. The creature, for which I have no biological classification, is still lying on its back, in the withered posture of a juiceless death. The only part of it that moves is its left hand, the bony fingers rattling against the floor as if in life it was a pianist and still longs to pound out some hot jazz on a keyboard.
My understanding thus far has been that this fallen beast is a dry husk surrounding a brittle skeleton that encloses the dust to which all creatures—those of us who are monsters and those of us who aren’t—ultimately return. I like that understanding and can cope with it. This seeking hand is too much.
I stand over the thing, holding the pistol, pleased to see that my hands are shaking less than might be expected, certainly less than those of an octogenarian with familial tremors.
The cove lights along both sides of the corridor come on, and in that same moment, the mummy’s caterwauling ceases. Its tapping hand falls still.
As Jolie switches off her mini flashlight and puts it on the floor beside her, I wonder aloud, “What the hell just happened?”
She’s still sitting cross-legged on her folded moving blanket. She shrugs. “It never amounts to more than that.”
“You said nothing ever happens after the whummm-whummm-whummm thing.”
“I forgot about this.”
“How could you forget such a thing?”
“It doesn’t happen a whole lot. It’s rare. The hand business is like a postmortem reflex or something.”
“Totally dehydrated mummies don’t have postmortem reflexes.”
“Well, it’s something,” she says. “I’ve thought about cutting Orc open, you know, dissecting him, see what’s in there.”
“That’s a bad idea.”
“Orc is harmless. And I might learn something important.”
“Yeah, you’ll learn Orc isn’t harmless. And what about the way it was screaming?”
“Wasn’t screaming,” the girl says. “Mouth didn’t move. Chest didn’t rise and fall. And if you think about it, that sound was electronic like the whummm but different, freakier. What seems to make sense is that something broadcast the sound, and Orc’s dead vocal cords or its bones or something inside it is maybe like a receiver that just happened to pick up the transmission.”
She sits there on her blanket, like little Miss Muffet on a tuffet, except that if a spider sits down beside her, she won’t be scared away. She’ll just crush it in her hand.
I lower my pistol, giving Orc the benefit of the doubt. “Good grief, kid, the first time the lights went out and you heard it, you were here alone?”
“And you came back?”
“Like I told you, after years of Hiskott, I’m not afraid of much. I’ve seen lots that’s terrible. I saw my cousin Maxy … murdered by Hiskott using my family to do the killing.”
She has suffered so much, and that sorrows me. But she has been strong in the face of unthinkable adversity, and that inspires me.
“Please sit down, Mr. Potter.”
“How do you know my name?”
“It’s what you told Hiskott when he was controlling Uncle Donny. And he told us to stay away from you.”
I almost reveal my true identity to her. Then I realize that if she leaves this subterranean refuge and returns to the Corner, within the puppetmaster’s range, he might seize control of the girl, read her memory, and know my real name.
They say that voodoo priests, witches, and warlocks can’t lay a spell upon you if they don’t know your true name. That’s probably superstitious hogwash. Anyway, this Hiskott guy isn’t a voodoo priest or a witch or a warlock.
Nevertheless, I decide to keep my true name to myself for the time being.
Until the recent scare gave me my first white hairs, I had been sitting on the floor, facing the girl, with the mummified monstrosity a few feet to my right. Now I reposition the blanket and sit with a clear view of both Jolie and Orc.
“You said those three days in his cottage, Hiskott was sick and then he changed, he wasn’t just Hiskott anymore. What do you mean—that you don’t think he had this power when he checked in, that it came to him somehow while he was staying there?”
Now Jolie, who was seven when life in the Corner changed, relies on family legend, which has been crafted and polished around dinner tables and firesides, in days of despondency and days of fragile but enduring hope, when they dared not discuss rebellion and, instead, told and retold one another the stories of their years of oppression, thereby transforming their suffering into a tale of endurance from which they could draw courage.
As that legend has it, Dr. Norris Hiskott arrives in a Mercedes S600, a far more high-end vehicle than what the average guest at their motor court drives. On first appearance, he seems to have been born for this day. Since dawn, a cold breeze has come off the sea, tinctured with an iodine scent from masses of decomposing seaweed that storm waves flung across near-shore rock formations two days earlier. The disturbing odor, the penetrating chill, and the curdled gray sky, lowering by the hour with a pending storm of predicted ferocity, have combined to raise in the Harmonys a mild, persistent disquiet. When registering Norris Hiskott in Cottage 9, Aunt Lois thinks it’s curious that he’s wearing Gucci loafers, expensive tailored slacks, a gold Rolex—and a hooded jersey tattered at the cuffs and stained as if he fished it out of a Dumpster. Although some people might feel the day is cold enough to justify gloves, the pair he’s wearing are as peculiar as the jersey. These are gardening gloves, and he does not take them off. Likewise, he keeps the hood up throughout the registration process. Aunt Lois thinks perhaps some kid would wear a hoodie indoors, but not usually a man of about fifty and not one of this man’s social position and sophistication. He seems furtive, as well, never making eye contact.
From what Jolie previously said, I hadn’t inferred that the change in Hiskott that brought him this cruel power also altered him physically in some disastrous way. But this makes sense of his envy and of his too-beautiful-to-live decrees.
Holed up in Cottage 9, he refuses maid service, on the pretense that he is gravely ill with the flu, yet he seems to have a healthy appetite, for he orders a lot of take-out from the diner. Leaving his door unlocked, he asks that the food be left on the small table beside the armchair in the sitting area, and he leaves money for the charges plus tip. Hiskott remains in the bathroom while the delivery is made.
When he has been transformed by whatever virus or invading genetic material or other contamination he contracted in his work at Fort Wyvern, he moves quickly to claim this plot of ground as his perverse kingdom. His sphere of influence reaches in most places to the boundaries of the Corner, falls short here and there, extends farther in a few areas. Because of the awful changes in his appearance, he will most likely never be able to venture into the world beyond this property.
All brain activity is electrical, and Hiskott is able to calve off an aspect of his personality: Think of it as a memory stick of everything he knows and is, but without the stick, contained instead in a coherent electric field. With certain limitations of distance, he is able to transmit this other essentially invisible self, this phantom Hiskott, through telephone land lines or by means of other systems, such as power lines and water pipes and television cables, or a combination thereof. Like a snake, this Hiskott data bundle is able to coil in a TV, a lamp, an appliance; and when a potential host ventures near enough, it can leap to him and take possession, while the real Hiskott remains in seclusion elsewhere.
Instantaneously, the data bundle, acting rather like a computer virus, does not merely seize control of whomever it invades but also downloads into the host’s brain a program making that person’s lifetime of memories available to Hiskott. Task complete, the phantom Hiskott returns to the real Hiskott; thereafter, within Harmony Corner, he enjoys a permanent communications link to the person whom he has violated, as well as a control function that, at his whim, allows him to remotely operate that person’s body as if it were his own.
All of this is at once fully understood by each person over whom Hiskott claims sovereignty. And each is acutely aware that his puppetmaster can kill him in an endless variety of ways, not least of all by shutting down the autonomic nervous system that controls the automatic functions of organs, blood vessels, and glands—which will bring instant death.
If one of them bolts beyond the Corner and doesn’t return, retaliation will be directed upon those family members whom the escapee most loves. Their deaths will be cruel and slow and painful in the extreme, but also they will be subjected to such imaginative abominations as to fill them with humiliation, with such shame that their contempt for themselves will exceed their fear of death. The one who got away will carry a weight of guilt that eventually will make life intolerable.
Escaping with the intent to return with the police or cavalry of some other kind will be futile. The escapee will probably soon find himself needing to escape again, this time from a psychiatric ward, to which his tale of mind control has gotten him committed as surely as if he angrily claims to be Godzilla and threatens to destroy Los Angeles. In the unlikely event that authorities could be convinced of an extraordinary threat to such an apparently peaceful place as Harmony Corner, when they arrive on scene, Hiskott will take them one by one. Because those outsiders can never be allowed to return to their offices with knowledge of Norris Hiskott or with any suspicion whatsoever, he won’t possess them in the same manner as he does the Harmonys, but he will instead slip deep into their minds as unobtrusively as a cold virus invading the lungs on an inhalation. He will edit and massage their thoughts without their awareness, and he will send them away with memories that he crafts for them.
Until Jolie tells me this, I have not understood how complete is the stranglehold that Hiskott has on them. That the members of the Harmony family have persevered, held fast to their sanity, and remained hopeful is a feat almost beyond my comprehension.
Orc lies quiet.
Boo materializes and examines the mummified remains with great curiosity.
The girl doesn’t see the dog. She and I sit in contemplative silence.
Finally I ask, “Hiskott, whoever he was and whatever he now is—what does he want?”
“Because of the way he now looks, he can’t be seen in public, he’s gross. He lives through us.”
For a moment, another question more intrigues me: “What does he look like?”
“When he moved from Cottage 9 to the house he took from us, he did it at night. We weren’t allowed to see.”
“But in five years, taking food to him, cleaning his house—surely someone’s gotten a glimpse of him.”
She nods and seems to need a moment to gather herself before approaching this subject. “Only Uncle Greg and Aunt Lois. And Hiskott’s made it impossible for them to share what they’ve seen. Implanted a prohibition in their minds.”
She is a serious girl but still a child, lively in the way of children and eager for wonder and delight, serious but not to the exclusion of the possibility of joy, as an oppressed adult might be. But now a new solemnity overcomes her, and she looks so grave that I can see the worn and weary woman that she might become as more years of enslavement grind her down, and I am almost unable to look at her because it might fall to me, and me alone, to either help or fail her.
Eyes downcast and hands plucking nervously at her denim jacket, with a tic tweaking the corner of her left eye, she says, “Greg and Lois tried. They tried to tell us. About his appearance. Twice they really tried. But each time they bit their tongues. They bite hard. Tongues, lips. Chew their lips until they bleed. The only words they can get out are obscenities. Blasphemies. Awful words they wouldn’t say unless forced to. They spit out the blood, the words, and for days their mouths are too sore to eat. They don’t dare try to tell us a third time. We don’t want them to try. We don’t need to know. It doesn’t matter. Knowing won’t change things.”
We need another silence.
Boo wanders away from Orc and along the hallway toward the doors that Jolie could not pry open.
In time I return to our previous subject. “Control. Obedience. But why?”
“Like I said. Because of how he looks, he has to live through us, me and my folks. He can eat. He can drink. But there is so much he can’t do. He’s like an oyster or something and that house on the hill is his shell. He tells us we’re his sensorium.”