1. Goodbye, Apollonia
They come through us as if we were doors.
They open us up, they eat and kill, and then they’re gone. Just like that.
We’re left to pick up the pieces.
It’s turning out to be a long dream, same time every time, they walk in the hedge park and she says she’s cold. It’s the air, it’s nearly winter. The clouds hold all the snow. She can’t wait. He takes off his coat for her shoulders. But she’s gone. High up, held by a shadow with wild limbs. She screams. He can’t catch her, his arms are dead weight. The pavement catches her instead. Gone is the shadow as the first snowflake falls.
We’re all victims.
He’s waking up, four years out of prison. A trembling loathsome clock on his nightstand gets taken and smashed. Cold sweat dabs the shirt he picks up off the floor and he showers off the stench. This is the August heat of Apollonia. This is the season of empty neon bottles and clearer glass bottles decorating the kitchen table like a lost city. If it’s the lurid sounds of traffic or the lights bleeding through the Venetians, or his own revolting soul, he can’t decide and the room is plunged into darkness either way. A darkness he crawls through, searching for his gun. It’s magazine loaded with blessed bullets. This is a real place, he thinks, this is a real place.
Click. Click. The safety is on, in his dreams it’s never on. In his dreams, he’s dying or watching death. Experiencing it from a womb of sleep. The gun, an M1911 with it’s grip taped, he places among the ruins on the table for now. He puts on his black clothes. It’s close to 11pm.
This wretched man in his mirror has oily black hair which he smooths back. He’s got a wide, lofty brow that shadows his shadowy eyes. Frowning, ever frowning, he flicks the bullet around his neck. This one is for him. If ever he succumbs. This one is for him.
He catches sight of it, standing in the dismal unlight, just over his shoulder. It’s a stain on the wall moving side to side against the dry boards. Rusted water leaks taking odd shapes; the shapes of men, the shapes of upside down teardrops. There’s thirteen of them side-by-side, reminding him of paper dolls held between a child’s hands.
This council of moisture observes him with faceless consideration. He heeds it’s call. He always does when they call. He owes them, the paper dolls, the faceless men. A year ago he remembers, half-mad on crystal Christine, the lot lizard splattered over the toilet stall between Austin and San Antonio, the thing that did it coming for him next, disjointedly carried on a cruel air with wide mouth and grinding teeth.
He ran, ran delirious from two desperate pasts to Apollonia and collapsed mostly dead outside the double doors of the Pentecostal House of the Chanting Angels. Right there, they gathered around him, the Venerated. The old men in white suits. They healed his sick veins, they made him sweat and die again and again until he rose sober, damaged, and thirsty.
They said they had work for him. That he needn’t fear the things in the dark. Money, shelter, and satisfaction were his nightly as he held vigil, as his candle burned in the empty room, as they directed his wrinkled mind to greater violence; holy violence.
So the stain did not surprise him, a soldier always waiting on his orders, but he couldn’t leave without a small shot of courage and two pills to stave the whirling, illusionary world and his instincts which hiss and prime in the dark corners of his mind.
This night feels different.
A gun in his waistband, a wooden oblong box tucked under his arm, these are his instruments. The box’s surface is indented by an iron cross, the first gift of the Venerated. He coddles it like a baby and tenses when, as he locked the apartment door, someone steps from the dingy hall shadows behind him. The vexation in his nerves dreams death row visions. An old black man with glinting wire frames rubs his hands and looks up, walleyed with a bible clutched to him. A downdraft of vodka in each word to follow:
“Husher,” the old man says, “I’ve seen it emerge from the seams of that television of mine, scripts between the splintered pictures. All thirteen. They’re sending a Chant. You must not go.” His nervous voice put the man on edge.
“It’s what we arranged, Pastor Burnham. When they call for a hunt, I must hunt. I’m a man of the field.” This name, Husher, came to him from the Venerated. Ascribed on an envelope in his mailbox. HUSHER. Producer of silence.
“Let them be scattered.” Burnham makes the sign of the cross. The scars on his leathery skin, on his arms, writhe strangely like the snakes what caused them.
“What do you mean I shouldn’t go?”
“You shouldn’t hunt tonight. No, not tonight. A second vision reached me. I woke to a distant screaming.” His eyes roll to the sides of their sockets, he turns a little into a toad. Husher blinks and pinches his nose.
“I didn’t hear any screaming, old timer.”
“These aching liturgies, they woke me I tell you. They grabbed me by the shoulders and shook me from a dream. Only when I saw you did I realize the dream that follows you, all the sublime dreams…”
“You better start making sense, you old fuck. This sounds like blasphemy and you’re going to get yourself snatched and thrown in Supplicant House.” The mad tongues of those warped by the Chant serve their lives in that musty abode, the salvation of the old men in white. The final gift.
This warning makes Burnham look over his shoulder and maybe they both see the disfigured shape behind the storm glass door leading outside. Maybe. Neither of them say. But the two men stare at each other afterward with a kind of silent caution. It only ends when a restrained Husher leans close to catch the dribbling auguries of the pastor.
“Where did the screams come from?”
Burnham clutches at Husher’s black coat and squeezes his knuckles till they pop, the words rise to a burst from his stained breath, a nauseous prophecy that makes the lights in the hall flicker, fainting to darkness.
“The stars,” his toad features growing more vivid up close till each breath expands to transparency the thick jowl below his neck. “They were screaming. Screaming for release.”
“Jesus Christ.” His wrung out guts belie him. “Enough. I’m expected. You don’t tell anyone any of this, got it?” He brushes the man aside and heads down to the warped door, disoriented lights passing by its window. But Husher looks back, seeing the toad face peering at him through the railing bars.
“I heard the call of the Sublime, tossing those stars like helpless ships on the black sea, an infinity of sweet torment. Husher, understand me. There is nothing that is buried that will not rise,” Burnham whispers this final message before slinking away.
That’s all behind him. The man of the field stands on the beating streets of Apollonia. The hunt and the night are waiting.
He stares up and sees a few stars, some fading phantoms behind sylphs of grey tone clouds all ships and shadows under a moon turned on its back, turned to a pale smile. Smiling at him.
The heat sucks air from his lungs, boiling the alcohol in his blood. Time in Apollonia is measured in gasps between drowning benders. A long time ago he kicked the hard stuff, the killer stuff, and now addicted to violence and liquor he brews like a murder of clouds between each storm; each hunt.
Medication lets him see past the fog, to the creatures that live among us. Pharma Cocktails impregnate his brain with the portents of seer-worms. His little prophets. When the abominations are near, they squirm in his thoughts. His eyes are open, open inside and out.
The people of Apollonia are night people. He wades through their illicit steps. Some call him from dark alleys. Others avoid the deeper pits of his eyes. Husher pushes the oblong box to his chest, letting it hear his heartbeat, and surveys each bystander for the wolves among them. The creatures, in human tones, feast and hide from the man and what he carries.
At the end of the road there’s a highway which for miles nothing lives but weeds, nameless stalks, and the distant rolling forests where deeper mysteries sleep. The border between Apollonia and this highway is divided by the ruins of an old gas station, festooned with decay under an awning of debris, and a grimy glass box. The last payphone in Apollonia. Maybe America. Connected, somehow, to the Chant of the Venerated. This subtle place, he goes to hear their commands, formulating the next pattern of their unending crusade.
When they threw him out of San Quentin, four years since she fell from the sky, he stumbled high and abused, mange ridden and deviant, across an expanse of dark places. Every stitch given to him inside that cell he unfurled tenfold again on himself and others in the civilized world. Addicted as much to degradation as to the meth which made it easy, which lost his soul in a swamp in the bowl of a burnt spoon, he roared like a foul wind through many lives. Until Apollonia. Until his revelation.
The phone rings on the metal hooks and the past he wipes away like breath mist on glass. Instantly the familiar static splits his brain, forcibly expanding its valleys, leaving blood to run like rivers between the cracks. It makes his ears wet, trickling into the unruly black hairs down his neck. You can’t cook such a sensation, second to the ruptures of the voice of God. It’s what makes them dance with snakes, this serene bliss they call the Chant.
“I am the man of the field.” He replies. “Let them be scattered.”
The transmission comes in through the utterance of a Turning Wheel, through 99 Choirs, twisting flesh and wings, through the old men in white suits who speak to him. This is beyond his reason so he listens without comprehending.
In the Chant you see the veins of your eyes sprawl together, clots filled with transcended wisdom. The secrets of the saints and the babbling chorus of angels. What lies in the roots of the Bodhi Tree. In the cave of Hira. And what Christ found in the desert. Through it like snow he seeks an ominous message.
It’s fabric on a kitchen table, rustled by something underneath. The light’s flash in and out of darkness while seated at each chair at this table are mannequins, plates of old moldy rotten food, and the buzzing of flies gather around them. One the mannequins, white and faceless and naked, starts making a clicking sound. Clicking from inside. Its growing. The flickering lights hide subtle movements, it’s turning it’s head left and right, hands coming up and smacking the tabletop with silent agony, before at last it smashes its face on the putrid meats plated in front of it. Everything falls silent as the clicking stops, silence falls over the room. Then without warning the fallen mannequin’s skull erupts, letting loose of black horde of spiders which endlessly pour from the pit. They cover everything like a hungry, skittering cloud. The other mannequins, unable to move, muffle screams as they’re entirely devoured. The Chant reveals then fades in a flash of hot white.
It’s always a risk to hear it for in each word the cosmic revelation threatens the mind of the listener, but Husher didn’t plan to end up like Burnham or the others. The bedridden, congregation of idiots in Supplicant House. He closes his eyes and takes out a pencil and paper, scratching down an address quickly before his brain drowns in its own blood. 1289 LaVey Rd, the Suburbs of Apollonia. This paper, this message, is crumbled and slipped into his pocket as the Chant begins to die down and he can safely wipe the blood from his ears. He can safely walk away, mind in its unstable normalcy. But they don’t release him yet–they wish to know things.
“No,” he replies to their sudden question regarding Burnham, “He’s just a drunk. Once he sleeps it off he’ll be fine.”
“Yes, Your Eminence.” As Husher listens, he sees, near the old gas station someone is watching. He stares them down, but they don’t move. They aren’t afraid. They just watch him from the dark. Him in his little glass box with the dirty windows. Him on the phone. Him with the bleeding ears. The worms in his brain begin to squirm, the blood pushes them up from the dirt like rain. He grits his teeth.
He claps the phone down on the hook and goes out, making a beeline for the watcher. They turn away, moving behind the building. When he finally reaches them, they’re gone. He keeps his gun down at his side, eight blessed bullets sleeping. But there’s nothing. Even the sky is clear from the twisting shadows. The pale moon smiles.
Only an old place surrounds him, a place without memory, maybe that’s all it is in the end. Not the sites of prophets but just another fading memory of Apollonia. Soon overrun by nature, knotting bad metal into rust into flakes into nothing.
This thought he regrets and makes the hunter deeply afraid, holding that oblong box again to his chest. Of all the nights, this one is different, he feels it. Everything seems different. He looks up at the quivering stars, wide eyed. He looks and he sees that the night is…
2. The House on LaVey
The street of LaVey is a dark and quiet place. The people are bland and sleep soundly without a reason to stalk and creep in the night. They draw their curtains, lamps bloom in the windows, all else is hidden from the strange and wrong world. Husher sees them, sees their shadows passing by the curtains. He sees the incantations of the suburban life; the drudgery, safety, and boredom. He envies it like a shit-feasting beetle envies the butterfly; unable to ascend to greater things.
Tonight’s been strange enough. While black coffee usually does the trick he can’t shake this sense of levitation in his eyes, as if they floated an inch from his head. The cigarette doesn’t help either and he dumps it into the cup and pitches both out of the window. The stars on the outskirts of Apollonia, the shadowy figure, what was that sound?
Did I dream it?
Husher turns down the radio. He’s a good soldier, each blessed bullet he packs into a magazine is cut with the incomprehensible words of the Chant, lethal to the Creatures. He slams it in, screwing on the homemade silencer. Flecks of rust on his fingers. Once or twice, only once or twice, he’s made a few mistakes. It’s not a perfect art, people die and the Venerated forgive him. It’s human to err, after all. They hold mercy in their withered, divine hands.
Husher studies the house on LaVey. 1289. Emblazoned on the poly constructed mailbox durable against vandals with the dull red flipper turned down. Those numbers in white. 1289. They mean nothing. He tries to find meaning. He adds them together to 20, then divides them apart. He moves decimal spaces and fractions and finds emptiness. Nothing. He checks the small bible in his glove compartment but not even in scripture is there meaning.
1289 is just a house on LaVey. It’s occupants are oblivious. The house is oblivious. The Creature waits. They seem to always know he’s coming, it never seems to matter; but some night it will.
He asked Burnham once where it all began. They sat in beaten up lawn chairs on his small balcony and drank fermented something from coffee mugs. Strike me blind, he begged. Though it never came. He watched the lights of Apollonia on a hot evening. The wind didn’t blow, the air just hung above them like a thick and suffocating cloud; it made him nervous like tonight.
It began in Carpocrates.
Far from Apollonia; a small, quiet town. It had a plantation house on a hill famed for its fig trees. The man who owned it was named Gerasene Baines and he was cruel; both to his servants and to the townsfolk that crossed him.
A real crank.
They say he indulged in the occult, in forbidden texts, made sacrifices, knew the true names of the demons in the pact of Loudun, and watched, for long hours from the window, the forest behind his home. They say he was mad and brilliant and one night he called something up, something without definition, something pure and evil; from a dark and uncharted place. The screams heard from the plantation house were heard all through the parish.
Tell me the rest.
Don’t you know, son? The Venerated came. They came to his door and brought with them the Chant. It was spoken against him. And it did not cease until dawn. They say all the fig trees of the plantation were withered when the sun touched them on the next day. They say since then the Creatures have appeared, anywhere and everywhere, using us as doors. Our flesh, our souls, we don’t know. It can’t be helped.
So we just beat them back then, back to Hell?
They don’t come from Hell, that much is known–Hell is so painfully human.
Husher steps onto the street and shuts the creaking car door. He goes across the street, between the house and its neighbor, hidden in the thick shadows. Some nights you look up at the sky and feel absolutely alone; reminded that the stars are nothing but gaseous bodies inhabiting a void. The meaning of it is written between the lines, notes in the margins, made by human hearts.
Everything in the cosmos is wild and free, like jazz. All that order comes out of chaos, not the other way around. Some nights you look up and you see that loneliness reflected back at you.
You see it later in your eyes.
And some nights, like tonight, you look up and you don’t see it, instead you see something else. You see it looking right back at you. You see it alive.
Hell is so painfully human.
He fiddles with the knob of the back door, it’s simple lock. It takes him to a laundry room, the lights off, the machines all quiet. He puts on a pair of gloves that smell like cheap leather and he takes out the taped handle of the M1911. He covers his lower face with a black handkerchief.
When he sees the woman with her back to him, fishing for something in the cabinet, he doesn’t hesitant to step forward quickly enough she hears him. Before she can turn, he strikes out, and splits the front of her head open with the butt of the pistol. She’s unconscious, bleeding from her scalp. He stops, wiping some of the blood off her with a napkin.
Someone else is coming, he turns and just as the husband walks in Husher shoots him in the thigh. There’s a sharp shrill sound, the man falls forward and breaks his glasses. A silver bowl of popcorn hits the linoleum and Husher kneels on his chest and menaces him with the barrel of the gun with his finger risen toward his lips. Shh.
The seer-worms populate his brain and his nose begins to bleed, they rebalance his humors. He grabs the husband by the shoulder and drags him over the floor toward the concussed wife, seating them together with their backs against the sink. He sets the oblong box with the iron cross onto the counter and keeps his pistol trained on the two.
“How many more?” He whispered.
They’re waiting for him in the darkened living room with the television on; a girl, maybe twelve, the age of Lolita, she stares at him—a passive, empty face. “Do I know you?” He said dumbly before an older boy stands and Husher has to knock him down. He put his boot on his throat, pinning him in place, watching him flinch.
In the corner of the room there’s an old woman with a tube that runs from her nose to a ventilator tank. She isn’t looking at them; her eyes are thick and grey and dead, a husk. She isn’t looking because she’s completely empty. With a kick he turns the boy over and gestures to the old woman.
“Wheel her there, by the couch, make any moves and I blow mommy and daddy to pieces. Now fuck off.” Husher gestures again, a bit more deadly with that pistol than the last time. When the boy complies, Husher moves to the threshold connecting the two rooms. He gives a nod and the husband, wife under his arm, limps in and joins the rest of the family. He can sense the Creature among them.
“Why are you doing this, asshole?” Says the boy.
“Quiet.” The husband, the boy’s father, replies sharply.
“You heard him. Shut the fuck up, kid.” Husher moves to sit on the coffee table. They sit along the couch, all in a row, with the old woman at the end. The ventilator on her face makes a sound every two to three seconds; a gasp and a click. A gasp and a click. Every two to three seconds. They stare between one another, silent as the dead, even Husher succumbs to the quiet. A gasp and a click. A gasp and…
The Creature is one of them but he doesn’t know which, not yet, and he waits. They could be here all night, but he knows the thing is going to show itself; it wants to be seen. It wants to destroy. He only wishes there was a way to know beforehand. Not of them are going to make it out of this alive. He’s stopped feeling guilty about it–it became necessary.
It can’t be helped.
“Is it money?” The husband says through his teeth. That bullet wound is getting to him. His eyes are bloodshot and its spreading to his face. “Is that what you want?”
“I’m doing you a favor.”
He has them all in a row, but he shakes his head a bit. He thinks he hears static and the worms begin to writhe in his skull. After pinching the bridge of his nose, he points the gun at the boy. “Is there anyone else here?” His eyes go to the husband, the father of the boy, who shakes his head. The wife is dazed, her head lolls a bit; at least he knows she isn’t the Creature.
An hour passes and none of them speak. The wife has completely fainted and the boy and his father sit and glare at their masked captor who paces the room. Husher scratches the back of his head with the pistol, listening to the wheezing gasp of the old woman. That little, obnoxious click that follows. Unplugging it crosses his mind. Be quiet. Just be quiet, damnit. Click. Gasp. Wheeze. Click. His eyes are shaking around in his head, his nose bleeds, it’s overwhelming.
Gasp. Click. Wheeze. The little ball in the ventilator clicks when it drops. The clock strikes the hour, there’s a chime. It hides the sounds of the old woman for a bit. But it comes back. It comes back like this interminable march, a sick accoutrement to the silence. A lurid madness that shackles his heart in two old hands and squeezes tight; wringing out all the blood and the black stuff he keeps inside.
Gasp. The gasp becomes long and drawn like a swimmer freed from the depths, then he hears a click. A different click. It sounds like something twisting until it pops, crinkling like an aluminum can being unfurled. That sound didn’t come from the ventilator’s tank. He wipes the blood from his nose and turns around slowly. The family sees it too.
The old woman in the wheelchair has stood.
Husher fired twice before she crashed into him. One of the bullets hit her, the other went wide. He put his knee up to keep her gnashing fangs from reaching him but the hot sting of her claws rip open his shoulders. He pushed up with his wiry limbs, hidden strength within them, and shoots wildly around the room. The Creature’s legs and arms twist around into knots as she flings upward and scuttles across the ceiling. He rolls away, crawling for the kitchen.
The family screams, even the wife who awakens briefly from her concussion sees the terrifying shape above them and screams. When the Creature swipes madly, it hits the ceiling light, and the room starts to flicker in and out of darkness.
Husher scrambles to his feet and slams into the kitchen counter, hastily unlatching the oblong box. Even during all this, he feels a chill run down his spine. He takes hold of the rusted parazonium, a weapon as ancient as the Elder Gods, and hastens back into the living room. His shoulders dripping with blood, his knuckles burning white hot.
She is perched on the arm of the couch taking a hunk of the wife’s face off with a single swipe and feasting on the viscera and the blood. The Creature whirls her head around with a crack and screams. Husher fires a few shots. One passes through the back and he sees the husband slump forward with a smoking hole in his head. The Creature then lifts into the air and comes at him with claws and talons and fangs. The flesh of the old woman completely morphed and perverted into a dervish of evil.
He takes a heavy swing with the parazonium and cleaves several fingers from her hand. She screeches in horror and snatches out with her teeth toward his throat. Swiftly, Husher moves to the side and fires off another shot, blowing the Creature’s jaw apart.
She collapses onto the floor and writhes kicking both arms and feet like an insect with clipped wings. He moves around her, trying to stab at the Creature, but the nightmarish limbs stave him off before she can roll onto all fours. Those rending claws spread out when she leaps toward him like a mauling panther–but the Man of the Field is prepared.
Husher takes a step back and as the Creature’s arms open to embrace him, he stabs the parazonium forward and strikes her square in the chest. He lets out a vicious snarl and slams the body down back to the floor with a twist of the blade. Those deadly limbs last only a few seconds before, at last, she is dead.
The jawless face, those claws, and its indescribable eyes all return back to the original state, to the old woman with the deathly grey stare. He stands over top her, his putrid breath washed back over him from the mask. They only look human. They only look human.
They only look human.
When the parazonium is returned to the oblong box and latched shut, he removes his bloody gloves and pockets them. In the living room the husband is face down, dead, and the wife slumped to the side of the couch; also dead. All that remains is the boy, who sits shaking; unable to close his eyes. Husher steps over the body of the old woman.
Husher pauses as he approached the boy and looked toward the staircase. He could have sworn the lights were off when he came in, he could have sworn. He wrinkles his heavy brow and moves in that direction; compelled by his uncertainty, he turns to look at the boy who stares at him with cold dead eyes; the tears no longer produced from them, they were all gone. Husher couldn’t bring himself to ask if there was anyone else in the house. He didn’t think it mattered now.
It has to be dealt with.
Halfway up the steps he paused, his hand on the rail. That’s when it flashed before him; the passive face of the girl. She sits beside the boy on the couch. The light of the television dreamlike against her sickly green eyes. Husher scowls and hurries to the top of the stairs, his pistol loosened and swung down both ends of the hall. Nothing.
He moves to a door and tries the handle but it’s locked from the inside. The barrel of the gun is placed against the knob, ready to fire, when suddenly he’s plunged into darkness when all the light-bulbs shatter over his head. He shields his neck and he can only think in that moment is; Burnham was right. I shouldn’t have come here tonight.
Husher. Producer of silence.
The seer-worms sleep. They offer him no aid. He hears their remorseless song slip away, like the fragments of a dream lost over the course of a day–he feels empty; surrounded by suffocating voids which interfere with the Chant.
Husher. Husher. Husher. Husher.
Burnham was right. The screaming stars hang over Apollonia. They call to him from the distance. Husher watches, his eyes grow wide with fear, as right beside him the door to the room creaks open.
A laugh. A scream. The whole house on LaVey quakes.
The pictures on the walls begin to fall. He claps his hands over his ears. The pistol clatters to the floor. A great vaporous darkness creeps out from the threshold, thicker than any darkness known to man. Thicker than space, thicker than nightmares. Husher. A darkness older than fear. Older than anything. Husher. Everything is shaking, everything is trembling. Husher screams. Husher. He screams and falls to his knees, he can’t take it anymore. Husher. Husher. Husher. Husher. He can’t stop it. His hand paws for the pistol, he tries to find it, he tries to shoot himself in the fucking head to make it stop. Husher. The darkness…oh god, the screaming in the night. Husher. He feels the taped grip.
He pulls the trigger.
And, after all, there is silence.
3. Dying in Carpocrates
They come through us as if we were doors.
They open us up, they eat and kill, and then they’re gone. Just like that.
We’re left to pick up the pieces.
It’s turning out be a long dream, same time every time. 10:01 PM. He goes into the house one hot summer night. The clouds hold back some dry lightning. She can’t wait. He ties up the family. But she’s gone. High up, a shadow with wild limbs and grinding teeth. She screams, leaps at him. He can’t catch her, his arms are dead weight. They crash down upon the floor and he stabs her through the head. Everything is familiar and askance. Tinged in the hum of a red glass held over the night, shining through the dark clouds. Blood and a crawling darkness reach out for him. He hears the lightning.
We’re all victims.
He’s waking up but how long has it been? There’s a silent alarm clock on the nightstand. Cold sweat dabs the shirt he picks up off the floor and he showers off the stench. This is the winter chill of Carpocrates, the space heaters drying out the air; drying him in his sleep. With cracked lips and sour breath, he peers through the Venetians to the empty streets. Half-a-dozen cars pass by over the hour, like specks in the dark. A city of thousands reduced to hundreds since the Rapture.
This sound woke everyone up. Like a voice. Jarring and incoherent. Like a scream. The clouds opened up and they just floated away. Mothers clutching for their children, falling thousands of feet. Cars stirring into one another. Abandoned lovers searching for the dead in the wreckage. Even corpses. The dirt upturned. Coffins spilled across the graveyards.
They had been called. There is nothing that is buried that will not rise.
He’s taken by an urge and grabs his gun. The magazine loaded with blessed bullets. This is a real place, he prays, this is a real place. Click. Click. The safety is on, in his dreams it’s never on. In his dreams, he’s allowed to die. This weapon, an M1911 with a taped grip, is placed on the table. He puts on his black clothes, the urge still inside him.
Next time, he thinks, I won’t forget the fucking safety.
In the mirror he studies his wretched face. His wide, lofty brow that shadows his shadowy eyes. He frowns, flicks the bullet that hangs around his neck. “One for me,” he mutters. “This one’s for me.” If he ever succumbs to the Creatures. If the door in him opens up. There’s an itch, they say, a tingle on your tongue. That’s their hunger coming out. A metallic, blood and bitters taste.
It’s been weeks since the Venerated contacted him. The wall in his apartment has its usual stains. Nothing special. So he checks the moldy cup of black coffee on the kitchenette; but the signs aren’t there, nor are they in the formations of burns on his toast. The imagery of the television, antiquated as it was with bent antenna, shows only vague and weird faces lurking in the static–no call or summons. He has to reach out to them, he knows a place.
Waiting this long calls back memories. A year ago, half-mad on crystal Christine, when the lot lizard was splattered over the toilet stall between Austin and San Antonio. The Creature that did it chased him, floating with its disjointedly limbs. Riding a cruel air with a wide, gnashing mouth. It’s only become worse since the Rapture. They’ve only become more aggressive. Less people in the world, he guesses, which made more sinful victims.
We’re all victims.
He ran madly to Carpocrates and collapsed, mostly dead, on the steps of the Pentecostal House of the Chanting Angels. They gathered around him, he would come to know them as the Venerated. Old men in white suits. They healed his sick veins, made him sweat and die again and again until he rose clean, damaged and thirsty. They said they had work for him. He needn’t fear the things in the dark. His wrinkled mind directed toward greater violence; holy violence.
This night feels familiar and wrong.
I heard the call of the sublime thing, tossing stars like helpless ships on the black sea, an infinity of sweet torment. Husher, understand me. There is nothing that is buried that will not rise.
Is it all behind him? He stands on the once beating streets of Carpocrates. The hunt and the night are long. Husher stares up but there’s no sight of the stars behind the phantoms of grey sylphs, all shadows under the moon turned on its back, turned to a pale smile. Smiling at him. Wider, fuller, wilder than he remembers. The cold chills his breath.
Things dance in the foggy air.
Time in Carpocrates is measured in gasps between drowning benders. A long time ago he kicked the hard stuff, the killer stuff, and now addicted to violence and liquor he brews like a murder of clouds between each storm; each hunt. Yet now he only stirs, circling a drain. Composed of purpose, aimless on his course. Without the Chant, what can he hope to accomplish?
Medication let him see past the illusion, to the Creatures that live among the remnants of humanity. Pharma Cocktails impregnated his brain with the portents of seer-worms. His little prophets. When the abominations are near, they writhe in his thoughts. His eyes open up, open inside and out. Husher reaches into his pocket, but finds an empty orange bottle and a few loose bent cigarettes. He needs more, he has to reach out, without them he’s as helpless as any lamb.
Once there were people in Carpocrates. Night people, like him. He wades through the ghosts of their illicit steps. Burnt cigarette butts, empty half-shattered bottles. No voices call to him from the derelict alleys. He still fears the dark.
At the end of the road there’s a highway which for miles nothing lives but weeds, nameless stalks, and the distant rolling forests where deeper mysteries sleep. The border between Carpocrates and this highway is divided by the ruins of an old gas station, festooned with decay under an awning of piled debris, and a grimy glass box. The last payphone in Carpocrates. Maybe America. Maybe the Earth. Connected, somehow, to the Chant of the Venerated. He often goes to hear their commands, formulating the next pattern of the unending, holy crusade.
When they threw him out of San Quentin, he stumbled high and abused, mange ridden and deviant, across an expanse of dark places. Every stitch given to him in prison he unfurled back on himself, tenfold, and on others in the civilized world. Addicted as much to the degradation as to the meth which made it easy, which lost his soul in a swampy bowl of a burnt spoon. He roared like a foul wind through many lives. Until Carpocrates. Until his revelations by the Venerated. But…
The phone rings on the metal hooks and he wipes the past away like a breath on cold glass. Of all the nights, this one is different, and he feels it; something stirring. Pushing its way to the surface of his mind. He stares at the trembling phone. Everything seems different. He looks out of the dirty glass, to the starless sky, and he looks and he sees that the night is…
Husher grabs the phone and nearly tears it from the box. It’s pressed to his ear and he edges for that familiar static–but the line is dead. There’s a dial-tone, a sound behind it, and he listens hard for what that might be; it isn’t anything. No. His heart starts to race. He curls a fist and bangs it on the booth. His tongue rubs the front of his top teeth, curling over the yellowed lines, before he tastes something; something like blood.
Vision bore down to tunnels of small light surrounded in darkness. The pores of his skin open and sweat and blood come forth, drooling down his face and his arms from the old needle-wounds. Ancient scars hollowing back to life. Veins, vines, creeping agonies. Black ichor, putrefied and dribbling loose. It’s happening to him, yes, he’s changing, yes, it’s coming through and he tries for the pills again and turns his pocket inside out; coming up crumbs of smokes and that tumbling empty bottle. Flesh is like mud, his bones creak like wet branches yielding but unevenly. When he presses his hand to the glass, he watches his fingers began to elongate. He feels his jaw loosen from the hinges, dropping toward his chest. The worst pain of all is what it does to his blood; it’s boiling inside of him.
He screams and cracks the glass as he slams his fists. The fucking gun, he yells. Or someone yells. His tongue is long and lolling over teeth which are being pushed up out of his gums, replaced with fangs. They clatter to the ground. He goes for the weapon, one good hand left to him, though the thumb begins to grow. Don’t forget. The safety switched OFF. Place it to your head, place it to your head, squeeze and make a promise. He looks out behind the splintered glass.
There’s someone outside the booth. It’s the girl. In an old, faded white dress. She smiles, so young and pretty. But something is wrong with the lines of her lips and the color of her eyes.
HUSHER. A familiar, evil voice calls to him from the shadows.
Do you not hear the call? The door is open. Let us in. Let us in. LET US IN.
“Not me. Not fucking me. Fuck you!” He screams as his jaw distends. There’s a loud pop and his head snaps back and cracks into the side of the booth. Blood splattered over the grimy reflection. His body sinks. Curls up in the small space.
It’s turning out to be a long dream, same time every time.
But the girl is laughing.
She draws a smiley face on the misty glass. The dream is dying.
4. The Day of Jupiter
Even when he opens his eyes, Husher tastes the asphalt and blood in his mouth. He’s lying on the broken pavement outside of the gas station, a few brave strands of grass against his cheek. From the ground he can see the booth, a body crumbled inside; the obvious question can’t be answered. He pushes himself up and his head is reeling from the pain. There’s no entry hole, no exit.
This is turning out to be a long dream. And he’s growing tired.
Husher thinks about the doppelganger’s reason. Though his hands ache, his head spins, he huddles into his leather coat like a hermit, wandering aimlessly back home.
Carpocrates, you’re looking a lot like Hell. Where does that pixie with the black hair hide, trying to lure me into the dark. Still as the wind, the snow slips in circles around his ankles.
There’s nothing here for him. No one to kill, no one to save. A bundle of thick clothes lies face-down on the street. Tied off their final dose, a single tear of heroin frozen on the tip of the needle when he picks it up and pinches it between his fingers. Everyone is gone or going, the world isn’t turning, and the stars have faded away.
Nightmares and dreams leave Carpocrates. The streetlights blot out one by one. Husher sees one light though, off in the distance. A brick building with some windows on the second floor, curtains drawn, bristling maybe with life but he doubts it; he wants it, so he doubts it. The old faded sign shows the ghost of a woman, paint flakes wilting away one of her arms and half of her comely face.
It’s called the Day of Jupiter. Established 19– and since then men and women have flocked to her thick, metal door to be admitted into the grimy paradise.
The neon sign beside the entrance flickers with some lasting hope. He goes toward it, reaches out, places his hand upon the heavy door and feels the thump of music against his palm. Vibrations shocking him to his senses. Half-delirious still, Husher looks back over his shoulder.
He walks inside and the lavender light-beads line the rim of the ceiling. They cast shadows, strange shadows, but at the bar he sees several men face down in vomit, booze, or a mix of both. No one is there to tend to them. The music seems off, discordant, and far away, although the thump of the speakers still pound in his ears. He can’t hear anything. He can barely see anything. But there’s a stage, a single pole in the middle, and some of those lights still blare hotly onto the shiny surface.
Near this altar sits Burnham, head lolling in a kind of trance. He thought of Supplicant House, those driven mad by the Chant, and approaches him with caution. Husher grabs his friend’s shoulder and shakes him a bit, trying to loosen his senses. “Come on, you old fuck. Come on!” His voice echoes in the empty strip club. Burnham hardly responds. His glossy eyes drift toward the rail-thin killer, clad in black, and his nostrils flare weirdly as though a bad smell catches his senses.
“The man of the field,” he slurs. “Let them be…”
Burnham rubs his eyes with a tired hand. “Let them be.”
“Listen to me, you goddamn drunk. What’s happening? Was it a second Rapture? I can’t hear the Chant. The Venerated are silent and I’m pursued. Do you hear me! I’m a wanted man!” He shouts above the crackling music, the dull thump of the speakers. Burnham didn’t respond, instead he turned his face toward the stage and leaned his head back to let out a long and unsettling sigh. His hands rub the leather of the old chair and then grip the arms tightly.
“It’s sublime,” the old man mutters before he begins to convulse. Husher tries to stay him but the shaking passes on like a jolt and he has to recoil. His face twists in anger and he pulls out the pistol from his belt, lowering it down toward Burnham’s head. “They got you too, old friend–”
“If you do that,” a voice softly appears, “you’ll make a mess for nothing.”
Husher swivels and finds his gun drawn on a form squatting at the edge of the stage. It’s a woman, pale and so bone thin he could see her ribs. She wears electric tape in X’s over her nipples and a cat tail swishes inertly from the waistband of a leather thong. Her long, black hair touches to her thighs and the bangs are pushed back by a headband adorned with cat-ears. She has eyes like a cat, too. Yellow, black in the middle. Something is wrong with her face but he couldn’t understand exactly what.
“He’s Cathari now,” she explains. Unafraid of his weapon. “He’s free.”
There isn’t much time between when she finishes her words and when he pulls the trigger. There’s a loud crack and the bullet hits the back wall of the stage; seemingly passing through the stripper. She eases up to her full height, which is a foot taller than Husher, and slinks down on pointed heels until she’s standing above him and looking down at his wild, furious face.
“Go ahead,” she whispers. Her blood painted lips ease close to his ear, long fingered hands curling around his shoulders. “Ask me who I am.” The voice is like the aftermath of a high. His eyes sting with tears, bloodshot, and his nose begins to bleed; simply from the proximity or the sound of her voice. He feels his clothes stick to him from sweat.
“Sh,” she silences him. “Ask me not for I never lie. Ask me another question instead.”
“What’s happening to Carpocrates?” Husher replies. Finding his voice.
“Don’t you mean Apollonia?” The Black Cat smirks.
His head begins to spin, wildly, or at least his vision does. He staggers back and she catches him in surprisingly strong hands. Easing him down into a chair beside Burnham whose convulsions had since ceased and left him drooling, unconscious. Husher drops the pistol onto the floor, his body feeling numb; weightless.
“I need something from you,” he hears her voice. “A kiss. Only Cathari can know the truth of the Black Universe.”
He feels his heart pounding in his chest. The voice alters, sea-sawing between that dizzying methamphetamine and a kind of honeyed afterglow. It’s everything he wanted, depravity wrapped in a silken bow. She turns away from him, fingers trailing his jaw, and pivots before easing into his lap. He can hardly appreciate the dance. Nothing will work. His body aching with frustration and impotency, his mind swimming in the vision of those unearthly gyrations. “I want it,” he groans through the doped up state, “Tell me.” He begs.
At his words the stripper eases off him smoothly and then bends forward, touching her toes, with posterior resting high and near to his face. Husher eases forward, his hands weakly grasping the cheeks, before he plants an unholy kiss beneath the tail. It sends the veins in his face throbbing, his jaw tenses and he feels cracks form along his skull as his brain swells and pushes against the protective barrier. Blood comes freely from his nostrils. It makes him feel as if he’ll rip out of his skin, as though his body shrunk and all he’d have left is a brain floating on a bony stem.
The visions finally came, clearer than anything he’d ever known. But perhaps he had always known, and the rest…It’s turning out to be a long dream.
Burnham told him the story of Gerasene Baines, the man in the high house whose ungodly, occult experiments opened the way for the Creatures to come through; the Venerated barely able to contain him. He sees this, the two of them seated on the patio of his fifth floor apartment, looking out over the city. Once known as Apollonia. Carpocrates is the way, the meaning, and Apollonia is the thought. The true names of the demons from Loudon, where the pact was made, he wrote them in his own blood so that they could never be forgotten.
But Burnham said that the Creature’s didn’t come from Hell.
He sees the Black Universe swirling like a lightless ocean. Calm and chaotic. Intruding upon nothing for there is nothing. It’s all beginning to make sense.
Gerasene Baines, the occultist, pours over his thick tomes. A fireplace roaring in his study and all else is darkness. He scratches a pen across the pages. Algorithms of spells and incantations. Profane words believed lost to the human tongue. He could speak them but wouldn’t yet. His eyes fleet to the portrait of a woman above the mantle. The memory of a cold winter touches his skin, despite the heat. He continues his work, feverish and eager.
This world is not enough without her. He hears Baines’ thoughts. Malleable as this universe is, if I pour water upon the clay it shall turn to mud. I will reach in my hand and grasp her again, pulling her loose from the rolling, mad froth of that Black Universe. For the water is the life and love, love is the law.
Baines drew a perfect circle on a piece of paper before there came a thunderous knocking on his door. He reaches down for the revolver in the top drawer, clicking the hammer. Poised with a sense of tension in his eyes.
“Who calls at such an hour?” The occultist challenges. “Who calls!”
Husher sees the door to the study fling open and they come in, swiftly, somewhat drab and less impressive in their white suits. Baines fires a shot and kills one of them, the bullet ripping through the middle of his head before they overpower and grapple him to the floor.
If only he had the foresight to throw his work into the fire. Yet, now, they lifted his research up and held it above their heads. A jubilant and holy wail comes from their lips.
“And we shall make a Heaven of this Hell. We shall be venerated by the righteous,” they chant. “Praise the Lord!”
Baines struggles against them until they took out a knife. The parazonium. They plunge it into his chest and he jerks in agony, blood shooting out of the wound. It splashes against their white suits and they struggle to hold the flailing victim as they plunge the blade in again and again. A hundred deep gashes. Ventilated. It was sloppy and strange. These were only men. Frail men with frail ideas. But in their hands now they held a terrible secret–a terrible power.
One of them opened the tome and began to read such profane and unknowable words that they came as symbols rather than sounds from his lips. A white light filled the room. Awful and blinding, Husher had to throw his hands over his eyes to make it stop.
The Black Universe yawned. It took form and fell out of form and required sound and symbol to keep it together as it took the shape of a place like Carpocrates but not; this place they called Apollonia. It was a mirror upon our world. Held up by insane hands; the hands of the Venerated who spoke the Chant from their little chapel. They kept the world from tipping over the edge. People came in worship, danced with snakes, sang and wept, and died. All by the blessings of the holy rollers, the speakers on the mount, whose very utterances could cure the infirm and put right what was wrong with the soul. Here, in the House of God, they were his Angels on Earth.
The greater the sin, the greater the repentance. The closer one comes to God. They thought, to make such a world, and to save those in it; God would surely come to them.
Husher watches this transpire in a flicker and flash like images hidden in steam rising from a pyre. He knew the looks on the faces of the congregation; the same that he held night after night when he heard the call of the Chant. Let them be scattered. Fulfilling their holy purpose was enough to make him orgasm. He supped from that cup of grace. The waters glowing, but he ignored the worms. He never asked questions. Even after Burnham, he never doubted the crusade. Until now, after that abominable kiss. Profanity gave clarity in rare circumstance. Blasphemy became as ascension.
He closed his eyes and fell into the darkness. God was not coming.
The Creatures. Chaos. The Black Universe. What the Venerated tried to make, this holy house of sinful worshipers, those who needed saving, they built it from rot-wood. Insects came in through the cracks. This wasn’t a war, it was an infestation. And they were too righteous and diluted to try and stop it, to cancel the program, to flick off the lights. They thought they could kill their way back to order using Husher’s hands. The men of the field, all dead. Soon enough, he too would die.
The world crumbles around them; a drip into a great, hollow pool. He understood now the Rapture. Those people were not taken up to Heaven–they were floating, mindless, in that Hellish void. The Venerated were cleaning house, their floating paradise was sinking and they dumped the first cargo they could find; their unruly congregation. This is about staying afloat. A storm is coming.
There’s a rush, like hands grasping him beneath the water, and suddenly he’s…
He’s waking up. How long has it been? There’s a silent alarm clock on the nightstand. The Black Cat is gone. His lips sting with a burning sensation. Cold sweat dabs the shirt he picks up off the floor and he showers off the stench. This is the winter chill of Carpocrates, the space heaters drying out the air; drying him in his sleep. Lips spotted with cracks and blood. He peers through the Venetians to the empty streets. No cars, no sounds, and the streetlights have begun to fade. A city of thousands reduced to hundreds, reduced to nothing since the Rapture. Since the Failing.
Husher is taken by an urge and grabs his gun. The magazine loaded with blessed bullets. This is a real place, he prays, this is a real place. He turns the weapon over and sees the safety off.
This is a real place.
The Pentecostal House of the Chanting Angels is a white, unassuming chapel at the end of the city, deceptively small, with a sign out front that reads; REPENT AND BE SAVED BY THEIR VOICE. Above the double-doors at the top of the steps is a neon white cross that flickers in and out.
Everything is dark now; everything is going away. There’s shadows, representing places behind him. But it looks like smoke. If he turns back he knows that he’ll fall through, he’ll join the others in an ocean of lost souls. The Black Universe is stirring, waking up, and preparing to crash into this Sacred Dumpster like a thunderous wave. Not before he had his time; not before he made it right.
When he takes to the steps he saw her at the top of them. The little girl from the house on LaVey and the phone-booth. She stands beside the Black Cat, whose body is hidden by a draping black silken robe. Both of them eye him curiously.
“Cathari, blessed are the destroyers of false hope. What say you now?”
Husher stops and looks between both of them. He takes the gun out from his waistband and holds it in front of him. “I just want to sleep. But first I’m going to kill those fuckers.”
“The Black Universe welcomes you,” the Black Cat says.
“Is there a God?” He asks, with weird hesitation in his voice.
The Black Cat and the black-haired girl stand aside. “Would it matter? If this could not grab it’s attention. Such blasphemy and hubris. Would it matter if there was a God?”
“Yeah,” Husher mutters, “I guess not.” He pushes through the doors.
It’s quiet for a moment from outside. Then, through the windows, there are intense flashes of light. A terrible, earth-shaking voice splits the seams of reality and the windows burst into burning shards, the neon cross falls from its perch and shatters, flickering with finality. There’s more flashes. That awful voice transmogrified into a choking, human sound–the sound of helpless men dying.
Husher sits, exhausted, on the steps of the pulpit. The thirteen Venerated lie dead in various and gruesome positions, stains over their white suits. Riddled with sacred bullets. When the clip emptied, he beat the rest to death with the butt of the gun. It laid aside now, broken. His eye burst like a balloon in the socket from the briefest glimpse of the Chant turned against him. But he still had one good eye. Enough to see the lights going out. Blood dribbled down his cheek from the gaping hole. He couldn’t it, couldn’t feel much of anything, so he fished a cigarette from his pocket and lit it with the flayed fingers of his red right hand. Bone showing through the opening in the skin.
Smoke escapes his chapped lips. The chapel is becoming dim. His mind is clear, his heart is gentle, and his soul is free in those last moments sucking up the nicotine from the burning tip. Husher can’t help but think of Burnham, his bad moonshine, and the two of them bullshitting; looking into the nightlife of Carpocrates…Apollonia. Wondering what was to come, wondering how long they could keep the black dog from baying at their hinds. Wondering who would die first.
When it all goes quiet, briefly in the distance of the Black Universe, which churned without sound in a fathomless void; the faintest sight of the cigarette’s tip could be seen, trembling like a supernova from a million light years away–until even this, too, went into the dark.