And so there grew great tracks of wilderness, Wherein the beast was ever more and more, But man was less and less... -Alfred, Lord Tennyson
After tipping the cab driver, dabbing some lipstick onto her mouth, and taking a firm grip on her Samsonite boarding bag, Molly Groot waddled towards the Hoosier Park Casino. As she approached the casino, she saw her cab reflected in the glass doorway. It hadn’t moved. Had she tipped the driver enough?. Five dollars seemed plenty. Or had she made a mistake in mentioning the name of Jeb Judson, the man who had answered her online matrimonial ad? The man who had bought her plane ticket from Iowa to this modest community of Anderson, Indiana. The man she soon might marry. He had told her to meet him in the casino where he liked to place bets on the horses. He had promised to be there by noon.
Molly did not know that much about Jeb—only that he was a Yale graduate, ruggedly handsome, and had once been a member of Skull and Bones, a very elite fraternity. He also had a PhD in organic chemistry and grew experimental crops for the government on his farm outside of Anderson. But at the mention of his name, the cab driver, a mealy-mouthed little man, had turned into a positive brute. “Jeb Judson,” he had sneered. “We don’t mention that person in these parts, ma’am. Nobody does.”
Surely, that cab driver was nothing but a crank. Jeb Judson seemed the perfect gentleman, having courted her for three months by e-mail before sending her the plane ticket. And he was better looking than Clint Eastwood if his photo could be believed. But it was the last of his e-mails that had made her swoon: he had promised her a fancy luncheon on his homestead veranda then a tour of his twenty- thousand acre farm. And, should they tie the matrimonial knot, a life befitting a manor queen. And what a wicked sense of humor he had. Yesterday, she had asked him the title of his favorite book—a question she posed to all her online acquaintances. His answer, Frankenstein, had made her laugh out loud. But there was nothing droll about their rendezvous: he was clearly a very lonely man, tiring of bachelorhood and wanting a wife. And he was interested in her, Molly Groot, an overweight librarian pushing forty—a spinster with nothing to fuel her passion but picketing her local Wal-Mart. It was truly ironic that they were meeting in a casino. With a roll of the proverbial dice, her future could well be decided for the better.
Molly paused at the casino door. Looking over her shoulder, she heaved a sigh of relief. The cab had vanished. She was no longer being watched by that ill-tempered man.
What a depressed little town she had come to. On the cab ride from the airport, she had seen weedy sidewalks, barren storefronts, and gangs of hoodlums lurking on almost every corner. But the saddest sight of all was the abandoned General Motors plant and the boarded-up headquarters of the United Auto Workers. The town seemed to exist as a relic—a ghost to better times. But wasn’t she a bit of a wreck herself? Her push-up bra and wobbly pumps made her feel like a truck driver in drag. Thank God for Jeb Judson. He would carry her off like a bandit on a steed and bring out the real woman in her. A woman she was frantic to release.
Molly looked at her wristwatch and felt her face flush. Her heart began hammering like a rent collector at the door. It was fifteen minutes to noon.
Entering the casino, Molly suppressed a gasp. The glitter of wall-to-wall slot machines was truly a symphony of color and light—an utter contrast to the decaying town. And yet the casino was no less depressing: the hypnotic stares with which patrons watched the tumblers, as though the single pull of a lever might rescue them from food stamps and unemployment checks, hit a little too close to home. Holding her breath, Molly stood near the doorway and watched nervously for Jeb.
He strode through the door at 12:00 o’clock sharp. And her heart nearly stopped when she saw him. He looked exactly like his picture: a lean handsome man in his sixties with a shock of silver white hair. And his tight squint was positively presidential—in a George Bush sort of way.
How easy was his stride as he ambled towards her—how snug the fit of his Wrangler jeans. His sun-browned face and sharp-blue eyes— his aura of rugged individualism—all suggested a marshal in a spaghetti western. And the political button on his shirt—Keep our troops in Afghanistan—only added to his gunfighter image. There were so many horrible bombings these days. Whatever was the world coming to?
He spotted her immediately. “Molly,” he drawled. “Molly Groot.” When his hand squeezed her fingers, she felt her knees tremble. His palm was warm, dry, and surprisingly smooth for a farmer. His smile was broad but measured, as though he had been saving it only for her. As he patted her hand, she felt a stab of long dormant sexuality.
“J-Jeb,” she stammered. “How funny you were. Of all books—Frankenstein.”
His laugh was deep but controlled, as though it were something he had borrowed. He did not strike her as a man who laughed often, and yet he was laughing for her. “You came anyhow, darlin’,” he murmured. “I must have done something right.”
“Against my better judgment,” she teased. “Really, Jeb. Frankenstein?! That book is positively baroque.”
He swallowed then looked at his boots. “I shouldn’t have tried to impress a librarian. Not with the trash I read.”
She folded her arms as though cross with him. But she was trying hard not to smile. How long had it been since she had flirted with a man? “Well, you have impressed me, Jeb Judson,” she chirped. “But not with your choice of books. And not,” she looked critically around the casino, “with your choice of pastimes.”
He chuckled deeply and gazed across the room. On a giant television screen above the bar, a cluster of harness racers were jockeying for position along the backside of a track. “Suppose I let you reform me,” he said. “Suppose I don’t bet on the nags today?” He hooked his thumbs in his pockets and smirked. “There’s nothing but losers in this place anyhow.”
She looked at him coyly then laughed. “I’m not sure I want you reformed, Jeb Judson.”
He arched his eyebrows. “You sure of that? Give a woman long enough, she’s bound to find fault with a man.”
“Oh really?” she teased. “It seems the whole town has found fault with you, Jeb. Just what are you up to on that farm of yours? A second campaign for Mitt Romney?”
He grinned and shook his head. “Let’s just say it’s a much bigger hustle. Let’s just say it’ll make me a rich man.”
“And me a manor queen,” she joked. “Or will you make me Frankenstein’s bride instead?”
Was he blushing beneath that deep tan? she wondered. How easy it was to flirt with him. And how delicious that they now had their own private joke. But why were his eyes avoiding hers? And why did his smile seem so out of place? He must not be used to courtship, she thought. He must want me to put him at ease.
She rolled her eyes coquettishly and planted her hands on her hips. “Just why are you stalling, Jeb Judson?” she asked. “Didn’t you invite me to lunch?”
He smiled and held out an elbow. “A lunch befitting a queen,” he drawled. “Let’s take a little drive, honey. Whaddya say?”
She hooked her hand on the crook of his arm. “I’d say you’re a mighty big talker, Jeb. But I am rather famished—it’s been a long trip. I hope you’ve prepared a big meal.”
An hour later, she was sitting on the veranda of a rustic Italian-style farmhouse. Looking out on Jeb’s estate, Molly felt deeply content. But her surroundings did not seem to merit her mood. Just how lonely was she to be moved by a place like this?
The estate, if one could call it that, consisted of half a dozen enormous silver barns—the kind that existed on factory farms where swine were force-fed in tight crowded pens, never to see the light of day. Close to the barns were several massive waste lagoons, gulches so discolored and septic that they looked like huge open wounds. And what was that smell that tugged at her lungs like an infant demanding attention? It smelled like a ripe diaper.
But at least they were sitting upwind from the scent. And the lunch, a thick stew that tasted like veal, was positively delicious. She was starting to feel tipsy from her third glass of wine and Jeb, dear dear Jeb, was gazing at her with his clear blue eyes—eyes the color of robin eggs. What a magnificent hunk he was. And didn’t he say he was going to be rich? But how?
“Jeb,” she whispered, her voice thick with wine. “What is going on out here?”
Slowly, as though performing surgery, Jeb topped off her glass. “If I told you,” he joked, “I could never let you leave. But that might be best for us both.”
A man with a mystery, Molly thought. What more could a woman ask for? She took a deep sip of wine. “Jeb, you’re such a tease,” she said. “I feel like a heroine in a Charlotte Bronte novel.”
Jeb shrugged and burped. “I don’t read that women’s stuff much,” he said. “Brave New World—that’s more to my liking. And 1984.”
“Oh really?” she scoffed. “Such political tastes. No wonder you’re working for the government.”
He frowned and topped off his own glass of wine. “A lot of folks work for the government, darlin’. Gardeners, chemists, animal trainers. Some of ’em work right here.” He gestured towards the barns where a handful of Mexican laborers were ambling around, toting shovels and hoes. To Molly, they looked as charming as Snow White’s seven dwarves.
“Let me guess,” Molly teased. “You’re growing an army of mutants. You’ll use them to take over the country next year. Is that what you’re up to, Jeb Judson?”
“No, darlin’,” Jeb murmured, his voice rich with mirth. “Next month.”
Is he serious? Molly wondered, a thought she could not totally dismiss. She remembered the words of the cab driver: “We don’t mention that person in these parts, ma’am,” and a tremor invaded her spine. Had she come to the home of an eccentric? Had she thrown too much caution to the wind? Was the internet really the best of places to seek the love of her life? But what did she have waiting for her back in Iowa? A studio apartment, a couple of cats, and a job that barely paid her rent. And how she ached for the touch of a man—her nipples were harder than bullets.
As she looked at Jeb’s strong handsome face, a warmth crept into her heart. He needs me to nurture him, she thought. He needs me to take his hand.
But what was that curious sound she now heard? It was coming from one of the barns—a series of shrieks that sounded like a woman making love.
“J-Jeb,” she stammered. “What’s happening in there? Is somebody butchering a pig for our dinner?”
Jeb answered her firmly. “We don’t kill creatures here,” he said. “Not if we can help it. We think of them like family.”
Creatures? Family? Her foolish panic awoke once again. Was he cloning animals? Was he tinkering about with genetics? Was he working with a hunchback named Igor who dug up graves at night? She put down her wine glass and drew a deep breath. What nonsense I’m thinking. What crazy thoughts. Thank God I can blame them on the wine.
Jeb smiled at her and her palms began to sweat. His eyes were so clear—so wise and embracing. How boorish of her to have doubted him.
“Darlin’,” he said, “You came out here for a reason. Let’s not lose sight of that.”
“What reason might that be, Jeb Judson?”
“I’m guessing you came for an adventure—maybe the first adventure of your life.”
“Do I really seem so desperate?” she snapped. She pretended to frown, but the effort was useless. Her eyes were now glittery with tears.
Jeb looked at her reassuringly then cupped her chin with his fingers and thumb. “Yes, darlin’, you do,” he said matter-of-factly. “Why do you think I sent for you? Desperate women don’t judge their men.”
“Oh, really?” she said. She turned her head away from him. “With you one might make an exception, Jeb Judson. Did you bring me all this way because you thought I might be desperate?”
“Times are tough—folks are upset. A man needs to take comfort where he can find it.”
“Even from desperate librarians?” she muttered. “You must have a rather dark side to you, Jeb, if frumps are the best you can do.”
He shook his head sadly and patted her cheek. “Do I scare you that much, honey?”
“You scare me a little bit, Jeb. But you intrigue me even more.” She placed the palm of her hand on his wrist. “And I have been alone such a very long time.”
Jeb laughed and rose slowly from his chair. “Come on then,” he said. “It’s time you met the family.”
As she followed Jeb to the nearest barn, Molly felt as though she were crossing an ocean. She remembered a line from Julius Caesar, her favorite Shakespearian play. And we must take the current where it serves… But how would this current serve her? Would it lead her to love and good fortune or to something she’d rather not see? Even Jeb seemed to sense the pregnancy of the moment. His face had lost its ironic smirk and had hardened into a soldierly resolve.
When they reached the barn, Jeb nodded to a Mexican laborer. Slowly, as though cracking a safe, the man unlocked the door. Molly smelled the interior of the barn before she saw it—a smell so strong that it made her nose itch. Her eyes began to water, her head began to swim, and she felt as though she were walking in quicksand. And so it seemed strange, when she entered the barn, that she saw little reason to panic. Inside the barn was a large shallow field beneath rows of low-hanging grow lights. And peeking through the ruts in the soil were a few dozen orange balls the size of cantaloupes. Men in white lab coats were ducking beneath the grow lights, adjusting sprinklers and carefully inspecting the balls. Is this what had me so worried? she wondered. A silly pumpkin patch? She was not at all impressed.
“Jeb,” she said when she was able to draw a breath. “You call this an adventure?”
“We call it our nursery,” Jeb replied. “Here is where we plant the mutants. Where we let ’em ripen like fruit on the vine.”
He took her by the elbow and guided her onto the field. The damp earth pulled stubbornly at her pumps, and it was all she could do not to trip. Releasing her elbow, Jeb paused for a moment then knelt beside one of the larger balls. He squeezed it tenderly, as though fondling a breast, then began to dig gently with his fingers. “Prepare yourself, darlin’,” he said. “This is all the adventure you’re ever gonna need.”
Jeb’s fingers blackened from the soil and the ball began to loosen. As he started to pull it from the ground, Molly suppressed a gasp. It was not a pumpkin—it was a little head, complete with bulging eyes, a scrunched-up nose, and a wide rather slobbery-looking mouth. A pear-shaped body followed the head as Jeb continued to tug—a body with a ropey umbilical cord and tiny hands and feet. It was the size of a newborn baby.
“This one’s ready for harvesting,” Jeb announced. He pulled a box cutter from his pants pocket, pushing out the blade as he did so, then he cut the umbilical cord in two. A substance that looked like green custard dribbled onto the ground. After rinsing the creature under a sprinkler, Jeb mopped it dry with a handkerchief and handed it to Molly.
“The smell will soon go away,” he said. “But don’t be holdin’ it too long. We don’t want it thinking you’re its mother.”
Molly clutched the thing with shaking hands, too startled to let it drop. The creature was cute, in a French Bulldog sort of way, but how ridiculous to think she might pose as its mother. Its body was cold, its skin was rough, its fingers were wiggling like worms. And its wide gaping mouth was emitting a sound that set her teeth on edge. “Eeek, eeek, eeeek,” it went, a noise just like chalk being scraped along a blackboard. And it smelled so strongly of fertilizer that it was all she could do not to sneeze.
Molly held the creature away from her. “Take it!” she said. “Take it away! It needs a cage, not a mother, Jeb.”
As Jeb took the thing back, tucking it beneath his elbow, she remembered a Biblical quote. Ye shall know them by their fruits. She was not at all religious—she rarely went to church—and so she now realized the full impact of her shock. If runts like that thing were the fruits of Jeb’s labor—cold little cretins that smelled like an outhouse, he might not be the nicest of men.
She started to sob. “J-Jeb, how could you? It looks like a freak. It smells like a toilet.”
Jeb grinned sheepishly then shrugged. “The whole country’s in the crapper, darlin’. That’s why we need desperate measures. And desperate women too.”
“You sound like you just made a deal with the devil.”
Jeb flushed like a scolded schoolboy, a sight so touching that she knew she was going to forgive him. He seemed so lonely, so in need of companionship, that she wanted to pull him tightly to her breast. But when he spoke to her again, her stomach knotted.
“You sound like an exorcist, darlin’,” he said. “Don’t turn away the devil until you’ve heard his offer.”
“W-what do you even feed it?” she asked; it was all she could think of to say.
Holding the podling under his arm, Jeb began stroking its head. “We raise ’em on dog food,” he said with a smirk. “It’ll reach its full growth in six short weeks. That’s when we start training them.”
“Training them?” Molly muttered. “Training them to do what?”
As she watched the thing squirm in Jeb’s hands, her mind began to rebel. Was he actually fond of that little gremlin? Did he think she would find it endearing as well? But her heart was starting to bleed for him, and she knew she was falling in love. What a sad and lonely man he must be to regard such a thing as a pet. How badly he needed a good woman’s love to save him from himself.
“Darlin’,” he said, “let’s get on with our tour. I’ve told you the answer already.”
Smiling thinly, Jeb scratched the creatures belly. “Eeek, eeeek, EEEEK,” it went like a mouse caught in a trap.
As he walked her to another barn, Jeb took her hand in his. A chorus of squawks was coming from the barn, as though circular saws were biting into timber. The squawks were so raw, so primitive and sharp, that they stung the fillings in her teeth.
Jeb unlocked the door to the barn. “We’re breaking these in for the auto plant,” he said. “They get a bit feisty at first, but they go with the program soon enough.”
Jeb’s voice had lost its gentleness and now sounded smug and pedantic. Has he actually bested the devil? thought Molly. How could that possibly be? He’s so clearly a man cut off from the world—a broken, discarded soul. As Jeb pushed open the door to the barn, generous tears filled her eyes.
Her tenderness for Jeb vanished the moment she stepped into the barn. Never had she seen anything remotely like this. A mob of the freaks, each six and a half feet tall, was standing alongside a long conveyer belt. Their eyes were glassy, their shoulders were sagging, their bodies were pitted with large crusty sores. Behind them stood more men in lab coats—men clutching hypodermic syringes and cattle prods. The men watched closely as the creatures lifted chassis, engine blocks, and tires from the conveyor belt and lugged them to nearby tables. When one of them deposited its load on a table, it was rewarded with an injection. Miracle-Gro, Molly guessed, or maybe some kind of sedative. If one dropped its burden, a cattle prod stung it. “Rawk, rawk, RAWK,” cried the things when given electrical shocks. They sounded like angry crows.
Jeb squeezed her hand and beamed. “Next month,” he said, “the GM plant will reopen. We’ll be fitting these fellas with memory chips—they’ll be working the robot arms. If things work out as planned, the entire auto industry will return to America.”
Molly felt as though someone had punched her and run away with her purse. How alarming to know she’d been charmed by a man who merited only contempt. What an elitist. What a swine. I must have been crazy to want him. I must have been out of my mind. “Those poor, poor creatures…” she mumbled, her tongue so dry she could barely form the words. It was only a perverse fascination that kept her from leaving Jeb’s side.
Oblivious to her heartbreak, Jeb continued to lecture. “Low maintenance would better describe them,” he said. “No more health care to pay, no more strikes to settle, no more pensions to drain away the budget. These go-getters work eighteen hours a day and make good fertilizer when they die. The stockholders will be overjoyed.”
“No more jobs for the people in town,” Molly blurted, a remark so reflexive that she instantly regretted it. Jeb’s attitude had grown so superior, his manner so professorial, that she felt like a child who had scattered her toys and neglected to put them away. She wanted to cry on his chest, but she felt too stunned to move.
Jeb sucked a tooth and shrugged. “The people,” he muttered, “are cattle as well. This isn’t that big a transition.”
Before Molly could reply, a commotion arose at the other end of the barn. A few of the freaks—all blazing with sores—were standing in a row. They were bound to one another with waist chains and watching a cluster of tackling dummies. They were squawking excitedly among themselves.
“Watch this,” Jeb instructed. He removed a whistle from his back pocket, put it to his lips, and blew. At the chirp of the whistle, the things lowered their heads and assembled into a flying wedge. Jeb blew the whistle a second time and they lumbered towards the dummies. The sound of their skulls bashing foam thudded throughout the barn.
“There’s bound to be demonstrators,” Jeb said. “Those UAW shirkers who drove the industry abroad. This’ll send them packing.”
“And so you’re a strike breaker too?!” Molly cried. Her mind was reeling, her senses were numb, but she could not tear her eyes from the sight.
Jeb grinned. “There will be no more strikes—no one’s getting his job back. Scab labor is going to take over.”
Molly held her face between her hands. What a revolting man he was. What a self-entitled boar. If he had been born in the eighteenth century, he’d have surely been a slave owner. “Jeb, take me from here,” she sobbed—it was all she could manage to utter.
Jeb smiled kindly and cleared his throat. His face had lost all self-consciousness now and he seemed to be looking at her from a very great distance. What a child you still are, his eyes seemed to say. How much you still have to learn. “Let’s go back to the house, my darlin’,” he said. “You haven’t had dessert.”
“Devils food cake!” Molly cried. “You’re serving me devil’s food cake?!”
Jeb finished cutting the rich chocolate cake and handed her a piece. There was not a trace of irony in his face.
They were sitting at a coffee table inside an enormous study. The walls were lined with dozens of bookcases, all of them crammed full of books. There were science logs, history books, manuals on animal husbandry. There were texts on organic farming, molecular biology, and plant pathology. There were rows and rows of philosophy books: Spinoza, Kant, Spencer, Nietzsche filled up two whole shelves. There were endless volumes of literature: Shakespeare, Homer, Chaucer, Goethe—the titles went on and on. There was even a sagging bookcase devoted entirely to erotica. Molly’s head began to ache.
Jeb smiled at her reassuringly and took a bite of cake. “Yes, darlin’,” he said. “I’ve read every one of them. Some I’ve read several times.” He looked at her thoughtfully, took a slow breath, then he spoke as though reading out loud. “‘Football, films, and beer filled the horizons of their minds.’ That’s from George Orwell, 1984. I think it describes the goddamn people you feel such sympathy for.”
Molly shook her head and tried to scowl, but could not hide the shock in her face. “So what does that make you, Jeb?” she snapped. “An educated monster?”
“Maybe,” Jeb chuckled, his mouth full of cake. “But at least I’ve impressed a librarian.”
“Have you?” she spat. “Have you really?” She did not wish to make that concession to him, and yet she was deeply in awe. Clearly this man, this very strange man, was far better read than she would ever be. Perhaps, he was even smarter. Perhaps, he was a genius.
Determined to puncture his maddening pride, she sniped at him again. “What good have all these books done you, Jeb, if you treat those poor things like slaves?”
“Darlin’,” Jeb said, “there’s a far bigger picture.” He burped, rose from his chair, and wandered over to one of the bookcases. He fingered the books as though tuning a piano then recited some titles out loud. “Commodore: The Life of Cornelius Vanderbilt. Last Man Standing: The Ascent of J.P. Morgan. Today and Tomorrow: The Autobiography of Henry Ford.” He looked at her kindly and folded his arms; his eyes were twinkling like stars. “These men were monsters—all of them. But they rose above the horde. And they took the country to places nobody could have imagined.”
My God, Molly thought. What an ego he has. How could I ever have though of reforming this dreadful, impossible man? “Jeb, there’s cake on your chin,” she murmured. “Besides that, you sound like Satan.”
“Devils are all around us,” Jeb shrugged—he rubbed the cake from his chin. “Not all of them can be bargained with. Not all will bother to court you. Better we should out-monster them than allow them to eat us alive.”
Oh no! Molly thought. He’s a Nietzsche nut too. She had always hated that little German prude. His rants about apes, man, and the superman to come were so pompous, so smug, so utterly contemptuous. Why—out of all the books in his study—did Jeb have to quote from Nietzsche?!
“So you’re the ascender of man,” she joked. “I always wondered what he would look like.”
Jeb laughed and shook his head. “I’m not that ambitious, darlin’,” he said. “I wish only to be a monster.”
Molly felt her skin crawl. The man was insane, totally insane—no wonder he was alone. And yet his eyes, his clear blue eyes, were as tranquil as a lake. It was the accommodation in his eyes—the gentleness with which he now looked at her—that gave her the courage to lecture him. “The townspeople are all against you, Jeb. They think you’re a monster already.”
He chuckled proudly and smirked. “I would only be worried if they were my friends.”
More Nietzsche, she thought; her fists tightened into balls. “Must you keep quoting that crass, little German? What are your thoughts, Jeb. What is inside that head of yours?”
He returned to his chair, slowly sat down, and picked up the remainder of his cake. He poked at the cake as though touching up a sculpture then put it back on the coffee table. It was a minute before he spoke. “I’m a jaded man, darlin’,” he said. “I am drunk with power, poisoned with knowledge, callous to all that I touch. But the people, without even trying, are far greater monsters than me.”
Look into the abyss, Molly remembered, and the abyss will look into you. Was that vain little Kraut actually right about something? Was the nihilism in Jeb Judson’s eyes about to seep into her soul? The thought only made her angrier. “Oh really?” she muttered. “Just what is their sin?”
“Ignorance,” replied Jeb—the word struck her like a hammer. “Willful, church-bred ignorance. They breed, they doze, they die—that is all. Like cattle on a plain.”
Molly could hardly believe her own thoughts. Did this arrogant man, this self-centered pig, believe he was some kind of savior? “You tether innocent creatures,” she stammered. “You bury their babies in dirt.”
Jeb looked at her sharply and glared. How quickly his moods changed. “Knowledge can kill you,” he said with a shrug. “Nietzsche probably died of it. But it also can make you a brute.”
“Just what do you mean by that?” Molly snapped.
“I plan to tether the people as well. Lead ’em around by the nose. Their kind of monster we cannot empower—the world is too dangerous a place.”
He rose from his chair, cracked his knuckles, then turned on a small television. “Nietzsche had it wrong,” he said. “Mankind will never ascend. Not…” An NFL playoff game was on—a contest between the Titans and the Patriots. The stadium was packed with fifty thousand people, all of them on their feet screaming. He looked at the game disgustedly then turned the television off. “Not,” he repeated, “’til they can get that excited over things that really matter.”
Despite the condescension in Jeb Judson’s face, Molly felt a stirring in her heart. Was she, an unstable female, being swayed by this alpha brute? Your damn bitch is having puppies in my brain. This line from East of Eden, a novel she adored, flashed like a warning sign through her head. Utterly ashamed of herself, she buried her face in her hands.
She felt Jeb’s hand on her shoulder, a gentle protective touch. “Finish your cake, my darlin,” he said. “There’s much I still have to show you.”
He led her to a third barn. The door was sealed shut by a heavy, iron bar and a padlock the size of her fist. Jeb opened the lock with a thick key and they entered a small sally port. Beyond the inner door, Molly heard ravenous sounds: chomping, gulping, slurping noises that chilled her to the marrow. Her fear only increased when Jeb unlocked a gun cabinet and removed a semiautomatic pistol. He slapped a magazine into the grip.
“Stay close beside me,” he ordered. “Whatever happens.”
He tucked the handgun behind his belt then unlocked the inner door. As they walked into the barn, Molly clutched his elbow and gasped. In front of them was a deeply-ploughed field—a field fitted with grow lights and harmless-looking sprinklers. But poking through the topsoil were hundreds and hundreds of fierce-looking orange heads. The heads were aligned in rows, like troops awaiting inspection, and some of them were devouring the craniums in front of them.
Jeb shook his head; he seemed to be embarrassed. “A crop of adolescents,” he said. “Guess we planted ’em too closely together.”
Molly could only shudder and stare. What on earth had possessed her to follow Jeb into this barn?
“We’ve injected these with steroids,” Jeb went on. “They’re going to fight our wars. Once they’ve reached their full growth, that is, and we’ve put memory chips in their heads.”
“Are they really?” Molly asked. She wanted to cover her eyes. She wanted to vomit her cake. “I find the very sight of them revolting.”
“Soldiers should be revolting,” Jeb said. “One look at these chaps and our enemies will be sweating in their turbans. It’ll make ’em think twice about taking back their oilfields.”
Molly released Jeb’s elbow and gasped. She was ready to bolt from the barn, but her legs felt rubbery and spent. “And so you’re a warmonger too,” she stammered. “Or is that a war profiteer?”
Jeb shrugged and winked. “I’m more of a war economist,” he said. “There’s not much profit in war anymore, but at least we can trim the tab. These suckers will fight for nothing, and they like to get down in the dirt.” He chuckled at his own joke and gazed serenely at the heads. “No more hospital expenses for the wounded,” he said. “No more military pensions. No more lawsuits from veterans who have outlived their usefulness.”
Molly could feel her nails stabbing her palms. She wanted to claw out Jeb’s eyes. “So you’re going to replace them with cannibals,” she cried. “Jeb, I find you disgusting.”
“Do you, darlin’?” Jeb buried a chuckle. “We’re already fighting our wars by proxy—this isn’t that big a step. And once we lower the goddamn cost, we can fight our wars to win.”
Molly clenched her teeth. He’s a murderer, she thought. A cold-blooded calculating murderer. “Those beastly, beastly wars!” she cried. “I never ever believed in them!”
“No one believes in our wars,” Jeb shrugged. “Not enough to fight ’em anyhow. But our enemies are growing stronger—they want their oilfields back.” He cleared his throat and spat contemptuously. “If you don’t want us killing off Arabs, darlin’, give up your goddamn car. You can’t have it both ways.”
“You’re disgusting,” cried Molly. “You’re evil and cold. Somebody needs to stop you, Jeb Judson.”
“And who is going to stop me?” Jeb laughed. “Your spoiled and precious people?”
“Somebody has to stop you. This is a crime against God!”
“God’s not as proactive as me,” Jeb shrugged. “And the people won’t give a hoot. If we give ’em their gas-guzzling cars, if we give ’em their baseball and beer, if we give ’em their sitcoms and TiVo, they’ll stay happy as pigs in shit. Hell,” Jeb blew his nose and laughed, “once we’ve lowered the price of gas, we won’t even have to beat up demonstrators…”
A predatory squawk interrupted Jeb’s speech. He yanked the gun from his pants.
“Get behind me!” he ordered. He quickly racked the slide then went into a shooter’s crouch. “Behind me!” he repeated. “Plug up your ears!”
Only then did Molly realize that one of those vile, little gluttons was loose. Somehow, while she was scolding Jeb, it had managed to uproot itself from the ground. It’s eyes were blazing, its jaws were snapping, and it was tottering towards them on newly discovered legs. “Raaawk!” it cried, a soulless sound like a nail being ripped from a coffin.
The podling kept lumbering towards them.
The beastly thing barely flinched.
Molly jammed her fingers into her ears. “Kill it,” she screamed. “Kill it, Jeb.” The little brute seemed unstoppable.
Pow Pow… Pow.
As the seventh shot echoed, the thing stopped walking. Its legs began to liquefy, then it thudded to the ground. Even so, its jaws, pasty with pulp, continued to gnaw and snap.
Molly removed her fingers from her ears. She felt stunned, as though she had just walked away from a car crash. But her blood still boiled when she looked at Jeb. “For a war economist,” she accused, “you’re really not much of a shot.”
Jeb grinned. “They have seven nerve centers,” he said. “Two are in their ankles, two are in their knees, three more are in their head. You gotta hit each one if you want to take them out.” Setting the safety catch, he tucked the pistol back into his pants. “Once we’ve programmed them properly, they’ll attack only towel heads. They’ll blow ‘em to bits with grenades then gobble up their brains. Put the fear of Allah in ’em.”
Please God, make him stop talking, Molly thought. Can’t he see I’m about to be sick?
With morbid pride, Jeb kept lecturing. “They make great suicide bombers too. We’ll wire them up with TNT then detonate ’em by remote control.”
“J-Jeb,” Molly stammered, her knees were shaking. “If you care for me at all, you will stop this conversation.”
Jeb’s eyes began to soften and he took her by the arm. “Very well, darlin’. I’ll say nothing more. But the tour’s not over yet.”
Slowly, as though walking through smoke, Molly followed Jeb to yet another barn. Her horror had morphed into an eerie enthrallment—the same captivation she’d felt when she’d first read Dante’s Inferno. What else did this man have to show her—what new and unprecedented horrors? She felt as though she were hypnotized.
Jeb unlocked a fourth barn and they walked inside. There were fifty or so creatures in the barn, all of them full-grown, and they looked like a failed experiment. Their craniums were uncommonly small and long drooling tongues were hanging from their mouths. “Quack,” they kept crying. “Quack, quack, quack.” They looked as though they were trying to utter words.
“These will be our politicians,” Jeb said. “They’re on a break now, but speech therapists are working with them ten hours a day. That’s why their tongues are so big.”
“Politicians?!” Molly cried. She could not believe her ears. “Jeb, is this some kind of joke?”
“Mayors, congressmen, senators, you name it. The politicians in office now pretty much stay in line, but one of ’em gets a wild hair now and then. Obama’s a perfect example—what with his blocking the Keystone pipeline. And his goddamn socialized medicine. He’s forgotten he’s bought and paid for.”
Molly felt laughter welling up inside her—sunless, hysterical mirth. The creatures looked so comical, she could hardly hold it in. “Jeb, do you hear what you’re saying?” she giggled. “Who would ever vote for these clownish things?”
“As long as they’re preaching the politics of fear, it won’t matter a damn what they look like.” Jeb placed his whistle between his lips. “Listen,” he said.
At the blast of the whistle, the mob began to babble. “You are under attack,” they cried out in unison. “Quack, quack, quack. You are under attack.”
One of them, apparently better schooled than the rest, parroted several sentences. “The government will protect you. The government will make things right. Just give it all your money. And give it all your rights.”
Jeb put away the whistle and smirked. “Not a wayward thought among ’em,” he said. “How about that?”
Molly covered her ears with her hands. The Pavlovian clamor—the horrid quack quack quacks—were making her head buzz. But her palms were unable to shut out the sounds—she could hear yet another voice: a monotonous riveting croak that reminded her of a frog. “Stop all handouts,” it droned. “Don’t control businesses.” One of the freaks, a yard shorter than the rest, was speaking directly to her. It’s eyes were wide, its nostrils were flaring, its face was a mask of self-righteous composure.
“What on earth is that?” she screamed.
Jeb stuck out his chest and grinned. “That is a special project,” he said. “A Clarence Thomas replica.” He pushed the dwarf away from her then patted it on the head. “Clarence Thomas—think of it. The most conservative, program averse, pull-yourself-up by your bootstraps jurist ever to pass the bar. If we get eight more like him on the bench, the people—as a class—will be completely disenfranchised.”
Oh judgment, Molly thought, you have fled to brutish beasts! Was there no limit to this man’s madness—no bounds to his swinish ambitions? And would the people—the stupid, lotus eating people—really allow him to succeed? As she looked at Jeb’s face, his crafty intelligent face, she feared that the answer was yes. The people are cattle, his eyes reminded her. And cattle should stay in herds.
“Jeb,” she cried. “Jeb, this is total insanity.”
“Well and good,” Jeb replied. “That’ll push things along. You can’t stop a madness whose hour has come.”
He put his whistle to his lips and blew it once again. The voices grew even louder.
“YOU ARE UNDER ATTACK!”
“WE’VE GOT YOUR BACK!”
“THERE’S NOTHING YOU’LL LACK!”
“QUACK, QUACK, QUACK!”
As she started to faint, Molly heard random laughter—laughter that seemed to arise from a void. And so, she did not recognize it as her own.
She recovered on a bench outside of the barn. Jeb Judson was patting her cheek. “Darlin’,” he said, “the tour is almost done. But maybe you’ve reached your limit.”
As she stared at his hawkish, attractive face, her eyes hardened with resolve. “Show me the rest!” she commanded. Why she said that she did not know. Perhaps it was the fastidiousness in her soul, her librarian’s need to delimit and define. Or maybe she needed a complete inventory of the man to totally cast him out of her life. After all, he was still one hell of a hunk.
“Show me the rest!” she repeated. Just one more outrage ought to do it. Just one more horror ought to kill her affection for him entirely.
“Very well,” Jeb replied. He helped her to her feet. Taking her by the hand, he guided her to a fifth barn. She waited impatiently while he unlocked the door.
As they entered the barn, Molly felt her jaw drop. The freaks in this barn were hourglass-shaped and their skin was pale and smooth. With their heroic busts and swelling hips, with their hair tumbling down to their tiny waists, they looked like lewd parodies of women. They were watching Jeb as he closed the barn door, appraising him like dogs smelling meat.
“These,” Jeb explained, “are our sex toys.”
This has to be the final straw, Molly thought. He’s obviously a pervert, to boot.
Reading her thoughts, Jeb stifled a chuckle. “They’re for the goddamn people—not me,” he said. “A gift to make sure they keep out of our hair.”
“A gift for pigs just like you,” Molly said. “What will the wives say?”
“They’ll be too busy competing for their men. Watch.”
Jeb put the whistle to his lips and blew. Immediately, the things fell onto their backs and began thrusting their hips into the air. “Baby, baby, baby!” they shrieked. “Nobody does it like you!!”
Molly could stand it no more. The vulgarity of the display—it’s utter depravity—blew away the last of her reserve. “You sexist!” she cried. “You Stepford pig. Is that what you think of women?! Is that what you want me to do?!”
“No, darlin’,” said Jeb. He took her hand gently in his. “You I will treat like a queen.”
Snatching her hand from Jeb’s grasp, Molly slapped him across the face. The creatures, aroused by the sound of the blow, began thrusting their hips even harder. “SPANK ME, SPANK ME, DADDY!” they cried. “NOBODY DOES IT LIKE YOU!”
“Why?!” Molly sputtered, her eyes bright with tears. “Why this, Jeb?!”
Jeb shrugged. “A little insurance to keep folks distracted. Beer, films, and sports may not always be enough. But sex,” he rubbed his cheek and winked conspiratorially. “Nothing’ll make people dumber than sex.”
“But this is so insulting…”
Jeb laughed. “The country’s already obsessed with sex. Films, clothes, commercials—you name it, it’s there. This will help us secure our power and save our beloved land.”
He clapped his hands twice. “That’ll do!” he instructed. The creatures shuddered orgastically then collapsed in exhausted heaps. But they continued to plead and babble as he walked Molly out of the barn. “Daddy, daddy, daddy,” they piped. “Nobody does it like you.”
She sat silently on Jeb’s veranda, clutching another glass of wine. The sun had set but an afterglow lingered, and the horizon looked like a bruise. Molly stared hypnotically at the barns, ignoring the bowl of mangos and pears that Jeb had set beside her.
“Don’t think the worst of me, darlin’,” Jeb said. “Have a piece of fruit.”
Molly put down her wine glass and dabbed her eyes with a Kleenex. “Just what do you want with me, Jeb?”
Jeb cupped her hand lovingly in his. “I want you to be my wife,” he said. “I want you to give me a son.”
“Those loathsome, loathsome creatures you’re raising.”
He squeezed her hand gently and smiled. “A towering, godless, unblinking son who will one day manage all this.” Releasing her hand as though freeing a bird, he pointed towards the barns. “A son to make Nietzsche proud.”
Jeb fumbled in his pocket, retrieving a small leather case. He opened it slowly and showed her the ring. The diamond was as big as her knuckle and it winked in the cold evening light. “Marry me, dear, and I’ll make you my queen.”
As she looked at his face, his strong paternal face, her anger melted like snow. His gaze was so warm and protective, his eyes so clear and blue.
She slipped the ring onto her finger and sighed.
“Shall we set a date?” she said.
James Hanna is a retired probation officer and a former fiction editor. Due to his background, the criminal element figures strongly in much of his writing. James’ stories have appeared in over thirty journals, including Sixfold, Crack the Spine, and The Literary Review. His books, four of which have won awards, are available on Amazon. https://www.amazon.com/-/es/James-Hanna/e/B00WNH356Y?ref_=dbs_p_ebk_r00_abau_000000