The November Second Selected Writer is Julian Cantella
Please feel free to email Julian at: firstname.lastname@example.org
A DELIRIOUS GOD
by Julian Cantella
George woke up and saw the world as he always did. For others, it would seem quite different.
A black sun sent rays of shadow through the window by his bed, and woke him with the play of dark figures tumbling across his eyes. What’s behind? George thought, the words leaping into his head the moment he rose from the pillow.
He looked behind the black sun and yearned for its counterpart, its silhouette. Shining light that would warm him, bleed strength into his stiff bones.
He looked behind the front wall of the labyrinth that filled his room, and scanned his surroundings for a glimpse of the feral shapes that roamed the inner corridors. Perhaps today would be the day he’d fail to escape the monsters, and come face to face with one of the creatures and feel a last shuddering breath exit his lungs.
He looked behind the curtain of pitch that hung at the edge of his vision, listened for the drip of stale fluids, the whistle of coiling vines bursting like ripe follicles from the holes in the ceiling. The faint buzz of the the Surge, that culmination of all dangers, was driving ever forward, forward ...consuming.
The Surge, George thought, his legs growing stiff, blood thumping in his ears. Now, now, move now, before it comes.
A beat, a step, and George’s pants were on, the drawstring tied, the matching shirt thrown over his shoulders. The labyrinth navigated, the door reached, the orderly’s key turned in its lock.
He blinked against the white hospital light and watched patients march past. One sucked at the tips of her fingers. Another stared blankly ahead, his eyes dilating hypnotically.
A third looked inside, saw George’s room, and approached. His head was a bobbing buoy, his chin a slow swinging pendulum. Hungry eyes consumed the darkness.
“Don’t come in,” George said. He looked for help, but the orderly had already moved on.
“A penthouse,” the patient said, stepping inside. “Somebody’s been pulling the strings. Well look at this. It just goes on and on.”
“You see it?” George asked, knowing the answer. “You see behind?” He understood what this room normally looked like to others, to those who couldn’t see behind: something smaller, blanker. Safe.
“I see a slightly rotten canvas in need of paint. Many, many layers of paint. Now where would I begin?”
The patient moved further into the room, head rising and falling in rhythm with his breath. George closed the door behind him. As the visitor turned, eyes canvassing the pitch, George felt a familiar churn in his stomach, an overwhelming anxiety accompanying the question.
A beat, a step, and the visitor sunk into the nearest wall, tendrils binding his arms and legs, faint green lumps nosing their way across his torso, oozing at his feet.
“What’s behind your hand?” George asked, and like a door, the visitor’s palm swung open. The visitor screamed as George rifled through the mess of tendons and veins.
“What’s behind your façade?” George asked, and like an old window shade, the skin of the visitor’s belly rolled up to his neck. The visitor gurgled and burped as George worked to make sense of the rainbow tangle before him.
“What’s behind your face?” George asked, and like a mask it fell away. The visitor was silent as George stared at an owl, its nest disturbed, glaring out from the hollow of the visitor’s skull.
A single hoot, and it flew away.
On a good day, Lucy hated the hospital. She knew she shouldn’t, but she did. It seemed tormented, haunted by the ghosts of dead patients and sane minds gone sour. Even on a good day, she often hid from the antiseptic reek and the shuffling ghouls that filled the wards.
Today was not a good day.
She’d worked the four-to-four night shift, then got word that her relief was calling in sick. “Influenza,” the truant had said, as if using the full name made it legitimate.
Now Nate, that smug bastard orderly, was dragging her down to George in Room 542. As junior psych, Lucy was handed some of the most hopelessly insane residents the hospital had to offer.
“I keep him doped, and then let him unwind at the twice-weeklies,” George’s former doctor had said. He’d made no attempt to disguise the excitement he felt at dumping George from his slate. “Keep an orderly close by in case he gets the feeling you’re a threat.”
Lucy soon learned that, to George, everything was a threat. Now, approaching his room, she tried to make sense of Nate’s blather.
“His room’s changed,” she repeated, realizing how tired she was. How many hours since she’d slept? Had a cup of coffee? Better not to think about it.
“Yes, that’s what I’m telling you! Jesus, am I talking to a statue?” Nate caught a glance for that remark. Lucy always felt that Nate was a second away from some act of barely provoked violence. Usually it was directed at a patient, but every now and then it took a jagged and wholly inappropriate turn.
“I won’t waste time talking,” Nate continued. “Take a look.”
Lucy walked through the door and into George’s world. Bits and pieces of their twice-weeklies fluttered through her mind and before her, brought to life.
From their second session: “There are no straight lines,” George had said. “Every step takes me a thousand different ways. I watch where I’m going, but I turn and turn until I’m lost.”
At the room’s threshold, the darkness was near total. Lucy imagined herself in the mouth of a cavern, some labyrinth stretching beyond the room’s physical limits.
“Behind every shadow is an open mouth,” George again. A month ago: “Every open mouth bares its teeth. The limbs of dead things keep growing and reaching. Crawling, behind the shroud.”
There was just enough light to pick her way forward, though where it came from she couldn’t tell. Wherever she turned it fell away, trailed behind and beside her field of vision. It made her eyes dance. They chased the light but never caught it, wandered skittishly from side to side. She was soon dizzy.
“Everything has teeth. That’s why I look behind. But when I feel the Surge, I close my eyes. You have to know when to hide. When to run.”
The Surge. A burst of pure threat, anxiety fueled by overwhelming danger.
Lucy’s senses relayed seeming impossibilities: she heard a sound like a far-off swarm, smelled something that reminded her of the time she’d caught her hand on the oven rack. She watched as a hole was cut in the world, as reality peeled back like a swatch of fabric. Voices rose in song, but the words ran the wrong way. Limbs skittered across the floor, took root at her feet and blossomed, rose to meet her.
Before the Surge grew any closer, Lucy ran.
“What—” Nate opened his mouth, but Lucy pushed him aside.
“Close it! Close it now!” Lucy held the doorknob while Nate fumbled for keys, turned the lock. They waited, expecting something—a sudden thump, a burst of energy to blow the door from its hinges—but the hallway was silent save that long low buzz.
“We’ll need a plan,” Nate said, relishing the opportunity.
“Yes, I will need a plan,” Lucy replied. “Until then, you’re silent. Stay here, make sure no one gets in.” Or out, she thought, but the words weren’t necessary. If that thing wanted out, she doubted Nate could stop it.
George felt the presence of the madman just outside his room. Sometimes George had stared at the inscrutable shapes etched on a tag hanging from the madman’s neck: N-A-T-E. Look too long, George knew, and the response would be painful.
The madman wielded pain like an invisible hammer, swung it at patients, whipped clouds of violent demands at the other doorkeepers. Pounded the hallway tiles with the flats of his feet, emphasizing his weight, and the pain he could bring.
“Patient safety. Patient safety.” George had met people outside his room who ran laps with language, long or short, returning to the same thoughts or sounds again and again. George sometimes did it himself. But the madman outran all of them with these, the two words that spilled from his mouth so often they seemed to hang from his lips like a permanent trail of spittle.
Even now, pacing, the words were a fist the madman threw to knock on George’s door.
“Patient safety,” the madman said, “patient safety….shit, 544!”
George’s neighbor Howie.
The madman’s heavy footfalls clattered down the hallway, looped, and approached the near wall. George pressed his cheek to the plaster, extended his senses through scant inches. Felt his room—the space, and all of its dangers—reaching for Howie. Reaching, and returning with images, sounds, every inch of the space on the other side of the wall. The room, unasked, filled George’s mind. He saw everything.
Howie, resident of 544, was tearing at the wall he shared with 542 like a rabid animal.
“Howie!” The madman rushed in, but slid to a stop as Howie spun around, lips peeled back in a snarl. Words spilled from Howie’s parted mouth in a high-pitched whine.
“You can’t have it!” Howie screamed. “I’ll take the risk!” Blood dripped from broken teeth and splintered fingernails, products of Howie’s work. “I pull the cheese from the trap, it’s mine, no one else’s. I take the risk, I get it!”
The madman took in the torn mattress and broken box spring, absently rubbing the raised letters of his nametag. N-A-T-E. Howie had ripped a spring loose with his bare hands, sharpened it somehow and stabbed it into the wall. Made a tiny hole that he was widening even now with any tool at his disposal.
“Let’s be calm,” the madman said, “Howie, let’s—
Howie darted forward, arced the sharpened spring over his head. The madman sidestepped the thrust, just barely avoiding the weapon, and brought his fist into the hollow below Howie’s ribs. Howie emitted a soft startled whimper, but paused only a second before hopping back to the wall and his work.
“Break my back, crush my tail,” Howie sang, sounding victimized. He lifted his nostrils to the still-small hole, sniffed eagerly. “I’ll take the risk.”
The madman eyed the radio at his side.
In George’s room, voices whispered fragments of the madman’s thoughts.
“Call, call for help,” they said, the sounds pricking his ears like thorns, “but Lucy said quiet…quiet.”
A moment of debate, then the madman answered out loud.
“Patient safety,” he said, reaching for his belt.
Lucy was a bit delirious. That was the only explanation.
Lack of sleep does strange things to the mind. Everyone knows that. Navigating the hallways back to her office, Lucy shut out the calls and cackles, squinted away the odd play of the morning light, brushed past the lumbering orderlies and shivering patients.
George is insane, she thought. Far-gone even among her patients, a long known lost cause. I am not.
Lucy had been taught to listen when her patients spoke. Find the patterns, sympathize, meet them halfway and draw them along. Out of the mist, into the light. But try as she might, she could never get there, venture far enough out on that bridge to see, even from a distance, the world that her patients inhabited each day.
George was no exception. She thought back, struggled to remember even small bits of their countless conversations.
“The Sun was sick and it spit two Earths. Ours, and the Silhouette. If it wasn’t sick, maybe… but it was.”
“Where do you fit in?”
“Not just me. Everyone. We’re not right for where we live, our Earth, and they’re not right for theirs. We’re too weak, they’re too strong. Here, what lies behind everything, the threats, they’re all enough to destroy us. The dangers. On the Silhouette, the people move their hands slowly, watch colors flow through the air. Nothing scares them, but I think they’re bored.”
“They’re not happy?”
“Nothing lies behind. Not threats, like we have, but nothing else either.”
“It sounds peaceful.”
“For us, it would be just right. But the sun spit things backwards. What destroys us here would be just right for them.”
“Why don’t we switch?” Lucy pictured herself at that moment, one moment among hundreds she’d had with patients. It was the inevitable shutdown: the pencil dropping, attention beginning to wander. Unlike most, George noticed.
“This isn’t some story, doctor. Joke if you want, I’ll always look behind. See what kills me as it comes. If the Silhouette is just my dream, I’ll dream it anyway.”
And then, the reason this conversation had been kept alive in Lucy’s memory. George sprung to his feet, chair falling behind him, his face suddenly inches from hers, his eyes looking at her, through her, behind.
“No! No!” he yelled, defiant. “It’s not a dream! It’s not a dream!”
Lucy heard herself scream for the orderlies in a raw panic, her voice barely audible over that of her patient.
By the time they entered, George was calm. She dropped her eyes to the floor as he was restrained, his voice unbroken even as he was dragged from the room.
“I’ll get behind,” he said. “There must be a way.”
A few violent moments and Howie was gone. George heard the snapping of teeth, the quickly muted barks of resistance, then nothing.
The madman was alone with Howie’s wreckage.
In George’s room, a vine of thickly knotted hair erupted from the floor, made a seeming lunge for George’s feet. He jumped back, ready for the attack, but the vine whipped in another direction, grew bloody gums and pitted teeth.
The mouth at the head of the vine spoke the madman’s thoughts.
“Give me a month in charge,” it said. “Two weeks, and I’d change everything. Not one step off the line.”
On the other side of the wall, the madman bent to retrieve the torn box spring, shoved it aside. In a spot previously covered by the spring was a battered dinner tray. The madman scooped it up, tried to force back a pronounced dent in the center. It popped in, then right back out, a slight ping echoing like a question in the silent room.
The question lingered, insistent, until something answered. It was a far-off buzz, the hiss of a distant TV gone to static.
George felt what it was, thought to warn the madman, knew it was hopeless.
The madman set the tray upright on the lid of Howie’s toilet, meaning to turn away, but the tray caught something that held his eye. A reflection, the image boring its way through the hole Howie created.
George’s room, poised to attack.
Images came too fast to isolate, sent stimuli racing over the surface of the madman’s brain like deft fingers on a long long keyboard. Every now and then something pressed forcefully enough to leave an impression: a whisper of shapes cavorting in a dark wood, the glimmer of something translucent rippling in the middle distance.
There were tears on the madman’s face, and his hands were clenched in tight-knuckled fists. He couldn’t make sense of what he saw, not on his own, but he had a thousand voices for narrators, buzzing sounds and words run backwards and the papery drawl of sliding skin.
Themes emerged, and the themes appealed.
At George’s feet, the vine’s teeth parted, revealed a half-formed tongue.
“Threat, anxiety, power.” Again, the mind of the madman. “Cause fear. Feel power. Feel dangerous, be dangerous. Speak with a voice that people must hear. They must hear.”
The madman’s excitement crashed through the hole and into George’s room. George felt it, an exhilaration so strong it bordered on panic.
George raced from the hole, from the vine slithering off to report to its comrades.
There was no need to look behind this time, not with the attack right out in the open. The madman was coming.
Lucy sat back and closed her eyes, searched for some kind of calm. As tired as she was, she wouldn’t fall asleep. Not here. Drafts kicked up through the crack in the door, jarred her with the bleating sounds and acrid smells of the hospital outside.
Just recently Lucy had tried, really tried. Indulged, played George’s games.
“When you attack—” No, Lucy, she told herself, meet him halfway; draw him along. “When you defend yourself against these threats, are you fighting the Surge?”
“No.” Even then, when Lucy tried her best, that was George’s answer. “I can’t fight it. The Surge is the strongest animal; the fullest shape.”
“So it’s an animal? Or is it a shape?”
Was she clarifying, or looking for holes? It had to be the former.
“It’s everything the brain hides,” George said. From a logical standpoint, Lucy felt he was hopelessly confused. Yet he sounded so certain.
George continued, “The brain must protect itself. If the Surge caught us—if we felt all that anxiety, all that danger at once—we’d be destroyed.”
“But everything else—”
“Other things, some things....have a chance. But everything’s a danger, a threat. That’s why I look behind.”
After the Surge, it was George’s strongest fixation, this notion of “behind.”
“So you look behind everything? You see what’s really there.”
“If I can.” George was growing nervous. He brought the fingers of his left hand to his mouth, breathed on them softly, as if giving warmth. “I look behind as much as I can, but there’s so many things, things all around, all of them so dangerous. So dangerous.”
Lucy tried to project comfort, understanding. She tried to soften her voice. “It must be difficult, all that looking. Seeing what others can’t see. What’s behind.” She couldn’t quiet the surfacing doubt, the uneasy emphasis on that last word. “So George, what am I hiding? What’s behind my face?”
George looked down, ashamed. His body shook, wracked with anxiety.
“I don’t know.”
After that session, Lucy had been embarrassed, had chastised herself for failing to truly sympathize with her patient.
It was bullshit.
And then the door to Lucy’s office slammed behind her. She tore through the halls, eyes straight ahead, ignoring the awful smells and pitiful sounds and bodies drained of all capacity for rational thought.
Maybe she was too tired, had been working too long or was just fed up with pretending. But Lucy would not indulge them anymore—not George or any other patient—would not act like what they said made sense, had value. That she could learn something by seeing the world through their dazed and dull eyes.
As she approached 542, Lucy readied herself to tear down this strange illusion. George could not pollute her thoughts, her reality. Her strides consuming the last stretch of hallway, Lucy readied herself to tell George that he was nothing but insane.
His door was open.
When the madman entered George looked at his face. He looked behind, saw the bloom of the man’s thoughts, and grew afraid.
“You came from the outside?” he asked. “Where it’s bright?” The words were idle, but he hoped to keep the madman occupied.
“You know who I am,” the madman said, trying to cover a hole in his upper arm. Blood watered the sprouting limbs lining the path from the labyrinth to George’s bed. “Some…shape,” he explained, steadily approaching, “hanging on a vine.”
“There’s nothing here for you,” George said, backing into the corner by his bed. He grasped at past images, thought of the things this madman could do when angry.
“This is my room!” George was suddenly distant, looking down at the madman from an aerie fifty feet high. His bed had risen with him, their narrow platform accessible only by a spiral of crumbling stairs.
The madman smiled, and began to climb. “I saw it. And heard, and felt, and—I know something’s here!” Again the gap closed, the distance between George and the madman. George closed his eyes, gasped for breath, prayed for safety.
“What do you want?” Maybe there was something he could find, something behind, that would fill the madman’s belly. “A louder voice?”
“So loud—” The madman stumbled, caught off balance by the quake that twisted out of his throat and rumbled through the room. “So loud they’ll have to listen.” He took another step, testing his weight on the next slab of decaying stone, and continued his ascent. “But more.”
George wracked his brain, ran through a sweeping valley choked with memories that flashed and cut and clutched at his feet. “A threat,” he said. “Behind the mask of your whole body.”
The madman bellowed in pain as blades poked their heads through the surface of his skin, each notch craning to soak in rays of the room’s black light. They emerged from the tops of his feet, from his eyes and façade and mouth, achieved their full height before suddenly retracting, hidden behind the mask the madman always wore.
“For safety,” the madman laughed. The words spilled loosely, as if from the tip of a swollen tongue. George feared it had been too much –that the madman was overcome, hollowed out—but no, it was worse than that. The madman was happy. “The safety of the patients!”
And then, turning to George. “More.”
George plunged as far as he could, reached into the very deepest part of the behind, and touched what he should have known would be waiting.
A buzz filled the air. It started softly, a distant wind, but quickly grew louder and louder. It rushed mindlessly from the depths, covered the endless miles of George’s room in seconds. It silenced the stalking feral shapes, severed the coiling vines and blooming limbs, pierced the black sun’s snaking ribbons of light and left them in tatters.
For a moment, there was one other sound: a madman, heavy with the blades that newly filled his body, fleeing down the stairs like a knight in rusted armor. A step gave way, and he fell.
When the madman lifted his head, he found himself face to face with the Surge.
The walls of the labyrinth were solid. The feral shapes had teeth. The vines were dank, the room black, the sun outside its window an oval chasm that ate light.
Lucy knew that none of it was real.
George sat screaming on his bed, aloft in a nest of brown blown glass and billowing straw. Nate roared with a voice that ricocheted through her body, walked the floor with odd pointed shapes rattling just below the surface of his skin.
Lucy knew. None of it was real!
But the Surge appeared, and unfolded its colors. They jangled like dissonant chimes, clogged her nose and throat with the smell of ashes, twirled above her in a taunting parody of a baby’s mobile.
The colors entered Nate’s mind. They danced across its surface, did exactly what George said they would do. Blood flowed in a soft trickle from Nate’s ears, and his eyes sunk back in his head. His muscles grew taut, his body shaking in an uneasy rhythm, the buzz of the Surge growing louder and louder until it seemed the world was nothing but a giant throbbing swarm.
Lucy tried to tell herself that none of it was real, but something deep within won out.
Right now, it said, in this room, George is not insane. The world he sees is reality. If I deny it, the one who’s insane is me.
But she knew that wouldn’t be true—that she was just as sane as George – because when Nate was overcome, she believed.
He didn’t explode, as she expected. He crumpled. The husk of his body crashed inward, unimpeded by bone or sinew, and blew away in a sudden gust of wind.
George was thrashing about, nearly overcome himself, eyes closed as he desperately imagined himself anywhere but here, so close to the Surge.
I am sane, Lucy thought. And I’m the only one with my eyes open. What do I see?
Lucy looked at the Surge, and saw behind.
It was a parted curtain, an open door. It was a crack in the façade, a crumbling mask, a plunge below the surface.
It was what George wanted to find, in the place he’d never look.
Lucy saw it, what lay behind, but this wasn’t her world, her room. It belonged to someone else.
“George!” Lucy yelled, desperate to be heard above the buzz. “Open your eyes!”
George wasn’t listening, isolated in his nest. Lucy ran from the labyrinth, oblivious to the buzz around her, the dancing colors painting chaos in the air. She ran right past the Surge, knowing that to stop was to die, and mounted the spiraling stairs.
Somehow, the Surge knew it was threatened. The buzz mounted once more in intensity, the volume rising until, with a sudden pop, sound disappeared altogether. Warm fluid ran down both sides of Lucy’s neck, but she kept climbing, rounding the seemingly endless circles worn by the stairway.
She knew she couldn’t outrun it, that the Surge would catch her before she reached the top. And it did.
But instead of consuming her, it rushed right past. It had another target.
When Lucy crested the final stair, George was just barely visible, his eyes clamped tight against the descending nightmare. The colors of the Surge whirled around him, backward voices singing seductively, a jungle of life massing at the foot of George’s bed.
“Behind!” He’d hear her, somehow. He would know she was there. “Look behind!”
Lucy watched George’s lips tremble ever so slightly. They formed a word, an echo of her own.
George woke up and turned the world askew. He looked behind the Surge and saw the unattainable hope.
George saw the Silhouette, and joined it.
None of Lucy’s colleagues could believe it, but they all agreed: George was cured.
Not just cured, in fact, but a whole new man. George was charming, confident, more than able to take on anything the world threw his way.
The doctors ran batteries, evaluations, tests. Everyone wanted a look at the long-gone lost cause turned model citizen. They showered Lucy with congratulations, dangled a possible promotion, asked her again and again what she had done.
Lucy used words they’d heard before. “I met him halfway,” she said, knowing it was a lie. “Did my best to draw him along. Out of the mist, into the light. To bring George into our world, I had to understand his.” Her colleagues nodded and smiled.
But Lucy knew the truth, the fact she’d never share. The George that emerged from room 542 on that day was not the one who’d entered. Was not her patient at all, but an able Silhouette. The one man in the world ready for all its threats, all dangers.
Despite her success, Lucy still hated the hospital. She couldn’t help but feel it was haunted. Sometimes she thought of a story she’d once heard, of a sick sun spitting two Earths. She imagined a world where the hospital halls were brighter, a place where she’d never have to hide.
During long shifts and tired moments she dreamed of a world without threats, returning again and again to the last thing George had said to her before he brought his world to life.
“There must be a way.”
Julian Cantella is a 2010 graduate of the Master’s in professional writing program at Carnegie Mellon. Recent jobs include documenting software for IBM, counseling individuals going through bankruptcy, evaluating films and screenplays for an international production company, and scooping Orange Chicken at Panda Express, among other things. He lives just north of Pittsburgh with his fiancé and the sound of the highway buzzing in his ears. You can find his work in issues of Criminal Class Review, Reflection’s Edge, Horror Bound Magazine, and Powder Burn Flash.