In which a troubled friend reveals a most terrifying secret…
The wind howled and the frigid rain beat against my face as I made my way up the dark and desolate street. Truly, this was not a night for any reasonable man to be outdoors. But Fortunato’s message had sounded urgent, desperate even. As a true and loyal friend it was my duty to attend to his pleas, even at my own inconvenience.
Only a single, dim lamp was visible through the window of Fortunato’s home. I rapped upon his door, eager to take shelter from this miserable weather.
“Fortunato!”, I shouted.
There was no response. After a moment I tried again. Still there was only silence.
I pondered what action I might take. Perhaps Fortunato was helpless — possibly injured or incapacitated. Should I throw myself against the door and force my way inside? Or should I simply return home, knowing that I had, after all, made a noble effort to lend assistance?
It was an easy decision, but as I turned away from the door it opened with a lingering screech, audible even against the roaring wind. I was taken aback by the sight. Fortunato, or what appeared to be the soulless remains of Fortunato, leaned wearily against the door jamb. Perspiration beaded upon his forehead. His eyes stared straight ahead as if he did not comprehend my presence.
“Fortunato!”, I cried, grasping his shoulder. “Good heavens, man. You look dreadful. Whatever ails you?”
Still he made no response, but being chilled to the bone and soaked to the skin, I guided him inside the house with a firm yet gentle hand, closing the door behind us.
I gave him a shake. “Fortunato, do you not recognize me? I have come as quickly as I could.”
For another moment he continued to fix me with a glassy stare, as if unable to speak or understand his surroundings. Then, suddenly, something deep within his soul stirred and he sprang to life with a desperate cry.
“You should not have come. I was wrong to have summoned you. Leave now! Leave while you still retain some morsel of humanity!”
“Nonsense, Fortunato!”, I responded. “I shall not abandon you while you are in such a state. What is it that troubles you? Whatever can be the matter?”
Fortunato gave a mournful groan as he raised his arms and his face towards the ceiling. “You cannot understand. You are in great peril even as we speak. I am afflicted!”
“Afflicted?” In a flash I withdrew my grasp from Fortunato’s person. With the other hand I grabbed the kerchief from my breast pocket and clapped it over my face. ”What sort of affliction?”
“It is beyond anything you could realize”, he wailed. “ A dreadful occurrence…a most unpleasant fate has been visited upon me. The worst –“
He suddenly ceased his speech and fixed me with a scowl. “Remove that ridiculous kerchief! It will offer you no protection! For I speak not of earthly ailments, but of matters beyond our realm. I have meddled with the Dark Arts! I am afflicted with the powers of Darkness — powers bestowed from Satan himself!”
“Fortunato, you cannot be serious!”, I exclaimed, my voice somewhat muffled by the cloth. I debated whether to remove the kerchief, not knowing if it was worse to further incur Fortunato’s wrath or inhale Lucifer’s cooties. I dared to lower the cloth an inch. “You speak of nonsense and superstition.”
If I feared my insults might rouse Fortunato to even greater anger, I was wrong. Instead he appeared to deflate again. “If only that were so”, he wailed. He shook his head and writhed in agony as his shoulders wilted.
It seemed likely that Fortunato was not in the final stages of a terrible all-consuming disease. Surely the man was simply out of his mind and senseless. It seemed safe enough to risk direct physical contact. I took Fortunato by the arm and guided him to a chair in the drawing room.
Fortunato sank heavily into the plush armchair while I rustled through his liquor cabinet in search of refreshments. I found two tumblers and poured a generous splash of Kilmisters into each.
“Some brandy will ease your despair, my friend.” I handed him the glass and took a nearby chair. “Now calm your mind and tell me of what has transpired here. In what manner do you feel yourself afflicted?”
Fortunato gulped, rather than sipped, the fine brandy with a trembling hand. “You should not have come. I do not know how this has happened…” He paused for another drink. “But I find myself in possession of certain…powers”
“Powers!” I had not expected such a monstrous proclamation from a normally sensible man. “What do you mean, powers?”
“Powers bestowed upon me through some dark alchemy”, he muttered. “Powers that I had neither sought nor wished for, but granted just the same. I am able to control a man simply by my own thoughts.”
“What? Impossible! You most certainly jest, Fortunato!”
Fortunato’s voice dropped to a feeble whisper. “I speak the truth. It is a most terrible state in which I find myself.”
I leaped to my feet and stared down at my unfortunate friend with contempt in my voice. “Nonsense! If you can indeed control a man, then here — control me now!” I stretched out my arms. “Demonstrate your fearsome abilities. Make me dance as a puppet on your string!”
Fortunato’s voice cracked like a whip. “You have not listened to what I have said! I did not say I could control any man! I said I could control a man!”
“Only one, Fortunato? Then pray tell — who is this hapless fellow that must obey your whims?”
Fortunato’s fists clenched and his face tightened, as if he were struggling against an unseen force. Finally his arm lashed forward and thrust a finger across the room.
“He! It is he who must submit to my command!”
I turned to look. Fortunato was pointing to the Tele-Vision set across the room. Upon the screen the President of the United States was speaking. I instinctively flinched in horror.
“What? You mean to say you have power over this man? You have much to answer for, my friend.”
“Bah! If only that were so”, Fortunato spat. “It is much worse.”
I forced myself to turn back to the Tele-Vision screen. This seemed to be CNN coverage of yet another rally. The President was speaking before a large and enthusiastic crowd. Behind him, the Vice-President sat with a rigid smile, applauding mechanically after every sentence. A pair of Secret Service agents wearing dark suits and dark sunglasses flanked the pair.
“Your words are difficult to believe, Fortunato. I am not sure you are in control of your faculties, my friend.”
“You doubt me? For these powers are no trifle. Fool! I speak of capabilities beyond the grasp of mere mortals!”
“Then demonstrate your evil abilities!”, I shouted. “Show me now how you compel the President to act against his will. I am telling you it cannot be done!”
Fortunato leaped from his armchair. “Then I shall! Watch now and tremble as I call upon the wicked influence of the underworld. Behold!”
I reached for the remote to turn up the sound of the Tele-Vision. The voice of the President sprang forth as he addressed the crowd:
And ya know, folks — who let these people in anyway, right? I mean, the last president just let anybody and everybody just waltz across the border and take all of our good high-paying coal mining jobs…”
Fortunato crouched and placed his fingertips on both sides of his forehead. His face became a terrible grimace as he concentrated all of his energies towards the Tele-Vision.
Suddenly the most dreadful and unpleasant sound burst forth from the Tele-Vision:
Fortunato collapsed back into his chair. The President pinched his nostrils and waved the air with his free hand. He turned to face his Vice-President.
“Jesus, Mike! Have some manners, willya?”
The Vice-President grinned sheepishly as his face turned a brilliant crimson. With a helpless shrug he rose from his seat and slunk towards the exit. There were jeers and insults as he departed. The President waved his hands to quell the crowd.
“Now, now folks. Cut poor Mike some slack, okay? The guy’s been spending a lot of time down near the border. You know what that cuisine’ll do to your digesting system, am I right? So what’s Mike been doing south of the border? I’ll tell ya — he’s been helpin’ us get that wall built!”
At the mention of the cursed wall, the crowd erupted with cheers and shouts. I turned back towards my host, who was slumped in his chair.
“Fortunato”, I ventured. “Do you mean to say it was you who was the cause of that unfortunate, yet highly amusing outburst?”
Fortunato could only manage a nod of his head. The effort had apparently expended his energies. I remained skeptical.
“Your aim seems to have been a little off, my friend. Did you not hear? It was the vice -president who so vigorously cut the cheese.”
“A lie!”, Fortunato thundered. “It was he who dealt it — as assuredly as he smelt it! He will take no responsibility himself. Always there will be others to accept blame!”
“Come now, Fortunato. While I have never imagined such an incident on live tele-vision, it is hardly surprising. The man is well advanced in years and reportedly has the diet of a rabid weasel. I am only puzzled that it has not happened sooner.”
“Still you doubt my abilities?”, Fortunato exclaimed in disbelief. “You have heard the devilish eruption with your own ears!”
“Once is happenstance, Fortunato. A malodorous mischance, so to speak. If you do indeed wield the sword of flaming rectitude, then repeat the demonstration!”
Fortunato’s eyes widened. “Good heavens, man! I dare not call upon Satanic powers lightly. My very soul is in peril from their use. I shall not engage them simply for your own amusement!”
“Do you wish my assistance or not?”, I snapped.
Fortunato rose from his chair and glowered in fury. “Then so be it! Listen! Listen now as the sulphorous fumes of Hell are released!”
He again bent forward with his fingers upon his forehead and concentrated upon the Tele-Vision with such furious intent that I feared he himself might emit a ripsnorter. The President continued his speech:
“And the best thing about the whole thing is that I’m not going to tell you about the whole thing — which is the greatest thing ever, believe me…”
And once more, the Tele-Vision practically shook as the awful sound trumpeted forth, this time with even more violence than before:
I stared in awed disbelief. Fortunato again collapsed, breathing heavily from the mental strain.
“Oh ho!”, the President exclaimed. “Looks like we’ve got a jokester in the crowd, folks! Hey, I like a good fart joke as much as anyone, okay? But I’m trying to discuss some serious things here. I don’t need interruptions like that.” He turned to the two Secret Service agents behind him. “Find out who’s doing that, boys. Get ’em outta here.”
The two agents reached inside their suits and produced automatic pistols. They hurried into the crowd.
I turned towards Fortunato. “I apologize, my friend. It appears you truly do possess unspeakable abilities.”
He did not reply, being still occupied trying to catch his breath.
“But is that all you can compel the man to do?”, I queried. “Can you not cause him to slap himself silly with his own hands? Please try.”
Fortunato cast his head back and forth in sorrow. “I have tried all other things…I can compel him to do nothing else.” He shook his fists at the sky. “Useless! Useless!”
“But Fortunato, perhaps if you used all of your considerable mental powers…perhaps if you concentrated harder than you ever have in your life…perhaps you might induce a shart…”
“And what if I could?”, Fortunato roared. “The man is incapable of shame! Even if such a thing could be brought to bear, it would affect him in no way. He would simply remove his underpants and wave them about his head like an umber flag of triumph! “See”, he would cry. “It was me! I did it!” And his supporters across the land would cheer and admire his forthrightness. His supporters in the Congress would rise and applaud his cleverness, endeavoring to fill their own trousers in a demonstration of loyalty! No — it is useless! Useless! I have imperiled my own soul for no purpose — for an ability of no consequence!”
I suddenly understood Fortunato’s agony. Somehow — somehow — he had been granted a most foul and terrible power — a power that would strike fear and shame into any other victim. But this victim was like no other. This victim was immune to such a power. This victim would always and forever have an endless supply of fools eager and willing to accept the shame themselves. It seemed a cruel jest upon poor Fortunato.
We sat in silence for some moments as I tried to think of some words that might lift my friend’s spirits.
“Fortunato, listen to me. It may happen that this power is not of Satanic or devilish origin at all. Why, it may be a perfectly natural occurrence within the Universe. Consider this — it may be possible that every person upon the Earth might have the ability to induce flatulence upon only one other person. Now, generally, we find ourselves married to that person, of course. In your case, however, your counterpart happens to be the leader of the free world…the most powerful person on the planet…”
I let the thought trail off, realizing that I was probably not helping the situation.
Fortunato remained silent for some minutes before he made a response.
“I was wrong to have summoned you. You should go now.”
“I said begone!” He bellowed with such vehemence it was useless to protest.
Quietly, I gathered my overcoat and hat and crept towards the door. As my hand was upon the doorknob, I turned to face my friend, pathetic and weeping in his armchair.
“Are we still on for lunch Friday?”
His reply was barely perceptible, but I heard it just the same:
“Yes, of course.”
I nodded and left my friend to his solitary anguish.
The wind still howled and the rain continued to pour from the heavens. There was no one else upon the street as I made my way to the bus stop. But I was a true and loyal friend and I was not troubled.