a short story by Jeffrey Thomas
Cardiff owned two similar hate receptacles made by two different companies: his Whipping Boy at home, which he'd possessed for six months now, and this newly purchased Scapegoat, sitting before him on his desk at work. His cubicle with its padded partitions was mostly undecorated otherwise save for a calendar his daughter Lena, who was sixteen, had given him as a Christmas present. Each month presented a photograph of their family ... either herself from infancy to the present, or their cat, likewise at various points of its life, or himself, looking embarrassed to be photographed (and he was embarrassed to display himself in such a way for a whole month at a time), or his wife, whom he was proud to display, as he often received compliments about how attractive she was.
His supervisor, Ruth, frowned on overly ornamented cubicles, and had told several of her crew to remove such things as movie posters and humorous print-outs taken off the net. One day Cardiff had found that one of his few photos tacked to the cubicle's gray padding had been removed and then pinned to face the wall. The objectionable photo, which he had only brought in because Halloween had been near, showed Lena as a baby blissfully gnawing on the stump of a fake rubber hand. He had hidden the photo away in his drawer.
But Ruth could not forbid him from keeping the Scapegoat on his desk, as such devices were recognized as a therapeutic rather than trivial personal possession. And so the hate machine watched Cardiff now as he worked, his headset on and his mind linked with his computer, speeding through tunnels and corridors lined with information files like limitless morgue drawers, storing boxes crammed with dusty numbers in one virtual attic or other, opening up and visiting virtual offices (he was not permitted to put any decorations whatsoever on those walls).
His hands, left behind as his mind labored, fiddled with a rubber band. He twisted it around and around his left thumb until the end of it glowed red, as if it might suddenly erupt bloodily.
But his eyes gravitated -- inevitably -- to the Scapegoat, because of its newness. It was a foot in height -- a little smaller than the Whipping Boy -- and a fake tarnished silvery color whereas the other had a faux patina of pale green verdigris. The Scapegoat's circular translucent face was subtly lit by a dim bulb behind it so that it glowed a dark orange-gold color, either meant to look like an anthropomorphic moon or sun -- he couldn't tell which. It had a broad smile, chubby cheeks, amused squinting eyes. Cardiff had never seen a more mocking, annoying face in his life ... unless, of course, that was the smirking phosphorescent green jester face of his Whipping Boy.
Glaring at those smug, obnoxious features, Cardiff felt a temptation to turn the device around to face the wall, as Ruth had reversed his photo of the baby Lena, but he knew that would defeat the purpose. The hate machine was designed to inspire his contempt. More importantly, it was designed to intercept, to redirect his loathing. It had been linked to his mind, much in the way he linked with his computer, so that it could bend his anger, his frustration away from other targets, valiantly bringing these dark feelings to stab its own tiny bosom.
In a little compartment hidden behind two folding doors which when shut formed a silvery ribcage, there resided a small chunk of living matter, created specifically for use in such devices, more plant than animal but neither, really. It was like some yellowish gelatinous organ. It was at first, anyway. But after weeks and months of absorbing Cardiff's mental poisons, this miniature organ would gradually darken, blacken, wither and die. He had killed six of these organs already, in his Whipping Boy. (They were replaceable, of course.) It was a good feeling, killing one of those ghastly living blobs...torturing it a bit at a time. Besting it at last. He looked forward to killing the virgin heart of this monstrous little fucker that was leering at him even now.
A pen tapped him on the head. It startled him, and for a moment he nearly lashed out at the Scapegoat with his fist; he thought that it was responsible, somehow. But looking up, he saw Ruth standing there, glowering down at him. Hers was the craggy face of a hard drinker, her voice just as craggy. "Please don't day-dream, Hugh ... we're a day behind, here." She gestured with her pen at his screen, where swarming ant-like motions had dropped to an idle snail's crawl. "Why do you still have so many pallets left to store, at this time of the afternoon?"
She seemed to sense, supernaturally, when one was lagging behind ... whether it was their fault or not. One was constantly glancing over their shoulder, expecting to see her materialized there. He almost flinched sometimes, hearing that gravelly voice in the next aisle, drifting his way. Even when she didn't brow-beat him for an entire day he lived in dread of her brow-beating. That is, he had. Up until this week. It was all so much easier to deal with her, this week...
Whereas Cardiff would normally stammer, fight to keep tremors of fear and impotent rage out of his voice, to keep the blood from sloshing crazily in his heart, now he found himself merely smiling shyly up at his boss. "Sorry," he told her pleasantly. "I'll stay late tonight if I have to, to catch up."
"Well you'd better." Her eyes drifted to the Scapegoat contemptuously also, though it wasn't attuned to her emotions. "Don't be staring at that stupid thing all day. I don't see why you don't just take a pill, or something simple like that."
"Some therapists believe it's better not to eradicate any kind of emotion," Cardiff explained helpfully, whereas in the past he had never felt inclined to chat with his boss. "They think it's more natural and more beneficial to encourage anger, feelings like that ... to let them all out. Just, to let them all out at a hate machine."
"Well," Ruth said, still gazing at that irritatingly whimsical visage, "I still think it's stupid, and if I had my way they wouldn't be allowed in here." She switched her gaze to him, now. "I want that work cleaned up, Hugh."
He smiled again and nodded, watched her walk away. Then, he turned back to his monitor. Yes, Ruth was so much easier to take, now.
But from the corner of his eye, he saw that ridiculous face watching him. He could easily imagine what its chuckle would sound like. Laughing at him as if he were the ridiculous one. At this moment he desperately wanted to smash that little bastard's face in ... but the thing had cost good money, hadn't it?
He never would have volunteered to work two hours late before, but now here he was, driving home in the dark, with some nice overtime to show for his dedication. He was relieved, however, to get away from that nasty little sun-or-moon-faced mockery with its sarcastic, sadistic Cheshire grin. He hoped he had turned its yellow heart a nice shade of moldy gray with all the negative energies he had contentedly projected into it tonight.
The colony city of Punktown at night was like driving through a vast kaleidoscope. An immense holographic advertisement for a new children's movie had hundreds of ghostly purple teddybears parachuting endlessly from the pinkish underbelly of the black sky. An old shunt line passed along a tunnel straight through a building that looked like it was carved from one titanic block of translucent amber, while the dome-like structure next door had an exterior like wrinkled, mummified skin (which maybe it was). Mostly humans had settled here, but more exotic races were represented by buildings like that leathery dome, and vehicles like the fin-covered canary-yellow contraption which buzzed so low over Cardiff's roof that he heard the shriek of brief, scraping contact.
"Son of a bitch!" he barked, slamming the heel of his palm on his console. He stabbed his horn, long and loud. He saw the yellow vehicle drop to his level just ahead of him. In the rear window, a passenger with a checkerboard face of alternating yellow and blue bubbles made a jerking gesture that could only be unfriendly. "Alien freak," Cardiff hissed. He began to accelerate, as if to ram his hovercar straight into the back of theirs, but caught himself ... and luckily the yellow machine lifted again and coasted on ahead to find another gap to drop into.
"Got to calm down," he whispered to himself. "I'll get myself shot one of these days." He had once cursed out the window at a vehicle, only to have a pistol pointed at him out one of their windows, just as a warning.
He had bought a gun of his own, a few weeks ago. He hadn't told Saundra, his wife. No one knew that he owned it ... or that he had brought it to work last week, though he had left it in his briefcase. The next day after he brought it to work, and brought it back home, he had purchased the Scapegoat.
He made a note to himself to get a smaller version of the Scapegoat for his car, as soon as he could afford to do so.
When he let himself into his apartment, Cardiff saw that Saundra sat on the sofa in the darkened livingroom, her friend Seth seated beside her. Seth hastily withrew his hand from the low V of her clingy, violet sweater, and sat back from her with a jolt. Saundra, however, cocked her head back to gaze up at her husband blandly. Cardiff had quickly averted his eyes, as if he had been the one who'd been caught, and lingered there in the doorway with his coat and his briefcase.
"I thought you had gone to see your parents, when you didn't come home," Saundra said.
He still didn't look at his attractive wife, embarrassed that he had compromised her privacy; instead, stared at the VT, where a naked pair or trio of aliens (it was hard to differentiate them) copulated in slow motion (presumably, unless that was their normal rate of motion), with various ecstatic subtitles in several languages scrolling across the borders of the screen. "No," he murmured, "I worked late."
"Really? Good. You should work more overtime ... we could use the money."
"Hey, buddy-bob," said Seth, awkwardly.
"H'lo, Seth." Cardiff threw a glance at his wife's guest, raising a palm in greeting. Seth was a co-worker she had befriended, who had been coming over here or inviting Saundra over his place for about two months now.
Saundra's arm, Cardiff saw, was moving slightly like a pulsing worm along the back rest of the sofa. He realized she was kneading the back of Seth's neck with her hand. "Lena went out with Marisol tonight." She yawned. Like a cat stretching its long lithe body, she rose from the couch. "You can watch in here ... Seth and I will watch in the other room."
Seth didn't rise at first; he shot a look from Saundra to Cardiff back to Saundra again. But she tipped her head toward the doorway and at last he stood to follow her from the room. "Okay, so, later on, buddy-bob," he mumbled with something like amicable apology to Cardiff.
Cardiff nodded. When they had left the room he shut off the VT and went to eat a late supper in the kitchen, leaving Saundra and Seth to watch the smaller VT in the other room, which was his bedroom.
Before he left the livingroom for the kitchen, however, his eyes were attracted to a greenish glow in the corner. The Whipping Boy, on a little table, like some sardonic voyeur, its court jester's face gleeful. Seeing it there, Cardiff was paralyzed with a fury so great he could have walked over to the thing and flung it out the window. Bloody wretched toy, gloating. That superior, cruel humor glinting in its mascaraed eyes. What sick freak had ever penned the original of that face? Cardiff thought that he'd like to stick a knife right into its forehead ... and then, perhaps, into the forehead of the artist who had drawn it.
When the vidphone rang, Cardiff awoke on the sofa with the VT running again, quietly. He had been watching a very old Earth movie (it was in black and white, even) called "Schindler's List", which was quite sad, and he supposed he should have felt scorn for those uniformed Germans but he was too continuously distracted instead by the disdain he felt for that peeping-tom jester in the corner. Yet he had dozed off at some point, and when he went to answer the phone now he wasn't sure if Saundra and Seth were still in the bedroom.
On the vidplate was a stranger, a gaunt-faced Detective Bell from police precinct 15. He had bad news, he announced ... and within minutes, Cardiff was on his way to Precinct House 15, without having rapped on his bedroom door to let Saundra know where he was going, or what had happened...
When the attendant pulled the drawer open, Cardiff stared down at a teenage girl with her mouth in a weird little smile and a greater smile grinning at her throat.
"That's Marisol," Cardiff whispered, almost in a faint. "Lena's friend..."
"Idiot," Detective Bell hissed, nudging past the attendant to slide the drawer in, and slide a second one out.
"Oh God, oh no ... my baby ... my little girl," Cardiff sobbed instantly, and Bell caught him as the attendant scrambled forward to glide the drawer away again. Cardiff saw his daughter's long black hair, matted and glued with her own blood, vanish through a caul of tears.
"We have three boys in custody already," Bell told him, still holding onto his arms. "We're pretty sure they're responsible. They were pumped up on buzzers when we brought them in, and one of them has a record of previous sexual assault..."
"Sexual assault," Cardiff echoed, gasping for air. "Sexual assault ... my baby ... my little girl..."
"I know," Bell told him. "I know."
Cardiff was given three days off from work. He made a recording of the single mention of his daughter's murder that he witnessed on VT. They might not have bothered at all had Lena and Marisol not been so pretty, so photogenic, even in death. They showed a vid of his daughter's body splayed in some parking lot where she had been found, even showed a close-up of tiny red ants swarming on her bare belly around the navel that Cardiff had kissed to tease her as a toddler. Then, they showed the three young men brought into court for their arraignment. They were all three of them short, slender, crewcut, such a mix of ethnic groups they had become no ethnic group at all, like a distillation of the worst of every race and culture. One of them rubbed away tears in his eyes. After he made the recording, Cardiff played it back, and froze on the face of this crying boy. He was crying for himself, not the two girls he had slain. Not for Lena.
But worse than the crying boy was another who smiled. He even looked directly into the camera, and hence directly at Cardiff, and smiled. Cardiff froze on his face the longest. He studied the boy, waiting for something other than sadness to come. Something other than anguish. He waited, as if he couldn't remember what else he might feel, as if he were trying to remind himself why he was even looking at this smirking stranger's face.
At last, unfulfilled, he shut the VT off. And with its glow extinguished, a subtler luminosity caught his attention.
"You!" Cardiff bellowed, leaping instantly to his feet. He aimed his finger at the evil imp's green circle of face. "You think this is funny, fucker? You think this is all a big joke? Huh? Huh?" He started toward the thing, his hands like an eagle's talons.
Saundra and Seth came in from the other room, having heard his outburst. Saundra's eyes were red and Seth had been comforting her.
Cardiff glanced over his shoulder at them and then turned instead to the door, leaving his apartment.
When he returned to work after the funeral, Cardiff had bought a small hate machine for his car, and an even smaller one with a flip-open lid that revealed a red clown's face, which he carried in his jacket pocket. He would need to have this one on him when he went to the trial.
He had been working for several hours when he remembered the photo of Lena he had hidden in his drawer. Drawer like a morgue drawer. He immediately fetched it out, gazed at it. His baby girl, chewing on the rubber hand. He smiled. Tears rose in his eyes. And he pinned the photo on the gray padded wall of his cubicle.
When he returned to work the next day, the photo was gone. Not turned to face the wall. Gone.
He found it soon enough in his drawer. That didn't matter. It had been removed. He even thought he saw a new smudged thumb print rudely on the gloss of the photo itself, like the fingerprints those three boys had left on his beloved child's flesh.
He had begun carrying the handgun in his briefcase again, starting yesterday, his first day back since the murder. He did not know why. Only that he felt better carrying it around with him. And now, he placed his briefcase before him on his desk. The lock opened with a satisfying clack like a gun's slide being worked back, a clip pushed into a handle. He lifted the weapon from inside, like a distorted pearl from inside an opened oyster, a pearl that had formed around an irritating grain of sand, a core of hatred. It felt so good in his fist, like a collapsed star of pure hate, a tea spoon of which would weigh many tons, a whole gun forged out of such metal.
He sat there holding it, ogling it, a long time. And as was her talent, Ruth came into his cubicle, sensing that he was not at work. Her deep voice was already rasping forth ... but caught on the gravel in her throat at the sight of the silvery gun.
Cardiff rose to his feet sharply. He pointed the gun at her face. At her widening eyes, just inches away from the muzzle...
But he hesitated, confused, as if he had suddenly forgotten who he was. And if he couldn't remember who he was, he couldn't remember why he wanted to kill this woman.
Why should he kill her? What had she done? No, she was not the real enemy. She was not the true source of his misery.
No. He turned, instead, to point his gun at the happy, evil sun/moon face of that hideous infernal machine on his desk.
Ruth darted away as Cardiff opened fire. He barely noticed her, and couldn't have cared less. He fired shot after shot into the little machine of tarnished silver, shattering its orange face, its demonic grin.
He heard screams, running, an alarm for security. Tears streamed down his face. Tears of great, crushing sadness. But also tears of joy, of triumph ... for Cardiff saw, fallen out of the decimated hate machine onto his desk, its tiny and utterly withered heart.
This story shares the setting of Jeff's collection Punktown, published in May 2000 by leading independent publisher The Ministry of Whimsy Press.
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