My Kingdom for a Placebo

On his fifth trial day of Represenex 13 – an experimental drug in the shape of a squishy pink bowtie-shaped pill which smelled remarkably like peppermint, Fin answered the door to welcome his holiness the Dalai Lama inside the apartment: his third & final unexpected visitor of the evening, he hoped.

“May I please be seated on your wonderful floor?” asked the emaciated man, folding his yellow shades before laughing like a tickled Yoda at the portrait of dogs playing stud poker on Fin’s wall.

The Enlightened sure are easily amused, Fin thought to himself.

“Please, come in, your holiness.” Fin directed him to the back bedroom where the others had been occupying themselves since their arrivals, respectively?Houdini with his handcuffs and Poe with his opium. “Gentlemen, the Dalai Lama. Your holiness, the Amaziiing Harry Houdini and Edgar Allan Poe.”

Houdini winked, content that Fin was honoring his wish to always be referred to as Amaziiing when introduced to perfect strangers, Poe remaining perfectly still on the bed intently reading a blank wall, then suddenly stirring, erupting into a paranoid monologue. “Wait! Do you hear it!? Do you hear it now?” He quickly lay down on the floor, putting his ear to the ground. “You hear it, don’t you? The heart, the heart!” All of this as Houdini rolled his eyes. “Don’t pay any attention to him, Lama. He’s a writer.”

In the bathroom, Fin dug out the bottle, reading the label for the 14th time.

“REPRESANEX” #130008337 [trial version]

Take once a day by mouth. Side effects may include dry mouth, nausea, bouts of dizziness, discoloration of the urine, constipation, blurred vision, migraines, or minor hallucinations. *In the event of emergency, do not call Poison Control; instead, immediately contact J. Clockwell at 391-425-0700*

Fin pitched the bottle in the sink. Minor my ass. Peeking through the door, he dialed.

Through the crack Houdini was strapping his holiness into a straightjacket. “Now when I say go, you try to get out of it,” he instructed him, standing back. “Go!” But the tiny man wasn’t budging, only grinning childlike, causing Houdini to grow visibly impatient. “Lama, damn it, you’re not putting on a very good show here, pal.”

In the background Poe flicked a pen to try and pelt an enormous death-eyed raven perched on the bedpost, but missed. It squawked once, splayed its massive wings, withdrawing through an open window.

“Dr. Clockwell, Hi. Finley again. Sorry to be bombarding your phone on a Sunday, but another one just showed up. I thought you said they would only last a few hours? It’s been seven hours now since the dead writer showed up asking if this was the Usher House. Please call back.”


That evening, Fin sat on the sofa watching his imaginary company indulge in his hospitality, Houdini residing in the La-Z-boy to his right entranced by the phosphorescent glow of the television. “What’s the trick? Wait, no, don’t tell me, don’t tell me. I’ll figure it out.”

The Dalai Lama sat Indian-style on the linoleum floor of the small half kitchen, bursting into a sharp paroxysm of laughter mid-meditation every time he caught sight of those poker-playing dogs in the corner of his eye.

As for the disturbed writer, for whom Fin had not been able to provide a specific model of typewriter at his request, he had chosen to confine himself to the closet with the claustrophobic darkness where he said he felt most at home, clutching a lucky rabbit’s foot found on Fin’s nightstand.

“Can you imagine bunnies lopping off our hands and feet, keeping them as souvenirs on their little bunny nightstands?!”

Fin was on the brink of calling again when he saw the missed voicemail by Clockwell:

Hello Finley. My sincerest apologies for being unavailable to you. First off, you should know this hallucinogenic episode of yours is not an uncommon happening with R 13. Nothing is wrong with you. It’s been reported many times before, and in almost every case they went away after a good night’s sleep. Hallucinations tend to be stress-triggered, so my advice to you is to remain calm, relaxed, and make sure you get at least eight hours sleep tonight. And remember, too, that these are hallucinations, nothing more. If they are bothering you, keeping you awake, in most cases you can simply request that they be quiet, and they’ll honor your wishes. They are figments of YOUR imagination, after all. If you have any more concerns, feel free to call me back, but a long night’s sleep should do the trick. We appreciate your service so much. You’re really doing us a huge favor here.

With that, Fin bade his psychotropic visitors good night, locking his bedroom door and setting out his work clothes. “Why couldn’t I have hallucinated Joan of Arc or Catherine the Great?” he asked the decorative mirror over his bed.

It didn’t talk back, thank god.

* * *

In the morning, the living room was deliciously empty, as were the closets. Fin enjoyed an extra long shower, patting himself on the back for deciding to follow through with the experimental drug trial after all. $500 was a pretty penny for enduring a few walking, talking caricatures. But then, as he  rinsed the frothy conditioner from his hair, he heard it: a single wall-reverberating peel that wrecked the morning’s Zen, not unlike…a gunshot? Pop. Then a succession of them, one after the other, interspersed with shattering ceramics and an explosion of glass. Pop – Pop – Pop. Then a familiar voice among cutting through it all: “C’mere, you infernal bird!”

Fin rushed through the apartment to the sight of a giant water tank occupying half his living room. Houdini gurgled, waving upside down from inside, then proceeding to wiggle his way out of a bouquet of assorted heavy chains in which he is dressed, water sloshing out onto the carpet drenching the fabric a dark maroon. His holiness the Dalai Lama sat meticulously pouring colored tubes of sand upon the carpet, crafting an intricate Mandela.  Everywhere around them the room was a mess of tipped over coffee tables, smoking bullet holes and dead windows dangling their flimsy remnants of panes, and all of the picture frames crooked, except for the poker-playing dogs, which the Lama presently straightened.

“Where is Poe?” Fin asked, and the Lama pointed to the laundry room, about the time another fresh gunshot rang out.

The raven emerged in full flight, squawking while Poe with his disheveled hair and dusty suit chased after, waving a tiny flint lock pistol while cursing the bad omen. “Be gone, bird of death!” he shouted. “You impugn me!” Then snapping off another shot. Feathers fluttered as the bullet grazed a wing, but the bird seemed impervious, eluding the raving writer once more.

Poe didn’t seem to mind too much, suddenly distracted by the wisp of grey exhaled from the barrel. Settling down, he produced his opium pipe from the inside of his coat pocket, placing the revolver on the arm of the La-Z-boy, the only piece of furniture left upright in the room.

“I shall retire to the closet, gentlemen, for I am spent.”


After calling in sick to work, Fin dialed up the doctor again. This time he was quick to answer, surprisingly.

“This is most unfortunate,” Clockwell explained, “but not implausible.”

“You see, this particular scenario has transpired once before. Very rare, indeed. I’m happy to report there is a way to rid yourself once and for all of these nettlesome hobgoblins of the mind. A quite foolproof method, in fact, though it does involve some effort on your part, I’m afraid.”

Fin readied a pen and notepad in anticipation of a long and laborious list of directions, only to be puzzled by the solution.

“All you have to do is kill them. Any of the conventional methods should do the trick. Guns, knives, a good bludgeon. Any of these should dispel the figments for good. It is the only way you can be sure they’ll stay gone permanently,” the good doctor reported. “Tell me, do you have any experience with that sort of thing?”

* * *

Fin sat sucking a beer and loosening his tie in the living room, watching Houdini crouched like a crab at the bottom of his water tank, holding his breath, trying to break his own record for the fourth time in one afternoon. In the bedroom, his holiness topped off an architectural marvel crafted from a deck of playing cards, an impossibly high tower of slick red and white that reached to the ceiling. He had been at it all afternoon, demonstrating his divine patience. At one point, it toppled when Poe attempted to bat that unrelenting raven out of the air. The Lama simply applauded the spectacle of flimsy cards curving chaotically to the ground, and wordlessly, began building it up again.

Meanwhile, Poe had been composing poetry taped to the underside of Fin’s bed. “It’s quite warm and lonely and wonderful down here. Serene. Tomblike,” he reported to the tenant, squished beneath the bed frame. “Shhh. Do you hear it? The heart, the heart…” he would pause intermittently. Of course all was silence, save for the writer’s own rampant scribbling.

All you have to do is kill them, the doctor had said. Such an eloquent, easy prescription.

Fin had never maliciously harmed a thing in his life. He veered to avoid hitting squirrels in the road, looked the other way when strangers cut in front of him at the post office. Apologized to drivers when they cut him off. Anything to avoid confrontation.

Throughout school growing up, he had been an easy target for bullies?”The Escape Artist” people called him, for you could always count on Finley McAvery to run away. Even at work, his boss had found a million ways to take advantage of his passive nature, pushing work on him that didn’t rightfully belong to him.


“Time me, won’t you lad?” Houdini tossed Fin his pocket watch, dunking himself back into the tank.

They’re only figments, no different than smoke. Fin had been trying to convince himself with logic. If you stabbed smoke, would it bleed? Of course it wouldn’t, because it wasn’t human. Still. These were more than just figments, these were his figments. So in some way didn’t that mean they were somehow a part of him? And what if they felt it? If they felt pain, what would that mean?

If he would do it, it would be made to look like an accident, he decided. He didn’t think he could bare to see them, or anybody, gaze upon him as a murderer, even if their eyes were no more corporeal than a cloud.

Fin took notice of the lock on top of Houdini’s water tank, a heavy drop-down latch. It remained up at present. One flick would surely ensure the contents remain entrapped.

“Mr. Houdini?” he asked, to see if the escapist could hear him. He couldn’t. His eyes remained clenched tightly at the base of the tank, knees firmly tucked to his chest, his imperturbable mind immersed in aqueous meditation. Sour drops of nausea twisted in Fin’s stomach as he gripped the magician’s pocket watch, the cold metal growing suddenly clammy in his nervous hands. Only figments. No different than smoke…

After flicking the latch into the locked position, Fin quickly locked himself in the bathroom. He couldn’t witness it, couldn’t bear to hear it even. He turned the faucet on full blast. As he rinsed the beady dollops of sweat from his forehead, he saw it: the magician’s pocket watch bubbling before his eyes into a puddle of mercurial substance upon the sink, before evaporating completely. He flung open the door.

Now the water tank was gone from the living room. Though the carpet was dry, the water-splashed spots remained stained a darker red, and evidence of the other two guests remained intact. The rainbow-colored Mandela. Poe’s revolver. All the disarray and debris left by the raven’s flight through the room earlier in the day. No sign of Houdini, though.

“May we have some tea in here, young sir? I would prefer mine with precisely one squirt of honey, no more, no less. Our eastern friend here dressed in circus attire could use a cup, too, I think,” Poe yelled from the bedroom. Seemingly, he and the Lama had not detected their companion’s watery fate. “Also, do you have a magnifying glass? I’m in the process of formulating a cipher for a most vexing code.”

Fin didn’t anticipate his subsequent feeling about the first figment’s demise. Though there was a twinge of guilt, there was also an equal smattering of adrenaline, an iota, even, of satisfaction. All things considered, making the magician disappear had been easier and more thrilling than he imagined. Knowing he had pulled it off without the others suspecting a thing only magnified his delight.

“Coming!” Fin said, rushing the tea to the bedroom. He had tucked Poe’s revolver into his waistband. “Your tea, fellas.” Poe clambered out from under the bed, seating himself aristocratically on the edge, proceeding to glare into his cup. “I trust you remembered the honey?”

“Your holiness, I think I saw some children outside pouring salt on a slug,” Fin lied. The Lama departed the room, a scowl on his face for the first time since his arrival.

Now Fin sat alone with the writer. Poe poked his finger into his tea, swirling it around. When he heard the front door click shut, Fin produced the revolver. This time, he wanted to watch. Poe registered the situation. Sat unstirred.

“Your first time?” Poe asked. Before Fin could answer, the writer had already read the answer in his eyes and shaky hands. “No, not your first time, but your first time doing the grisly business yourself, I see.” Poe set the tea cup on the floor, reclining to reach his opium pipe on the nightstand. “The act has a way of haunting a man for the rest of his days, you know.” When the raven flew in through the window this time, it came to rest on Poe’s shoulder, as if it had always been loyal to its master. “You’ll never dream another sweet dream. Never write a clean or happy story again…” He patted the bird on its knobby head. “I would know.” Now he noticed Fin’s knees twitching. “It helps if you don’t look them in the eye, son. Look anywhere else: nose, chin, ear.” Then the writer took a long puff of his pipe, until his eyes swam glassy and he smiled a smug smile, like a man with a secret he knew would soon be unburdened from him. “Do you hear it yet? Do you? You will.”

When Fin tugged the trigger, he felt an electrifying rush as the bird took flight from the room. The tea cup spilled as figment number two’s foot tipped it over, the corpse transubstantiating into quicksilver sludge on the comforter before vaporizing. Underfoot, the sullied carpet deepened to a sanguine red, so dark it was almost black.

Fin had not followed the writer’s advice, but rather, he had honed in on the eyes. He had not been able to turn away. He feasted on their shrinking glow. The twitch of his knees and tremulous hands, Fin came to realize, had not been nervousness but a keen anticipation. Whatever thirst had been awakened by the two killings he allowed himself to drink in fully now.

By the time his holiness made his way into the room, Fin was almost giddy.

The Lama looked around, suspecting nothing of Fin’s dark deeds, wandering into the living room. This time, when he noticed the poker-playing dogs and burst into laughter, he found a pair of hands swiftly around his neck, strangling the hilarity before it could climb his throat to escape. Yet, the small apartment was filled with riotous, coarse laughter. Fin couldn’t stifle the joy it brought him rendering the submissive third figment breathless. Something in the Lama’s nature possessed him with hatred, a merciless disgust. “Fight back!” Fin commanded him, as the skin under his fingertips began to sink. The Lama’s mouth and ears and eyes began to ooze silvery slime. “Fight back!”

At last, the third and final figment was capable of laughter no more. Where the colorful sand Mandela once shone under lamplight there remained a patch of ash permanently stamped into the carpet.

* * *

For the last three weeks, J. Clockwell has been providing Fin with a steady supply of Represenex 13. Fin has never felt happier or more alive, though that raven often drops by just to pester him. He has killed it over forty times now. He keeps the windows shut but it always seems to find a way inside the house. He imagines it always will. And on the day the check finally arrives to compensate him for his contribution to experimental pharmaceuticals, Fin is roused from his sheets in the night by a hardly audible thump, like the crude tapping of hollowed out bone drums hidden beneath his floorboards. It seems to be growing louder, and – like the bird – vows to visit its new master from time to time.


Matthew Burnside is author of Escapologies (Red Bird Chapbooks), Infinity’s Jukebox (Passenger Side Books) and the forthcoming Book of If&Ever (Red Bird Chapbooks). He keeps a list of his sins at

Ian Schranz is painter and illustrator born in 1977 on the European island of Malta.