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“The Only Friend You Ever Need” by M. Shaw

Well, it was basically my fault for telling Inillustrable Girl she was cute. In my defense, I was only trying to avoid getting on the bad side of the local malak, which at the time was something you had to watch. Of course, conventional wisdom would have said I should never get involved with a malak in the first place, but in this situation I didn’t have that option. She involved herself with me. After that, I could only do my best with what I had.

This happened while I was out jogging one morning. The park was empty, which should have warned me that she might be around, but I had been out late with my, I guess girlfriend Soibhan the previous night, and I hadn’t had my coffee yet and just wasn’t that alert. I didn’t figure out what was going on until I came to the park and saw her working on her latest victim, which she had already done to the point where I couldn’t tell if it had been male or female. She had it strung up from a dead tree in a way that suggested a cubist scarecrow, shoved sticks halfway into all of its joints and was now working on flaying its skin off with a little heat ray that came out of her fingernail.

I’d heard about that heat ray. I had nightmares about her heat ray.

So naturally I tried not to draw any attention to myself. Just keep jogging, I thought, avoid eye contact. Not that avoiding malaks at all cost would necessarily save me or anyone from a gruesome, humiliating death at one’s hands, but you have to do what you can. This part of the path took me through the playground, though, and when I came around a bend she was sitting right there in the sandbox, facing me head-on.

I froze. Because I knew I was dead, right? Malaks don’t come up to people in public to meet and greet.

I said, “Hello there.”

She sort of lolled forward like a nod.

I know that trying to talk my way out of it sounds ridiculous in retrospect. If it helps, remember that I was delirious with lack of sleep. And fear.

Inillustrable Girl, if you don’t know, was a shape-changer. This particular day she was being a teenage girl with a floating bucket for a head. The bucket had fluorescent pink skull sans-jawbone stenciled on, and it was cute in a goofy sort of way. So I told her so. Flattery. Her clothes looked exactly like she had pulled them out of a dumpster and slapped them with a coat of neon green spray-paint, and that was less endearing, but I would not have liked to say that out loud.

Everything I said, she just kept doing that nodding thing. I said, “Lovely weather, isn’t it?” I thought it was. I said, “How’s work?” though it made me shiver. I said, “Well, it was nice seeing you.” I kept jogging. By this point, most of my organs were in my throat.

She followed me home. I would catch sight of her now and then as I made my way back. I was muttering the last rites to myself when I walked in the door to my townhouse, only to find her sitting on my kitchen table.

I wet myself. I don’t mind talking about it. I have nothing to hide, just want to be perfectly honest here.

I said, “What a pleasant surprise! I didn’t know you were coming over.”

Nod.

I said, “Excuse me, I have to go change.”

She didn’t follow me upstairs, but she didn’t leave. I took a five-minute shower, most of which was spent washing my legs. Then I brushed my teeth, shaved, and put on the clothes I would have worn to work. She was still at the table when I came down, but I was beginning to wonder if maybe she wasn’t going to kill me. A nice thought, I knew, but really all it would do would be to make my last few moments of life that much more full of despair.

I said, “I’m glad you were able to come visit.”

She got up. I squeezed my eyes shut, glad that at least I had already voided my bowels earlier and on the off-chance that there was anything left of my corpse to identify, it wouldn’t be wearing pee-soaked slacks.

She hugged me. She might have kissed me on the cheek, but I never saw which side of the bucket was touching my face.

I wondered, could a malak do nice things? Is it possible that God or whatever force was responsible for them might have made malaks do something other than murder us in the most undignified ways possible, desecrate our bodies and occasionally consume our remains?

I fumbled for the phone in my pocket. I called work and told them that I was very sorry, but I was going to have to use up all of my vacation, sick days, everything, which came to about a week. I mean, I couldn’t go to work with a malak in tow, could I? I would have been fired.

Kim, my supervisor, said, “Can you at least give me a reason?”

I said, “I’ve got company, very special company.”

She said, “Who?”

I said, “Inillustrable Girl.”

My guest didn’t seem to be paying attention, but she must have known I was talking about her. Like most malaks, she had made up the name herself. I’m not sure inillustrable is even a real word. I looked it up in the dictionary once, and it was there, but of course she could have put it there herself. The definition was “unable to be accurately portrayed in visual media or art,” so it must have had something to do with the fact that she was a shape-changer. Anyway, it was a better name than most of them had.

Kim said, “Holy shit!”

I said, “I’d appreciate if you’d try to use more constructive language.” I was afraid Inillustrable Girl would overhear.

She said, “How long has she been there?”

I said, “About half an hour.”

She said, “Have you called the police? The National Guard? The President?”

I said, “I can’t imagine what good it would do.”

She said, “Just keep us posted then. We’re rooting for you.” And hung up.

***

I tried to eat but she kept watching me and I couldn’t handle it. I offered her food but she didn’t react. I asked her if she wanted to play a game, and we ended up getting out the Candy Land set that I keep in my collection in case my little nieces came to visit. I stacked the deck so she would win. She seemed to enjoy it.

That reminded me that I would have to call my gaming group sooner or later. We were supposed to meet that night. Four of us guys, we’d met a few years ago at a very large support group for people with anxiety about malaks. If you’ve never been to one, you probably at least know what I’m talking about. One of the therapists suggested we four start meeting outside the group because we shared a common interest. We played mostly role-playing games having to do with vampires, because we thought vampires are a good analog for malaks and it helped us manage our fears. For example, you can’t stop a vampire; if it wants to get you, it can fly or turn into mist or find some way. Like malaks. You never know what kind of powers a vampire will have without facing one, because there are so many conflicting mythologies. Like malaks. People think vampires are sexy but they’re really not. Like malaks. We wrote pages of these. I could go on.

I called the guys while Inillustrable Girl was in the bathroom (not using it, just in it). I had to leave messages because it was the middle of the day and they were all at work. After that I lay down on the couch and passed out.

I guess Bob hadn’t checked his messages because he was the one who woke me up. I leaped off the sofa because I thought Inillustrable Girl was yelling at me, but she was only standing nearby holding the box for Parcheesi.

I said, “Please excuse me a moment,” and ran up to my bedroom, opened the window and leaned out. I said, “Bob, what are you doing?”

He said, “Aren’t we getting together tonight?”

I said, “No, something came up.”

He said, “What?”

I said, “I can’t tell you.”

He said, “Can’t you at least let me in?”

I couldn’t, and told him so. If he saw Inillustrable Girl I was sure he would die, assuming she didn’t kill him herself.

He said, “Why not?”

I said, “I’m not wearing any pants right now.”

He said, “Put some on. Please. I need this session. I really, really need it. The monster killed a guy on my street this week. I’m freaking out. Please. I mean, who have you got in there that’s so damn important?” His eyes widened.

I looked behind me and found her standing over my shoulder, board game in hand.

Bob started laughing. I mean really loud, forceful, hysterical sort of cackling.

I said, “Bob, get out of here.”

He said, “There’s nothing I’d love to do more.” He had fallen over by this time, and had to choke his words out between sobs of laughter.

I said, “Then please go. Don’t worry about me. I think I’ll be okay.”

He dismissed my assumption of concern using a very rude expression. Then he said, “She’s gonna kill me, isn’t she? She’s waiting for me, isn’t she?”

I said, “Bob, go. This isn’t funny.”

He said, “Please help. It hurts so much.”

If I called the police, they’d want to come in and ask questions. Instead I called a cab. It was actually really easy to manage because Bob had passed out by this point, at least I thought he had passed out. I told the cab service that Bob’s address and fare would be in his jacket pocket. Afterward, I sneaked out the door and put it there. I fainted again before it came, but Bob was gone when I woke up. Inillustrable Girl was not.

***

I suppose I felt a little surer of things by the second day, but I decided it would be best to call Soibhan and beg off dinner. She and I had started seeing each other a couple months ago after I pronounced her name correctly on the first try, and we had got to the point where we got together a few times a week. I thought that this, of all things, she would surely have to understand, but when I called her she insisted on coming over. Soibhan was terminally impulsive, which was less often beneficial than the romantic comedies would lead you to think.

She was at my front door practically before I could object. There was nothing I could do to stop her from getting in. I tried to buttress the door with a bookcase, but I couldn’t get it to actually lean against the door because of the way the floor bowed. She pushed the bookcase over without much trouble and came in.

She said, “That’s her all right,” referring to Inillustrable Girl, who was playing checkers against a bottle of Faygo which she had caused to become animate and invested with sufficient telekinetic ability to move the pieces. She was winning. “How long has she been here?”

I said, “It has been my absolute pleasure to have this wonderful guest for about two days now.” Meanwhile I was moving the bookcase back where it belonged and putting the books back in alphabetical order by author. Soibhan could have helped me but she did not. She had always shown a certain irreverence for property. I reflected it was good that she had pushed over the bookcase instead of breaking a window to get in.

I continued, “By the way, I thought you wouldn’t be able to make it.”

Soibhan caught on to my implication, that I did not think it was safe for her to come over. She said, “What have I told you so many freakin’ times that I’m sick of it?”

I said, “That there are certain things I would prefer not to mention right now.”

She said, “By which you mean that if Inillustrable Girl is going to kill me then she’s going to kill me, and if she’s not then she’s not.”

Inillustrable Girl harkened curiously at the mention of her name. She then moved a gamepiece and exploded blue ribbons out of her bucket, which I had learned was her way of saying “king me.”

After my blood unfroze I said hopefully, “Then we can go on seeing each other?”

She said, “Of course not.”

I said, “That’s fair.”

I did not share Soibhan’s philosophy, of course, and wanted to get her out of my house as soon as possible. I really did care about her, more than a guy like me is really good at giving words for, and I was nearly jumping for joy that she suddenly seemed to share my fear that she would be killed if she stayed.

But then she said, “I want to be clear that I’m not leaving because I’m afraid she’s going to kill me.”

I said, “You’re not?” in a voice that I freely admit sounded much like a balloon deflating.

She said, “No, I’m leaving because I’m afraid she’s going to kill you. I think she is. I know she is. I can feel it.”

I said, “The way you could feel it when you knew Avatar was going to suck?”

She said, “Yes, exactly like that. I don’t have these premonitions very often, M., but when I do they’re accurate. And I can’t bear to see that happen. I love you, M. I love you and so I have to leave you for fear of losing you.”

I said, “I don’t know what to say.”

She said, “Goodbye, which is what I’m saying right now.”

I said, “Goodbye,” but she was already gone.

She had not said the, uh, what do they call it in movies, the L-word before that conversation. I wished she could have chosen another time to bring it out. Or just not done it at all. I had real trouble with relationships in those days. You remember when you were a kid, and you first realized that you were going to die someday, and for a while it made you kind of afraid to live because that would mean you were getting there faster? But you eventually got over having to think about it all the time, and just went about your business? I guess some of us people with malak issues never really got over that, never got over being afraid to love someone because with malaks you never know when you might open the door and see…

Sorry. Sorry. I still have trouble talking about this. Anyway it’s not that important.

***

On day 3 I had what may have been a minor heart attack and started applying for jobs in other cities. One thing, I thought, that malaks are very stringent about is that there is only one in each city or town, except New York which has one for each borough. If I had an excuse to move, I would be able to get away from my guest. Probably.

I needed to look for new work anyway. If my week of vacation ran out and I didn’t show up at work for 3 days straight, Kim would be required by company policy to fire me.

On day 4 my mother called. She said, “Honey, your father and I want you to know that we love you and we support your choice even if we don’t agree with it.”

I said, “What choice?”

She said, “We realize that not everybody loves the same way–”

I shouted, “I don’t llllllllllll–!” It could have been a disaster. Trying to make up for myself, “I don’t think you understand the nature of the situation.”

She said, “But Soibhan told us all about it.” She still pronounced it soy-bun. “You’re living with the malak, aren’t you?”

I checked my peripheral vision and contented myself that Inillustrable Girl was in the kitchen microwaving a can of tomato soup. I said, “It’s the other way around, but yes, basically. It’s not my choice and I’m trying to do something about it.”

She said, “I understand, honey, but hypothetically, if it was your choice and you didn’t want to tell anyone, we would support you too. But we’re never coming to visit you again and you’re never coming to visit us. Is that understood?”

I whispered, “I’m looking for a j-o-b on someone else’s turf. Can either of you help me?”

She said, “Glad to hear it, honey. We love you.” And hung up.

You know, the way people deserted me in those days, it was almost funny. Maybe now I could look for some of them, try to make amends, but it doesn’t seem so important anymore.

Inillustrable Girl appeared at my side and brandished a bowl of hot tomato soup, splashing a bit on my chest.

I said, “Thank you so much. I was just thinking about lunch. However, I seem to have burned myself on. The phone. Excuse me.”

I was beginning to suspect that Inillustrable Girl was sticking around because she actually liked me. Weird to think of, isn’t it? A malak liking someone. Really, feeling any way toward a person other than murderous or indifferent. I wasn’t sure if it was possible. At the support group, they always talked about being able to view malaks as a metaphor. A personification of the unpredictability of death, I think was how they were always putting it. It’s silly, I know: malaks aren’t metaphors, they’re real. The idea was that if we could come to terms with our own mortality then we could come to terms with malaks, though, so I had gotten used to at least trying to actually think of them that way, as a fixed idea that stood for one thing and nothing else. And now this.

It actually wasn’t bad for tomato soup. I mean, you know, the tomato soup wasn’t.

I think what I’m trying to say is that my mom had brought up the question, even though naturally I couldn’t feel that way about a malak, of whether maybe Inillustrable Girl felt that way about me. By day 4 she was doing what you might call cuddling, whenever I was sitting or lying down. She would em–embrace me, understand, and rest her bucket head on my shoulder. Day 5 saw her doing it even when I was standing up. Randomly. Just, whenever. I had to wonder whether she would eventually want to do that. I mean. Well, make love.

Okay, so night 5. Um, I’m going to lay it straight here. Nothing to hide. She came up to my room and cuddled me for a while. Got up–to leave, I thought, but then she straddled my leg. My thigh. She never took her clothes off but I could, well, feel that she was, shall we say anatomically correct, you get me? I’ve never been very buff, so when she put her weight against. My thigh. There wasn’t a lot of flesh between her and the bone. And she started. What’s the word? Grinding. Just harshly rubbing herself back and forth. Basically masturbating with my femur. That’s where the femur is, right, your thigh? She didn’t make any noise, but I could still see that she was, um, experiencing–huh. I’ve never been good at this. There was some moisture.

Anyway that’s the gist of it. It never went further than that. If it had, I wouldn’t have any reason to pretend otherwise at this point, would I?

On day 6 I got a job interview.

***

My mother actually had passed along my plea for help, as it turned out, to my father who knew someone from high school who ran a restaurant attached to a gas station in a place called Adams Township, not especially far from Zanesville. It had less than a thousand people, three churches and almost nothing else. I wasn’t angry at dad. He’d tried. On the few occasions when he did come through for me, it was usually in this kind of way.

All the same, I didn’t like the idea of working there. The local malak was supposed to be called Ultra Sasquatch, and resembled an anorexic Chewbacca. People got killed there just like anywhere else, and one in roughly seven hundred? I didn’t like those odds. I didn’t want to ask how the job had come to open up.

Of course, like any small town, Adams was cheap. I could buy a house there. Literally, just buy it for cash. So there was that.

The town was hard to find. Partially because when I left home, there was Inillustrable Girl in the back seat of the car.

I said, “Not that I’m not glad for the company, which I am, but are you sure you want to come along? I need to drive pretty far.”

Nod.

What could I do? I started the car, figuring she’d probably teleport out when I left town. That, or kill me. I kept wanting to see if she was still there, but I was afraid to look into the back seat too often. I worked out a system: every time I wanted to check the back seat, instead of doing that, I made my peace with God.

Thinking it would be safe, I checked the rearview when I entered Muskingum. Should have been in someone else’s territory by then, and like any malak she wouldn’t cross borders, right? Wrong.

I said, “Muskingum,” as if just muttering absentmindedly to myself. No reaction.

I got lost a few times on the way to Adams. I was distracted, naturally, because what did this mean? Were we going to get in trouble? If I lived, would this be a famous scientific discovery or something?

Never mind. There’s nothing scientific about malaks.

By the time we finally reached Adams, daylight was starting to wane. I apologized to my father’s high school friend, a balding, emphysemic man wearing a Brett Favre Packers jersey. He wasn’t insulted. He had so little business, he said, that it didn’t really matter when I showed up.

Inillustrable Girl had stayed in the car, thankfully.

It wasn’t much of a job interview. He asked me a number of questions, mostly about my religious and political leanings. Depending what answer I gave, he would either move on to the next question or tell a story. For example:

Him: “You go to church?”

Me: “Yes.”

Him: “You libertarian?”

Me: “Yes.”

Him: “Don’t you believe a damn word of those Canadians and their healthcare system. It’s not free, they pay absorbitant taxes for it, and it’s the worst healthcare anywhere. I know a guy whose friend’s dad lived in Canada…”

He repeated himself a lot. I tried to kowtow to him, but I left convinced that there had never really been a job on the table. He just needed someone to talk to. I get that sometimes. Actually, I get that kind of a lot. I suspect I’m not the only one. Maybe Inillustrable Girl was the same, in a way. Do malaks get lonely?

By then it was dark, and I was going back to my car, and I swear to gosh I thought it was Tommy Chong. I thought, what’s Tommy Chong doing next to my car? And then I felt so embarrassed because of course it was Ultra Sasquatch, I mean it had to be because it was naked and covered with long brown hair, and I was probably about to die and that had been my last thought.

Ultra Sasquatch was very fast, which I saw when it grabbed me. It wasn’t a teleporter but it did move its beam-like limbs much swifter than seemed possible for something so long. Like a double-jointed windmill. I had read some things about it before I came, and it was supposed to have a hobby of bisecting people. You know how you tear a piece of paper in half, then you put the halves on top of each other and tear the halves in half, and keep doing it until it doesn’t seem worthwhile anymore? That.

So he had me by my one arm and my other leg and then–I don’t know how else to say this, he sort of popped. Exploded, I guess, the way I had always imagined it when somebody told me about feeding Alkaseltzer to a bird, only much bigger and grosser. All at once I felt hot and moist, so my first coherent thought was I’m covered with sweat, then, no, I’m covered with blood.

So there you have it: malaks have blood. I know, I was there.

Inillustrable Girl cuddled me as soon as I got in the car. That was when I realized that I couldn’t call the police, if Adams Twp. had police. Not with her there. Instead I had to write out the whole explanation on the back of my Mapquest directions and leave it in the parking lot under a chunk of concrete that I found coming off the curb. I tried to leave it near enough to most of the entrails for them to find easily.

I got lost on the way home.

I expected to start getting calls by the next morning. I had left my phone number on the explanation. Nobody called, so they must not have found it.

***

The same thing happened in Coshoctan 2 days later. I should back up.

I got another interview in Coshoctan. The job title was “computer guy,” which should give you an idea of both the size of the company and its seriousness. I had applied thinking that it might get me saved. Now I wasn’t so sure. I wouldn’t have told you this then, but I actually wasn’t sure I would take the job if it was offered. Coshoctan had a malak named Sniffer whose kill rate was a hair above average, and who liked to transmogrify people into person-size boogers. Bodies would go unidentified for weeks. Maybe the devil I knew was better.

Inillustrable Girl hadn’t changed her appearance since the day she attached herself to me. She hadn’t killed anyone either.

She came along again. We ran into Sniffer, and she toasted him. She melted his nostrils shut with her heat ray and he suffocated. You’ve read the story.

Just like the rest of you, I wondered if a malak could be good. Maybe if they could form an attachment to someone, like a dog, they could be shown proper ways of behaving. Maybe they could even learn good from evil. Become citizens. You laugh, but we know so little about them.

People noticed this time. It was during the day, right out in public. I didn’t go to the interview, just got the heck out of town as fast as I could. A deputy stopped me on the way back to Zanesville. I told him that I understood he had been sent under the most noble pretenses of collecting information about what had just occurred in town, and I recognized that he was only doing his job and that I could be accused of obstructing justice for trying to prevent him. Also that while I acknowledged all of these things, I had a malak sitting in my car and this could be a very precarious situation for him. He left me alone.

That was day 8. On day 9 I got a call from the Plain Dealer asking for information. For an article.

He (the reporter) said, “Is it true that you have a malak living at your house?”

I said, “No comment.”

He said, “Is it true you were there at the scene in Coshoctan yesterday, and that you drove away hurriedly afterwards?”

I said, “A lot of people drove away from there pretty quick.”

He said, “Can I come to your house and ask you some more questions?”

I said, “You can stay the–” I’m just telling you what I said here. I was very serious. I said, “You can stay the h-e-double-hockey-stick away from my property.”

As I mentioned before, I live in a townhouse, not a real house, and it’s not actually my property. I rent.

He said, “When did you first meet the malak?”

It went on like that. If he ever showed up at my place it must have been while I was out of town, which happened a lot in the following days. When he finally hung up, I couldn’t figure out who I had been trying to protect.

On day 10 I realized that I loved Inillustrable Girl, following a conversation I had with myself in front of her, basically explaining some of the things I explained to you just now, about how she seemed to actually like me and maybe she was a good person at heart and all that. She cuddled me afterwards. It was kind of sweet. Well, maybe you had to be there to appreciate it.

I know it’s hard to bridge the gap between that and love, like capital-L love. If this adds a bit of clarity to the situation, it had to do with the fact that everyone else had left me and she hadn’t, that she seemed to listen to me when nobody else did, that she was increasingly the most reliable thing I had ever had in my adult life and that, afraid as I was of her, she didn’t seem to ask much of me.

Put it this way: a malak is the only friend you ever need. Not that, you know, you can have other friends with a malak around. But with Inillustrable Girl I had begun to understand that those other people? Never really had been my friends. They had never killed for me. They were there for me only some of the time. Their friendship was incomplete, not to mention conditional. That’s the way it is with humans, even the most devoted human lovers. With a malak, friendship–love–is absolute. Maybe that’s why it happens so seldom.

I still didn’t dare cross her though.

On day 11 I got a reluctantly-worded termination notice in the mail and realized that I was on a mission, possibly from God. I made plans. On day 12 the road trip started.

***

This is the part you’re most familiar with already. The part they, remember they started calling it the, uh, Great Malak Liberation. Hard for me to think of it that way anymore, even harder to say it. They meant, of course, that we were liberating people from malaks, not liberating malaks, which is kind of what it sounds like. But I don’t have to tell you that.

Oh boy.

Okay, well here’s the gist. Malaks blowing up, burning, falling over left and right. We went from town to town, mostly in Ohio, but going into West Virginia a little bit because we felt sorry for them. We went to Marietta and got Slap Man. We went to Parkersburg and got Smoking at Night. We went to Athens and got Look Ma No Hands. There were reporters. They took our pictures. It was the first time a malak ever posed for the press. The skull painted on her bucket seemed to be a little more smug than usual.

They said, “Who are you?”

I said, “We are M. Shaw and Inillustrable Girl, from Zanesville.”

They said, “Why are you doing this?”

I said, “We’re on a mission.” I thought I remembered saying “from God,” but they must have cut that out on television and in the papers. Maybe I didn’t say it.

We went to Point Pleasant and got Tuxedo Piñata, who proved to be full of candy instead of entrails. We went to Huntington and got The Conjoined Collaborating Romance Authors. We went to Ashland, which was the only town we did in Kentucky, and got Ronald McMcMcShutUp. We went to Portsmouth and got Simply Beans. People started to turn out in droves when they heard we were coming. They would watch the fights, I guess because they were so confident in us.

They started to offer us things. We never had to buy gas or food, for one. But there were presents too, all kinds of gadgets and fancy bibles and valuable jewelry and people wanting me to marry their daughters, or even for Inillustrable Girl to marry their sons. In Portsmouth a car dealer showed up and offered us a brand new Mercedes, which I turned down.

I said, “I’m sure it is better than my Elantra, but isn’t that kind of like offering Superman a new cape?”

And people agreed, my gosh, they agreed! See how out of hand it got?

By the time we got to Chillicothe they were actually throwing rose petals in the road in front of our car. Can you believe that? We were being followed around by a camera crew. It was supposed to be for a reality show that had been hurriedly arranged a couple days before. Naturally, that show never aired. Maybe you could find the footage somewhere if you were very dedicated. The mayor had the key to the city all ready to go, and after we turned Caramel Macchiato into a smear of moist espresso grounds against the side of the courthouse the whole town had a huge party. If they have an open container law there, they certainly were not enforcing it.

There was this, this orgy, you see. Not planned, I don’t think, definitely impromptu. I guess…

I felt bad about Soibhan.

I guess you never know about these people in these minor cities.

Soibhan though: I bet she would have been able to handle these things better than I did. She’s more intense than I am. I mean, she has, like, more feelings. That sounds dumb. I’m not intense. When I was in school I got C’s and D’s in English. I read Animal Farm and thought Snowball was the villain. I’m not good at understanding things, is what I’m saying. People in larger-than-life situations who don’t understand things usually don’t last as long as I have. If Inillustrable Girl had interviewed people for this I would not have gotten the job.

So. Columbus. The, uh, day of destiny. As it were.

If you don’t know, the malak there is named Comrade Cellulite, and she’s a pregnant woman who is an octopus from the chest up and a humongous cow’s udder from the waist down. You might have seen a picture, but it’s hard to tell the exact composition because she has so many appendages, every one of which shoots acid, or occasionally LSD depending on what kind of mood she’s in.

I swear, the way people turned out you would have thought it was Tyson vs. Holyfield. That was that big boxing match, right, Tyson and Holyfield? I don’t really pay that much attention to boxing. Any, really, but. You know. They blocked off downtown. It even looked like Comrade Cellulite was in on it, because she was waiting for us on the statehouse lawn, in front of a statue of President McKinley.

I can’t get the image out of my head. We got out of our car, me and this malak who I love. M–my Inillustrable Girl. In her ratty clothes, with her bucket head and her slouchy walk. She got out of the car, cracked her knuckles, and my God, she looked cute. I told her so, for the second time. I was confused, but the memory, I still treasure it a little bit.

The fight… did not go well.

I don’t know why this possibility had not occurred to me before. I must have been too wrapped up in. Things.

She’s not dead, I remember thinking right at the end. She transformed into acid so that the blasts couldn’t hurt her, and she escaped. Which, frankly, was bull. Her body was right there in front of me.

That was a heck of a moment. Everybody standing around like, What happens now? All of us watching Comrade Cellulite sitting on top of the half-melted McKinley statue, wondering what she was going to do next, if we were all about to die.

That reminds me, have you ever been to one of those support groups? You know what they tell you? They tell you that wondering if you’re about to die when you see a malak is pointless. They tell you that we’re all going to die, that while some of the causes may be different, people aren’t dying any more or less often than they ever have, and when our time comes it will come and there is nothing we can do but accept it, and worrying about it is just an unnecessary source of stress.

They are so full of shit.

Comrade Cellulite stuffed herself back down into the sewers and we all thought we were safe.

***

Hating malaks is a strange notion, isn’t it? Kind of like living in Germany in the 40’s and hating Nazis. Kind of like thinking death is a sin. Like, what would be the point? Hating them would make no difference, so nobody thinks of it. I had never hated malaks before, and I don’t think anyone I knew had. They would say it off-hand, “I hate malaks,” at funerals and things, or when they read about the rare celebrity death; but then, people say they hate snow or certain movies or their siblings all the time and they don’t really mean it, it’s just hyperbole, or not knowing what else to say.

I had this list though. I’d made it at the start of the road trip, when I was planning our route. I was crossing malaks’ names off as we went along, Kill Bill style only it was a much longer list. In the following days, before I finally tore up the list and flushed it down the toilet little bit by little bit, I kept looking at the spot where the crossed-off names ended (Comrade Cellulite was the last one, I’d crossed it out in pen before the fight, which sort of ticked me off afterwards) and starting to really hate the malaks who had dodged the bullet, if you will. Started to hate what they did, and the fact that they could just go on doing it as if they had never been in any danger. It took the real possibility of an alternative to make me feel that way. A lot of other people probably thought the same way, but I never learned of it then and now I don’t think I ever will.

I shacked up in the Hyatt a block away for–a long time. I stopped counting the days, and apparently so did the hotel because I never got a bill. I think there was some kind of understanding going on, if you get me, like I had become untouchable. My room never got cleaned even when I hung the little hanger with the picture of the wasp-waisted maid on it on the doorknob, so there you go.

I couldn’t leave town. Couldn’t bring myself to leave town, that is. I imagined it as being so sad, with the shot framed in my mind of my car receding into the distance, defeated, with the million people I had let down all watching.

I’m sure I must have eaten and changed clothes and all that, but I can’t remember exactly how it worked.

The next solid spot in my memory is from what must have been weeks later, when one of the maids accidentally left a Dispatch in front of my door in the morning, even though I wasn’t supposed to get the paper. The cover story: the entire area of Adams Township was a quarantine zone. Military blockades at every road into town and a perimeter set up around the area. They weren’t releasing any information but a news chopper that had flown around just outside the no-fly zone reported that the town was just gone. Even the buildings. Nothing there. It was speculated that inside the area Ultra Sasquatch was alive and killing anyone who entered his territory. Sniffer was back in action too, in Coshoctan. The streets were littered with giant balls of snot, way ,way, way above his normal kill rate, or any other malak’s, and the Governor had ordered the place evacuated. Washington had decided it was a pattern and FEMA was on its way in.

Come to think of it, maybe she didn’t leave the paper there on accident.

They came back a day or so at a time, like clockwork, right in the order we had taken them out before. They evacuated all the towns, but then the malaks started showing up outside of their established turf. Tuxedo Piñata was the first one–I guess he particularly had reason to be indignant about things and was thirstier for revenge than the rest–but within a few days it was all of them. Then malaks who hadn’t been killed started going crazy too, and when that happened all bets were off.

Now nobody is safe anywhere.

Safe, you get that? We were safe before, with the old malaks. Weird to think of, isn’t it?

Some things which are all equally true: (1) I feel, in some way, responsible for what happened. (2) I could not have known that things would turn out this way. (3) I messed things up for everybody, regardless of where blame might lie. (4) If the balance was this fragile, it’s a miracle we lasted this long.

At this point Inillustrable Girl had not yet surfaced. Comrade Cellulite had also gone MIA since the fight, so people were worried about that too, and given the way she came back later, rightly so.

Nobody ever tried to contact me, that I know of. Family, friends, co-workers, not even Soibhan. With Inillustrable Girl I had lost everything. I hadn’t known this before, I mean really known what I had, what was at stake. I was stupid, I suppose, in that sense. I handled this thing poorly. A woman had reached out to me in love, and I had responded inappropriately. Which I’ve been accused of before.

Did I say a woman? I’m almost positive I said a malak.

***

Then one day, something happened that I had truly not expected: I went home. I got up early that morning. I went down to the gift shop in the lobby and bought some tooth paste, and brushed my teeth with my finger because I hadn’t bought a toothbrush and hadn’t thought of using the wash cloth. I ran a wet comb through my hair, which I saw had receded quite a bit, and looked for some Febreeze to spray my clothes but didn’t find any.

At some point the hotel manager came to my door. “Son,” he said, patting me on the shoulder, “it’s time.” I nodded, and he said again, “It’s time.”

I got my car out of the garage. Drove to Zanesville, my head empty all the way, feeling like I had spent the last few weeks sitting in a movie theater after the credits had finished rolling. That kind of total intellectual silence. On the highway, a few off-ramps were blocked with concrete barriers, spray-painted with the word “QUARANTINE” in orange. My exit was still open.

I came to my townhouse. In the front yard, Bob, arranged in glass mason jars sorted alphabetically by body part, so that the yard looked like a giant, putrid makeup kit. I only knew it was Bob because his clothes were nailed to the front door. Bob had all these Star Wars t-shirts with holes in the armpits that he never wanted to get rid of.

I wondered if finally being killed by a malak had set him at peace.

I still can’t decide if this was supposed to be a present for me when I got there. Even knowing Inillustrable Girl as I do. There’s still a lot of things about her I don’t understand, like why she went on killing the other malaks as long as she did. She must have known what was up. Did she do it because she knew it was what I wanted? Because she thought it would teach me a lesson? I guess it could even be that she was unaware, herself, of what was really going on.

My keys had gotten lost along the way somewhere, so I dug the spare out of the flower pot on the stoop and let myself in. The apartment was clean, the way I had left it, but everything was covered with dust so that it looked hazy, as if I were watching my place on an old TV set.

As soon as I came in, a bucket resting on the kitchen counter levitated and turned to look at me. Her face was an X made with rust. She had no body. She had removed any trace of humanity about her.

I thought I knew what was about to happen. I took a deep breath, made my peace. She floated toward me. I closed my eyes, but not tight. I could feel her near me. I knew I deserved what I was about to get.

I said, “I don’t mind as long as it’s you.” Maybe I started to cry a little.

At a moment in which I felt I should not have still been alive I felt an invisible finger touch my face. That was this mark here, the one on my temple. When I finally opened my eyes, the way she looked at me–I mean, it was a rusty X on a bucket but it was looking at me, oh, you bet it was–I knew just was she was saying.

Oh, no. You’re not done. We’re not anywhere near done yet.

And then I died.

***

When she put me back together, I told her that she had been right. We were not done. I said it because she had made me understand. Her, I mean. What it was like. Why we have to do what we do now.


.

About the Author

M. Shaw‘s first known public appearance was in 2009 during early screenings of the web series “Magical Ben’s Magical Forest of Wheat” (credited as M.E. Shaw), in which it portrays a depraved sexual deviant of the non-cuddly variety. A retrospective look at its published fiction reveals certain preoccupations with otherness, psychosis, rape, the absurd, the fantastical, and the implicit, unspoken cruelty of the American lifestyle. All of which begs the question, What is M. Shaw? Where did it come from? The answer: a puppy mill.

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