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 was gone!
His head spun; he remembered he had some in a thermos at the office and decided to head there straightaway.
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, 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 healthy?”
“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 said.
“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 Atwood Smith.”
“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 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 sooth her. She dreaded the arrival of 3 pm. and her favourite 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 real man.
But Doug had been displaying weird and abusive behaviour lately. What if was more than a phase?
“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 the elevator.
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.”