SFReader 2014 Story Contest
First Place Winner
Stalking Azazel (Volume Tres of the Dos Cruces Trilogy), was released in 2013. Mangum’s short story, Fetus-in-Fetu, is based on characters from this novel. “If James Crumley and Soren Kierkegaard got into a bar fight, ‘Stalking Azazel’ might be the bloody, brainy result. With its gripping mix of hardboiled noir and gonzo theology, James A. Mangum’s conclusion to the Dos Cruces Trilogy is probably unlike anything else you’ve ever read.”– Rebecca Oppenheimer, National Book Critics Circle member.
Mangum is currently a writer/performer/curator for Joseph Gordon-Levitt’s variety show HitRECord On TV. He is also working on his fourth novel, The Dead Country, a western set in 1870’s Texas. The Dos Cruces Trilogy will soon be released as one novel, Dos Cruces.
Jamey Maxwell remembers driving by a Church of Christ in Ft. Worth many years ago. The sign in front of the church said this: HELL IS REAL. At the time, he laughed out loud and muttered, “Well, that’s a great thought to start the day.” In his mind now the sign appears. This time, he does not laugh, nor crack a smile, nor move a muscle. Jamey Maxwell is catatonic.
My name is Alphonso and I look after Jamey Maxwell. As much as an orderly can look after a temporarily insane and currently catatonic convicted mass murderer. In my case, that’s quite a bit. I have been assigned to Jamey Maxwell by the head of this hospital and by the Head of the universe. I am a black man and I am the angel.
My job as an orderly is to keep Jamey Maxwell from killing himself when he awakens. My job as an angel is to explain his life to him; how he has been used and manipulated. Most importantly, my job is to help him escape and begin his penultimate job on Earth: track down and kill the angel Azazel. Azazel is bipolar, psychotic, and psychopathic. And he has serious issues.
In his current incarnation as a man, Azazel seeks a suitable woman, or women, with whom to mate. He wants a son…or a daughter. Maybe both. He is not choosey about this. Either one could become the new Messiah.
Sarkos heteros, “strange flesh,” is what the ancient Greeks would have called Azazel now that he has descended to Earth as a man. God calls him an abomination.
I am assigned to Ward D, second floor. I am responsible for six very crazy humans. Only one will be cured. Only one will leave.
Although Jamey Maxwell is in no condition to hear any of this just yet, he will be soon. I will make it so, with a little help from my Friend. Then I will slowly bring him out of his state of catatonia into a new state…paranoia. It is a process. It is required. An evolution, so to speak.
God experienced billions of years of sensory deprivation before He said, “Let there be light.” What happens to humans when they are deprived of their senses for just short periods of time? They go insane. They were created in God’s image. Something to consider.
Michael Moore Malicky is twenty years old now, as is his twin brother. His twin brother resides inside Michael’s intracranial cavity. No one knows about the twin brother, as he is a fetus-in-fetu…a parasitic twin that never fully developed and is now encapsulated inside Michael’s brain.
Fetuses-in-fetu are increasingly present in humans. Evidence of environmental degradation? Evidence of genetic breakdown? You humans are not taking very good care of the beautiful planet He made for you. In fact, you are destroying it. Evidence of God’s anger? I know many things, but I do not know the answer to this.
Michael’s twin began growing slowly about nine years ago. Up until then, Michael had been your typical teenager, interested in girls, cars, video games, sports…and girls. As the fetus-in-fetu began to expand inside Michael’s head, his personality changed. Michael’s behavior became increasingly erratic. Mood swings from euphoria to rage and back again. The cycles became more frequent and more extreme with each passing day. Michael’s parents took him to their family physician. He was a good, if too busy, doctor, who could not get Michael out of his office quickly enough to suit himself and his staff.
From there, Michael saw a neurologist, then an endocrinologist, then a psychiatrist. Some lab work was done. Some questionnaires were completed. Throughout it all, Michael never complained of headaches.
His chief complaint was always this: somebody is inside my head. No one took him literally.
All the physicians consulted concluded that Michael was bipolar. Various medications, mostly anti-psychotic drugs, were prescribed. For short periods of time, the drugs masked his symptoms. That didn’t last.
Michael was given more and higher doses of medications. Pills to treat the side effects of pills. Successful surgery may have been possible once, but no longer. Michael Malicky will be dead soon. His final diagnosis in the Skyview records will read: Dementia, etiology unknown.
There is no more room inside Michael’s head for any rational thoughts: his uninvited lodger is growing rapidly now. Michael should be getting plenty of medication for his pain, for his wacked-out ways. But there are caregivers who borrow it. Use it. Sell it.
When Michael Malicky was eighteen, his parents took him out of high school.
He had spent the first semester of his senior year sequestered. In School Suspension for fighting, disrupting the classroom, uncontrolled profanity, and just plain weird behavior. Come Christmas his parents could not take the constant embarrassment and school conferences any longer. Michael’s school days were over. No one was sorry to see him go.
Michael’s mother began taking medication to deal with her increasing anxiety and sorrow. Guilt and worry were her constant companions. She could not sleep. She could not concentrate. She could not understand what had happened to her son. Her sweet, sweet son.
She spent hours looking through the scrapbooks that she had carefully and joyfully created and filled with photographs of her beloved boy. Family vacations. Birthdays. T-ball games. His best-of-show award for an elementary school art exhibit. An 8th grade dance. A tennis tournament. A science project. The day he got his learner’s permit. His beautiful smile.
She thought she had failed as a mother. She thought if she could just think of the right thing to say to him…find the right doctor…find the right drug…he would be okay. He would be happy. He would be safe. In the end, she thought Michael’s problems were all her fault.
Michael’s father began working longer and longer hours. Taking on extra projects. The medical bills, even with insurance, were mounting. Deductibles, co-pays, non-covered items. He needed to make more money. That is how he explained his absences to his wife.
Michael scarcely seemed to notice – that is what Michael’s father told himself. The truth though: Michael’s father did not want to come home. Did not want to encounter the irrational stranger that his son had become. He knew that was not fair; knew that his wife needed him there. That his son needed him. He felt helpless. Hopeless. He wished he were a better man.
However, Michael’s biggest misfortune was that in the house next door to his lived a pedophile. A banker by the name of Guy Hoffman. Deacon in his church. Vice President of the Chamber of Commerce. Volunteer at the local food bank. Pillar of rectitude in his community. Monster in his household.
Guy Hoffman had two daughters, ages 2 and 7. He began molesting his oldest daughter when she was 2. He told her she was his “special girl.” But when she was seven, Melissa began to realize how wrong this was.
She had learned at school about “good touch” and “bad touch” and that she could say…should say… “no”…even to her Daddy. She began to worry about her little sister, Megan.
One day Melissa found the courage to tell her Daddy that if he did not stop she would tell her Mommy. Her Daddy promised he would never do it again and begged her not to tell. Melissa sighed with relief and smiled as if she had been given a gift. She still believed that daddies are supposed to love and protect their children. She still believed that her daddy would not lie to her. She believed that she had done what she needed to do to protect her baby sister.
And deep down, she also believed that she was a bad girl…that she had made her Daddy behave badly. Of all the evil people in the world, God hates child molesters most of all. Especially child-molesting fathers.
Guy Hoffman knew Michael quite well, having lived next door to the Malickys for more than ten years.
He had seen Michael’s transformation. He had seen the disintegration of his life from normal kid to run-when-you-see-him-coming. He knew Michael was a very sick boy.
He knew that video games somehow calmed Michael. Focused his unruly brain. Guy had nurtured a neighborly relationship with Michael. Just in case. He knew that Michael could be used. He knew that Michael could solve his little problem.
The day after Melissa threatened to expose her Daddy, Guy invited Michael over to play a new video game, appropriately titled Denizens of Evil.
Guy knew from rambling conversations with Michael conducted over the backyard fence that the original Denizens of Evil 2 video game was Michael’s favorite. A quick trip to Walmart provided Guy with an unexpected bonanza: the latest version at Walmart’s everyday low price.
The main feature of Denizens of Evil 2, the “partner control” system, is unique to the series. Instead of choosing a single character to play, the player controls both the main characters…Jessica Chalmers, ECHO team’s medic from Denizens of Evil, and Bobby Cowan, an escaped ex-military convict…throughout the entire game.
As Michael began playing Denizens of Evil 2, instantly unaware of any and all outside stimuli, Guy Hoffman began his own debased scheme of “partner control.” Guy was now controlling his main characters: Melissa and Michael. His perverted version of Denizens of Evil 2 was sickening in its perfection.
The Nintendo GameCube just happened to be in the traitorous and unappreciative daughter’s bedroom. And it just so happened that by the time Michael left Guy Hoffman’s house, his fingerprints were all over Melissa’s room.
That night, when Guy came into her room “to hear her prayers,” he put his hand over Melissa’s mouth and nose, and as his seven-year-old daughter struggled, he cried. He was very sad that she had given him no other choice. It was all her fault.
The police, with Guy Hoffman’s sly and sometimes subtle/sometimes not-so-subtle assistance, came to the rapid conclusion – a rush to judgment, if you will -that Michael Malicky was a child molester and now a child killer.
Medical professionals examined the Hoffman’s surviving young daughter, Megan, and found that she too had been recently molested.
There was no DNA evidence linking the molestations to Michael Malicky. There was, however, DNA evidence linking Guy Hoffman, if only the authorities had taken one extra step. But why bother? They already had their killer.
While Michael was in custody, he was alternately combative, helpful, and completely out of touch with reality.
He thought the police were his friends. He thought they were asking him about the new video game that he had played at Mr. Hoffman’s house. The one that was particularly graphic and violent.
Michael obligingly confessed to the rape and murder of Melissa Hoffman, parroting each and every lurid detail provided by his new friends.
Michael’s parents, grief-stricken, exhausted, and nearly bankrupt, were virtually powerless to help their son.
Like the police, they were convinced of Michael’s guilt. Horrified by what they believed Michael had done, their only wish was to keep Michael from being executed.
As if the burgeoning pseudo-twin inside his head were not bad luck enough, execution of the mentally ill in the state of Texas had become commonplace, demanded; even amongst humans who profess to value above all else God’s great gift, life.
We Watchers do not understand their logic.
Michael’s court-appointed attorney was harried, harassed, and doing the best she could with an impossible workload.
She reviewed all the discovery evidence available. She pictured herself sitting on the jury listening to and looking at the evidence…the terrible, sad photographs; the freely given admission of guilt; the lack of remorse; the court-appointed psychiatrist saying, “Many studies have concluded that people who play violent video games are more aggressive, more likely to commit violent crimes, and less likely to help others. But critics argue these correlations merely prove that violent people gravitate towards violent games, not that games can change behavior.”
She even said Michael’s full name out loud over and over again, wondering just how it would sound to a jury hearing a child molester/child murderer case: “Michael Moore Malicky, Michael Moore Malicky, Michael Moore Malicky.” Michael had not chosen his parents well.
Muttering ‘oh sh*t’ to herself, the young attorney advised the Malicky family without reservation, in the strongest of words, that Michael Moore Malicky should plead guilty.
Everyone involved believed it was the best thing for Michael. The best thing for society. As part of a plea bargain agreement, the judge arranged for Michael’s confinement at the Skyview Unit.
Guy Hoffman, hanging his head and hiding his face behind his hands in a gesture that approximated grief, smiled when he heard the news. He thinks he has gotten away with it. He feels omnipotent. Untouchable. Home free.
He does not know it yet, but he is mistaken.
I escort Jamey Maxwell out of the Skyview Psychiatric Unit in Rusk-fucking-Texas. I walk him into the dense piney woods. I tell him where to go first in his search for Azazel. I give him some clues. Not many, for my intervention is limited by the laws of God. I give him a chain with a crucifix attached. We Watchers are not Christians, of course. Neither is Jamey Maxwell. But, as a talisman, it is better than nothing. And, who knows? God may, in fact, be a Christian. Your guess is as good as mine.
As I hand Jamey the crucifix, I realize that Watchers, most angels really, lose faith in God from time to time. Not like humans, though. Angels never doubt His existence. How could we? Our loss of faith has more to do with our fears. We are afraid He has lost interest in some, or all, of His creations. We are afraid He may have abandoned this universe and started anew. Somewhere far, far away.
Sometimes we ask, “God, are You still there?” “No” would be the second best answer.
As Jamey Maxwell arrives in Fort Thornton, his thoughts wander to 1968. He had just turned 19, not that there was anyone around to notice. Certainly not any of the hardworking and harder drinking men he worked with. He was living in a cheap motel in Fort Thornton while working on a Sunoco seismograph crew. He had dropped out of what was then known as Southwest Texas State University to replenish his bank account for tuition and, more importantly he thought, to get his bottom teeth fixed.
Late at night, too exhausted to fall asleep, Jamey would sit alone in his room at the Sands Motel listening to his most prized LP album, Changes and Rewind, on one of his few possessions…a portable record player. Over and over, he listened to his favorite “blue-eyed” soul singer, Johnny Rivers. The Tracks of My Tears. Baby, I Need Your Lovin’. By the Time I Get to Phoenix. Poor Side of Town. After a few beers, he would look in the mirror, pulling down his bottom lip. Teeth still crooked. After a few more beers, he would quit looking. Jamey remembers wondering why, even though he was lonely, he did not miss his ex-girlfriend, Claudette.
It was fall. Then winter. It was Jamey’s first time in West Texas, and the older guys on the crew told him that winters could be…would be…brutal. In mid-December Jamey was laying cable from a hundred pound spool strapped to his chest when the first blue norther of the season hit. In less than an hour, the temperature dropped 40 degrees as the wind blew 50 miles per hour. Sand, dirt and debris of all sorts tore at his face and filled his eyes. Tumbleweeds large enough to knock over a full grown heifer raced across the bleak and barren plain. Jamey was wearing a long-sleeve shirt and a down vest. He put on a heavy coat. He crawled into the truck. He turned the heater on high. Still he shivered. At that moment, Jamey decided to return to college… ASAP.
I am Jamey’s GPS navigation system. The streets in Fort Thornton, like most West Texas streets, are flat, straight, and unusually wide. Lots of space in West Texas. Might as well use it. Jamey Maxwell pulls up at the curb of Guy Hoffman’s sprawling 1970s white brick home with its white trim. A genuine white bread home, Jamey thinks. At some point in the decade the houses in this neighborhood were built, someone performed mass psychic lobotomy on Texas landscapers. Then visions of carpet grass and wax leaf ligustrum hedges were implanted into what remained of their frontal lobes.The result? The generic West Texas lawn: St. Augustine, aka carpet grass; and across the front of the house the mandatory ligustrum japonicum hedge.
Both the real grief and the fake grief have subsided in the Hoffman home. Although Karen Hoffman will always carry the burden of losing her child and although she never speaks of it, Karen blames Guy and does not know why. Megan, two years old when her sister died, is now five years old and attending kindergarten. She hardly remembers her big sister, Melissa. The big sister who died trying to protect her.
It is a school day. Karen Hoffman has gone shopping in Midland. Guy Hoffman will soon be home for lunch. First Street State Bank, like many small West Texas banks, closes for lunch. Guy Hoffman is a creature of habit. Guy has eaten the same lunch, at the same time, every workday for the past 17 years. He loves his peanut butter and blackberry jam sandwich…on white bread of course…with a glass of cold milk. Whole milk. No 2% for him. None of that wimpy bluish skim milk. He thinks he is a real man. He will soon be disabused of that misconception.
Jamey Maxwell walks through the unlocked back door and stands by the fireplace in the Hoffmans’ den. He is looking at family photos on the mantle. The requisite family picture taken at the Walmart Photo Studio in Midland shows the mythical typical semi-perfect American family: two pretty little girls, a slightly above average attractive wife, and a fairly good-looking monster.
Jamey picks up a picture of Melissa Hoffman, probably the last photograph taken of her. She will always be as she is pictured: a seven-year old, with an innocent smile, in a frilly white dress. Jamey thinks of Michael Malicky. Then he thinks of his own beautiful daughters. For all those who believe that life is fair on Planet Earth; that there is a silver lining in every cloud; that good things come to those who wait; that what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger; that you should make lemonade when you are given lemons; that God has a plan for us, mysterious though it may be; Jamey Maxwell would like to say to them: little girls die, so stick all of your clichés up your Pollyanna asses.
Like corrupt clockwork, Guy Hoffman pulls up in his driveway. It is 12:09PM. He notices the old beat-up blue S-10 on the street. He figures it belongs to a neighbor’s Mexican yardman, here to cut some carpet grass, trim some ligustrums. Guy Hoffman is close to correct. Wrong house. Wrong yardman.
The truth: Jamey Maxwell is here to cut Mr. Hoffman’s incorpereal carpet grass, and trim Mr. Hoffman’s metaphysical ligustrums.
Guy Hoffman opens the back door and walks through the utility room into his den. He stops in his tracks and suppresses a squeal when he sees Jamey Maxwell standing there.
“Wh…what the heck?” Guy asks primly.
Jamey Maxwell stares at Guy Hoffman, not yet saying a word. The silence is so unnerving that Guy feels compelled to fill in the noiseless void. “Can I help you with something?”
“Yes,” Jamey Maxwell replies, and continues to look at Guy Hoffman without blinking.
Guy Hoffman was hoping for a more detailed answer, but he doesn’t get one.
Guy thinks he must be in the wrong house, in the wrong town, in the wrong state, in the wrong country, on the wrong planet…that this cannot be real…that this cannot be happening to him. He wishes Scotty could beam him up. But Scotty is not here. Just Jamey Maxwell.
Guy Hoffman cannot make his feet move. Disconnected thoughts stream through the pathways in his sorry, perverted brain. What he wishes he could do, more than anything, is rewind time, retrace his steps, take back his wave in the direction of the yardman he never saw, and slip back into his Acura MDX. Drive back to the bank. Pretend he has just had a bad daydream.
“You know I’m here to kill you,” Jamey deadpans.
Guy opens his mouth, but nothing comes out. He closes his mouth just in time to catch the rising vomit.
Holding Melissa’s picture in front of him, Jamey takes three strides and is standing in front of Guy Hoffman. Jamey holds the photograph up to Guy’s increasingly pallid face.
“This is for Michael. This is for your little girls,” Jamey says before stepping behind the frozen-in-place lump of evil. He reaches around and hands Guy Hoffman the silver framed photo of Melissa. “Look at it,” Jamey says quietly, just before he covers Guy Hoffman’s nose and mouth with his right hand. With his left arm, Jamey wraps Guy’s upper arms and pins them. “Do not drop Melissa,” Jamey whispers.
For a moment, Guy stands still, submissive. He looks at the face of his dead daughter. Tears form and begin to trickle down his cheeks. Not tears of sadness. Not tears of regret. Tears of fear. Guy panics, and the struggle begins.
Guy drops the image of his dead daughter. Glass shatters as the frame hits the white tile floor. Guy Hoffman is 3 inches shorter than Jamey Maxwell and fifty pounds heavier. Jamey tightens his constrictor-like grip around Guy’s chest and lifts him off the ground like a repulsive supersized rag doll.
With his right hand, Jamey pinches Guy’s nose while still covering his mouth. He pulls Guy’s head back, pinning it against his shoulder. Even though Guy is struggling, he is not fighting back. No fight. No flight. All that is left is for Guy to die.
Unlike portrayals on television and in movies, it takes a very long time to suffocate a man. Or a little girl. Guy Hoffman knows. Incredibly, even during the horror of dying, that is what he is thinking about now. How long it took him to smother his daughter. It is Guy Hoffman’s last living thought.
Jamey Maxwell continues to hold Guy Hoffman off the ground, even though the struggle has ended. Seven minutes have passed. Guy Hoffman, Vice-President of the First Street State Bank; Guy Hoffman, Vice-President of the Fort Thornton Chamber of Commerce; Guy Hoffman, deacon in the Second Baptist Church; Guy Hoffman, the husband; Guy Hoffman, the father; Guy Hoffman, the predator; Guy Hoffman, the pedophile; is dead.
Karen Hoffman, upon returning from a successful shopping trip in Midland, finds her husband on their white tile floor, dead from an apparent heart attack. Although she will never tell another living soul, Karen’s first and only emotion is pure, unadulterated relief.
Daughter Megan, when told of her father’s death, will second that emotion.Share