TRANSCRIPT: This story is written by Brendan Detzner. Brendan Detzner’s work has appeared in Chizine, Pseudopod, Edge of Propinquity, Ruthless Peoples, Untied Shoelaces of the Mind, and the Book of Dead Things and Exigencies anthologies, as well as elsewhere. Brendan has also been featured at Gumbo Fiction Salon, and Reading Under The Influence, and Twilight Tales reading series in Chicago and runs the Bad Grammar Theater reading series. You can keep track of what he’s up to at brendandetzner.com. This is “The Competition”.
Content Note: This story features some body horror. If that content makes you feel unsafe, you may want to skip this story.
“Ladies and gentlemen. Thank you for coming. It is an honor to have you here today.”
It was ten o’clock at night. It had been a journey for Alice to get here. Twenty minutes on the bus to the Metra stop, an hour on a commuter train with dark orange-red plastic on the seats and tinted green windows. Most of the other passengers had been gone by the time the train arrived at Alice’s stop. She’d stepped onto the platform, smiled and thanked the man in the uniform with the blue hat, gotten nervous when he hadn’t smiled back, called a Lyft, gotten more nervous waiting for it to show up, and had tried to relax as she got in and was driven to the O’Connor mansion.
She’d asked to use the rear view mirror to check her makeup, and the driver had been nice enough to let her do it. She reminded herself that she was a doctor. Not Alice. Dr. Caldwell. Dr. Alice Caldwell on her letterhead, Dr. Caldwell in person. She could do this.
The Lyft car had dropped her off at the gate of the mansion. She’d been early, but apparently not as early as the others. A man the size of a refrigerator in a tuxedo had met her at the gate and escorted through the giant oak front doors of the main house. The giant dining room table she’d seen in pictures had been removed, in favor of seven chairs, arranged in a half-circle facing the fireplace.
She’d been the last person to arrive, and she’d been given a seat on the far left.
“Welcome to my home. You have been invited to join me here because of the great expertise and talent you possess in your various disciplines. You have demonstrated excellence. I respect excellence. I respect knowledge. Finally, and most importantly, I respect daring and endeavor, which you have all demonstrated by choosing to join me tonight to test your skills in the purifying forge of competition.”
Even in person, Martin O’Connor looked remarkably like he did on his Instagram profile. His hair and mustache were as black as coal and reflected the light from the fireplace, and his suit, tailored to wrap around his body like a second skin, had so many little pockets and sharp creases that it would have looked like a costume on a less confident man.
The one thing that was different about Martin O’Connor’s appearance, the thing that immediately attracted the attention of everyone else in the room, was the eighteen-inch piece of steel rebar piercing his skull. The bar entered his head near his left temple and emerged just behind his right ear. Given the size of the object and the angle of penetration, there was no possibility whatsoever that it had not skewered his brain. Either end of the wound had been neatly wrapped in white cotton.
“We have in this room representatives from the mainstream medical community…”
He gestured at the chairs furthest from Alice.
“Traditional Chinese medicine…” He bowed politely to a woman in the front row in a dark purple robe.
“The storied discipline of Homeopathy…”
He smiled at Alice.
“…and finally representatives of the magical traditions of Alchemy and Witchcraft.”
He turned back towards the center of the room. In the middle two chairs were a tall, completely bald man whose left ear was overloaded with silver jewelry and a slender woman in black, who Alice could only see enough of to admire her long neck and calm demeanor in the face of what was going on five feet in front of her.
“The contest begins now,” Martin O’Connor said. “I have a headache. Tell me why, and recommend a course of treatment. I will judge the merits of each argument and select a victor. We will begin with you, Dr. Caldwell.”
He waited for Alice to speak. She felt completely frozen in place, and could feel the rush of incoming middle-school feelings of humiliation, but was saved by an interruption from the other side of the room.
One of the doctors stood up.
“Mr. O’Connor, you have a serious, life threatening injury and need to get to a hospital. You’re incredibly fortunate to be alive. I’ll give you a ride to the emergency room myself. We need to go now.”
Martin O’Connor smiled rakishly. “A strong opening, Dr. Smith, but you know the rules. You must wait your turn.”
A second doctor stood up.
“No one with a soul is going to sit here and have a tea party with you looking like that. You have a piece of metal shish-kababing your brain. Look in a fucking mirror.”
Martin O’Connor kept smiling. “A compelling argument, and not implausible given the recent mishap in the metalworking shop. I’m afraid I’m not presently able to look in the mirror, for fear of releasing spiritual energy related to the topic of a previous symposium. It has a great deal to do with the astral plane and I’d be happy to discuss it over drinks later this evening, after the day’s business has come to an end. For now, I’m forced to remind you that you are also speaking out of turn.”
He turned back towards Alice. Dr. Caldwell, she reminded herself. She was a professional. “They’re right. You are very badly hurt.”
“Let us suppose that you are right,” Martin O’Connor said. “How would you use your skills to address my situation?”
“No, I’m sorry. This goes… no. I could use homeopathic remedies to help facilitate your recovery, but that…”
The right side of the room stood up, all of them at about the same time. They quietly left, leaving the right side of the room empty.
Alice cleared her throat and tried to keep talking. Nothing came.
“I… I think… I don’t think…”
“I think you’ve made your point,” Martin O’Connor said. He stood up, and the speed with which Alice lost his attention made her feel like a sinking ship.
“I’m afraid I must ask for a brief intermission while I check on my guests. I’m concerned I may have offended them. Mr. Bellview, please bring those remaining any food or drink they ask for in my absence.”
Martin O’Connor left the room. As soon as the door closed behind him, the bald man with the elaborate ear jewelry stood up and pointed at the servant in the tuxedo.
“You. You’re in the will, aren’t you?”
The servant in the tuxedo did not react in any way. The bald man turned towards the other guests.
“Look, everyone in the room right now thinks everyone else is crazy or stupid, but we all got into doing what we do so that we could help people. I mean, I didn’t, I got into alchemy mostly to get laid, but even I would feel guilty if I just let that guy walk around with that thing stuck in his head. We’ve got to present a united front. If everyone just refuses to play his game and tells him to go to the hospital, maybe he’ll get a clue. Do we all agree?”
Martin O’Connor walked back into the room.
“It seems as though traditional, western medicine will not be represented at our symposium this evening. No matter.”
The bald man cleared his throat, but Martin O’Connor raised a finger to silence him. “No need for a speech, my dear friend. I heard what you had to say. Do we have a unanimous decision, then? Is this the best course of action any of you can think of, with all of your education and practical experience?”
“Yes,” the bald man said.
“Absolutely,” said the woman in the purple robe.
“Please get help right now,” said the witch.
Something in Alice unfroze. She thought about the way that she’d felt when Martin O’Connor had turned away from her. She thought about all the shit her cousin had had to say when she’d said she was going into Homeopathy, and again when she’d gotten her degree. She thought about the papers she’d stayed up until two o’clock in the morning to finish, the debt she’d be in for years.
“None of these other people know what they’re talking about,” Dr. Alice Caldwell said.
Martin O’Connor turned to her, still smiling. At this point, his expression seemed less like a poker face and more like rictus.
“It will take a long time and require a great deal of expensive personalized attention, but I can fix your headaches. Only me. Everything these other people have to say is a pack of lies meant to take advantage of you.”
Martin O’Connor’s expression didn’t change, but as he regarded Alice, his eyes twinkled.
Mr. Bellview escorted the others from the grounds while Alice followed Martin to the den. It was decorated with hunting trophies. She could feel the black marble eyes of several endangered species watching them as Martin poured two glasses of brandy.
“A toast,” he said. “To the beginning of a beautiful friendship.”
They touched glasses. As Martin withdrew his glass, he suddenly froze in place, stiff like the animals around him. His eyes did not blink.
Alice wondered if he was dead. She wasn’t sure. She took a sip of her drink while she waited to see what would happen next.
Josh Ballard’s work has been seen all over the Chicagoland area for the past 11 years. From Ren Faires to radio, pantos to photoshoots, he is an actor that can, and will, do anything. A grad of Columbia College Chicago, Josh is excited to be a part of this unique series with one of the fastest growing theatre companies in Chicago!