“Here,” Daniel said, handing Paula the photograph. “Take a look at this, then tell me you still want to meet my father.”
Paula hefted it in one hand; it was framed in dark wood, covered with a heavy rectangle of glass. A fringe of dust clung to the glass’s edges, under the frame, blurring the borders of the photograph into a spidery haze.
“What is it? Who is it?”
“Us. My family.”
“But there’s only . . .”
Paula’s words faded away as she stared at the photograph, trying to understand. Squinting her eyes, polishing the glass—nothing seemed to resolve it. It was merely a simple figure, a person, but as blotched and mottled as an old wall, with sharply ragged edges that unsettled Paula: she couldn’t focus, it was like looking through a prism. There was a disturbing disparity within it, too; abrupt internal changes of tone and texture.
“Your family?” she repeated.
Daniel nodded, looking straight ahead at the road as he drove. The shadows were lengthening, the gloom descending. Through the endless stand of trees along the roadside, fields and hills were visible.
“It’s a composite,” he said. “You know, like a collage.” He glanced down at the photograph and pointed at the figure’s left hand. “That’s my hand. The right one’s my mother’s.”
“And the chin, there, is my sister’s. That’s my brother’s . . . forehead, I think, yeah—and that’s his nose, too. The clothes, I—I’m not sure.”
“And the eyes?”
“Daniel, what is this? I mean, why?”
His hands tightened on the steering wheel. Paula found herself staring at his left hand. The one from the picture.
He shook his head. “My father’s a madman, that’s why. No reason for it, he’s just… Well, yeah, to him there’s a reason. This, to him, shows us as a group—close-knit. “One optimally functioning individual organism,” he used to say.
Paula looked at the picture with distaste, then slid it back into the briefcase from which Daniel had taken it.
“It’s grotesque,” she said, rubbing dust from her hands.
“He sent that to me three years ago, when I had just moved away from home. Made it out of old photographs, begging me to come back. God, he must have worked on that thing for weeks—the joins are almost invisible.”
He fell silent, perhaps watching the road for their turn-off, perhaps just thinking. After a while he sighed, shook his head.
“I don’t know,” he said. “I don’t know why I”m doing this—why I’m giving in and going back after all this time.”
Paula moved closer and put her hand on his arm. “He’s human—he’s alone. Your mother just died. You didn’t even go to the funeral, Daniel—I think this is the least you can do. It’s only for a few days.”
Daniel looked resentfully thoughtful. “Maybe that’s the problem. Maybe that started the whole thing.”
“Loneliness. He must be awfully lonely, though, to have come up with his obsessions. He used to play with a jigsaw puzzle, Paula, made entirely out of a shattered pane of glass. For hours. And then that . . . thing.” He gestured towards the briefcase, but Paula knew he meant what was in it.
“You’ll survive,” she said.
“Yeah. To survive. That’s the whole thing.”
There was another silence as he considered this.
“Funny,” he said presently. “That’s exactly what my father was always saying.”
The shadows had swallowed the old farmhouse by the time they found it, trapped in ancient trees at the end of a rough dirt road. The sun was gone, only a pale wash of orange light marking the direction in which it had sunk. Paula looked for a sign of light or life around the weathered building, but found only flooding blackness, shining where it was a window, splintered and peeling where it was the front door.
Daniel stopped the car and stretched back in his seat, yawning. “I feel like I’ve been driving for a month.”
“You look it, too,” said Paula. “I offered to drive . . .”
He shrugged. “I”ll get to sleep early tonight,” he said, pushing open the door. They got out of the car, into the quiet grey evening.
“Is anyone home?” Paula asked as Daniel came around the car.
“With my luck, yes. Come on.”
They walked through a fringe of dead grass, then carefully up the rotten steps. Daniel paused at the top, stepping back on the step beneath him. It creaked and thumped. Creaked and thumped. Daniel smiled nostalgically. Paula reminded herself that he had grown up in this house, out here in the middle of nowhere, far from the city and the campus where she had met him, where they were now living together. Daniel never spoke of his childhood or family, for reasons Paula was unsure of. He seemed bothered by his past, and perhaps somewhat afraid of it.
Across the porch, the door was a panel of emptiness, suddenly creaking as it opened. Paula tried to look through the widening gap; she jerked back as something pale came into view.
The voice that replied was as worn and weathered as the house: “Daniel, son, you’ve come. I knew you would.” The dim pale head bobbed and nodded in the darkness, coarse grey hair stirring. Something white fluttered into view, lower in the frame of darkness: a hand. Daniel’s father was coming out.
“Um, I’m sorry I didn’t make the funeral, Dad. I was really busy with school and my job . . . uh . . .”
And here he came, swimming through the gloom, both white hands coming forward like fish, grasping Daniel. Paula saw the hunched dark figure of the old man only dimly; her eyes were fastened on those hands. They clutched, grabbed, prodded Daniel, exploring as if hungry. It was vaguely revolting. Daniel stood motionless; he had determined to be firm with his father, now he was faltering.
“Dad . . .”
Daniel pushed away one flabby hand but it was clever; it twisted, writhed, locked around his own. Paula gasped. The sluggish white fingers intertwined with Daniel’s. He looked up at her, aghast, silently crying for help.
“Uh, hello,” Paula blurted, stepping towards them.
The hands jerked, stopped. The old man came around.
“Who are you? Daniel, who is this?”
“Dad, this is Paula, I told you about her. We’re living together.”
Paula started to extend her hand. She remembered what might meet it, and drew away. “Hello.”
“Living together?” Daniel’s father said, watching him. “Not married?”
“Uh, no, Dad. Not yet, anyway.”
“Good . . . good. Good. It would weaken the bond, break the bond between us.” He did not even look at Paula again. His hands returned to Daniel, though not so frantically this time. They guided him forward into the house. Paula followed, shutting the door behind her, waiting for her eyes to adjust to the dark. When her vision had cleared, she could see Daniel and his father vaguely limned against a distant doorway; there was light beyond.
When she caught up, they were seating themselves on an antique sofa. It had been poorly kept; springs and padding spilled through in places. The room around them had been equally neglected; darkness lay upon it like soot. A single dull lamp glowed beside the sofa.
Daniel caught Paula’s eye when she entered, warning her away from them. She sat in a nearby chair. Daniel was shrugging away the proddings of his father, fighting off the creeping fingers. But they kept coming, peering around the long shadows, then hurrying across Daniel while he sat at last unmoving, silent.
“We . . . we were terribly sorry to hear about your wife,” said Paula. The sound of her words muffled the rustling noises.
“Hm?” The old man sat up, leaving Daniel for a moment. His eyes were sharp, intense. “Yes, it’s bad . . . bad. She and I, we were—close, towards the end. Locked. Like this.” He clasped his two puffy hands together before his face, staring at them.
Daniel took this opportunity to move to a chair beside Paula, where his father could not follow. The old man hunched after him, hands straining, but didn’t rise.
“Daniel, come back here. Sit beside me.”
“Uh, I think I’d better stay right here, Dad.”
“Ah.” The old man hissed like a serpent. “Stubborn. You were always stubborn—all of you. Your sister, your brother, they both resisted. Look what happened to them.”
Daniel looked nervously away from the old man’s black stare. “Don’t talk about Louise like that, dad. It’s all over now. And it had nothing to do with stubbornness.”
“Nothing? She ran away, Daniel, as you all did. She could not function, Daniel, she could not maintain herself. No more than the liver, the heart, the lungs, can function outside of the body. No more than the individual cells can function outside of the tissue that maintains them; even as this tissue is dependent on the organ it contributes to; as this organ in turn is dependent on all other organs to keep the whole intact.”
Paula had gone rigid in her chair, watching the old man speak. Suddenly that hanging black gaze turned to her.
“You,” he said. “Do you know how an organism survives?”
“Pardon me?” she said weakly.
“It survives because its components work together, each one specialized towards its specific contribution to the organism. Specialization, yes. Louise was specialized; she did not survive.”
Daniel sighed, rubbing his forehead. “Dad, it wasn’t specialization. It was drugs. She made some mistakes.”
“And your brother?”
“What about him? He’s doing fine. He has his own business now, he seems to be happy.”
But he deserted us! He threatened the existence of us all. Your sister deteriorated. Your mother crumbled. And then you . . .”
“What about me?”
The old man shrugged. “You returned. We still have a chance.”
Paula, through all this, said nothing. But she was thinking: My God. My God.
“I’m going to be going home, Dad. I’m not staying very long.”
The old man snapped, “What?”
“I told you that in my letter. I’m only staying for a day or two.”
“But you can’t go back! You—you can’t! Otherwise I have no chance—not alone. Nor you either, Daniel.”
“Together we can survive, perhaps recover. And . . . and maybe your brother will return.”
“He’s raising a family.”
“Ah, see?” He raised one pallid finger. “He has learned!”
“Maybe we’d better not stay at all,” said Daniel, rising. His features had gone hard, faced with all this. Easier to run than worry about it.
“No!” This was a bleat, a plea, escaping from the old man as if he had been punctured. His expression, too, was wounded. “Daniel, you can’t . . .”
Paula rose and touched Daniel gently on the arm until he turned to her. Thank God he hadn’t pulled away from her touch.
“Daniel,” she said, “it’s really getting late. I don’t think you should do any more driving tonight.”
Daniel searched her expression, saw only concern. He nodded.
“We’ll stay the night then, Dad. But we’re leaving in the morning.”
The old man started forward, then sank back in apparent despair. His breath was loud and labored, wheezing; his hands crouched upon his knees, waiting for Daniel to stray near.
“You can’t leave me, Daniel. I need you to survive, I need you!” His eyes glimmered, turning to Paula. “You know, don’t you? That’s why you’re taking him from me . . . to strengthen yourself. Well you’ll never have him. He’s mine. Only mine.”
The words slid into Paula like a blade of ice, malevolent in their cold precision. She felt weak.
“I—” she began. “Honestly, it’s nothing like that. I don’t want Daniel that way.”
The worm-white head rotated. “Then you are a fool.”
“Paula,” Daniel repeated, “maybe we’d better leave right I now.”
“Haven’t you heard what I’ve said? You mustn’t leave!” Again, pain had replaced malicious insanity on the old man’s pale features. Paula felt sorry for him.
“Daniel,” she said, “just the night. It’s really too late to leave.”
Daniel looked once at the poised hands of his father. Then he sighed, tensely, and nodded. “But I don’t want to hear any more of this, Dad. One more word of it and we’re going for sure.”
He turned back to Paula. “Come on, I’ll show you to your room. Hopefully there’s something to eat around here.”
They started to leave, stepping towards another dark doorway.
“Daniel.” The voice was cold again, chilling. They stopped and looked back at the old man.
“You forget,” he said, eyes narrowing, face hardening. “I’m stronger than you. I always was. You cannot resist the organism.”
Paula felt Daniel’s muscles tighten beneath her hand.
“Good night, Dad,” he said. They walked out.
Much later, in the darkened hallway upstairs, Daniel apologized again.
“He’s gotten worse, Paula—worse than I had ever expected.” Daniel was nervous, his expression intensely bothered.
“It’s all right, Daniel, really. Things happen to people as they get old.”
Daniel pulled her closer to him. It was cold in the drafty darkness, only the feeble grey moonlight trickling in through the window at the end of the hall. But the embrace was not warming; Daniel seemed to be protecting himself with Paula.
“It’s as if he wants to swallow me—the way he keeps touching and grabbing. So . . . so greedy! I wouldn’t have come back if I thought he’d be this way.”
“What did he used to be like?” Paula asked.
She looked up at Daniel, but he wasn’t looking at her. His eyes were fixed on the door to his father’s room, where a narrow fringe of light spread into the hall from under the door. His gaze seemed clouded, distant; he was remembering something. Something unpleasant.
“What is It, Daniel?”
He shook his head, slightly disgusted. It was the look he always got when she asked him about his childhood. She could feel his heart pounding against her breasts.
“Daniel, please, what’s wrong?”
“I—I never told you. I never thought I’d tell anyone.” She began to urge him on, but he continued without prompting.
“When I was a kid, I came out here one night—I’d had a nightmare, I think. It was late. I thought I heard noises in my parents’s room; the light was coming out just like it is now. I knocked, but no one answered, so I opened the door—just a little, you know? —and started to go in.
“They were—they—just lying there, my mother and my father, wrapped around each other, and the light was so bright I wasn’t sure that—that it was my mother there—
“I thought it was my sister, Paula!”
Paula caught her breath, then instantly relaxed. Daniel had been young—he’d seen his parents having sex. Such experiences often led to traumas, delusions. She could imagine it lurking in his mind all these years, breaking free now. Daniel was trembling.
“I yelled,” he continued. “I remember yelling. But . . . they didn’t even move. They just lay there until I ran away.”
He paused. Then, “It wasn’t my sister, of course. It couldn’t have been, I can’t believe it. She and my mother had the same color of hair, and that was all I could see; the light was so bright, they were so close together . . . not moving. But I thought, for just a moment, that he . . .” Daniel looked towards the door and shuddered again.
“Daniel, do you want me to stay with you tonight?”
“What? Oh, no, that’s all right.” He forced a laugh. “Might be a little too hard on my dad. Maybe later, when he’s asleep, you can sneak over . . .”
She yawned uncontrollably. “Maybe. If I can stay awake.” They kissed and said goodnight. Daniel parted with obvious reluctance, then went through the door into his room, closing it softly behind him. Paula looked down the hall, where light still spilled from beneath his father’s door. Thank God she was on the other side of Daniel; he was between her and that old man. Daniel’s story was ridiculous, of course: a childhood hallucination, magnified by the years. Things like that . . . incest . . . just didn’t happen.
She slipped into her own room, and was somewhat dismayed to find that the lock didn’t work. It needed a key that was nowhere to be found. Just another inconvenience among many. She was surprised, actually, that this place even had electricity. The room itself was dusty and suffocating, but she supposed she could stand it for one night.
In a minute she was in bed, trying to warm herself, the small table lamp shut off. When the sounds of her settling in had faded, the darkness swarmed around her uncomfortably, creaking and breathing in the manner of such old houses. She tried to ignore it, suddenly glad that they had stayed the night. Another nap in the car and she would have gone mad. At least she had been able to shower here. The old man was bearable when she didn’t have to confront him directly.
Presently she drifted off, breathing with the house, her thoughts muffled by its thick atmosphere. But her sleep was restless, uncertain.
Paula was never positive she had slept at all when she realized that she was wide awake again. The stillness was incredible. The house was holding its breath. She sat up, certain that something had jarred her from sleep. A noise.
There. Perhaps from Daniel’s room, perhaps from the hall. Perhaps trailing from the hall into Daniel’s room . . .
Suddenly Paula was certain she’d heard a door shut. And—footsteps? But where were they going? Where had they been?
Those sounds were clear in the swollen darkness. But after a moment came less certain ones—rising and falling, always soft, as deceptive as the rush of blood in her ears. She was hearing things. No. Paula shook her head. She did not imagine things. Straining her ears, the sounds resolved themselves.
Voices. From Daniel’s room.
Paula waited; heard nothing. A slight dragging sound that might have been the night passing through her mind. A dull footstep. And then, quite distinctly, three words, in the old man’s voice:
“I need you!”
Paula was out of bed in an instant, hurrying quietly across the floor. She didn’t trust that old man, not for a minute, not alone with Daniel. She found the door, jerked on the knob—
It was locked.
Paula remembered the sound that had awakened her; it returned very clearly now that she could place it. It had clicked, metallically. A lock engaging.
She pounded once on the door. Again, louder, tugging at the knob.
And still not a sound from the other room.
“Daniel, Daniel!” Paula began to sob, wishing that there would be another sound, Daniel’s voice.
The door. Quieting, she returned her attention to it. The lock didn’t seem terribly strong, it was old. For a minute she considered throwing herself against the door, but it opened the wrong way. Chanting Daniel’s name, she wrenched at the knob, pulling it back with all her strength. It seemed to give a little. Paula glanced back into the room, hoping for something useful. Her hand mirror glimmered on the table, reflecting moonlight. It was heavy, had a sturdy handle.
In a moment she was cracking the doorframe with it, chipping away the splintered wood, ripping and tearing. There was a grinding, and she yanked on the doorknob and the door crashed open, stunning her. She stood for just a second, considering the darkened hall beyond, then moved forward, into it, the mirror dropping from her fingers.
No sound from Daniel’s room. None at all. Not through all her screaming and pounding and thundering . . . nothing.
“Daniel?” she called softly. She stopped outside his door, listening. Everything was grey and dim, shrouded in shadows. “Daniel?”
Before she could reason with herself, she had turned the knob, had found it unlocked, had opened the door and entered.
On the bed, something grey, tangled in blankets, two shapes. God help her, she was going forward, approaching the bed.
“Please, Daniel, are you all right?” The words came as a whimper.
She was at the bedside, eyes squinted with fear, so that all she could see was the two of them, vaguely, Daniel and his father pressed close together as if . . . as if kissing, or making love, his father on top.
Down in the gloom, a huge spider, almost filling the bed.
Her eyes closed.
Her hand went forward, to touch. Gingerly.
And there, on top, was the back of the old man’s head, his hair coarse around her fingers. She moved her hand down, consciously, forcing it to touch his ear, and pass around it, still down. Over a rough cheek, withered skin. Skin that abruptly smoothed; skin that continued, unbroken . . .
Unbroken . . .
Straight to another cheek, another ear, and the back of Daniel’s head.
* * *
“Tissue” copyright 1980 by Marc Laidlaw. First appeared in New Terrors #1 (1980), edited by Ramsey Campbell.
This was my first solo professional sale (following a collaboration with Gregory Benford), made in September of 1978. I was 18 years old, and just entering college, when I finally started selling stories. I resented the interruption to my writing career, which appeared to be finally taking off. After spending much of my adolescence writing and submitting story after story, I sensed that my productivity was about to fall off for good. And in fact, I never again wrote as voluminously as I did throughout junior high and high school, when I could shut myself into my room and write for days. Ah, youth! Of course, I had absolutely nothing to write about, and this remained a hallmark of my early work. However, I did get a lot of crappy writing out of my system. As evidence, my filing system at that time involved diligently giving each story an opus number and keeping track of the many rejections each one received. According to my records, “Tissue” was number 69. This means I had written about 70 stories (including several novels) before making my first real sale. Most of those stories were rejected more than once; my adolescent self was persistent or simply had nothing better to do. There are a lot of gaps in my early records—destroyed manuscripts that the world has been mercifully spared.
As a final note, in scanning this story for print, OCR turned New Terrors into New Tenors. I wonder if I could have had a different career!