Adjustment day, p.32
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       Adjustment Day, p.32

           Chuck Palahniuk

  Walter had suppressed a shudder.

  “The world wants a unified field theory,” Talbott had crowed. “A thing, one something that explains everything—give it to them!” His eyelids fluttered. The blood that had been leaking from a dozen stubborn infections ceased to flow. “If you want to make your fortune, buy Naugahyde.” Talbott’s voice fell to a whisper, “Get a gun and report to Dawson or Jamal. Kill the targets he assigns you.” At that he’d seemed to drift off to sleep. His head had flopped backward and hung over the back of the chair, his mouth stretched open, his tongue lolling.

  Walter hadn’t checked his pulse. That’s how dead he’d looked. Neither had Walter called 9-1-1. There were larger issues at stake. He’d been in the basement for weeks while the outside world had been slowly and irreparably changed. For all he’d known pits were being dug. The list, America’s Least Wanted, now stretched to thousands of names. Tens of thousands. The Talbott book had been distributed to just as many readers. Everything they’d done, it had to be a joke. A giant fraud.

  Just in case it wasn’t, Walter had telephoned Nick. He’d telephoned Shasta.

  Shasta turned vamp. Beguiling, she did beg, “Mate with me, milord.” She did make her eyes half closed at Charlie. She did part her crimson lips slightly as if she were drunken with a harlot’s mad desire.

  Scarcely had he returned from the tribal council when she had pressed him for intercourse. He had scarcely vacated his carriage. This vagabond, Nick, had deftly navigated them through the wasteland of Portland, to and from the council site. Now he was strumming his guitar. Delightful were the man’s harmonies. Such a pleasant companion was he that Charlie bid him return to Maryhill and regale the court for the duration of the bountiful gourd harvest.

  As protocol dictated Charlie introduced this latest player to his home wives, his courtiers, and his queen.

  Struck did Shasta look in the moment, although she insisted she’d never before encountered the musical stranger. She did blush heavily and entreat Charlie to retire with her, making much of how his being away had spurred in her loins a powerful longing.

  Retreating to their private apartments, she did snatch at his lacings. Recklessly casting aside his pearl-studded codpiece. And with slippery machinations of mouth and hand did she struggle to excite him.

  To date he’d mated with her in every corner of the palace, and he was obviously exhausted. He did toss back handfuls of Viagra to no avail. His kingly scepter and orbs continued to feel spongy and unresponsive. They hung limp and heavy and curiously numb. Yet so sensitive were their surfaces that even his most pliant codpiece caused him discomfort. The condition was the result of overuse, the royal physician had assured him. From stress, he did assure himself.

  Despite his protests, his queen was once more besieging him. Despite surely being by now blessed with advanced belly child, to judge from changes in her bosom and the absence of her menses, despite being so encumbered Shasta did clutch at his Naugahyde pantalets. She did rip her own bodice and boldly expose herself. Her voluptuous body bare, his favored wife maneuvered to straddle him and by brute strength force upon him her perfumed charms.

  Alas were the royal scepter and orbs immune to her sensual grabbing. Akin to a deceased boa was his. Pale and boneless as a length of sausage casing did it appear, yet Shasta proceeded to tug at it with carnal fury.

  Charlie bore her efforts with husbandly good humor, for they bore scant pain. So arduous were her exertions, he reasoned, that she’d soon exhaust herself. His mind echoed faintly the tale of Terrence’s mother and the catheter.

  Until one mighty yank . . . With a heroic jerk the queen fell backward off their marriage bed. Rising from the carpets she held aloft a prize. Slack and flaccid it was. Rubbery and limp. Bloodless as the moon it hung gripped in her fist.

  “What have you done?” cried Charlie. “Witch, you!”

  “Dude, stop with the Renn Faire–speak, already!” Shasta did retort. She shook the dripping trophy. “No duh! You ever hear of the brown recluse spider?”

  Then did she launch into a learned tirade about some arachnid. A spider the bite of which injected a toxin into its unknowing victim. For to create necrotic tissue, was its loathsome venom. Most often painless was this bite, and the effects were gradual.

  “Dude,” laughed the meat-clutching female, “I’ve been putting spiders on your highness’ royal dingus since the first watercress harvest, duh!”

  Over time, this poison, this poisonous spider venom had anesthetized and begun to break down his organ of manliness. The progressive effects of multiple secret spider bites had gradually dissolved the cellular structures, leaving his tool of reproduction hardly more than an elongated sack of pinkish jelly.

  This, this bladder of goo did the enraged queen rip asunder. Now did she hold it high above her head and did shake the boneless trophy like a Polaroid picture.

  That quivering mass of semisolid, insensate flesh she did draw back her pitching arm and make ready to throw.

  Charlie, mighty chieftain of the first lineage of Caucasia, noble lord of the Maryhill estate, bold killer of many enemies from The List, Charlie chosen by Chieftain Dawson, Charlie the chooser of Chieftain Martin, chooser of Chieftain Patrick, chooser of Chieftain Michael, at this did Charlie release a screeching wail.

  Continued Shasta, “I looked on your computer.” She did scream, “I know what you guys did to Walter!”

  Without pause did she fling the wilted meat stick against a bed chamber casement of highly colored glass, through which it exploded in a shower of reds and golds and plummeted a goodly distance, wriggling down from the cloudless sky, to where it flopped, bouncing damply at the feet of many field wives who recognized the item instantly as it thudded among the rows of Swiss chard and zucchini. There in the dust did it come to rest and was the relic immediately seized upon by hungry, devouring ants.

  Wailing in horror at the wet crater that was all that remained of his scepter and orbs, Charlie did squeal for his guards to seize her. Beseeching Odin and Thor, did Charlie curse, “Ye shall burn for this, vile beldame!”

  But not before his wife, the mother of his final belly child, did take hurried leave of the locale. And not before she did cry, victoriously, “And no matter what Ernst Zündel said the Holocaust really, really did happen!”

  In the world where the burial pits were just being dug and lined with plastic and quicklime, Nick had sounded wasted. “So, Walt, you’re saying it’s some big revolutionary attack deal?” he responded over his cell phone.

  Walter hadn’t been sure what the book and men devoted to Talbott had done yet. He was calling, trying to alert someone. Anyone. He was calling the only two people he’d ever really trusted.

  Over the phone, Shasta had asked, “Walter, you’re saying you killed somebody?”

  They’d both asked what he planned to do next.

  Walter had been in a basement with the body of a dead man. A cloud of black flies circling. The old man he’d promised he wasn’t going to hurt. Looking at the corpse sliced with tiny cuts and blotchy with dried blood, he’d said, “Adjustment Day is coming. But I can still stop it.”

  The borderlands teemed with the free-range grizzlies of Caucasia as well as the tigers imported by Blacktopia. It was a no-man’s land, left as inhospitable as possible. A natural buffer of poisonous snakes and rabid carnivores between the three nations. To venture within amounted to a death wish.

  Their campfire blazed, creating a crackling circle of orange light. Charm and her brother had run out of gas and road at roughly the same point. Afterwards they’d hiked over raw wilderness until twilight forced them to set up camp. She’d brought everything: tents, flint, a pantry of dried food, a water filter, sleeping bags, and toilet paper.

  As they sat looking into the flames Gavyn said, “Mom is going to kill you.”

  Sadly, Charm retorted, “She already killed you.” She didn’t elaborate, but she didn’t have to.

  Roasting hot dogs on sticks,
they speculated about their parents riding bicycles out to some sprawling agricultural estate. There they’d indenture themselves in time for the late hops harvest. Some chieftain would provide for them until the winter wheat was ready to thresh. Theirs would be a merry winter solstice quaffing mead and munching yule logs around a bonfire of dried horse dung.

  Panthers or maybe leopards snarled in the not-far-off darkness, and the siblings laughed to vanquish their fear.

  At the edge of their small clearing a twig snapped. Charm lifted a flaming branch from the fire and made ready to club the unseen predator.

  A discolored gremlin limped into the flickering light. Stooped and shrunken, its matted hair formed an irregular mass around its wrinkled face. Its blue skin was almost a perfect match to the inky night around it. On its heels was a tall, handsome young man wearing one dazzle-bright diamond earring. A pit bull with black-and-white markings bounded into view. The dog rushed to sniff at the campers.

  Gavyn muttered, “Jamal.”

  Charm said, “Mine!”

  The man lifted a hand. “Hey.”

  In unison Gavyn and Charm said, “Hey.” Charm waved her flaming club in a clumsy greeting.

  Jamal indicated the hobbling, painted imp and said, “This is Barnabas.”

  Charm elbowed her brother and said, “Yours!”

  The disturbing creature lifted a clawed hand and said, “Actually, I’m Miss Josephine.”

  Before anyone could break the uncomfortable silence, another twig snapped. Something unseen rustled through the dry leaves.

  The small group recoiled from the new sound. With sizzling hotdog wieners and fiery marshmallows they braced to defend themselves against a pack of starving wolves. Instead, a kid stepped out of the woods. “Hey,” he asked, “is this still Gaysia?”

  Elbowing his sister, Gavyn said, “Mine.” He asked, “You gay?”

  The kid shook his head. “I’m Felix.”

  Charm heaved a sigh. “This is the borderlands.”

  Felix said, “Isn’t this the ending of Fahrenheit 451?”

  It was turning into quite a little party. Felix had brought Mountain Dew–flavored Doritos. Jamal and the pixie creature shared mint juleps with the group. Nobody asked why anyone else had come to this nowhere place. Their combined voices drove off the howls.

  Another twig snapped. A female voice asked, “Charm?”

  Charm called back, “Shasta?”

  A young man and woman stepped out of the shadows. Together, they said, “Hey.”

  In return, the group around the campfire said, “Hey.”

  No sooner had Shasta introduced Nick and they’d found places beside the fire, but the rustle of leaves and snapping of twigs and the screech of night birds heralded a new presence in the dark.

  People ask how it ended.

  Walter had been a well-intentioned doofus is how it ended. He’d been the good scout, the one in every crowd. The altar boy, the teacher’s pet, he’d walked into the Southeast Precinct, looking both ways, whispering with one hand cupped beside his mouth. Past dark o’clock, it was a hundred years past midnight when in had walked Walter Baines with his hood up, head down, wearing sunglasses no less. He’d whisper-asked, “Can I talk to somebody in charge?” He’d told the desk sergeant, “I want to report a crime’s supposed to happen.”

  The desk sergeant, mister sergeant had been, “Got some ID?”

  The desk sergeant had palmed him off on a detective who’d taken Walter into the basement where by then it was already too late.

  A muffled voice from somewhere Walter couldn’t see, it had said, “The only quality that truly unites us is our desire to be united.” Fishing in his pocket, he’d brought out Shasta’s earplug and sniffed it, inhaled the sweetness of her earwax and brains. For that long eyes-closed huff, she’d been standing right next to him.

  Proof that even a writer can die a hero’s death.

  That, that was the end of the Before Times and the beginning of the end.

  The release of twenty-five thousand white doves went off without a hitch. They were blessed with perfect weather, and their fifty thousand feathered wings carried them into a blue sky. For a moment they formed a soaring white cloud, then doubled back toward the countryside while far below them a cheering horde lined the parade route.

  Starvation and crime had left Portland safe to inhabit again. As a result, Charlie’s legions were marching triumphantly into the overgrown, deserted metropolis. Shaggy dray horses harnessed in teams pulled the battlewagons. The catapults were equipped with nuclear projectiles. The battering rams tipped with enriched plutonium. Endless brigades of archers carried quivers filled with C-4 arrowheads. Marching behind these were ranks of lancers whose spears were dripping with anthrax. And with the appearance of every dirigible filled with mustard gas, the throngs cheered. Likewise with every cannon and siege tower that passed, they thundered upon it their applause.

  Most conspicuous among the onlookers were the home wives and field wives of Maryhill. For every woman among them stood splay footed and with her belly child pushed forward. And more than a few were even now feeling the onset of birthing pains, for Charlie had been a busy bee amid his sweet flowers, pollinating more than a few each day, and today they craned their necks and stood on tiptoe for the chance to see him march past and, perhaps, catch his eye.

  And lost in this crowd was an older woman, beyond her childbearing years. A ragged peasant woman who could but faintly recall an age when she labored over the keys of something as magical as a data-entry terminal. Her long gray tresses were tied atop her head. Her hands were the raw, red hands of a washerwoman. Some time ago her nose had been broken and had come to heal flattened sideways against her cheek. Her knees ached, but still she peered into the rows of marchers.

  The air was alive with rose petals and confetti and loudspeakers blaring the voice of Talbott, who repeated, “Caucasia is at war with Gaysia! Caucasia has always been at war with Gaysia!”

  The air trembled with the words, “What men want is a structure for communion!”

  As the washerwoman squinted and studied the faces of passersby, another woman of like late middle age and appearance came to stand at her scabrous elbow. This new crone asked of the first, “Do you remember me?”

  The washerwoman gave her a glance and went back to ogling the parade. “No,” she said softly.

  The new woman persisted, “My appearance has not always been thus.” Speaking in the prescribed language of White-Speak, she said, “In Before Times was I a healer. A nurse.”

  The washerwoman cast another look upon this stranger. Her eyes scoured the woman for a clue, before returning to review the passing marchers.

  Near them, a younger woman made a sharp, high-pitched outcry and slumped to the cobblestones. Those around her looked on nervously, but none went to her aid.

  Without hesitation the washerwoman and the stranger knelt and commenced to administer succor. The younger woman’s hangerock and muslin underdress were saturated in hot brine. Clearly her birthing time had arrived. If this were the case, the babe would arrive as the first of Charlie’s offspring, and for that reason none of the other rival wives would lend comfort.

  Therefore the washerwoman came to cradle the laboring wife as the stranger knelt between the knees of the woman in pain. As they eased the passage of the child, the kneeling woman said, “Rest easy, for in the Before Times did I attend many birthings.” Her words canted toward the washerwoman, she continued, “It was I who tended your son.”

  The hardened washerwoman shed her flinty demeanor for a heartbeat. “My son? My Terrence?”

  Attending to the birthing work, the stranger said, “How came your nose to be so broken?”

  The washerwoman raised a scaly hand and touched absently at the forgotten disfigurement. But she made no answer.

  In a world before everything came to be measured by bumper crops of sweet potatoes and babies, this strange woman had served mankind in a hospital. In that
capacity had she presented the now-washwoman’s son with the Talbott book. “At your behest,” recounted the nurse, “I lied. I told the boy the book came from his father. His father whom I did never encounter. As you bid, I lied and told Terrence that his father was on guard for him, although I knew that to be a mistruth.”

  Both women spoke distractedly as they worked to free the belly child from its dam.

  “You?” asked the washerwoman, unbelieving.

  The nurse tended to the emergent babe. Shaking her head, she said, “I saw you write the notes in the book. Why did you perpetuate such a falsehood?”

  “Shit. I don’t know,” swore the washerwoman, breaking a dangerous precedent by speaking in the coarse manner of Before Times. “I got the idea from Bambi.”

  The nurse echoed, “Bambi?”

  Deadpanned the washerwoman, “That cartoon deer.” Her saggy wrinkles blushed as if with chagrin. “Remember? That part where the stag steps out of the forest and says Bambi is his son and heir, and the stag has always been his secret guardian?”

  “Wait,” said the nurse, momentarily pausing over the half-born offspring. “So you invented a noble, loving father?”

  Without protest the washerwoman continued, “I needed Terrence to hate me if he was ever going to grow a pair.”

  The nurse hefted the bloody newborn aloft and smote its rosy buttocks. Inquired she, “Did not the mother deer die?”

  The babe wailed lustily. A tiny female, the poor thing.

  Distracted by the memory, the washerwoman said, “Yeah. But who wants to die? I forced Terrence to reject me.”

  The nurse placed the healthy, squirming infant in the new mother’s arms. For the first time, the weary, sweaty young woman joined the conversation, asking, “And what became of your Terrence?”

  As if on cue the parade onlookers threw up a mighty cheer. Heraldic banners snapped smartly in the breeze displaying many colors of vibrant hand-loomed velvets. The warm air reverberated with the timpani of massed kortholts and bladder pipes. The marching feet kept pace by the regular beat of tabors and timbrels. The focus of this cheering attention was Chieftain Charlie. Cloaked in leatherette. Adorned in pleather, he limped heavily from side to side assisted by his royal physician.

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