TREFANGENFIL by Joseph Farley
It was a dungeon of cubicles rising eight storeys above ground. Each floor had its horror stories. Billy Swenson had his. Billy’s tale consisted of an eight-hour shift with a half hour for lunch and two 15-minute breaks. The overseer had many eyes and kept a look on everyone. Drudgery. Typing. Mouse clicking. Completing reports. Answering calls from customers. Boring meetings. Still, it paid the bills.
“Hi Billy,” said a sweet voice. Billy looked up into the green and blue face of Diana, the zombie housed in the cubicle next to his. She must be standing on her chair, Billy thought, to be able to lean over the partition like that. Definitely against safety rules. The overseer must have spotted her. He spotted everything. What was worth risking a reprimand so near to the end of the day?
“I was wondering,” she began shyly, “Do you think you might want to hang out after work, maybe let me eat your brain?”
“No thank you.”
“Why? You religious or something? Saving your brain for marriage?”
“Nothing like that. I just like being human. Want to stay that way for a while longer. My whole life, so to speak.”
“I can’t understand humans. Why do you want to live and work in Trefangenfil if you don’t want to be a part of it? You should get out and mingle. Try to fit in better. Get your brain nibbled.”
“Maybe someday, but not now. Besides, I have to finish this report before the office closes.”
The multi-eyed overseer hovered near. He was little more than a large floating head with dozens of tentacles. Most tentacles had eyes at the end. The rest had mouths with razor sharp teeth. In his mellow and soothing voice, the overseer said, “I do hope you enjoyed your little chat. Remember the rules.”
Mouthed tentacles whipped at Billy and Diana. No blood came from the new scratch on Diana’s arm, but a trickle of red appeared on Billy’s neck.
“One lash as a warning. No conversations unrelated to business are permitted. It’s in the work rules, I’m afraid. Check your employee handbook. Of course, you are welcome to continue talking, free speech and all that. I wouldn’t dream of impinging on your rights. Just remember that management also has rights. Including the right to flay you if you ignore a first warning about non-work-related conversations. Understood?”
“Yes Mr. Oracholkuli.”
“Thank you, Billy. Just call me Mr. O. I’ve told you before. No need to mangle the pronunciation of my name. What about you, Diana?”
“Yes. Mr. O. Understood.”
Mr. O turned apologetic. “Remember I don’t make the rules. I just enforce them. It’s my job. It’s not like I get pleasure out of flaying people, although that fresh blood does make you look most attractive, Billy.”
“Thank you, Mr. O.”
“Now back to work. I love you both, but rules are rules.”
That evening after work Diana sat at a table in a bar with some of her office friends. She had a certain someone on her mind.
“What do you think of Billy in Consumer Affairs? I think he’s a hunk. I just want to eat his brain.”
“You too?” said a clawed creature named Gwendolyn. “I think most of the ladies who work here are hot for him. I just want to skin him alive and wear him like a shawl.”
“I want to lay eggs in his living carcass,” said a large insectoid.
“Swallow him whole,” agreed a hairy behemoth.
Twirling the contents of her glass with a finger, Diana sighed, “Why are the good ones so hard to get?”
Billy kept quiet on the subway back to his apartment. He kept quiet because his mind was fairly exhausted, he didn’t know anybody on the car, and he was afraid of being rude to beings that could rip off his head and devour him in one swift move. There were other humans in the same subway car, but not many, a few weary souls. Most of the passengers were goat hoofed demons, vampires in mascara and heels (male and female), werewolves in business suits, a gambit of monsters big and small popped out of horror stories his ancestors might have heard in the old days. The good old days when only humans were what you had to fear most, before that day the earth split open and out spilled the stuff of nightmares, angry, hungry, and eager for access to a better life and more consumer goods.
It took half a century of nastiness before an accord was reached. There were the monster zones, and the non-monster zones. You could live anywhere, but there were rules, written and unwritten. Trade flourished. Economics brought communities together, hidden rivers of money that everyone wanted to bathe in.
“Tell me again, why do you live here?”
Billy looked up. The being seated at his table in the lunch room looked almost human, but the face had a tendency to change from time to time. It was Alfred, a co-worker who had seemed eager to get to know him since Billy was hired six months before.
“What do you mean?”
“I can understand working in Trefangenfil. I have met humans who commute to work. You’re the first I’ve known to both live and work here. You can live anywhere. Why do you choose to live in Trefangenfil? Wouldn’t you rather be among humans in a human area when you turn out the lights?”
“It’s hard to find jobs in human areas. You need the right skills, the right education, the right connections. There’s more work here. There’s always an opening somewhere.”
“That explains you working here. Why do you live here?”
“It’s easier in some ways. Rent is cheaper. I can save money for the future. And, despite all the rules, the torture and grisly executions, there’s a lot of tolerance here. People, er, monsters seem willing to look the other way, not go after you for being different. Being peculiar is okay.”
“True. Humans are allowed to be human here. With a thin line of law keeping them from the dinner table.”
“Why do you live here?”
“Why? I’m a monster, and, as you said, the rent’s cheap.”
“Funny. You look human, for the most part.”
“Doppelganger trait. We can look like someone else. Traditionally we start looking like a human we identify with, kill them, and replace them in the human world. That’s why a lot of Doppelgangers work for temp services.”
Alfred saw the look in Billy’s eyes. He laughed.
“Nothing to worry about. We become like someone we want to be replace. Doppelgangers want to move up the food chain, not stay at the same level or slip down. I might replace a corporate vice president, but not a low-level customer service rep. Unless you start showing some ambition, no doppelganger would ever want to replace you. Let’s face it. Your life sucks. You are completely safe from my kind.”
“That’s nice, I guess.”
“That’s right. Be proud of your sucky life! Personally, I would replace a celebrity if I had a chance. A big-name pop star or film star. Then I’d be living the life. Just haven’t been lucky enough to meet any.”
“There are some humans that think the same. Think they are someone famous and need to kill them so their fantasy isn’t challenged. They get locked up.”
“Pity. Doctors should run tests to see if these troubled individuals are part doppelganger. They could find homes in Trefangenfil, and decent jobs in the service industry. ‘More toads with that?'’”
“That’s a joke, right?”
“Of course it’s a joke. Why are humans so sensitive?”
“You look almost human, Alfred. Does this mean Diana could eat your brain?”
“Tempting, but not what I’m into. I’ll tell you this. While you are living here you should get out of your apartment and get to know monsters as monsters. We’re not all the same. Just because we could kill you, just because we might want to kill you, just because we think about killing you all day and all night long, doesn’t mean we will kill you. You’re missing out on life. There are adventures to be had, friends to be made. Love to be found.”
“What do you suggest?”
“Want to go bowling tonight?”
“That doesn’t sound adventurous.”
“If you drink enough it can be.”
“Okay. I’ll give it a try.”
Billy thought everyone at work could tell he was hungover. He could barely remember what he did the night before. So much alcohol, and other things. He woke up in his own bed. The rest? He had nightmares. Maybe nightmares. He hoped they were nightmares. Did he go to someone or something’s room? What did he do? He remembered green fluid. Alfred walked by and slapped Billy on the shoulder.
“Who’s the man? You’re the man.”
“What did I do?”
“Bowled two hundred and fifty and then some.”
Billy grinned. It hurt. Why did he have so many bruises?
A large blob came to inspect the office. It was not pleased with what it found. The blob absorbed several employees including Mr. O. The blob lingered outside Billy’s cubicle while he worked. Billy tried to ignore its presence. Eventually it went away.
Billy spoke to Diana after the blob left the building.
“I’ve never seen that before. Mr. O and a half dozen lesser employees. Gone. Just like that. And their screams? I don’t think they do things like that in human areas. Maybe just throw someone out of their job, make them get a new one, or, in a worst-case scenario, send them to Siberia.”
“This is Trefangenfil. We do things differently.”
“Is Mr. O dead?”
“He would probably take a few days to digest. He might just have been disgorged outside the office somewhere.”
“You really think so?”
“No. I was just saying that to make you feel better.”
“It didn’t help.”
“That’s a shame. I really do want to help you feel better. Tell you what. Why don’t you come over to my place after work? We can drink some wine. Watch a movie. Give each other massages. Fool around a bit. And, after that, I can eat your brain.”
“I’m good with it up until the brain eating part.”
“Well,” Diana smiled. “It’s a start. We can work on the rest.”
With Mr. O gone, Billy was transferred to another department. He went to the boss’s office for a one-on-one interview. Marilyn was a giant spider. A large web stretched from the ceiling to her desk and covered several of the chairs set out for guests. Billy was careful to choose a seat not attached to a web. Several wrapped figures were suspended above Marilyn’s desk. She ignored their struggles against the silk. She followed Billy’s eyes.
“Don’t worry about them. The poison will take effect soon. Slackers. Couldn’t keep up. I will be blunt with you. My time is limited. My schedule is busy. I have a lot of responsibilities. I expect perfection from my workers. Nothing less. I trust that you will deliver perfection in all your assignments.”
“I’ll do my best.”
There was a sinister hiss, probably from Marilyn, but in the circumstances, Billy could not be sure. He’d had a large breakfast. Diana was, to his surprise, a good cook.
Diana did not want to hear about Marilyn.
“She’s nothing to be afraid of. She’s really a big softy under that large and vicious exterior. All exoskeleton.”
“That’s easy for you to say. You have no innards she can liquefy and suck out.”
“That’s not fair. I do have organs inside me. They’re dead, but they’re there. If you want to have a real relationship with me, you need to accept me as I am, like me for who I am. We need to build trust, enough trust that you will let me eat your brain.”
“I’ve told you I don’t want you to eat my brain.”
“I know not now. Maybe someday. Maybe after we get married and have children.”
“We can have children together?”
“Maybe not, but we can always adopt. After that, after we are family, maybe then you’ll trust me enough.”
Marilyn was not happy. Nothing Billy did was good enough. Once a week he was summoned to her office. He would either receive a memo telling him he was no good and had to get better, or would listen to her cold penetrating voice telling him he was not fit to work at the company, and might not even be good enough to be in her larder. That last bit was the only part of any meeting with Marilyn that was the least bit relieving.
Billy and Diana had been seeing a lot of each other. After several months she asked him to move in. He said yes. He had to. His landlord had decided not to renew his lease. Too many tenants stood in the hall salivating outside Billy’s door at night. Billy’s landlord was tired of cleaning up puddles of drool. Moving in with Diana seemed a good idea. An opportunity for more sex while saving money.
It was not meant to be.
Four months later Billy was packing.
Diana looked like she would cry, but her tear glands did not work.
“It’s not just about the brains thing,” Billy insisted. “I don’t know, if things had worked out, maybe I’d have let you.”
“That’s all I ever wanted. One bite would have been enough. A little bit of brain. A piece of you inside me forever, and you a zombie beside me.”
“We’re just too different. Our taste in music. The films we like. Your wanting us to volunteer on weekends for community clean ups...”
“I just think we should take pride in our community. We all need to give back.”
“I understand how you feel, but I don’t have the same connection as you do with this town.”
“I know you came from somewhere else, but you are in Trefangenfil now. You are part of Trefangenfil. It is your home. You’d be even more connected if you helped out.”
“Or if you ate my brain.”
“How can you talk that way? How can you live here if you don’t want to be a part of it all? Maybe you should leave. Not just my apartment, but Trefangenfil. Go home, to wherever home is. I see now. You look down on us. You look down on me. To think how much I loved you. Why do I do this to myself? Every ten years or so I fall in love with an asshole. There must be something wrong with my brain. No jokes now. I have enough left to think clearly. I’m not the one who’s not good enough for you. You’re the one who’s not good enough for me.”
“Sorry it didn’t work out.”
“Is that all you have to say?”
“For the being best part of my life in Trefangenfil so far?”
“I guess I was good for something.”
Billy picked up his bags.
“Where will you go now?”
“Alfred said I can move in with him until I find a place of my own.”
Diana was sharing with her girlfriend at work. They were all ready to kill Billy. No longer out of desire. Just for the fun of killing him. A four-metre-long worm with glasses erupted from the ductwork.
“Excuse me, ladies. I am Ivan in Being Resources. The kind of talk I’ve just been hearing could violate our company’s policy on treatment of humans. I am going to have to ask you all to attend a mandatory refresher class in one hour in the conference room on the 6th floor.”
The slides told the story. Monsters had their natural advantages, but humans made cunning devices. Fifty years of war had proved that if both sides continued fighting, annihilation could come to either side. Compromise. Peace. Trade. Quotas.
“Humans have nuclear weapons,” Ivan explained. “They also have cluster bombs capable for sending millions of tiny holy objects through the bodies of the undead. There are weapons of mass destruction to target every vulnerability that we have. That is why Trefangenfil and other communities have long held the policy of inviting humans to live with us and guarantee them protection from harm. If a human voluntarily decides to join our community that is one thing, but we will not force them to become a part of the community. Having humans in our communities serves the best interests of our kind as a whole. It reduces fear. It promotes understanding. It prevents attacks. 5% minimum human population is what we strive for in the monster community. Intelligence sources advise us that below that percentage humans might be willing to attack our cities again. We add 1% for wiggle room. 6% is the goal for the human population. If the human population goes above that amount, culling is permitted, but must stop when the numbers are back to 6%. Disposing of bodies in a culling situation should be done in an organized fashion in keeping with hygiene laws and food handling rules. Currently the human population in Trefangenfil is 5.6%. That means there should be no killing of humans, even if they clearly deserve it or you really want to do it. In the event the human population goes above 6% a green flashing light will go off. A cease killing announcement will be made once the human population drops back to 6%. I must caution all of you not to do anything that would cause humans to leave the city. Violations, as per policy, will result in an excruciating end for you.”
Ivan was about to say more when an alarm went off. Green flashing lights were everywhere.
“Never mind,” Ivan shouted. “Killing frenzy! I’m going to get me a human.”
“There’s only one in the building,” Diana said jumping to her feet. “That’s Billy. He’s mine. I’m going to eat his brain this time and then some.”
Ivan crawled into the ductwork. Diana headed to the stairs. It seemed that every monster in the building wanted to get their teeth or fangs or suction tubes into Billy.
Billy had not heard the alarm. He had his earbuds in, against the rules. A strand of silk caught hold of his music player, and whipped it from his head. The hideous face of Marilyn peered down from the ceiling.
“Against the rules!” she hissed. “Time to die!”
One of Marilyn’s legs reached towards him, guiding a strand of silk. Billy grabbed his stapler and quickly fastened the leg to the cubicle wall. He knew it would not stop Marilyn for long, but it didn’t stop her at all. Diana did. She jumped on Marilyn’s back wielding a binder and began hitting the spider in the head.
“Back off. He’s my prey.”
“No, he’s mine,” screamed a giant worm sliding from a heat duct.
Billy ran for the fire exit. He heard lots of hungry voices in the stairwell.
Billy turned. It was Alfred. But it wasn’t Alfred. It wore Alfred’s clothes, but it didn’t look like Alfred’s vague and changing features. No. It looked like—Billy.
“You too, bro?”
“Hide. I’ll lead them away.”
Alfred sounded like Billy.
“Don’t get yourself killed... unless that’s what you want.”
Billy ran to the file room which doubled as storage. It had no windows and only one entrance. He blocked the door with boxes of photocopier paper. He listened to the noises outside the room and waited.
Alfred ran with the entire staff chasing him. He was singing.
“Run. Run as fast as you can. You can’t catch me, I’m a ginger haired man.”
Doppelgangers are known for their ability to change. That’s what Alfred did. He ran one way to get the crowd to follow, turned a corner and changed into a fox demon. In that form he wriggled through the crowd. When he was well behind the crowd he turned turning back into Billy. He kept doing this hoping to wear down the pack of monsters. In the form of a troll, Alfred kicked on the door of the file room. “Count to ten then run straight to the fire exit.”
Billy counted as he moved the boxes of paper. At ten he opened the door and ran. He made it to the fire exit, opened the door and slammed into a web left by Marilyn. He was stuck in the doorway.
Alfred, in the form of Billy, saw what happened. He was trying to think of a way to get to Billy before the other monsters when a red light started flashing.
“False alarm,” said a disappointed voice on the loudspeaker. “False alarm. Cease killing humans. A group of tour buses pushed the human population over 6%. There has been a massive... crash. All the passengers are dead from... fire. Cease killing humans. The human population is back below 6%. Further deaths of humans will be punished by death.”
Sounds of disappointment reverberated through the room. Marilyn was the most distraught. “So close. So close,” she sobbed.
She was not the only monster in sad state. Diana and her friends, Ivan, everyone, with exception of Alfred and Billy, looked like they had just had the winning lottery ticket stolen from them.
After a few minutes the office returned to more or less normal. Some monsters apologized to Billy. Marilyn didn’t. Neither did Diana. Billy returned to his cubicle. He had a lot of forms to process.
After work Billy needed a drink. So did Alfred. Alfred was returning bit by bit to his old shifting face. Billy bought the first round.
“Thanks for sticking by me.”
“I couldn’t lose my new roommate. It would double my rent.”
Over the next few weeks, Billy thought about leaving Trefangenfil. He sent out résumés to dozens of jobs in dozens of cities. There was no response. He checked his bank account. Without a job lined up, it would be hard to make any move. He decided to make his peace. First, he tried talking to Diana to see if there was any magic that could be resurrected. There was none. She told him she had moved on, found someone much better than he had ever been in every way. Billy suspected it was Alfred, but could not prove it. He had seen Diana with a lot of different monsters and humans since they had broken up, but, in hindsight, Billy thought they had all just been Alfred. He didn’t mind. Alfred had saved him; he had a right to be happy. Eventually Alfred and Diana came clean. They told him that they planned to move in together. Billy was happy for them. Not completely. But he was happy.
One day after Alfred and Diana had moved in together, they asked Billy to come to a party at a karaoke bar. He agreed. There was lots of bad singing and plenty of alcohol and other intoxicants. Billy was thinking of leaving when he saw what looked like a human woman seated alone at the other end of the bar. At least she looked human, but he could not be sure. She had purple hair, tattoos and several body piercings. He decided to approach her. He gestured towards the seat next to her.
“Mind if I sit here?”
She smiled. He saw the fangs. And her beautiful red eyes.
“Human. Aren’t you? Not many humans around here. Why did you decide to live in Trefangenfil?”
“At first it was economics. Low rent and all that. Now, that’s just part of it.”
“What’s the other part?”
“I have friends here.”
“Most. Actually all.”
“Really?” she said with pleasure in her voice.
“Yeah, look at the crowd singing karaoke.”
She leaned forward and looked.
“You’re with them?”
“None of them can sing worth a damn.”
“I bet you could do better.”
She laughed. “Yes, I can. I’ll show you.”
She took hold of Billy’s hand. They went to join the crowd.