Sunbeams crept across the
floor and up the covers to his face. Doug awoke with a start, a distant
bell tolling in his vanishing dream. The weakness was terrible; he
raised his arms, fending off the shifting shadows like they were bats.
Moments later, he rose and went to the mirror. His face looked pasty
like piecrust and he put the air conditioning on, fearing he might melt.
It was hard to think;
every thought seemed ragged. Staggering downstairs, he went to the
fridge, and that’s when the enormity of the problem hit him.
No breakfast. The soup
His head spun; he
remembered he had some in a thermos at the office and decided to head
The summer day hit as a
painful blur, the canopy of maples a green claw reaching from a blue
sky; he was aware of a queasy sensation and fear of falling. The
Institute seemed to tower, ready to collapse over him, and he nearly
fell backward while glancing up to his office window. A patient emerged
in the yard hollering something about the spies he thought were pursuing
him, and for a moment Doug wondered if madness wasn't safer than sanity
on a day without soup.
Doug stumbled from the
elevator like he'd been pushed and hurried to his office. He sat down
and his nausea eased. The dark mahogany and paneling felt sticky and
moist, almost like it was sweating blood. He got out his thermos and
guided the spoon with his shaking hand, nearly spilling the soup. Then
he dumped it back in the thermos and looked back to the window. The
bright day stabbed at him with incredible ferocity. He felt like a
vampire under the cross. Walking over he pulled the curtains most of the
way shut. Then he went back to his desk and his soup.
A smooth spoonful eased
its way past his dry lips. “Ah, breakfast of heroes,” he said, feeling
the charge. He blessed his mother for weaning him on soup, and then he
remembered how much he hated her and swallowed his bitter tongue as he
pressed a button and had the patient sent in.
The door opened slowly
and Clifford shambled in . . . Doug looked up from the desk, suppressing
a frown. Clifford broke all the rules, including the first one, which
was look sharp for the Doctor.
“Yo, Doctor Doug,”
Clifford said. “You look kinda peaked, like maybe you ate a frog and it
jumped halfway back up. I used to do that, eat 'em alive.”
“We haven't got much into
your childhood,” Doug said. “Perhaps we'll delve into those seamy
Freudian waters today. After all, if you're getting out, we want to make
sure you're healthy from bottom to top.”
“Healthy. Say, Doc. The
first thing you want me to do is kill your wife. How will that make me
“Hum,” Doug said, looking
thoughtful but stern. “So long as you realize that murder is wrong, and
not something you can do all the time.”
“I can't realize that,
Doc. I'm a psychopath. Murder seems like the right thing to do. It‘s
getting locked up that seems wrong.”
“True and we definitely
don't want to get caught. The killing of my wife, Margaret Atwood Smith,
is to be a perfect crime. You’ll leave none of your trademarks at the
scene. You could look at it as therapy. Think of it. You must kill
someone and yet not dismember the body or leave bizarre clues. Won't
that be difficult?”
“It certainly will.
Therapy. You may have a point. If I learn to not leave my marks I might
never get caught.”
“That would be better for
both of us. Perhaps we should start now, look into why you leave those
marks, and especially bite marks. It’s likely rooted in your childhood,
so let's go into it.”
“Great!” Clifford said,
obviously excited. “I love to talk about my childhood. But nobody else
likes it - they can't stand to hear about it. It begins when I was about
five years old. The first thing I remember seeing is a toad squashed by
a car tire. I picked it up and . . .”
Clifford droned on as he
went from the gross and offensive acts of a bad little boy to the deeds
of a wicked young psychopath. Doug had heard it all before from other
patients. Rather than let the burden weigh in on him he let it all
rumble by like the passing trains of his own childhood. Clifford's voice
began to drift, something distant and fading until it bubbled like
filthy waters in a childhood creek. The vile words soothed Doug. His
eyes grew glassy. The memory of an old church bell tolling took him back
in time. He saw the old family house on the edge of town, the lilac
hedge, the maples and the old well. He remembered some fun things. There
was the odd crew of friends he'd entertained and their many small
adventures. So many hidden places; the rail yards, tree houses and best
of all his secret spot in the garage. The garage was a converted hay
barn. His parents had cleaned it and put siding on it. In the loft he'd
played secret games with his pals . . . the memory was pleasure that
burst into flames of guilt. It choked him and buried him in a recurring
nightmare. He saw his mother's angry face as she caught him. “You're a
dirty little queer,” she hissed. “My son's a queer.” Then she hit him
with a broom and . . . .
Doug's cheeks burned as
his mind leapt back from the past. Now it was his wife calling him a
queer. His wife - Margaret Atwood Smith - how trite of her to have named
herself after some nutty Canadian author. And hadn't mother died long
ago, and by accident. Margaret Atwood Smith would die, too, but
painfully and not by accident. Doug licked his lips, considering how
life would’ve been wonderful if it hadn't been for prying people. People
that wouldn’t accept simple things about him that they allowed in
others. No matter, he had his strength - his soup.
He looked to Clifford.
Perhaps there was an answer there. Everything Clifford did was
disgusting and unacceptable. He posed a problem in that society couldn’t
tolerate him and had no place to put him. So he was here, talking it out
with Doctor Doug. As if there was anything that could ever be done.
Execution was ugly, no doubt, but Doug doubted that there was anyone
that could listen to Clifford's childhood tales and not want to see his
neck squeezed in the same way he'd squeezed the necks of animals.
“I see, I see,” said
Doctor Doug as Clifford finished his talk.
“See what?” Clifford
“See you reaching out and
trying to touch your childhood. Trying to reclaim those golden days when
you strangled only animals. You are a man of needs, Clifford, and you
need a doctor that can help you harness those needs.”
“I think you've hit the
nail right on head here. Why can't the others see things like you do?”
“Forget the others. What
you need is a day out and at large. To save some innocent victim from
being killed by you, I want you to go over and kill my wife, Margaret
“Okay, I'll do it. When
do I get out?”
“Not yet, for safety sake
you must do it while you're still in.”
“You must be crazier than
I am. How could I do that?”
“Easy. Next week you'll
be released in the security hall as usual, and you will come down here
for an appointment. As always, we won't be disturbed until I hit this
button on my desk. Except that next week, I won't be here. You'll come
in and take the hat from the table to cover your face. You'll take the
key beside it and go out that side door and down the staff elevator.
I'll tell you how to get to my house in a moment. You’ll do the job on
Margaret Atwood Smith then return. I‘ll make sure she’s at home and
alone, and you won't have trouble recognizing her - just look for a
stocky woman wearing a hideously cheap blond wig and you've got her.
Remember not to leave your mark. Strangle a dog somewhere else if you
have to. Your alibi will be perfect because you will have been with me
and not at large. Once I see that the job has been done I’ll sign
release papers and you’ll be free.”
Margaret Atwood Smith
chewed her peeling lip apprehensively as her daily dose of reality TV
failed to soothe her. She dreaded the arrival of 3 pm. and her favorite
soap. Lights of our Darker Days had her hooked but she knew this was the
episode in which Dr. Marvin's wife was to be killed by a hit man. She
twitched uncomfortably. Her wig itched horribly.
Her thoughts drifted to
Doug, uneasiness deepened - he'd been a fiend lately, throwing tantrums,
breaking things, threatening her. He was like a nasty little boy. There
was a striking parallel between him and Dr. Marvin on Lights of our
Darker Days. She hoped he hadn't been watching big screen TV and getting
big ideas. Definitely not, she decided. That was impossible. He was at
the office trying to analyze patients that were probably saner than him.
Doug was a wimp, really. He lacked courage. He just wouldn't have the
guts to kill her or anyone. Not like Dr. Marvin, who was handsome and a
But Doug had been
displaying weird and abusive behavior lately. What if was more than a
“Terrible man,” she
muttered as commercials danced by on the screen. Terrible but not so
terrible that she wasn't soon back into her soap, and asleep by the next
set of ads.
She dreamed and the dream
took an odd illogical form. A red bowl of soup spilled and the splash
became a boiling tidal wave of blood consuming her. Then she was
floating across the city and could see in the window of Doug's office at
the Hardin Institute. An ugly man was taking Doug's battered felt hat
from the desk. He had fierce gray eyes and a low forehead. His thin lips
slanted down to the left on his unshaven face. He jingled a key and
grinned, his small mouth expanding broadly as he went through a door to
Margaret Atwood Smith
fell through dream haze to street level, and a minute later she saw the
man emerge, walking crookedly, covering his face with the hat. A ways
down the street he jumped a board fence to a vacant lot and shambled
through the weeds to an old broken down cart. He began prying at the
boards and soon came up with something rusty.
The blinding sun shifted
in and out of cloud towers. The restless wind combed the trashy weeds.
Dust puffed and rolled in the lot, spinning-up yellowed newspaper and
litter. The city hung in the background like a grainy photo.
It all started to go
fuzzy, like bad reception. Margaret Atwood Smith wondered if she was
dreaming. Then, as the man grew to giant proportions, she knew she was .
. . his right hand was huge, grimy and creased. He stretched it to the
sky and it came down, swinging a rusty pipe.
She suddenly woke . . .
hearing creaking. Her muscles stiffened, she didn't dare move. The
dreary music from Lights of our Darker Days partially covered the
suspicious sounds, but what she heard was unmistakable. Someone was
sneaking in the door in the front room.
She clutched her dress,
her knuckles whitening in panic. On the screen, Doctor Marvin was
cradling his wife's corpse as he wept. A moment later a shadow appeared.
“Who's there?” she said,
unable to remain silent.
The man stepped into the
doorway and he was wearing the hat from the dream, but he didn't have a
pipe. He held flowers.
“Doug sent me,” he said,
his smile slimy. “A surprise. Look, flowers for you.”
“Oh, they're lovely!
Bring them to me,” Margaret Atwood Smith said.
Smug and confident, he
walked right up, then sudden suspicion slanted his eyes, but it was too
late. Margaret Atwood Smith had shot a foot out, and it got him - a kick
to the groin. It froze him in his tracks. He grimaced, and then he
grinned. Two of the flowers fell away, revealing a rusty spike beneath.
“Time to die, bitch!”
Clifford said, as he prepared to strike her.
Margaret Atwood Smith
also grinned, and she flipped up her skirt. “Look,” she said.
And he did look, seeing
bare legs, an erect penis and a hammer.
The nail was in her hand.
She flew up with incredible, maniacal speed, one hand throwing the nail
forward and the other planting the hammer. It all took less than a
second and it left Clifford standing there with a spike, flowers in his
hand and a nail driven through his forehead.
Doug found himself naked,
but he didn’t question it. Clifford's body was on the floor; crumpled
like a doll. He saw a wig and a torn dress by the chair. “Poor guy,”
Doug muttered. “Another victim of Margaret Atwood Smith. But he managed
to take that bitch out with him. Must've hit her so hard she
disintegrated. All of her except for her wig, bra and dress.”
His expression changed to
one of contemplation. “Oh well, that'll be enough,” he said as he
snatched up the clothing. “Enough for soup.” Minutes later, he had a
huge pot of water boiling. He dropped the wig and bra in and stirred the
brew with a wooden spoon. Satisfied he said, “It is indeed the perfect
crime and I have murder soup. Enough for months.”