Monday, December 17, 2018

Amherst Meets Arkham (A Mark Flyleaf Story)

Mark had just taken the first sip of his morning coffee when the intercom on his desk crackled to life.
“Mark, Emily Dickinson is on line one.”

Mark sighed and set down his coffee. Emily had been calling more and more frequently, and it always turned out the same way.

He pushed the intercom button on his desk and thanked Janice and then picked up the receiver of his black rotary phone.

“Good morning, Emily!” he said, trying to sound exuberant.

“...”

“Yes, of course I have. I just haven’t had any characters come through who are interested in your particular oeuvre.”

“...”

“You know, short poetry. Most of the clients we see, if they’re at all interested in poetry, are interested in larger, more epic works, not couplets and quatrains.”

“...”

“Now I never said that poetry isn’t valid. I’m just saying characters aren’t beating down my door to get into them.”

“...”

“I am too looking! But you don’t exactly offer much in the way of compensation. For Odin’s sake, you don’t even do sonnets! At least Elizabeth Barret—”

“...”

“I’m sorry...”

“...”

“Yes, I—”

“...”

“Yes, I apologize. I know how you feel about her. I should never have brought her up.”

“...”

“No, no. She doesn’t go through the this office. She uses a service out of Portugal, I think.”

“...”

“I certainly will.”

“...”

“Yes, I know exactly what you’re looking for.”

“...”

Yes, dark and—”

“...”

“—and brooding, yes. Might I say, though, that you seem to be doing a wonderful job with that character we sent over to you a few months ago. Mister, um, Leaper was it?”

“...”

“Reaper, yes. Grim Reaper, right? Is he still in your employ?”

“...”

“Yes, I know he gets a lot of play in the world’s corpora. But that’s why he was interested in working with you in the first place. He wanted to do some short works.”

“...”

“I’m sure he loves working with you.”

“...”

“I’m sorry, but we’re a character placement service, not an HR department. We can’t do anything about—”

“...”

“Yes.”

“...”

“No, I don’t personally know Stephen King. Sorry.”

“...”

“All right. I’ll continue to keep an eye out.”

“...”

“You’re quite welcome. Mmm-hmm. Buh-bye.”

Mark returned the receiver to its cradle, leaned back in his chair, and rubbed his temples. A morning call from Dickinson was often the harbinger of a horrifying day at work, but that didn’t mean the work would stop coming. He leaned forward and reached for his cup of coffee.

The intercom crackled again. “Mark, your eight-thirty is here.”

Mark checked his watch; it was already 8:37. He hated making people wait. He pushed the intercom button: “Send him in, Janice.”

The client’s application was sitting at the top of his inbox. It had been filled out in a beautiful, old-world calligraphy, perfectly legible but artistic at the same time. The overhead lights reflected a weird dark-red tinge to the black ink, though. Eerie.

The office door opened, and Mark’s first client of the day floated into the office, tentacles first.

The client had to bend down to get through the door, and one of his large, leathery wings caught on the door jamb, leading to an awkward moment as the great beast disentangled himself from the doorway. When he stood to his full height, his hairless head brushed the ceiling.

Mark felt a sudden urge to urinate. “Please, have a seat.”

The client descended slowly into the chair opposite the desk, the mass of curling tentacles that composed the lower half of his face wrapping around the sides of his boulder of a head and out of the way. He leaned forward, shrugging his massive shoulders trying to position his wings flat against the back of the chair. It apparently was not an easy task, because when he finally came to rest, he was sitting on the front edge of the chair and leaning slightly toward Mark’s desk.

“So,” Mark began, trying to calm the wavering in his voice, “Mister Cthulhu, is it?”

“Yes.” His voice was deep. Guttural. Like the sound of a million souls screaming in pain from the darkest reaches of God’s rectum. It rattled Mark’s desk, chair, and bones.

“N-Nice to meet you. I’m M-M-Mark. Mark Flyleaf.”

Cthulhu must have heard the fright in Mark’s voice because he immediately apologized, but in a much smaller, higher-pitched voice: “Oh, I’m dreadfully sorry. I’ve gotten so used to using my dramatic voice that I sometimes forget myself. I do apologize.”

“That’s quite all right,” Mark replied, patting his hair back into place. “So, according to your application, you’ve been working quite successfully for a Mister Lovecraft, correct? Have things not been going well for you there? Did he kill you off or something?”

“Quite the contrary,” Cthulhu said, sounding more like a cartoon animal than an occult figure. “Howie has made me quite immortal in his stories. I didn’t even have to do a lot of work. I showed up for one story, but I’m pulling in royalties as a constant threat in half a dozen more. I don’t even have to show up!”

“It sounds like you’re doing quite well for yourself.” Mark’s heartbeat had nearly slowed to normal.

“Sure.”

“So how can we help you?”

“Well, I’ve been finding a lot of work in derivative stories for some time now, but they always follow a specific direction. To be frank, it has become a little monotonous. I just want a vacation from it. Don’t get me wrong; I love my craft. But I need something different. This is strictly for the experience. Personal growth, you know.”

“Certainly. Tell me, what kinds of things do you do?”

“Oh, the usual macabre things that immortal demon-gods do. You know, blighting crops, stealing souls, defiling and devouring virgins, that sort of thing.”

“Ah yes,” said Mark. “The old doom and gloom, eh? Sturm und drang and all? Yes, well, we’ve got quite a lot of opportunities in that area.”

“But that’s just it. I would like to get away from that. Something outside that literary sphere. Maybe something more poetic, or artistic. Maybe I could even get a love interest? No virgins, of course. Can’t have me eating my own love interest in the middle of a story, now, can we?” Cthulhu chuckled, then snorted, then stopped.

“A love interest, eh? That might be a little difficult, what with your, uh,” Mark made circling gestures toward Cthulhu’s face with his fingers.

“Of course. The tentacles.” He stroked his slithering mass of facial pseudopods. “These used to be my selling point, but lately they’ve been holding me back.”

“Do you have any other skills or characteristics that might be of interest to authors?”

“Not much that I have developed. Not to brag, but I am sort of all-seeing and all-knowing. I can pick up anything that interests me pretty quickly.”

“Let’s see what I can find for you.” Mark turned to his computer and began a series of searches. He went down three dead ends before a real possibility appeared.

“Here’s something,” Mark said. “Do you like children?”

“Absolutely! Cooked rare with a nice peach chutney and just a soup├žon of fresh mint. Mmmm.”

“That’s not quite what I meant, but that will do. What I’ve got here is an opening for a shape-shifting monster that lives underneath a city. Before you protest, I know that it sounds like the same type of thing you’re doing with Mister Lovecraft, but this will be in a completely different style. It doesn’t appear that you will be worshipped by any group in this story. According to the description here, it looks like it will be less macabre. Less occult-y. More outright horror. Plus, it’ll get you a lot of exposure to a new audience.”

“Why? Who’s the author?”

“Stephen King.”

Cthulhu sucked in a sharp breath and his eyes lit up (literally: They glowed red). Stephen King was to horror fiction characters what Johnny Carson was to comedians; he could make or break a character’s entire career.

“I was quite hoping to get completely away from that genre, but I don’t know if I can pass up a chance to work with Stephen King. Hmm. Do you have any more specifics about it?”

Mark scrolled farther down the listing. “Well, let’s see. The novel is listed only as It. I assume that’s just a placeholder. It might be a little longer than you’re looking for. We’ve got a group of children, and then the same children as adults. There’s a giant spider. And a clown.”

Cthulhu shuddered, shaking the entire room. “Did you say clown?”

“Yes. A clown.”

“Absolutely not. No way.” Cthulhu waved his hands in front of him; his tentacles writhed anxiously. “Clowns scare the crap out of me.”

“Are you sure?”

“Yes. No clowns.”

“All right, Mister Cthulhu. I’m afraid, though, that I don’t see many other options here for you. You aren’t exactly the kind of person who lights up the room when you enter.”

“What’s that supposed to mean?”

“It means that, no matter what skills you may have, your, um, appearance leaves a very limited palette for authors to work with.”

“Well, I’ve got wings, too. Is anyone looking for, say, an ugly angel? Anything like that?”

Mark gave it a moment’s thought. “Hmm, demons and angels. I might be able to sell that to Dan Brown.”

“No!”

“You don’t want to work with Dan Brown?”

“I’d rather work for clowns,” Cthulhu said, shuddering at the thought.

Mark shrugged. “We just don’t have many authors looking for the kind of gloominess and despair that a character like y—” He stopped. Why hadn’t he thought of it before?! “Of course!”

Mark thought he might have seen a hopeful smile buried beneath the mass of wriggling tentacles.

“How do you feel about poetry?” Mark asked.

Cthulhu tilted his head. “I’ve never given it much thought.”

“We’re talking short poems here. Nothing epic.”

“Well, it’s certainly new. Any chance for a love interest?”

“Not bloody likely,” Mark muttered in a rare break of professional demeanor. He cleared his throat and quickly regained his composure. “This particular author doesn’t really dwell on matters of the heart.”

“If you think I’d be good for it, I’ll give it a try.”

Mark filled out a contact form as he spoke. “Her name is Emily Dickinson.”

“Hmm. Sounds familiar.”

“When it comes to poems about despair, she’s your girl. She’s been on my back for weeks now to get some fresh faces into her work. She’s been working solely with this Grim Reaper guy for some time.”

“Oh, right!” Cthulhu exclaimed. “That’s where I’ve heard her name. Grimmy is a cousin of mine. Well, second cousin. On my mother’s side. I think he said something about her at the last family reunion.”

“I should tell you now that this is a bit of a longshot. Miss Dickinson is — how should I put this? — finicky about her characters. She also doesn’t pay a whole lot. That’s not going to be a problem, is it?”

“Not at all.”

“Wonderful.” He handed Cthulhu the contact card. “Here is her contact information. Make sure you take this card with you when you meet her.”

Cthulhu took the card and stood up, his joints cracking like the chomp of a dozen guillotines.

“Thank you very much,” Cthulhu said. He turned and opened the door.

“Oh!” Mark yelped. “Mister Cthulhu. I should mention . . .” He lowered his voice in case anyone was in the waiting room. “Miss Dickinson is likely a virgin. Please do your best to not, you know, eat her? Or anything?”

“Thanks for the warning. I’ll make sure to swing by the mall and fill up on souls before I go.”

Cthulhu thundered out of the office and past the reception desk. Mark heard Janice’s familiar voice squeak “Goodbye.” The pictures hanging in the waiting room clattered against the walls as Cthulhu, back to using his “dramatic voice,” said, “You have a wonderful afternoon, ma’am.”

Mark pressed the button on his intercom.

“Janice.”

“Yes, Mr. F.”

“Could you get Emily Dickinson back on the phone please? I’ve got some good news for her.”

“Okay.”

Mark glanced at the chair Cthulhu had been sitting in. It was covered with a translucent green goo that oozed and dripped like honey into a puddle under the chair. “And can you find me a roll of paper towels?”