Togetherness

On Christmas morning of 2020, in Morrilton, Arkansas, enough hatred was exerted in the living room of David and Nancy Dunbar, and in a focused enough manner, to raise a Krzllgian Fleshbeast and zap the whole family into its private pocket dimension. It was all thanks to Bob the American. None of the Dunbar clan had any idea what the fuck had happened. All but one of them, though, would have untold millennia in which to relive and ever more deeply comprehend the experience, after they’d been peeled away from their empty cores, de-boned, and absorbed into the substance of the Fleshbeast.

* * *

If David’s fat kid had to embarrass him on Christmas, then for Christ’s sake, couldn’t he do it with something age-appropriate? Chad had been born in 2004, yet here he was waddling out of his bedroom in a Marilyn Manson T-shirt.

David clapped his hands, rubbed them together, gestured at the gift-laden tree. Its multicolored lights smoldered against the dark wood paneling. “Christmas morning, pal! You excited about what’s under the tree?!” Chad gave him that heavy-lidded silent side-eye, his specialty. Well, he didn’t expect Chad to buy into the enthusiasm routine, anyway. It was for Nancy’s benefit, so she couldn’t turn on him later and accuse him of not making an effort. She watched the charade, turning from father to son with that bright red pasted-on grin. (She’d gotten up early to do her make-up, since her in-laws were coming over.)

Chad studied the jumble of presents under the tree. “It’s the same number of presents as were there yesterday.”

“Yes, but you get to finally open them.” It would actually be better if Chad had made his remark in a snide, bitchy tone. But no—he’d spoken with the dull neutrality that drove David bananas. It would be nice if his pink-haired, lip-ringed son could be bothered to show even the slightest fighting spirit, since sooner or later someone was going to try and kick his ass. Here in Morrilton, that was just a fact of life for pink-haired flabby faggy kids. Even his black jeans were faggy. David actually would have preferred it if he’d worn them loose enough for his underwear to hang out, like the wanna-be ghetto kids. But no, Chad had to wear them tight, his swollen legs packed in like sausages.

How in the world was David going to get through Christmas with his brother’s family, with Chad hanging like a stone from his neck?

“I don’t mean to offend you,” his brother Alfred had told David a month ago, taking him aside at Thanksgiving. “But your boy is a Satanist.” His level gaze conveyed how little he actually cared whether he offended David. Although half a head shorter and eighteen months younger, Alfred was still pretty well packed with muscle, and didn’t have a massive gut like David’s, and in certain moods could still make his big brother nervous. “And I think you ought to be worried that he’s veering into homosexuality.”

“I don’t think he’s gay,” David had protested, despite having zero evidence of any heterosexuality.

“I don’t say that he is, yet. He may not even have any urges that way. Yet. But that pink hair and that crap in his face, and those pictures of homosexuals on his T-shirts—all that is like a lightning rod, that’s gonna attract the attention of influences that’ll try and convert him to gay.” David couldn’t argue with that. “Anyway,” his brother continued, “it’s getting to a point where I don’t really want Chad hanging around with Samuel or Joshua.”

David had snorted. “Our kids don’t hang out.”

But then Alfred had lowered the boom and revealed that, no, he meant he was considering not bringing his family over for Christmas. That had called for some groveling on David’s part. Nancy’s mental equilibrium required a big, festive, family-packed Christmas. But her parents had moved to Galveston, and her sister had moved to Colorado, and her brother had moved to Maine, and none of them planned on coming back to Arkansas for Christmas, so it had become David’s job to provide the relations. Alfred’s family was all he had to offer—he had no other siblings, and his parents were dead. Such a paucity of participants in the Christmas cheer was barely sufficient to keep Nancy from sliding into the blackest of Yuletide despairs; he couldn’t afford to lose even that. After some cajoling and a promise to have a talk with Chad, David managed to book his brother for December 25th.

He did have a few talks with Chad, in the sense that he shouted at him about the trash he wore and the shit he stuck in his face. When David broached the Satanism stuff, Chad merely rolled his eyes and didn’t deign to reply. In a way David didn’t blame him. He didn’t think Chad was a Satan-worshipper, for God’s sake. Still, the kid ought to be able to understand why other people would get that idea.

While they waited for Alfred and his brood, Nancy tried to get Chad to guess the contents of his packages. “Shake it!” she said, thrusting a crimson-wrapped box at him. “Shake it, and guess!”

He accepted the box, but did not shake it. “I’ll just wait and see what it is when I open it.”

David vigorously shook the box Nancy had handed him. Whatever was inside banged around so violently that he stopped, for fear of breaking it. She’d wrapped this box, she was the only one who knew what it contained, so you’d think that if it was breakable she wouldn’t have handed it to him with orders to shake. But with Nancy, you never knew. “Come on, Chad,” he said. “I’m humoring your mother, so you have to, too.”

Nancy tilted her head to one side and pouted in a cutesy, cartoonish way. David knew he’d pay for that little joke later.

The rumble of a car engine vibrated through the house and stopped in the driveway. Nancy and David positioned themselves at the front door before opening it to Alfred, Vanna, and their kids Joshua and Samuel. The adults voiced the ritual proclamations of holiday cheer and embraced each other. As always, David felt a mild panicky excitement as his belly pressed into blonde, shapely Vanna’s flesh. His sister-in-law was a bit more attractive than was strictly proper.

The boys didn’t engage in any hugging. Whenever Samuel and Joshua, big solid slabs of adolescent masculinity, were set beside Chad, the three boys’ physical commonalities took David aback. Were Alfred’s kids stocky, like Chad? Or was there a little more muscle mixed in with the fat than David usually gave his son credit for? If you stared at the three boys long enough, you realized that they didn’t actually look that different; it was just that Samuel and Joshua always held their jaws tight, even when they weren’t scowling, whereas Chad affected that pouty little moue.

Right away, the cousins started in. “Who’s that on your shirt?” sneered Joshua, glaring at the picture of Marilyn Manson.

“What’s that on your shirt?” countered Chad. Which was absurd, because both his cousins wore shirts with the Arkansas Razorback logo. Let Chad pooh-pooh sports all he liked, it was unimaginable that any Arkansan could fail to recognize the Razorback logo.

“C’mon, who is it?” pressed Samuel. “She looks like a ho.”

“Marilyn Manson isn’t a she, he’s a he.”

“That’s a dude?!” cried Joshua, eyes bugging out. He truly did seem astonished.

“Wow, I guess his music belongs on the oldies station now, huh?!” exclaimed Nancy, beaming at everyone and pressing her palms together.

Samuel bunched up his mouth in disgust and turned to Nancy. “You let him wear that stuff on Jesus’s birthday?”

Nancy squawked out an angry laugh and looked at David, willing him to do something. David passed the buck, directing a significant look at his brother. Who totally dodged it, pretending not to notice as he waded into the pile of gifts, kneeled among them, and said, “So who’s going to play Santa Claus? Big brother, it’s your house, I guess you oughtta do it.”

Joshua and Samuel ignored their dad, even ignored their presents. They kept their glares fixed on Chad, letting the pressure of their disgust build so as to sweeten the eventual release. Chad tried to nonchalantly ignore his cousins even though they were staring at him from five feet away. His skin turned a darker shade of pink than his hair, and acquired a sweaty sheen. David felt an anguished humiliation, a bitter resentment. How many times had he pleaded with Chad to look like a normal human being? He’d refused, and now everybody who looked at him understood that David was a weak father who couldn’t control his child.

“Seriously, dude,” said Joshua. “You ought to change your shirt. We shouldn’t have to look at that.”

Finally Alfred stepped in; he said, in a mild warning tone, “Samuel, Joshua, remember what we talked about.” His sons fell silent, shooting Chad sullen warning glances. David was grateful for the respite, but on the other hand exactly what the hell had they talked about? Was his weirdo son and the manner in which he was to be treated a regular topic of conversation at his brother’s house?

Anyway, at least they had some peace. Nancy accepted a gift-wrapped package from Vanna with trembling hands as each woman complimented the other on her sweater. Alfred and David exchanged the first two or three customary remarks in what would wind up being a big football discussion. Samuel and Joshua turned their attention to the gift pile. It took David a moment to realize that Chad was just standing there.

“Why are we even here?” demanded Chad. He didn’t raise his voice, so it took a second for everyone to notice he was speaking under the noise of ripping gift-paper. Joshua and Samuel paused in the unwrapping only because the adults had, and glared at Chad with renewed aggrievement.

“Come on, Chad,” said David, but not harshly.

“No, seriously,” insisted Chad. “Why?”

Alfred set the half-unwrapped box of Razorback-emblazoned shot glasses on the floor and looked up at his nephew solemnly. “We’re here to celebrate the birth of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ, Chad.”

“If it’s all about Jesus how come we don’t just go to church?”

“It’s about family!” pleaded Nancy. Vanna nodded in sage agreement. Nancy gave that desperate little laugh of hers, the one meant to signal that her statement was so self-evident as to not even need saying, but which actually conveyed her bewildered hurt that a much-needed illusion was under attack. “You boys have to learn to set aside your differences and just be family!

“Nobody ever wants to set aside my differences,” said Chad, and began to trudge toward the hallway. “I’m going to my room.”

David felt a crumpling in his chest. Whoever heard of a kid going to his room to sulk on Christmas morning, before he’d even opened a single present?

Certainly, the perversity of it provoked Joshua and Samuel. They shot up as one, blocking his way. “You’re not going to ruin Christmas, you freak!” said Joshua.

“Boys,” said Alfred. Again with that warning look that struck David as just a little too mild, as if Alfred could totally understand where his kids were coming from, but they needed to control their natural reactions.

“Stop it!” cried Nancy, flinging her arms around but not standing up. Except then David’s eyes got big because she did stand up. She clearly was riled to an unheard-of degree, because she turned on Joshua and Samuel, stepping in front of them and shielding Chad.

For Nancy to reprimand someone else’s kids, the sacrosanct property of another set of parents, meant that shit was getting to a whole new level of family spat. David shot Alfred a panicked look; Alfred had come to the same conclusion. Trying to get up, but having trouble thanks to his bum knee, he said, “Joshua, Samuel, take a chill pill. If Chad wants to go to his room, just let him.”

But Alfred’s kids didn’t back down. They looked like they might dash around Nancy and make a grab for Chad. Chad blinked rapidly, prepping himself to either run for it or curl up in a ball to try and protect his head and genitals.

“If Christmas is about family, he’s the one who ruined it!” said Samuel. “Because he’s the one who acts like a gaywad freak that no one would want to be related to!”

Alfred was still struggling to get up, and David suddenly asked himself why the hell he didn’t rise. He didn’t have a bum knee. He got up and took a decisive step toward Chad, ready to forcibly move him along, get him the hell to his room and put an end to this situation. But he paused, hand already outstretched to grab Chad by the arm. He thought he smelled something burning, or heard a humming noise, or felt a charge building in the air, or something.

His nephews had their arms outstretched, fingers jabbing past Nancy to mark out their cousin. “He’s a Satanist!” declared Joshua. “He’s evil, he worships Satan!”

“Oh, come on,” groaned David. He turned to his brother, still kneeling on the carpet. “You can’t really believe that my kid literally worships Satan?!”

Alfred didn’t reply. He was too busy gaping wide-eyed. At something David couldn’t yet quite perceive.

* * *

A quick aside, to contextualize the thing David hadn’t perceived yet:
Unbeknownst to anyone in the Dunbar clan, including themselves, Joshua and Samuel had, for today only, become the avatars of a free-floating metaphysical phenomenon. The phenomenon was a sort of coalescent, emergent psychic manifestation of the spiritual energy accumulated by Bob the American—anyway, the technical details are unimportant…. Bob the American was a twenty-three-year-old YouTube star. Samuel had found one of his videos on Facebook and introduced the channel to his brother. They’d spent the last couple of days bingeing it.

Bob the American was a muscular guy with a big beard who always wore a T-shirt emblazoned with a shrieking bald eagle, hurtling through space before the backdrop of an American flag. Bob spent each five-to-ten-minute episode barking out a rage-filled, yet totally hilarious and sarcastic monologue all about the stupid, traitorous shit the liberals were up to. He had a sidekick, Larry the Lyin’ Liberal, who throughout the monologue would try to interject his own vile, stupid take on the issue. Each episode ended with Larry the Lyin’ Liberal saying, out of the blue, “Y’know, pedophilia is a legitimate lifestyle choice….” and then before he could continue Bob the American would swing around and stomp the crap out of Larry during the credits.

Once Bob had started to regularly receive a million views per episode, the web series began generating enough exultant hatred and malice that the aforementioned floating emergent psychic manifestation began to coalesce. As a general rule, the floating manifestation randomly settled upon one viewer, or set of viewers, per day, like a heavy dense fog settling in the soul. For the duration of this period, that viewer became imbued with all the accumulated hatred of all Bob the American’s millions of viewers. The recipient of this power had the ability to focus and emit all this hatred at once—indeed, had the necessity to do it, as an unmilked cow feels the necessity to have her bloated udders drained.

As stated above, Joshua and Samuel didn’t know about this phenomenon. Nobody really knew about it, including Bob the American—it was something that had started to just sort of happen. But, while there might be no one who knew what the phenomenon was, exactly, or where it had come from, there were plenty who had felt its effects. Both branches of the Morrilton Dunbar family were about to join those ranks.

* * *

The two brothers jabbed their fingers at Chad, in unison. For a weird dizzy moment it felt to David like a ritual gesture, as if the boys were tapping into some dark, uncanny power…. David recoiled from the thought. Where had that come from? He never had thoughts like that.

Their hatred was bubbling up, frothing out of the empty space surrounding them, manifesting itself from the void. David didn’t believe in that sort of hokum, but that still was how he felt. The two boys’ jabbing fingers were like phalluses, the hate jetting out the fingertips and warping the space around them, buckling it.

The lights dimmed. The glowing Christmas tree faded, receded. The whole universe folded itself into an ovoid pocket in the space-time continuum. “What the fuck?” said Alfred, his voice funny, the sound waves distorted by the buckling of space itself. Vanna was already clutching at her hair like a chimp who’d been dosed with LSD and crack, too freaked out to even swat Alfred’s arm for saying “fuck” on Christmas.

The living room still existed around him—anyway, David thought it did—his senses snatched little details from his surroundings (the piney smell of the Christmas tree, a scuffed corner of the otherwise brand-new sofa) that hinted they hadn’t left the house. But it cost him, to notice these things. He’d slipped into a new alternative realm bubbling out from his humdrum reality, a new, more carnivorous zone; the environment of this new reality he’d entered kept imperiously wrenching his attention back to it, utterly disdainful of the fact that David’s pussy human senses flailed in this new metaphysical ecosystem, unable to accommodate themselves.

For example, that titanic monster rearing itself up before him and his screaming family. How big was it?

Hard to judge. On the one hand, it loomed above them, skyscrapering the black gray ancient-iron sky. So impossibly huge that he could not render an approximation of its size in his mind. Every time he thought he was inching close to such an approximation, he realized that the titan was in fact still growing, expanding out in every direction like a fresh-born universe.

And yet the entity (the demon! he shrieked in his mind, a fucking real-life demon straight out of hell!) rested utterly stable, utterly unmoving, utterly stolid. It seemed unimaginable that such a creature should deign to notice such weak, flitting creatures as David and his human family. Although maybe that was just wishful thinking, since it most certainly had noticed them. David was sure of that, and never mind how he knew (possibly the creature had fixed its eyes upon them, but David wouldn’t know; he couldn’t bear to steer his gaze into the terrible power flowing from that thing’s eyes).

If the titan really was as big as it seemed, if so many of its parts really loomed so brain-breakingly high above them, then why was David able to pick out so many of its features, in such minute detail?

Including all its thousands of faces. For, even though the titan was humanoid, it had thousands of faces. Some of those had been churned to paste, like many of the bodies to which they had once been attached. But many faces had been spared.

As the glistening details began to pick themselves out more sharply in the jabbering maelstrom of his mind, he understood that the bodies had been turned inside out, most of them splitting from the asshole back along the torso and stopping at the neck. Picking out individual wailing corpses from the smushed-together multitude that made up the monster’s body, David decided that, before being assimilated into the hulking creature, they must have looked like raggedy-petaled flowers, their howling faces the picked stems, the strips of mostly-deboned flesh spraying out in a circle behind them, limbs dangling awkwardly. But the human victims in that early de-boned, split-apart state had been mere raw material. The red wet mass exposed by the splitting had been slapped together, compressed, sculpted and molded into the scowling demon towering above the Dunbars. The tormented faces, still mostly intact, were like a vicious infestation of weeping boils sprayed across the monster’s red wet body.

David thought of the folks who must make up the monster’s interior—the people he could see had been shaped into facial features, giant hands, a dirty sort of skin, by the thousands. But there must be even more untold thousands making up the titan’s innards, thousands stretched to form the striations of its muscles. David imagined the suffocation and darkness of such a fate, of having your open screaming mouth forever muffled against the ruined flesh of your neighbor, of being deprived of even a glint of light to make out the horrors that had swallowed you.

What had Nancy said about the spirit of Christmas? Togetherness? Something bubbled up in David that he thought was going to be a laugh, but that exited his throat as barking sobs. They were looking at the spirit of Christmas, all right!

David still didn’t dare to make eye contact with the titan, but he could feel its gaze searing him. Moans of dismay rose from his family.

Turning and scrambling away, he could still somehow see the monster, even though it was behind him. Probably because it was not primarily with fleshly eyes that one saw it, he supposed…. What he did see with his fleshly eyes was the slick smooth wall before him, trapping him, like a cliff made of steel. The Dunbars all howled in rage and terror as their fingers clutched uselessly for purchase at the wall.

Except it wasn’t all of them—it was him, Alfred, Nancy, Vanna, Joshua and Samuel. Chad! Where was Chad?!

His eyes scrambled over the blank landscape. For some reason he tilted back his head to look up—it couldn’t have been that he really expected to find Chad scaling that unscalable cliff—maybe he glanced up by mere chance. Anyway, there Chad was, clambering up the cliff face after all.

“How come he can get away, and we can’t?!” wailed Nancy.

Indeed, it was as if handholds and footholds magically appeared for Chad, then the wall smoothed out again once he’d passed. Alfred and his boys flung themselves against the cliff or wall or whatever it was, trying to follow Chad’s lead, unable to gain the slightest purchase. David watched his son book it up the wall. Chad had never been the athletic type, to put it mildly, and David was surprised to see he was able to move that fast. Then again, having that demon at his back ought to be enough to motivate him, if anything could.

Around him, his family groaned in despair as they watched one of their number escape. It struck David that they would have had an easier time accepting their own fate, if Chad’s example hadn’t demonstrated that escape was possible. As if it wouldn’t be so bad, having that creature insert its pinkie into their assholes to peel them inside-out, asshole to head, if only they could have known the same thing was going to happen to Chad, too.

David couldn’t figure out why the prison yielded before Chad’s efforts and not anyone else’s. And, though he would have all eternity to think of it once his mangled living corpse had been sucked up into the meat of the Fleshbeast’s armpit, he would never work it out for sure. But he did form the corny theory that it had something to do with Chad’s long practice of following his own way. The boy had spent his whole life seeming not to even see barriers that his family couldn’t imagine crossing. Maybe it made a sort of sense that he should surmount this uncrossable barrier, too.

A moment ago, David would have said that the steel wall’s summit was shrouded in the granite-colored clouds. But now he realized that actually, he could see the summit, since there was Chad, hauling himself up and over the edge. Joshua and Samuel howled in jealousy; even as he felt the monstrous titan closing in on them from behind, beginning to stretch out its hand, a triumphant sneer curled David’s lip. His boy had made it.

Chad was too far above to make out his facial expression, too high for any words to pass between them, no matter how loud they screamed. (And scream they did.) But they could see him pause and look back down at them, before making his escape to wherever he could escape to. Seeing Chad look back at them that way, David felt something bitter and regretful and yet not entirely unpleasant. David wanted to wave him off, to yell at him to just go, save himself. He didn’t do it—terror had squeezed his bowels like a tube of toothpaste and shit was running down his leg, and he didn’t have much bandwidth for anything else. But he wanted to.

Chad continued watching another moment. But when the titan plucked up the first family member (Aunt Vanna), he turned and got the fuck out of there, without a single look back. Just like his dad would have wanted.

–J. Boyett


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