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She laughed loudly and cupped her hands to whisper into her friend’s ear while staring at me. I took my book and began to make my way to another table.
“What are you reading?” she asked, a twisted smile on her face.
“Nothing that would interest you.”
She snatched the book out of my hands.
“The Vampire Lestat?” Said Sadie.
“I bet she dreams of having a vampire lover. Don’t you, Val?” said another girl with dark hair.
Before I could say anything, she flipped through the pages and began reading the more lurid passages to the table. They were all cackling like mindless idiots.
I raised an eyebrow. “I didn’t even think you could read,” I said softly.
“I bet you she’s some kind of devil worshiper,” whispered the dark-haired girl.
The bell rang, I looked around the cafeteria for staff, there was no one there just a sea of students heading out, Sadie and the other girls glaring at me. I grabbed my backpack and made it toward the exit.
“We’re not done with you slut!” said Sadie.
“What up Dracula’s daughter?” said Sadie’s boyfriend, Robbie. He was on some sports team at school. I forgot which one.
“Nothing, I was just going to class before I was rudely interrupted by your idiot group.”
“Call me an idiot again. I’ll make sure you’ll regret it,” he said.
“You just threatened me with assault,” I said. “I’m going to report this.”
“My dad’s a cop. It’s not going to stick. I could make you disappear, and no one would question us,” said the young man by Sadie’s side.
I sprinted to my next class, looking behind me to see if they were following, thankfully they weren’t. I was slightly out of breath as I sat down at my usual desk and unpacked my bag. The whole class was staring at me as I pulled out my history book to study.
Mr. Russo padded up to me slowly.
“Um, Ms. Valerie, are you all right,” he said under his breath.
“I’m fine, just running a little late sir, it won’t happen again, I assure you.”
“Valerie, you’re crying, if you want to see the counselor-“
“No one listens to me, Sir. I need to focus on my GPA. It’s the only thing that will get me out of here.”
He sighed and lowered his eyes. “Ms. Valerie, I’m going to write you a note to go to the nurse’s office to clean up.”
I took the note and went to the nurse’s office. I cleaned up my face and drank some water. Wanda, the school nurse, was a kindly lady in a light pink sweater and salt and pepper hair.
“Are you sure you don’t want to see the principal or guidance counselor?”
“They’d just twist it around on me until I looked like the instigator, it’s not worth it,” I said.
“How did you know?”
“You wouldn’t be the first girl that ended up here because of her. She used to be such a nice girl, bright and cheerful, but lately, she’s been awful. Just because her boyfriend is the sheriff’s son doesn’t mean she can walk over everybody.”
“I’m getting my GED and attending a community college. I’m already taking advanced placement courses. There wouldn’t be much difference,” I said.
“Why don’t you take the rest of the day off? I’ll write you a hall pass. You have near-perfect attendance. I don’t think goin’ home early once will hurt your record.”
“Thank you.” I took the pass from her and headed out to my car since I was leaving early, the halls were blessedly empty.
Winding mountain roads and deep forest surrounded me as I drove home. The woods parted to the town of Junction. It was a tiny village with a few houses, a gas station, and a post office, at the end of the community, lay ruins of an old ironworks from the 1800s. A brick structure was twisting in decay at the foot of the mountain pass. There were rumors of a bad fire nearly a century ago that left the factory in ruin.
I drove down the long driveway to my family’s house. It was a decent-sized cabin with a wooded yard. I carefully opened the front door and slipped inside. My parents were at work, and my sister wouldn’t be home for the next few hours, so I had the house to myself.
Under my bed were books I hid from my parents. My family was staunch Baptist. I didn’t want to hear the arguments from them. I already had enough drama about how I dressed, let alone the lectures I would receive for practicing witchcraft.
I had books on spells, demonology, and the occult as well as Wicca, Paganism, Buddhism, and Voudoun. I rummaged around and found the book I needed; ‘Protection and Reversal Magik.’
Flipping through the pages, I found a spell on building a ward of protection. I didn’t want to hurt Sadie, but I wasn’t going to be a victim either. Do no harm, but take no shit.
After studying, I went to bed and woke up late at night. I gathered the spell-book, and a small bag packed with chalk, a few tiny candles, incense, a lighter, and salt. I put on a long black robe and a small wand that carved out of olive wood.
I crept out of the cabin into the night. The road was empty as I walked to the old ironworks. I wanted someplace private I could cast my spell and move on with my life. Perhaps I would even free a spirit or two that was trapped there. In the middle of the factory was crumbling brick with a chimney reaching towards the stars.
In the middle of the ruin stood Sadie, her eyes had turned black, Robbie stood behind her. His eyes were black too. His shadow was inky and angular. Too angular to be human. I could only catch a glimpse of it before it disappeared. Only to return on the opposite wall, a black shadow with jagged angles and tendrils. This was some demon, some monstrous entity that had corrupted Sadie and Robbie, what in the hell did I get myself into?
“I want her to pay in blood,” said Sadie.
The book was heavy in my hands. I had the knowledge to do something about this, and I was here fully armed against it. I could lose horribly and be creatures’ mercy. The olive wand trembled in my hands. I fumbled to find a page with an exorcism spell and found nothing. I would have to improvise. Do no harm, but take no shit. It was now or never.
I grabbed a handful of salt and flung it into the shadow. Sadie and her boyfriend recoiled and made a hissing sound, smoke coiled black as the shadow itself. I brandished my wand:
“I cast thee out by the name of the elements, Air, Fire, Earth, and Water!”
The creature hissed again and backed away slowly.
“I cast thee out of thine host and among roots of the earth!”
I flung more salt. Sadie screamed and recoiled. Robbie grabbed me, his hand squeezing my throat, my vision darkened.
“Down and out, amongst the stones and roots!” I screamed and chanted over and over.
A loud inhuman shriek cracked through the darkness. A force yanked Robbie away from my neck and clear across the floor. He lay limply.
I got up and coughed hard, catching my breath. My throat burned, and my neck felt bruised. I went over to Sadie and grabbed her arm.
“Come on. We have to run!”
She nodded and got up; she ran so fast that she pulled me behind her. Gravel slid beneath me as I hitched up my long black robe to run faster. The inky shadow was further and further behind us. We made it back to my cabin.
“It’s safe in here, but I need you to be quiet,” I said.
“What the fuck just happened?” asked Sadie, tears were streaming down her eyes, and her nose was running.
“I.. I don’t know. An exorcism, I think, shh, just go in.”
I carefully unlocked the door to my house. We walked upstairs quickly and silently. Once in my bedroom, I threw down a line of salt lining the entrance.
“This is my abode; Hecate, protect it from darkness and spirits unknown.” I chanted as I held my wand against the door. I felt pressure, and then the room felt brighter and lighter.
Sadie stared at me, her jaw agape.
“We’re safe here,” I said, deflating to the floor.
“What was that thing?” Sadie asked.
“I don’t know whatever it was. It isn’t good.”
“It has Robbie. You have to go and help him, please!”
“We’re lucky we made it out alive, I don’t think I can fight that thing-“
“You have to try!” her face was bright red, and her nose was running.
“Look, give me some time, I can build up a way to banish it for good.”
She started to tremble, and I sat by her, she put an arm around me and began to sob.
“Val, I’m sorry for how I treated you.”
“It wasn’t you; it wasn’t even a person,” I sighed. “Don’t you worry, I’ll find some way out of this.”
I let Sadie sleep on my bed as I studied my books for a solution. In my demonology book, I found a small section on exorcisms. The chapter warned against trying such a feat without years of training or alone. Demons and evil creatures hated strong will and faith. It didn’t specify a religion. Hell, an atheist only needed enough confidence in themselves to do one. (Then again, an atheist wouldn’t believe any of this was happening to begin with and try to find a rational explanation).
Even with faith, it was perilous. I didn’t know any other occultist, at least not outside of small internet circles. I couldn’t go to our family pastor without outing myself as a witch. Once again, I was on my own with this.
We walked into school the next day. The halls were silent. People stared at Sadie, and I, cupped hands whispered into ears. She parted from me, and I went to my morning classes. At lunch, I noticed Sadie sitting alone, tears running down her face. I sat next to her.
“It’s still controlling him,” she sobbed barely above a whisper.
I looked over to the next table, and Robbie was there with the pack of popular girls. The dark-haired girl twined around his arm. Inky, angular shadows surrounded the group.
“Looks like our little Satanist has found a lesbian lover,” she smirked. They all broke out into tittering laughter.
“Leave us alone!” said Sadie.
“Or what, you’ll leave me behind to make out with a Witch?” said Robbie.
“Shh,” I said under my breath, “remember, it’s not them.”
“You have to fight them,” Sadie whispered.
“Not in public. I’ll go back to the ruins tonight to see if it comes back.”
Sadie nodded, her shoulders shook. Her eyes were red and swollen by tears. I had had years to build up a thick skin to being bullied and being laughed at and alone. I focused on my school work all these years and built a wall of sarcasm to protect me.
“Robbie, you’re just upset because your girlfriend thinks I’m better in bed,” I smirked. “Maybe try being less vanilla. I’m sorry you’re all bigoted homophobes. You’ll have to greet all types in your future Walmart careers.”
The bell rang. I wish I could have brought Sadie to my AP classes with me. At least the students there were mature enough to keep opinions to themselves. I walked to the guidance counselor’s office and asked for programs on independent study or an early transfer to community college.
After school, I went to the parking lot to find the tires of my car slashed. I went back to the principal’s office and made a report, the police were called, including Sheriff Collins, Robbie’s dad. My stomach dropped, and I knew that this would go nowhere. I would have to report it to my insurance and wait for the claim to settle.
“I can give you a ride home.”
I turned around and saw Sadie. Her curly caramel hair was disheveled, and her eyes looked red and tired.
“Thank you, I’m sorry about today,” I said.
“How do you live with it?” she asked. “How can you stand how people treat you?”
“With a lot of sarcasm and condescension,” I said. “I know you don’t want to hear this, but you get used to it after a while. You learn not to trust people either. Even I have bad days where I break down. I was planning to leave school, not drop out, but graduate early. I don’t have to deal with this bullshit anymore. I never want to see this town again.”
She burst into another round of tears. “I’m so sorry for the way I treated you!”
“It wasn’t you,” I said.
“It was, that…… that thing may have been on me, but it didn’t have complete control. It would whisper to me. It would tell me such mean things. But it didn’t make me say anything. I could’ve ignored it.”
“Ok, ok, I forgive you,” I said. “Right now, I just want to go home.”
Sadie drove a white Chevy Malibu. We drove in silence to my house in the woods.
“Look, I’m going to go to the ruins tonight and try to fight this thing,” I said
“I’m not strong enough to fight this creature on my own. I need you there as back up.”
“I’m scared. I have no idea what I’m doing. Look, you’re the witch. I mean, you have magical powers or something.”
“It’s afraid of faith,” I said. “Bring a Cross or a Star of David, or a Pentagram or crystal or a lucky sock, whatever you believe. I’ll do most of the work, but I need someone else there.”
She took a deep breath and nodded again. “I’ll see what I can do.”
I tried to keep my mind off of the night ahead by studying. I worked on a term paper for a few hours, going to the kitchen to grab some leftovers. My parents engrossed in reality shows. I told them about my car and that I reported it to insurance. My father said he would call a tow truck in the morning and continued to watch T.V.
I gathered my materials, a bag of salt, my olive wand, and some spring water that I left in the moonlight. It wasn’t Holy Water in the traditional sense, but it was the best that I had. The evil creature was afraid of force, afraid of will, fearful of faith. Do no harm, but take no shit.
After my parents went to bed, I left the house quietly. The full moon shone overhead, casting blue light on the gravel road towards the ruins. Wood creaked under my feet as I entered the crumbling structure.
“Sadie?” I called out softly.
I saw a body hanging limply from one of the brick pillars in the silver light. It was Sadie, her curls dangled over her face, and her eyes were still open.
“Poor girl, it seems she wasn’t strong enough to handle ridicule,” a raspy voice whispered in the darkness. “She’s not strong, not like you.”
“Down amongst the trees and out upon the roots!” I shouted. I saw Robbie as he flinched and moved back.
Fumbling with the bottle, I splashed all the holy water into his face. Steam poured off of his shadow, and he wailed in pain.
“Down amongst the trees and out into the roots! Leave, go back to whence you came! BEGONE!”
Robbie hissed and shuddered a bit. The dark angular shadow began to lift from him. I pushed every bit of energy and will through my olive wand.
Another shudder. Dizziness struck me, and my legs felt limp. I took a deep breath.
“By Gaia, Hecate, Bridgette! By Fire, Earth, Air, and Water. By Moon, Sun, Earth, and Stars, I order you GET OUT!”
The shadow made a ripping sound, and Robbie screamed. Then there was disturbing laughter. “That was a valiant attempt, little Witch,” said Robbie. “I haven’t fought anyone that came close to beating me. Because you amuse me, I’ll let you live.”
My mouth fell open.
“There have been others before you. All the chants with “The Power of Christ Compels You!” he laughed. “None of it even came close to you. I think our dear Reverend only cares about the collection plate.”
He smiled wistfully. “But you, you get called a Satanist, face ridicule and cruelty every day and have more faith in yourself than he does. This is very amusing, and I respect you for that.”
“BEGONE!” I yelled.
Robbie chuckled and put his finger over my lips. “You won’t speak about this to anybody. I’ll report Sadie as a suicide, nothing to do with you. The mean girls will get blamed for bullying her. You’ll go on to get excellent grades and graduate early. You’ll leave this town altogether and not look back.”
I went to cast again, but my lips sealed shut, my tongue felt like a stone in my mouth.
“The thing is, y’all have it wrong. You’re trying to cast some demon or evil spirit out of me, thinking it’ll save me.” He shook his head and smiled. “I don’t hold host to a demon, sweetie. I am the demon. It’s just like you being a witch. You are what you are. Someone can’t perform an exorcism and make you stop being a witch. Just as you can’t cast my soul out from my own body.”
I wanted to scream at him, to take down this monster hidden in the flesh, but I couldn’t break whatever silence he threw on me. Scowling, I picked up my bag and stomped home defeated.
The next day at school, the mean girls were all in tears. Sadie’s suicide was all over the local news, and there were grief counselors. There was an assembly about bullying and planned a memorial service. People that I never even knew said their apologies for the way they treated me. Some also asked me to tutor them.
I wanted to scream out, to tell the police the truth about what happened. Every time I went to say something, my mouth sealed shut, and my tongue felt leaden. Robbie walked by, putting his finger over his lips and smiled. I wanted to punch his teeth out, but I had no other choice than to swallow my rage.
The rest of the year went smoothly. I graduated early and enrolled at State University. I made friends that had similar interest and accepted me for who I was. There was some tension with my family but could finally be myself. I moved forward with my life and didn’t much think of the town or high school.
Years later, I was getting ready for work and watching the news. Robert Collins was running for governor, and his numbers showed he was winning. I saw dark, angular shadows looming around him. Blank soulless eyes stared right at me through the camera. Monsters never go away; they get elected.
My Friend's Bed Was Haunted by Sexual Energy
It was nearing one, dark and nasty without, and I was longing for a nice long nap in my hotel room when Henry’s turn came. I thought that the woman before him, a middle-aged blond in a brown leather jacket, would never leave. But thankfully Mr. Preston, the owner of the shop, ushered her away in his prissy manner.
I smiled at the man whom I did not recognize as Henry. He was tall and pale, his wavy black hair limp and lusterless, the flesh of his face tight and his eyes an unhealthy pink which bespoke sleepless nights. He smiled wearily yet warmly.
Without a word he passed me his copy of Night Terrors. “And how are you today?” I asked as I sat the book down, my blue Sharpie pen, the second one of the day, poised.
“Just peachy,” he croaked, and I at once knew the voice. I looked up, and Henry was still grinning as if through pain.
“Henry!” I cried happily, and extended my hand. He took it, and it was like a block of ice.
I and Henry were like brothers since time out of mind; our parents were high school friends who lived next to each other in the Pickett subdivision on Thomas Street, and from diapers we were always together, on play dates, camping trips, and backyard pool parties. We were inseparable all through our school years, and only parted, tearfully and grudgingly, when I left Picketts Meade to study at UVA in 1997. Since then, we had seen very little of each other, as I lived mostly in New York City and he in the house willed to him by his childless aunt and uncle.
“Hey, man,” he said, “what’s goin on?”
“Not much,” I said, “same old stuff. Working and all that. What about you?”
He shrugged. “Same here, pretty much. Listen, are you free this afternoon?”
“Sure, what’s up?”
“I got a ghost,” he said, as though the words were kidney stones.
“Sure, I’d be happy to come by.”
Henry smiled again. “Thanks. You know where my aunt’s old place is, right?”
“Ahhh, no, I forgot.”
“Okay, here.” Henry pulled out his wallet and opened it. In the translucent slot where preening fathers proudly put pictures of their children, there was a faded Polaroid of two boys, one tall and skinny, the other short and fat, at a lake on a summer day in 1988, mugging it up with their arms thrown around the other’s shoulder. I had the same one in my wallet.
Henry produced a small piece of creased paper and, with my pen, jotted down the directions.
“I’ll be there at around four or so,” I said, sticking the paper into my blazer’s breast pocket.
“Thanks a million, man, I can’t tell you the kinda shit I been goin through.”
“I can imagine.”
“Good book; is it number one?”
I snickered. “Ahead of Glenn Beck? I wish.”
Henry shrugged. “Still a classic. I can’t believe some of the shit. All of it’s real?”
“As you and I,” I replied. I jotted down my name and a small, personal message onto the inside cover, and handed it back to Henry.
“I’ll see you,” he said. “I’ll be there,” I responded with a smile.
Almost two hours later I left the bookstore by the back door, emerged into a narrow ally of grimy brick walls, and carefully crept toward busy 5thstreet. Above, the sky was malevolently silent.
Before leaving the relative safety of the alley, I looked both ways along the sidewalk, and found it empty save for several rushing, bundled forms. For a moment I was reminded of those old shots of The Beatles running from mad throngs of screaming women through the streets of London, and smiled.
I stepped into a freezing gust and hurried up the sidewalk, passing drab storefronts darkened by the gloomy afternoon light. A Ford Focus passed by on the street in a splash of puddled rain, its red taillights glowing satanically in the mist.
Ahead, a brave hotdog vendor, possibly a transplanted New Yorker, stood tensely behind his cart, ready to feed the world. He offered me a taste of his wares, and the almost desperate imploring of his voice touched me. Imagining poverty and mounting bills, I bought a small fountain Coke even though I wasn’t thirsty, and almost as soon as I was out of sight I cast the cup into a metal trash bin, the clanking ice cubes within having sapped the heat from my hand.
Slowly the scenery bled into one of the residential. Dirty Brownstone tenements marched dismally into the ashen day, their crumbling stoops guarded by rusted metal sentries overflowing with rank refuse.
I finally came to the small lot where I had left my Jeep in-between a pick-up truck and a hatchback. The latter was gone, replaced by a small red Beetle. I fished the keys from my pocket and opened the driver side door.
Behind the wheel, I started the engine and the radio came to life with one bland Taylor Swift song or another. Before leaving I slipped Krokus’ Change of Address into the CD player, and slowly cruised back the way I had come.
Several minutes later I took a sloping onramp and met the babbling interstate; before I joined the flow I waited for several large Mac trucks to scream by in their shrouds of water mist. The meager Richmond skyline stretched away to the east, interrupted only by the wide river which bisects the city. Maybe it was the mood and light of the afternoon, but the city seemed a deserted necropolis, the buildings bizarre Druid ruins rising black against the sky.
Once on the interstate I noticed that several idiots cars next to mine were busy blabbering into their cell-phones or texting. I’m not the kind of guy who wants to ban this and that, or the kind of asshole who preaches his opinion to everybody, but I know what can happen on a freeway when someone wants to whip out the old Droid and chat.
One girl, with wet black hair and dressed in a loose white t-shirt, flipped me off when I motioned hang up and drive.
Women, I thought with a grin, they taste good…but the heartburn!
I soon took rural Exit 154 and coasted into the parking lot of a small roadside gas station fed by a narrow hillside lane. I pulled under the gas-pump shelter and killed Marc Storace in the middle of Burning up the Night. I searched my hip pocket and checked the directions again. The name of the town was Fairfield, not too far north of the city.
I got out into the damp and filled the jeep up with juice, wincing at the price. With that done, I crossed the open space between the pumps and the store, my hair dampening, and entered.
After waiting for a white man in a mossy oak camo cap to buy a six pack of Bud Ice and a black woman to purchase a pack of condoms and tampons (an ungodly mix, if you ask me), it came my turn. The wispy old man behind the counter, wearing country regulation suspenders over his button up work shirt, studied me for a long moment.
“Hey, you’re that writer fella, aintcha?” he asked with a rough smile, revealing that his teeth were mostly black or tarnished gold.
Despite a swelling of pride in my chest, I wanted desperately to avoid an embarrassing scene.
“Hm. You look a lot like ‘im. She loves all that damn ghost huntin’ garbage.”
I paid for the gas, and the old man wished me a good afternoon with a crooked grin.
Once back in my car, I again studied the directions, trying to absorb them so that I wouldn’t have to constantly consult them in transit.
Feeling confident that I could make it on my own, I started up the engine and followed the ascending byway toward Fairfield.
I soon left behind all urban pretense and found myself speeding through low hills and tiny hamlets made up of slanted wood structures decades past their prime. It had begun to rain more steadily. Crossing the murky Roman River, I saw that it had overflowed its banks.
The winding lane took me past yet more hilly farmland enclosed by strands of barbed wire, putting me slightly in mind of northern England. When I came to the outer limits of Fairfield, which sat across another, smaller, swollen river, I was greeted by a white board sign proclaiming it as The Nicest Town in America.
Main Street, lined with gray brick shops dating from the 1920s, sank down into the rest of the town, from which a white church spire rose into the air, and a blue water tower next to a tall brick schoolhouse loomed supernaturally forth from the thick valley mist. The sidewalk boasted fiery trees, the embers of which carpeted the wet concrete.
At the four-way intersection, the only cars that I met were a station wagon going to the east part of town, a minivan heading back the way I had come, and an SUV going down into the heart of the town, which lied spread before the hill like a fog enshrouded dream.
I took the left and followed the street for a time, passing a small doctor’s office and the police station. The big roll-top doors of the local volunteer fire department were open, and I glimpsed several men in the gloom lazily wiping down the sleeping green dragon within. A group of children struggled down the sidewalk with crammed backpacks dragging along the wet pavement. A boy on a ten-speed bike shot past them and hung a sharp right, taking a small dead-end road ending at the foot of the hill. In the rear view mirror a large yellow school grinded to a halt, the red lights on its mounted stop sign blinking rhythmically. Teenagers tumbled out and hurried across.
Lee Street was an odd mix of ranch and Victorian houses, all beautiful and tastefully enclosed by hedges or withering gardens. A few of the larger homes were sectioned off with low stone walls waist high to a man.
The last house on the left was tall and narrow, dating back at least to the latter half of the 1890s. With spires and gingerbread trim it affected a stately air.
I parked along the street and sat for a moment, memories washing over me. I and Henry had come here several summers during our childhood. Being unable to have children, Jo and Oscar doted on us so much it was almost cloying. They were rabid antique collectors, and spent thirty happy years hoarding history together before Flight 93 went down over Pennsylvania on the eleventh of September, 2001.
I killed the engine and got out into a brisk slap of wind. After waiting for a minivan to swoosh past, I crossed the street. The grass along the flagstone walk was encroachingly tall, and I wondered if Henry’s ghost had hidden his lawnmower.
I bounded up the porch and knocked on the door. I waited in the cold for a moment, a wind from the west raking my flesh. Finally, as I cocked my fist to knock again, the door opened, and was filled with Henry, dressed as he had been at the bookstore.
“Hey, man” he greeted and moved aside.
“Long time no see,” I smiled. Stepping across the threshold, I was immediately struck by the heaviness of the atmosphere, crushing down on me like the world upon Atlas’s shoulders. I staggered, and Henry at one grabbed my arm and helped steady me.
“Uh-oh,” he said, “I don’t like that.”
“I’m fine,” I lied, looking suspiciously about myself, “just tired.” I didn’t at once remember what such a black heft meant, but I did know that it wasn’t good. At all.
“Well, if you wanna go back…”
“Nah,” I dismissed, “I’m alright.”
“Okay,” Henry said and led me from the shadowy foyer and into a wide parlor. A large bay window, an ugly modern addition, sat across the room, uncurtained. Save for tall, dusty bookshelves along either wall, the only other furnishings in the room were a couch piled with tangled blankets and a pillow, and two armchairs.
Henry showed me to one of the chairs and took the one across from me.
“So, what’s up? How’s life treating you?”
I sighed. “Alright. I hate the touring, though. I can’t stand being on the road.”
“Ah,” he dismissed me with a wave of the hand, “you always were a little homebody. I love the open road. Nothing like it. You want a drink?”
“Coke,” he warned me.
He laughed and moved off to the kitchen, leaving me alone in the room. The dark feeling pressed down on me harder than it had been, compressing my chest. I tried to take a deep breath, but was unable. It was like standing on a high butte overlooking a strange plain in a dark world, the air thin and sour.
Henry returned with two Cokes. He handed me one and sat back down. “Sorry they’re not cold. I just bought ‘em on the way back.”
“That’s fine,” I said, opening mine and taking a long drink. Henry sat his between his legs.
“I saw you on Ghost Hunters last month,” he said with something like pride, “I was over at my old girlfriend’s house and when your mug popped out, I about went crazy. “Hey, I know that guy!””
My appearance on the popular SYFY Channel show had been little more than a publicity stunt engineered by my agent. I was against it from the first, but ending up going on anyway. The target was a 13th Century castle on an Irish bluff overlooking the crashing sea. Supposedly, a family of werewolves had lived there in the sixteen hundreds.
“They’re a sham,” I said, glancing around as if expecting a hostile apparition to materialize. Maybe I was.
“Those attention whores,” I said, referring to the ‘ghost hunters’. “There weren’t any ghosts. It was all faked. The noises. The mist. All of it.
“I figured,” Henry said, “they usually are.”
“I guess,” I looked around.
“Yeah.” Henry finished off his Coke and sat the empty can at his foot.
“So, what have you been doing?” I asked, “just hanging out?”
“Yeah,” he said, “aunt Jo and uncle Oscar weren’t rich. They had money, but not much. The way the recession’s going, I’m probably gonna have to go back to work soon.”
“Sometimes I wish I could just stop writing and investigating and all that and just live off my books’ proceeds,” I confided, “live the life without doing the work.”
Henry chuckled. “You’re lucky; you got a kick-ass job. I’m most likely gonna end up at Food-Lion or something.”
“Gotta start somewhere,” I said. “Maybe we can write a novel together.”
Both of us had tried as children to write our own horror stories. Henry’s were mostly better than mine.
“Maybe,” he seemed to taste the idea.
I opened my mouth to reply, but a stiff gust of wind slammed into the house, and I jolted.
Henry laughed. “Scared?”
I shook my head. “No, not really. I just…well, what exactly are we dealing with, here?”
Henry sobered, his face darkening. “I…I been thinking how to word this for a while now.” He paused. “You ever hear that phrase La petite mort?”
I missed a beat. “What?”
“You know, that French metaphor? It refers to a state of euphoria after you “finish.””
“Yeah, I know.”
Henry sat grasping for a moment. “People believe that some kind of spiritual lifeforce is…expelled when you cum. Somehow that’s like dying or something.”
“Uh-huh,” I nodded awkwardly.
“And in Ghosts and Ghouls, you said that some people think a ghost is just…leftover human energy. Right?”
“The atheists and agnostics in the field, yes.”
“Do you think it’s possible that…that release of energy can leave a…a ghostly residue?”
I laughed. “Henry, that’s just a metaphor; it doesn’t mean anything.”
“Are you sure?”
I opened my mouth, but closed it again. I couldn’t honestly say that I was.
“What…what makes you ask that?”
“It’s my bed,” he replied darkly.
He nodded. “Remember Sarah Kerns?”
For a moment I drew a blank, and then an angular face framed in raven hair materialized before my mind’s eye.
“Sure,” I said, “your girlfriend in eighth grade. What about her?”
“Remember how she moved over the summer, before we started high school?”
I nodded. Her father was in some kind of business that forced him to relocate often. I can’t remember what it was, though.
“The night before she left, she came over to my house and we did it...”
“Alright,” I urged, and then it dawned on me. “You still have the same bed, don’t you?”
He shrugged. “Never saw a good reason to get rid of it.”
“And you’ve…done a lot in it, huh?”
“A lot,” he admitted.
“And now you think…what, all that combined energy has created a sort of ghost?”
“Look, I know it’s crazy, but just hear me out, okay?”
Henry took a deep breath and began.
Several weeks before crying out to me for help, he told me, he had been lying awake in bed. It was a windy night and he was as far from sleep as a man can get, so, as he watched the darkened ceiling, he let his mind drift unfettered. He had always had a fertile imagination, and was entertaining himself with undisclosed fantasies when, all of a sudden, the foot of the bed lurched to one side, as though booted by an angry WWE star after an in-ring betrayal.
“Man, that scared the shit outta me,” Henry said. “I froze up and just laid there for a minute. Then it happened again, and this time I got knocked off.”
Frightened, Henry jumped up, fell in the sheets tangled at his feet, and flew down the stairs.
“I sat here in the living room for a little while. After a half hour or so, I decided it was a nightmare and went back up. In the room, I flipped on the light switch and…”
He was quiet for a long moment, looking down at his ashen hands. “And there was a fuckin dead girl spread out on the bed, covered in blood and shit.”
I gasped softly at this, my heart freezing in mid beat.
“You’re sure?” I asked incredulously.
He nodded without looking up. “Yeah. And she looked like Hanna Giles…you remember her, right?”
I did. She was a cheerleader during school, a tall drink of blond perfection. She and Henry spent much of the 11th grade getting hot and heavy together before he grew bored and found another conquest.
“And…and she…sat up, her fuckin eyes were black and she had these long Dracula fangs. She opened up her legs and…fucking blood gushed out.”
He stopped at my hiss of horror. “It looked like…you know, in The Shinning, when that elevator opens up in the beginning?”
I nodded, my mouth slightly agape.
“I saw that shit and lost my mind. I ran out the front door and down the street. Spent the rest of the night in a booth at the diner, too afraid to come home.”
In the morning, Henry stretched out in the parlor.
“I was having dinner the next day. A buffalo chicken Hungry Man. So, I was sitting at the kitchen table eating, when something above my head, in the room, crashed against the floor. And right after, I heard this long, high pitched laugh.”
Stiff with terror, Henry remained unmoving at the table for nearly an hour before packing up and going to a motel for a few days.
“I was starting to think it was a nightmare, but when that shit happened…”
Henry eventually returned, convinced that the “ghosts”, while frightening, were harmless.
“So, one night, I got brave and went back upstairs to see what would happen.”
After several uneventful hours, Henry was on the border of sleep when something, something cold and dry, wrapped around his throat.
“It felt like hands, little…you know, a woman’s hands.”
The world grayed as Henry clawned at the phantom hands to no avail. He nearly collapsed into death before they suddenly and inexplicably spared him.
“That was the other night. I was about to leave, go get a motel or something, but I heard you were coming down, so I thought I’d see if you could help me.”
For a long moment I sat in brooding silence.
In 1999, I left school to work for a noted regional paranormal researcher named John Haggis. I accompanied him on many outings, most of them busts. Only three confirmed cases of the genuinely supernatural came across our desk in the three years I worked with him, one of them being the demonic haunting of a bar in Headwaters, a tiny hamlet nestled in the Shenandoah foothills southwest of Harrisonburg.
I learned several things from our experience there. One: Demons despise the presence of a professional. Two: While ghosts can, on extremely rare occasions, possess human beings, only demons can shapeshift and actually harm someone without the use of a human agent.
“Have…have you ever smelled sulfur here?” I asked, my voice natural, at least to my own ears.
“Rotten eggs? No, why?”
“You’ve been left alone outside the room, right?”
“Yeah. What about the sulfur?” he seemed impatient.
I ignored him and looked from one shadowy corner to another, the house bathed in a sour, uneasy silence. I was shocked to find myself wanting to get as away from the house as I could.
“Henry,” I drew, my eyes darting apprehensively, “there…”
I stopped. How would he take hearing that a demon was in his house? But was it really a demon we were dealing with? I couldn’t be sure; I’m not, after all, a demonologist.
“What?” he asked, his tone low and worried.
If it was, then it appeared to be attached to the bed somehow, like a ghost to a favorite rocking chair…
“…I doubt that your ghost is made of girl goo.” I at length flashed a smile, hoping that it didn’t look too fake. “I’ve heard of similar cases, and they are relatively easy to deal with.”
“Really?” Henry’s face brightened for the first time all day, and his tone was one of a child in the presence of a shyster birthday-party magician.
“Yeah,” I said, “no problem. Tomorrow I’ll call some people and they’ll conduct…sort of an exorcism. It’ll be a breeze.”
Henry sighed, relieved. “Okay.”
I looked again from corner to corner. “Hey, you want to go and get some dinner, my treat?”
Henry smiled again, his dark eyes alight. “Sure.”
We took my car, and drove off into the thickening gloom. Main Street was busier than it had been when I entered town; it was past six, and people were returning home from work in droves.
“Take a left up here,” Henry said as we approached the four-way, “and go for about…five miles. Place called Ryan’s.”
I nodded, lost in thought. I would have to call Tom Youngblood, the only demonologist in the Richmond area, in the morning. And maybe I would have to call the Catholic Church in town, too. Then again, the church has tried in recent years to distance itself from the supernatural.
I took the left, and descended down into the heart of Fairfield. Queerly, about a mile of hillside between the upper and lower sections had been left undeveloped, and was currently a hopeless tangle of dead grass.
“Man, I feel like a weight’s been lifted,” Henry said as we passed the dark shops and rain sluiced sidewalks, empty save for the phantom trees along the edge. “You can really do all of this tomorrow?”
“Yeah,” I said confidently. I took a deep breath, and seemed to blow away all of the mounting worry crushing my chest. I only had to call Tom and a priest, and they would take it from there. They were experts. It might not be an easy break, but it would get done. Demons were actually weak in the presence of religious men; which is why I abandoned my former atheism.
“Good. I can’t wait to get this shit behind me. It’s been a living hell, you know?”
I nodded, and then realized that it was probably too dark for Henry to see. “Yeah, I bet it’ll feel really good.”
“Like a million bucks,” Henry said.
“And…get rid of the damn bed. I don’t think that what we’re dealing with is…what you thought, but just burn it. It’s possible that the ghost is attached to it for some reason.”
“Way ahead of you, man,” Henry said. “I’m gonna go down to Mattress Warehouse and get me a new one tomorrow.”
At the end of town, just before the beginning of the dark, wet woods, I slowed at the traffic light, pulling to a stop alongside a school bus; the small lights affixed to the ceiling within were on against the dark. I saw a few dark silhouettes through the rectangular windows, and ascertained from their distorted shapes that they belonged to the high school’s football team.
“And…don’t have all your fun in one place, okay?” I said as we got back underway, the bus falling behind in the darkness.
“I ain’t gonna have that kinda fun for a long time.”
“Yeah, bullshit,” I jested in hopes of further lightening the mood, “you can’t go a week without having sex with someone…or something.”
Henry chuckled. “Yeah? I once went a month without doin your mom.”
“She needed that long to stop laughing at your…handicap.”
Henry laughed. “Okay. Just wait till we get there; take you in the bathroom and show you what’s up.”
I snorted. “What’s limp.”
“It won’t be limp when I shove it down…”
The restaurant, a sparkling oasis cloaked in primal black, loomed so quickly from the darkness that I nearly missed the turn.
“Alright,” Henry said after I had slid us into a slanted parking spot facing the empty road, his penis forgotten, “let’s get some grub.”
“You look like a German Jew,” I said as we got out of the car, “you need a good meal.”
“Yeah, thanks, mom,” Henry said as we crossed the parking lot. Through the big front windows, we could see happy families sharing joyful meals in the warm brightness.
We came to the double doors, and both held them open for the shuffling passage of an elderly couple. “Thank you,” the old man rasped and nodded as he helped his wife past us and toward a silver Cadillac parked in one of the closest handicap spots. They were immediately followed by two teenage girls in gym shorts and pink tops.
“What is it with kids dressing like that when it’s cold?” I whispered as we entered the restaurant, assaulted at once by the good odors of many steaming, mingling foods.
“If you got it flaunt it,” Henry reckoned.
We walked up to the long lunch counter and took cups, silverware and plastic trays from a hotplate guarded from inconsiderate sneezers by smudged plastic. We waited behind a party of rowdy college students to pay the casher.
We paid the chipper blond behind the register and were shown by a young sleepy eyed man in a red t-shirt and black slacks to a booth along the far wall of the room, mercifully away from the main population. Henry was immediately off to fix himself a plate at the buffet.
I sat at the booth for a moment, looking around the brightly lit room. It was crowded with families, mostly, passing food and laughing over their tables.
After another moment of inventorying how many people I would have to pass to get to the drink machine, I got up and moved to the Coke island. Apart from the dispenser there sat a plain metal canister marked with the picture of a tall, frosty glass of chocolate milk looming forward like a favorite uncle. I considered for a moment, and finally decided to get the milk, the likes of which I haven’t tasted since I was a child.
As I drew the dark liquid into my clear cup, a beefy older man in a brown leather jacket walked unthinkingly up to the machine and filled his cup with Sprite, all the while gasping softly to himself about someone named Mony-Mony.
Sidestepping a yellow WET FLOOR sign at the head of a nasty spill, I went back to the booth where Henry sat, bent protectively over a plate of fried chicken and breaded shrimp. I took my plate and quickly filled it up with French fries, several times nearly colliding with a young boy in small glasses examining each bright pile of food as if he would die if he did not detect the poison on his choices. At the booth I splattered a liberal amount of Tabasco sauce on the golden potatoes and dug in, my chocolate milk standing dutifully by should I need its aid.
“Remember Donny West?” Henry asked around a mouthful of food. I nodded. Donny had been one of our friends as kids before his mother moved the family to West Virginia. A beefy kid with red hair and deep freckles.
“Yeah. How can I forget?”
“What?” I asked, a bit of fry falling from my mouth and landing on the plate.
Henry nodded and swallowed. “I talked to his sister on Facebook, and she said he was drinking and wrecked his car into a tree a couple years ago. Took two of his friends with him.”
“That’s horrible,” I said numbly. Though I had not seen Donny in years, to hear that a once close friend was dead broke my heart.
“You remember what he did on April Fool’s Day that one time?” I asked Henry after a long, respectful moment of silence.
Henry nodded. “He had balls to do that.”
Donny, much more a practical joker than even Henry, had run the Stars and Bars of the Confederacy up the flag pole before school started that day. What made it even funnier were the facts that no one even noticed until lunch, and that the school sat right on the main highway in Picketts Meade.
“Yeah,” I sighed, black, cancerous nostalgia flooding me. “The good old days.”
We then lapsed into a comfortable silence. After savagely stripping the meat from a chicken bone, Henry wandered off to treat himself to a cold dessert. I finished the last of my fries and polished off the chocolate milk, my burning mouth greedily absorbing the cool liquid.
After a return trip to the machine, meeting once again the boy who had been diligently studying for his buffet safety PhD (he wasn’t quiet as conscientious when it came to Coca-Cola), I placed myself in my seat and awaited Henry. He soon returned empty-handed.
“They all sucked,” he declared.
I did not reply, but suddenly realized that the ice cream machine was next to the soda and chocolate milk fountains.
Suddenly, from across the room, there came a loud racket, drawling the puzzled stares of patrons in the gulf between walls. From a door came a line of people dressed in red shirts and black pants. The person at the head of the rank, a rather fetching teen goth with long midnight hair and a generous bosom, held something in her hands, something aflame, for her strong angler face was awash in orange. The Ryan’s troops behind her were clapping.
With mortification I saw them making a B-line toward our table like a personified children’s show choo-choo. Now all of the bemused eaters were looking toward me and Henry.
“You bastard,” I said, turning to Henry. He was smiling and clapping flourishingly. I broke out in my own grin, my cheeks afire. “Oh you son of a bitch; real funny.”
The Ryan’s Birthday Army now surrounded my half of the booth, leering over me like grinning psychos and clapping madly. I hung my head in embarrassment as they sat a flaming birthday cake on the table before me. “Bastard,” I muttered, lowering my head, realizing that now all of the other patrons too were looking at me and clapping.
Then the singing started.
I could just imagine Henry going up to our hostess and stage whispering across the counter, his hand shielding his mouth from prying lip readers, Pissst; it’s his birthday, pointing in my direction.
Coming out of the Ryan’s parking lot nearly half an hour later, I took a right on the rain swept street and followed it back to town past several large comfortable southern homes boasting screened in front porches and spotlighted flags. Most of these were protected from the street by rusted chin link fences.
We were silent and content, our stomachs full.
Finally desirous of breaking the silence, but too stuffed with food and lazy to speak, I switched on the radio, picking up a station from southern Maryland. After a “local” newscast about a New York mobster choking to death in a King George pizza joint and the discovery of a well-known radical poet shot dead in a D.C. parking garage, Cyndi Lauper came on with Girls Just Wanna Have Fun.
“Your song,” Henry croaked from the passenger seat.
I changed the station. The Culture Club was singing about a Church of the Poisoned Mind.
“Damn, must be your night,” Henry snickered from the darkness.
“Shut up,” I replied, hitting the scan button; the radio settled for a station playing a Seether song.
Henry laughed. “I meant you like eighties music. I wasn’t trying to say you’re gay…not that there’s anything wrong with that.”
Pulling to the end of Henry’s street, I noticed that we had left none of the lights on when we departed; the thought of waltzing through the door into the pitch black slightly uneased me.
I thought of asking Henry to stay with me at the Marriot in Richmond rather than me staying with him, but quickly decided against it; we’d be safe in the parlor.
Putting down my own childish reluctance, I parked the car at the curb and killed the engine, shutting Kanye West off in mid-rant.
We entered the house and immediately repaired to the parlor, where Henry took care of stoking a warm fire into existence.
That done, he came back to his chair and sank with a pleasured sigh. “So, you gonna write about this?”
To be honest, the thought hadn’t crossed my mind. “Maybe,” I said. Of course I would. Would it make it into my next book? It had a better chance than some of the other cases I had. People love their supernatural when it’s really weird.
“Well…” Henry said, but was interrupted by a terrible crash from overhead, which shook the house and caused us to jerk in surprised fear.
“There it is,” he shivered.
Another long bang sounded upstairs, as if something had thumped to the floor.
I swallowed around a lump in my throat, and opened my mouth, but was forestalled by another loud crash, this one followed by a stomach-piercing moan.
“Maybe we should go,” I stammered, a sudden bubble of stark fear overwhelming my cool rationality.
Henry licked his lips and swallowed hard, his Adam’s apple bobbing.
I looked appraisingly up at the smooth ceiling above my head, partly hidden by the gloom. There was another thump that stopped my heart and froze my blood. A shower of fine plaster rained down upon me like hard snow, and I quickly averted my eyes to avoid it.
“Henry?” I panted breathlessly, wrestling with my own galloping fear.
“Fuck this,” Henry affirmed and moved to stand, “let’s…”
Henry had been whispering, as if worried about disturbing his inconsiderate guest, so I was able to hear the soft, terrible footfall. It was as if an electric shock ran through me, reducing my bones to jelly.
I heard it again, louder this time.
Henry’s eyes were wide. “Was that…?” he whispered superstitiously.
I gulped and nodded. “It sounded like it…
From the dark upstairs hall there came a soft, fugitive creak. Henry was now fully standing, his wiry body tense and rigid.
“Hennnryyyyyy!” drifted a thin and ghostly greeting.
“Jesus Christ!” I exclaimed, and bolted to my feet. I turned to the dark threshold into the rest of the hostile house, and saw nothing but playing shadows.
I spun on my heels. “We have to get the hell out of here!” I whispered incoherently, my mind reeling. There was no hope of using the front door. We would have to pass the stairs…
Henry stood slack in place, his eyes wide and seeming to vibrate with terror.
There was a more confident footfall from halfway down the staircase, and a definite swish like that of a passing priest’s cassock.
“Come on!” I screamed, my fear boiling over. I desperately regarded the window beyond Henry’s chair. It appeared wide enough for both of us to escape side-by-side.
I grabbed Henry’s wrist, but pulling him was like trying to move a wooden post set deeply in the ground.
“Come on, we gotta go, NOW!!” I screamed franticly, hearing the loud moan of the last step. Henry shook his head as if shaking away a dream and looked at me with frightened, pleading eyes. But before a word could pass between us he turned back to the threshold.
Hearing the horrible, damned-soul quality of his voice broke my resolve and nearly my mind. It was the high-pitched shriek of a child on finally seeing the thing under its bed and finding it far worse than imagined; it was the scream of a sinner being shown into his new abode in hell; it was the pitiful cry of a madman.
Fueled by mindless animal terror, I sprang for the window.
Forearms thrown protectively over my face, I crashed through with a cry, and sailed into the damp night in a shower of broken glass, my stomach throbbing in my throat. I hit the grassy ground with an umph and staggered to my feet, my knees watery and quivering.
Behind me, the laughter of madness turned into the orgasm of agony.