Exoskeletons in the Closet
by Martin Bayne
“He’s still unconscious,” Mrs. McCarthy said.
“Poor guy,” I said, tugging at the locked drawer. “Mrs. McCarthy, you’re going to have to trust me on this one. Please stand back.”
I unwrapped the butcher’s cleaver and with one solid whack, split the entire drawer in two. Mrs. McCarthy jumped.
Then I took the gun and cleaver and placed them both in my waistband. As I left, she said, “Go ahead. I’ll sit here until Geraldine gets here. She’s dealt with him when he’s been like this before, she once told me.”
“Sounds good to me,” I said on my way out of the room. “Let me know if he comes around.”
I walked into the kitchen and held the .45 up for Jude to see. He nodded. “Do you know how to use that thing?” Jude asked.
“I was a Marine in Vietnam,” I said as I sat in my assigned chair.
Then, after what seemed like hours, Jude responded. “So was I.”
Still looking out the window, I stretched my arm as far as it would go toward Jude until I felt his hand grab mine. “Semper Fi,” he said.
* * *
“Yeah, man, Semper Fi,” I said, fighting back tears.
I pulled my arm back and Jude began to talk softly, but very quickly, and with great command:
“First, I’m going to start with some facts. See if any of this sounds familiar. I met Joel on a highway in New Hampshire. His car had broken down — an old Ford station wagon that ended up being towed away. So I offered to give him a ride home and he took me to a house in Connecticut. And there was a guy there in the shape you see me now...The whole weekend was filled with extraordinary memories. You’re an orphan, right?”
“Me, too. That’s his secret. He goes for orphans, guys who desperately want their early childhood back, consciously or subconsciously. Because accessing those memories releases certain neurochemicals that are important during the transformational event.”
“The transformational event?”
He nodded. “That’ll come later. In fact, if I was a betting man, I’d lay some heavy dough that you were born in this house.” He paused. “Could I have a glass of water?”
I poured a glass of cold water from the Melitta container in the refrigerator and put it on the steel tray in front of him.
He lifted the glass to his mouth and quickly gulped its contents, then continued, “So let’s finish this so you can shoot me in the head and be on your way. Has what I said so far rung true?”
“Do you have the faintest idea what’s really going on?”
I sighed deeply and shook my head no.
* * *
“Joel is molting.”
“I heard you the first time. What does it mean, ‘He’s molting’?”
For the next twenty minutes, I sat, enraptured as Jude described a scenario the likes of which only Dante Alighieri could have conjured. His voice became low and intense. “From this point forward, most of what I’m going to tell you will sound like fiction. You can choose to believe none of it, some of it, or all of it. I don’t really care. I’m only asking you to do two things: shoot me and save yourself. Whether you believe the story is irrelevant. Deal?”
“No deal,” I said firmly. “I’ve never left a fellow Marine behind before, and I’m not starting now. I’m taking you back to Brooklyn with me.”
“That’s a noble gesture, Mark, but it’s gonna be a bloody miracle just to get you out of here in one piece. Now please don’t interrupt me again.
“All right,” Jude began, “let’s rewind this tape all the way to the beginning. When I picked Joel up on the highway, I began to have a great number of childhood memories. When we got to the house that Joel said was his, I was even convinced that it was the house I’d been born in, so strong was the feeling of déjà vu.
“All the while, Joel had been telling me that he was going to die that weekend. And another thing: Joel is extraordinarily good at bonding. Except for a couple of men that I shared a trench with during a firefight in Nam, I don’t think I’d ever felt as close to another man as I did to Joel. He has a special way of making you feel like — well, like you’re his son. And that’s the feeling you come away with. That you are in fact, his son.” He looked at me. “Right? Have I touched a nerve on that?”
Had he ever. I nodded.
* * *
“Well, Mark, this went on for two days. Over that weekend, Joel’s health continued to decline, and I, myself, started feeling a slight malaise. I remember waking up on Sunday morning almost unable to move. By 12 o’clock, my condition had deteriorated to the point where I could not move a muscle in my body.
“I remember Geraldine walking into the room, and giving me an intramuscular injection. Then she did the oddest thing. She looked at me, and began singing, ‘How does it feel to be one of the beautiful people’ and then laughed and walked out of the room. Mark, I didn’t think it was possible after Vietnam to feel any greater fear until Geraldine sang that verse. I knew right then I was in deep trouble, and things would only get worse from there.
“That evening, two aides came in, and I remember being put in a fetal position. Someone probed my back with a needle to find what I assume was an entry point into my spinal canal. Then they placed restraints on my legs and arms, and wheeled me in the bed into an elevator at the end of the hall.
“Geraldine joined us, and we went down a couple of floors. The doors opened into what looked like the basement of the house. It certainly smelled like a basement: It was moldy, dark, and damp. They rolled my bed out to the center of the room and then they left. You could hear rodents scurrying around when it was quiet.
“After what seemed like an hour, I heard the motor of the elevator start up, and a number of voices inside it. Shortly thereafter, the elevator door opened and a bed was wheeled next to mine. What I saw next to this very day seems impossible.
“But how can I deny what I saw? It was Joel, but his whole body was covered with a thick layer of what almost looked like some kind of leather that was... alive. It undulated, moving continuously on his body. All you could see of Joel, himself, was his head, which was covered with a thick gelatinous substance.
“Geraldine said, ‘Okay, now, place him on the uterus with as much exposure as possible. We need all the contact points we can get to enhance memory resonance channeling for this molt.’
“When they placed me on top of Joel’s body, I felt this covering that seemed to have a life of its own. At first I felt a faint vibration. As the vibration increased, I could literally see memories being sucked from my mind.
“Initially, the phenomenon was interesting to watch. But after a minute or two, a sense of panic set in. Where would ‘I’ go when my memories were gone? The last thing I remember before blacking out was the sound of my minister’s voice — in the only homily that ever really moved me as an adult, ‘In the time of greatest fear or anxiety, call upon His name and He will lift you onto His shoulders.’
“When I woke up, I was in this chair. The only thing I can figure out is that the injection that they usually give directly into the spinal cord of their victims somehow missed its target. They assumed I had the mind of a two-year old like the other victims, so I played along.”
* * *
At this point, Jude rubbed his eyes and shook his head. “Mark, it’s such a relief to be able to tell someone all this — and there’s more — but we don’t have much time.”
“No, I’d say your time has just about run out,” said Geraldine, opening the kitchen door and stepping into the room. “I must admit, Jude, you probably deserve an Oscar for your performance, but your big-screen days are over.
“You see, by nature I’m a pretty simple person. I believe in getting from point A to point B as quickly and simply as possible. And if you can’t rely on pharmacology,” she said as she picked up a 12-inch cast-iron pan off the stove, “you go back to basics.” She raised the pan high in the air as she headed towards Jude.
She never heard the next sound — as I squeezed off a round of the .45 the bullet entered her head just above her right eye, removing a good portion of the top of her skull. She pitched forward onto the kitchen floor.
I turned my head quickly toward Jude. “Do you think she was...” I stammered.
Jude cut me off. “She was what, human? Yeah, as far as I could tell, but this is no time for an autopsy. We’ve got bigger fish to fry right now.”
Taking Jude’s cue, I ran into Joel’s bedroom to find a creature out of a horror movie lying on Mrs. McCarthy. The creature was exactly like Jude had described him, a leathery, pupa-like body with Joel’s head — a head covered in a translucent gel.
Mrs. McCarthy was beyond help, her body a shriveled flat bag, drained of all its blood. Now my mission was even less complicated.
* * *
I walked around the bed in full view of Joel, but he ignored me and continued to feed.
When I took the .45 from my waistband, he smiled, “Go ahead, amuse yourself, then I’ll have you for breakfast.”
I ran back into the kitchen.
Jude shouted, “I didn’t hear any shots. What the hell is going on?”
“I came back to get the cleaver and do the job right,” I said, out of breath.
“You idiot, he tricked you,” Jude screamed.
I slowly stepped over Geraldine’s body, walked to the kitchen table and picked up the cleaver where I had left it, beginning to question whether I had done the right thing. Then, without a word, I headed for Joel’s room.
When I reached the bedroom door, there was no longer any question. Except for some random body parts of Mrs. McCarthy’s on the floor, Joel’s room was empty.
“Damn!” I shouted, throwing the cleaver into the wall. I bolted into the kitchen to warn Jude and came to a dead stop. Someone was screaming so loudly, it was impossible to concentrate on the task at hand.
As I scanned the kitchen for some sign of Jude, the screaming intensified to the point I felt my ear drums would burst any second. And that’s when I saw it sitting in the sink: Jude’s decapitated head, and on his forehead, written with an indelible marker, the words Semper Fi.
As I sank into the warm blackness — trading consciousness for sanctuary — I realized the screams were mine.
* * *
Somehow, I regained consciousness in the living room; the dying crimson light pouring through the bay windows signaled dusk was only minutes away. Night would soon come and it would be all over — Jude had told me that in the dark, Joel was more insect than human, and impossible to defeat.
But then I remembered something else Jude told me. Female blood might extend his life for a day or two, but the molt required male blood and tissue to be complete. And the process of molting left him very weak, incapable of hunting — the man or men would have to be brought to him. I thought about — wait a minute! — I had passed out in the kitchen and came to in the living room. Mother of God, the man was playing with his food!
Just as the last of the day’s light surrendered to the darkness, I had an idea, a concept I had once read about in a Special Forces PSYOPS Training Manual. It was a long shot, but as wary as Joel was of me right now, he also needed to finish the molt or he would die.
I quickly took off all my clothes and scrubbed myself from head to toe. After I dried myself I began smearing blood from Jude’s corpse all over my body. The next gambit was the critical one: I lay completely naked, covered in blood, on the living room floor, with my eyes closed against the gruesome reality that was about to claim me.
* * *
Four or five times that night I heard what sounded like a very large dragonfly hovering above me, but I lay completely still.
On about the sixth pass, Joel lifted me into the air and carried me into his bedroom. The sights, sounds and smells of that short journey were horrific. But I remained resolute, as I carried the image in my mind of Jude and the words Semper Fi on his forehead.
Lying next to Joel in bed, I began to feel weak, as he drew my vital strength away from me through the large, leather-like uterus that covered his body. I put my head where his chest would normally be as he looked at me through a mask of translucent gel. “It will all be over soon,” he said. At the moment he seemed most sated, and contrary to everything I believed, I brought my mouth up to meet his.
* * *
He smiled and opened his mouth with great anticipation. When our mouths met, I exhaled as forcefully as possible, forcing the contents in my mouth — Drano crystals and rat poison — halfway down his throat. I spit out the plastic wrap that had held the chemicals intact, as the deadly cocktail was already beginning to digest him.
I walked into the kitchen, picked up the .45 and walked back into the bedroom. Coughing and choking on his own dying cells, Joel looked at me, then at the .45.
“Son,” he pleaded, “you wouldn’t really go and shoot your own dad now, would you?”
“You betcha, Pops, and twice on Father’s Day,” I said through clenched teeth as I emptied the clip into his skull — creating six new drainage holes in his temporal, frontal and occipital lobes.
Dropping the .45 automatic on the floor, I focused all my energy on calling up whatever emergency reserves were left within me for what lay ahead.
* * *
First, I buried Jude with a few simple prayers; then I took a fresh change of clothing from the car and had a hot shower.
Next on the list was the aluminum storage shed behind the garage. One good swing of a ball peen hammer I’d found in the cellar broke the lock mechanism on the door, revealing a gas can for the lawn mower stored inside.
Twenty minutes later, the house was engulfed in flames and I was headed back to Brooklyn in the most beautiful yellow Ford Taurus in the world.
Predictably, breaking a long-standing tradition, I didn’t pick up a single hitchhiker.
Copyright © 2012 by Martin Bayne