And Not Make Dreams Your Master
Ted Grant’s massive frame shifted in the chair uneasily as he recalled details from the fifty-year-old ghost story which William Higgins had just related to him, one detail still bothering him…
“But why did you burn the place down, Bill?... Why not just get the cops?”
William Higgins started breathing hard before downing the rest of his glass of whiskey. An ancient mariner’s eyes were never more lucid than those pale bloodshot eyes buried in the graves of dark circles around decaying sockets when they stared back at him.
Those were the marked eyes of a dead man.
“I burned it to the ground because those fucking maggots started crawling towards me… That’s why.”
Ted suddenly stood up, aware of the agony the older man was enduring when Bill groaned out loud, gripping the sides of his temples as though his head were getting ready to explode.
“Bill, you okay?”
“No… just get me… the damned bottle.”
The massive Wildcat went over to the bar, grabbing the bottle of whiskey being offered to him by the aging bartender and handing it to the shaken narrator. After three long swallows and a dozen more groaning whimpers, Bill Higgins finally seemed to find the resolve to continue.
“They get into your brain… Make you do things.”
“Bill, what are you talking about?”
Wildcat watched once again as the frail redhead was instantly seized by another attack, clutching his wisp-like hair until strands of grey became pulled out like loose threads from old blanket. The dying man cried out in pain before his hands moved to his gut, violently coughing and hacking, retching until something previously inside his gut spilled out onto the wooden table…
The wide-eyed Wildcat almost stumbled as he witnessed the fat little grubs squirming around in Bill’s alcohol-laced phlegm, maggots desperately crawling along the decaying varnish of the barroom table away from chewed mushrooms of dinner until the man who’d been The Shield steadied himself, clutching the bottle and calmly turning the whiskey upside down over top of the grubs, drowning the writhing larvae in a golden shower of ethanol-fueled death.
“Children of the Fly People… I’m filled with ‘em… Just like Tommy and Kim were.”
Despite himself, the muscular Ted Grant found himself taking a step backwards, placing a safe distance between himself and the dead larval corpses littering the table. An old man coughing up maggots was about the most disgusting thing he’d ever seen.
“Bill… Oh Christ!… I’ll call 911.”
“No, I need you to judge this world… As I once judged it for Tommy… That’s why you’re here, Ted… I’m dying and I’m tagging you in.”
“Let me call an ambulance.”
“NO!… I haven’t got much time… I had a full serving of amanita mushrooms with my dinner… The kind of amanita mushrooms that’ll destroy your liver… I knew I wasn’t going to make it through the night before you even walked through the door…
“So just let me finish…
“Oh Christ it hurts…
“I think the little pecker-grubs inside me are starting to figure out that dinner’s not agreeing with me… Abandon ship, boys… Oh shit… I was kidding, settle down in there…”
The old man sucked in a rasping breath as he reached into his pocket, carefully handing the cringing Ted a glass vial containing one live maggot before continuing.
“Y’see… The Fly People ain’t really bad, Ted… They lived here before we did… They’re trying to save the world… It’s just that… They’re trying to save it… from us… Because we’re ruining it.”
“Bill, you really need a hospital.”
“No… I need to be cremated… But you’ve… got a decision to make, Mr. Grant…You can tell the League… Tell your Justice League… about the Fly People… Tell them they put… a squirming mass of maggots… the size of a fucking baseball… inside poor Kim Brand’s womb… Maggots that ate her… from the inside out…
“Tell them Tommy Troy blew his brains out because his head was filled with them…
“Tell them I burned down the farm because it was filled with them…
“But here’s the catch… Whoever you tell might already be infected… Or maybe not… Batman hasn’t been right in the head for awhile now, has he?... How will you know who to trust?...
“They crawl inside your brain and make you do things… Good things though, like Tommy did at first… Unless you try and fight them like Tommy did… Then they’ll punish you… But they’re smart… Really smart… Hell, maybe they can save us…
“If you truly believe that, just put that maggot on your skin… Let it eat its way inside you… Once it has a host, it’ll call out to more of its kind… You’ll become a breeding ground for them, Ted… Maybe even be their second coming…
“But if you want my advice, you should burn this entire fucking neighborhood to the ground… Buy all the gasoline you can and just light this mother fucker up.”
In silent horror, Ted Grant watched the squirming monstrosity inside the vial, wanting nothing more than to cast it to the ground and crush it beneath his boot heel before a sudden splashing sound made Wildcat turn back towards the bar, watching in shock as the ancient barkeep busied himself by emptying a jerry-can of gas across the floor.
Ted turned back to see Bill Higgins take one step off his chair before collapsing to that same floor.
“Won’t be long now… Harry’s infected too… We both had the mushrooms for dinner… Our Last Supper I guess you’d call it… Light the match, Ted… Burn the fuckers… Please.”
“Look, I’m not leaving you here to die.”
“Yes… You are.”
As he watched the old man writhing on the wooden floor, Ted’s first thought was that Bill was starting to cry, a glistening of white under his dark eyes…
Until he saw the maggot wiggle its way out of his tear duct.
A dozen more squeezing themselves from beneath his eyelids.
White fleshy grubs now exiting his ear towards the Promised Land.
Ted hadn’t noticed it before, but there was a pack of matches on the table. A pack of Twisted Unicorn matches which Bill must’ve placed there earlier on.
And the bottle of whisky was still half full. Or half empty, however you wanted to look at it. Whatever it was, Ted emptied its high-proof contents onto the shuddering corpse of William Higgins because the old man was dead now.
Or he should’ve been dead. With all the tiny bumps crawling under his liver-spotted skin in search of the nearest emergency exit, it was hard to tell. There must have been a hundred squiggling little bastards around his face by now.
Ted stepped back as Harry splashed a little more gasoline over his old friend and then more on himself.
Baptism by fire. Immolation. Funeral pyre.
Without having to say another word, Ted Grant retrieved the matches and then walked towards the exit as he made one final judgment.
“You died human, Bill… That’s hero enough for me.”
Ted Grant lit the match and watched fire race along a stream of gas to make Harry and Bill a pair of bonfires, leaving the burning fly meat before wheeling his motorcycle away to watch the Twisted Unicorn slowly become a blazing inferno. He listened to distant sirens as the fire trucks once again took too long to arrive at the scene, watching as the building next to the aging tavern caught fire.
Feeling the heat from a five-alarm fire against his face, Ted Grant smiled, knowing he’d have a long road to travel. Because he was going to be haunted by the ghosts of Bill’s flies now.
And he was going to fight like hell to stop them.
“Burn, baby burn.”
A balding Sal Silverman tossed the treatment for Wildcat back onto his desk, eying the middle-aged writer who’d been thirty minutes early for his appointment with a quizzical glance before casually lighting up a spliff and exhaling pungent smoke across his stale office air.
“A Wildcat mini-series… Really?... Christ kid, you lost me at the condom in the gutter… I mean, why not make it a heaping pile of dog shit buzzing with flies… Mention how this pile of crap and the flies are the true face of the city… Might as well homage Alan Moore since you’re trying so hard to fucking be him.”
The dumbass writer only coughed.
To his credit though, Sal could tell he caught the Watchmen reference at least. Many of the college-educated clowns who came through his door wouldn’t have these days.
“Sure, I can go with that… But do you like it?”
“Fuck no… Haven’t you ever heard of formula?... You’ve gone about it all wrong.”
He watched the writer make a stupid expression. They all made stupid expressions until the brightest of them got with the program and figured out this was a business. By then, they were too busy screaming about royalties to make those stupid faces.
“Yeah, wrong… Take some notes… First off, old fuckers like Wildcat are never main characters… No sex appeal… The premise of an old guy driving a motorcycle around the country fighting flies ain’t exactly a blockbuster…
“There were some points I liked though, kid… The thirteen-year-old and the actress… That’ll generate some heat… Have a panel of the naked kid on top of her with her legs spread wide open… And we can show the maggots crawling under the skin on his back in the following panels as we zoom in.”
“Wait, can we show that?... Underage sex?!”
“They’re called mature situations... Sure we can… Just can’t have the Code on the cover… Look, we’ve been doing it for years over at Vertigo… You know what the average age of our comic book reader was last year?”
“Not really, no.”
“Thirty-six… Maybe it’s time we finally took the plunge… Give ‘em the fuck-fest they want… Which means you’ll need your hero to be a chick… Look, scrap the Wildcat angle… Wildcat’s a relic from the forties for Christ’s sake… Created by Bill Finger, appeared the same time as Wonder Woman… Did you know that?”
The bullpen writer nodded.
“Sensation Comics number one.”
“I’m impressed, you know your history… But our readers don’t give a fuck about old pricks like Ted Grant… Why don’t you make your main character the granddaughter of this William Higgins guy?... The girl who’s going to inherit the Shield… Yeah, I like that.”
“Ahhh… You mean like a redhead named Victoria Adams?”
Sal took another long hit off his medical marijuana before coughing violently.
“I don’t give a fuck what you name her as long as her tits and ass look good in spandex… I like the superhero grandfather with a past thing though… But he has to be crazy… A shut-in who got off on a murder charge, haunted by the past and afraid of the world…
“Have him make a pass at her when she comes over to find out about what really happened… She’s trying to clear his name and he’s trying to see what’s under her skirt… But she needs a signature…
“Yeah… Little Red Riding Hood is sent by her mother with a last will and testament for granddad to sign, but he’s really the Big Bad Wolf with dentures and a hard-on… His place is crawling with flies too…
“Set it up with ‘I have to tell you a secret’ and then he corners her in the bedroom when he shows her the shield… If legal makes a fuss, she can be his great-niece… He knows he needs to pass his Shield legacy down to her, but he wants to fuck her too…
“She’ll want to be The Shield too, to become something bigger than she is, and he’ll try to use that to his advantage… She finds out about the flies and then has to knee him in the nuts when he’s trying to get on top of her… Then the grubs start pouring out… I liked that part where the larvae starting streaming out of the old guy… Pretty sick.”
“Look, I’ve got a new artist in mind who can draw girls so fucking hot that no one would even blame the old guy for wanting a piece of that ass… Your girl will need a boyfriend though, someone who understands all about this fly business… A lawyer with a heart of gold that protects her after she starts to investigate her granddad…
“He’ll be her way in… But then he gets infected and turns on her, so she has to kill him too…
“Yeah, that’s badass.”
The contracted writer simply nodded.
“You want I should give her some weapons?... Guns?... Swords?”
“Semi-auto pistols would be good… So after she has to kill her boyfriend, she starts driving west and joins this organization… A group of people on the outside dedicated to getting rid of these Fly-infested assholes…
“Wait, hold the presses… Why don’t we give her a new female love interest too… Sure, if we can get away with it, we’ll make her new lover around fifteen… A fucking tight little-assed genius who secretly worships the ground your motorcycle heroine walks on but is a real bitch on the outside… Have the little dyke try to be the alpha in their relationship… Those fan-boys will eat it up.”
The writer didn’t even flinch.
“It’s called Tsundere.”
“It’s a Japanese term for a female character that starts off as a cold-hearted bitch - but only because she’s trying to hide her true feelings.”
“Well, the Japanese are years ahead of us on the porn stuff, kid… Sure, the superhero movie deals are saving our corporate asses for now, but they’ve pretty much run their course… And with old Walter Disney buying off the competition, I think we’ve got an opportunity here nobody’s even recognized yet.”
“To make porn comics?”
The writer sat there for a moment, patiently waiting for a punch-line that never arrived until he finally shrugged.
“But people already make those on the Internet for free.”
“Yeah, but we can sell print versions as collector’s items… Get ‘em before they’re banned!… Variant nude covers… Package ‘em in a custom-made brown paper… Dress up some models in skimpy superhero outfits as centerfolds… But we’re going to show all the naughty bits as a tribute to Heff… Hell, why not?... That’ll get those nerds back into the shops.”
The middle-aged writer thought about this for a moment.
“But won’t that… ahhh… hurt our brand?... And piss off about a million moms?”
“Relax, we won’t put Wonder Woman in bondage leathers quite yet…This’ll be an imprint… We’ll use those old throw-away characters like Fly-Girl… Might as well get some mileage out of all those companies we put out of business along the way, right?… Do their characters first… I want you to start researching what’s trending in porn right now… Use one of the company’s computers.”
A long pause.
Sal Silverstein crushed the remnants of his doctor-prescribed joint into an ashtray and then grinned while the aspiring writer felt his dreams of a Wildcat mini-series slipping away.
“Of course I’m joking… What do you think this is?... FanFic?!... Get the hell out of here!”