Mired


by Mike Thorn

THE BLIZZARD WHIPPED TWISTERS OF SNOW across Randolph’s front lawn. Water bulged through his window’s sealant, trickled down the wall and pooled on the floor. On any other day, he might’ve worried about the hardwood swelling from the moisture.

On no other day, though, had he found himself standing gape-faced before his storage room, while his eyes reflected the neon greenness of a heaving blob.

Yes, there was a blob in his storage room.

As Randolph watched in horror-stricken silence, the creature wetly opened its central orifice and absorbed an entire box of his research material.

Randolph, who’d awoken to these tempestuous weather conditions and decided his storage room was finally due for a cleaning, screamed once in dumb disbelief. He’d planned to comb through these boxes in hope of mining old theoretical sources; he’d only just moved into this flat a month ago, and hadn’t yet sifted through the books to shelve what was important and stow away what wasn’t.

The blob paused. The slimy body–if it could be considered a body–went eerily still, the domelike top (Head? Randolph thought wildly, Does this thing have a head?) shimmered with moisture. The creature’s frozen position lent it the illusion of countenance: its mouth mirrored Randolph’s own, a yawning expression of cluelessness that seemed to say, “Oh gee, I wasn’t expecting this.”

It wobbled and, as it did, the unwelcome image of lime Jell-O forced itself into Randolph’s mind. The monstrosity quivered, its form squelching and squishing, and it belched with startling, hideous volume. Gusting from its insides was the porky stench of dead things left sitting on a kitchen counter. Randolph tilted backward, his eyes watering and his stomach swimming.

He watched hopelessly as the sodden remains of Derrida’s The Gift of Death eased their way from the blob’s glistening lip, splatting slime across the hardwood.

Randolph remembered a notation he’d made in the text, some half-formed critique of the book’s theological limitations–a point he’d intended to raise at the upcoming Post-Structuralizing Post-Structural Structures conference–and, for one lunatic moment, he almost reached down to collect the book.

Then the scene struck his mind with horribly palpable truth, like the sudden registering of a child’s death; poor Randolph was, after all, still in the laborious process of waking up. There’d been a few too many glasses of port at the after-reception get-together last night, and the reception itself had offered a great deal of alcohol itself…

Randolph screamed a stream of nonsensical obscenity–“bastards shitting on the idiots of fuck!”–and, with a single swing, he cracked the storage room door shut.

He stood, dazed and delirious. His head pounded. He ran a palm across his sweat-glossed scalp.

Call the police. The thought whizzed into his brain like a train’s scheduled arrival: utterly necessitous. He snuffed it out quickly with cold, studied logic, imagining the unthinkable phone conversation that would result: “Hello, yes. This is going to sound preposterous, but please hear me out. You see, an apparently sentient mound of ooze has camped out in my storage room and is currently devouring my philosophy and theory texts … Yes, that’s right, o-o-z-e. Ooze. You might describe it as ‘slime.’ You know, like from one of those old science fiction B-movies. Nuclear waste paranoia pictures. Right.”

No, that wouldn’t do.

He heard a low, powerful slurping sound behind the door. What was it eating now? His Nietschze? His Hegel? The Hegel could go, he could live with that, but it was the loss of post-1968 French intellectualism that worried him deeply. The conference next week was to feature a leading academic from New York, a tidily bearded and remarkably-jawed man named Dr. Adam Langford, whose work studied the tenebrous politics of YouTube hairstyling-tip videos within the post-Foucaultian context of panoptical anti-power.

Truth be told, Randolph couldn’t make tails of Langford’s work any easier than he could make heads of it. Randolph had intended to begin a desperate retrospective search into his undergraduate theory readings before the conference arrived. He wanted to wow them, his colleagues and competitors, with inspiring and affirming and maybe even incendiary responses to the panels, to the work of Dr. Langford himself. Randolph’s output had been diminishing lately, and he’d heard mutterings and rumours: Dolphy the dinosaur … an unproductive representative of Ivory Tower oppressions … hasn’t written anything worthwhile since his PhD dissertation …

Yes, Dolphy had planned to start with the torturous Derrida, but that wasn’t likely to happen, now was it?

He tugged his earlobes until the flesh stung in protest, paced a half-circle around the room, heard the grotesque noises increasing in volume.

Was the slimeball moving onto box number three now? Number four? Did its appetite know no end?

Alice Braun. The name dropped abruptly into his mind. Yes, Alice, the new member of the Natural Sciences department, whom Randolph had met by chance at the pre-reception cocktail gathering. They hadn’t got along famously enough to exchange contact information or anything, but still–she might be able to offer some explanation as to what this thing was. What did she say her research focus was? Organic anti-matter? Material organisms? Anti-organic organs?

Whatever the answer, Randolph took no time to reflect. He made a quick, shaky-fingered Google search on his Android, soon found her phone number, and dialled.

One ring. What am I doing? Two rings. What else am I supposed to do? Three rings. This is irrefutable goddamn insanity.

Randolph ended the call and pulled at his earlobe again, bobbing on his heels and hissing air between his teeth.

Kill it.

No, he couldn’t very well do that, either. The blob hadn’t exactly threatened him. No, it had only made exceptionally rude and presumptuous dinner plans.

He laughed once, shrilly, and the sound made him jolt. The scenario’s madness was blotting his thought processes, making him feel airy-headed and drunk all over again. He massaged his temples, folding flesh under fingertips, and collected himself.

No, killing it was not an option. This thing might be some rare and unheard-of organism. Randolph might be unwittingly housing an entirely new, entirely alien specimen. How did it survive the climate? Or did it need to? Was it, perhaps, a pipe-dweller, something that had made its way through the house’s guts and into its open body?

A sudden silence.

Randolph paused, closed his lips and leaned in closer to the door. No more squishy noises. No rustling. No suction.

Gone? Already? He felt his muscles depressurize in relief, and then, despite himself, he felt an unexpected sense of disappointment. Already gone?

The thought was almost, dare he say… anticlimactic.

There was only one way to confirm.

He raised his hand uneasily, closed it around the knob, and yanked the door open with excessive force. He’d once heard from his Uncle Bill, an avid hiker, that some animals backed away from humans if said humans made themselves appear “big,” and so Randolph released a guttural cry and spread his arms as the door thudded against the wall.

Empty.

Scattered across the floor were the muck-shrivelled remnants of three books (all written by Derrida), and a wet imprint where the blob had been–unfathomably bright, comic book green.

But no slimeball.

Randolph turned and looked over his shoulder, as if the creature might’ve slipped between his splayed legs and reconstituted itself behind him, towering and ready for the kill.

His body eased further at the sight of his unmarred living room.

Gather the books that are left. After that, you can make another Google search–there must be some local organization that can attend to matters such as these. Right?

Yeah, right. Randolph wasn’t so sure. Maybe some in-depth research would prove him wrong, but he felt safe in doubting that anyone would be able to give him an educated answer on this outlandish situation.

And so he sighed and stepped into the storage room. He crouched on his haunches, and he was about to reach for The Gift of Death when he heard it.

Squuuuiiiiiiiiiiiieeeeeeeeeeerrrllllp: a slushy, goopy noise, right above his head.

Still resting his buttocks on his heels, he raised his eyes slowly, hesitantly, toward the ceiling.

He saw it: smeared like emerald milk-skin across the stucco, its vast ingress dribbling strands of liquid.

Randolph opened his own mouth to scream, but he was cut short as the thing swelled and drooped like a raindrop, detached itself from the ceiling, and–

*          *          *

–Randolph is standing in a viridescent void. He’s awash in green. He looks down at his own body to ensure that everything is still intact and notes that his skin appears to have taken on the same sickly-bright shade of the storage-dweller’s flesh.

Have I been eaten? The thought strikes Randolph with fear, deep in his guts, and he feels his entire body stiffen with goose-pimples.

But he can move. He can spread his arms, and does, and they make no contact with anything.

What in the good goddamn–

He has no time to process, no time to reflect. He hears an echoey, reverberating gallop that rings across this neon chasm, and he notes immediately that it’s increasing in volume.

That it’s getting closer.

He spins around, and he feels a weightless sensation: like he’s underwater, with all of the lightness and none of the pressure enforced by liquid. He looks down and sees nothing of substance beneath his slippered feet. There’s only what seems to be an endless greenness, spanning the entirety of his vision: up and down, side to side, above and beyond…

 Nowhere to run, Randolph. His pulse ascends with the closing distance of that galloping sound. Nowhere to hide.

And so he stares ahead, fear-numbed and lacking substance.

And what he sees is somehow, impossibly, even more outrageous than the monstrosity that turned up in his storage room, that gulped him down like he was just another theory volume.

What he sees is a thin and humanoid figure with bleach-white flesh and a bulbous, yellow-eyed head resting atop its swaying stalk of a neck. Its spindly white legs are stretched across the back of its steed; the beast it rides is heavy, stocky, plated like a rhinoceros, but its neck is also long and somehow loose-looking, with a reptilian skull that reveals more teeth than Randolph cares to count.

The rider lowers a staff toward Randolph; the staff’s tip glows with an opalescent gem, and Randolph retreats a step.

Tell us what you’ve learned and you may go freely.

Randolph can hear it: its voice sounds like a fading transmission, like a radio tuned halfway between two stations.

“I beg your pardon,” Randolph says, “but… what?”

Tell us.

“Us.”

The rider swings its left leg upward, nearly to neck-level, and slides off the beast onto its right leg. It stands in this impossible contortionist pose for what feels like a minute, then brings its left leg slowly to the groundless ground.

Tell. Us. What. You’ve. Learned.

“…and I can go, right. I heard that part. I suppose I’m just not quite understanding what it is you mean, precisely,” Randolph says. This is the maddest fever dream of all time. More intense than the night you experimented with LSD in the ‘60s to celebrate a symposium on Timothy Leary’s radical thought.

The rider steps forward and points its luminous gem at Randolph, chest-level. You understand. So tell. It holds its hand out, fingers twitching subtly, and a book materializes into its open palm: Process and Reality, by Alfred North Whitehead.

It holds the book out, and Randolph pauses. “You want me to… read Whitehead to you?”

The beastly steed stamps its front hoofs and huffs obdurately. The rider turns to it, raises Process and Reality as if it’s some transcendent peace offering, then rotates to face Randolph again.

Tell us.

“For God’s sake, we’re really not getting anywhere, now are we?”

Randolph laughs at the lunacy of the scene before him.

The rider stares.

“I mean, I haven’t even read Whitehead,” Randolph says honestly. “I’ve always meant to, but I couldn’t find any way to incorporate his thought into my own textual questions.” Right. Because you’ve had so many vital “textual questions” in the last, what–two decades? Three? Randolph ignores his nagging inner voice and stares straight into those nonresponsive yellow eyes.

The rider holds the book toward the green infinity above. This is The Whitehead?

“Uh… yes, that’s probably Alfred North Whitehead’s most famous text. See, Whitehead was a mathematician to begin with, by trade I guess you might say, but…” Randolph’s brain sells his mouth short, and the sentence drops off before he’s sure where he wanted to go with it.

Tell us of The Whitehead.

Randolph stops and thinks. In his Master’s degree, he met briefly with an accomplished professor in the Philosophy department, a man named Frank Cadigan. Frank spoke from the side of his mouth to Randolph, his hair a tattered and snowy cloud over the weathered globe of his head. Frank, if Randolph remembers correctly, had whispered: “Thoughts are dead, but the world is alive.” Dear old Dr. Cadigan’s relation to Process and Reality? Randolph seems to recall that one of his instructors had once referred to Frank as “the only true Whitehead scholar.”

And so Randolph opens his mouth to speak, and in total desperation and ignorance, he says the only thing he can muster in this horrifying and unthinkable moment: “Thoughts are dead, but the world is alive.”

He expects to tumble face-first into the congealing slime pooled on his storage room floor. Expects this nightmare’s overstayed welcome to come to a stop. He expects, at least, for the rider to nod in appreciation.

He does not expect what does happen.

Impostor. He’s given us all we need. You may feed.

“Feed?” Randolph’s heart throbs somewhere in the neighborhood of his esophagus. “Impostor?”

The beast grunts deep in its long throat, scrapes its hoofs and plunges forward, its jaws snapping on top of that weirdly pasta-like neck.

Randolph turns to run, and something clips him on the skull. He looks down to see his own dog-eared copy of Kant’s Critique of Pure Reason, its corner scuffed where it connected with his bald head.

Randolph runs forward, and another book drops down to whack him on the shoulder. He continues running, and the books begin to plummet in torrents and waves. Bataille, de Beauvoir, Foucault, Heidegger, Kierkegaard, Sartre–theorists disparate and tedious, read and unread by Randolph in equal measure, their textual physicality hammering his horrified and exposed and fleeing body.

And the beast plunges ahead, gaining speed, and he can feel its hot and ravenous breath pushing through the books, blowing against his neck.

He falls, face-down, landing on nothing, and he screams into the luminously lime-colored void, and he braces himself for the sensation of those countless pointed teeth puncturing his flesh and splitting his bones, when–

*          *          *

–Randolph’s hand clattered, palm-up, against the floor. He yelped. He leapt to his feet, body churning adrenaline, skull aching. He whipped around to survey his surroundings.

His own storage room. Poor lighting, colorless and decidedly non-green walls, a stucco ceiling that now looked stained with a gallon of liberally distributed mucous, The Gift of Death squelching under his slipper.

The mark on the ceiling. The gluey, slimy substance clinging to his slippers. The three regurgitated books on the floor. These were all confirmations that what he’d just experienced had, in fact, happened.

“Randolph?”

A woman’s voice.

He whirled around at the sound of his own name, half-expecting in his panic and delirium to see that stringy and coldly demanding rider standing beside his ottoman.

He was deeply relieved to see instead that Ann Braun was reaching to him from outside the storage room, her face lined with concern.

“What are you doing in your storage room?” she asked.

Randolph froze. How did she get here? Had she received his call?

“I, uh… I don’t know,” he said, his voice flat. “How did you get in?”

Ann chuckled and gave him a playful look of consternation. When Randolph responded with a very genuinely dumbfounded expression, she crossed her arms pertly.

“Oh, come on, get real,” she said. “You weren’t that drunk, were you?”

“I… drunk…? I called you…”

“Pffft, there was no need to call me. We came from there to here, and thankfully you weren’t too drunk to… well… you know.” Ann laughed again. She stepped forward and took hold of his hand. “Come on, get out of there, you eccentric Liberal Arts maniac. Goodness me.”

She can’t see the slimy, gooey mess all over this room? She can’t see the befouled Derrida books at my feet?

Randolph found himself unable to speak. Ann pulled him gently toward the sofa and lowered him to sit beside her.

“Is everything all right?” she asked, eyes flicking across his sweaty face. “You seem really stressed out.”

Randolph looked down into his lap and shook his head in disbelief.

“Don’t worry about it. Let’s talk about something else,” Ann said. She tucked a fingernail under Randolph’s chin and tilted his face to look into hers. “Tell me what you learned at the conference.”

Tell us what you’ve learned.

Randolph looked at her with the desperate expression of a man who has gone suddenly, completely mute. His eyebrows drooped. His frown deepened.

“Come on, Randolph,” Ann said. “Tell us.”

Good God, what is happening.

He felt a trickle, slow and warm, where Ann’s fingernail had touched, and he dabbed at the flesh there: his fingers came away wet with luminescent greenness.

He stared at Ann with escalating hysteria. Good God it isn’t over just make it stop please God please.

Ann grabbed her hair and collected it to fall across one side of her face. Her exposed neck excreted a wave of slime that spilled over her collar and onto the sofa cushions.

Tell us. Tell us what you’ve learned.

“God,” Randolph said, his lower jaw dropping until he thought it might just unhinge. “God no.”

The ooze puddled before Ann’s unmoving form. It reassembled itself as a towering, grotesquely moist mound and it lurched up, then down, to swallow him up again. He raised his arms to shield his panic-frozen face and–

*          *          *

–He’s back. Back where it’s so green and infinite and formless.

Now, that cold voice declares. Tell us. It’s wielding a copy of The Uncanny, by Sigmund Freud.

Never did get around to reading that, Randolph thinks, and giggles.

His giggles turn to laughter, until the merriment twists his insides, until he thinks he might vomit all over the bright endlessness below.

Even under the din of his laughter, he can hear the question repeated: Tell us … Tell us …

And the sound of those hooves, plodding forward with slow urgency.

Randolph tilts his head skyward and screams the phrase until his voice shreds: “Thoughts are dead! The world is alive!”

The books begin raining again. First, a Frege volume. Next, Lacan. The papery torrent thickens, clobbering his head and shoulders. He won’t run this time. He grits his teeth and allows it to happen: a slow and philosophical burial.