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Authors: Todd Russell

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BOOK: Mental Shrillness
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A sound stirred his daze.

"Linda, you hear that?"

Linda snored softly, rhythmically, her half-finished romance novel guarding her breasts. Damon peeled back the blinds and saw the bushes rustling. He heard the guttural sound again.

His breath caught upon seeing its depthless green-orange eyes. Damon edged his nose closer to the glass. He put a hand against the cool pane.

"What the hell are you?" he whispered.

It crept slowly from the bush, half-crawling, half-walking away. The streetlight's faint beam grazed its face and Damon gasped, pulling instinctively away. His nose and breath left a pregnant fog.

Whatever creature it was its gestures were universally familiar.

It was wounded.

Damon turned to Linda who remained shackled by her dream. He pushed past his unfinished paperwork and unclosed briefcase, entering the hallway. Moving quicker, he slipped on his black loafers and moved into the kitchen. He grabbed a flashlight and his gun from the compartment beneath the sink.

He checked to see that it was still loaded. Linda was forever the spooked one when it came to prowlers and insisted upon it. Flicking on the flashlight, Damon stepped into the night and turned toward the bush.

"Nrrro liiight," the voice grated across Damon's brain. He quickly snapped the light off, but kept the queer target centered.

He started to ask what it was again and it rose what faintly resembled a paw. The paw-thing was wet and gleamed in the faint light. Bloody.

"Are you a dream?"

"I am an Illusion."

"Illusion?" Damon said, stepping closer. The gun wavered in his hand. "You are neither man nor animal,
what
are you?"

"No time for further explanation, Damon."

It knows my name, Damon mouthed but made no sound. His finger twitched on the trigger.

"Y-you a-are a d-dream."

"I am dying."

"What happened?"

The bloody paw rose again and the Illusion made a loud, strangled throaty sound.

"I'll call 911," Damon started away.

"NRRO!"

Damon froze.

"Only you can help me. You must take it to Harry. Your turn. Youuu." It raised the paw even higher into the faint beam of the streetlight. Harry moved closer, the gun practically shaking from his hand.

He moved closer.

Closer.

"Nrrrooo tiiiiimmme."

He saw the bloody paw and his stomach somersaulted. Closer.

"Harry, youuu."

Damon reached. Only inches from the mangled paw.

The Illusion jerked and knocked the gun out of Damon's hand.

(touch meeeee)

The neighbor Doberman’s started barking.

Damon raised the flashlight in defense but almost instantly realized the illusion wasn't fighting. The pungent odor struck his nostrils next. He blinked several times, watching its death spasms.

Damon lowered himself and re-clicked the flashlight. The light's beam sawed through the flesh of the Illusion, melting it like a candle. He saw its eyes fuse with its long bony nose. Its three red-white teeth outside its face pooled in the hot beam of the light.

As Damon watched the light rapidly cremate the Illusion, the realization of what was in its mangled paw seized his mind.

Nothing.

 

-2-

 

 

Damon awoke the next morning, showered, shaved and went straight for his jeans. Linda watched, just pulling down her covers.

"Damon, it's Friday, dear. Not Saturday."

"Not going to work today, honey."

Linda reeled from the bed. "Not feeling well?"

"You could say that," Damon pulled up his jeans and buttoned his shirt. "I've got to find Harry."

"Harry who?"

"The carnival in town. He works there. A magician, I think."

"What....why?"

Damon slapped his tennis shoes on and kissed Linda. "An unfulfilled dream."

 

* * *

 

 

Karper & Sons Carnival inhabited the outskirts of Medina like a storm cloud. Once a year it fell over Medina and sucked money from the townspeople. A week later sunshine reappeared. Damon Brooks penetrated the open gate on its second day of business.

He passed the carnies and various rip-off midway games. The nearly impossible ring toss, the slightly bent machinegun with red star gag, the dart—

"Three for five bucks, mister, give it a try." The carnie started lowering the darts and quickly reclaimed them upon catching Damon's odd stare.

Damon's mind stirred with the picture of the enigmatic Harry. He'd woken with Harry's visage etched in his mind. Damon started to ask where to find Harry when a hand tapped his shoulder.

"This way," the tattooed-faced man said. His entire face was a jigsaw puzzle.

Damon followed the short man across the midway and into a huge black tent.

Inside there were rows of bleachers and a short set of stairs leading up to a vacant stage.

"Harry will come."

"Wait. How do you know who I'm here for?"

"Call me Stag." He rolled up his white sleeve and showed Damon a tattoo of a set of haunting orange-green eyes on his right bicep.

ONLY YOU CAN HELP ME. YOU MUST TAKE IT TO HARRY. YOUR TURN. YOUUUU.

Stag started walking away.

"Wait! What am I doing here? Why am—Stag, please!"

Damon wanted to run, jet as far away from the carnival but his legs were uncooperative. Instead he turned toward the stage.

Slowly his legs moved him down the aisle and up the stage. There was a table with a red tablecloth and black magician's cap. He reached, touched, and felt it crawl up his arm and under his skin.

The scream surfaced in his throat but lodged unspent.

He picked up the hat and placed it on his head.

He turned to the crowd and Mom and his stepfather Denny clapped.

"For my next trick I will pull a rabbit out of this..." He reached into the hat and paused. Staring into the small crowd he caught his mother's mascara-smeared eyes. She looked up but wouldn't lock eyes with him.

Damon reached into the hat and felt the mousetrap SNAP! his fingers.

The laughing in his head began. The crowd unwittingly applauded. There was Denny in the front row grinning evilly. The drunk from the abyss. He'd never belonged in either of their lives. He was the crack in the mirror, continuing to ripple and fragment until he—

"—took her to Satan?"

Damon turned, startled.

A tall man with straight black hair and a knobby face nodded slowly.

"She was a good woman—my mother—but Denny brought her misery."

"And that mousetrap thing... that was his idea of a joke?"

Damon raised his right index and middle fingers. "Broke them in two places."

"Denny blamed it on you, too. What were you, only ten years old?"

"Yes, said it was me just craving attention. Nobody ever believed me."

The man moved closer into the spotlight and took the magician's hat. He held his hand out. "I am Harry, Damon."

 

-3-

 

 

Damon shook Harry's hand, managing a smile. He was disturbed that everyone seemed to know him.

"Your confusion right now is warranted. An Illusion escaped last night."

"Escaped?"

"We've known of its insecurities and instabilities around here for some time. It wanted out. For its own, well, complicated reasons. Stag was its guardian and friend. He felt betrayed and despondent. We almost had two tragedies last night."

"What the hell did it do to me? I feel...not right."

"Quid pro quo. It took your normal life in exchange for..."

Damon's eyes raised and then darted around the empty auditorium. "Wait one damn minute I'm not..."

"You're not what?" Harry replied slowly.

Damon tried picturing what happened to his real father. He could only focus on his stepfather's wicked scowl. It was one of many first pieces that had eerily vanished from his memory.

"I...I'm having trouble..."

"This is how it begins. Soon you will lose all but pertinent pieces of your identity, Damon. Don't fear, we will assist you with the process. You are among us, now."

Damon fell to one knee and then a sitting position. He stared ahead, falling, falling deeper into the chasm inside his mind while Harry spoke steadily in his ear.

"You dreamed of being a magician more than anything, remember?"

"I ... yes, more than anything."

Harry extended his hand. "Your car keys, wallet and wedding ring, please."

Damon's hands trembled and his head throbbed. He produced his wallet, car keys and touched his wedding ring. A sharp pain lanced his temple. He saw the inside of an immaculate church flash before him.

Harry knelt and caught Damon's fall, keeping Damon's head from cracking the hard wooden stage.

"What is ... happening to me?"

"Rest, Damon. Stag is here. He's
your
friend and guardian now. We'll handle the unimportant details."

"No...no...I won't...can't s-stay..."

Suddenly a medium height brunette with entrancing brown eyes stepped from behind the curtain. She wore a tight velvet skirt and her nipples poked curiously through.

"Ah, it's your number one assistant, Regina. Welcome darling."

"Damon, my poor baby." She kneeled beside him and laid her smooth hands on his cheeks. "We have a show later, baby, we need to get you in shape."

She kissed him lightly, then harder, pushing her tongue into his mouth.

He welcomed her passion, as her hand wandered down his chest, gingerly circling his belly button with the tip of her finger.

"In...shape," Damon whispered.

"I want you right here, baby." She said and started undressing. She pushed his hands to her hard breasts and moaned softly.

"Right...here..." Damon's mind had become a shell, ripe for cracking.

She pulled down his jeans, running her hand down his pants.

"Then it is settled, Damon." Harry said, clapping his hands. "Welcome to our family."

(!FAMILY!)

Damon feebly pushed away Regina's lips and she slapped him softly and bit the edge of his lip.

Regina rocked him for the next twenty minutes.

At some point Stag and Harry gave them privacy.

She climbed off him, spent, beads of sweat coming off both their foreheads.

"You were wonderful, Damon."

He stared into her brown pits and sighed heavily.

"The show is on in seven hours, Damon. Rehearsal time."

Regina led Damon behind the curtain to the dressing room. He had a white tuxedo that she helped him get into. He began to see her in his memory. Oddly enough sometimes her hair was blonde. Sometimes her eyes were blue.

"How long have I known you, Regina?"

"Baby, you know how I love it when you call me Reg. Ten years."

Damon saw a silver cross flash in his mind.

"And you never asked me," Reg said impatiently. "That's why we aren't married."

"I...keep seeing this church..."

She slapped his butt and smiled. "So do I, baby."

 

-4-

 

 

She handed him a thin rubbery mask.

"What's this for?"

He took the mask, making a face.

"Like Harry said, we're here to help you in the process. Put it on."

"The orange-green eyes are kind of . . . weird, Regina."

"Reg, Reg, Reg, please! You'll get used to the mask. Like you're getting used to me."

He started following her, raising the mask to his face. He felt it suctioning his flesh. He stopped, wincing. Warm fluid slid down his shirt. He touched it.

"Don't worry, baby, you'll be with us for the show tonight."

He brought his finger to the slit in his eyes.

Blood. The mask was eating his face.

He started screaming and Stag, along with a billy club, appeared to silence an unimportant detail.

 

* * *

 

 

Stag's clever and yet grim illusion was his inaccurate description of friend and guardian. He was definitely Damon's guardian. But not from others who might hurt Damon. That must have been another of the "unimportant details." He was there to make certain Damon wouldn't escape. Damon was still coherent enough to recall how Harry had evaded why the Illusion had fled. Now the Illusion's reasonings were coming into dreadful focus.

FOR HIS OWN, WELL, COMPLICATED REASONS.

Why do I want to leave? Damon pondered. He felt unsafe, threatened. He didn't know where he'd go or what he'd do, but he didn't belong here. He was losing something valuable. Something constructed with immeasurable time and effort.

Quid pro quo. Dream for reality?

Damon continued the shotgun rehearsal.

Stag watched with a wry smile and somber eyes. He clapped after every illusion whether it was botched or not. Damon found that by wearing the mask his sleight of hand was become remarkable.

He also felt the mask sucking the blood from of his face. It was exchanging its twisted abnormal world for the life Damon was quickly departing.

He had to remove it soon. He feared the consequences if he didn't.

"With the card and table illusions done, baby, you always move onto the bigger things," Regina said and walked behind the curtain.

"I need some air."

Stag stood and the billy club dangled threateningly at his side.

"Stag, I *must* have some."

"The show goes on in five hours," Stag finally replied. "You have rehearsed only ten percent of the act."

"Air, Stag."

Stag reached for the billy club and then decided against it.

"You don't understand, you can't go out there."

"Why?"

Stag walked up the stage. Regina returned with two large connected boxes on wheels.

"Baby, you want to go outside?"

"I'm taking him, Reg. Be right back." He ushered Damon to the right exit of the tent.

Damon stopped at the door. He analyzed the surroundings. These tents had to be inspected by someone. He looked for fire and smoke detectors running along the wall. None.

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