Shoggoth.net brings you a unique treat. Find here a chilling story so skillfully woven, it could have been written by the Old Gent himself. Actually, the psychological insight found in this story puts it in its own category: classically Lovecraftian, but with characters we can sympathize with … or despise … or both.
Professor Paget had invited me for tea (not coffee, not booze—but tea, the pretentious ass!) that evening and, having no excuse otherwise, I accepted. I could have protested truthfully that I had too many papers to grade, having just administered a mid-term exam to my class of 100 students; but I was tempted by the fascination he had piqued concerning the oddity he acquired while on sabbatical in Eastern Europe.
“It is right up your department,” he said excitedly, dropping the cliché in a fumbling attempt to entice me. “Honestly, how I made it through customs, I shall never tell.”
Shall never tell or shall never know? I wondered. That last statement was intentionally vague, I realized. Perhaps a bribe had been involved. I raised my arm to look at my watch as if I were expecting a student for office hours, which I was not; in fact, I did not even wear a watch.
“Well? Out with it, Paget!” I demanded. He was the most unscrupulous archaeologist I had ever known. He was a pompous boob who, pitifully, imagined himself as Indiana Jones. But he had tenure and had published many papers and books, including a textbook on field archaeology that was employed in classrooms across the country. Here at Miskatonic University he was heralded as a professor and scientist of true distinction, not the treatment an anthropology assistant professor could expect.
“Oh, but that would spoil the real moment of surprise!” he protested. “The epiphany of the moment will have withered before its chance to bloom.”
His fumbling metaphor confused and annoyed me. Besides, we were not what you would call “chums.” Acquaintances, solely. We passed each other in the department hallway, exchanged the guard in lecture halls. Insipid soirees involving wine at his bachelor’s pad. And I had heard all the rumors that go with academic intercourse. “All right, then,” I consented. “What time should you expect me?”
He seemed to consider, even though it was he who had already decided. “How does the hour of eight strike you?”
Paget really was a bore with his forced witticisms.
“Eight is fine. Shall I bring the sugar cubes?” I asked in irony.
“Oh, no,” Paget replied, waving his hands ridiculously. “No sugar, thank you.”
“For the horses, then,” I said.
“Ah!” he laughed and struck his knee.
My little joke had not been humorous in the least. In fact, it was meant to be absolutely un-funny.
Finally he left me in peace, alone in my office. I began to grade the first written exam on the fat, leaning pile, sorted alphabetically: Anderson, Allie. She had given her midterm a title: “Of Apes and Men.” Oh, lord, a “creative” writer. Without a doubt, a C paper at best. I had been doing this work for so many years that I could divine the grade in the first few words: “Humanity can be said to have begun in Egypt 200,000 years ago,” in this case. A grade of D then. Egypt! Her error was based on the first letter of the country: E-gypt instead of E-thiopia. I dropped the paper into the high stack and pushed my chair back. My neck already ached. Forget it—the tower of mediocrity would still be there in the morning, and the day after that. I felt no compulsion to attack it now. It was quitting time.
I put on my corduroy jacket, turned out the lights, and locked the office door behind me. Then, feeling thoroughly miserable, I stalked through the halls of the anthropology department, acknowledging no one as I passed and being noticed by no one. Outside into a cold downpour, I dashed for my car parked in the staff lot. I drove the short distance to the off-campus bar across the street from the marine science building. Cars were parked in all the spaces and I finally found one slot two blocks away on Fraternity Row.
My god, I thought, as I shoved myself out into the rain. The boys are at it already. Thursday night was party night at Miskatonic U. The frat brothers would be raping before dark fell.
I trudged through the rain, my shoulders hunched. What was the point in running for the bar? The water would fall no matter my speed. My corduroy jacket was already pelted with rain, my leather shoes already soaked from the unavoidable puddles. As I opened the door of the bar, I could see through my foggy, streaked glasses that it was full to capacity. Of course it was; it was just after five. Students and staff mingled, some more closely than others. One of my graduate teaching assistants was seated at the bar in the rear, and the only available spot was on a stool next to her.
“Professor!” she called.
I groaned. “Hello, Melissa.”
She patted the barstool and smiled at me as I dried my glasses on my untucked shirt. I sat down heavily, miserably.
“Got caught in the rain?”
“‘Tis the season,” I replied without amusement, motioning to the bartender. “Well vodka,” I ordered, “straight up.”
Melissa smiled and looked at me sidewise. “Long day, Professor?”
I mopped my brow and replaced my glasses. “Everyday.”
“Anything I can do?” she asked, the sycophant.
I looked at her. Early twenties. Eager. Inexhaustible drive. I took the opportunity, slipping my office keys off the key ring. “A stack of mid-terms,” I said, dropping the keys on the bar in front of her.
She took them eagerly, smiling. Poor fool. She thought this was a compliment.
“You’ll have no trouble grading them, I’m sure.”
“Absolutely! When do you need them?”
The bartender placed the glass with its clear fluid in front of me and I slid a fiver to him. It could have been a peg of lukewarm water. But I shot it back and felt the heat coat my gullet, course down my esophagus, burn into my stomach.
“I honestly don’t care,” I replied, motioning for another drink.
“Tuesday by noon?” she offered.
“Tuesday by noon,” I agreed. What day was it? Right—Thursday, of course. The day to get drunk. I could teach my Friday class hungover. Hell, I had taught it drunk more times than I could remember. Suddenly, the thought of teaching in the morning filled me with a plumbless dread.
A second vodka arrived. I paid for it and I downed it just as fast. The alcohol was feeding my appetite for torment.
“Melissa,” I said in the tone of the practiced academic, “do you think you could do me just one more little favor?”
Insensible victim. She smiled broadly, displaying a mouth of horse’s teeth. The vodka was dulling my surroundings but sharpening the details. Good lord, her ass was wide! Each cheek curved over the stool like a saddle pouch. And her breasts—naked, they must fall down to her navel.
“Teach tomorrow morning’s class for me.”
“Me?” Her eyes went wide and her breath quickened. Her pendulous breasts heaved with pride. So young. So dumb.
“You can handle it. It’s on anatomy of bipedalism. You can use your thesis for that.”
“Yes,” she said, at first uncertain, but then, “Yes, of course. I can do that.”
“I know you can.”
“Are you all right, Professor? Are you feeling sick?”
I looked at her in the light of two vodkas straight up. God, yes, I was sick! Whose daughter was she? Were they proud of this overeager overeater?
“Under the weather,” I quipped, sliding off the barstool. “Thank you and goodnight. See you Monday.”
“See you Monday, Professor. Get better.”
I waved to her with my back turned, walking in a direct line for the exit.
I returned to my empty apartment in my crappy car. The place would be cold and damp. I had fought the cave’s black mold, but it was an implacable enemy that stank up the place with its spores. I suffered from chronic nasal allergies. I hated the place. Other professors lived in on-campus faculty housing, freshly constructed and inviting. Other professors, that was—engineering and business, the practical bastards. A divorced anthropology professor belonged in the twentieth century, and that is precisely where he lived, in the aged past. Divorced, of course. Miserable in the depths of his lonely existence.
I opened the door to the sealed bathroom where I kept my bong and stash of weed. Jesus, how my back ached. I had broken it for that ex-wife I still fought to forget. She had grown ugly since we parted. Smoked too many cigarettes. Her face was grooved with deep furrows. Her expression, when she pretended to smile, was false and betrayed the mad beast that dwelt behind the dark eyes, and her teeth were a yellow snaggle. A consummate sociopath, she had fooled me once, twice, innumerable times, shame on me! Others were convinced she was friendly and sharply intelligent. But she was at heart a witless narcissist. The worst cultural anthropologist ever produced, lording her colonial heritage over unsuspecting tribes, witness to and conspirator in their demise. The tribes had an Indian name for her: Killer of Language. I had my own names for her.
But to forget the pain! I closed the bathroom door securely behind me, locking the door to keep the emptiness out. I loaded the bowl with dank smelling marijuana, potent medical grade, and lit the weed with a sputtering lighter, inhaling the smoke deeply as the water bubbled furiously. Held in the hit as long as I could stand it, then let it out in a thick stream from my mouth and nostrils. Not enough. The vodka had done its dry duty and now the smoke would cloud the past and obscure it in senselessness. I took another hit, much deeper this time, and choked on it, coughing out smoke and blowing snot from my nose that ran in thick rivulets into my mouth. Another hit and another until the bowl was black and gray with charred remains of the female flower, all that was left to me.
When the weed took hold, I felt it hit deep. Buried emotions surfaced into consciousness and I blindly tapped the ashes into the sink, turned on the tap and washed away the evidence. Inevitable paranoia gripped me and I checked the lock on the doorknob, re-locked the locked lock again. I loaded another bowl and hit the green with ferocity, forcing the emotions into a deeper haze until my eyes burned red. I held the heavy hit deeper than before, choking on the smoke but holding it in until the gag reflex burst open my mouth and I retched, bile spattering the mirror over the sink. I saw myself, a creature transformed. I always saw like this when I was stoned. A middle-aged ape stared back at me from the glass. Millions of years of struggling for existence to result in this? What a goddamned waste. How pointless and meaningless my ancestors’ lives. Did I owe them more than just my mere survival in a twenty-first– century self-made hell? I loathed myself and everything I was and had failed to achieve. Considered suicide daily. Delayed it with hollow chores and employment. I emptied the sooty bong water in the sink and stashed my stash and the bong in the bathroom cabinet.
I wasn’t hungry, though I should have been. I was wasting away in misery, down to 130 pounds from 165 in a matter of months following the divorce. My heart literally hurt. I had been diagnosed with broken heart syndrome, which could physically lead to heart attack. I forced myself to eat a bowl of Wheaties, the dinner of champions. Outside the kitchen blinds, darkness surrounded my lighted island of an apartment. I was stuck on a rock in the violent surf, pounded daily by the cold impersonal sea with only predators for companions. Life wanted nothing more than to devour me. It could not care. Nature was insensible, only aware of me as food, as meager a meal I would make. And people, all people, were a part of that Nature. Cruel and insatiable.
I fell into a short drugged nap in which I had a dream that I was with my ex-wife in our old home. I remembered how it felt to love her, and those were the worst nightmares, far worse than facing our mutual hatred for one another. So I awoke, sprawled on the carpet, drool slathering my mouth and cheek. Still drunk and stoned. Almost time for me to visit Paget and his mummy.
I made no attempt to make myself presentable—what was the point? Paget didn’t actually respect me. He just had something to show off, like the pretentious collection of garbage he had gathered from Latin American countries, displayed on his living room shelves to be admired by graduate students. And I certainly didn’t respect him. I thought he was an asshole, self-important with his tenure, his published articles and books, the latest important finds he had made during his archaeological digs in spider-infested desert high country. Fucking his graduate students. And that story from last year’s field school: Paget and his students were drinking at a local bar. Apparently the waitress had made some untoward comment to Paget. He responded by pouring a pitcher of beer over her head. From this incident he had gained the reputation as a misogynist.
I wasn’t tenured, never would be, because the politics of the department had decided it. My hypotheses went unheard, unnoticed, ultimately unimportant to anyone, except a handful of students who knew next to nothing, in fact knew absolutely nothing of any utility. I wasn’t even a real Professor. I was an adjunct instructor, paid shit wages, no union to back me, vulnerable at any moment to dismissal with no reason necessary. I had been awarded an “Outstanding Instructor of the Year Award” a semester or two ago, a sure sign that I wouldn’t be employed much longer. The department itself ignored me and my scientific contributions; in fact, would not allow me to contribute. I figured I had a year’s more employment, tops, especially with the recession. What then? Suicide resurfaced as an option.
So it was with the prospect of suicide that I headed out for Paget’s place. I was too stoned to drive, but it was raining so I drove anyway. Paget’s house was only a couple of miles from my apartment. I kept it slow and avoided the busier streets, where cops were likely to patrol. After what felt like half an hour I parked in front of Paget’s place and stumbled to his door. He opened it after I rang the bell once, and hard.
“You look like shit,” he said by way of greeting.
“You invited me,” I growled. “Here I am.”
He let me inside and closed the door. I heard him sniff loudly. “Are you drunk?”
“No, but I wish I were. Besides, you can’t smell vodka, Paget.”
“No, but the marijuana …” he replied. “I promised you tea.”
“Make it coffee. We’re not in England.”
“Well, then,” he huffed, and headed for his kitchen. “I’ll just put on a pot for you. You obviously need it.”
Yes, I did, you rotten son of a bitch.
I rubbed my eyes and looked around me. Paget had acquired even more shit from his travels. And his degrees and awards were framed and displayed together on one wall. I closed my eyes and stumbled forward to a chair. At least I only had to deal with Paget. So kind of him to keep this miserable meeting just between us. Of course, the real reason was that he would voluntarily never be seen with me with others around. Still, this intimate gathering was something other than social. Paget wanted something—something dreadful, I could tell—from me. I couldn’t help feeling paranoid, and it wasn’t just the weed.
Paget came in briskly. “So, old fellow, what have you been up to, other than avoiding the grave?”
He knew exactly what I had been up to; he was probably on the board to dismiss me. I answered him anyway, fiercely: “I have presented two novel, testable hypotheses in the discipline of physical anthropology. One concerns the coevolution of early canids and humans, arguing that dogs became addicted to the endogenous opiates released when humans groomed them, strengthening the intimate bonds between the two species. I have also demonstrated that dogs were predisposed to our evolving musical culture. I recorded my dog, now dead, adding its barks as percussion to my disbanded musical group belting out an ad hoc song.
“My other hypothesis concerns the ‘Hobbits’ of Flores, how their anatomy and prey species point to a lifestyle of arboreal hunting.”
“Really?” he asked, taunting me with mock interest. “And have you published?”
The anger erupted from deep inside my broken heart. “Of course not. I’m sure you know that, Paget. The likes of Nature and Science will have nothing to do with an adjunct instructor!”
He huffed and narrowed his eyes at me. “I know nothing of your troubles,” he lied. “Physical anthropology is not my discipline.”
“Our disciplines are joined together. Anthropology and archaeology are supposed to be interdisciplinary sciences.”
Paget snorted derisively. “Oh, for rot! Nobody talks outside his discipline, you know that! Interdisciplinary and multidisciplinary pursuits are rarely taken seriously. Branded with either or both of those terms, and one can kiss his career adieu!”
“Don’t speak French to me! I have plenty I could dish out in return!”
“You are drunk,” he said. “I’ll get that coffee for you. Surely it has brewed by now.”
As he went to the kitchen I rubbed my eyes again and when I opened them I noticed the coffee table in front of me. It was a stone tomb with glass placed over it. Within it was … no.
“My god, Paget, I had hoped you were joking!”
He returned with two cups and handed me the coffee.
“Splendid, isn’t it? The prize of my collections!”
But there was nothing splendid about the withered monstrosity lying beneath the glass. It was technically mummified in condition but was not a proper mummy per se, since it had not been shrouded in linens. It was a desiccated husk of a being that had died millennia ago and placed without ceremony into its stone tomb. Any clothing it might have had disintegrated thousands of years before. The thing filled me with deeply unsettling anxiety.
“Splendid? Jesus, Paget—it’s disgusting! How much did you pay for it?”
He shook his head, took a sip of his tea. “Not telling,” he replied with a smile.
“Where’d you buy it?”
“I already told you, Eastern Europe.”
“Care to narrow that down for me?”
“Yes, I do care, and I will not.”
“Who sold it to you?”
“An old woman.”
“You’re not going to give me any details of how you acquired this…thing, are you?”
He shook his head. “I had not planned on doing so, no.”
“An illegal transaction, no doubt,” I pushed.
Paget just stared into me. “What do you make of her, professionally speaking?”
I sighed heavily and looked again, closely, with eyes trained in my discipline. And that’s when the first shock hit me. Whatever that thing was, it was not a modern human. The legs were too short, the arms too long and the head—how could this be?—appeared far larger in proportion to the body than it should have been. It looked like an early human, perhaps two-and-a-half–million years old from Tanzania or Kenya, more like Homo habilis than a modern human, with our shorter arms and longer legs. But the head didn’t fit. It was too large for either human species.
“I would have to guess that I am looking at a pathological specimen. Arms too long, legs too short, and head too big. So what is it?”
“That’s what I’m asking you,” he replied.
“It looks like a habiline with an overgrown head, or else a modern human with disproportionate arms, legs, and skull.” I looked again and noticed its hands were quite large and possessed only four digits. The feet were sock-like, having no toes at all. Definitely pathological. “Did you carbon-date it?”
“I have,” Paget answered, leaving it at that.
“It was too old for carbon dating,” he replied, finishing his tea.
This was another shock. “That’s over fifty thousand years old!” I exclaimed. “Paget, just where was this found?”
He sat down across the mummy table from me. “The old woman said it was from Egypt.”
“Well, that’s implausible. Did you use any other dating techniques on it?”
“Not yet. But look closer. You are overlooking something far more important than its age.”
I looked, deeper this time, with eyes accustomed to peering beyond the present into past ages of deep-time evolution. Suddenly she was alive, clawing at the glass with her four-fingered hands. Her head was shaped like an inverted and swollen teardrop. Her eyes were large, black, and lens-shaped. She had no ears and no nose, just thin slits for nostrils. And her mouth was a mere flap; her mandible and maxilla were fused, and she had no teeth. Her skin was a light gray.
“I see her now,” I whispered in wonderment and terror. And I uttered my next words in shock and awe, “She isn’t human…”
Paget was smiling and nodding. “Yes, and in reply to your next question, I had a DNA sequence run on her. Not only is she not human, but she has an additional base pair in her code as well.”
“But nothing on Earth has an extra base pair!” I protested.
I looked at the shriveled horror and recoiled. “Paget, you can’t just have this thing in your living room. You’ll be reviled by the department! They’ll accuse you of fraud!”
Paget laughed heartily and filled his cup from the Wedgwood Jasperware teapot. “They will never do that,” he said in the last wave of laughter.
“And why not? You already have a reputation for … what was it? ‘Unethical behavior’? This will be the end of your career. They will brand you a P.T. Barnum!”
“In my studies I have come across a probable candidate. I believe it to be one of the Tcho-Tcho People from East Asia. They are most disagreeable creatures, and evolution seems to have honed that aspect of them.”
“But you’re talking mythos, Paget!”
“Indeed. They are said to worship Lloigor and Zhar. A short, furless species who use human women as breeders. Who knows how many of their hybrid descendants live among us? And this mythos, as you call it, also brings to mind the alien abduction cases that the venerable Dr. John Mack of Harvard Medical School has brought to light in his books. I believe these aliens he speaks of are in fact the Tcho-Tcho People.”
“Hybrids? Alien abductions?” I practically sputtered. “Are you hearing yourself? With whom else have you confided your mad speculations?”
I took a sip of the hot coffee and relished the warmth the cup transferred to my hand. “Well,” I said, “you had better keep these ideas to yourself or else—”
“Or else, what?” he asked sneeringly. “I am an asset to Miskatonic as much as you are a miniscule parasite! I have tenure and distinction, whereas you have nothing. You could be fired in an instant and no one would even notice.”
I stared at him for a long time before taking another sip of coffee, which I realized was exceptionally bitter. The room now seemed to be closing in. An uncomfortable feeling in my chest was rising.
“Now,” he said, sitting back comfortably in his leather chair, “what does your heart tell you about the mummy?”
“My heart …?”
Paget nodded. “You are dying. I know you can feel it.”
“I have broken heart syndrome,” I admitted, clutching my chest. I felt a growing pressure there, a squeezing, followed by sharp pain. I cried out.
“Yes, you fear a heart attack. You can see death. What does your heart see?”
I looked again at the frail skeleton with its nearly translucent bones. It was alien. And dead. And yet, somehow …
“It’s me,” I blurted out. “Somehow … I am it.”
Paget nodded, slowly sipping his tea with a thin-lipped smile. “It’s you, yes. An ancient organic mirror to reflect upon your own.”
“You don’t see it?” I asked desperately.
“Not beyond its anatomy and genetics, no. But I knew you would see what I have suspected. You are a child of the Tcho-Tcho.”
“I’m not an alien.”
Paget shook his head. “There are ways to know these things.”
He had spiked my coffee with something, an extract from a Southeast Asian root perhaps, or else a dose of potassium chloride and calcium gluconate. “Why, Paget?” I fairly panted. “Why have you poisoned me?”
“Because you’re a hybrid. You don’t belong. You never have, and everyone in Arkham agrees.”
I got up then, fury rising from the soles of my feet to the crown of my skull. “You are insane! I’m as human as you are.” I fumbled for my phone to dial 911.
“I have always known what you are. A man who doesn’t fit in. I obtained a blood sample from your physician. She and I were close there for a spell. Your blood contains no Rh-negative factor. That was the confirming evidence.”
I curled my hands into fists. “So what? You arrogant—” I grabbed a large wooden carved cactus from the nearest shelf and brought it down on the glass tabletop with a hard CRASH! Paget backed off and moved away from me, facing me the whole time. My heart felt as if it were collapsing, like the cardiac muscle was pulling in and compressing my organ into a hard baseball of tissue. I heard a voice from the shriveled miscreation:
Take me into your arms, lover. Let us be together for all time and I will heal your heart.
My heart gave out and, transfixed, I fell into the tomb with the withered creature. I felt her embracing me, her skin silky, her body alive. And then I was one with her. I too was a shriveled corpse, my skin like yellowed onionskin. We would lie that way, curled together, forever. I could see that she would guide me to a desert planet with giant pyramids and vast domes. I understood how this alien landscape might be misidentified as an ancient Egypt. But we would always return to our tomb.
I did not even care when Paget replaced the glass tabletop. He was right: No one noticed that I was missing and no one suspected that it was my corpse commingled with an alien in the living room tomb. Libations were placed above me and I saw the people laughing, talking—all that makes living people so much less important than the dead. Sometimes I would scream in outrage, but no one ever heard my words, my whispers, in the churning hurricane of human life. I was Paget’s, body and soul. A possession, another trophy to show off at cocktail parties and departmental get-togethers. I was lost and since no one cared to find me, no one ever did. No one ever mentioned my name again.
In fact, I no longer have a name. I am just “the mummy in the living room.”