“Who Beareth the Body,” is the first chapter of the serial novel The Obsecration by Matthew M. Bartlett for Eyedolon.
"Who Beareth the Body”
The Obsecration (Part 1), by Matthew M. Bartlett
The Look Diner hunkers low at the far end of the lot by the tree line like a creature with its belly to the ground, preparing to pounce. In the orange-yellow panorama of booth-lined windows, silhouettes sit alone or in pairs. The sun, having been bullied back by clouds for the length of the afternoon, has given up and ducked behind the horizon to cower and to heal. To the west on Roaring Spring Road, cars with glowing eyes slide by through blue dusk. To the north the movie marquee that flanks the access road shouts non sequiturs at indifferent commuters.
Follow me now down the walk littered with curled up cigarette butts and discarded pennies, past the newspaper boxes with their cracked plastic windows, past the ransacked phone booth graffitied with peeled and faded stickers. Follow me through the front door into the carpeted vestibule with its gumball and decal machines and its faux-wood rack of unread pamphlets and leaflets. I pull open the interior doors, and we are greeted with a breeze redolent of bacon and burnt butter and overcooked beef. The colors are rust and umber, yellow tile speckled brown. The host’s podium stands vacant, a lectern bereft of its lector.
Let’s seat ourselves in the big booth at the corner, the one with the round table and the crescent-shaped seat. Though we are only two, and the table might easily fit six—seven if the patrons grab a chair—if it’s Lucy’s shift and her table, she won’t mind. The crumbs and water rings have been whisked and wiped away, and the surface of the table still shines, the swirling contours left by the dampened cloth fading even as we approach. The view will be best from here.
Why are we at the Look Diner tonight? It’s not for the tepid coffee or the waffles straight from the freezer, not for the overcooked beef and the butter-sotted toast. No. We are here because something is going to happen tonight.
Look, but don’t get caught looking. Make like you’re eyeing the tall blonde settling her bill over at the cash register. Or perusing the freestanding sign with its list of uninspired specials, written in multicolored neon on black, spangled with five-pointed stars and unnecessary apostrophes. Now let your glance slide over to the fat man at the centermost round table. His flabby belly hangs low between his thighs. Watch as he bends his neck, his white beard folding into an L, to peruse the menu, syrup-splotched and gilded along one side with a stretched-out teardrop of coagulated yolk. Propped up against his chair is his gnarled wooden cane, a silent confidant, a bulge-fisted familiar. The man’s chewed, dirt-lined pinky nail underlines the list of side orders line by line as his lips mouth the words, buffeting his mustache with halitosis-freighted wind.
The door dings, and two women, a bleached blonde and a dyed-too-black brunette, all long bare legs and teased hair, waft in on a wave of perfume and tobacco smoke. They whisper and titter as they bypass the podium and plop down on either side of the bearded man. The brunette rests the crook of her high heel on the edge of the table, her black shorts sliding up to reveal the moon-white curve of a buttock and a pink-splotched thigh crinkled with cellulite. The three converse in hushed tones as a waitress rushes over with two menus and silverware enshrouded in napkins.
Jake, the slender, acne-scarred busboy, peers out under the awning of pale-green guest checks.
“Behind you,” chirps Marci, bumping his backside with her prodigious hip as she sweeps by holding aloft a round tray teeming with milkshake stained glasses and plates caked with crusts and carnage.
Jake grunts a reply. Marci deposits the tray and swings back his way. She thrusts her face next to his, her warm ear grazing his. He winces at her excessive perfume, cloying, like plums just gone over. “Strippers,” she says. “Excuse me. Exotic dancers. They wriggle around on guys’ hard-ons at the Whately Ballet for a couple soggy dollars. But you probably already know that.”
“Behind you,” says Shantaya as she pushes past the two, a greasy cloth in one hand and in the other . . . well, how strange. For just a moment, it looks like she’s gripping by the neck a catatonic cassowary with a red wattle and panicked eyes. At second glance, though, it’s simply a dark colored spray bottle with a red trigger. Wipe your eyes, dig at the corners, but you can’t wipe away the surety: it was a bird and now it’s a bottle.
Standing at the griddle, a white-coiffed man hewn of oil, spit, and spindle is engaged in a staring contest with the bubbling Argus eyes of a dozen eggs, above them silver dollar pancakes sit like thought-bubbles. He flips the pancakes one by one, the veins shifting under the skin of his wiry arms, his eyes never leaving the eggs. It happens then, the thing he knew would happen. Two of the eggs . . . blink. A shimmering caul forms at the top edge and slides over the surface of each egg, briefly obscuring the yolks. They retract, and two yellow, blood-veined eyes stare up at him and pop apart audibly, droplets of blood springing into the air like water on the surface of a storm-shaken lake. He looks left, looks right. No one is watching. He flips the eggs into the trash barrel and cracks two more onto the griddle. The blood that remains on the griddle he scrapes to the far edge. He flips ten eggs, waits for the latecomers to cook. The surface of the griddle begins to expand and contract. It is a breathing thing. He closes his eyes and waits for it to pass. He opens his eyes, and it’s blessedly back to normal.
He puts his back to the grill and scans the dining room. Everyone is here. If it’s going to happen, he thinks, it’s going to happen soon.
Decades, centuries, aeons. Nothingness eternal. No one floated in nowhere. His awareness of his own nascent being blossomed slowly, over decades. It came to fruition at no time, at which nonpoint it raised up no arms to find its head and found nothing. It moved the no-arms lower to locate its hips and found none. Its no-hands passed through nothing. Nothing moving through nothing. The ghost of a ghost of a ghost of nihil. Decades, centuries, aeons. Nothingness eternal.
Excerpt: Abrecan Geist and the Hilltown Ten: An Oral History,
Gare, Anne, et al, Gare Occult, 1961
from the introduction by occult historian Michelet Hart
Parentage and ancestry be damned, to identify the point at which a being slides bloodily into the world is, at the risk of stating the appallingly obvious, a basic task of any biographer whose subject is reasonably (even if only regionally) well-known. In The Witch-Cult in Western Massachusetts, a slim compendium of hastily sketched biographies authored by Anne Gare under a pseudonym, the brief passage on Geist—suspected to actually have been penned by the dark mystic himself—indicates a birth year of 1622. We place Geist’s birth just over 250 years later. This distortion is part of a pattern of misinformation and prevarication peppered throughout his autobiographical writings and journals, borne of a strong desire to thwart biographers and historians and to perpetuate a kind of mythology about himself. He often wrote his diaries in the third person, and enhanced them with leaps of fancy ranging from negligible exaggerations to full blown fictions.
You will see in the following pages that longevity—preternatural and otherwise—is an abiding obsession of Geist’s.
Everyone is here.
Booth 1: A man, alone, a cup of iced water clasped in his hands. He wears 1982 like a costume. Feathered hair, prodigious mustache, denim cutoff shorts, iron-on tank top depicting dirt bikes in front of a dive bar. Carpenter boots and a class ring. A living collector’s item. Unopened, he’d be worth money. He is pale and haunted looking tonight, tense and taut, as though he’s unsure that this place is real, unsure that he’s really sitting here. Unease and desperate fear and relief trade places on his face. He furtively pushes his right hand—which for some reason is bright red—under the denim jacket that slumps beside him on the brown leather seat, lifts a corner, and looks under it. We can’t see from here what he’s hiding under there. His expression gives nothing away. He drinks the water dry and puts it at the edge of the table for a refill. He looks out the window at the dark trees, at the silent, leering moon. He checks under the jacket again. Panic is his companion tonight. It sits across from him, and he knows at any moment it might reach over the table and take him by the throat.
Bill Valerio sat astride the Toro mower like a red-shouldered king on a roaring, rolling throne. The hair on his freckled arms stirred in the breeze as he crested the small rise that marked the easternmost edge of the modest yard. Grass flew in slow motion up onto the twin movie screens of his mirrored sunglasses. Perspiration glistened, forming three thin streams along the finger-deep folds of his neck fat, gathering and rolling like a river down his back. His tongue poked out to taste the salty sweat in his mustache. With one hand, he turned the wheel left and aimed the whirring blades at a crescent of tall grass he’d missed on the first go-round; with the other, he adjusted the twisted shoulder strap of his tank top. His mind was fully immersed in the task, making order from disorder, drawing pleasing contoured lines in the frame around the prideful picture of his house.
It was a tick past high noon, the sun straight up in the blue sky, strewn with stretched out cotton-strand clouds. He had managed to make it through the hangover without puking up last night’s burger and fries, to get his head above floor level, even to stand stooping in the shower as the cool water flattened his hair and coursed down between his shoulder blades. The night before and into the morning he’d spent kicking back on the umbrella spangled deck of the King Crab with Kurt and Cal and Mikey, pounding down Natural Ice beers and rehashing all the old anecdotes, long since committed to memory, often recounted on boozy breath—the old standards. As indelible and seared-in as the classic rock from The Q-102 playing on the patio speakers, each opening chord met with a cheer signifying the thrill of the instantly recognizable. The waitresses were young and flirty, the food piled up and steaming hot, the mosquitos kept at bay by buzzing blue lanterns. The humidity was low and the peanuts plentiful. It wasn’t quite high school, pounding Black Labels by the pond and staying up until the horizon went pink, but for middle age, it would have to suffice.
He’d even, he thought, finally forgiven Kurt for stealing Missy from him. At first, he’d wanted to kill the prick, kill them both: drive over to Kurt’s and kill her in his bed and then on to the insurance company, drag Kurt screaming from his glass-walled office and hurl him three floors down into the courtyard to die among the plastic ferns, watch his blood pour out into the diamond pattern of the ugly carpet.
But that was only fantasy. Over time, the humiliation had become a disagreeable yet somehow comforting companion. It was next to him when he woke up sweating in his tangled sheets, it matched the speed of the Indian Roadmaster he rode five days a week to his shift at Leeds Electroplating, and it shone from the television, reducing his attention span to nothing and messing with his sleep on top of it all. Months of that. Now it was a ghost, fading in and out like a distant radio signal. It was almost gone. He was certain of it.
And last night, some old syrupy Eagles song oozed from the speakers, and he’d looked over at Kurt, who was laughing a big fake laugh at something Mikey had said, a glob of mustard in his mustache. How could he be mad at Kurt after so long? He couldn’t even remember what was so great about Missy. Sure, he missed the small sweet things about living with her, her small footprints in baby powder on the bathroom floor, the two of them being the most stared-at couple in the King Crab or at '70s Night at Leeds Lanes, her light snoring that helped him finally fall away into sleep on sweltering summer nights.
But those were the old days, never to return. Whatever he had to offer, apparently it wasn’t enough or wasn’t right or . . . or something. She was pretty as the Playboy models that both troubled and sweetened his adolescence, but the reality of her was something to contend with. To hell with her. To hell with her daily crying jags and her endless bitching about the hags at her job. Let Kurt have her. Let him find out what she’s really like.
Movement in his periphery shook him out of his brooding. Turning his head, he saw the source and slammed his foot on the brake, silenced the motor. It was a jogger, female, in tight shorts and a sweat-soaked green t-shirt, running along the curve of the cul-de-sac. But something was terribly, terribly wrong. Her neck was bent, folded, completely broken, but unbruised and unbloodied, and her head bounced around limply against her back, her upside-down face staring blank and unblinking at the world behind her. She jogged back down the street, turned the corner, and she was gone. He silenced the mower. Birdsong underscored by wind-ruffled leaves, the faraway barking of a dog . . . everything was as it had been. Everything but Bill.
With some effort and noise he dismounted the mower and made a beeline for the front door. Cut grass gathered on his toes. The sun shone hot on his head. His heart trotted in his chest. The house bounced before him as he ran, real and solid and knowable. To his baffled relief, the doorknob did not break off in his hand, and the vestibule was as solid as you would want. Everything was whole, everything was real: the tiled floor, the framed picture of sunflowers, the nick on the wall made by the bureau from when he’d helped Missy move out on another dismaying day not too long ago. He grabbed the cordless phone from the kitchen table and on his third try successfully dialed 911. He tapped his foot impatiently as the ringtone sounded in his ear. He tried to gather his words.
“911. What is the location of your emergency?”
“There’s a woman—an injured woman. She has a broken neck, um . . . badly broken.”
“What is the location, sir?”
“Somerset Circle. I’m sorry. 25 Somerset Circle. S. O. M . . .”
“Is she breathing, sir?”
“She’s . . . um, she’s running, ma’am. She’s probably on Long Farm Road by now.”
“Running? With a broken neck?”
“Please send someone—just please send someone.”
“They’re on their way, sir.”
He slid the phone into the pocket of his shorts and walked back to the foyer. The sweat had cooled, and its sour odor filled his nostrils. He was afraid to open the door, he found, afraid even to pull back the sidelight curtains and look outside. So instead, he stood, leaning slightly forward, and considered and immediately rejected a succession of rationalizations.
The knock on the door startled a grunt out of him, and he lurched forward and pulled open the door. “I told the operator, she’s not . . .” and the words fled.
Standing on the porch were two abominations that once had been policemen. Fat flies buzzed between and around them in clouds. The tallest floated about a foot off the porch. His neck was elongated, corrugated and collapsed, clouded with purple bruises. His eyes and tongue bulged, and he had swollen claws for hands. The second was a cadaver at the threshold of decomposition: sightless, cloudy eyes and slack lips, revealing the bottom row of teeth, all chipped and yellow. A too-white mannequin propped up oddly as though by invisible strings. The taller man began to try to speak, his dry lips trembling, emitting bubbling hisses and sputtering plosives. Tears of frustration formed in the red-brown swollen lids around his billiard-ball eyes. The two reeked of rot and shat pants.
“She went that way,” Bill said, pointing down the road, scrunching up his face, trying not to breathe, just wanting these things away from him, far away. The floating policeman turned and sailed back down the lawn to the car idling at the curve of the cul-de-sac. His partner leaned forward until his nose almost touched Bill’s. Bill froze. The dead thing sniffed at him and shook its tattered head sadly. “The world is a tool,” it said in a near-whisper that seemed to come from somewhere other than its mouth, “and we don’t know how to use it.
It turned and walked all herky-jerky down the lawn to join its partner in the car. The blue and red lights leapt into radiance and began to spin. The car sailed off down the street, turned the corner, and disappeared from view.
The fading reek lingered in the house, so Bill fled to the outside and breathed in the air like a drowning man who’d found his way out of deep water. He felt a rush of heat, and the world around him tilted and brightened. Angling a hand at his brow, he looked up at the sun, squinting, now squeezing one eye shut. Pink-tinged bubbles formed on the surface of that great glowing ball, pushing themselves into strange shapes like oil in a hot pan. A thrumming sound like a stadium full of cicadas shook the ground as a red fissure formed and expanded in the surface of the sun, and the sun shimmied, shivered, and clove gently and silently into two halves. Each half went round, and the two new suns moved slightly apart and then went a strange orange-grey. They crumpled slightly as though deflating. The sky coughed once. A thin, translucent, wrinkled film formed across its expanse and grew yellow and brown splotches like time-lapse mildew.
Bill fell to his knees and leaned back, put his hands over his eyes. Acrid saliva welled up over his tongue. He leaned forward and spat into the grass, his eyes squeezed shut and watering. He wiped at them with his hands, and when he opened them, he saw that the road had gone to water. Black water, not oil-black but deep wood-smoke black, reflecting no light. Topped with purplish foam, its countless pointed tongues lapped at the curb. And something new, something that for no reason he could name filled him with a stomach-clenching fear more than the splitting sun, more than the sky having succumbed to some kind of rot: chained to his mailbox, resting on his lawn, sat a wooden rowboat with a pair of oars in an X across the gunwale and a denim jacket draped over the seat.
Glass shattered in the house next door, and the front door flew open. Out stumbled Warren Broadhurst, barefoot, clad in only boxers and a white t-shirt stretched taut over his prodigious belly. His throat lay open like a torn away door. Just inside the gaping hole, muscles moved like red ropes along scaffolding of bone. His face looked like some kind of badly done replica, carved out of old wax. His hand clutched a large chef’s knife. He was cackling madly, stabbing at the air all around him. His eyes swung around and found Bill.
“Bill!” he shouted, his voice a painful-sounding rasp. “Everything’s gone hinky.”
As Bill watched speechless, Warren spotted the black water and the knife slipped from his hand, its blade sinking into the earth. His voice slipped to a lustful whisper. “Look at it,” he said. Rapture and awe filled his milk-white face. He lifted his t-shirt and threw it to the ground, yanked down and stepped out of his boxers.
“Warren, don’t,” Bill shouted. Or did he? He didn’t know if he’d shouted, mumbled, whispered, or even just let the words roll around in his brain.
Warren was running toward the water now, the flaps around his torn-out throat flapping, his little pecker bouncing, his belly high and round and pink. About four yards from the curb, he stopped and his face reddened. Warren looked down. Bill followed his gaze. For a moment, it appeared that grass had sprouted from the tops of Warren’s fat feet, but then Bill saw blood bubbling up and realized that grass had stabbed up through them.
All around Warren, the grass thickened and grew into long-nailed fingers. They tore at Warren’s feet and calves, tearing furrows that filled with blood. He began to execute a high-stepping dance, shrieking. It was like some sort of demoniac burlesque show. At that thought, Bill burst into hysterical, uncontrollable laughter. Tears bubbled at his eyes and streamed down his cheeks. He was shaken out of it by a long, wavering shriek. Warren had come down funny on one ankle and crumpled into the grass, which grabbed at him from all sides and plunged into his body.
Through his sandals, Bill felt a slight tickle and then little stabbing pokes at the undersides of his feet. The fear expanded from his belly, plunging into his groin and shooting up into his chest, slithering up his spinal column and lighting up his beleaguered brain. He bolted for the rowboat like a cartoon man trying to run on hot coals. He leapt in, shifted the oars aside and fell onto the bench. He could not look at whatever was becoming of poor Warren. Hearing it was enough. He looked down the road to the cross-streets, where the black water churned and bubbled. He looked up at the strange new sky. His ears rang and his tear ducts locked up. His heart slowed. And all at once, Bill Valerio put himself into a kind of existential Safe Mode, his non-essential components temporarily disabled. Most of the occipital lobe, sections of the temporal lobe—the parts of the brain that control reasoning and problem solving—went dark. His senses accepted input
the strange and shadowed sky
the black gelatinous water
the withered man sinking into the many-fingered grass
but no longer bothered with the hard work of interpretation. Arms dangling at his side, mouth slack and trembling, he slid the oars into their rowlocks, unhooked the chain that tethered him to what once had been real life, and pushed off into the unknown, the black waters slurping at the walls of the rowboat with lustful intent.
Excerpt: Abrecan Geist and the Hilltown Ten: An Oral History,
Gare, Anne, et al, Gare Occult, 1961
from Chapter 2: Boyhood
When you look at old pictures or film of a boy who is to one day become a great man, you search his eyes, his face, for the merest glimpse of that incipient greatness. By greatness, I do not necessarily mean goodness, virtue—I refer to the ineffable quality that means a man will change the world in some substantial way. You think you see it in a narrowing of the eyes, a glint of atavistic intelligence, maybe, or something knowing in the smile. But are you just reading in?
Here is Geist (at this point still Andrew Gass, his birth name before he reinvented himself in the wake of terrible events still a few merciful years away), sitting on a tree stump, a cap on his head, squinting into the sun. He is clad in a white shirt with suspenders, short pants. Neat as a pin. Is there something in his smile?
Here he is with classmates. His posture is one of nascent authority, of an educator or a pontiff, perhaps a professor. Some of the other boys and girls stare at him with reverence, some with attentiveness. Some look at him with wariness as though watching a muttering man with an axe enter a café.
A blinking light, red and yellow, found its way through Bill’s eyelids, and a fluttering breeze danced through his lashes and over his face. He opened his eyes to the too bright room, found Missy kneeling over him in a long t-shirt, flapping a Japanese paper fan at him. “Cut it,” he muttered, and she tossed the fan back over her shoulder where it clattered into the basket of gels and shampoos and skin care products on her mirror-backed dresser.
She affected an exaggerated look of contrition, then jabbed his collarbone with her ring finger. “Get up.”
He stretched out his arms and legs and arched his back and yawned mightily. He propped himself up on his elbows. The clock radio was blinking 12:00, 12:00, 12:00 . . . “What the hell time is it?”
“Noon,” she said. “And . . . noon. And noon and noon and noon. You never sleep this late. Musta needed it.” She tilted her head at him. “Bill, get up.”
“Let me just lie here,” he said as she swung her legs off the edge of the bed and sat. He opened one eye to look at the sweetly familiar symmetry of her back as she yawned mightily, clasping her fingers and stretching her arms. As she stood and went to the mirror to brush her hair, he closed his eyes again and let the rhythmic rasp of the brush lull him into half-sleep. Soon, though, a rising buzz moved about the room, and he opened his eyes to see a fly bumping against the ceiling.
“You wanna get that?” he said. Missy kept brushing her hair.
Another fly joined its cousin and a third. Bill went to push himself up from the bed to grab something to swat them with and found that he could not move. He called again to Missy, but there was no sound, nothing but the tines of the brush against the skin of Missy’s scalp, slowly subsumed by the rising buzz of a duet, a quartet, and then a symphony of flies, rising and falling, maddening. A fly landed on his nose, its legs tickling his skin. He could not reach up to wave it away. As he watched, cross-eyed, it crawled into his right nostril. Another landed on his upper lip and then more. One by one, they began to march into his nose. He felt them in there, little winged bundles of filth, pushing through, into his head, crawling around in the mysterious folds and ducts and hollows, enflaming his sinuses. They found their way down to his palate, and he opened his mouth to cry out, but instead, a stream of flies flew in. They filled his mouth like a restless crowd filing into a coliseum. He tried to blow them out, to spit them out, to no avail. They crunched between his teeth, filling his mouth with rancid liquid. He couldn’t gag. He couldn’t breathe. He couldn’t breathe.
Through his tears, through the fading blur, he could just make out Missy at the mirror, still brushing. Her hair was falling away in bloody clumps. She looked back at him, and her eyes were devoid of warmth, devoid of love.
He jolted awake. His back ached, and his stomach churned. He was stretched out on the floor of the rowboat, which was bucking and bouncing and creaking and cracking. Above him, that oddly stained and filmy sky trembled and flickered. Fighting nausea, he put his elbows behind him on the surface of the bench and pushed himself up from the bottom of the boat to sit. He expected to see something like rapids, churning foam, waves pumping up and down like the tips of drowned black tents. But the water all about him was calm and still, a black sheet lain over a flat surface. He saw no ripples, no wake trailing him, no evidence whatsoever of rough waters. The boat drifted gently parallel to the shoreline, just a few yards away. Bill stood tentatively to check the shore for houses to see if he could gauge how far the rowboat had taken him, but there were none, just steep, vine-veined riverbanks climbing up to an impenetrable wall of entangled trees.
He looked over the edge of the boat and sniffed. The water, as far as he could tell, was odorless. Would it be safe to drink? His mouth was so dry. He touched the tip of his index finger to the surface. Cold. He felt a slight tingle. He lifted his finger, and a little white disk bobbed in the resulting ripple. Strange. Okay. No time like the present. He dipped his hand in the water. The tingling was fierce now, edging into pain. He lifted his hand and, for a moment, was baffled to see what appeared to be a white, almost translucent glove resting on the water’s surface, and the realization hit him—it was a layer of skin. As he watched, it crumpled and separated into a mass of strings. They bent and went rigid, and began to form some kind of strange pattern, bending and splitting off new branches. The structure rose up from the water like pin bones, forming something that looked like a tall, narrow tower. As the rowboat moved on, he watched uncomprehending as the structure climbed up into the sky.
Through the afternoon, he rowed through the endless Acheron. He fought sleep, fearing the idea of awakening again in a roiling estuary: before him the eternity of a great black sea, no shore in sight in any direction, an ocean that would kill him before long, wash away his flesh, build a strange, twiggy city from his skin, and bear his skeleton away into some baffling alien eternity. Also nipping at the edge of his thoughts was the terrifying prospect of approaching night, of the imminent revelation of whatever had become of—or worse, replaced—the moon and its twinkling adjutants.
Nothing to do about that, though. Nothing to do but watch and wait.
He rowed and rowed until his arms hurt and sweat covered his body. At times, the riverbanks rose vertiginous and towering, higher than skyscrapers, at hard right angles to the ground, the river a mere narrow ribbon not much wider than the boat itself, a stream between great towering cliffs, the diseased and peeling sky just a thin line impossibly high up. At one point he could almost make out the tops of buildings: ramparts and parapets of stone, turrets like gapped teeth, spires like jousting lances, towers topped with pennants whose designs, if any, were obscured by shadow and distance. He saw no evidence of habitation, heard no voices, no trumpets nor drums. At other times the river broadened to the width of a five-lane freeway, and the banks sat low, nearly flush with the surface of the water. Feverfew and chicory vied for prominence at the water’s edge, and unknown things slithered and chittered in the underbrush and the dense wood beyond.
Now it’s nearing dusk. The sky is going a deeper brown, tinged with charcoal grey. Everything fades as that strange double sun falls below the tree line. There is no moon. No stars. No lights from the shoreline nor the cliffs, if there are cliffs along this stretch of the river. No light at all. Even the colors he sees when he closes his eyes have fled. He can no longer feel the push of his backside against the bench, the clothes on his skin. He rubs his fingers together and feels nothing. He hears nothing but his own breathing . . . and even that begins to fade away into the silence. The last to go is his own inner voice—his only constant companion—it becomes a distant voice calling, too far to be able to make out the words. Then there are no words, just a faraway howl. Then nothing. The Void. Annihilation.
A human voice shouts out from somewhere off to his right—a booming voice unleashing a string of syllables that don’t quite form into words. Bill flies back into his body, scrambles to his feet, shrieking. Both voices echo for a long time, and the echoes fade, and all goes back to silence. Bill’s heart beats wildly. He will not sleep again that night.
After a long time—an hour?—two?—a red glow appears up ahead, spanning a hazy black horizon. It brightens as he approaches. He closes his eyes tightly, and when he opens them, the boat is sliding along through a great red-lit city. Above him at intervals of a quarter mile, great bridges arc, topped by spires and traversed by long, shining black trucks with multiple trailers. The shorelines are vast viaducts beyond which, to his left and his right, rise great many-windowed towers and the tall spikes of cathedrals, some topped with blinking blue lights. Some buildings curl over the river as though to get a look at him. He hears the thrumming of helicopters but does not see them. At one point, he hears cheers shot through with violence as from a packed stadium full of bloodthirsty cannibals cheering the presentation of freshly killed meat. At another, he hears a woman singing mournfully. Great shadows loom along the sides of stone walls and sink away. Bats dip and rise over the boat, chirping and trilling, some coming frighteningly close, so close Bill feels the disturbance of the air just over his head.
And then he is through, the city just a red glow somewhere behind him, and all is blackness again, and Bill falls to sleep and wakes up to what now passes for daylight. The rowboat floats along a quiet stretch. Verdant fields like rumpled bedsheets roll away in all directions from each riverbank. The grass looks soft, lush, nearly as inviting as his own bed, the sheets freshly washed. Maybe Bill can guide the rowboat to the grassy shore, drag it onto land, and find someone who can make sense of what has happened to the world.
Fighting against some unnamable fear—that of breaking the status quo, maybe, he does just that. He clambers from the rowboat and drags it up onto the grass and then goes to his hands and knees. The grass is cool, soothing, especially to his still-tingling right hand. He knows he should be wary that the blades might turn sharp, but he is all but overtaken with relief. The sky is still all wrong, the water too strange to countenance, that demonic city is still somewhere behind him, but he is off the goddamned boat and on land. He begins to walk. Ahead is a thin line of trees. He passes between two trees into a hilly meadow. A lone bird chirps, and the thin skin lining the sky ripples with a whisper.
Bill scans the horizon. There is movement in the distance. Cresting a far-off hillock, a squadron of shadows lurches and slides. They disappear and reappear over hillock and hummock and knoll until they are finally revealed in the greenish half-light—they look like . . . they are . . . ventriloquist dummies. In seemingly inexhaustible numbers, they belly-crawl in Bill’s direction, little elbows pushing into the ground, propelling them forward, glinting. Their loose, floppy, stitch-kneed legs trail behind them. Lightning flickers in dead eyes set over protruding cheekbones, and their mouths open and close in jerky unison as though they are all mouthing the same blasphemous prayer. They are clad in immaculate formalwear. Tuxedo jackets and bow ties, tiny shoes shined, laces tied taut.
Bill is, for just a moment, frozen. When he focuses on their over-large, hungry eyes, the spell is broken and he beelines for the shore, looking behind him as he runs. He jiggers to the left and then the right, and they alter their course like magnetic filings. They’re fast, the little buggers. With great reluctance he clambers back into the rowboat and pushes away from the shore. They swarm into the water. The front-most ones are just bobbing heads, wooden nostrils flared, brows arched, malevolence in their wooden eyes. The knives, which look sharp enough to slice through bone, are now clenched between white-lacquered wooden teeth. Bill rows furiously, but the water has thickened, and the boat lurches at a maddeningly slow pace. He looks ahead, and there is someone in the water. It’s man, neck-deep, baldheaded, broad of shoulder. He grins and bobs like a fat buoy. “Allow one aboard,” he says in a thin and frail voice that fades out and in like a radio station at the fringe of its range. “But only one.” Then the man sinks slowly into the water, his eyes fixed on Bill until the water covers them. No ripples, no bubbles. Just gone.
A plastic hand curls up over the side of the rowboat. Bill grabs the dummy’s floppy felt arm and pulls it forward. With his left hand, he pulls the knife from its mouth and flings it away. It catches one of the squadron of approaching dummies. That dummy’s face goes green. Its eyes shoot out like billiard balls, landing in the water somewhere beyond the bow of the rowboat, and it rises to float face-down on the water’s surface, drifting off toward shore.
Bill lifts the dummy up under the arms and places it on the other bench facing him. It lists to one side. Whatever had animated the thing has gone. The eyes stare sightlessly from their wooden sockets. The arms and legs lay limp. The other dummies angle away and head for shore, where they clamber up onto the grass and slither away.
Now Bill hears the distant and very welcome sound of traffic, of tires on pavement, squealing brakes, revving engines. The world around him ripples. The skin that holds the sky up flakes and falls away like singed confetti. Light floods Bill’s vision and he puts his arms over his eyes. When he pulls it away, he’s sitting cross-legged in a parking lot between two large SUV’s. The light seems to indicate that evening is approaching. Alongside his leg rests his bunched-up denim jacket, a small rubber hand reaching out from beneath it. Bill stands on shaking legs and lifts the bundle to his side. Before him stands the Look Diner.
His stomach squeals and hunger overtakes him. He crosses the lot and enters. His eyes widen when he sees the glass jar of mints at the cashier’s station. He grabs a handful and shoves them into his mouth. “Someone’s hungry,” laughs a frosted-blonde waitress. “You’re going to need more nourishment than that.” She snaps, and a thin teenage host appears, all bony shoulders and horn-rimmed glasses and acne-scarred cheeks.
“Table one,” the waitress tells the host, and Bill follows him over. “Water,” he whispers through a mouthful of mints. “Water.”
The first has arrived.
Matthew M. Bartlett is the author of The Stay-Awake Men and Other Unstable Entities, Gateways to Abomination, Creeping Waves, and other books of supernatural horror. His short stories have appeared in a variety of anthologies, including Lost Signals, A Breath from the Sky, Year’s Best Weird Fiction Vol. 3, and the forthcoming Darker Companions, a tribute to Ramsey Campbell. He lives in a small brick house on a quiet, leafy street with his wife Katie Saulnier and their cats Phoebe, Peachpie, and Larry.
Broken Eye Books is an independent press, here to bring you the odd, strange, and offbeat side of speculative fiction. Our stories tend to blend genres, highlighting the weird and blurring its boundaries with horror, sci-fi, and fantasy. Discover our books at brokeneyebooks.com.