The Wegner

There’s decent money to be made in storage auctions. At least, there used to be, before the reality TV shows made everyone think they could get rich quick. The unit was crammed with old boxes and some furniture. The furniture caught my eye — a refinished vintage desk from the fifties or sixties could sell for quite a bit. The crowd was sparse, and I won the auction for a steal. After the auction, I drove the box truck back to my warehouse, and began unloading it. My warehouse was a small prefab metal building with a roll-up garage door that my father had used, when he was alive, to store junk in, and to dream about building race cars. To my knowledge, no car had ever graced the concrete floor of that building.

I lived with my roommate Randall. When we met in eighth grade, I hated his guts. He was fat, shy, weird, and worst of all, he was really smart. I soon came to appreciate Randall’s intelligence when that mean old bitch Mrs. Catlett assigned me to be his lab partner. I got an A for the first time in years. My parents were killed by a drunk driver midway through my freshman year at the local community college. They left me their big old sprawling farmhouse, money to bury them, and not much else. Randall suggested I rent out some of the rooms, specifically to him. I understood that he meant it as a favor to me, and at the time, I needed both the money and the company.

At fifteen, Randall started making money building websites. He told me once, “On the Internet, nobody knows you’re a dog — or that you’re fifteen.” I learned a lot from him by pure osmosis, particularly in research. Being able to track down both prior sales and potential buyers is a valuable skill in my line of work. Randall, however, moved on from building simple websites to programming full web-based applications. By the time he moved in, he was earning enough that he could pay all of his bills, and have plenty of money left over for his many hobbies.

When I first visited Randall’s house, in eighth grade, I was astonished by his baseball card collection. He had thousands, meticulously arranged and cataloged, and it seemed that he had every stat memorized. As the years passed, he moved from collection to collection. About a year after he moved in, Randall stumbled across what was soon to be his new obsession: mechanical keyboards. He bought us both Corsair gaming boards, then promptly threw them in the trash and replaced them with boards from a Taiwanese outfit named Ducky, complete with fancy LED lighting patterns. I was happy with my Ducky Shine board; the keys felt great, though the clicks were a little annoying. When Randall wasn’t coding, he was shopping for increasingly rare keyboards. He had taken over the dining room as his work area. He set up tall shelves that he filled with boards, each labeled and cleaned, and, in some cases, meticulously wrapped in protective plastic. Randall claimed that he had purchased his “endgame” board, a strangely shaped aluminum beast he purchased from someone in Korea, after a month of tedious and sometimes heated negotiation. When it arrived, I was astonished to see it wasn’t even finished.

“You spent how much on that?” I asked.

“Eight hundred,” he replied.

“Eight hundred, for some metal plates and a bunch of parts.”

“Yea, plus I had to buy the keycaps. So, maybe a grand total.”

“Two hundred for some plastic keycaps? I’m definitely not charging you enough for rent.”

When I loaded the box truck at the storage auction, I knew I had hit paydirt with the furniture. The unit had contained a beautiful oak desk, a padded oak and leather rolling office chair, and some desk lamps. There were also quite a few cardboard boxes of papers, books, and various other junk. In the back corner of the unit, covered in cloth, was a heavy wooden crate, its lid nailed shut. The crate was what interested me most; the file cabinets had papers and files, but I couldn’t open the crate without a crowbar. The furniture alone would double my investment in the unit, but sealed wooden crates typically meant something important. Something of value.

Lifting with my legs, and not with my back, with liberal use of my hand truck, I leveraged the boxes and the furniture out of the truck and into my warehouse. Randall had spray-painted that hand truck hot pink one weekend. “I thought your dolly needed a new dress,” he said, and laughed until his glasses fogged up. The jerk. Finally, I was alone with my prize. I carefully slotted the crowbar, and pried the lid off the wooden crate. Inside lay a large chunk of foam packing material, around a dark piece of equipment. I removed packing material, carefully pulled the device from its crate, and placed it on the desk. The device appeared to be quite possibly the world’s ugliest computer. Its case was a dark reddish brown, with thick angles of metal bent over and around a tiny glass tube screen. The screen shared the front of the case with a floppy bay, along with several other odd ports. Just below the monitor was a label, white letters stark against black Dymo embossing tape: WEGNER-1. The keyboard, packed in its own wrapping of foam, was also red-brown, in a tall case nearly three inches thick. It felt as if it might be made of steel, and had a heft like a murder weapon.

I texted Randall that I had found an old computer, and he came to the warehouse at a run. His jaw dropped when he saw the ugly old thing, and he spent the next ten minutes caressing it and cooing at it like I’d brought him a kitten.

“Gonna turn it on?” I asked. Randall looked at me in horror.

“Are you nuts? The capacitors in this thing have to be over thirty years old! I’ll have to test every single one with a meter, and even then I don’t know if I’d dare trying it. The keyboard, though, has an RJ-11 connector. I have a USB adapter for that,” he said, and got the faraway look in his eye that nerds get when they’re solving nerd problems.

“I’ll leave you alone with your new girlfriend,” I said. “I’m starved, and I have dust all up my sinuses.”

While I showered, Randall carted the Wegner, as he started calling it, into the house, and set it up on the dining room table. Realizing we had no food in the house, and we were critically low on beer, I went to a market to pick up deli sandwiches and beverages. It was late when I got back. Randall was still at the table, looking at the Wegner keyboard through magnifying lenses strapped to his forehead. He looked up at me and sighed. “I can’t figure out how these switches work, man. I thought they might be Hall Effect at first, but they’ve got this weird chip next to each of them. They feel great, though. Like a Topre board with tight buckling springs.” He began reassembling the board. “I got it to work with that USB adapter too. Wanna try it?” Randall flipped the board back onto its base, and connected it to his PC. I leaned over the board, the angle awkward, and started touched the keys.

“Ow!” I said, as a short static shock jolted my fingers. I recoiled, and looked at Randall. “The damn thing has a short.”

“Yeah, it did that to me once too. No idea why. Should be grounded over USB. Come on, don’t be a sissy, try it out,” Randall said. I lay my fingers on the board again. The Wegner’s keys were weirdly slick, and the caps felt slightly oily to my touch.

“Is this thing buzzing when I hit a key?” I asked.

“That’s what I can’t figure out, dude! I looked all over the top of the board and there’s nothing that might make it buzz like that. The case is welded together at the bottom, so I can’t get to the underside of the board, without breaking it. I kinda like it, though,” Randall said. “It’s like a mini-massage for my fingers.”

I settled down at my own computer, cracked a beer and started hunting down the provenance for our ugly new friend. I sent a few emails to some friends in the business, and posted some questions on some “vintage computing” message boards. My first search results for Wegner returned Wikipedia articles about Dr. Meinrad Wegner. He was a German rocket scientist who came to America, perhaps unwillingly, at the end of WWII. A footnote led me to his son, a polymath who graduated from MIT with four degrees at twenty years old, then disappeared from the public eye for a decade. In 1982, at COMDEX in Atlantic City, Wegner unveiled the Wegner-1, a PC clone that he claimed would “change the world”. Wegner’s announcement was met with some skepticism, but mostly apathy. After COMDEX, the trail went cold, with no other articles about Wegner, or his computer.

The next day, I sorted through the furniture and boxes that came from Wegner’s office. The drawers in the oak desk were locked, but the lock didn’t stand up to a screwdriver and a hammer. The first drawer shrieked horribly when I pulled it open. Inside lay an assortment of decades-old office supplies. With the first drawer opened, I could then pull out the larger bottom drawer. “Bingo,” I said to myself. A dozen black paperback notebooks lay inside, each dated and labeled “E. Wegner, Laboratory Notes.” I pulled out the notebooks, and started flipping through them.

At first, it was hard to read Wegner’s spidery, cramped handwriting. In the first notebook, which appeared to be the earliest, dated “1968,” was filled with terse, almost grudging notes about Wegner’s daily work. He had been recruited straight out of college to work at a small, independent laboratory in the outskirts of Massachusetts. At first, he was given menial fact-checking assignments, long and tedious mathematical calculations performed by hand and slide-rule. Wegner’s frustration with these assignments were apparent in his notes. In the margins, though, he had drawn several sketches of electrical circuits. Wegner appeared to have a breakthrough midway through 1969. His cramped handwriting became more expansive, and his ideas more fluid as written on the page. He began to receive greater access to the projects upon which he had been working, and by the end of the notebook, so did I. The small, independent laboratory was in truth a government operation, requiring both Top Secret and an extremely prejudiced “need to know” clearance, operating at arm’s length to provide plausible deniability.

The height of Cold War paranoia had combined with the heady days of the Summer of Love to produce strange fruit, indeed. By 1970, Wegner was involved in dozens of projects, each more bizarre than the last. Remote sensing, life extension, astral projection. Wegner devoured every subject before him, and combined them in ways that were the true manifestation of his genius. Tantric meditation based upon quantum physics, mathematical formulae derived during deeply ritualized seances while megadosing on lysergic acid derivatives he developed during sensory deprivation. In one of these fugue states, he wrote, he became convinced of the possibility of “imprinting” — copying thoughts from one person to another. The military, of course, latched onto the idea as a perfect interrogation method: what better way to question an enemy combatant than to read that enemy’s thoughts?

By this point, I was hooked. I had settled on a creaking wooden office chair, likely Wegner’s, with a beer, two ham sandwiches, and a stack of notebooks. I went to the kitchen for more beer, and a bag of chips. Randall was banging away at his weird old keyboard, headphones on, monitor glare whiting out his glasses. As I passed, I asked if he wanted a beer. He said nothing, lost in whatever code he was working on. I shrugged, and went back to the notebooks.

Somewhere between 1974 and 1978, Wegner had made a major breakthrough. He was still devouring wildly disparate fields of both science and mythology with equal gusto, incorporating Voudon ceremonies with computer science. He wrote that he felt all knowledge in the universe was already known to the universe, and so could be divined, or teased out of the Mind of God. He theorized that ritual and supplication to higher powers were equally valid to proper scientific experimentation, and by 1975 had formalized divination rituals designed to find specific answers to extremely difficult logical calculations. Wegner became convinced that he was contacting entities that existed outside the universe, and these hyperdimensional entities had access to all knowledge, both past and future. Whether Wegner was actually contacting the spirit world, or was simply insane, was irrelevant: his efforts paid off. Double-blind trials proved imprinting worked for moods in 1980, and by the following year, he had a functional device that could reliably transfer clear thoughts from one person to another — if both were concentrating very hard.

The notebook for 1982 was the last, and started with great success: Wegner’s lab assistant, Anne Bowdon, successfully received an “imprint” from a test subject. She was able to document details about the test subject’s life and personal history that the test subject had revealed to no one else, including recent memories that the test subject had attempted to suppress while being “recorded”. Anne, who Wegner had not mentioned in his journals before, soon became prominent in his journals. Wegner noted that after imprinting, Anne seemed more intelligent, often solving difficult problems that had previously been far beyond her skills very quickly. Wegner thought that, perhaps, imprinting added the “recorded” subject’s intellect to the “imprinted” subject. It was Anne who persuaded Wegner to leave the lab, and to take his invention to the public. Anne told him that imprinting technology would “remake the world.”

Wegner wrote that Anne developed the WEGNER-1 PC almost entirely on her own, hand-assembling the case and keyboard in a locked room by herself over a weekend. In an entry dated June of 1982, Wegner wrote that Anne had been trying to convince him that they should leave the laboratory, that the WEGNER-1 would “change the world”. He worried that the government would object — strongly — to their breach of security. Anne suggested they demonstrate the WEGNER-1 at COMDEX, an upcoming trade show in Atlantic City. The government wouldn’t be able to keep their project secret, then. On June 27, 1982, Wegner wrote that he planned to propose marriage to Anne. “This will be the happiest day of my life!”

The notebook was blank after that entry, or so I thought. I flipped through the remaining pages, and saw something written on the back of the notebook. “Anne is not Anne. Something else came through. I have to stop them.” I should have been worried then. I should have felt the cold tendrils of panic crawling up the base of my neck. Instead, I chuckled at Wegner’s madness, and went back to the house.

I am so sorry. For all of you.

When I returned to the house, Randall was still working. He didn’t acknowledge me as I walked past, the loud, clacking keystrokes echoing off the ceilings and floorboards of the old farm house. The original WEGNER-1 now sat on the table, amidst a tangle of network cables. “Decided to hook it anyway?” I said, walking past. No response. I stopped, and nudged Randall’s chair with my foot. “I’m running out for some dinner. Want anything?” Randall’s fingers scrabbled across the board, clicking and tapping, illuminated by the blue glow of the screens like pale spiders. I grabbed him by the shoulder, and gently shook. “Wake up, man. Dinner?” The clicking stopped, and his hand shot up to grasp mine at the wrist. For an instant, I felt overwhelming, disorienting revulsion. I recoiled slightly, pulling my hand away from his shoulder. He released his grip on my arm. His head slowly swiveled towards me, eyes hidden behind twin reflecting lenses.

“No,” he said, voice clicking in his throat. He turned back to the screens, hands again a flurry of motion.

“Jesus, dude, whatever,” I said, rubbing my wrist. He had really squeezed hard. Randall could be single-minded when he was deep in code, but I had never seen him like that. I shook my head, still rubbing my arm, and left. I checked emails while waiting for my food, and saw my message board posts had received quite a bit of attention. The busy geeks on the vintage computing forum had found more information about Ernst Wegner.

“Wegner didn’t just have a nervous breakdown,” the commenter wrote. “He went absolutely bonkers crazy. It was all over the local news. The neighbors heard shouting and called the cops. When the cops broke down the door, they found his girlfriend dead on the floor. He’d stabbed her a dozen times with a butcher knife, doused her in kerosene, then bashed her head in with the jug. In the police report, one of the cops stated Wegner was trying to do some ‘Satanic’ ritual with her body. He had her inside some circle he’d painted in blood, with markings all around it, and just before the cops tackled him, threw a match. Took firefighters hours to put out the blaze. Wegner was only in his cell for a few hours. A bunch of spooks showed up in black panel vans at the county jail. They shoved papers — and guns — in the cops’ faces and had Wegner bundled up and gone before anyone could say no.” Other commenters went on to claim this was proof of a government coverup, then the thread devolved into name-calling and political rants.

The rapid-fire clacking was audible from outside the house, old movie-monster skeletons rattling their bones as I walked into the front door. There was a smell in the house then, an acrid scent of ozone and burned hair. The WEGNER-1 buzzed angrily on the table, deep orange light flickering from inside its case. Randall was a darker shape in the dim dining room, face a smear with twin sparks for eyes. That was the first time I felt the fear that I have become so familiar with. My hand trembled slightly as I fumbled the light switch on. Randall had always been a little overweight, even though he was tall, topping out at two hundred and sixty pounds. The thing at the keyboard, still hammering away at the keys, could not have weighed more than one hundred pounds. Even from the doorway, I could feel an awful, burning heat radiating from him. Skin hung in folds from scrawny, emaciated arms sticking out of a shirt a half-dozen sizes too large. And his hands, his fingers were black and red, shot through with white that I realized might have been bone.

Without thinking, I ran forward to push him away from the keyboard. “Randall!” I shouted. As I grabbed his shoulder, I could feel the bones churning beneath my grip, and some dim part of my mind noted that long drifts of his hair had fallen all around him. The typing stopped. Randall’s head turned to me, mouth working as if it had forgotten how to shape words.

“Do… Not. Interfere,” he said. Those awful hands came up, so fast, I had never seen Randall move that fast, their heat burning my skin through my shirt. Randall was standing somehow, and I was lifted up, and for a moment I could only think how his hands smelled like the meat department at the grocery store. Then he shoved, and I flew across the room to slam into the display case. Pain exploded through my shoulder and arm, and the world blurred for a moment.

Randall was standing over me. I could smell the stink of him, and hear his fingers clicking together, even without a keyboard. “The path is now open,” he said. “We arrive. Rejoice.”

The box truck was gone when I woke. Randall was gone. The Wegner was gone, save for a charred spot on the table, and some melted ethernet cables. The rest of the computers in the house, all gone. Wegner’s notebooks and filing cabinets were missing. My phone was broken, crushed against the corner of the display case. When I returned from the hospital, arm in a sling, I borrowed a friend’s laptop, and checked my email. All of the message board emails were missing. I checked the boards, and my posts were also missing. I checked Wikipedia, only to find entries for both Wegners, junior and senior, missing. Two weeks later, I received a letter from my cable internet provider. My account had been suspended for sending large amounts of ‘suspicious’ data to millions of hosts on the Internet.

Curb Furniture

I ignored Jesse’s 15th text. “This is heavy, you jerk!” I was far less concerned about Jesse’s potential hernia than my position on the leaderboards. The stupid fourteen year old DRDRED43 refused to move away from the turret, and I was getting destroyed. The game stuttered for a moment, and my connection dropped. “Fucking Comcast,” I muttered, and shoved back from my desk. My phone buzzed again. “God dammit, Jesse.” I sighed, shoved my feet into some sandals, and walked out the door.

Jesse and Kenny were shoving and grunting at a truly massive couch that was wedged in the stairwell. “That thing’s gonna kill you both,” I said. Jesse flashed one of his trademark movie-star smiles at me, then flipped me off. Jesse was perfect: wealthy parents, perfect curly blonde hair, abs of a demigod, genius IQ, and a sweet Southern drawl that melted panties at ten yards. Most of the time, I hated him. We had been friends since high school.

“I think I shit myself,” Kenny grunted. “Come on, you lazy fuck. Help us!”

I kicked off my sandals so I’d have better grip on the old wood flooring, then wedged myself under part of the sofa and shoved. Slowly, with much sweat and profanity, the three of us got the sofa into the apartment. We kicked aside half-full boxes and the three metal folding chairs, and shoved the sofa against the wall opposite the huge flatscreen Jesse had bought on a whim one weekend. The sofa was long enough to stretch from one wall of the apartment to the other. It completely filled the space, like the Obelisk from “2001”, except horizontal. Its fabric was a deep red, whorled and mottled with darker red that was nearly black. Each of its eight thick legs were carved to resemble claws, clutching spheres atop pedestals. Along the back of the sofa, nearly obscured by the overstuffed cushions, was a solid length of dark oak, intricately carved in flowing geometric patterns.

“Dude, this is gonna be awesome!” Kenny said, scratching his beard. Kenny was, in a lot of ways, the physical opposite of Jesse. His hair, though curly, was an unruly mess. He was generally round, with a doughy face covered with more neglect than beard. Appearances aside, Kenny had an infectious, boylike charm that made him great fun to be around. “Come on, let’s try it out!” Kenny found The Motherfucker — an assortment of remote controls that he had taped to the outside of a huge Jack Daniels bottle — on my desk. Jesse grabbed us each beers from the beer fridge, and we all sat down on the sofa. Jesse’s flatscreen turned on, and Kenny’s PlayStation3 started playing the so-familiar DA! DADADA! strains of the intro to Star Wars: Episode IV through my AV unit’s speakers. The sofa really was comfy, a significant improvement over metal folding chairs, or the hardwood floors. The cushions were large and overstuffed, but not too soft. With the three of us sitting on it, there was still enough room for another two or three people.

“This is pretty nice, guys. Where’d this thing come from?” I asked.

“We totally snagged it off the curb!” Kenny said.

I jumped up. “Aww man, that’s gross! There could be lice or bed bugs or something!”

“No way,” Kenny said. “I checked it out. There’s no bugs or anything.” Kenny got down on the floor, and knocked on one of the sofa’s large wooden legs. “This is solid oak. Kiln-dried. You can’t get furniture like this any more. Well, you can, maybe, but you’ll pay twenty grand or more. This baby has eight-way hand-tied springs, and I don’t know what the fabric is, but it’s high-end stuff. I don’t know how old it is, but my guess is at least eighty, maybe a hundred years old.” As far as I knew, Kenny had never worked for a furniture store, or dealt with antiques, but he had an talent for research and a huge retention for random facts.

“And you guys just found this on the side of the road,” I said.

Kenny stood up. “Yeah. It was down on Planchard and Third, along with a bunch of other stuff. You know how they set stuff out when people get evicted. I saw it this morning when I was going to class, and had Jesse help me pick it up after.”

“It’s fine, man. If it had been out in the rain or something, we’d know by the smell,” Jesse said. “I did the sniff test all over it, and under the cushions. It smells like old perfume or something, but not anything bad.”

We sat back down on the sofa, drank our beer, and watched a movie that we’d all seen a hundred times. I noticed the smell then, faint, like tobacco and flowers, or perfume.

~~~

I didn’t sleep well that night. I had my first nightmare. Not the first nightmare of my life, but the first real one. The first one about the sofa. In my dream, it was somehow alive. The sofa’s mottled, red fabric glistened, like raw, wet muscle, stretched taut over bones that groaned and ground against one another. There was something unsettlingly sexual about the way the muscles flexed against each other. I saw my hand reach out to caress a cushion. It was warm, almost hot to the touch, and it felt very good — I snapped awake. My heart was racing. I felt an indescribable sense of dread. I looked at my phone. Five A.M. Way too early to wake up, but too late to get any rest before my alarm went off at six. I threw on a robe and shuffled to the kitchen. I nearly dropped my cereal bowl when I saw Kenny, sitting on one of our mismatched kitchen chairs.

“What the hell are you doing up?” I asked.

He looked up at me, as if surprised that I was standing there. “Insomnia. Happens sometimes. I just couldn’t get comfortable on my bed, so I thought maybe I’d go sleep on the sofa.” He pointed into the gloom of the living room. “Looks like Jesse beat me to it.” He sighed, stood up, and walked to his room, leaving me to eat cereal to the sounds of Jesse snoring in the dark.

I was a wreck that day, and the next, and the next. Earlier and earlier every night, I would wake up to the same dream. The sofa would somehow beckon to me, some nights like a lover, and other nights like my mother, who passed away when I was twelve. Every time I woke, sweating, breathing as if I’d run a marathon, I felt the same sense of dread. After the first night, I refused to get up. Instead, I stayed in my bed, willing myself to go back to sleep. Some nights I heard Kenny walking around.

On the other hand, Jesse seemed positively manic. He was upbeat, chipper even, in contrast to his usual surfer-Zen attitude. “Been sleeping on the sofa, man,” he said. “Best sleep I’ve ever had. Never felt better.” But at night, through the thin wall separating the living room from my bedroom, I heard him whimpering in his sleep.

Jesse brought a new girl, Jenny, over that Friday night. Jenny was thin, blonde, and insecure — another of Jesse’s future ex-girlfriends. She laughed at everything he said, and I don’t believe she broke body contact with him the whole evening. We all sat on the sofa, drinking, smoking, and playing video games. As the night wore on, Jesse began to give us significant looks, so we staggered off to our rooms, leaving him with an increasingly affectionate Jenny.

“He better not stain the sofa,” Kenny grumbled to me, before closing the door to his room.

~~~

I woke from another dream about the sofa. Something thumped against my wall. “Ugh,” I groaned. Another thump, and a moan. Thump thump. “Dammit,” I said, and rolled off my bed. I threw on a shirt and shorts, and stumbled blearily out of my room, down the hall and into the living room. I tried not to look at Jesse humping some girl, but I did want to get his attention. “Jesse, keep it down, it’s late –” THUMP! In the dim blue glow of the flatscreen, I saw Jesse straddling Jenny, arms locked around her throat. His swim-team shoulders bunched, and the tendons in his arms stood out like cables. Jenny’s face was black, her eyes open and bulging, her tongue thick and bloated, protruding from her mouth. One arm thumped, weakly, against the wall.

“Holy fuck, Jesse! Get off her!” I ran to the sofa, and shoved him as hard as I could. He didn’t move. “Kenny! Wake up! Help!” Jesse turned to me, eyes wide open but blank as the flatscreen. He turned back to Jenny, and gave a final, wrenching squeeze. Her leg twitched and kicked once. I hooked an arm around Jesse’s neck and pulled as hard as I could. “HELP! GET UP NOW!” He let go, and I fell back against the floor, with his weight on me. I kicked and shoved him off of me and onto the floor, and scrambled away.

The lights came on. Kenny stood in the hallway, mouth agape. Jesse lay on the floor, naked, staring up at the ceiling. Jenny’s nude body sprawled on the couch, head tilted at an awkward angle, face a horrible purple-black.

~~~

Jenny was listed as dead on the scene. Her neck had been totally crushed. A friend of a friend was interning at the coroner’s office, and suggested that the coroner himself was impressed that Jesse had been able to shatter two neck vertebrae with his bare hands. The cops wouldn’t tell us much, other than that Jesse was under psychiatric evaluation. Jesse hadn’t spoken since that night, and was completely unresponsive to questioning.

Kenny began acting strangely. Stranger than normal, for Kenny. He spent most of his time at home sitting in a bean bag chair, staring at the sofa, writing notes in a battered old notebook. When he wasn’t at home, he was gone, sometimes for days at a time. Two guys from his study group showed up looking for him after he missed class for the third session in a row. They had heard about Jesse — the whole town had — and wrote off Kenny’s behavior to a coping mechanism.

I began to dread returning home from class. The dreams were getting worse. The sight of the sofa, hunched redly in the dimness of early morning, was often enough to rush me out of my apartment without breakfast. I told myself it was PhD stress. I told myself that it had nothing to do with a piece of furniture in my living room.

Kenny showed up at the Bio lab one evening, clutching a thick notebook. I was staying late, working on my thesis. I was behind on my research, and the lack of sleep was getting to me.

“Jesse’s dead,” he said.

“What? How?” I asked.

“His mom called me a few minutes ago. She said he killed himself.”

“I thought he was in a psych ward?”

“The cops say he strangled himself.”

“How is that even possible?”

“I dunno, man. They told his mom that they found him in his cell with his hands around his throat. But listen, that’s not all I want to talk to you about. We need to get rid of the sofa,” Kenny said.

“What the fuck are you talking about, Kenny?”

“I’m serious, man. I … I’ve been doing some research. On the sofa.” I laughed and shook my head. Kenny waved his notebook at me. It was thicker now, ragged with newspaper clippings. “It’s all in there. Take a look.”

I took the notebook and began leafing through it. Kenny sat at a workstation next to me. “I got to thinking, where did that sofa come from? Like, originally? And why was it just sitting out on the curb like that? It’s a really nice piece of furniture. So I went back to where I found it. The apartment was vacant, so I called and told the landlady I wanted to rent it. Some Phi Delta girls had been renting it before. The landlady told me that … dude, bad shit happened to the three girls who had that place before. The first one drove head-first into a tree. No alcohol or drugs or anything. The second one went nuts. Like, clawed her own eyes out nuts. She’s still locked up. The last one though –” Kenny shuddered. “She was a babysitter. She locked herself and three kids in the family car, and took a long drive inside the family garage. No note, nothing.” Kenny pointed out some newspaper clippings. “There’s the obits, there, and some newspaper articles about the deaths.”
“It gets worse,” Kenny said, and wiped a slightly shaky hand across his forehead. “I asked around, and it turns out one of the frat guys in my Cal III class dated girl number two. The one who hit the tree?” I nodded. “Yeah, well, before they started dating, when he was still trying to get into her pants, he helped her pick up some furniture off the curb.”

“A red sofa,” I said.

“Yeah. He said it was a fantastic find. I had him tell me where they found it. That place was a nice old house. It was up for sale, so I called the owner. Had him meet me for a showing. He said he’d inherited the place from his father, who’d passed away about two years ago. Said he’d sold all the original furniture, but he put some of the stuff out on the curb. I laughed and told him I’d just found an awesome old red sofa on the curb just a few weeks ago. He laughed too, and said it was probably his dad’s, and that he remembered how heavy it was when he picked it up off the curb the first time. He figured since he found the sofa on the curb, it was only fitting to put it back there, as a way to ‘give back’. He was all jovial and shit, until I asked him how his dad died. Then he got all cold, and said it was a family matter. Pretty much shoved me out the door.” Kenny looked at me. “Bet you can’t guess who his dad was.”

“No clue.”

“Larry Munsen.”

“Oh.. fuck.” Munsen had abducted, raped, and killed six young college girls over the course of three years. It was a town scandal, and an embarrassment for both the local cops and the FBI. Munsen was 63 years old, far older than the normal profile for a serial killer. He’d never had any priors, and didn’t appear to have any tendencies before he started killing. “I thought they blamed that on a brain tumor?”
“Yeah, a brain tumor,” Kenny said, “Or fucking evil demon sofa.” We both laughed, for a moment, then stopped. I realized that both of us had glanced toward the door. Toward our apartment. As if it might be listening.

“Anyway, before he kicked me out, I got Munsen Jr. tell me where he picked up the sofa. He said a lot of mean things about my mom, but he eventually told me he picked it up on Laurel Avenue. The building is gone now, but it was the site of a brothel. It was a “nail salon” for years, but everyone knew what really happened there. It got busted about four years ago, as part of an international human trafficking sting. They found a bunch of bodies buried in the sub-basement. Apparently the managers would “retire” employees who didn’t perform up to standards.” Kenny flipped a few pages in the notebook. “Take a look at that,” he said, pointing to a newspaper photo.

The grainy newsprint showed the brothel manager’s office, posh with expensive furniture, exotic plants, and a large, overstuffed sofa.

“It got hard to track after that. Obviously I couldn’t talk to the brothel manager, or any of the employees. The manager’s in federal prison, and most of the workers were deported. Then I thought, what if I just looked for the worst things that happened in this town, then looked for the sofa?” Kenny pulled out a yellowed, glossy photo.

“No fucking way, man. This is too much.” Every schoolkid in town can tell you who W. C. Malone was. He was our town’s Al Capone, a small town gangster who ruled the whole county with a bloody fist, from 1922-1928. Capone might have been wealthier, and more high profile, but rumor had it that Capone himself was appalled at Malone’s tactics. According to some sources, Malone invented the “Columbian necktie”, in which a victim’s throat was slashed, and his tongue pulled through the cut, leaving the victim to slowly drown in his own blood. Historical estimates put Malone’s personal body count in the hundreds, and his gang’s count approaching a thousand. Malone’s reign of terror ended abruptly in 1928, when his girlfriend stabbed him to death with an icepick. She went to trial for murder, but not a single juror voted against her.
The photo showed W. C. Malone, in his trademark white hat, grinning around a cigar. He was leaning against the overstuffed back of a sofa. If the photo had been in color, instead of grainy newsprint, I would have bet the sofa would have been a deep, deep red.

Kenny rubbed a hand across his unshaved face. “What really gets me, man, is where did Malone find that sofa? Did he find it on a curb too? What if that thing has always been curb furniture — getting passed along, owner to owner, for nearly a hundred years?”

“We need to get the thing out of our apartment,” I said.

~~~

We stood at the door to our apartment. Neither of us wanted to touch the knob. “Just open it already,” I hissed.

“Fine!” Kenny muttered, and twisted the knob. The door swung open, into the short hallway that led to the living room. I flicked on the lights. The sofa sat against the wall. “No demons flying out of the cushions. No witches. Just a big dumb piece of furniture,” he said, and chuckled nervously. I wedged the door open. Kenny grabbed one end of the sofa, and I the other. We both lifted. The sofa was very, very heavy. Kenny took the lead, walking backwards toward the door. By the time we got to the door, we were both exhausted, and dripping with sweat. We set the sofa down for a moment.

“Turn it like this,” I said, gesturing with my hand. “We’ll have to angle it to get it into the hallway.” Kenny grunted agreement. As I picked my end of the sofa up, something snagged my thumb. “Ahh, fuck!” I yelled, and dropped my end. Kenny staggered back from his end.

“What, man, what?” he shouted, eyes panicky white.

“Nothing,” I said, “There’s tacks under the edge. One of them must have got my thumb.” I held my thumb up to the light. The wound was superficial, but bleeding. I watched as the drops splattered onto the sofa’s mottled red surface. The fabric seemed to absorb the blood greedily. I pressed my thumb against the padded arm. My blood didn’t seem to smear into the fabric. It felt cool, and very nice.

“Snap out of it, man,” Kenny said. He was shaking my arm. “You’ve been staring at the sofa for a few minutes.”

I shuddered, suddenly repulsed by the thing. “Let’s get this bitch out of here. Angle it up and out.”

“Right. Then it’s a few feet to the stairway, then a straight shot out the door.” Kenny grimaced, and grabbed his side of the sofa again. We twisted, and shoved, and moments later had the sofa filling the length of the hallway. “I’ll go down first. Just follow my lead,” he said.
The cut should have been a warning. I should have known what was going to happen. We both should have. I’ve gone over this part a hundred times, a million times, and this is what I still remember happening: I had the sofa by the end, arms braced around the heavy oak legs. Kenny had a similar hold. He called out the steps. “One. Two. Three. Four. Five.” At six, the sofa twisted. It rippled like a living thing, bucking in one wild thrash, ripping itself from my hands. Kenny fell backwards, skidding down the remaining stairs. The sofa fell after him. No. I must be honest. The sofa leaped after him. Its narrow edge crushed his skull like an eggshell. I saw this all as I fell. Forward, to land on the upturned sofa.

~~~

Cops. EMTs. Neighbors. Nobody saw the sofa. I suffered a severe concussion, a fractured ankle, and a broken wrist. The nurses, and eventually, the cops, told me the stairs collapsed. They said the property management company was accepting full responsibility. They offered me condolences. Condolences for what? The only thing I could think of was the sofa. I didn’t even think about Kenny until later.
I kept having migraines. The doctors said they were from the concussion. The nightmares got worse. Every night, I dreamed about the sofa. The cops quit talking to me. The migraines made concentrating difficult. I could barely walk. I had no place to go; my apartment building was still under investigation, so I slept in a closet in the Bio lab. Finally, after a particularly bad night, I realized one morning that I was standing in the lobby of the police station, screaming about a sofa. One of the police officers recommended psychiatric care. I agreed, and checked myself into a facility.

Therapy helped. Maybe it was the drugs. Maybe it was just being away from my situation. After a month or so, I felt better. Or at least, well enough to leave. As per facility policy, I had to meet with the Director before I left the facility. Dr. Mahmood met me at the door to his office. He was shorter than me, but had a kind face that somehow matched his voice.

“I hear you feel it’s time to leave us?” he said.

“Yes sir,” I smiled. “I’m really feeling a lot better now.”

“In that case, let’s do our exit interview,” he said, and walked around to his desk chair. He gestured behind me. “Please, have a seat.” I turned, and my smile slipped from my face. “This is my new sofa. It’s a beautiful antique. I found it on the curb just last week. How could someone just leave something so beautiful on the curb? I can assure you, it is very comfortable.”

The Witches and The Circle

My great-aunt had died the year before. Her house was locked up in probate until issues of inheritance were settled. My father was acting as caretaker of the property, which meant I took care of the place while my old man bought booze with my great-aunt’s money. I didn’t mind; it got me out of my place, away from my old man, and it made a nice place to have parties and hang out with my friends. My friend Chris loved the place. I think he also needed a place to hide, somewhere away from his own house with all of his dead mother’s things lying around, right where she left them, before a sleep-deprived truck driver snuffed out her life like a candle on a store-bought birthday cake.

Our big plan was to host a Halloween party, just for our small group of friends. Chris quickly latched onto the idea of having a seance, and spent a lot of his time at the library, or at some of the local used book stores, researching. I told him it was no big deal, that it was just a stupid party trick, but he insisted on getting it ‘right’. I guess Chris was messed up about his mother’s death. I should have thought about that, about why he was so concerned with contacting the dead, but he didn’t talk about her very much, and as I’ve said before, I was stupid. There are things that happen when you are nineteen that stay with you. You don’t think they will, but they do. If that’s not the definition of haunted, I don’t know what is.

I met Chris as he was walking back from the dollar store that evening. He was carrying several bags of Halloween candy, some chips and a few bottles of soda. He climbed into my car, and I drove us on to the house. He dumped the candy into a large plastic bowl, and smacked my hand when I tried to filch some. “That’s for the trick-or-treaters, jerk,” he said. As the afternoon faded into evening, the trick-or-treaters did show up, giggling in their Spiderman and Incredible Hulk masks. I doled out candy, while Chris ordered pizza and set up the food on the kitchen table.

Pete, Liz, and Sophia arrived by eight. I was excited that Sophia had shown up; I had been crushing on her for months, but at six four, one forty, and bright red, curly hair, I looked like a scarecrow that tried to dress up like Ronald McDonald. Sophia was tiny, cool, beautiful, with jet black hair and skin that may have never seen sunlight. She was my secret reason for having the party. I didn’t stand a chance, but a guy could hope. Liz was Pete’s longtime girlfriend. She was almost as tall as me, with a shaved head, several piercings, and full sleeve tattoos on both arms. I’m pretty smart, but Liz was a genius. She aced every exam without trying, and was taking college level classes in ninth grade. We had been friends for several years, and had shared several classes at high school until she dropped out halfway through twelfth grade. The vice principal told her in no uncertain terms that she would not allow a “tattooed freak” like Liz to represent the school as the Valedictorian. Liz broke the woman’s jaw in two places, and that was pretty much it for Liz’s public education.

Pete was wrecked when he walked through the door. I had been friends with Pete since we were toddlers; his mother had worked with mine at the same hospital, before my mother left town. I loved Pete like he was a brother, but he had several bad habits, self-destruction being high on the list. He nodded his hello, then staggered to the cabinet where my great-aunt kept her liquor, and liberated a bottle of peach schnapps. By nine Pete had retired to the monstrous old red couch in the living room, cold cloth over his eyes and a bucket by his side.

“Why’s he over-indulging?” I asked Liz, as we shoved the furniture out of the way. Chris and Sophia rolled up the large area rug, exposing the hardwood floor beneath.

“Failed his driver’s license exam,” Liz said, rolling her eyes.

“Again?” Chris said, brushing his thick brown hair out of his eyes. “This is what, his fifth time to take it? I thought they just gave it to you out of pity after five tries.”

“At least he didn’t vomit blueberry pancakes on the instructor’s shoes, like he did last time,” Sophia said.

The heavy old grandfather clock in the living room bonged ten times. Chris stood up. “OK everybody, let’s get started.” Liz tried to get Pete to join us, but he was fast asleep. Chris returned to the room carrying a large wooden box. He opened the box, and removed a small jar of salt, and several candles. He motioned for us to sit in a circle, and he poured the salt in a double ring around us. He poured another, smaller double ring a few feet away, in front of the fireplace. He then carefully taped down several pieces of paper, onto which he had previously drawn strange geometric symbols. I took the candles and positioned them at points around the circles, then lit them with my Zippo.

Chris motioned for us all to sit within the larger circle. He dimmed the lights and joined us. We took our positions around a small wooden tool box. The circle was small. When Sophia sat next to me, her knee touched mine. I tried to concentrate on something other than her perfume. Chris folded open the top, and removed a metal bowl, which he placed onto a metal stand. He pulled some pieces of wood from the box, put them in the bowl, and lit them. He pulled a fabric-shrouded object from the box, and placed it in front of him. The dark cloth revealed a book bound in black leather, and when Chris opened the yellowed pages, instead of being brittle, they turned with an odd ease. Chris flipped through the pages, and when he stopped, the sallow pages lay slackly open, without a hint of curling. He began a low chant, in a singsong rhythm. While chanting, Chris dropped wads of dried herbs into the metal bowl. Heavy, acrid yellow smoke billowed up, stinging our eyes.

“Ancient spirits,” Chris said, as we stared at him with rapt attention, “Ancient spirits, hear us. We beseech you. Ancient spirits, hear our call. Ancient spirits, answer us. Ancient spirits, come to us. Ancient spirits, the way is open. Ancient spirits, take this offering, and come to us.” Chris ran a scalpel, a scalpel that none of us had seen, across the palm of his hand. Liza recoiled in shock. The blood sizzled as it met the flames in the bowl.

“Jesus, Chris!” Sophia said. He shushed her with a glare.

“Ancient spirits!” Chris called. “Hear us! The way is open! Answer our–”

The doorbell chimed.

We all jumped, including Chris. The doorbell chimed again. Through the door, we heard muffled voices. “Trick or treat!”

Sophia huffed and rolled her eyes. “The ancient spirits are here, and they want candy. I thought you turned off the porch light?” She stood up, and walked to the door. She flipped on the porch light, and opened the door. Two little kids were standing there, both dressed like witches, with pointy hats and green masks. They giggled, shoved their widespread pillowcase sacks towards Sophia, and yelled “Trick or treat!” at the tops of their lungs. Sophia looked around for the candy dish, then saw it on the kitchen table. It was empty, save for some wrappers.

“Sorry kids. We’re all out. That’s what it means when the porch light’s off.”

The kids looked at each other for a moment. “Can we come inside for a minute, ma’am? My sister really has to go to the bathroom.” Sophia nodded, and stood aside as two little pointy witch hats bobbed past. As the shorter of the pair went to the bathroom, the taller stood near the couch, next to Pete. She said nothing, and was very still. I found myself sneaking glances at her mask. It seemed far too elaborate for a child’s mask, and the black pits that hid her eyes seemed to drink in the light.

There was a crash from the hallway leading to the bathroom. Chris and I jumped to our feet, and ran to see what had happened. The smaller of the two children kneeling at the entrance to the hallway. “I’m really sorry. I broke the mirror on the wall. My hat is too big and it must have caught the frame. I tripped. I can’t see where I’m going.” She tilted her head down, and began to cry, softly.

“It’s just a cheap old mirror,” Chris said. He extended a hand — his cut hand, I thought to myself, without knowing why — and pulled her up. “It’s getting late. Your parents must be worried.”

“Yes, it’s almost midnight. Sister, we should be going.” We turned to see the sister leaning over Pete’s sleeping form, green mask pressed close to his ear.

“Hey, what are you doing to Pete?” Liza said. She stood and walked towards the taller child.

“He was sleeping,” the taller witch said, shrugging. Her rubbery, pointed green nose bobbled. “I was telling him to have sweet dreams.”

The two children left, clutching their pillowcase sacks and jostling each other as they walked down the sidewalk. I watched them go, and as I saw them turn the corner, I think that I may have seen them both take turns licking at the smaller one’s hand.

We shut off the lights, bolted the front door, and re-lit a few candles that had gone out. Chris picked up his book again as we rejoined him inside the salt circle. “Ancient spirits, hear us!” he cried. “Ancient spirits, we call you. Ancient spirits, hear our call. Ancient spirits, answer us!” The old grandfather clock began to toll, the first of twelve. Chris sprinkled more sage into the redly-glowing metal bowl. “Ancient spirits, we beseech you!”

A candle went out.

Sophia snorted, and put her hand on mine. My heart slammed to a stop — then I realized that she was only trying to pull the Zippo I had been fidgeting with out of my hand. She winked, then reached over to light the candle. Another candle went out. And another. The room was plunged into a murky darkness, only lit from the flickers of the coals in the metal bowl. “O-ok,” said Chris, with only a slight tremor to his voice. “The ancient spirits have heard our call and have responded.” He shifted slightly, and closed the box. On the top of the box was an ornate inlay of letters and numbers, in the style of an Ouija board. Chris drew a small white planchette from his shirt pocket, and beckoned for us to place our hands upon it. We moved the planchette on the board in small, slow circles. “Ancient spirits, are you here with us?”

Something crashed in the kitchen.

I made as if to get up, and Chris motioned for me to stop. “Don’t leave the circle,” he said. “Stay inside the circle. Never break it. Nothing can harm you if you don’t cross the boundary.” We placed our hands back on the planchette.

“Ancient spirits, are you here with us?” Chris asked again. The planchette slowly moved to a corner. YES. Boards creaked in the darkened room around us.

“This is too spooky, Chris,” Sophia said. “It feels like something’s watching us. It — oh.” Sophia looked down. In the twitching, red glow of the flames, a shadow seemed to spread across Sophia’s chest. She looked up at us and opened her mouth to speak. A flood of blackness flowed out of her mouth and down her chin. She slumped forward, knocking over the metal bowl. The burning coals scattered.

“Sophia!” I lunged toward her. A smoldering coal burned my hand, but I didn’t feel it. I could only think about Sophia’s beautiful hair. It was on fire. “Get the lights!” Chris yelled, standing. He shoved me off Sophia, out of the circle. I scrambled to my feet. I could see nothing in the inky blackness. Liz was screaming, over and over. A wall should have been inches away, but I felt nothing. I reached out frantically. My fingertips caught something, the sleeve of a shirt? It jerked away. There was a blinding, burning pain on my arm. I fell flat and away, clutching the wound. Blood soaked through the sleeve of my shirt. I crouched low, trying to see something, anything. I turned back to the circle. Liz’s face, mouth an O of suprise, jerked backward. Her slashed throat sprayed blood across the room. It smelled like copper.

I turned to the right, arm out. I ran. My hand slammed into a doorway with force. A fingernail peeled back. I dropped to my knees, then crawled forward. My fingers met the cold steel of the refrigerator. I flung the door open. Light flooded the kitchen. I huddled in the corner, shaking. I heard a racking scream from the other room. Chris! I snatched a heavy, cast iron frying pan from the stove. Heavy pan raised high, I stood to the side of the doorway. Blood trickled into a pool in the elbow of my shirt. I heard the slow slide of footsteps. There was a low whispering breath. I was paralyzed. What if it was Chris? Or Sophia? Light glinted off of the butcher knife.

I swung as hard as I could. My lips peeled back in a rictus grin, I grunted an involuntary “HAA!” The edge of the cast iron pan caved in Pete’s face as if it were a Sunday morning egg. He went down in an untidy heap. I swung and swung, bashing his head until it was a lumpy mess. Until his body stopped twitching. Still clutching the pan, I ran for the front door.

It took me an hour to reach the front door. The front door could not have been farther than fifteen feet away. It felt like miles. As I stumbled and crawled to the door, terrible things whispered to me, laughed at me, mocked me. I saw the dim shapes scuttle away as I looked, eyes straining to see my attackers. They darted in and gouged my flesh with claws and hot, grasping hands. I flailed blindly in the dark with the frying pan, but they only laughed. When I did reach the door, it was locked. I smashed the antique stained glass with a blow, then climbed through it, lacerating my hands and arms more in the process.

The official police report states that Peter McCaulty, 19 y.o. Caucasian Male, several priors including vandalism and possession, was under the influence of a large amount of controlled substances (traces of Adderal, Effexor, PCP, psilocybin, and certain other unidentified), experienced a psychotic break, and killed several people. Initially I was suspect number one. A police officer found me walking down the middle of the street, covered in blood and bleeding from dozens of cuts, fist clenched tightly around a cast iron pan. The police took a dim view of my story, and once it was determined that drugs had been involved, they ignored it completely. As far as the cops were concerned, a bunch of kids took some acid on Halloween. They played at a ‘Satanic’ ritual, then one went off his rocker and killed a few of the others. It happens every Halloween.

I was remanded into psychiatric custody for two weeks. It was only after I was released that I found out that the police had only recovered three bodies, not four. They never found Chris, or any trace of him.

I have never gone back to that house. I think about going back, every night. I take my meds, meds that make me forget, mostly, and suppress the whispers that I hear in those long black hours before dawn. But sometimes, I still hear them. Every year, as Halloween approaches, the voices get louder, even if I up my dose. They tell me terrible things. They tell me it was my fault. They tell me I was the one with the knife.

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Stuff Insurance

In the mad rush to consolidate two households into the smaller of two houses — and that location being hopefully only temporary — we’ve been trying to get rid of a whole lot of Stuff.

I’ve been following a lot of the recommendations of Peter Walsh’s “It’s All Too Much“, but the biggest hurdle is dealing with the “sunk cost fallacy”, and how to get rid of those things that we “might need” in the future.

These folks recommend selling all of the extra stuff that you don’t need right now, then taking that money and setting it aside for the time in the future when you do need that stuff. It ends up being like a Stuff Replacement Fund.

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Ubiquity

I’m impressed with Ubiquity. It’s very similar to my favorite Mac app, Quicksilver. Instead of telling Firefox where to go, Ubiquity allows the user to tell Firefox what to do, including: open a map, email someone, Digg something, tag something, show you the weather, or look something up.

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