By Tucker Struyk
Content Warnings: Drug use, death, suicide, non-consent.
‘It is a sad fate for a man to die too well known to everybody else,
and still unknown to himself.’
- Francis Bacon
From a first-class seat, thirty-thousand feet in the air, the mind of Herman C. Scriver flittered from the here and now to the dead and buried in a death spiral of abstract thoughts. Behind his closed eyes, sweet dreams morphed into bitter memories. He saw himself as a stripling, sojourned in the Western Province of Sri Lanka – his eyes swollen from tears. He pushed through crowded sidewalks to the hospital entrance. Inside, he found his way to Anvit. His leaden footsteps echoed through the hospice care wing. In the hospital room, a Buddhist monk chanted in diaphragmatic song. On the bed, Anvit rested in a moribund state. His mouth agape, an intubation tube protruded from his parted lips. Herman watched from the doorway. Somehow – after five years spent together – he still felt removed from the spiritual tether that indwelled his lover.
Eventually, the monk left. Once they were alone, Anvit and Herman, the hustle and bustle of the world around them came to a halt. Herman sat by Anvit’s side, held his limp hand and read him passages from John Henry Newman’s The Dream of Gerontius. Anvit twitched a finger. Herman stared at the fullness of Anvit’s lips and imagined what Anvit would say in that moment. Words ran through his mind. Nothing could quite match Anvit’s voice.
Herman checked the time on his Rolex Submariner. A little over an hour had passed. He sighed. In their final moments together, Herman had never felt so alone.
Turbulence roused Herman from his doze. He peeled the sleeping mask from his face. His eyes adjusted to the sunlight in time to make contact with the flight attendant. For the remainder of the trip from San Francisco to Colombo, he snacked on caviar and sipped from a glass of Dom Pérignon to cleanse his palate between bites. The plane landed at the Ratmalana International Airport. From there, he took a taxi to his vacation home.
His phone buzzed in his pocket. The name Edi flashed across the screen. He squinted to be sure he’d read it right. His hand absentmindedly scratched the scruff on his chin. He held the phone in thought for a moment, then answered the call.
‘How’s my favourite Hugo Award winner doing?’ asked Edi.
Herman scoffed. ‘That’s cute and all, but let’s be blunt.’ He cracked the car window by his seat. The fresh air acted as a reprieve from the stale cigarette stench. ‘What does a literary agent, with the pedigree you have, still want with a washed-up writer like me?’
‘Hey, you know me,’ she said. ‘Have I ever chased a false lead?’
Herman grinned. ‘Not yet, but even you can’t get me out of the trouble I’m in.’ He fingered the creases of his forehead. Kottu roti vendors and wheeled food carts darted through his purview from the outside world. His smile faded. The taxi came to a halt in front of a group of schoolboys on the crosswalk. ‘Can you?’
Edi chuckled; her laugh came dry and forced. ‘I’ve spoken to some publishers,’ she said, ‘and there’s interest in a tell-all book from you.’ She cleared her throat. ‘You know, about the whole scandal situation.’
‘You’ve got to be kidding me.’ Herman balked. ‘That was ages ago.’ He waved a free hand in the air as if to dismiss the idea. ‘My thoughts on the matter might be better for a pamphlet than a book since there’s not much to say – other than the whole thing was a bunch of baseless rumours.’ Herman paused. He waited for Edi to agree with him, but she made no comment of the sort. He continued, ‘The chief of Sri Lanka’s National Child Protection Authority himself said there was no case against me.’
Edi waited for him to finish. ‘Uh, no, actually,’ she said. ‘I was referring to the accusations from Clay Arkwright.’ He heard the shuffling of papers on her end. ‘He didn’t out you by name per se, but people are doing the math and putting two and two together. You were New Worlds magazine’s guest editor at the time in question, after all.’ She suddenly dropped her serious tone for a more conversational one. ‘Surely you’ve seen the online petition to ban your books from public libraries and schools.’
‘Don’t forget the New York Times article,’ added Herman.
Edi let out a deep exhale. ‘So you’re aware.’ Her breath steadied. ‘Look, there’s two sides to every story. All it takes is your angle in hardcover to change people’s minds. Fans already want to believe you’re everything they dreamed you to be and more. Just feed them the narrative they want to hear.’ She hesitated. ‘Besides, if you don’t get ahead of this soon, your image will be beyond my repair. I’ll be unable to renew our contract.’
In a moment of distrait distraction, Herman watched the schoolboys until they drifted from view. His voice waned to a murmur as he scanned the crowds along the promenade. The taxi driver glanced back at him in the rearview mirror. ‘I understand,’ he said. ‘Just give me some time to consider. The ordeal was so long ago. I don’t even remember the boy.’
‘I don’t think you do understand,’ Edi scoffed. ‘I’m doing this as a favour to you – someone I once considered a friend.’ There was a lull. Herman could not bring himself to question why she’d spoken in past tense. ‘Our contract expires in the coming days. This is your last chance.’
The call ended abruptly. Herman sank into the headrest. His eyes closed. Somewhere, in the taxi’s start-and-stop rhythm through traffic, he found refuge in foregone bereavements.
In the days following Anvit’s death, Herman had retreated into his home office. There, he perused magazine articles and books he had already read and reread many times. He was eager for stimulation, but nothing would suffice. Anvit’s coffin rested in the kitchen down the hall. It sat in wait for the funeral to come. The first two days leading up to the funeral passed in utter despair. Herman cried for hours on end. Yet, he could not bring himself to get any closer than the kitchen doorframe. Monks visited the home, collapsed to the floor in seiza position, chanted, offered a white piece of cloth and left. They never paid Herman so much as a passing glance. To them, he was an outside observer. Nothing more.
By the third day, Herman turned to bourbon for company. His thoughts grew too loud in the home’s silence. The walls echoed bygone pleasures in his ear. Each came as a delicate whisper from the dark. Words that nipped at his earlobe and traced the helix with their silver tongue. He needed to dull the senses. He could not suffer the pain any longer – not sober, at least. He rifled through his liquor cabinet until he found the bottle. He poured himself a glass, downed the drink in one gulp, then poured himself another. A burn ran down the back of his throat and left a bitter taste in his mouth.
He drank until his eyes became glazed and unfocused. He figured by then, he would be numb enough to meet his deceased lover face-to-face once more. He was wrong. The thought still sent goosebumps down his spine. He had no scruples about seeing Anvit again; what set him off was the notion that this could be the last time. They had broached a moment they would never get back once it had passed. The final threshold. Though, he knew, even in inaction, the opportunity would slip through his fingers eventually.
With a low sough, he entered the kitchen. His gaze fell to the wooden crate sat in his dining area. He lurched over Anvit’s corpse and saw nothing but the wood grain. The coffin became an oaken shield that he hid behind. A Schrödinger’s box, where Anvit was still alive – if not there, at least somewhere – as long as nobody peeked inside. Herman’s head sank low. He palmed his forehead and fought the urge to cry. Anvit deserved better than that. He deserved someone who could meet him eye-to-eye, as true equals in life and in death. Herman opened the lid. Inside, Anvit lay in a zinc-lined bed. His face was bloated beyond recognition from the embalming fluid. His radiant eyes were withheld behind glued eyelids. His round lips were stitched together in a suture. He bore no resemblance to the man Herman loved.
Herman staggered backward. The coffin lid slammed closed. He exhaled in quivered breaths. Hot tears rolled freely off his chin and onto a buttoned-up Hawaiian shirt. He poured a glass of bourbon to take the edge off. The recollection faded from there.
The potholes along Havelock Road jolted Herman awake. He lifted his head from the taxi’s backseat window as the driver turned into his driveway. His neck craned to get a look through the Ceylon ironwood trees in the front yard. The home was a modest place with stucco walls and ceramic tile roofing but none of the trappings of a gaudy writer’s retreat. Nothing anyone would look twice at – unless they knew this was the home of a famous science fiction author. Herman smiled to himself. He went inside. His home consisted of a small bedroom, an office, a kitchen and a storage closet in the hall. In the office, model airplanes and an Olivetti typewriter, strewn about the desk, were left untouched from his last stay. He wandered over to the bookcase. On the shelves were awards, a collection of books by Isaac Asimov, and contributor’s copies from a few of his renowned works. He found comfort in those old trinkets. A warmth no longer present in San Francisco or the world over. The house acted as a time capsule to a better era, a better Herman. He gazed out through the office window. Outside, tucked away in a flower garden bed, stood a pair of headstones. One for each of his pet chihuahuas.
Eventually, he sat behind the desk and removed the laptop from his bag. His eyes lingered on the blank page long before his fingers had any inclination to move. He sucked his teeth. Autobiography was never his strong suit. There was no easy place to begin a story so subjective, so broad – only pitfalls that made him appear the predator. He struggled to even recall the details. After a few minutes with no luck, he minimised the Word document and pulled up the New York Times article in a separate tab on his internet browser. He squinted. His eyes strained under the computer’s blue light. Clay’s words exuded vigour and voice in spite of the subject matter. The reader could visualise the scenario at hand. He was not merely stating his claim. He dragged the reader into his memory and let them draw their own conclusions. His prose had the power Herman’s lacked – perspective.
Herman flung his glasses from his nose and let them clatter onto the keyboard. His eyes, through blurred vision, drifted to an ornate urn placed atop the bookcase – to Anvit. He leaned back in his chair. Anvit’s ashes acted as a testament of grief to remind him that, before the rumours and before Clay, Herman had already lost the world. Whatever came next, whatever torment Clay mustered could never match the anguish of heartache, and Herman had no heart left to offer. There was no life after love, not for him – that much he had made certain of.
The laptop screen faded to black in an effort to conserve battery power. He turned to the clock and shook his head. With the urn still fresh in his mind’s eye, he rubbed his eyes until he disrupted the blood flow. Rings of light bled forth from the darkness until the office around him was consumed by splotches in the phosphene.
Spots of light faded to the black from whence it came. Traces of its irradiance remained only as a fragmented memory that dwindled with each passing second. Herman opened his eyes.
In memorial of Anvit’s life, his urn was placed upon a pillar for friends and family to gawk at with tearful eyes and shallow solaces. Herman sat alone through the service. His eyes scanned the room. No one offered him condolences – not that he would have understood them if they had. Anvit’s loved ones came in by the dozen. They all greeted one another with solemn recognition. Yet, Herman could not place a single face or name in the crowd. Not only that, but his face bore no meaning to them, as if he was to be dismissed as an acquaintance and not a partner. He chose to skip the feast offered by the monk. After the ceremony, he caught a cab back home – his arms wrapped around Anvit’s urn during the drive. Once inside, he was greeted by a message from Edi on his answering machine. She had arranged for him to be New Worlds’ guest editor as his comeback to the literary world after a long hiatus. He accepted.
The memory left Herman numb. His eyes lingered on the loops and swirls etched into the pattern on Anvit’s urn. Just then, there came a shuffling from down the corridor. Someone had opened the hall closet and removed the vacuum cleaner for a bit of spring cleaning. Herman crept out from the office. He found the culprit untangling the vacuum cleaner’s wire in the bedroom. His housekeeper, Dilipa. She regarded him, from across the room, with wide eyes. Her brows raised up to her hairline. ‘Itu muṭiyumā?’ she said. Once the realisation sank in, she reeled him in for a warm embrace. ‘Nāṉ puriyavillai.’ Her eyes narrowed. ‘What brings you here?’
He grinned. ‘It’s great to see you,’ he told her. ‘It’s been a long time.’
‘It’s been too long.’ She paused while she looked him up and down. ‘Time is a funny thing, huh?’ she said. She gestured toward the chihuahuas’ gravestones in the backyard. ‘Every time I look out there, I think of those little hellions. You loved those dogs.’ Her gaze loitered in the garden outside. ‘Remember?’
He cleared his throat as if to cut off this line of questioning before it had begun. ‘Thank you again, Dilipa, for all your help over the years.’ He wrapped an arm around her. ‘I’d love nothing more than to sit and chat right now, but I’m on a tight schedule, and I’ve got to get back to work.’ He shrugged and patted her shoulder. ‘You understand.’
She nodded. ‘Say no more.’ She backpedalled out of the room with the vacuum in hand. Her feet shuffled backwards while her eyes were in a deadlock with his. The amber hue of her irises pierced his shrewd exterior. ‘I’ll give you your privacy.’ On her way out the door, she said, ‘I’ll be back tomorrow morning.’
He returned to the comfort of his battered desk chair. He stared at the ink pen he had propped up upon its stand. His hands steepled above the laptop. Without a second thought, he typed the first words that came to mind. Each stroke of his fingers grew more tentative than the last. He propounded, from an apocryphal perspective, until he hit a wall. He reread the paragraph he had just written, then promptly deleted it. His tone reeked of desperation. He closed the laptop and moseyed over to the liquor cabinet.
He poured himself the stiffest drink he had on hand. The booze burn arrived at the back of his throat to put his mind at ease. He rose to his feet and tripped over an ottoman. His drunken stumble sent him rocketing toward the shelf until he caught himself – mere inches from Anvit’s urn. He straightened his posture to meet Anvit face-to-face. His mien appeared warped in the urn’s reflection. He cursed under his breath. His eyes were cast elsewhere – anywhere, as long as Anvit was nowhere to be seen.
He rummaged through desk drawers in search of a downer to put him on his ass. He had not partaken since a time out of mind, but decades ago, he had acquired the taste. It took a couple go-rounds with rehabs across the country before he managed to kick the nasty habit, but now was an altogether different story. He needed something to make him forget his woes, at least until the morning light. Eventually, he found an old pill bottle labelled Quaaludes. He washed down the sedative with a sip of bourbon. His slurp was followed by a sharp inhale. Then, silence. After an hour spent in wait, the effects never kicked into gear. He figured the pills must have reached their expiration date. He checked the label to confirm what he already knew. They were duds.
He thumbed at the inner corners of his eyes. His vision blurred from grey to black. Novels, honours and bibelots sprang from the colourless void. Memorabilia spun around his head like a halo of twittering birds in some old cartoon. He could no longer stomach it. He tore through the room in a whirlwind. By the time he got to his luggage, the office was laid bare. His hands fumbled for a razor blade in his travel bag. He unfolded the razor from its handle and held it to his arm. Cold steel pressed above his radial artery in a push downward. The skin cracked under increased pressure and, finally, broke. Blood spilled out. He moaned. From the crimson droplets upon the porcelain sink, a devil burst forth – a yakseya in the flesh. Herman knelt at the demon’s feet. His eyes lowered to the nylon fibres of the carpet. The demon spoke under the guise of one’s own thoughts. His name was Wesamuni. He wore an opulent crown and tendered wonders from the palm of his hand. As a show of good faith, Wesamuni offered up his written word in exchange for Herman’s soul. With a nod, Herman accepted. The great king rested his golden blade upon each of Herman’s shoulders in a debased knighting ceremony. As part of the ritual, the demon king named his servant anew. Herman repeated the name. ‘Maha Sohona,’ he said. With that, Wesamuni was gone. Herman sat alone behind a computer desk. He bore no wound on his arm nor saw any blood in the sink.
He opened the laptop. His eyes scanned through files, but he came up empty-handed. He looked over his shoulder and into the darkness of night – a doe-eyed stare from spectacle to spectator. In a plume of smoke, Anvit materialised in disembodied form. He stood in adlocutio pose. His face was obscured in black. Somewhere, buried underneath the soot, Anvit’s eyes still remained. Herman leapt out of his chair. He ran to Anvit with arms outstretched. His lips parted to make way for a toothy grin. Suddenly, as he approached the lamented, he took note of the incisors that protruded from Anvit’s closed lips – fangs concealed behind a puckered muzzle. He came to a halt. Anvit opened his mouth to reveal a pair of ivory tusks. Herman fell back. His feet struggled to keep up with his jerky movements. With eyes that bulged out of their sockets, Anvit had Herman backed up to the bookshelf.
In a series of rasping clicks, Anvit unclenched his jaw and bellowed a guttural ballad. The lyrics held familiarity in Herman’s prudent heart.
Anvit’s recited words floated in the putrid air. He spoke, through decayed lips, ‘“Rouse thee, my fainting soul, and play the man…”’ He lurched forward until he had Herman pinned between Anthony Burgess and F. Scott Fitzgerald. ‘“…And through such waning span…”’ Herman looked into his eyes but saw nothing. They were empty – a world devoid of life. ‘“…Of life and thought as still has to be trod.”’ Herman looked away. His head turned to the side. ‘“Prepare to meet thy God.”’ Herman was confronted with an old photograph of himself, printed on the back of a New Worlds edition from decades ago. ‘“And while the storm of that… bewilderment… is for a season spent…”’ Anvit’s cold hands gripped Herman by the shoulders. ‘“…And, ere afresh the ruin on thee fall…”’ He wrung the breath from Herman’s lungs. ‘“Use well the interval.”’
Blood vessels burst in Herman’s eyes. He cried out in an inarticulate wail. Anvit thrust his fingers beyond Herman’s occluded lips, inside the mouth and down the throat. Herman tasted the rot on his tongue. His eyes watered. He fought the urge to gag. Anvit pried until Herman’s jaw unhinged from its temporomandibular joints. In that moment, Herman disassociated from his corporeal form and transported himself to a dream long forgotten by time – through will or happenstance, he could not say.
In the back channels of his mind emerged a reverie. Outside, through the bow window, inhered a back view of Kensington Gardens. Inside, red curtains were draped from the canopy mantled above the hotel bed. A sitting nook was placed off to the side, away from the bed and the TV. There, Herman poured two glasses of Dom Pérignon. One for him and one for Clay Arkwright. The two were celebrating after having signed a publishing contract. Herman sat across from Clay. His single-breasted, grey suit sat low and exposed a long knit tie. He eyeballed the young writer from afar. Meanwhile, Clay floundered in the quietude. His eyes darted across the room to avert Herman’s ogling.
Herman cleared his throat. ‘Do you know why I selected your story over the thousands submitted?’ he asked. His brow raised as Clay awaited an answer. He chuckled. ‘This isn’t a rhetorical question.’
‘Oh, uh, I’m not sure,’ Clay tittered. ‘Please, enlighten me.’
‘Yours had true craftsmanship, you know, nuance.’ Herman raised his glass to Clay with a pointed finger. ‘That’s something that can’t be faked, and it can’t be duplicated. It’s art.’ He rose from his chair. ‘I saw that in you immediately. You and you alone.’ He dawdled around the coffee table between them and pivoted to the ottoman near Clay’s feet.
Clay smirked. ‘I’m flattered,’ he said, ‘but I’m not alone in this edition.’ His smile faded as he drank from his glass. ‘You gathered a great compendium, and I’m honoured to be among those selected.’
‘Don’t be modest,’ said Herman. ‘It’s so mundane.’ He set his drink aside. ‘You’ve seen the magazine in print. You’ve read what the others have to offer.’ He grabbed Clay, by the big toe, in a playful wiggle. ‘None of them holds a candle to you, and you know it.’ His touch lingered.
Clay’s foot recoiled. His legs folded under him in tailor fashion. ‘Oh, I don’t know what to say.’ He brushed a shaky hand through his lush head of hair. ‘Thank you, I suppose.’
Herman walked over to the foot of the bed. ‘Don’t be so timid with me,’ he told Clay. ‘We are contemporaries, after all.’ He patted a spot on the mattress just beside himself. ‘Come, have a seat over here.’ He beckoned Clay with a wave of his hand.
Clay obliged. The colour drained from his cheeks.
Herman placed an arm around Clay. With his free hand, he rummaged through his pocket. As he searched, he felt Clay squirm from his embrace. Eventually, he found the little baggy. In the palm of his hand rested a couple of pills. He offered one to Clay.
Clay’s face fell. ‘What is it?’
‘A party in a pill.’ Herman brought Clay in closer. He muttered in Clay’s ear, ‘Come on, try one. It’s just a lude.’ He simpered. ‘One won’t bite.’
With hesitancy in his eyes, Clay accepted.
Launched from past to present, Herman found himself asleep in the flowerbed of his garden. He pried open his weary eyes to the sight of an ant perched upon a blade of grass. He sat upright. His arms and chest were encrusted with grime. Beside him, the chihuahuas’ graves were excavated to mounds of discarded dirt next to two big holes in the yard. His mind strained to put together the missing pieces to the puzzle that was his memory. In a trice, it came to him: Dilipa’s visit, the expired Quaaludes in his desk drawer, Wesamuni’s proposition. He rushed inside to the trashed office and checked the laptop. He saw an email from him to Edi; attached was a document labelled ‘Tell All Manuscript.’ He froze. As he scrolled through the pages, his heart rate came to a standstill. He could not help but laugh. Perhaps, somehow, his dream had come true. His laughter subsided. He looked about the room – half-expecting to find the crew for a hidden camera show. There were no gods nor monsters in this world; he had seen enough to know that much. Yet, the words were right there – not his words, to be sure, but words all the same. He rested his head in the palm of his hands. When he looked up, his eyes homed in on a leather-bound book placed upon the bookshelf. He got to his feet. As he inched closer, he noticed the limp binding, like a vellum from the eighteenth century. He cocked his head to the side. By the time he plucked it from its bookcase, he’d realised the binding was not leather. Rather, the book was bound in macerated flesh. Inside were pages typed, under his name, full of words he did not recognise. Strange, horrible words. He retched. The book fell to the floor.
Police sirens sounded from outside the front door. From across the street, Dilipa watched the house with pained eyes. Meanwhile, Herman scrambled away from the siren’s call. Through torn pages and shattered glass littered across the floor, he fled to the backyard. He picked up pace as he heard police officers enter unannounced. His lungs lit ablaze as his body put in overtime to pump in oxygen. Just then, his foot got caught in a shallow grave, and he collapsed. Inside the hole, he came face-to-face with the dearly departed who had resided there all this time. He recoiled. His lips tightened to a moue. He stumbled back to his feet and looked down at the graves from above. He stared in disbelief. Down below rested the bodies of two flayed human boys – strangled, decades ago, by the very hands that had dug them up.
The police found him there, in the garden, tucked between the blue lotuses sprouting from an ornamental pond and the wilted Kadapul flowers by his head. He held his befouled hands up in the air.
Months later, at a bookstore in San Francisco, a woman approached the podium. Her high-heeled pumps clacked across the linoleum floor. She scanned heads among the assembly. The crowd watched on with vacant eyes. They suspired in open-mouthed breaths. Their shoulders lurched forward in slouched positions. The presenter plastered a counterfeit smile upon her austere countenance. ‘Thank you, one and all, for being here tonight. The Bookworm Cafe is honoured to present high art to the community, and tonight’s speaker is no exception,’ she said. She looked off to the side to be sure the reader was in their position. ‘Now, without further ado, please give a warm welcome to our live reader for the evening. She’s the author and editor of the New York Times bestseller, Devil’s Bible: The Confessions of Herman C. Scriver. Put your hands together for Edi Ezer.’ The audience clapped.
Edi took the stage. Behind the cat’s-eye frames, her eyes beamed with rapture. She waved to the spectators. ‘Thank you,’ she said. The cheers died down. ‘I’d like to open this reading with a content warning.’ She paused. The lull impregnated the room with anticipation. ‘This book details the crimes of Herman C. Scriver. A man who hid his perverse exploits behind a reclusive façade. A man who lied to everyone he knew – even himself.’ Edi bore a distant look in her eyes. She lost her place in the crowd. Her eye-line lowered to the microphone cord at her feet. The wire, wrapped around her ankle, appeared as the noose around Herman’s neck. In her mind’s eye, his limp body dangled from the jail cell ceiling. She caught herself in suspended animation. She met the audience’s gaze once more. ‘As well as listener discretion for the reading itself, the Bookworm Cafe and I would like to caution viewers of the graphic content depicted in Scriver’s illustrations. Scriver’s sketches are amateur but gruesome, nonetheless. If anyone is squeamish, please feel free to excuse yourself at any time.’
With shaken breaths, Edi read an excerpt from the novel. The book’s dust jacket was meant to emulate human flesh. Her hands gripped the hardcover panels with zeal. She buried her face in the very pages she read from. In the selected chapter, Herman described his years spent in Colombo after the death of Anvit. The crowd sat on the edge of their seats. Some recorded from their phones; others gave an inquisitive stare. Not a soul winced at the crude drawings of sexual assault projected onto the wall behind her, nor at the mention of child murder. When Edi finished, they all erupted in applause.
Tucker Struyk: Tucker Struyk (he/him/his) is a queer writer and podcaster for Hookswitch Hotline. He has pieces published by Cosmic Horror Monthly, Starry Eyed Press, Not A Pipe Publishing, and several other publications. His piece “Our Father’s Judgment” was published in the spring 2021 issue of 13th Floor Magazine, where it was awarded an Editor’s Choice Award, and his piece “Getaway” was given an honorable mention in the Fall/Winter 2022-23 issue of Allegory.