From the author: A modern-day Miskatonic University student sees only the best in his roommate in this Lovecraftian humor story.
"The sky is falling," Chicken Little said, but of course I didn't understand him right away. He forgets sometimes that he no longer has lips and teeth and all the other bits you need to produce intelligible speech. I gave him a moment to remember. He isn't stupid—he's better than me at math, and his Ancient Religions project won some kind of award—he just has a hard time facing reality, at least where his affliction is concerned.
He squawked for a minute, the way he does when he's frustrated. Then my phone beeped with a notification: "To: Cam, From: Chicken Little. The sky is falling". I looked up. He was standing by the window, and I finally saw what he was talking about: another meteor shower.
"Good one, Bob," I said. "The sky really is falling." Bob is Chicken Little's real name. Bob Little. He doesn't look like a chicken—or any bird found in nature, really. The back part of his head is oversized, probably to accommodate his mostly-human brain, and of course birds don't have tentacles—but aside from that, he just looks like a guy with a vulture's head and talons.
The nickname was my idea. Bob's appearance can be a little intimidating. The "chicken" in Chicken Little humanizes him. It gets people thinking about wholesome domesticated farm animals instead of vicious carrion-eating scavengers. And every time someone hears or says the name, they're reminded of the children's story, which nudges them into being less afraid—or less willing to admit they're afraid, which is almost the same thing.
His wardrobe was also my idea: button-down shirts in calming pastel colors (t-shirts or polo shirts would have been better, but they don't fit over his head), matching oven mitts over his talons, brightly-colored shorts to draw attention to his normal human legs, and, whenever possible, sandals to expose his feet. He doesn't wear a hat; his head isn't the right shape for it and besides, if you're in a receptive mood, the multi-colored tentacles on the top of his head give him a festive, jaunty look. Small children point and laugh when they see him, but that's better than screaming and crying, which is what they used to do.
They don't teach this stuff in Marketing 101. Or 102, 201, or 202: I know, because I aced them all. Most parents would be proud. Mine never got over the fact that I’d chosen MiskU over Berkeley. They thought the university’s culture, traditions and values were straight out of the 1930s.
Things finally came to a head when I told them I was doing my Marketing 301 internship at MegaCorp's Arkham branch. Mom and Dad are throwbacks to the '60s who were, as they so charmingly put it, having grave misgivings about funding the sale of my soul to my eventual corporate overlords. So grave, in fact, they'd decided to cut me off.
There's no way I'd be able to afford MiskU on my own. So I worked out what I hoped would be an acceptable compromise and Skyped my folks. After some awkward small talk about my kid sister's piano recital, I got down to business.
"I think you'll be happy to hear this: it took some doing, but I quit my MegaCorp internship and got one at Arkham Hospital."
"That's great" Mom said. "A much better environment for you. You’ll work with doctors and social workers and patients from all—“
Dad cut her off. ”You’ll still be doing marketing, though, and working mostly with administrators. Right, Chamomile?”
I hated that name, but I had bigger fish to fry. “Marketing covers a lot of things,” I said. “We might be doing public service announcements. Encouraging preventive care, recognizing the signs of a stroke, that sort of thing.” Anything was possible. At my interview, we’d talked mostly about the new plastic surgery wing. “So, do you think you might reconsider—"
"We've made our decision, Cam," Dad said.
"Do you want me to get kicked out? Because that's what's—"
"That's not the end of the world," Mom said. "That place is a bad influence on you."
Dad nodded. "You can still get a degree. Transfer to a less expensive school, get some loans, work part-time."
"That might be better for you. You'd be exposed to a more diverse—"
"This again?” Mom had been harping on the diversity thing ever since the Globe ran that article on MiskU’s admissions process. “My roommate is literally a monster! Is that diverse enough for you? And for your information, my marketing skills are the only reason people don't flee in terror at—"
I looked up just in time to see Bob rush out of the room. In the heat of the moment, I'd forgotten he was there.
Bob and I had been roommates since freshman year. He was a nice guy and pretty average-looking until a few months ago. The change had come on gradually. It started the night of a meteor shower. He came in late, after I'd gone to sleep. In the morning, he told me he'd seen a meteorite fall. He said it was the most beautiful thing he'd ever seen, with colors he never even knew existed. He'd picked it up and breathed in its fragrance, and the next thing he knew it was morning and he was in his own bed. It took a while, but eventually he realized it must have been a dream.
His nose seemed a little sharper than usual that morning, but I convinced myself I was imagining things. Each day after that, his nose grew a little longer and pointier, his eyes a little more deep-set, his hair a little thinner. His head began to change shape: his eyes moved farther apart (oddly, this seemed to improve his vision); the rest of his face was pushed upward and forward. His fingers got longer. One day, he tried to trim his fingernails and couldn't cut through them. He began to have trouble eating and speaking. He lost weight. He went to the infirmary; they gave him a referral to a speech therapist, a prescription for Xanax, and a pamphlet on eating disorders.
The speech therapist gave him some vocal exercises to practice: basically just a bunch of nonsense syllables to say at least thirteen times a day. Something like "Fun-glue maw-naff kuh-thoo-loo ruhl-yeh" and some more I can't remember, over and over again. It didn't help, and it was annoying as hell.
Bob was dating a girl called Michelle at the time. She stuck with him until the night her grandmother died. Michelle was heartbroken. Bob tried to wipe away her tears, but by this time his talons had started coming in. Michelle wound up with seven stitches, a prescription for Valium, and a pamphlet on domestic violence.
I apologized to my parents for the outburst, but by the time we hung up, they'd rejected all my attempts at compromise. Bob still hadn't returned. He'd rushed out without his oven mitts, a coat, or even shoes.
I found him by the bushes near the library. His back was to me, and he was crouched down; at first I thought he was sick. He jumped up when he heard me approach, and I saw he'd been bent over something that I believe had recently been a raccoon. Whatever it was, it had been torn apart; there was blood everywhere and chunks of flesh were missing. Bob looked at me, blood dripping from his beak and talons, and I knew instantly what had been going on. He'd been performing CPR on this poor creature. He was the kindest and most hopeful person I'd ever known. How could I have called him a monster?
We had a long talk (well, I talked, he typed) after we got back to the dorm and Bob got cleaned up. He wasn't just upset about what I'd said. That night's meteor shower had put him on edge. His grades were slipping: he couldn't speak up in class, the talons made it difficult for him to type, and lately he'd been having trouble concentrating.
Bob and I both skipped classes the next day. Our first stop was the infirmary, where Bob got a referral to Arkham Hospital's Occupational Therapy department, a prescription for Adderall, and a pamphlet on stress management.
Next was the Financial Aid office, where I discovered I didn't qualify for any scholarships or grants, and the maximum student loan amount available to me would cover only a small fraction of my tuition.
Then came the Office of Student Disability Services, located in the sub-basement of the Administration building. Getting there was more difficult than we'd anticipated. We took the stairs all the way down and checked all the offices twice but couldn't find it. When I opened the stairwell door to go back up, there was only a flight leading down.
"Well, that's weird" I said.
"You don't happen to remember where—"
Bob shook his head.
"Well, um, the office is probably on this lower level, right? We'll just take care of our business there and ask for directions back."
The first sub-basement had been clean and brightly lit. The second was cold and clammy with dim flickering lights. It smelled like fish that was old enough that your mom would throw it out but that probably wouldn't make you sick if you cooked it thoroughly. Every so often I thought I saw a rat or something darting around in the shadows. After what seemed like forever, we came upon an open door with a "Student Disability Services" sign.
The office was just as damp and smelly as the hall. A large fish tank on one wall did nothing to brighten up the place; it was full of murky seawater and dull gray fish. There were a few wooden chairs near the fish tank and a reception desk at the opposite wall. The student behind the desk appeared to be doing some kind of math homework. His textbook was open to a page full of unfamiliar symbols and a diagram that looked like an Escher drawing, only more so. It reminded me of the halls we’d just walked through.
"Excuse me," I said. We'd decided that, because of Bob's communication issues, I'd do most of the talking. "This is Chick—uh, Bob Little. Robert Little. We need to arrange for some accommodations for—"
The student—Chad Gilman, according to the name at the top of his homework paper—grabbed a stack of forms and shoved them at me, not bothering to look up. "Here. Fill these out and bring them back. Then call and schedule an interview with Ms. Marsh."
"Can we just fill them out here?"
"Suit yourself," Chad said, not looking up.
We sat in the reception area and filled out the forms. There were a lot of them. Half the questions were about family medical history. We got through those pretty quickly: Bob was adopted, so we just answered "unknown" to all of them. We were almost finished when a woman stepped out of the inner office. I tried not to stare. She had some kind of skin condition, her eyes bulged, and she was extremely pregnant. She stared at Bob.
"Okay," she said. "I can see you now."
I started to get up. She snapped at me. "Just him. Confidentiality."
Bob shrugged, and I handed him the forms. The two of them disappeared into her office. I pulled out my phone, but there was no reception in the sub-basement. No magazines in the waiting area, either. I stared at the fish tank for a minute, but a bunch of gray fish swimming slowly back and forth aren't particularly entertaining.
I walked over to Chad's desk. He’d moved on to another homework assignment. His handwriting was awful, but I could tell it was zoology because he’d drawn a giant squid. The drawing was pretty bad: the proportions were all wrong, and it had way too many tentacles.
"So,” I said. “I guess we didn't need that appointment after all."
"You would have had us coming here three times, and we're getting it done in one trip."
"I mean, it was hard enough for us to get here, but this is Student Disability Services. Imagine how hard it would be for—"
A student rolled in on a wheelchair. "Just dropping these off," he said, tossing a bulging manila envelope onto the desk. "I'll call later and set up an appointment." He rolled out again and into an elevator directly across the hall from the office.
"Oh," I said.
Bob emerged from Ms. Marsh's office. He seemed happier than he'd been in a long time. When we got back to the dorm, he explained that Ms. Marsh was formulating an accommodation plan for him. She'd have it finalized and in the hands of all his professors within a week.
I was feeling optimistic too: while I'd been waiting, I remembered hearing about MegaCorp's employee tuition reimbursement program. Maybe I could go back to my internship there, convince them to hire me full-time, and get them to finance the rest of my degree.
It turns out that quitting an internship at MegaCorp at the end of your first week gets you put on some kind of internal blacklist, so I had to stick with Arkham Hospital. Bob started occupational therapy there the same day I started my marketing internship. It seemed to do him good. He traded his phone for a tablet and ran an app on it that made it easier for him to communicate. He even started gaining back some of the weight he'd lost.
A couple of weeks into my internship, I was returning from a coffee run and got into an elevator without checking the up/down arrows. I pushed "4", but the elevator went down to the basement.
When the doors opened, I was surprised to see Bob coming out of the morgue, wiping something red off his beak. He froze when he saw me, and to my horror it all suddenly made sense: the stuff on his beak, the recent weight gain, his avoidance of the dorm and hospital cafeterias.
I could barely get the words out. "You've—you've been eating. Down here, in the morgue. This whole time, you've been so self-conscious about your beak that you've been bringing your lunch here, where no one can see you."
Bob stared at me for a second and then nodded slowly. His entire posture changed; all the tension melted away right before my eyes. He must have been so relieved to share his secret with someone.
I stepped out of the elevator and hugged him. "Don't worry," I said, "I won't tell anyone. But we should probably find you a support group or something."
By late April, things were going pretty well for Bob. He was using a modified virtual keyboard and voice synthesis app on his tablet. It was slower than normal speech, but much better than the text-based communication we'd been using before. He'd stopped making surreptitious trips to the morgue. He'd even gotten a part-time job. It didn't make full use of his talents, but it was honest work—transporting surgical waste from the hospital to a disposal facility—and he said he found it rewarding. To each his own, I guess.
Ms. Marsh had drafted a disability accommodation plan for Bob, but she'd gone on maternity leave before signing it. This hadn't been much of a problem so far, but midterms were coming up, and that meant timed essays written in longhand. Bob could barely grip a pen, much less write with one. He started talking about getting a full-time job with the medical waste company.
I decided to take matters into my own hands. I wasn't going to be able to continue at the university—all my efforts to secure funding had failed—but at least I could keep Bob from suffering the same fate.
I went to the Disability office to confront Chad in person and demand he process Bob's paperwork immediately. At first he insisted there was nothing he could do. After I'd rephrased the question about twenty times, he seemed to have a change of heart. He told me the Dean of Students could sign the form. Even better, the dean was having a party on his yacht the next night. He'd hired some students to help with the catering; Chad was one of them, and he was willing to let me take his place.
"It's 9:00 tomorrow night at Innsmouth harbor," Chad said. "I'm not sure exactly where the yacht will be moored, but the locals all know it. Just show up at the docks and ask for the Dagon Sacrifice."
The Dagon Sacrifice isn't a boat. By the time I figured that out, I had a broken nose and a knife at my throat.
The last bus to Innsmouth arrived at 7:00, so I had a couple hours to kill before the party. I browsed the Barnes & Noble for a while, then walked around a residential area near the harbor. The neighborhood was pretty eclectic: lots of new construction, some older homes in obvious disrepair, and the occasional well-maintained grand old house. Eventually I found some shops near the harbor and went into the nearest Starbucks to relax with an iced caramel macchiato until it was time to go find the boat.
I'd never been to Innsmouth before; everyone said the town was creepy and insular. I didn't see any of that in Starbucks at first, just the normal mix of people chatting, reading, or working on laptops. People mostly ignored each other until a couple—two men, one Asian, one black, with a baby—arrived and sat down at a table. Everyone who came in after them stopped to say hi to the men and coo at the baby before placing their order. Everyone, that is, except one pasty-looking foul-tempered man who glared at everyone, including the baby, before stomping up to the counter and demanding a black coffee.
"Tall, grande, or venti?" the barista asked.
"Large," the man said with a snarl.
He glared at everyone again as he took his coffee to go. His eyes were kind of bulging, so it was a particularly unsettling glare.
I left a few minutes later. When I got to the harbor, I didn't see anything resembling a yacht. There were about a dozen people gathered near one of the boats, though.
"Excuse me," I called, as I approached them. "Is this the Dagon Sacrifice?"
They all turned and looked at me, but no one answered.
"This boat," I said. "Is it the Dagon Sacrifice? I'm supposed to report for work there at 9:00. Chad Gilman sent me."
I thought I heard some tittering. A large man with a tattoo of a giant squid on his left arm stepped forward and clapped his hand around my shoulders in what I took to be a friendly gesture. "Oh yes," he said, "This is definitely the Dagon sacrifice." Squid-Tattoo Man walked towards the boat, sweeping me along with him.
More tittering. Now that I was close enough, I could see the name on the boat: the Unspeakable Horror. The surly man from Starbucks was part of the crowd. In the moonlight, their faces all looked pale and greenish-gray. No one was dressed for a party. Squid-Tattoo Man smelled like he'd jumped into a bathtub full of halibut a month ago and hadn't showered since. Would the dean really throw a party on a fishing boat? With guests who looked and smelled like this? Where were the other students and caterers? For that matter, where was the dean? Something was very wrong here.
"Oh, good," I said. "I'm not late, am I?" Squid-Tattoo Man relaxed a little; I broke away from his grip and ran. Not fast enough: men swarmed me; there was punching and kicking and dragging. For a moment I was back in third grade getting beat up yet again because Chamomile sounds like a girl's name and I hadn't figured out how to talk my way out of a bad situation yet. Of course, the kids in my grade school typically walked away after administering a beating instead of dragging me onto a boat, producing a dagger with weird tentacle carvings on the hilt, and pressing the blade against my neck.
"Look," I said, forcing myself to remain calm, "I know what this is about: gentrification. The McMansions, the Starbucks and McDonald's all over your town. All these new people moving in, making you feel insecure about your economy. You want to send a message. I can help you craft that message." I was pretty sure they wanted me—or possibly my dead body—to be that message, so this seemed like a reasonable compromise.
"This isn’t about 'gentrification'." I could hear the scare quotes in Squid-Tattoo Man's voice. "You cannot begin to comprehend the mysteries of—"
"Although," said one of the women, "he does have a point."
"Yeah," said another. "My coffee shop went out of business because of Starbucks. And we lost two hardware stores to Home Depot."
Squid-Tattoo Man began to chant something that sounded a lot like those voice exercises Bob did back when he still had a voice.
"Wait. Let's just hear him out," said a voice in the crowd.
"Yeah," said another. "Why rush? We've got almost three hours until midnight." There were murmurs of agreement.
"Fine," Squid-Tattoo Man said, relaxing his grip a little.
"Okay," I said. "What you need is a marketing plan. You need to paint Innsmouth as a quaint all-American town being overrun by chain stores that threaten to destroy your way of life. Have some kind of festival—the kind that's interesting to read about but that people wouldn't actually want to travel to—promoting local traditions. Issue press releases full of words like 'authentic' and ‘homespun’."
I was stalling for time; other towns had tried this and failed. I had to throw in something new. "But don't start with that. Start with something people love to sink their teeth into: bullying. Make something up. Write a tearful blog post about Starbucks telling you you're too ugly to drink coffee in front of their other customers."
"That actually happened to me," said a woman whose appearance I won't attempt to describe.
"That's even better!" I said. "I mean, that's terrible, but it makes a better story."
It took a while, but I managed to convince them to take me on as a consultant. I had to swear my fealty in front of—well, you wouldn't believe me if I tried to describe it, but in exchange they were willing to pay me more than enough to cover my tuition and living expenses. I called an Uber to take me back to campus. I was in pretty bad shape, so I had the driver drop me off at the infirmary. They sent me on my way with a nose splint, a prescription for Vicodin, and a pamphlet on codependency.
Bob dropped out a week later. I ran into him a few more times at the hospital. He seemed happy. He’d ditched the oven mitts—too hard to do his job with them on—but kept wearing the colorful outfits I’d picked out for him. His coworkers joked around with him and called him Chicken Little.
The nickname was an effective bit of branding, and it served Bob well, but he was nothing like the character from the children’s story. Bob had never been an alarmist. The real Chicken Littles were my parents, and they couldn’t have been more wrong: My overlords were anything but corporate, and they weren't at all interested in my soul.
This story originally appeared in The Cackle of Cthulhu.