I Can Swim

I Can Swim

Pretty gothic pale brunette womanBy: James G. Boswell –

“When I was a little girl, maybe four years old, my mother picked me up without warning as I played outside and threw me into the deep end of our pool, fully clothed. I kicked and screamed while I furiously tried to keep my head above water. In between desperate gulps of air, I saw her standing there, staring at me. She had her hands on her hips and her face was drawn with a stern look of judgment. It was clear to me even then that she was testing me. She would continue testing me in various ways throughout my life as I grew older.”

Mallory calmly took a sip of water from the glass that sat on the desk in front of her in the board room of the law firm where she worked as an attorney. Across from her sat the firm’s president, Janine, as well as three of its board members, Mort, Stan, and Frank, who collectively made up the firm’s managing partner selection committee.

She continued, “I spent my entire life trying to please my mother, but nothing was ever good enough for her. I skipped a grade in high school, and she just complained that I didn’t earn enough scholarships to pay for college. I was Magna Cum Laude as an undergraduate and earned a full ride to Loyola Law School, and she merely pointed out that it wasn’t Harvard. I graduated at the top of my class in law school, and all she said was that real-world results are the only thing that matters in life. Finally, after I became a partner at this law firm, one of the largest law firms in the world, and the youngest partner in its history, she just shrugged and asked me what real skills I actually possessed. Without thinking, I replied, ‘I can swim.’”

Despite the fact that she maintained a well-poised demeanor as she spoke, Mallory was secretly in agony. Her head was throbbing, her muscles ached all over her body, and waves of nausea assaulted her stomach to the point where she thought she might throw up. However, she didn’t show her physical discomfort at all. Instead, she simply sat there, cross-legged, looking every bit the well-put-together young professional that she was. She concluded her monologue by saying, “And so, I believe the greatest quality I have to offer as Shook, Lathrop, and McDermott LLP’s next managing partner is my resilience.”

“And your billable hours,” said Stan with a smirk. Janine looked at him with a raised eyebrow, but he just shrugged and said, “What? She’s a rainmaker. Can you imagine the kind of business we could pull in with Mallory at the helm? She’s a star.” Mallory smiled slightly at the compliment, but she forced herself to maintain a stoic composure. She didn’t want to seem overconfident.

Janine chuckled as she shook her head and said, “Stan, you know this committee’s deliberations are supposed to be confidential.” Then, she smiled at Mallory and said, “We have one more question for you, Mallory. With your incredible track record of success, what is it that sets you apart from other lawyers, and how would you impart this upon the lawyers at this firm to help them be more successful as well?”

Without hesitation, Mallory responded, “It’s simple, the answer is research. ‘Knowledge is power’ as they say. I learn everything there is to know about every case I’m working on, and then look for ways to use that knowledge to my advantage. If I were managing director, I’d make sure all the firm’s attorneys understood the value, and the power, of research.”

The committee members each nodded in agreement and approval, and Janine said, “Thank you very much, Mallory. We appreciate you meeting with us. We’ll finish evaluating candidates soon, and you should know our decision in a couple weeks.”

Mallory stood up and turned to leave. Just as she began to open the door, she heard someone whisper her name, “Mallory…” She turned around and said, “Yes?” wondering if there was one more question they’d forgotten to ask her. However, the four committee members looked at her with puzzled expressions – nobody had said anything.

Mallory sat in her doctor’s office as she waited impatiently for the doctor to arrive. The pain and the nausea she felt during the meeting had been coming and going intermittently for the past several weeks and she wanted it to stop. She’d meticulously researched medical textbooks and journals and, though she would’ve been ashamed to admit it, Google, for some kind of explanation as to what malady was plaguing her, but came up empty. Over-the-counter pain pills and stomach medications helped a little, but she needed a genuine solution as soon as possible.

She’d been working insane hours for the past few months to make herself as competitive as possible for the managing partner position at her firm. It now seemed that her entire life was an endless blur of contracts, depositions, and lawsuit filings. She’d taken to sleeping at her office most nights, and even packed extra suits and dress shirts every weekend to bring with her on Monday mornings. She subsisted mainly on coffee and fare from the office vending machine as she was too busy to be distracted even by the human need to consume food. This sickness that was now causing Mallory so much discomfort needed to come to an end, if for no other reason than because it wasn’t helping her succeed.

There were six people being considered for the managing partner position, but Mallory knew through the office grapevine that the selection committee was only seriously considering her and one other person. That person was her archrival, Jennifer, whose perfectionism mirrored Mallory’s in every way. In Mallory’s mind, everything came naturally to Jennifer. Her cases always seemed to end in her clients’ favor, and she rarely lost when she went to trial. Mallory envied her deeply, though she was just as successful herself. Mallory needed to prove that she was a better lawyer than Jennifer, a better lawyer and better professional, which was why she simply didn’t have time to be sick.

“This doctor had better get here with some good news quick,” she thought.

Just then, the door opened, and Dr. Rosenstein walked briskly into the room with a clipboard in her hand. She said, “Your blood test came back, Mallory. You’re definitely not pregnant.”

Mallory rolled her eyes and said, “I could’ve told you that.”

“Yes, well you know we’ve got to rule these things out. Other than that, I can’t seem to find anything wrong with you. Besides a slightly elevated blood pressure, you’re the picture of health, which I frankly find quite surprising considering how much weight you’ve lost in such a short amount of time. Are you eating enough?”

“Come on, doctor,” Mallory whined. “I’m in pain and I can’t afford to deal with it right now. The whole-body aches and the nausea just seem to be getting worse. Look, I’ve barely been eating lately, and I admit I’ve been drinking way too much coffee, but those can’t be the only reasons I feel terrible. The pain is so intense, and it’s different than the pain of a caffeine overdose, which I can assure you I’ve dealt with many times. And the nausea just feels so… foul, not like what you feel from not eating enough or eating too much junk food. Can’t you just prescribe something for me?”

Dr. Rosenstein eyed Mallory for a moment, and said, “No. I think you’re simply under too much stress. Is everything going alright at work? Are you having any relationship issues? Boyfriend problems?”

Mallory sighed with mild disgust and said, “None of that, no. I’ve been working a bit more than usual lately. I’m up for a promotion, but other than that everything’s normal.”

Dr. Rosenstein shook her head and replied, “Well, I wish there was something I could do for you, but I think you just need to relax. Take a vacation as soon as possible and get more sleep and exercise. The long-term effects of too much stress can lead to serious health problems, even for someone as young as you.”

Mallory slumped into her chair dejectedly. She was really hoping for a quick solution, but it seemed that none would be forthcoming. Just then, she noticed something poking out from under the doctor’s desk. At first, Mallory couldn’t see what it was, but it seemed to be moving slightly. She realized that it was a finger, gently tapping the floor next to her foot. A hand then shot out from under the desk and grabbed Mallory’s ankle, its grip like a hard, cold metal vice. The hand’s flesh was grey and covered in horrible oozing scars. Mallory leapt out of her chair and screamed.

The doctor looked at Mallory with an expression of mild surprise, then asked, “What was that all about?” Breathing heavily, Mallory began to say she saw a phantom hand grab her from under the desk, but then changed her mind and said, “Nothing, it was nothing. I thought I saw something that wasn’t there. That’s all.”

Mallory sat at her desk in her office as she typed furiously. She needed to finish the contract she was working on as soon as possible. The clock on her wall showed that it was 3:30 a.m.

The phone rang, startling her. Mallory glanced at the caller ID as she grunted in frustration. It was an internal office call from Janine’s extension. Mallory stared at the phone as she furrowed her brow in confusion. Janine had left the office several hours ago, and so had everyone else. Mallory thought she was alone.

Hesitantly, she picked up the phone, and said, “Hello?”

Janine’s voice came through the speaker and said, “Hi there, Mallory. Working late again? You really want that managing partner position, don’t you?”

Mallory paused. It sounded like Janine’s voice but there was something off about it. The voice had a playful, mocking tone that Janine had never used before. Also, it seemed to waver from being too deep at one moment to too high the next, as if someone was imitating Janine’s voice and coming close but not quite matching it perfectly.

Mallory didn’t say anything, and then the voice continued. “What’s the matter? Don’t know what to say? You seemed to have all the answers at the interview the other day. That reminds me, I have some follow up questions for you, but I need to ask you in person.”

The voice changed completely as it spoke the last few words. It became raspy and menacing, and no longer sounded like Janine at all. Then, it continued, “Why don’t you come to my office? Or better yet, how about I come to yours?”

Before Mallory could say anything, she heard a click and the call ended. She slowly put the phone down, thinking about what to do. Then, a sharp pain arced across her temples as a pang of nausea struck her bowels and she collapsed onto the floor. As she lay there dry heaving, she heard her office door open and the sound of footsteps walking towards her desk. She was paralyzed by pain and fear. Terrified, she looked up to see who it was, but then the footsteps stopped, and she heard nothing for several moments. The pain and nausea suddenly went away, and she was able to pull herself up. Slowly, she raised herself up and peaked out from behind her desk. Nobody was there.

“I don’t know what it is, Jerry, but these weird things keep happening to me, and at the worst possible time. I’m so close to being made managing partner, I can feel it, but it’s as if there’s this strange presence that’s invading my life. My doctor says I’m fine, but I don’t feel fine, and I keep seeing and hearing things that aren’t there. I’m scared.”

Mallory was in the office of her psychologist whom she’d visited regularly since she first started law school. She appreciated the fact that their meetings gave her a chance to talk to someone about her life who’d share his objective opinion without judging her, and who was legally obligated to keep the contents of their discussions private.

Jerry looked at her with concern and said, “Knowing you, Mallory, you’ve probably researched everything that could possibly be wrong with you, medically and psychologically, is that correct?”

Mallory nodded silently, and Jerry continued, “I can tell you right now that it’s not schizophrenia or any other sort of mental disorder. The hallucinations and physical symptoms are certainly troubling, but what you’ve described doesn’t rise to the level of anything described in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders. Really, Mallory, I think the problem is simply that you’re under way too much stress. If you don’t mind my frank opinion, this quest to become the youngest managing partner ever at your law firm is becoming quixotic.”

Mallory started to object, but Jerry interrupted her and said, “Now, I know it means a lot to you. To say you’re an overachiever is an understatement, to be sure. But sometimes, Mallory, you have to ask yourself if it’s really worth it. The things you’ve described to me, from phantom voices to disembodied hands to strange phone calls in the middle of the night, not to mention the painful physical symptoms, they all seem to create a cost that outweighs the benefit. And what happens when you become managing partner? It’s not like the stress is going to go away at that point. In fact, it will most likely intensify. What if the symptoms persist, or get worse? If that happens, then they very well could become the precursors to a genuine mental disease.”

Mallory hung her head and stared at the floor in deep disappointment. He was right, she knew. The pressure wouldn’t stop just because she got what she wanted. There would still be the expectation that she would excel and exceed everyone’s expectations, like always. What if the stress got to her and she made a mistake? The consequences could be disastrous.

Jerry continued, “I ask you to at least consider dropping out of contention for managing partner at your firm, at least for now. You can blame your caseload, which we both know is extremely heavy anyway. They will understand. You’re still young and I’m sure another opportunity will present itself, and by then you’ll be in a much better position from a mental health standpoint to pursue it.

“At this point, I think it would be beneficial to engage in hypnosis. It should relieve some of the stress and help you relax a little bit. Would that be alright?” he asked. Mallory agreed. Jerry had hypnotized her several times before and it always left her feeling de-stressed.

Mallory laid on the couch and he said, “I want you to close your eyes and listen to the sound of my voice as you think about the most relaxing thing you can imagine. I’m going to count backwards from 10 and when I get to zero you’re going to open your eyes feeling totally relaxed and refreshed.”

Jerry slowly started to count backwards in a deep and soothing voice, and Mallory imagined being a child in her bed with its big, fluffy down comforter and overstuffed pillows. She loved her bed when she was a child and had fond memories of sleeping in on the weekends, clutching her stuffed bunny rabbit, and feeling no worries or concerns about anything at all. Between her imagination and Jerry’s voice, she began to feel better than she had in months.

Finally, Jerry reached the end of the countdown and said, “Now open your eyes.”

Mallory did so and looked at Jerry, but then recoiled in horror at what she saw. His entire face was covered in blood which flowed down from an open wound in the top of his head. Blood droplets hung from his chin and dripped to the floor as he looked at her, seemingly oblivious to what was happening.

“Jerry, you’re hurt!” she exclaimed.

He gave her a confused look and asked, “What do you mean?”

“Your face, Jerry! It’s covered in blood!”

Jerry looked at her with an expression of mild shock. Then, he calmly said, “There isn’t any blood on my face, Mallory, and I really think you need to consider not trying to become managing partner anymore. You’re under way too much stress.”

Mallory rushed out the door of her psychologist’s office and began speed walking to her car in the parking lot with tears welling up in her eyes. It was mid-afternoon on a cold and dreary Sunday, and she just wanted to go home. Her doctor couldn’t tell her what was wrong with her and neither could her psychologist. She began to feel desperate.

She made it to her car and began fumbling with her keys but dropped them. Cursing, she stooped to pick them up, and then heard someone approach behind her.

“It seems like you could use some help,” said a trilling voice.

Mallory turned around and saw a strange looking woman with eyes that were oddly purple and tinged with green. She’d never seen anyone with eyes like that before in her life.

“What do you mean?” she asked.

The woman smiled as she made an amused half-shrug and said, “I think you know what I’m talking about.”

“No, I really don’t.”

“You’ve been having visions, haven’t you? Seeing and hearing things that scare you while experiencing bouts of pain and sickness. You feel like someone’s trying to take over your life, don’t you? The worst part is that nobody can tell you what’s wrong, and they keep trying to blame it on stress.”

“Who are you?”

The woman stuck out her hand and said, “My name’s Lorraina, and I’m here to help.”

Mallory shook her hand recalcitrantly and asked, “How do you know about what’s happening to me?”

“Because I’ve seen it before. It’s actually far more common than you think.”

“What’s more common than I might think?”

Still holding Mallory’s hand, Lorraina took a step toward her until they were just inches apart. In a hushed voice she said, “You’re in danger. What’s happening to you doesn’t have anything to do with stress. You’re not sick and you’re not going crazy. A demon is trying to steal your soul.”

Lorraina stared into Mallory’s eyes with an expression that showed she was dead serious. Normally, Mallory would’ve immediately walked away from someone espousing such a bizarre notion. However, given the circumstances, she was ready to listen to anything.

“A demon is trying to steal my soul,” Mallory repeated, incredulously.

Lorraina nodded grimly and said, “But you’re in luck. I just happen to know how to help you, though it won’t be easy.”

Mallory replied, “How’d you know this was happening to me, and how’d you find me?”

“I search for such things and I go where I’m needed. Your aura shines as brightly as a lighthouse in the dark, but if you’re not careful, someone will snuff you out for good. Do you want my help or not?”

“Yes, of course.”

“Good, then meet me at this address tonight. We must begin the ritual immediately.”

Lorraina handed Mallory a business card that simply had an address printed on it in block letters. Mallory stared at it for a few moments and asked, “Ritual? What ritual?”

But when she looked up, Lorraina had disappeared.

Mallory exhaled with focused concentration as she finished inscribing runes in chalk on the floor in the abandoned house where Lorraina had told her to meet. The house was in the middle of nowhere in the countryside, and Mallory hadn’t even been sure she’d be able to find it. But sure enough, after driving for several hours outside the city where she lived, she arrived at the dilapidated manse that must have been an old plantation home of some sort. Lorraina was been waiting on the front steps and had made a sick-looking grin as she saw Mallory pull up.

They’d been there for the past week, performing what Lorraina said was a summoning ritual that would force the demon that had been plaguing Mallory to appear before her. Then, Lorraina said, Mallory would speak its true name twice, thus banishing it from her life forever. Mallory hated taking the time away from work, but she knew this was infinitely more important. She could explain that she had a family emergency, and nobody would question her. She doubted it would impact her chances of becoming managing director so long as she got all her work done soon.

The ritual itself had been grueling. With Lorraina’s guidance, Mallory had to spend each day performing incantations, meditating, and inscribing runes in chalk in various rooms throughout the house. She had to fast the entire time the sun was up, and she could only eat a singular gruel that consisted of obscure herbs and grains that Lorraina prepared for her each day. It was disgusting. One part of the ritual required Mallory to have freezing water poured over her several times as she sat in an uncomfortable position for hours. Lorraina had fetched the water from a nearby lake, so Mallory knew it was filthy as well. She hadn’t been able to bathe afterward, she just had to hope she wouldn’t get sick.

When the ritual was finally nearing completion, Lorraina instructed Mallory to draw what she called the Gate of Yog-Sohoth in chalk in the center of the house’s main room. It was several feet across and resembled a circle with an odd-looking pentagram in the middle with strange looping lines and circles. When it was finished, Lorraina placed a large black shawl in the center and surrounded it with candles that she then lit using a cheap plastic lighter.

They waited for it to become dark so that the gate was illuminated only by the candles and the rest of the room was pitch black. Then Lorraina said to Mallory, “Now it’s time to confront your demon. You must stand in front of the gate and recite the incantations I showed you. The demon will appear under the shawl, and when it does, you must say its name once. When you do this, it will howl in pain. Knowing a demon’s true name gives you power over it and saying its name will cause it great frustration and discomfort. It won’t be able to move, however, as it will be bound in the center of the gate.

“Then, you must remove the shawl and look at it in its true form. I warn you, it won’t be a pleasant sight, and the demon will try to invade your mind. However, it shouldn’t be successful because we’ve been fortifying you for the past week, which was the purpose of the incantations and meditation. Once you’ve confronted it and resisted its attempts to dominate you, then you shall utter its true name a second time, and this will banish it from your life completely.”

“What’s my demon’s true name?” asked Mallory.

Lorraina narrowed her eyes and whispered, “Cthulhu.” Then she slowly sounded out the name, “Kuh-thoo-loo.”

Mallory nodded that she understood and Lorraina asked, “Are you ready?”

Mallory nodded again and Lorraina said, “Then let’s begin.”

Mallory stepped in front of the gate and began reciting the incantations. She continued for several minutes though nothing seemed to be happening. Then, she felt the ground tremble slightly. Several more minutes passed, and the temperature in the room dropped to near freezing. Mallory could see her breath as she continued her recitations. After several more minutes, a gust of wind came from nowhere and bent the candle flames though none of them went out. The house began to shake and groan, and strangely echoing roars sounded from all over the house.

Finally, Mallory heard an abnormal gurgling noise and something underneath the shawl moved. A shape started to rise underneath the shawl and grew to the size of a large man, but it was completely covered by the shawl.

“Now, say its name,” said Lorraina.

Mallory took in a deep breath and said, “Cthulhu.” The thing under the shawl let out an unworldly scream and the whole house shook.

“It’s time to confront your demon. Remove the shawl.”

Mallory reached out and with one swift motion, pulled off the shawl that covered the creature. Just she did so, she fell unconscious.

Mallory awoke and looked around. Her vision was blurry, but after a few moments it became clear enough for her to see that she was still in the main room of the abandoned house. Sunlight spilled in through the windows and she realized that she was now sitting on her knees in the middle of the chalk gate she’d drawn on the floor. The candles were all extinguished, and everything was totally still.

Then, she tried to move, but couldn’t. She struggled, but it was as if she was held in place by an imaginary force.

“What’s going on?” she muttered.

At that moment, Lorraina strutted into the room and stood in front of Mallory in the same spot where Mallory had stood before. Her face bore an expression of stifled laughter, and she placed her hands on her hips as she stuck her chest out with pride. Then, she leaned down to put her face right in front of Mallory’s and said in a mocking tone, “Looks like you caught your demon.”

Lorraina’s voice had changed, and Mallory recognized it as the one she’d heard on the phone before when she was in her office.

Lorraina continued, “While there certainly is an entity known as Cthulhu, it wasn’t he who was plaguing you all along, it was I. You humans really are too gullible for your own good, but then I guess that means you deserve what’s coming to you. Our little ritual wasn’t meant to strengthen you for any sort of confrontation, but rather to weaken you to the point where I could do what I’m about to do to you now. That’s what this has been about all along, the voices, the visions, the sickness – I like to think of it as tenderizing the meat before the meal. Regardless, we’re past that now. The only thing left to do is eat.”

With this, Lorraina licked her lips with a horrible forked tongue. Her eyes rolled back into her head, and she opened her mouth impossibly wide to reveal rows of razor sharp teeth like that of a shark. She inched closer to bite Mallory’s neck, but then Mallory said, “Not so fast, Bathnatharlorayne.”

Lorraina reared back as though she’d been punched in the stomach and gasped in pain. She then let out an otherworldly scream as her form began to change. Her clothes disintegrated, and her skin shone brightly as if it were aflame. She transformed so that she no longer looked like a person, but instead resembled a giant mantis with translucent, veiny white skin and huge, bulging eyes with irises that were still purple tinged with green as they had been before.

The creature collapsed and started to breathe heavily as though it was deeply wounded. It looked at Mallory and asked in an inhuman voice, “How did you know my true name?”

Mallory, having found that she was no longer stuck in place, stood up and walked over to where the creature lay. She said, “Because I did my homework.”

“What do you mean?” asked the creature.

“While I was researching what condition might’ve befallen me, I stumbled across a copy of an ancient grimoire called the Necronomicon. I’m sure you’ve heard of it.”

The creature stared at her in silence, and she continued.

“Never being one to rule anything out, I entertained the idea that my strange condition might have an occult origin rather than a medical or psychological one. During my studies, I learned about an insect-like demon that preyed on upon people by weakening them over time with strange visions and painful maladies, then ultimately tricking them into sacrificing themselves to it. I also learned about our friend whose name you mentioned, Cthulhu was it? I knew it couldn’t be him, so when you told me that was the name of the demon which was plaguing me, it confirmed you were lying.”

“You disgusting, pathetic little worm. I’ll flay you alive!” shouted the creature.

“Mind your manners, miss,” Mallory replied. “The Necronomicon told me everything I needed to know, including your true name. If my malady truly was the result of this demonic infestation, then I knew it was only a matter of time before you approached me guised as a friend who wanted to help. It even described your strangely colored eyes. When you appeared in the parking lot outside my psychologist’s office, well, I’m afraid that I saw you coming a mile away, and I’d been waiting for you.

“Also, as you’ve already proven, knowing a demon’s true name does indeed give you power over it. Of course, you never counted on me figuring out your true name, did you? The other thing didn’t count on is that you weren’t dealing with just another ‘gullible human’ as you like to put it. I went along with your ritual, which I knew all along was designed to weaken me. However, I knew it wouldn’t kill me, and it would put you right where I wanted you to be.”

“Then why don’t you just say my name a second time and be done with it?” snarled the creature. “After you banish me from your life, you know I won’t be able to interfere with you again. All my work will have been for nothing.” Its voice had taken on a tone of dejection, as if it was admitting defeat.

“Oh yes, you’d certainly love for me to do that, wouldn’t you? Don’t you think I would’ve banished you already if that’s what I wanted to do? But if I did that, then it would only be a matter of time before you gathered enough strength to go after someone else again, someone who might not be able to withstand you quite as well as I could. I know you must consume human souls to continue to exist. It isn’t just because you want to, you need to as well.”

The creature remained silent.

“Instead, I’m going to keep you here. You see, the Necronomicon told me one more thing about this Gate of Yog-Sohoth you had me make for you. It told me that the gate can work as a prison as well, so that’s where you’re going to stay until you starve to death.”

“No!” the demon let forth a guttural shriek that diminished into a weak-sounding cry. “No, you can’t,” it whimpered.

“Don’t expect sympathy from me, demon. I know you’ve tortured and killed hundreds if not thousands of unsuspecting, innocent people already. You’ll never do it again.”

With that, Mallory snapped her fingers and the demon was transported a short distance across the room into the center of the gate. It struggled, but it couldn’t move as it was bound by the same invisible force that had held Mallory a few minutes ago.

Mallory said, “Don’t worry, I’ll be back to check on you every once in a while, and to redraw the outline of the gate with fresh chalk to make sure it doesn’t fade away. This way, you can’t escape, and maybe I’ll even be there when you finally die.”

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