The Prototypes of Shade Town
by Ljubo Popovich
Table of Contents|
parts: 1, 2, 3
Through twisting corridors, past a maze of multiple reinforced doors, Quentin Snoodhoffer followed a hunched, bespectacled man in a lab coat with a stainless steel clipboard.
When they finally couldn’t venture any further into the lowest levels of the building, they came to a double-paned Plexiglas containment cell. A pile of labels on a board read ‘Prototype 56’.
“It’s glorious,” Quentin said, peering at it. Beyond the transparent barrier, a mass of flesh pulsed. It was the size and shape of an elephant and the color of raw chicken. Dozens of pairs of somewhat feminine breasts blossomed from its bulbous sides, which were held up by four thighs that rippled and cascaded in tremendous folds of translucent meat. After entering the cell, Quentin prodded one of the plump masses with his finger. It trembled like venous gelatin.
“So what’s the trouble?” he asked the nervous scientist.
“It’s not responding well to the tests.”
“How do you mean?”
“I mean, it’s not excreting waste. Its liver and bladder have shriveled, and its digestive juices—”
“But how about the growth?”
“Its growth is remarkable... but... we can’t move it out of this compartment.”
“Why would you want to do that?” the CEO glared at him with bulging eyes.
“If it gains any more weight, I fear it’ll collapse in on itself.”
“Do you think this is some kind of pet?”
“You’re damn right. It’s food. Plain and simple.”
The scientist shifted and flipped through the papers. His pimply face flushed and his glasses fogged up.
“Why did you bring me down here?”
The scientist placed the clipboard against his chest and cleared his throat. “Well, we’re feeding it through that tube, and adding the correct amount of growth hormone, but its vital signs are erratic, and its weight fluctuates.”
“Let’s take a closer look.” Quentin strained onto his knees, his gut thrusting out and threatening to burst the threads of his silk turtleneck. There was a sudden bubbling up of fat from the constricted area under his collar so that his face sank down into a recessed ridge of molten neck. “It’s coming along nicely on this side.” He patted a shelf of fat and then leaned around the rotundity and frowned. “This side is noticeably leaner.”
He crawled into its shadow on hands and knees. “What’s this? It looks like someone’s been scooping out fat next to the floor. Do you have a light?”
The scientist produced a penlight from a pocket protector with trembling hands. Every so often, the enormous chicken throbbed like an oversized model of the heart, and fresh sweat would excrete at his temples.
“Sweet Jesus,” Quentin said, “how could you let this happen?”
“What is it, sir?”
“Ants got in here. No wonder it’s taking so long to mature. We’ve been feeding a colony. They’re tunneling into it, mining that juicy fat. They’ve found a nearly inexhaustible source of food right under our noses. Why, I’d say they’ve excavated a good three feet deep from the looks of it.”
Then, without warning, he reached his arm into the creature all the way to the shoulder, and it came out slick a moment later. He squatted there wheezing like a farmer who had just birthed a calf. “We’ve got to spray this thing down. Get ten gallons of insecticide. I want you to pump enough poison into this canal to kill every last one of these bastards.” He swatted at his greasy arm, which was swarming with ants.
* * *
Hanif selected Deluxe Chicken Du Jour from the vending machine. It slid into a miniature microwave box. Thirty seconds later, it plopped steaming onto a splattered tray.
As he stirred the multicolored gravy in his bowl, he let the meaninglessness of the world fade from his mind. It was a sort of meditation, and the chicken, warm and gooey and available in twenty different flavors, just made everything feel better for a while.
He could have been angry about finding out his employer was a nutcase, and more than a little creeped out by all of the gruesome things he’d witnessed, but he wouldn’t act like a high and mighty vegan like her. In the distance he could make out the faint, repetitive jingle of the circus. Of all the freaks, he most pitied the conjoined twins. He remembered filming them as they sat there, two grown men with their skulls twisted together. How cruel was the Creator, Hanif thought, if he molded men like that out of the same clay as the rest and then suffered them to live. The twins had leered at him. Something deeper than hate had festered in their gaze, and he would never forget it.
True, he’d photographed plenty of grisly accidents. He should have been numb to the hideous and the profane. But there was also such a thing as living your life. There was nothing wrong with succumbing to the status quo. Tomorrow he would quit and drive back home. Mary Clark would be on her own. It would take a long time to shake off the unsettled feeling Shade Town gave him.
* * *
On his days off, Proteus used Larner Rhodes’ mansion. The ringleader had built it piecemeal over the years. It was a constant project and the source of a snowballing expense he justified by offering his employees free access to its gothic luxuries. Frazzled willows billowed in front of vine-covered walls and piggybacking buttresses protruded from eccentrically steep walls. It was a place composed of ominous hallways and phantasmagoric porticos with gargoyles crouching in every alcove. Its hyperbolic aspect clashed harshly with the kitschy shopfronts but eventually attained the status of an auxiliary attraction.
Over the years, Proteus used the house in the mornings when he wasn’t lifting weights. He could drift through the oversized pool for hours and used the Olympic-sized trampoline as a lawn chair.
Just as he was about to doze off, he heard the elaborate chime of the doorbell. Mary Clark stood in the doorframe.
“We have the place to ourselves,” he said. “Why don’t you come in?”
“Hanif quit,” Mary Clark said, kicking off her shoes.
She nodded. They made themselves comfortable near the pool. Tipping her wine glass to sip, Mary Clark stared out over the glittering water. The bathing suit she wore grew lighter as it dried. Next to her on the trampoline, Proteus’ head emerged from the elastic crater created by his weight.
“What are you going to do?” he asked.
“Stick around. This place fascinates me.” She took another sip.
“Are you staying for me or for the sake of your documentary?”
“Can’t it be both?”
Her words made his heart sink. Since their first date he feared the temporary nature of their relationship. It could have been that he was inextricably bound to Shade Town, and knew that his chances with a woman from out of town were slim.
“What are you going to do without a cameraman? I suppose I could help you.”
“No offense, but you’re a little tall for that kind of work. Plus, you’ve got a busy schedule.”
“I’ve been here for a long time, Mary Clark. Shade Town is my domain. You’d be surprised at all the connections I have.”
“Help me get into the TMC factory.” She swished the wine around in her mouth and waited.
Proteus regarded her skeptically, felt a stream of sweat trickle between his elephantine shoulder blades, and finally nodded.
* * *
The scientist sweated copiously into his white lab coat. He’d never been so close to Prototype 56 before. Without harnesses, it was not capable of supporting its own weight, so he always kept a respectable distance, not so much out of fear but out of utter abhorrence. He was on all fours examining the canal dug by the ants. He’d spent hours caulking the clinical white tiles of the cell, but they still managed to get in somehow, and he had to crawl around and crush them one by one.
Every so often, he glanced up and watched Prototype 56 throb like a precariously inflated, shucked oyster. Wide fabric bands anchored it to the ceiling so that it hovered two feet off the ground with a sort of paunch that ballooned and sank to the floor in bulbous sections. It resembled more than anything one of those rare poisonous caterpillars, except uniformly colored like a prosthetic limb.
The cavity in its posterior had healed over, though the flesh was as soft as hair gel. Because of the straps, hefty portions protruded like limp pseudopodia. The scientist was examining one of these, which appeared bruised, when he heard a sound in the observation chamber. All at once he began to perspire even more.
Mr. Snoodhoffer was standing behind the glass. There was something awful about his smile. That smile would be the last thing he saw, since a moment later, the CEO flipped a switch and the pulleys in the ceiling whirred violently, and the gargantuan specimen subsided over him. There was the muffled sound of shattering bones and then a violent throb from the Prototype as it expired.
Quentin sighed and placed a new sticker over the pile of labels on the board. It read: “Prototype 57.”
* * *
It was the dead of night. Shade Town’s famous Ferris wheel was sparkling when Proteus and Mary Clark paused beneath a pine thicket. The trees were rich with the tone of cicadas, and the ground crunched under their feet. Proteus sniffed the air like a colossal, gleaming hound.
“It’s surprisingly bright out,” Mary Clark said, breathing deeply.
“It’s a full moon.”
The forest floor looked white. A bed for skeletons. Weird mounds swelled from tree trunks, and misshapen fungi, clustered like glistening pustules.
“It’s not much farther,” he said, brushing aside bothersome tree branches.
“Are the animals here as unique as the people?” she asked.
“I’ve seen my fair share of two-tailed squirrels and the like.”
“We should come back in the daytime and film the wildlife.”
“One time, Larner caught a really creepy fish. It jumped out of the river and scuttled through town on spider-legs. Had antennae eyes, like a lobster. When he finally captured it, he had it stuffed and added it to the museum.”
“So no one’s really explored these woods? For scientific research, I mean.”
“They’re too afraid of the ghost stories.”
“When I became an investigative reporter, I swore I’d never be afraid of anything. You have to be fearless in this business.”
For a while they pressed on in silence.
“I smell fried chicken.” Proteus squinted into the distance. A thick fog flowed across a moon-drenched field.
“It’s like one of those Halloween fog machines,” Mary Clark whispered, dipping beneath his towering elbows. Beyond the opaque embankment of mist a solid wall loomed.
“That’s the factory,” Proteus said.
Before the wide clearing, and standing next to a giant, she decided that the wall wasn’t all that intimidating.
“You think we can get over?”
“I just don’t want you to get hurt if I boost you up.”
“I can stick the landing. I was a pole vaulter in college.”
The fog oozed over them. Grasping moisture clung to their clothes.
“Ugh,” Mary Clark sneezed and wiped her dripping nose. “It’s like oily exhaust.”
When they started to cross the desolate patch of ground, something leapt from a treetop, like a streak of moonlight, lanky and huge, lumbering toward the wall. “What the hell was that?” Mary Clark mumbled, trembling. Proteus stared, fascinated by the impossible swinging arms. It sported thick buttocks, and a jutting, pink belly. Swirls of silvery white fur glowed on its back as it tore to and fro in front of the cement wall. A high-pitched whine rang out, like the cry of a frantic child. It leered at them, fiery red eyes shining. And it’s face: pale, puffy and forlorn.
Mary Clark felt her heart would explode. She brushed the cloying fog out of her face and fled. From the pounding footsteps behind her, she knew Proteus was close at her heels. And still, that wail, like a demonic infant, followed them all the way back to town.
* * *
“I can’t believe I didn’t get it on film,” Mary Clark said the next day.
“We were too busy shitting ourselves,” Proteus laughed.
“What if it was just in our minds? Like a security system. Remember all that gooey fog?”
“Even if we were tripping, how could we both see the same version of Bigfoot?”
They stood at the edge of town where the forest suddenly took over. In truth, Shade Town was just a tiny island of humanity in a vast, primeval wilderness.
“Well, I’m prepared this time.” Mary Clark tapped the Handycam fastened to her waist.
“Me too.” Proteus shouldered the old hunting rifle, borrowed from Larner, which looked like a toy in his hands. When he had asked for the day off, he’d had to jump through hoops to fend off the ringmaster’s curiosity.
Emboldened by the bright sunlight, Mary Clark and Proteus sauntered into the forbidding density of trees. Mushrooms erupted in grotesque phalanxes and, more than once, they encountered the ravaged carcasses of horses and pigs.
“Well, that explains the missing circus animals,” Proteus said.
Mary Clark filmed the maggot-infested corpses with ecstatic delight. “Do you think Imago comes out in the daylight?’ she wondered aloud.
“Doubtful. I thought we were here to film the factory?”
“You’re right! Onward!” She marched ahead.
Proteus frowned. Given the state of the animals they’d found so far, he took her enthusiasm for a mask.
As they trekked on, they stepped over giant insect casings, translucent sacs, repurposed by gray-green larvae. The gnarled trees arched and leaned crookedly, and impossibly intricate spider webs complicated their path.
Finally, they recognized the clearing from the night before. The stench of fried food assaulted their nostrils again. From the branches of a nearby tree, Mary Clark peeked over the wall with binoculars. She saw pudgy security guards reclining on the precariously balanced back legs of chairs, their faces lit by the glow of cellular phones. They slid greasy fingers over the screens, fast food bags ever ready at their sides. Her stomach churned with familiar distaste.
“Should we wait for nightfall?” he asked her uncertainly.
“They probably don’t need night watchmen with that fog creature... Naw, I’m about ready to say screw it and start trespassing.” Fury burned in her eyes.
“I’ll let you make the call.”
“What other choice do we have? Personally, I’m willing to go to prison for this cause. Once we get inside, I’ll start a live feed on my cell. I have a feeling all the lawyers in the world won’t save them from what we’ll find in there.”
Proteus’ heart sank. Had he expected their little affair to go any differently? Was he really willing to risk his career on this foolhardy exposé? His feelings for her hadn’t changed, but her outrageous plan nearly broke his resolve.
“I’ll need a distraction, Proteus.” Her eyes beseeched him.
“I’ve always made a good distraction.” He flashed a halfhearted smile.
“I’ll lie on top of the wall. You run in and draw their attention. While the guards are busy, I’ll slip inside. Keep them occupied for as long as you can.”
“How are you going to get out if they catch me?”
“By then I’ll have all the ammo I need.” She waved her phone like a lightsaber.
A few minutes later, Proteus touched down beyond the wall. He charged through a loading bay behind an idling truck. Within seconds a fleet of two dozen guards were at his heels, clutching at their elastic belts and wheezing hoarsely. He heard their yells and the whiz and smack of rubber bullets. After clambering over piles of pallets, he found himself in an immense warehouse. There was no time to glance over his shoulder at Mary Clark.
Frozen slabs of meat were stacked to the ceiling. Safety-helmeted foreigners instantly turned their forklifts to chase him. In the distance, he glimpsed the gourd-shaped figure of Quentin Snoodhoffer and let out a subconscious growl. The CEO was wearing the same black silk turtleneck, and his eyes bulged with alarm when he turned toward the sprinting giant.
Suddenly, Quentin overturned a nearby vat of foamy gray oil and slicked the floor. Proteus slid through a particleboard wall before landing in a steel vat of slime. Twenty guards subdued him with tasers as he crawled out.
* * *
Copyright © 2019 by Ljubo Popovich