The Strange Paper

Story by Michael Botur

 

  1. A thin veil draped over reality

When I was 15, my father grounded me for two weeks.

If I wasn’t at school or saxophone practice, I was supposed to be in my bedroom. And that was okay. I didn’t ask for food or juice or candy or TV or computer time or my scooter. There were 10,894 words in the latest edition of The Strange Paper, and I let my eyes crawl every combination of letters.

While rain dragged on the windows, I held The Strange Paper against the ceiling, blocking out the light, the ceiling, the wind, the weather. My magazine of mysteries blocked out the door, my dad dissing my mum, my mum howling on the phone to her sister in Ireland. The Strange Paper blocked out my computer, my phone, my cat, casserole dinners. Homework. That girl Shiori Gui from Flag Club with the sharp canine tooth who always passed me notes in class.  

The Strange Paper became the screen through which I saw my world. Its ideas were radioactive, caustic, searing. Ideas lost in time and rediscovered. Horrors stretching across eons. Behind a thin veil draped over reality lurked awful conspiracies. Wickedness barely disguised. Sinister plots to undermine our organised world. One cover story looked at the abduction of a girl in Kamagasaki by a malevolent Japanese spirit known as a yōkai. Elemental traces of the phantom were discovered by psychic researchers. Another issue evaluated photos which appeared to have captured the Nottingham Forest Troll, likely from oral history to be either Yallery Brown, the Green Man of English folklore or even Puck, the fawn-inspired legendary halfling. Behind every revelation which appeared paranormal was verifiable science, so I resolved to catching up. I enrolled in Advanced Biology; Introduction to Medieval European History. Courses on psychology, geography, journalism, evolution.   

School ended and so did my old faith in a safe suburban world. I read Strange Paper stories about thunderbirds at Joel Chad’s Yearbook Party. I held a centrefold of the Cottingley Fairies in front of my eyes at the prizegiving for football, where they called my name twice before I zombied up to the podium and accepted my award, trying to read while I walked. I couldn’t explain the Strange Paper to my friends, though. Partly they wouldn’t have believed it; partly I wanted the excitement for myself.

I read my magazine on buses, rollercoasters, rides home from school, taxis. I read it in a tuktuk in Thailand while my Dad tried to buy back Mum’s love. I read it in a toilet at Changi Airport. 17, 18, 19, even when my parents were groaning about me rolling out of bed at lunchtime, I was learning. Hoovering up information on the page and the internet, too, eyes darting left and right. Typing, tracing, drinking pages of text and video and parsing scores of comments. I slouched on my computer chair, lay on my back with my phone above my eyes, hanging upside down off my parents’ couch in the living room, hair scraping the carpet, pouring media inside me.

 

Since I’d learned to read at four I’d ingested massive doses of Asimov, Heinlein, Arthur C. Clarke, but this stuff was REAL. Strange Paper Issue #417 was a scoop about a sighting of Wuduwosa, the Sasquatch of Suffolk. Issue #390 looked at the Mandela Effect causing the public to mis-remember what happened at Roswell. Issue #248 discussed how the cure for AIDS, discovered in a Jordanian laboratory, was covered up due to Israeli-US-Soviet Cold War manoeuvring.

 While my friends had moved on to university and beer pong and road trips and skydiving, I was reading the editorials, the letters to the editor, the contents, the legalese, the briefs, the deep stuff, all of it. I’d read updates on Fortean phenomena in the print mag then frantically Google for background info. I pressed my nose against the editor’s ever-changing photo, always different each time I grabbed my brown paper bagged copy from Baxter’s books.

See, there was a pledge made by the Strange Paper in each editorial: Everything published here was reported to us as true. And that promise had an author: Maxwill Winkle.

The only thing constant in Maxwill’s photos was he was white and had a boyish, aged face like Boris Johnson and his chin was prominent. Some months with fuzzy yellow muttonchop sideburns. Some months clean shaven. There was a summer where he wore only dark purple circular glasses and his blond hair was pulled into a tight ponytail. There was a photo of him in Marble Hill, The Bronx, at the tomb of Charles Fort, the inventor of Fortean phenomena and the first Westerner to begin systematically compiling report of the unexplained. There was a photo of Maxwill diligently scraping the wall of a supposed gas chamber at Auschwitz. A photo of Maxwill with a measuring tape tracing the pentagram carved into the plaza outside the government palace in Astana, Kazakhstan. Each photo showed only half a face and the right ear. Always the other ear was tilted towards some distant calling.

My old friends fell out of my peripheral vision and the only person left who made the effort to ring my parents’ landline was Shiori, the girl with the dorky egg tooth for popping out of her reptile shell, so went the joke. She’d talk a little about the vegan restaurant she helped her parents run and the battles with the council’s food department and Trip Advisor and fussy tourists. She’d try and frame questions about the Strange Paper – which I’d sent her several copies of – though she was usually behind in her updates, still thinking that mammoths were extinct, for example (audio recordings near Lake Baikal had proven their existence). Still, I appreciated her trying to match my interest, and when I’d get absorbed in tab after tab of Wikipedia and Reddit and Culture Wars, and a bowl of soup proffered under my nose would snap me out of my trance, it was always Shiori holding the bowl.

 

I worked the pools as a lifeguard over summer, up on my high chair, trying to keep the sun off my flabby freckled chicken-skin. I read while I watched shrieking children. I read as I changed out of my uniform. I read as I cycled back to my dorm, no hands on the handlebars. I arrived at my 20th birthday living in my own box with a slanted ceiling under the stairs in my dormitory hall. I was merely visiting my parents’ place for Sunday roasts by this point. Shiori was by this time driving me everywhere, and doing my laundry, and when my parents asked Shiori if she was “keeping that man of yours in line”, I had to sigh and concede she’d become a girlfriend of sorts. Accepting Shiori as a girlfriend meant fewer questions over my pills and psych appointments so they could claim they were doing something about my paranoia and depression.

Shiori was a tolerant girl. Affectionate. Warm as a hot water bottle.

On my birthday, after I let her have sex with me, as the wheezing and thumping of the locomotives in our chests eased, Shiori reached under my crumbly mattress and fished out a white envelope.

Within, a birthday card.

‘You’re going. This Thursday – I sent him an email. To meet that man you’re always talking about. Manuel?

‘Maxwill.’

Within the card, a ticket to the remotest part of Auckland. The windblown peninsula of Beachlands, where the mundane city tumbled into the expanse. An Uber voucher, too, with directions written on it.

589a Beachlands Drive. A modest structure, Google Street View told me, larger than a garage, smaller than a strip mall.

The office of the Strange Paper.

 

 

 

Let’s talk about why you’re here

Maxwill Winkle was standing over his computer desk, his bum out of his chair, growling at one of four monitors as I entered. I interrupted his trance and he looked up from his screen at the jangling bell. Hot and warm, alarmed, wild darting eyes. He’d just shaken a tablet from a small brown pharmacy bottle and he put it in his lips and sucked it down with a swallow of Heineken.

‘Enter.’ There was a twang in that first word. Maxwill Winkle was American, it seemed. Exotic. Brought in from outside. He was like a giant boy, hair so white-yellow it was almost silver, and a wide, smiling face, all cheeks. He wore a black Led Zeppelin t-shirt. Maxwill reached over his black gut to shake my hand. ‘I’m guessing you don’t quite know why you’re here.’

I gulped. ‘I just wanted to say that doctor, um, Doctor Karla Turner, you interviewed her. Masquerade of Angels, her book, you reviewed it in issue 482. She – she’s really dead? Seems a coincidence, I know, but it’s not, you said in your editorial, like, Thyroid cancer, it’s not… it’s not a coincidence. Right?’

Dr Karla Turner had been abducted by angels, turned almost inside out and then saved by a caring male who offered Karla several guises in which the human mind could interpret him – a seraphim, a ball of fire, and a humanoid covered in scales.

‘That’s quite an opener, son. And you’re right: there are no such things as coincidences in this world.’

‘Sorry, I’m just a big fan, and my girlfriend, she arranged for me to come and –

Maxwill held a SSSSH finger up, then removed it. He typed another few letters, thought deeply, deleted something.

‘It’s cool. Let’s talk about why you’re here.’

Maxwill put all his work on hold for me that afternoon. I sat in a woollen chair, mesmerised, picking at a thread, too enraptured to concentrate on the hot chocolate with marshmallows he placed on the coffee table for me. My mouth hung open so long it went dry. I drank my tenth-ever beer that afternoon while Maxwill told me the history of the magazine and its spinoff DVDs and YouTube channel and internet radio station and websites. He had taken over The Strange Paper after he read an advert in the underground magazine Oz in 1969. The advert was calling for fresh members to join INFO, the International Fortean Organisation. Maxwill was in the United States at the time, at a university in the eastern realms of Oregon, “top of the river” he called it, chuckling as he recalled him and his mates pouring two industrial barrels of LSD into the Columbia River to change the mindsets of the concreteheads downstream. ‘I personally drank a fair bit of it myself, woo-whee!’ Maxwill added, chuckling and patting the round belly under his black t-shirt, ‘One only sees things clearly after a year on acid. We woke a lot of people up that day, yessiree. Stormed the water testing plant, we did. You wouldn’t believe what we found there in the tanks. Something too dark to even… .’

He finished his beer and shook another pill out of his bottle as he continued to reminisce, placing his right cowboy boot then the left on the table, tilting back.‘Best not discussed where the feds can listen in. Long story short: I’ve financed her, bought her, salvaged her. I’ve never had an assistant that’s lasted, but if you want to bring yourself up to speed, buddy, shit: here’s a start.’ Maxwill biffed at me The Strange Papers Volume One 1940-1970 – a thick hunk of fluffy newsprint paper the size ofa  phone book. It fell open at a story about the unexplained deaths of nine skiers in the Dyatlov Pass incident.

He took his feet down off the desk. ‘Bring it with you. We can talk internship on the road. Get in the car. We’ve got a junket to get to. You can play secretary.’

‘Junket?’

‘We’ve been offered a little money to do a write-up of some people. I’ll give you a month as my apprentice. Unless you’re leaving me… ?

His face split into a grin. He clapped loud as a car backfiring. ‘TIME’S UP! I give everybody four seconds to answer any question put to them, son. You’re practically drooling. That answers that.’

 

 

They wear our skin

We passed gas stations and billboards and siloes and endless fields and brown rivers and green peaks. Maxwill drank beer as he drove, and popped at least four different kinds of pills, crushing one type of pink pill into powder and rubbing it into his gums. We passed caravans full of children staring out the window, raving as we raced them. We overtook on bends. We undertook cars. He blazed past petrol stations. Passing a sign for Rotorua on the ‘Taniwha Expressway’ got Maxwill ranting about bunyips and Ogopogo and the Loch Ness Cryptid and theories about giant eels in the Waikato river. His milky coffee reminded him to share the story of the time he discovered ancient Celtic crannogs in the swamps of Tuakau. Maxwill would talk for thirty seconds straight, take his eyes off the road, gaze at me then put his eyes back just as he was drifting off the road. Maxwill pressed his Mustang to drive over 200 kays an hour, charging speed cameras to breaking point. The government hadn’t set up their little surveillance system to photograph any vehicle doing over 199 kays an hour, Maxwill explained. He had insight into the way the councils planned streetlights, too, and Maxwill was unrillaved in spotting Illuminati symbolism hidden in the BMW billboards.

We squealed through Rotorua, then Taupo, then drifted through Motuoapa and coasted into the gravel parking lot of the Turangi Baptist Church.

SITU, the Society for the Investigation of the Unexplained, met in a 1970s kitchen behind a white church turned blue in the dusk. Insight we could see 12 old ladies in a meeting, lit up orange.

Maxwill crunched across the gravel, hopped up onto the deck and walked in.

‘Ladies,’ he grinned, flashing a smile yellowed from cigarettes and coffee. A weird skinny Indian guy with a cane was midway through delivering a presentation, but a dozen old ladies and men with thinning hair turned to see the important arrival.

They rose to greet him, to touch his shoulder, to press their books into his chest and ask his thoughts. I was with a celebrity.

‘Nice of you to show,’ sneered a hippy woman with a jade locket between her huge old boobs.

Maxwill snorted, shook a few hands, exchanged a few updates about peers and friends and developments with The Strange Paper app, which Maxwill planned to launch next spring. Eventually the presenter tutted his throat enough that everyone put their eyes back on him and let him continue.  The presentation turned out to be about ancient Celtic fairy people. Called Patupaiarehe, or Turehu, they hide in the bushes, according to the presentation, sneaking out to bewitch trampers and infiltrate the gene pool. As the presenter was on a rant about fighting the government to get it to release Official Information Act reports about loggers on Crown forestry blocks encountering the fairy people, and the coverup thereof, Maxwill leaned over and whispered an unimpressed correction.

 ‘We both know it’s a 37th parallel thing.’ His eyes locked with mine. ‘Do you disagree?’

‘No sir,’ I whispered.

‘Then say you fucking agree.’

‘Honest, Maxwill, I agree.’

He nodded deeply. ‘I guarantee there’s cattle mutilations not far from any of these so-called fairy sightings. It’s all about infiltration, that’s what’s going on. They invade the gene pool, you know. They wear our skin. They look just like us.’

An old hippy woman with breasts as large as human heads rose from her chair as the presenter bowed and went to leave.

 ‘MISTER WINKLE. Have something to add, do you?’

‘Matter of fact I do, Joanne.’ Maxwill got out of his creaking folding chair, walked around the crowd and in front of the projector screen and took over the plastic podium. A big man in a tiny church prefab, the room seemed to shrink around Maxwill. ‘Every sighting you’ve just mentioned: associated with the number 37. You know this as well as I do. I’m Maxwill Winkle, folks, and for those of you who haven’t heard of me, you need to know I stand opposed against bullshit, and I’m calling BULLSHIT ON YOUR PRESENTATION, SIR.’

The presenter, a small man in a wide old blue suit and red tie, put his hand on his chest, hurt and shocked. He sidled past the crowd and sat back down beside old hippy Joanne, who played with the jade locket between her boobs.

 Maxwill looked hard into the eyes of every person in the room then crossed the floor, studied the parking lot, eyes thinning, and pulled the blinds shut so the last inch of outside couldn’t enter.  

‘I’d like to posit a theory to unite everything discussed tonight. And I’m going to repeat this all at Armageddon sometime soon. It’s THE biggest conference in the country. Ready, are you, I hope? Joanne? Patricia?’ Lionel’s been waiting for it. Jessica, her too. Mrs Flax, I can tell you need it. Here we go.’

What Maxwill revealed that night changed everything. Maxwill cited prophecies from the New Testament. Maxwill linked Madame Blavatsky’s Secret Doctrine with dragon-men with Lemuria with the ascension of Vladimir Putin and the long age and health of the so-called Queen Elizabeth Windsor. Take the skin off her face and we would see the lizard underneath, he promised. Maxwill told us the Illuminati / Lizard People were framing him as unhinged, campaigning to withdraw advertising.

He leaned down over the podium.

‘The threat is real. We need to begin opening the books toNIGHT.’

The Indian presenter-man exchanged a joke with old Joanne and they giggled.

‘What books would those be?’

‘I’LL OPEN YOUR FUCKING HEAD, SON. SEE IF YOU’RE ONE OF THEM.’

Maxwill was about to cross the room and punch the hecklers when a woman rushed up and thrust an album of photos at him. A map fell out of her hands, she pulled Maxwill to the rear while he glanced grumpily over his shoulder.  

I endured a cup of tea poured slowly out of a huge teapot, with wood-hard gingernut biscuits for food. People asked me for insight into what it was like to have the privilege of working closely with someone as influential as Maxwill. I gloated. I preened. Somebody opened a bottle of red wine and put a glass in my fingers. I got drunk and sat in a circle with people who’d written their theses on astrology and spontaneous human combustion and the clock crawled. Almost everybody in the room was absorbing my second-hand anecdotes about Maxwill, who I’d only known for a day. The only person who wasn’t enthralled was the fat-breasted smug hippy Joanne lady, who appeared to have agreed to walk down towards the river to argue over some beef with Maxwill.

I awoke inside Maxwill’s cosy Mustang, thrown against the doors with each twist and turn. I’d got drunk on three wines and passed out. Maxwill was now wearing disposable latex gloves. I asked Maxwill what had happened while I was asleep and he sped up to 180, took his eyes off the road, stared hard at me and said, ‘If I told you, I’d have to kill you.’

‘DUDE. SERIOUSLY. THE CORNER. PLEASE SLOW DOWN.’

Burger King in Taupo, 24 hour KFC in Rotorua, 3am coffee in Hamilton, breakfast platter at dawn in Auckland.

‘Did you hang out with that Joanne chick?’ I asked as we pulled out of a BP gas station at dawn, checking my seatbelt nervously.

Maxwill rumbled his car to the lip of the highway, said ‘That was never its real name,’ and burrowed into the black.

 

 

Uncover everything covered

Maxwill’s Unifying Theory was indisputable. I immediately began writing about it in every issue. We devoted a double-page spread to the topic, a centrefold which readers could lift out and Blu-tack to their walls. We began the work at 9am on a Tuesday, aiming to work “late,” finishing around 6pm. Instead we worked til 7, then got a platter of Indian food delivered, ate til 7.30, promised to wrap up at 8pm, then found ourselves at 2am drinking espresso while Maxwill rattled the back of my seat and gave orders. He’d had assistants in the past but they hadn’t kept up, so he was used to calling the shots over layout, copy editing, advert placement, colours, covers, social media and managing subscriptions. He paced, snooped and sampled his medicine, some clear vinegary concoction apparently called GHB that he reserved a space in the magazine to review (he reviewed a different drug every month.)

Maxwill forced a squirt of the stuff in my mouth, spun my chair so I did a couple of revolutions, and busted out a rant about Putin’s Russia acting as a bulwark against the Dracos and proof that the Russian sleep experiment had ended with removing the neck and back dermis of proven infiltrators. He talked about his dead family. He asked me if the GHB was working or not and said Gamma 4-Hydroxybutyric Acid originated as an approved therapy for alcoholism in Italy because it put people into a 24 hour sleep so they missed opportunities to drink. GHB was the only antidote that could uncover everything covered in the world, Maxwill said, then positioned me in front of my right-hand monitor.  

‘Needs more, this thing does,’ he said. ‘Readers want it linked better, too. We need to work on your segues, your continuity. You selling this story to anyone else, huh?’ he slapped my right ear. ‘Nexus? Unexplained? Eh, son?’

‘No sir.’

We used InDesign to move our two-page special on the Unifying Theory to four pages, then gave it half the magazine.

‘Fuck it, actually,’ Maxwill said as I was about to send the mag off to the Philippines for the designers to massage. ‘Special edition.’

‘You want the whole mag to be on the Unifying Theory, sir?’

He stopped breathing. His mouth hung open over his huge belly. The mouth was black inside.

‘You don’t think it’s important? My life’s work?’

‘Sorry, sir. I do. We should definitely do the special edition thing.’

As I went to shake his hand at our new landmark, I tasted that GHB crap on my tonsils, and the lights went out.

 

A war is coming

  We hit the Alternative Health Expo in Christchurch. We did Dunedin’s Vaccination Revealed expo. We joined conferences led by vaccination researchers, 5G protestors, anti-genetic modification activists. People with proof that fluoridation of our water causes autism. People with proof of a pre-biblical flood in the year 8,000BC. Every time we travelled and toured, we got more and more audience, and Maxwill got more crazy.

I didn’t pester Maxwill for an apology for testing his stupid medicine on me. He would blurt out unexpected compliments on my Unifying Theory stories, sipping brunchtime shots of Absinthe and bottles of beer. He tousled my hair, pinched my chubby cheeks, and that was make-up enough. It was a privilege to be doing my dream job. To be living in his aura.

Our Unifying Theory scoopds pushed readership up on every level. Reptilian saboteurs were behind as astonishing number of the world’s problems and progressions. Strange Paper Subscriptions hit 2000 a month; online readership passed 400,000, then 500,000, then surged up to the 750,000 mark. I achieved Full Timer status, with pay, though it wasn’t about the work. I would’ve written for the Strange Paper for nothing. I moved into the garage. I got up at 7 each day and worked according to his whims- writing reviews, spellchecking, replying to queries. Helping with accounts, subscriptions. Pasting stamps onto envelopes. He was a father, Maxwill was. Fun, exciting, always random, spontaneous. Better than my real dad.

We managed to prove a link between freak hailstorms in Haiti and crop circles in Florida and the Bosnian Pyramids at Visoko, which were designed by a race not from the planet earth and indisputably bore a map of the Alpha Draconis star system, whose population had emigrated to earth and carved out bunkers beneath our soil 3000 years ago.  

We connected more and more dots with every issue. We covered the Nebraska Incident, during which police officer Herbert Schirmer was taken aboard a diesel-powered spacecraft on a shivery, heartless winter night in Ashland, Nebraska in 1967 and found the next day with icicles of frozen drool around his mouth. We covered the Dracos’ infiltration of royal bloodlines – the Merovingians, the Bushes, the Rothschilds, the Windsors. I looked at the precise date Fidel Castro was replaced with a lizard as part of the New World Order. Proof from Martin Doutre that Iraq was invaded in 2003 because Saddam was poised to hold a press conference denouncing the Dracos. I had an expert from INWOS, the Institute of New World Order Studies, lend exquisite diagrams showing the chain of transfer during which Draco DNA is injected into human children during vaccination and how autism naturally results from our immune systems’ pushback against the alien DNA. Atop a surge in subscriptions, we followed it with commentary from an expert who proved that Draco DNA was to be found in the crack cocaine the CIA pushed on black communities in Watts and Houston during 1986.

People from Natural Health magazine and Nexus and Unexplained came to pay homage to Maxwill in his office while he cracked beers and leaned back in his leather jacket and jeans and put those cowboy boots up so high on his desk they brushed the monitor.

I envied them and their private time with the genius, the legend, the master. Meanwhile my peers sent me invitations to their wedding. Talked about me in a high school reunion group on Facebook. Conspiring. Plotting.

I ignored them all, deleted my social media accounts. If people wanted to reach me, they could go through Shiori. I was entering a world of dedicated investigative journalism. The lonely, sacrificial life of a Samurai. I came off Prozac at the same time as Maxwill. He was supposed to be on these bipolar mood stabilisers called Depakene but they weren’t worth the trouble. We couldn’t have the government controlling our thoughts any more. We wouldn’t let them do it to army veterans or invalids or dogs and cats, so I guarded the door of the garage, parading with one of Maxwill’s 7mm Remington rifles while he operated on the slutty tom cat, liberating it from the fake skin it had had grafted on its head. A good graft, extremely convincing and lifelike, but Maxwill pointed out the fakery to me.  

Maxwill emerged from the garage ten minutes after beginning his work. He had scratches on his nose and hands that he was dabbing with a handkerchief.

‘Find what you were looking for?’ I asked, cringing.

‘This is nothing to joke about, son,’ he told me. ‘A war’s coming. We have to get inside the invaders. Peel til we see the real.’ He lit a cigarette and snorted at me. ‘You need to come in here and do this with me. To prove you’re loyal.’

‘I am loyal, Maxwill. Honest.’

‘Good. Then you’ll need this.’

He pressed a scalpel into my hand and walked back into the garage. A Labrador was strapped down on Maxwill’s work bench with bungee cords and electrical cable. It looked up as I approached, stuck its tongue out hopefully.

‘It’s just practice, anyway, we’re not up to the big finish,’ Maxwill said. ‘Now get to work.’

 

Conspiracy’s evrywhr. Help.

Maxwill veered hard right. An oncoming truck honked. We were one foot away from getting totalled when Maxwill settled in front of the motel and yanked the hand brake up.

‘You and me need to talk some more.’

‘Okay! Fuck! Can you just drive normal?’

The motel was three storeys tall, a tablet of white-painted concrete rising suddenly out of a tiny parking lot. It had Christmas lights wrapped around its balcony, a cigarette machine and bags of garbage around the drain.

We were in town for Maxwill’s presentation at Armageddon, the pop culture convention where more and more presentations from the intellectual dark web were appearing every year. We’d bartered for a low-paying advertising deal, running a mixed bag of print, digital and social adverts for Armageddon in return for them letting Maxwill deliver his big speech. He was going to present his Unifying Theory lecture, and it was all he could talk about.

‘TELL ME HOW YOU FOUND OUT ABOUT ME.’

‘I saw the Strange Paper at this book store.’

‘Name the shop.’

‘Ummm… Baxter’s. Baxter’s Books.’

The slim dark aperture with stairs leading into a basement that stank of mothballs. Door clicking closed. Wooden sign reading BAXTER’S BOO. Crumbling K fallen off. Racks of novels, paperbacks, hardbacks, waxed, fibrous, slim, fat. Magazines piled on the floor, spilling out of banana boxes. Each magazine thick, saturated with photos. Hefty. Important. Deep.

‘Name the issue you claim to have purchased.’

‘Dunno, um… 222, I think. This dude with tattoos on his eyeball on the cover. A feature on apocalyptic forecasts in the Mayan doomsday calendar.’

His eyes flicked from left to right and back again, like blowflies inside his eye sockets. ‘He’s one of them. Baxter. The bookshop bastard. A shifter. A lizard.’

The darting eyes settled on me. Finally I said, ‘Um, yeah. Totally. Can we go inside our room now?’

Soon as we were checked in and sealed the motel door, I texted Shiori. She was one of the only people who still asked about my life. usually I told her nothing. Tonight I needed a lifeline.

Maxwills losing it, I wrote. He z seeing conspiracy’s evrywhr. Help.

While Maxwill was running a loud shower and turning the TV volume on as high as it would go and checking under the beds for listening devices, Shiori responded, He knows th truth lol.

One of us is a shifter?

Ur wordz not mine ;0)

‘What are you doing?’

Maxwill was standing over me, blocking the light. He had a towel around his hips and his belly was bulging over it like the top of a pastry pie.

‘Nothing. Just messaging.’

‘Who? Who’ve you got to message?’

‘Just my friend… .’

‘You don’t have any friends.’ He crouched, waddled to the blinds and twisted them to block the light out. ‘They can read remotely, you know. The powers-that-be. Remote viewing, they call it. The Soviets advanced the technique in the 60s. Our little undercover friends picked it up. I can read, too. I can read minds. And I can tell you’re lying. Show me your phone.’

I gave up my cellphone. Maxwill nodded as he ruminated over my messages to Shiori. I’d told Shiori Maxwill was bombarding me with text messages constantly. I’d said Maxwill was pressuring me to take a helicopter up to study contrails and I didn’t like it. I’d confessed I spent Christmas with him dipping a ladle into Auckland to get water samples we’d send away to test for extraterrestrial DNA.

‘You can have this back when I trust you,’ Maxwill said, frowning, holding the phone out like it was infected. ‘She’s not who you think she is.’

‘Are you mad at me, Maxill?’

He looked like he wanted to reach out and squeeze my hand. Instead he snorted, and went to take a shower.

 

The horror underneath

 

Armageddon was huge, buzzing, humming. Balloons everywhere, speakers, coffee grinders, people selling comics, VR helmets, bodybuilding supplements, vapes. Banners with giant portraits of The Witcher and Jon Snow and Black Widow. A life-size Millennium Falcon. An indoor blimp. I passed kids from high school dressed up, safe in young good-looking packs, joyous, chattering, tight skin, eyes stretched into squints from laughing. They’d taken buses and trains to downtown Auckland dressed in furry Pikachu costumes. They were Spock and Pacman and Goku and Gandalf and Tyrion. People were laughing and calling. Balloons, confetti. Joy, ecstasy, and here I was, struggling to haul a trolley of boxes across 500 metres of carpet to the the Hilltop Room. The scene of Maxwill’s Big Reveal.

The room was as small as my parents’ lounge, just about. A fraction bigger. The Hilltop Room – flat, windowless – didn’t have a stage, just a sad skinny black microphone plugged into an amplifier.

‘This’ll be us,’ Maxwill concluded, unboxing his laptop. He stroked the walls and put and ear against the plaster.

‘Can I go hang out with my friends?’

‘Shut the fuck up. You’re here to work.’ His ear was interested in the heat pump remote control. He rubbed it against his face then tapped it twice, then four times, hoping to find a listening device. ‘Unless you’re disloyal. You’re not disloyal, are you?’

I shook my head and helped him set up.

Maxwill’s presentation was mostly in his head. We had a single pull-up banner with a picture of the Strange Paper’s Real Independence Day special edition.

An hour before he was due to go on, a producer girl, with sexy hipster glasses and freckles, informed us there was a special appearance by Triumph the Insult Comic Dog at the same time. We’d lose most of our audience to a bunch of puppets.

Maxwill punched the wall, took his vial of coke from his pocket, jammed it under his nose, snorted, turned and pointed his finger at me.

‘Go. Get me. A fucking audience. NOW.’

I pulled the sleeves of a couple of cheerleaders in Spandex. I bailed a trio of Hobbits up against walls. One guy dressed as Wonder Woman struggled out of my handshake. I gave him twenty bucks to promise he would scrape some people together to attend.

The presentation started off mildly acceptable. There were thirty people in costumes and black t-shirts, who rotated in and out, some tugged away by their friends to watch the dog puppet, others needed to play Magic: The Gathering or Pokémon Go. Maxwill began reading from a printed script before sliding it to the floor.

‘Ladies and gentleman, gathered here, I’m going to talk about what’s really going on. Everything out there, the shiny lights, the Star Trek hacks, the phonies from Hollywood: all distractions.’ He searched the distance with his eyes. ‘Scratch the surface of this world. Beneath, you will find those waiting to harm us. Conspiring. Plotting. Organising.’ His eyes roamed the room, settling on a fat man with a ginger beard wearing a suit jacket, a pair of Japanese Lolitas, a news photographer who he pointed his finger directly at.

‘Behold: revelation.’

Maxwill jabbed a button on his phone. Behind him, the freckled arms and legs and shoulders of a woman duct taped to a chair at her dining table. Everybody in the room held their breath. The first photo showed a hooded man approaching her with something small and shiny in his hand. The second photo, lines drawn professionally on her skin. The third photo made the room gag and moan.

First we saw the hooded man dragging a scalpel from the temple to the jaw of the woman. Peeling the skin from her skull like an orange, we could see brick-coloured muscle and a hint of white eyeball, ringed with blue vein.

‘HOW DID YOU GET THOSE PHOTOS?’ demanded the fat ginger bearded man, ‘WHAT THE FUCK ARE YOU UP TO?’

He tore his Strange Paper in half and slammed the pieces on the floor.

‘Son: lock the door.’

I barricaded the room. Only five people stayed, though they tried to leave, as Maxwill flipped to the next photo, nodding.

‘This is it, my friends. Underneath those we least suspect: Definitive proof.’

The woman’s body sitting at the head of the table, topless, arms the colour of timber, belly button, hips thighs. Above her collar, where a bloody ooze was fingering her breasts, her skull was covered in that liver-brown flesh with accents of salmon and blue and red and black holes where her eyes had been before Joanne had been skinned.

 

 

 

Ready for the End

 

We were high as we came back from the conference. We’d flashed something shocking at the world, held it in front of people’s eyes.

Maxwill drove insanely close to the far lane. The entire city honked at him. He turned the stereo up so loud it smashed my eardrums. He made me shake a little foil of white powder into a cartridge in his vape and he sucked it and said ‘MMMMM, THEM’S GOOD APPLES’ and swerved and veered. He ordered three drive-thru meals in an hour. He sniffed and snorted and smoked and punched my knee whenever I didn’t respond to his rants quick enough.

We veered into the motel so hard and fast I was sure he was about to collide with the building. The brakes stopped with a squirt of stinking rubber. Maxwill left the car so fast he left his door open, as well as the front door of our unit. I tidied the car and closed the door after him.

‘Peeling the layers, like an onion, thasright,’ he ranted, pacing to our motel unit kitchen, back to the door, then grinding his back against it. ‘So are you spinach or lettuce?’

I sat on my single bed, exhausted, embarrassed, disgraced.

‘Speak up, Planty Boy. A sunflower or a moss or a rhododendron, yeah, that’s you. Or possibly a pod-person. Because you’re definitely a plant. An infiltrator.’

‘Dude, seriously, you’re starting to freak–

‘A mole. Designed to invade and undermine the Strange Paper. Like that little Yoko Ono of yours. D’you know she was a plant from none other than Mossad designed to have the Beatles change the outcome of the 1966 election? Didn’t know that, did you. Your little Asian girlfriend knew it. She told me a whoooole lot.’

I tossed my hands and shoulders to either side, slung my backpack over my shoulder. ‘I’m going for a walk, man. I’m going to get some Burger King. Text me if you want anything.’

‘Don’t you want to see photos?’

‘Of what?’

‘Of the truly repulsive being with its fake veneer taken off.’

I took one stride toward the exit. Maxwill took four, crossing the room and burying his thumb and forefinger in my throat. I pushed back. He twisted his hips, slammed me down on the bed, put his second hand on my Adam’s apple and squeezed. I scratched at his eyes. He pressed his 110 kilos into me, squeezed and crushed while a sleepy smile oozed onto his face. Shiori was in the room, calling to ask what flavour of milkshake I wanted. My dad was above me, telling me to make my bed properly, army-style, with the corners folded like this. Flocks of people from Armageddon were passing through the room, clutching candy floss and balloons. The air tasted of bitter raw dirt and earth and tangy blood. Just as a black filter was darkening the ceiling, the crushing boulder-man took a few kilos of weight off before his hand returned.

He held a Pump bottle, jammed the plastic hard against my lips. He was giving me a… drink? Of something bitter and clear, like vinegar.

 

 

The hard thing burrowing up and out through my back was the ironing board. I could see a fragment of the corner. Patterns of fluffy moons and smiling stars. I jerked upwards. Something hard pulled me back. I was tied to the bed with extension cords. There was a white pillowcase between my teeth, twisted into a snake.

The room appeared empty, though the TV was on – Al-Jazeera news, the only channel Maxwill believed was untainted, pure, trustworthy. I heard rattling from the kitchen, though. Bottles chiming. The chink of somebody rustling in the cutlery.

‘They’re having the masks pulled off, all around the world,’ Maxwill said, appearing with a gleaming shard of stainless steel. He was holding a steak knife in his right hand, tapping it against his left palm. ‘Trump’s aide, that bodyguard second from the right, there? You see that cunt? It’s the blackness of the eyes that gives it away.’

The light in Maxwill’s face went out.

‘Same eyes you’ve got, actually, son.’

Maxwill kneeled on my shoulders while I moaned and choked and bit into my mouthful of fabric, tasting every dry fibre. His hand on my brow was warm, tender. Almost gentle. He licked his fingers before pushing my hair away and slicing through my skin. I bellowed and shook with the burning electric shock as the hard cold blade cut into my skull, brushing bone, setting off wildfires of agony. He brought the knife up again and went over the same line.

A probing finger of light speared through the blinds, painted the wall, then disappeared. I screamed through my mouth-gag. Volcanos of bubbling foam erupted around the corners of my mouth. My eyes went watery.

Maxwill saw the light, stared hard at the source outside our motel room, then returned his attention to cutting off my face.

‘Sorry about the blade, she’s a dull one,’ Maxwill said. ‘A dullard! Yes! Quite!’ He giggled, leaned off me, stuck his nose into a teacup of cocaine and snorted and licked his white snot, grunting contentedly.

‘Ready for the end? Here we go.’

Maxwill twisted away from me, pushed the volume in a steady climb up to maximum.

He pulled from my face a flap of skin as big as a postcard, with a gaping hole in it where he’d carved around my eye socket. The skin was saggy, wobbling, jelly-ish, as thin and full-of-holes as a slice of Swiss cheese, and bright with blood. He grasped my chin, his fingers slipping in the red juice, then squeezed tighter and pushed the blade down.

‘I was right about you, son. Who you are. What you’re doing. What I’m looking at is truly monstrous.’

The room exploded with light. Noise outside. A humming, whirring drone.

 ‘Oh, they’re here,’ he said, blood dangling like wet red icicles from the tips of his fingers, and took his weight off me, rolling off the bed, walking steadily to the door, knife in one hand, my jelly-cheese face in the other.

I watched through eyes speckled with pink, twitching, eyeballs spasming as my muscles attempted to pull together in lieu of eyelids.

Maxwill tossed his keys playfully in the air, blew me a mock kiss, went out to his vehicle. I raged against my straps, twisting, then froze, listening. Maxwill cranked the Mustang’s engine, those 12 cylinders that purred as they rattled, low and confident. His car beeped as it reversed. The open door turned red with his brake lights.

From the trunk of the Mustang, Maxwill pulled a maroon-coloured mannequin, still wrapped in plastic spotty with some red industrial dye. On the motel unit’s cheap blue rug, Maxwill injected the mannequin with an Epipen shot of adrenaline while I watched down the length of my prostrate body, trying to control my panicked breathing. With a dose of adrenaline, the mannequin sneezed as it woke then rolled on its side and vomited on the floor. Maxwill wiped the thing’s lips then pulled it upright, propping it against the back of a chair. The flesh was raw and dried and hardened, cracking into tiles which could only be called scales. The eyes were bright ping pong balls popping out of the flesh, the irises lolling in different directions, exhausted, dry, pointless. This thing had a noticeably sharp right canine that came down over its lip. Her lip, in all honesty.

‘Shiori?’