Haunted Passages: “Maxwell House’s Demon,” a short story by J. Thomas Murphy

Haunted Passages: J. Thomas Murphy

Maxwell House’s Demon

She woke up to the rain and a vague sense of unease. The unease she attributed to the melancholy weather. The rain was nothing new. She started as usual: eating quickly, dressing slowly, letting the morning contain its own patterns and rhythms that she knew the rest of the day could not conform to. On the train she flicked through the day’s news on her phone: disasters, war, she wouldn’t believe what happened next, so on. She got off at her stop and walked the three blocks to her office. The building was the same but the weather made it seem grayer, dimmer. Her office was on a middle floor, inconspicuous among the dozens of other offices that dotted the building. Hers was the furthest from the elevator. By the time she arrived the doors were unlocked, coffee was brewing. She sat at her desk and logged into her terminal. They day had begun.

The news read, “Tensions continue to mount between the word’s superpowers.”

Someone said, “I heard it was a hoax, totally fake.”

The coffee maker hissed and spat the last dregs of water into the basket. A few measly drops found their way into the carafe.

She turned over the papers on her desk, checked them against her terminal, made a mark on the papers and then typed something into her terminal. The computer beeped, another number came up. She looked at the papers she had been given, found it, and pulled it up. Unease rose in her like a wave, crested, and fell back. It disoriented her at first, coming as it did so unbidden. What had changed about today from yesterday? She had the sense that she had meant to do something but merely forgotten. A stove had been left on, a light unquenched, a cat left unfed. She shut her eyes and pinched the bridge of her nose to see if she could get a handle on the emotion, but the moment passed.

Rain was still sliding down the windowpanes when she decided to take lunch. There was a food court attached to the building by a covered walkway. Today it was crowded with people in dress clothes, talking to each other or on their phones, navigating by echolocation or blind luck, it was hard to tell. Outside the rain fell hard and left streaky roadways through the thick layer of pollen that covered everything. One of her coworkers said that it was more than pollen that fell on the city. He said it was fine dust, carried over the ocean by the trade winds. He spoke darkly of China and India and the recklessness of East Asian industry. She had only nodded solemnly at the time, not wishing to have an argument, but now seeing the thick muck that crowded the pools of water in the streets she wondered if he hadn’t been half-right.

She was seven people deep in line, waiting her turn to order a mixed salad, when she experienced the first pain. It was so sharp and so sudden that she spun, thinking that someone had struck her on the back of her head, but the woman standing behind her was a whole head shorter than she was. The woman looked at her with blank annoyance. She turned and put her fingers to the place where she had felt the pain. There was nothing, no blood, no signs of tenderness. She chalked it up to a pinched nerve and moved up one space in line.

Someone’s voice said, “Well you don’t know that. You don’t know that. I know that you read it somewhere, but you can’t know that.”

Lightning flashed. There was a peal of thunder. Someone clapped.

After lunch she took two ibuprofen and stared intently at a spreadsheet. Lightning and thunder continued to alternate outside. The sounds drew closer. The light grew brighter. She scrolled, she typed, she saved. There was a flash and a simultaneous boom. Then everything went dark. She sat in the darkness.

Someone said, “Well there goes all my work.”

At home all of her clocks blinked angrily. She reset the microwave, the stove, the little alarm clock she had had since she was fourteen and kept by her bed. When she was finished none of the clocks read the same. They were all within a few minutes of each other, some ahead, some behind. She wasn’t sure how to fix it. Instead she made dinner, rice piled into a bowl, topped with steamed vegetables, no salt, a drizzling of hot sauce. While she ate she watched television shows, streamed on-demand from the little black box that sat under her TV. Anything she wanted, she just had to ask the box. It brought it to her.

The pain began again, this time slowly. It was small and dull and she thought that maybe something had hit her. She touched the spot. Again, it was not tender. There were no signs of bleeding. She got up and took two more ibuprofen with a glass of water. She laid on her back and watched television. The pain receded enough for her to sleep for a while before it woke her again just before dawn. When she showered, she touched the spot. Pain rippled through her body, settled in the small of her back. Her knees buckled, nearly toppling her over in the bathtub. She turned off the water, pressed the towel to her face. She boiled water. She piled clothes on her bed. She sat on the couch and listened to her neighbor in the apartment upstairs commit the same routine actions she had just completed.

On the way to work she Googled, “Cranial Pain,” and “pain in head,” and “skull ache,” and “head Cancer.” She stared blankly at the non-results, message boards full of people convinced of cranial implants by extra-terrestrial beings. Some people were allergic to electricity, to the frequencies of wireless internet networks. At work she turned down the brightness of her terminal. The pain receded only a little, remained a constant companion. For lunch she had soup and when she came back to her desk a man was leaning over it. He said his name was Chuck. He said someone had complained that her screen was too dim.

“I didn’t complain,” she said.

“I didn’t say that you complained,” he said, “I said someone complained.”

“But it’s my terminal.”

“You have to press this button here to make the screen brighter.”

“I don’t want it that bright, it hurts my eyes.”

“You press this button to make it darker.”

“I know how it works. I’m the one that turned it down.”

“You’ll strain your eyes if it’s too dark.”

“But it hurts my eyes when it’s too bright.”

He looked at the screen, squinted, “It seems OK to me.”

He stood back and let her sit. Then she had to sign a form saying that he had fixed the issue she had not complained about.

Slowly, the pain became unbearable. Her hands shook. She saw little spots of light. Sound pierced her, rattled in her brain with an alarming intensity. She put on sunglasses, plugged in her headphones but kept them off, waited for the day to end. At home she stripped naked and laid in a cold bath, a cloth covering her head. Somewhere in the building the theme song to an old sitcom warbled, the volume so high that it threatened to stretch and break the few vapid notes into their component parts.

The spot became painful, raw. She touched it with tepid fingers, recoiled when they met a hot, bulbous spot at the crown of her head. Pain rippled through her skull. She wondered if it could be cancer. She wondered if cancer grew on the outside of the skull. The computer, as always, was useless in helping her make this determination. She stayed up half the night watching television, and in the morning called in sick. Her doctor was not accepting appointments, but there was a clinic not far from her apartment. The sign outside said “Walk-ins Welcome.” She walked in.

There were all varieties of sick people there: bleeding people, broken people, vomiting people, crying people, people doubled over in pain, people holding obscure parts of their anatomy who would not reveal precisely the nature of their injury. A little boy sat in the corner by himself, peeing in his pants.

The nurse who sat behind the counter looked tired but unhurried. She produced papers and forms and informational pamphlets and various small cards that required careful attention because of both the smallness of the print but also the manual dexterity one needed to fill out the required information within such a limited space. She took all of the material from the nurse and sat in an open seat. The smell of urine began to fill the room. No one seemed to notice except for the people who were in pain. Their pain, it seemed, was only intensified by the fumes.

One of the pamphlets was called: “Are You Dying? It’s Harder Then You Think.” She frowned at the typo. The pain in her head increased. She decided to keep her face perfectly neutral. When she returned the papers, the nurse gave her a number and told her to wait. She couldn’t say how long it would take. She sat in the waiting room for what felt like hours. No one came, no one left. None of the patients, it seemed, were much perturbed by the situation. Not even the ones that were bleeding. Eventually a doctor came out and called her number. She looked around at the other people but they did not seem to notice. She got up and followed the man behind the curtain.

“So what is it?” the doctor said.

“I have a pain in my head.”

“That’s it? You come to me with a pain? There are people out there bleeding.”

“You brought me in here.”

He screwed up his face, “Describe the pain.”

“It’s a very intense pain—right here,” she pointed to the spot. The doctor was not looking, he was tapping something out on his tablet. Doctors did not even write things down any more, they just tapped.

“Just take some ibuprofen,” he said.

“I tried that.”

“Take a long nap.”

“I tried that, too. It hurts too much to sleep. Don’t you want to look at it?” her hand hovered expectantly over the spot on her head.

The doctor looked up. His face was blank, uncomprehending. “Of course I’m not going to look at it,” he said, “it’s just a headache.”

He gave her a prescription and a sampler of painkillers. She walked out the way she came in, past empty bays of curtained rooms, all waiting for someone to come an inhabit them. Outside she paid the fee. Everyone was still there, waiting. The boy had gone but the puddle of urine remained, dripping down onto the floor from his seat.

On her way home, she took the painkillers. When she got back to her apartment she heated water but did not have any tea, so she mixed sugar into her cup of boiled water. She drank it in the dark, eating stale bread from the bag. In the morning she went to work because there was nowhere else to go.

The office was a nightmare of sounds and light. She wore sunglasses and earplugs. Her work felt meaningless, empty. She turned the brightness on her screen down so low it was almost impossible to see. Papers came in and she considered them before stamping them as incomplete, sending them back to where they came from. Let someone else figure it out, she thought. Let this all be someone else’s problem.

A woman stopped by her desk and leaned in close to her screen, “I can’t see your screen,” the woman said.

She leaned over and turned the screen off. The woman stood up straight, shocked as if she had been slapped. The woman looked around at the other people in the office, curious if they too had seen what she had.

“Her screen is off,” the woman said. No one looked up. “Her screen is off!” she said more loudly and when no one looked she began to walk quickly down the row of desks saying it, like a mantra. Her screen is off, her screen is off, her screen is off. What did it mean? The words began to warp, to melt. Her screen is off, her screen is off, her screen is off. With each repetition they lost meaning, approached the emptiness of a Zen koan. The chanting stretched and flattened, became quieter the further away she got, dimmed and went out. She was alone at her desk again. No one had looked up. Nobody cared.

Her screen stayed off. Nobody came around again. Her head continued to ache. It throbbed, it roared, it played a silent symphony in concert to the thrum of the fluorescent lights. She clutched and pinched and massaged. She took more pain killers. The pain resisted her. It developed its own texture, its own taste and smell. It occluded her other senses. She lived inside its ambience.

The bottle said, “If you take more than eight pills in 24 hours consult a physician.”

She liked the antiseptic, untroubled nature of this warning. It did not suggest impeding disaster. It did not tell you to get to an emergency room. There was not even a hint of trepidation about the reader’s condition, it simply contained a referral. It was neat, objective. She realized that she did not know how many of the pills she had taken. She spilled them out on her desk and started to count. Every time she got past fifty something in her mind recoiled, emptied itself out. She had to start over.

After her third try she got up and went to the manager’s office. His room was in the center of the building. It was small. Three of the walls were white, empty. The fourth wall, the one behind his desk, was concrete. His desk was small and metal and contained only a giant computer screen and a small picture of a child in a metal frame. No one had ever dared ask who the child was. She stood in front of the desk looking at the rear wall, all exposed rebar and construction work graffiti. Near the ceiling someone had scrawled in a shaky hand, “shit.” She wondered idly if anyone had ever noticed.

“What is it this time?” her manager said.

They had met only once before, after her interview and never interacted since. She didn’t know what he meant by “now.” There had never been a “then.” When she did not respond he looked up from his computer screen, where it did not seem as though he was doing much of anything.

“What?” he said again.

“I need to take the rest of the day off.”

“What for?”

“My head hurts. I mean, I think there’s something wrong with it.”

“You have to go home because of a headache?”

“Yes—no, not a headache.”

He was looking at his computer screen again.

“Tell the girl,” he said. She turned and went out. She took her pills and bag and signed the paper the administrator gave her. She took a cab because she thought it would be quieter than the train but the driver talked anyway. He started before she was even in the door. She didn’t understand what he was talking about, taxes, the government, some petty unfairness that had gotten under his skin. She gave him five dollars to stop talking but he misinterpreted the gesture and kept talking.

At home she took a hand mirror into the bathroom and angled it above her head. She stood in front of the bathroom mirror and parted her hair with her free hand. She wanted to see if something was there. She thought perhaps it was a cut, some kind of infection. Or maybe it was some kind of parasite. An insect had laid an egg inside her skin while she slept at night and now its larva was growing, increasing in size and volume, pressing against the fragile veneer of her skin. Or perhaps it was oriented in the other direction, digging itself in, looking for sustenance.

She parted the hair, gingerly. In the place where she felt the pain there was a redness. The back of her skull had swollen imperceptibly. She noticed the faint curvature of the skin now under the mirror. Carefully, she parted her hair to get a better look. The area was red and hot to the touch. She pushed her hair forward. There was a line. Simple, straight, it ran two or three inches horizontally across the back of her skill. The skin there felt smooth, not like a cut or a scar. She did not remember being wounded in that spot. Perhaps it had happened when she was younger, before she could remember. She did not think that it was possible. Someone would have told her that story by now. She would have noticed.

The television said, “Strangled to death by a man she met on an online dating app.”

She felt that she should feel sick, but there was only the blank calmness that preceded a terrible accident. It was inevitable, this plunge, this crash, this slow glide into disaster.

She wanted to call someone. The doctor would have no interest. He would stare blankly past her while she described the scar, her hand hovering above the wound, his mind already long since departed. Her friends, she knew, would defer to the doctors. Strangers perhaps could be convinced to muster sympathy, but even then, only online. She sat in her room and felt the wound. She put ice in a towel and pressed it against her head. The pain receded a little. After the ice had begun to melt she looked at it again in the mirror. The spot looked redder. She took more pills and laid on the couch. She had a dream that the wound spread and split. In the dream her brains came out and sat on the rug.

In the morning she put her fingers to the spot. The act was compulsive now. Her fingers found the line and followed it. The depression in the center had grown deeper. Perhaps her dream had not been a dream. There was no blood on her pillow, no signs that anything had leaked out in the middle of the night. She pulled her hair back into a bun and dressed for work. On the train she surreptitiously snuck her fingers under the clot of hair, checking the wound. No change. No change. No change.

Someone said, “Absolutely, absolutely. We should have bombed that fucking place into glass years ago.”

The pain she had felt in the preceding days had rolled back, become almost subliminal. She felt it when she focused on it, like her breathing or blinking her eyes. Instead, she focused on her work. There were two days of it built up: ignored, mis-filed, incomplete. Work blotted everything else out, made it hard to hear or to see. She became single-minded. By noon she had nearly caught up. Her fingers bore the marks of paper cuts accrued, but unacknowledged. All at once they started to bleed. She went into the bathroom and washed her hands. Little drops of blood fell into the sink. All morning she had not thought about the wound. Now it nagged at her. Something was missing. She could not put her finger on it. With one smooth gesture she let down her hair, ran her fingers through it. They brushed the wound. She stopped, felt coldness envelop her. The memory of the wound rocketed through her, yes, but something else. It had changed. No longer a smooth scar across her skull it had developed ridges, hard and bony. Was this skull? It felt too regimented, too regular for the random patterns normally associated with the human skull. No, this was something else. She ran her fingers over it again.

It was teeth. There were teeth inside of her wound.

She wanted to scream but there was no point in screaming. At first, she considered asking someone to come into the bathroom with her to look but that she knew was crazy. What would she even say? She decided that it was a normal aberration. A “non-event” as her doctor would remind her. Given a few days the teeth would fall out, the wound would close. It was so simple. She tied her hair back up in a bun and went out for lunch. She stood in line waiting for a mixed salad. Around her other people talked or looked into their phones, divining.

Someone said, “There are two possibilities: either life simply does not exist in the Universe, or it has not passed some unspecified threshold. That threshold may be behind us. In which case, humans are the first species to develop fully in the universe. More troublingly, though, that threshold may very well be before us. Which means we may not be the first in a trail in which no one else has succeeded.”

Back at her desk there were new papers. She shuffled them under the old ones and began to go to work. She did not think about the wound, she thought about intake numbers. She did not think about the teeth she thought about maximum payouts. She did not think about the wound expanding. She did not think about her brain sliding out onto her pillow. Instead she fixated on the glowing lights in the screen before her, entered data, checked it against a paper copy, updated it, accepted it, rejected it. In that way she could continue on as normal, as a person would.

Someone said, “The crises that humanity will face in the twenty-first century are, regardless of their inception, all existential.”

She looked around. No one was talking to her. In fact, no one was talking at all. They were all bent over their own consoles, doing their own kind of work. Some people had their phones and were idly scrolling through them. She reached two fingers into the mass of hair on her head but could not feel a change. She got back to work. Across the room someone laughed. Something crashed onto the floor.

Again, someone spoke. They said, “Although it is not altogether impossible that we are merely living in a simulation.”

“Shh,” someone said. She looked up. A woman next to her was staring at her.

“What?” she said.

“Shh,” the woman said again, pressing a crooked finger against her lips as a warning.

Shaking her head, she got back to work. Outside the rain began again. It seemed like it was always raining. Chuck was somewhere in the office. She could hear him saying, “You press here if you want to print the letter ‘a’ on your screen.” She got up and went to the bathroom. It was empty, surprisingly antiseptic. The air smelled like bleach. She went into a stall and sat down.

Someone said, “Advanced civilizations might find it beneficial to upload their consciousnesses into a centralized database.”

“Sorry?” she said. No one responded. She got up and looked around. There was no one. She looked under the stall doors. No one. She let her hair down and felt the spot. It had grown. It was more than just teeth now, it was lips. A faint wetness rimmed the wound. She drew her hand back. She pulled her hair into a tight bun. She leaned forward into the mirror. Someone would have to know what to do. Whoever it was would have to appear spontaneously, though, because she did not know them.

She went and stood outside of her manager’s office. He sat behind his computer, shrouded in gloom. Something about his aspect said that he was not granting requests. Instead she went to find the girl. She was at the front desk, where she always was. The name placard said, “Kaitlyn.” It seemed wrong, somehow. There was no way this girl could be Kaitlyn. She leaned over the desk to get the girl’s attention.

Someone said, “The supercomputers required to run intellect simulations would of course put off enormous quantities of heat.”

“Sorry?” the girl said.

“Nothing, look I just have … a pain. Something is terribly wrong and I need to go home and lie down.” 

The girl frowned, “Is this is a worker’s comp issue?”

“No … I mean, I don’t think so. My head hurts.”

“You can’t go home for a headache. I can give you something, though.” She reached into her desk and handed over a bottle of pills. They were prescription, extra strength.

At her desk she swallowed a handful of pills and put on her sunglasses.

“The problem, of course, lies in how to adequately disperse that heat,” a voice said.

“I don’t even know how someone could see anything with a screen that dark. Isn’t anyone going to do something?”

Carefully, she collected her things and snuck out of a side door and into a taxi. She laid down across the back seat. As they pulled up to her building a voice said, “Heat Death would provide adequate cooling for such computing systems.”

Once inside, she pulled the curtains shut. She stripped off her clothes and pulled back her hair. She felt too afraid to look. It was more than just teeth or lips, more than a wound in her skull. It moved under her touch, masticating futilely or speaking without words. She felt hungry and for the first time in her life the sensation brought with it a sense of panic. How did she eat now, with two mouths? From the kitchen she took bread and butter and a glass of water and sat on her couch with it all arrayed before her on a little table.

“Although other solutions still remain. A Matrioshka Brain, for instance.”

She felt sick. The idea of eating unnerved her. Did it need to eat, to drink? If left alone would it atrophy or grow more agitated? She buttered a slice of bread and stared at it.

“It would be possible, at that point, to simulate a previous iteration of their own civilization. Or perhaps, any civilization, given enough input.”

Without thinking her hand went to the remote to turn on the television. It flicked into existence, the only light in a room more and more composed merely of darkness and gloom. She took each slice of bread from the bag and buttered it, stacking them one on top of the other on the plate. She listened to the television which could not, at any rate, mask the voice inside of her head.

“Activists gathered in the capital today but were met with a darkened building, as most representatives had ‘gone missing’ according to official reports.”

“Entire populations made of bits, our pasts written out to a log, archived and rotated, examined only in the event of malfunction, or recalled in wake of catastrophe.”

She thought about eyes, a nose. What part would come next? Would she wake to find a second chin, jutting from the back of her neck?

“Which the Prime Minister considered, ‘fighting words.’”

“We are variables inside of an inscrutable equation. We are being held inside of a moment.”

It spoke, pushed little breaths of air out that disturbed the locks of her hair. She held the bread, considered it. Whose air? Whose stomach?

“What is the purpose of this terrible machine?”

“The boy, eight years old, was denied entry on account of ‘not really being a child,’ immigration officers responded.”

“Even civilizations may dream, but what is it they dream of? Is it us?”

She held the glass of water to her lips, felt a wave of revulsion.

“With the president insisting that China was, itself, a hoax.”

“If they dream, what are we, in the morning light?”

J. Thomas Murphy′s work has appeared or is forthcoming in Sundog Lit, Spry Lit, Gravel Mag, and elsewhere. After teaching English in Korea for two years, he decamped to the Pacific Northwest, where he lives with his wife and cat.

Image: wikipedia.org

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