Aberrant Branch

By Atom Mudman Bezecny

How hideous by night does nature become

Every shadow turn'd into a twisted fold

Frog- and insect-songs sound an awful drum

Through a dreary dark, boundless and forever cold

 

Like night, death is an avalanche

A plunge through loss, profound and stark

Love's bloom withers to an aberrant branch

As all life's legacies pass into the dark

 

- “The Old Man and the Ungrateful Son”

Lutum Hominus, 13th Century Monk

 

As a girl, Mother had her watch an old B-movie from the '50s. She Devil.

 

The movie was about a tubercular, mousy girl named Kyra Zelas, who, with nothing left to lose, submitted to being a human guinea pig in an experiment conducted by a pair of scientists. The scientists were predictably of the male gender. They had invented a serum which allowed organisms to adapt endlessly to adverse conditions. When injected into Kyra, it not only cured her tuberculosis, it gave her super-powers. Kyra gained the ability to change her form to physically and psychologically manipulate those around her. Her shriveled, unpalatable body regenerated into that of a blonde Venus. Men became her slaves—a fitting karmic reversal, for what they had done to her. Simply put, Kyra was now perfect: the adaptive ultimate. She could even survive poison and other things usually fatal to humans. She was like an immortal. Because of this, she had no fear of the law, or any other force. She became a thief, and eventually, a murderer. She had no conscience for her killings, believing fully that she was owed unlimited power for the horrors she had suffered as an impoverished, sickly woman. She became a menace to society at large.

 

Eventually, however, the scientists trapped her and managed to overwhelm her, hitting her with too many lethal conditions for her powers to overcome. She died, a victim of man's hatred of the power of the women.

 

In that moment, the girl understood the power of perfection. She knew that she would seek it out no matter what.

 

Mother was proud and pleased. This was what was ordained for her.

 

For her daughter came from an old and marvelous legacy.

 

Mother had chosen Father very precisely—he was the grandson of a great man, a great scientist. This scientist, the girl's great-grandfather, was a giant of bronze, Mother said. He was perfect, mentally and physically. His father had raised him that way. He had become a superman as a result of his unique training—he was healthy, strong, fast, brilliant, handsome, wealthy, and sexually potent. Perfect.

 

Mother had to have a child who carried that man's genes. And so she had gone out and had a daughter by his grandson.

 

Long ago, Mother had been imperfect. In fact, she had been ugly, twisted and unlovable. A childhood disease had ruined her chance at beauty. But she had been given a blessing, just like Kyra Zelas—this miracle turned her from a hideous beast of a girl into a stunning, magnetic woman. Since receiving that blessing, Mother had always chased perfection. She knew she wanted a daughter, and she wanted that daughter to be perfect. She would shape her and mold her, just as the girl's great ancestor had been shaped and molded.

 

Mother told her daughter then that there had been a real Kyra Zelas, and that Father's grandfather had been one of the scientists who worked on her. The girl didn't know what she was supposed to take from that. Perhaps she was trying to imply that her great-grandmother had been Kyra Zelas. Or perhaps she wanted to illustrate that her great-grandfather, glorious as he had been, had had flaws after all—he had acted unethically in treating his female subject, and people died as a result. The girl took this as a warning from her mother to never fail, to never make a mistake, once she gained the power destined for her. But this filled her with a deep and unspeakable shame.

 

Like Father, and Father's mother, and Father's mother's father, the girl's dark eyes swirled with flecks of gold. Like all her ancestors, she was beautiful. The bronze flesh and hair of Father's line had faded out over the generations—but her skin was polished marble, and her blonde locks were like golden silk. As she grew older, and Mother brought teachers to her to supplement her public schooling with advanced exercises, her rising physical prowess only enhanced her beauty. Her broad shoulders, strong arms, and taut torso were very beguiling to potential mates. Mother reminded her constantly that she must choose a proper spouse, one with good genes, as she had.

 

Mother arranged for them to be wealthy—they had everything they needed. Through training and meditation and raw self-control, the girl would become the new heir to that old scientist's bronze legacy. She would become a new champion of the world, a Woman of Bronze. That was, if everything went according to plan.

 

* * *

 

When the girl was in high school, Mother's name was Trish Bell, and her daughter was Madison. It had been decided freshman year that she was finally of the age to begin seeking out a mate. Mother closely scrutinized the school's sports records, hoping one of the young men on one of the teams would prove adequate. Eventually, she found Jacob. He was on the track team, or maybe the swim team—Madison's memories of him became blurry over time. In any case, she knew what she had to do. She was going to become his high school sweetheart, and they would get married and live happily ever after. Subtly, she and Mother would work on furthering his sports career, as well as giving him little exercises to improve his brain. In doing so, he would produce more valuable spawn.

 

But Madison knew from the start that there would be a big problem—she couldn't just like boys on command. Mother knew how to advise her. She told her that she would just have to make her life Jacob's. She would commit every detail about Jacob to memory, and think about nothing but him in all of her waking life. Slowly, Mother assured her, this would lead to true love. Madison nodded and followed those instructions.

 

Unfortunately Mother's methods, while unquestionable, failed to anticipate a fault in Jacob's psyche: he was scared of commitment. That Madison kept stealing his things and storing them in her locker didn't help matters. One day he found her little shrine, and threatened to take out a restraining order. Madison couldn't stand the heartbreak. So she arranged a little accident. She didn't murder Jacob—that would be wrong of her—but she did cripple him for life. He became a prisoner of the iron lung, and in time he would decline into a vegetable state. It was just an accident—a horrible accident, she said, through a curtain of crocodile tears. Her acting professor had taught her well. It was true she couldn't fall in love on command, but she could cry when she had to.

 

Mother was surprised to learn of what happened. She chastised Madison, but fear prevented her from being firm in her usual manner. Madison took full advantage of this lapse in brutality. She allowed herself to believe that her actions had been just, for they served the greater good of her training. She had been inconspicuous, as Mother had always asked of her. All she had really done was just strip Jacob of some of the freedom he'd been born with. Nothing more.

 

Mother determined that if Madison had found Jacob to be an unfit companion, then there was nothing to be done. They would, of course, have to move away to another town. There would be another track star, or future swimming gold medalist, who would work well with her.

 

And so, after a period of settling in at the new school, she had found Ben. To her great surprise, Madison found herself attracted to him of her own accord. He was good-looking, funny, and nice. She decided to check him out a little, and using the young Internet, she learned of his swimming accomplishments. She imagined him kissing her, and she blushed. Her previous training took hold, and she decided to try the obsession method once again. Never mind the fact that she couldn't help but obsess. Obsession was love for her, and in short time, she knew what the red-hot feeling boiling up inside her was—she loved him.

 

Ben had a girlfriend, but Madison was perfect—it wouldn't be long at all before he left that tramp for her. She was so sure. She would start innocently enough at first—she knew that boys like innocence.

 

She took it for granted that they hit it off right away. Not only did she pull off flirty without actually trying to flirt, but she could talk about pretty much anything. She was actually a champion swimmer herself, but she didn't need to know that—she had plenty more to talk about. They became fast friends, and from there, he was in the palm of her hand. It was child's play to convince him to show off his swimming skills, and then she just had to get into the water. Once she was wet—and she had been before she got in the pool—she was unstoppable. Ben couldn't keep his eyes off of her. She backed him up against the wall and spread her legs for him.

 

He made a big ordeal about his girlfriend, and how he couldn't let her down, but he kept smiling and giggling as he said it. She'd cracked him wide open. She pushed just a little further, and then he took her.

 

It was wonderful.

 

No child yet—Mother had made her take birth control as soon as they started on their plans. That meant that she and Ben could just sit back and enjoy it.

 

And enjoy it they did.

 

She didn't bother telling him she was a virgin—he wouldn't have believed her.

 

When he dropped her off at home, she practically skipped through the door. Mother was in the living room waiting for her, a glass of black wine in her hand. “Well?” she asked. Madison told her everything.

 

It seemed like everything was going to be okay.

 

But Madison had not yet grown used to predicting variables. While she was superior to Ben's girlfriend in every way, she was not his girlfriend. He felt shame for their encounter and told her bluntly at school that they'd never fuck again. She pretended to take it well; behind her gold-flecked eyes, she was sharpening her fish-hook.

 

Even so, that day at school seemed to last an eternity. In some ways, Madison wished it had. Later that night, she had a cello recital for Mother and her mentors. In the middle of the Barber Concerto, she slipped up on a single note—the only deviation in her otherwise flawless performance. But she heard it and Mother heard it. Once the teachers had gone for the night, Mother took to striking Madison across the face, as she often did.

 

“Fucking idiot slut! Fucking idiot slut!”

 

Madison made no sound during the beating, nor did her face change from an empty, neutral expression.

 

She would not fail. She would try again with Ben. Not for Mother—for herself, and her love for him.

 

First she tried to make him jealous—she fucked his best friend. He was markedly inferior to Ben, and he had the audacity to complain when she said Ben's name when she climaxed. She had told him exactly why she was fucking him, so it was own fault for thinking she was actually thinking of him.

 

Ben didn't really seem to care about that. So she destroyed his swimming career. Too easy to put steroids in his urine before the big swim meet. No more scholarships for him! Perhaps that would mean he'd keep out of college, and stay in town. Then Madison could keep working on him, till he relented.

 

But the stupid dickhead kept persevering. He kept saying no. Amy, that stupid bitch, kept getting in the way. At first, Madison tried getting rid of her the same way she'd dealt with Jacob. She figured it was best to stick with what she knew. This time, though, the car accident she produced was less fatal. Amy made it to the hospital alive—and Madison was certain that Ben, ever-loyal Ben, was by her side. She couldn't stand that image in her mind, of the two of them together in her room. Maybe Amy was in good shape. Maybe she was still in good enough shape to fuck, and right now he was hauling up those hospital bedsheets and that paper gown and having her right there.

 

“Mother?” she asked. “How tight do you think security would be at a hospital?”

 

“What do you mean?” Mother replied.

 

“I mean, do you think that if I went in unarmed, I'd stand a good chance?”

 

“Madison, no,” Mother said. “That's too open! I won't let you ruin us like that. It's clear that Ben is as dull as that idiot Jacob. You need a new boy...”

 

No!” Madison cried. “Ben is mine, all mine, and I'll get him or die trying!”

 

“You dumb bitch,” Mother snarled. “If you leave this house, there'll be a wallop waiting for you when you get back.”

 

Madison wanted to see her try.

 

Once again, she was grateful for a trace of lenience. She dared not disobey Mother, but Mother had not forbidden her from leaving. She'd only threatened to punish her when she returned.

 

For Ben, she could take that.

 

She sped to the hospital, and rushed inside. Finding the front desk, she asked where she could find Ms. Miller. Her voice came out polite and pretty as a bell—that was why Mother had chosen their alias of Bell. But sweet talk, even her sweet talk, wouldn't work here. The receptionist said that no one but family and those approved by the family were allowed up to see her.

 

Madison reached over and broke the receptionist's wrist, and tore the clipboard away from her. While the idiot was screaming in pain, Madison located the room. Then she made her way to the elevator.

 

“Security!” squawked the receptionist. “Security!!

 

Two big guys in uniform were coming towards her. She stopped, but didn't turn around. One of them got close to her, and grabbed her shoulder. “Lady, you're coming with—”

 

Madison twirled around, and her eyes snapped to the pistol holstered on the man's hip. She tore it away from him, and before he could make a sound she shot him right between the eyes.

 

Oh fuck!” the other guard shouted. “Oh fu—”

 

He went for his gun, but his training wasn't nearly as good as what Madison had gotten. She could outdraw any wannabe cowboy anytime. She left the second guard a bloody ruin on the floor.

 

Up the elevator to the sixth floor. She put her gun away when she stepped out of the car, and pretended like she was supposed to be there. Room 606 was up ahead, on her left. Inside, she found her hated foe, bruised, unconscious, and attached to an IV.

 

But Ben wasn't there.

 

She had to find him.

 

“Wake up,” Madison said, slapping Amy awake. When Amy sleepily opened her eyes, she mumbled Madison's name, confused.

 

“Where's Ben?” Madison demanded.

 

“I-I don't know...he...he...” She was really doped up. Madison glanced down the hallway anxiously. There was no time for this.

 

She tore Amy out of bed, gagging her with a strip of bedsheet. Then, slinging her over her shoulder, she returned to the elevator, and went down; she tapped her foot impatiently as the car slowly descended. She came out on the ground floor again.

 

The receptionist was still there, and had the desk phone pressed to her ear—when she saw Madison approaching her, she screamed and reared back from her. Madison knew she'd called the cops. Drawing her stolen pistol, she shot her in the head. She had two murders to her name, with another on the way—so there wasn't any point in adding this one to her count.

 

She knew that Ben would know where to find her. She went back to where they first fucked—in the magical waters of the school's pool.

 

The pool would be a new beginning for them. She was giving him a second chance—his last. She really would spare Amy's life if Ben agreed to leave her, and start over with her, and forgive her of all she'd done. To save her life, she was certain he'd do it.

 

But once again, things didn't go the way she planned.

 

Ben still didn't back down. He still wanted to save his precious Amy. Madison had been prepared for this, but only in that she had learned to fear this outcome with all her heart. After all, this wasn't just about finding a physically-fit mate. This was about love. She had spent lifetimes of love with Ben, inside her own mind. He could join her in those lifetimes, if only he could see that she was better than what he had.

 

She was perfect. All her life, she had been completely perfect.

 

She fought him—he was out of chances, and thus out of time on this earth. She wrestled with him, but to her great surprise, he was too strong. As they battled, she heard police sirens. Soon she would be surrounded.

 

There was only one way out now. The final resort, which Mother had prepared her for.

 

She let Ben throw her into the pool—everything from there she left to her talents.

 

“Ben—Ben!” she gasped. “M-my dress is stuck! My dress is stuck!” She pretended to be caught one of the suction vents at the bottom of the pool. “I can't swim! I can't swim!” She was trying not to laugh. She was dragged down and her head went under, and she strained against the pull.

 

Ben and Amy watched bitterly as Madison drowned before their eyes. For them, it was all over. Fate had been merciful.

 

They didn't know it was Madison, in fact, who was the merciful one.

 

Mother had followed Madison to the hospital, and found the bodies of the murdered staff members. The police told her that not only had Madison committed the murders, she had kidnapped a patient as well. At once, Mother knew what was happening, and where Madison was. As she sped to the school, she placed a call to a doctor friend of hers, who knew about her program for Madison.

 

It was this doctor who examined Madison's body once it was retrieved from the pool. He pronounced her dead from drowning. He informed the authorities that the family requested the remains for private disposal. The cops didn't like the idea at first, but a few bills slipped between their fingers helped matters.

 

Once she was loaded into the doctor's vehicle, and they were a good way outside of town, Madison sat up.

 

“I make a pretty good corpse, don't I?” she said. Mother was in the front seat next to the doctor. “Didn't even have to use F. katalepsis to fake it. I can hold my breath forever.”

 

“Shut up,” was all Mother said.

 

The doctor took them to a barn out in the countryside. There was a car ready for them, waiting to take them far, far away.

 

Madison and Mother ran away together, into the night—until they came to a new town where they'd be safe. As of then—with the aid of a surgeon's knife—the girl wasn't Madison anymore. It was as if Madison Bell had truly drowned that night. She was now Lisa Ripley, and Mother was Claudette.

 

* * *

 

Years passed, and eventually, Lisa almost forgot the week of beatings she'd taken after she'd fucked up with Ben.

 

She got her degree in computer science, and managed to find a nice living for herself. When she moved away from Mother, it was like a great weight was lifted off her shoulders. Now she was free to use her unique abilities any way she wanted.

 

Or so she thought. Her freedom quickly proved to be illusory.

 

Once she was settled into her new place, Mother came to visit. Lisa allowed her in hesitantly, understanding at once what her presence represented. But things started off well. For the first time they were actually like mother and daughter, and exchanged pleasantries like normal people. Still, Lisa knew she was here for a reason. She was scared, and there were four possible reactions to that fear: fight, flight, freeze, or fawn. Madison had been a fighter, but Madison was dead now. Lisa would be an appeaser.

 

“I've been studying up on the nature of perfection in a classical sense,” she said. She crossed her fingers that this distraction would save her.

 

“Oh?” Mother asked.

 

“Yes,” Lisa replied, “and I think you'll find some interesting ontological dilemmas regarding our plans for my future.”

 

“You want to talk philosophy. Go on.”

 

Lisa said, “We never really set down what we meant when we decided to make me perfect. I wanted to know the technical definition of perfection.”

 

“It's the state of flawlessness,” Mother said simply.

 

“Not according to many among the Greeks and Romans. They defined perfection as completeness. A whole, or a goal fulfilled. That's trickier than flawlessness. I suppose in a sense that death is a form of perfection. It's the end—the completion of the whole. Nothing else can happen past it.”

 

“Well, you're hardly useful as a dead woman.”

 

Lisa pretended to laugh.

 

“I mean, perfection is a paradox, according to Vanini,” she said. “After all, there is no limit to progress, and progress is necessary for life. Progress is a form of perfection, because it's the nature of purifying something. To ignore progress is to be imperfect.”

 

“So you believe the work will never end,” Mother said.

 

“I don't see how it could. Let's say I became eternally young, as part of my perfection. I could learn every new discovery on Earth, and eventually, I could go to meet aliens, and learn all they had discovered. Let's say there's enough time in the universe's own lifespan for me to do that, which there isn't—and let's assume that the collective sum of the universe's knowledge is imperishable in its vastness, allowing me to find places where I can learn that which humanity has entirely forgotten. There would still be experiences beyond my comprehension and beyond my access, due to the physical limits of reality. I could never be truly perfect.”

 

“But if you learned all a human could learn, you could be a perfect human,” Mother said. “I don't demand that you become a perfect entity. I recognize that you are human, and even the knowledge of the future may not be able to change that for you.” The gleam in her eyes showed that she wanted to live to see Lisa become the goddess she had just described, regardless of what she'd said. It was always Mother's opinion that the gods were born human.

 

But her smile faded. “I believe perfection is simpler than all that. Perfection is the absence of flaws. You will have no flaws in your body or your spirit. No sorrow, no ugly rage. No moral impurities, like—like dalliances with women. That's what made your great-grandfather great.”

 

Lisa was tired of listening to her, but she had no power to send her away.

 

“I came for an important reason today, sugar bun,” Mother said then. “I've located your next beau.”

 

“Who is he?” Lisa asked.

 

“Johnny Allen Wellington.”

 

“Sounds like a fancy guy. What is he, a banker?”

 

“He is—one of the richest in all the world. He'd work great for you. And besides, he has quite the pedigree. He's descended from one of your great-grandfather's aides.”

 

“Oh!” Lisa said. That was interesting. She wondered which one. The slick, handsome lawyer? The tall, big-fisted engineer?

 

Then she met Johnny, and to her disgust learned that his forefather was the ugly ape-man chemist. Johnny looked every inch like his grandpa. His face was like a slab of rough-cut stone. He spoke with an implacable accent, part German, part French, part something else.

 

In that moment, Lisa loathed Mother. The fawner in her faded, and the fighter returned.

 

Lisa did her best to satisfy Johnny and keep him happy, for years and years. He was rich, and that was always a perk. Lisa always got whatever she wanted, and more. The apartment she and Johnny found together was lovely, and in time, he was one promotion away from making her his wife—and co-manager of his financial affairs. But her resolve trembled now and then, and she couldn't stand that sort of anxiety. She tried to pretend she was simply a prostitute, and as long as all this ugliness got her enough capital to survive on, she could justify it being a part of her life.

 

But she had known love before, as Madison, and she wanted Lisa to get a fair chance at it. She tried to obsess over Johnny, but learned that there were limits, even for her. He was simply too repulsive for her to invest herself in him. In straining to summon the feeling, however, she further hurt herself, and needed to find an outlet for her burning, unfocused desire. She latched onto Mark—Johnny's rugged, handsome, single friend.

 

Like Ben before him, Mark entirely failed to resist her charms. He acted the fool, wondering what she was doing and stuttering that it wouldn't be fair to Johnny. She only laughed, and as she did, she sensed a masochist side to him; he was aroused by her schadenfreude. That would become their game together—she would mock Johnny, belittle him, claim that Mark was much better than him, which he was. He pretended that he hated her mockery, was disgusted by it, when “secretly” it empowered him. It was amazing the limits that Mark let her break—not just morally, but sexually as well. But sometimes breaking those limits sometimes brought out his inner ugliness.

 

There was one night when she pegged him, pounding his asshole with a strap-on the size of a rolling pin. He had let loose some ignorant slurs in saying he didn't like that sort of thing, and then, predictably, he'd gone on to like that sort of thing. That hypocrisy was intolerable in Lisa's mind. His stupidity rivaled Mother's, who also hated gay sex (or anything besides a cock going into a pussy) and those who had it. To spite her, Lisa had fucked more than a few girls in college, and found both a love and aptitude for it.

 

But now she had a glimpse into Mark's inner imperfections—and she hated them. She feared they might be contagious. This fear was so great it even overcame her obsessive traits.

 

Johnny noticed her attentions were waning—her ability to pretend like she cared about him had faded over time, and without that mask, there was nothing saving him from the raw hate that lurked beneath. Eventually she was making out with Mark in front of other people—and eventually, her audience extended to Johnny, whose toxic positivity collapsed at last into knotted anger. He demanded to know why she was cheating on him, and she told him, calmly, everything about him that she loathed. It was a long list, and by the end of it, Johnny's soul was broken. Good.

 

Now Lisa had Mark, who was not only a willing slave but a contradiction to Mother's plans for her. Furthermore, she knew that Johnny owned a gun, and she knew that he would use it on himself— he'd been on the edge for many years, and she hadn't given a fuck about it. Soon his precious ape-man genes would be lost for good. She prepared the final performance of their relationship, and when the moment inevitably came, and she found his blood-soaked corpse, she pretended to weep for him. Once this false grief was over she'd never have to think of him again. She was finally free, and Mark would run into her arms.

 

Instead, to her shock, Mark was furious. He blamed her for the death of the man he'd once considered a brother. He not only blamed her for Johnny's death, but he blamed Claudette as well. He knew she had been the one pressuring her to climb higher and higher, no matter the cost—how right he was, though he didn't even slightly grasp the truth. He ran away from her, breaking the hold she'd worked so hard to weave over his life.

 

But Lisa looked down at Johnny's body, and grinned. She had destroyed a powerful man, one of those donors of ostensibly great genes that Mother was always praising. She knew now that no one could hold her back, not even Mother. Mark had run away, but that was because of his own cowardice—she had worked on him too well, breaking his spirits so thoroughly that he couldn't even stand to be around her, his mistress. Deep down, she hoped he would kill himself too.

 

It was frustrating, though, that an imbecile like him had escaped her.

 

It hadn't been Lisa's fault—by defying Mother, she had perfected herself. In this ascended state, she was incapable of such a lapse of control. But Mark had hated Mother, and thus in a way Mother did give this feeble man the power to run away from her. She decided that it was time at last to punish Mother for her sins—and for that, she would need to do some research.

 

Claudette Ripley tried to track her daughter down after Johnny's suicide, but to avail. Lisa returned to her months later, claiming to have gone to a small town to clear her mind. Claudette had not a trace of motherly concern in her. She told Lisa that the consequences for running away and for letting Johnny die would be severe. She broke into ravings, claiming that all of her past punishments combined represented only a small fraction of what she was about to do to her.

 

But Claudette was an old woman, who had not trained as Lisa had. Lisa stepped up to her and broke her arms. At once, Mother fell to her knees, shrieking in pain. Lisa kicked her away, and dashed up to her to kick her again. She kicked her into the corner, and when she couldn't get away, Lisa slammed her shoe into her over and over again.

 

When she was on the brink of unconsciousness, she paused and stared down at her.

 

“I know who you used to be, and it's really pathetic,” she said, as Claudette wrapped her trembling arms around herself. “Back when you were actually pretty, you called yourself Alex Forrest. You made the news for stalking a guy named Gallagher, who you had a weekend fling with and became obsessed over. You threatened his family and eventually his wife shot you like she was putting down a mad animal.

 

“But you didn't die from that bullet, Alex. You faked your death, just like I did. That was when I was just a little girl. You made a damn fool of yourself.”

 

“You—you did the same thing. With Ben,” whispered the bleeding woman. “You were a stupid little trollop, oozing over him like the air-headed tart I didn't raise you to be.”

 

Lisa put her foot on Claudette's mouth, and pressed down slightly. She didn't look at her as she spoke. “I inherited the flaws of one of my parents, true, but I will never act like that towards a man again.” She laughed. “I know what you want to say. You say that I still should worry about good genes, so mine don't go to waste. I've thought of that. I'll find a good man, but one of my own choosing.” She looked down. “Incidentally, what was with you trying to get pregnant by that Gallagher guy? He didn't come from prosperous family, so far as I know.”

 

She lifted her foot, to let her mother speak.

 

“He was a descendant of the 19th Century sailor Ned Land—who was also an ancestor of your great-grandfather.”

 

“It all relates back to the crazy bronze man, doesn't it?”

 

“N-no. Not all. My old name, Forrest, was an allusion to my own great-grandfather.”

 

“And who was your great-grandfather?”

 

Claudette's eyes widened, and she spat out the name: “Tarzan!”

 

Lisa took a moment of silence before she burst out laughing. She must've given the old lady brain damage. Tarzan? Who the fuck was she kidding?

 

Lisa finished beating her unconscious, taking pains to make sure she'd live. Then she put her feet up, and enjoyed the dawn of her new authority.


* * *

 

When Mother and her daughter moved away from San Francisco, they took new names. Lisa Ripley became Tessa Manning, and Claudette was now Helen.

 

Fortunes changed. The new city gave Tessa everything she ever wanted. It gave her a husband...and more.

 

While he didn't come from a prosperous, heroic line like those Mother was obsessed with, David Connover was wealthy and healthy, with almost no physical blemishes. His only flaw was that he was ordinary. He didn't believe in the sort of world that Tessa's great-grandfather had lived in; he was too materialistic for such fairy tales. None of that mattered to Tessa, because he had done what was previously impossible—he gave her a daughter. Lilian Madison Connover—heir to the bronze legacy.

 

Lily's birth, as well as Tessa's lesson in pain, helped put Helen in her place. She still scolded Tessa about the silver not being polished right. But that was an incurable behavior, baked into her soul. She was in denial that she was now the servant, but deep down she understood that this was a fact, and it would not change anytime soon. She was beaten, once and for all, kept alive only for her money and her value as a patsy. And sometimes, she did offer good advice, like when she encouraged Tessa to freeze her eggs. She didn't freeze many, just enough to produce a couple more children. But she had no doubts in the power of her womb.

 

As Tessa once obsessed over the men in her life, she now obsessed over Lily. That girl was her whole life, and she swore she would never lose her. But just as Helen failed to escape her past, so too did Tessa. She wanted to possess David as she had possessed Mark. She took comfort in knowing she could afford to be lax in her efforts, as she was certain Lily was a strong glue binding him to her. But she needed to have a man in the way she normally had one.

 

She did still think about Mark, now and again. She missed his body, and his willingness to submit to her. That was why it was such a surprise when he came back into her life.

 

He tracked her down and sent her a letter asking her to meet him. When she came to the small cafe he picked out, he said that his life had been in shambles since he left her, that he needed her, and that he'd do anything to win her back. She explained plainly that she was a married woman, and that there was no need for him anymore. This was of course a ruse. She wanted him to beg, and that's exactly what he did. It wasn't long at all before she took control of him, just as she had years prior. Once again, Tessa knew what it was to have power.

 

But every affair has consequences, and Tessa's had two. The first was that Mark left her with chlamydia. She was asymptomatic, until she developed the infection that killed her ovaries. Not only did this destroy her chances at birthing children, but explaining the illness exposed the fact that she had cheated. David was furious, and immediately filed for divorce.

 

This was insufferable. In the span of a few months, all of Tessa's progress, years and years of it, was gone. She was empty—she was nothing. And in the absence of light in her life, there remained only wrath.

 

She slaughtered Mark—another running-off-the-road, like when she was Madison. That got a lot of it out of her system, enough for her to think at least halfway clearly. But her fires weren't totally cooled yet. She realized that she would be diplomatic with David—play the long game. That was the problem before, with Jacob and Ben, that she had been impatient. She would stay friends with David, and in time, Lily would be hers again.

 

But David didn't take long to move on, and he found a new wife: Julia Hazel. A Black woman. Tessa didn't care—that would be silly—but Mother was livid.

 

“At this point you have to consider David compromised. The moral impurities have risen right to the surface, can't you see that?”

 

“You should know me better than that, Helen. I've locked onto him now. He's mine. And I won't let him go.”

 

“You're a failure. You should be able to dismiss your feelings at will, like Nietzsche's übermensch.”

 

“I'm above those silly old men now. They're all dead. I'm the great-granddaughter of the bronze technopolitan god, and I will live forever.”

 

“The old sources of immortality have dried up. You must live on through your legacy, like me.”

 

“Honey, you aren't a part of anything I'll leave behind.”

 

And Tessa punctuated her point with a slap to the face.

 

Tessa got to work at once. She made it clear to Julia that her friendship with her ex-husband hadn't ended—nor had Lily let go of the idea of her being her one and only mother. This time, Tessa found that she enjoyed a subtler game, laying down seeds gently and watching them grow from the shadows. One time she did go over the top, making outrageous claims about David's insatiable sexual cravings, but she was pleasantly surprised when Julia lapped it up. Behind her back, she told David stories about her—she said that she saw her screaming at Lily, when David was on a business trip, and that once, she had to stop her from feeding Lily peanuts, which she was allergic to. While he had never been her slave like Mark was, David trusted her as an old friend, and slowly he turned on Julia. Tessa felt her confidence build, and she knew that was dangerous. But Lily was nearly within her grasp...

 

Then came the breakthrough. Mother finally got a background check done on Julia, and learned that she had taken out a restraining order on an abusive ex. A super shitty guy—he nearly treated Julia worse than Mother had treated her. Tessa knew then she had it in the bag. She impersonated Julia online and found the ex, and started building up a fake relationship between them. She teased his cock like it had never been teased before. To set things up for David, she stole Julia's wedding ring, so it would seem like she had thrown it away. Then, she set up a time, and gave the guy Julia's home address.

 

She knew that Julia would end up traumatized or dead at her ex's hands; the only other way out was self-defense, which, in the context of the online messages, automatically looked like an affair turned murderous. In the end, Julia survived, and the ex didn't, and sure enough, the cops accused her of killing her ex for threatening to expose their affair. David threw her out, and it looked it would be a jail sentence for her. Tessa was once again the concerned mother, babbling about all the things she was certain Julia had done to Lily. David believed every word she said.

 

Tessa knew she was underestimating Julia—probably due to Mother's influence. She couldn't help thinking of Julia as a dolt, because of her hate for her, but she tried to consciously remember that she was smart. Still, she had faith in the justice system and its bias against Black people. But Julia got away, and caught her trying to destroy her wedding ring. This was the proof David needed to side against Tessa for good. Using her skills and her strength, Tessa tried to get out, but Julia's intelligence extended to her procuring a gun. When Tessa went after David with a fire poker, Julia shot her in the gut. She fell to the ground with a heavy thud.

 

In that single moment, for the first time, Tessa was sure that she was finished. But this feeling only lasted for that moment. As long as she was still kicking, she had a chance. She stared up at Julia, who kept the pistol leveled at the gushing wound Tessa cradled in her hands.

 

“You handle yourself pretty good in a tussle,” Tessa said. “I haven't seen anyone but myself handle a gun as well as you did. And it takes a lot to beat my martial arts too.”

 

Her words struck a chord, and Julia didn't speak for a long time.

 

“You and I are related in a way, Tessa,” Julia said then. “Really twists my guts up to think about it, but there's a tie between us. I know who your great-grandfather was. The Man of Bronze.”

 

Tessa hissed, feeling her hot blood squirt between her fingers.

 

“Your great-grandfather had another grandson, besides your dad. That grandson is my half-brother. His mom, Ingrid Sjoman, is my mom—mine and my twin brother Jake's. So you and I are kinda like cousins.”

 

“My blood is superior to yours,” Tessa snarled.

 

“Okay, whitey,” Julia said. And she shot her in the chest again.

 

Now Tessa was certain she was dead. She couldn't move, and her mind wandered far from her body. She struggled not to pass out, because if she did, she would be dead for sure.

 

She watched, an inch above death, as David held close the bitch who killed her, and took away from the house. She felt herself get loaded onto a gurney, and taken out into the night air. As they tucked her into the back compartment of the medical examiner's transport, her eyes turned, and she saw Julia holding Lily in her arms.

 

A fresh determination filled her.

 

Mother had survived a gunshot once. Tessa would survive two.

 

She knew she had to act while she was still in the medical examiner's vehicle. The examiner had pronounced her dead, when in fact she had stopped her own breathing; this rendered her heartbeat shallow enough to be undetectable. Mother had run out of useful doctors years ago, so she was thankful that she ended up in here and not an ambulance. David and Julia had to believe she was really dead. She would double-confirm this in their minds.

 

Once they were out on the road, she sprang to life, and attacked the examiner and his driver. She took hold of the wheel and made them swerve off the road. As she had hoped, the car tumbled into a nearby lake—the two men died instantly. Still bleeding, Tessa kicked her way out of the sinking vehicle, and swam to the surface. By the time the police recovered the car, the water and the fish would have destroyed any trace of corpses hidden in the wreck. It would seem like she perished along with the driver and the doctor.

 

Tessa remembered her medical training, and with her fingers she removed the bullets from her wounds. She staggered back to Mother's house, keeping to the night shadows to hide her shambling stride. By pressing her wounds tight, and walking on grass and leaves, she masked her blood trail decently well. Once she came in through the back window Helen spotted her, and cried out. “My God!” she shouted. “What did that Black bitch do to you?”

 

Tessa ignored her, and found her way to the bathroom, and the medical supplies within. She poured alcohol all over her wounds, letting it soak her clothes. She gasped out to Mother, “They didn't hit any major organs or blood vessels. But I'm going into sh-shock. B-bullets are out...”

She fell to the floor, and Mother hunched down next to her.

 

A devilish smile crossed Helen's face. “In my power again,” she mused. “I don't need you anymore, now that I have a granddaughter...”

 

Tessa's hand snapped to her throat. Despite the shock, her strength was still tremendous, and Mother squirmed in her clutch.

 

Tessa only strangled her unconscious. If they were both out, they couldn't hurt each other. That was the closest they'd come to a truce.

 

Both women succumbed to a fitful slumber.

 

When she awoke, Tessa saw that she had stopped bleeding. That meant that her blood had clotted. She decided to play it safe with the clots, and cut them out of her, reopening the wounds. Fighting the pain, she made sutures where necessary, and bandaged herself up. She was short of breath, and at risk of slipping back into shock, but her will prevailed. It would be many months before she recovered, if she recovered at all.

 

She still had enough of her strength to keep Mother under control.

 

In time, her wounds closed, and she was no longer in pain. She avoided getting addicted to the painkillers they used, which she knew was a common problem in situations like this. In no time at all, she was back to her old self.

 

And her old self was always coming up with new plans.

 

Once she was back on her feet, she ordered Mother to go out and not come back until she retrieved Lily. That was the extent of her command—how exactly she did it didn't matter. Mother objected, calling it a “suicide mission.” Tessa told her that even Julia wouldn't shoot an old lady. But Mother was worried about other threats, like criminal charges.

 

Tessa threatened to hit her, and with a shaking voice she said she'd go.

 

When Helen went to go retrieve Lily, she met resistance from both David and Julia. They didn't hesitate to call the police when they spotted her, after what happened. Though she made a run for it, this only served to aggravate her charges. In the blink of an eye, Mother was on trial for attempted kidnapping. Tessa didn't bother going to court, or helping her out when it came to getting a lawyer. She had, after all, failed in her mission—which was to be expected, given her history of incompetence.

 

Helen Manning was, after a long criminal career, sentenced to ten years in prison. A week into her sentence she got into an argument with someone from her past, a lunatic named Peyton Mott. Mott had managed to fashion a shank without the guards knowing—and that shank, that sharpened chunk of toothbrush, ended Mother's life.

 

Tessa only cared about Lily.

 

Not long at all after Mother's arrest, she snuck to the Connovers' house and broke in. As she crept through the upper floor, she spotted David reclining in the bathtub. Her eyes swept over his naked form, but there was no desire in her but the desire for revenge.

 

Moments later, she was in the kitchen. She had now reversed the situation which she and Julia had found themselves in—now it was Tessa's turn to stand over Julia, watching her bleed. Water dripped down on them from above; David's tub was overflowing, and drowned men can't turn bath knobs. The water mixed with the blood that dripped from the kitchen which Tessa had plunged into Julia's stomach.

 

She was sure that her hated rival would soon be dead, so she kept her words brief: “I win.”

Then, she went upstairs, and retrieved Lily.

 

But just as she had to change, so too would her daughter.

 

So now, Tessa Manning was plain old Katie Grace. And Lily became Maddie.

 

* * *

 

She wasn't enough.

 

One child wasn't enough.

 

Katie loved Maddie more than anyone or anything she'd known before. But she couldn't ignore the possibility that Maddie could die or be taken from her, and with her ovaries gone, she couldn't produce any more heirs.

 

But Mother had made her freeze her eggs. That was her chance. Her one chance.

 

There was only one problem: she'd frozen those eggs as Tessa Manning, and Tessa was dead.

 

When she banked her eggs, Tessa had signed an agreement saying that they would be donated in the event of her death. And so those eggs had gone to a couple, Brian and Angela Hagin, who had used them to create three embryos. Angela had carried one of them, and given birth to Cora, a healthy daughter—but the pregnancy was medically devastating for her, and both mother and child almost died. Tessa, now Katie, realized that Cora was her daughter, genetically. She had to learn more about Brian—she had to know if he was fit to be a father.

 

To her great surprise, she learned that he was yet another descendant of the great men Mother had fetishized. His ancestor was Bruce Hagin Rassendyll, the airman who shot down King Kong back in the '30s. He had other adventures as well, all over the globe, during both World Wars. Brian's grandpa had dropped the “Rassendyll” from the family name, finding it ugly, and used his middle name as a surname instead.

 

Katie had to get Cora for herself. She was still young, and there was still time for her to learn who her real mother was. It would be scary for her to learn that her parents were actually child-snatchers, but she would soothe and comfort her as any real mother would.

 

She found out that Angela had a friend named Linda. Linda was hot, and Katie took great pleasure in seducing her. For Katie, lesbian sex was one of the few true pleasures she had in life, besides motherhood. But she viewed women as second-class lovers, because they couldn't get her pregnant; she knew of course that there were trans women, but Katie didn't consider those to be real women. A child needed a father. Anytime she fucked a woman, it was exclusively so that a human being would make her orgasm, instead of a vibrator.

 

Linda was the means to an end. Through her, she would get to Angela, and through Angela, she would get to Brian—and Cora.

 

Linda introduced Katie to the Hagins, just as she hoped. They were in search of a nanny, and Linda wasn't available for the job. Katie couldn't believe her luck. She snapped up the position after she showed that not only was she great with Cora, but that Cora and Maddie were fast friends. She was sure that their sisterly bond, though hidden, fueled their friendship.

 

Because Angela had struggled during her last pregnancy, Katie anticipated that she and Brian would use a surrogate. She kept kissing ass in the hopes that they'd use her. But after a few months of deliberating, they decided that they had known Linda longer, and so chose her instead.

 

Linda didn't want to let her girlfriend down—she thought that Katie's shock from her revealing the Hagins' choice had something to do with their relationship. She told Katie she wouldn't be the surrogate, if that's what she wanted. After all, she loved her, and the Hagins were just friends. In Katie's mind, however, Linda was now a threat. As long as she lived, there was a chance that they'd impregnate her with her child. Recalling David's death, Katie drowned her lover, and the next day, in her mind, it was like Linda had never existed.

 

But Linda's disappearance didn't immediately transfer surrogate status to Katie. Instead, Angela made the foolhardy decision to try to be a birth mother again. Katie worked for months to keep Angela safe and healthy, as she carried the second-to-last of all Katie's children.

 

She miscarried.

 

The fucking bitch miscarried. Her faulty, imperfect womb had killed one of Katie's precious babies.

 

She could've strangled her. Now there was only one embryo left. Katie had wanted four kids so badly. But she would have to settle for three.

 

Thankfully—in no small part due to the sexual magic she was working on Brian—Katie was picked as the surrogate for the final embryo. Having carried and given birth to Maddie, Katie knew exactly what to do to carry a child. Even with the ravaging of her ovaries, her uterus was still healthy and strong, unlike the weak, diseased organ which Angela was cursed to possess.

 

Now that she had the baby, she had powers over the Hagins. She turned Brian into one of her usual vassals, poisoning his mind against his wife. Like Julia Hazel before her, Angela's background gave Katie additional leverage. After the agony of her first pregnancy, Angela had become addicted to painkillers. Recalling how she had once doped Ben's urine, she drugged Angela with pain pills on the day she and Brian had planned her baby shower. The resulting scene was priceless, and Angela was completely destroyed. Katie's victory was cemented. She had Maddie and Cora, and soon, she'd have baby Gabriel too.

 

She let a fight break out between her and Angela—and in self-defense, she stabbed the bitch right in her wreck of a womb. As soon as the blade entered, she knew she'd killed her. Another menace to her, dead.

 

Her triumph was so glorious that little Gabriel couldn't stay inside her. She had cleared the way for his arrival and now he was coming into the world. Shortly after she stabbed his wife, Brian found her doubled over with contractions.

 

Brian rushed her to the hospital. The pivotal moment was here. Katie couldn't wait.

 

But once again, she'd been outfoxed. She had to go under anesthesia for a C-section; she'd always feared having to have that done, and besides, she believed that children should always pass through the birth canal. But it was Gabriel's only chance.

 

As she was giving birth to his son, Brian got the DNA results from a test Angela had had done behind her back. It was confirmed that Maddie and Cora were half-sisters. Realizing at once that Angela was right when she said that Katie was stalking them to steal their kids, Brian arranged a cruel prank for his surrogate.

 

Katie awoke from anesthesia, and at once she wanted to hold her son—her one and only son. He would be perfect, like his sisters and his mother. Brian said he was perfect, and that he loved her. He took her hand to lead her to the nursery. She staggered down the halls of the hospital, her bliss numbing the pain of walking.

 

As she traveled to see her baby, Katie thought about all she had gone through. She had passed through crucible after crucible, through seas of flame and arid deserts of the soul. But now, at last, she had fulfilled her purpose. She had a man and three beautiful children. She was powerful, brilliant, and beautiful. She was perfect, like her sainted ancestor.

 

At last they reached the hospital nursery. Brian walk, but before Katie could follow him through the door, he told the nurse to lock her out. She stared through the glass walls as the nurse led him to Gabriel. She took him out of the pod and handed him to Brian, and for the first time, he held his baby. He looked him over, enjoying his beauty, before his eyes turned to look at Katie. There was cruelty in those eyes.

 

Angela Hagin came out of the shadows.

 

No. Oh, no. No, no, no—

 

The Hagins held their baby, protected behind thick inches of glass. Katie stared in at them, pleading at them with her eyes. But they only grinned sardonically at her. Behind them stood Maddie and Cora—they had all three of her children.

 

They had turned Maddie against her. They had told her that her mom was a criminal, and she believed them. For a single second, Katie hated her daughter—but that flickering sensation was enough to break her. She fell to her knees screaming and screaming, unable to stop.

 

The cops came and took her away.

 

While she was in custody, all of her previous identities were revealed—and with them came the truth of all her crimes. She was charged for everything she did to Brian and Angela, as well as Jacob, Ben, Amy, Mark, David, Julia, Linda, and the three hospital staff members she killed. Her lawyer, bought with the last of Mother's money, was able to keep her out of prison. But instead, she would need to go to a high-security mental health facility in upstate New York, where she would be released only upon making a complete recovery.

 

She wasn't crazy. She was perfect. She had simply achieved a new type of sanity, the kind which this modern world could only find in old pulp magazines.

 

The court then ruled that, as a patient of the clinic, she was unfit to possess custody of Maddie. Under the circumstances, the judge awarded custody to the Hagins.

 

She tried to make a scene, but at the first sign of trouble, court security grabbed her. She tried to scream again, but nothing came out.

 

That trial was the last time that Katie Grace, alias Tessa Manning, Lisa Ripley, and Madison Bell, would see her three children.

 

Her heirs. Whose dark eyes swirled with golden flecks.

 

* * *

 

When Katie arrived at the clinic, she was told her case would be handled by one of the best physicians they had to offer. “What's his name?” she lisped. They had drugged her up before loading her in the truck; her arms were bound with a straitjacket.

 

“Dr. Jake Hazel,” the nurse replied.

 

“Wha?”

“Dr. Jake Hazel.”

 

“Jacob...?”

 

Recalling that her patient had once maimed and murdered a boy by that name—Jacob had died in the hospital years ago—the nurse grew uneasy.

 

“Uh...no, dear, not that Jacob. Dr. Hazel's a nice man, you'll see.”

 

Hazel...? Where had she heard that name before?

 

Before she knew it, she was in front of a man with a familiar face. She hadn't seen that face on a man before—and she couldn't remember what woman had worn it. She knew she hated that face, though.

 

“Ms. Grace? I'm Dr. Hazel.” The man presented a hand for her to shake, and she didn't take it. He grinned respectfully as he took his hand back.

 

“I'll be taking care of you for the duration of your stay with us, Ms. Grace. I think that you and I will work well together. To be frank, you've done a lot of things which would scare other people. But I'm a hard man to scare, I'll tell you that now. It's something you should keep in mind.”

 

She said nothing.

 

“I must confess, however, that my acceptance of your case does run into a certain conflict of interest. You see, you and I are, in a way, related.”

 

She'd heard those words before. Where—?

 

“We're like cousins, you and I—and by consequence, you're related to my twin sister. Julia.”

 

Julia Hazel—

 

“You bastard,” Katie cried. “You fucking bastard. Don't you dare hurt me. I'll destroy your career. You won't get your damn revenge on me this way.”

 

“I'm not after revenge!” Dr. Hazel said, sincerely. “I want to help you. We want to help you.”

 

Katie's drug-blurred eyes watched as a door opened behind the doctor. Julia Hazel-Connover, alive and well, stepped into the room.

 

“She's going to kill me,” Katie hissed, “or torture me.”

 

“No. She's here as a patient.”

 

Katie blinked.

 

“What?”

 

“She wants closure, Katie. You killed her husband. I'm here to help both of you, at the same time.”

 

“I'm hoping we can learn from each other, Katie,” Julia said. “You killed David. And, for a time, you took my daughter away from me. I have her back now, but—”

 

“Y-you're Maddie's mom now? She—she was put in the Hagins' custody...”

 

“It's complicated—the courts didn't give me custody because they don't know I'm alive. My brother arranged for me to be dead. You remember my half-brother I told you about? Jake and I are helping him in his current, and I decided to stay off the grid for that purpose.” She crossed her arms and smiled. “But I became friends with the Hagins. And I'm sort of like a third parent to their kids.”

 

My kids!” Katie screamed.

 

“What we do today might mean that you get to be their mother again,” Julia said. “Jake will make it happen, if you and I can heal together. I can't move on from my pain without facing you. And I think that you can't move on without facing me. You're scared of me.” It was true.

 

“Your mother abused you, Katie,” said Jake. “She kept you hidden from the outside world and denied you a normal, healthy childhood.”

 

“One woman to another, what she did to you was horrible,” said Julia.

 

“But we can help you. We want to. If you want it.”

 

“And I must—help her?”

 

“Yes.”

 

Katie's face twitched. Before her was a choice.

 

She had always made her choices based on that which led her to the path of perfection.

 

And yet, here she was. Thrown to the bottom. Tarnished bronze.

 

She grinned, and made her decision.

 

Though she didn't claim to understand why she made it.


THE END

 

 

 

Endnotes

 

This story is an homage to the villainesses of thriller movies, erotic or otherwise, who have destroyed the lives of many fictional men.

 

As a woman, I have a love-hate relationship with these types of characters. On one hand, they are representations of women as sex-hungry, self-centered, mentally-ill bitches who can only be stopped by death. On the other hand, these women know what they want and intend to get it by any means necessary, no matter what a sexist society has to say about it. Reclamation is a powerful force. Women are often represented onscreen as monsters, but many of us have taken this to be a sign to draw power from being monstrous, both in our aesthetic and in our resistance to patriarchal norms.

 

What has intrigued me about many of these movies is that they question some of the standards we place on women, whether they mean to or not. I noticed that there are a number of thrillers or thriller-like movies where the pressure to be perfect motivates the villainess' villainy. Three of these—Swimfan (2002), The Room (2003), and Unforgettable (2017)—formed the backbone of “Aberrant Branch.” When binding these stories together, I supplemented them with details from other thrillers, including the Lifetime movies A Woman's Rage (2008) and Mommy Group Murder (2018), as well as the Lifetime-esque theatrical film Inconceivable (2017). I twisted some elements of the plots of all these movies to accommodate my tale, which deals fundamentally with the mirrors between the complex perfection demanded of women both real and fictional, and that demanded of the man we know as Doc Savage. Like Doc, the women of these movies are pushed by their parents to incredible limits—but the narrow thinking of their rich white sires meant that these children aren't trained for the betterment of humanity, or even their own betterment. These children were created to support and carry on their parents' social power. Latching onto details like the golden eyes of Katie from Inconceivable, I expanded on some of my previous speculations on the families of Doc Savage and Tarzan to craft this collision of modern and pulpish sensibilities.

 

I included a number of shoutouts to both pulp stories and thriller movies throughout this tale, besides my references to the Doc Savage mythos. Kyra Zelas, as noted in the story, is from the 1957 movie She Devil, but the film was based on Stanley G. Weinbaum's story “The Adaptive Ultimate” (1935). F. katalepsis is the paralytic drug used by Sax Rohmer's Fu Manchu. Johnny Allen Wellington is, like Lisa Ripley, from Tommy Wiseau's film The Room, but their full names come from my audio story “Chamber of Death,” starring my original character Bloody Mary. Johnny's middle and last names are references to Linda Allen and Anne Wellington, the protagonists of the films Lady Street Fighter (1985) and Run Coyote Run (1987), respectively—both were played by actress Renee Harmon, whose thick European accent is similar to Johnny's. Lisa's surname is a reference to Tom Ripley, the charismatic sociopath who starred in a series of books by Patricia Highsmith—Wiseau based Lisa partially on Ripley. Dan Gallagher, and Mother's true identity of Alex Forrest, are from the ur-text of modern stalker thrillers, Fatal Attraction (1987). Dan Gallagher is played by Michael Douglas, whose father Kirk Douglas played Ned Land in the 1954 film version of Jules Verne's 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea. Ned Land was established as an ancestor of Doc Savage by Philip José Farmer in Tarzan Alive and Doc Savage: His Apocalyptic Life. Jake and Julia Hazel are the children of paranormal investigator Julius Hazel, whose encounter with Ingrid Sjoman appears in one of my forthcoming stories. Ingrid's other son is Chip Savage from the '80s and '90s Doc Savage stories published by DC Comics—Ingrid herself is based on Chip's unnamed hippie mother and Ingrid from the giallo film Oasis of Fear (1971), a connection I first made in my book Flint Golden and the Thunderstrike Crisis. Peyton Mott is from the film The Hand That Rocks the Cradle (1992). Bruce Hagin Rassendyll was, according to Philip José Farmer, the real name of Robert J. Hogan's aviator hero G-8. Jim Harmon's “The Life Story of King Kong” (1974) named G-8 (alias the radio hero Captain Midnight) as the pilot who shot down King Kong at the end of the 1933 film.

 

The possible identities of Madison/Lisa/Tessa/Katie's parents can be found by reading J.G. Ballard's High-Rise and Philip José Farmer's Stations of the Nightmare.