Joseph S. Pulver, Sr.
Joseph S. Pulver, Sr. is the author of the acclaimed Cthulhu Mythos novel Nightmare's Disciple (Chaosium, 1999) as well as a strikingly original short story collection, Blood Will Have Its Season (Hippocampus Press, 2009), that nonetheless features homages to Lovecraft, Robert W. Chambers, and other classic authors of weird fiction.
traight rain. Mean and murderous. Its eyes screaming for blood.
Denver faded 300 miles back. 300 miles of wet asphalt back . . . It could have been 1,000 . . .
Rain. Mean and murderous—engraving the world with sheets of thorns. Rain. Screaming like the Old Man on a gin bender. Screaming like the Old Man before the belt and the fists.
Thirty years back . . . or it could have been yesterday.
This run was supposed to end in the desert, not in a ditch. But the clock pressed. Tick-tock/tick-tock. Like a boss with eyes that only said FASTER.
He needed coffee and a pack of smokes. Maybe some eggs and toast . . . and something other than this Bible-thumping Forever that poured out of the radio. A nice sexy waitress—not some upper-class package with radar eyes searching for money, but earthy—knowing, with blue eyes and a big butt that swayed. Not unkempt and worn, but nice and maybe with a little extra. And she would wink all-sexy-like when she refilled his coffee.
Rain—full throttle, carrying violence with each slap. Like the Old Man crossing the hardwood floor.
For the last 50 miles or every step he'd ever taken.
Broken. The knobs wouldn't work. He couldn't turn the fuckin' radio off or down. The wipers working overtime, fighting off this wallop of darkness.
He should pull over and wait it out. But he needed a smoke and needed to be warm. Wanted . . . wanted something to look at that didn't hurt his strained eyes. Wanted to hear something— someone other than Rev. James Theodore Ellison's promise to heal you if you sent him money. To be healed by money. That's what got him here. Got him on this road. Got him out this night. . . With The Package in the trunk.
He should pull over and check The Package. When he did that
365 miles back, almost running off the road, he heard it slam into the side of the trunk. Heard it thud. Jittery balljoints, shitty tires, and bad shocks—shitty-ass Pontiac junkbucket, new this thing never purred along Nirvana Road like a hot kiss; a Chevy would, "Ain't nothin' like a fine-ass Chevy glidin' top down in the sun. A fine candy-apple red one, not this black piece of crap." And that timetable. He was screwed if the Package was damaged. That's what Mr. Phoenix said. Promised. Stark as bloody murder with one look and few words.
But that wasn't his fault. Wasn't his fault Mr. Phoenix gave him this car. Made him drive on thin tires. Not in this shit. This was Mr. Phoenix's fault. Not that he could tell him that and live.
Mr. Phoenix and his red tie and his red stickpin! and the red cufflinks . . . Red. It stared right into your eyes. Drilling. Burning, hungry venom. Mr. Phoenix and his cats—five of them, four black as midnight, one smoke and fog grey. Licking his hands. Staring at you, right into your eyes. Drilling.
He hated cats. His Old Man had moved like a cat, slinky and graceful, even when he was oiled. Then the claws came out. Blood. Red. Red was everywhere.
Then . . . and now. Red.
All his life driving away from it. Fast. And here it was again. Waiting. If he wasn't on time. If The Package was damaged. Red. Waiting to let its claws out.
"Fuck all this rain. Pissin' like someone in Hell drank all the fuckin' beer in every shithole bar this side of the Mississippi."
If he had time he'd pull over and yank the fuse for the radio out. At least he could stop Rev. Set-aside-your-sins-and-ask-God-forforgiveness' moral deluge. But Mr. Phoenix said 11:30 sharp. Said he'd be waiting. Waiting. Red tie, tight and just so. Red stickpin! and the red cufflinks. And probably those fuckin' cats. Licking his hands. Sick-shit lettin' animals lick ya. All those fuckin' germs. Germs from licking their assholes. Might dress like old time money— all uptown, but he was fuckin' nasty. Nasty ass cats lickin' shit.
"Fuckin' treacherous cats. Yeowlin' like saxophones. Ballin' like that nigger music set 'em on fire." Should kill all the cats like they did back in Europe when they was burnin' the fuckin' witches.
He looks at the clock on the dash. 100 miles and less than an hour to make it there.
Raining. Harder. And Rev. James Theodore Ellison blatherin' like he knew it all.
And the Old Man, tellin' ya he knew it all.
And Mr. Phoenix actin' like he knew it all.
And this rain comin' down like the end of it all.
And those fuckin' cats and their hungry eyes, lookin' atcha like they wanted it all.
"Fuck-it-all! Gonna take my cash and hit some Mexican beach and score some nice Mexican pussy. Gonna leave all these wounded motherfuckers to their wounded neighbors and just lay there. No more in a hurry to get there. Fuck that." Outta the flame and into the wine. Bye-bye bullshit. I'm spendin' my days and nights in the shade. On my soft cushion—blue or green like the color of the water. Starin' at some sweet shang-a-bang-bang that don't wanna bring me down. Tomorrow there'll be sunrise and I'm gonna hit Sugartown without a problem in sight . . . Might even have a little garden where I can grow some of that sweet Mexican shit.
Sixteen hours of drivin' rain and barely a moment where it let up so he could pull over and take a piss. Sixteen hours behind the wheel with the clock following him. Pulling. Pushing. Mile after mile. Pushing. Prodding. Poking. Mile after mile. Minute by minute. Not even 50 minutes left and the clock wanting it to be over. And him wanting to be gone. And that bastard Rev. James Theodore Ellison sayin' The End is near—Bet the only thing he ever got near was the pink little backside of an altar boy. And the mean, murderous rain not letting up . . .
The flat ten hours back really put a dent in his plan, laid out all nice and straight. Fucked plans. Now all banged up and hollow. It seemed like it was last week and it killed any hope of stopping for dinner—some eggs and toast and hot black coffee would be nice, but . . . The rain and the clock and the flat killed at that. Left the day a victim. Roadkill, that got ran over and nicked and flattened and ran over again and again 'til it was pulp. Red. A red mess no one would stop for. No one would miss. Not even the clock.
He had a headache. Starin' through wipers killing themselves to beat off the rain hour after hour with no coffee and something filling his belly. He had a headache. Wanted to sleep. Wanted to eat. Wanted to wake up beside something warm and nice. And willing. Wanted this shit to be over. Now.
Wanted it to stop fucking raining. Let Mr. Phoenix build an ark and him and his fuckin' cats could sail off to one of those places like Babaluma or Zanzibar. He wanted this chapter closed and he wanted his money. Now.
If it would just let up and he could find a 7-Eleven or a gas station that hadn't dozed off into goodnight. Just one cup of java and a pack of smokes and he could make it 'til The End.
There'd be Mr. Phoenix at The End. Standin' there. With that stone, spider smile turnin' to poison and asking for The Package. Bet if it was still rainin' the rain wouldn't touch him. Bet he had red eyes under those thick black sunglasses. Come to think of it he'd never seen him, day or pitch black, without them. Albinos had reddish eyes, and Mr. Phoenix could—maybe?, even if he was as black as the ace of spades, black as any old Mississippi bluesman with broken eyes filled with sorrow. Yeah. He had red eyes. Just like one of those hellfire demons in those creepy old movies.
And that wasn't all that wasn't right with Mr. Phoenix. Always decked out in that stupid scarlet robe. Did he think he was some pope or old pharaoh? All that Egyptian stuff layin' around his office—the place looked like some creepy-assed museum. And that time down by the trains on Hennepin St. when the dogs ran from him bawlin' like he beat them with an ugly stick and he had his back to 'em and was at least twenty feet away. And those clove cigarettes, red tip burnin' like hellfire—smelled like they was rolled in Hell too. And his voice, sounded as if it came from deep in a well and it boomed, those old Bible prophets must have sounded like that to fill people with doom and damnation. Sounded pitch black and wise. Wise in things That Were.
But he had to get there first. Had to beat this clock ticking, pulling its load into some unknowable future. Had to get outta this rain.
Highbeams trying to read the snake-curve of the road. The rain confusing the context of space and time. Rain. Here now. Here then. Like a plague.
A sign—The Sign. The sign said just ahead. On the left. Almost here. All those hours almost free. Almost free to go to Mexico. With all that money. He'd have eggs and toast and smokes and sweet Mexican pussy with that money. He'd have every day on the beach—with no rain. Never a fuckin' drop! And he'd never have to deal with Mr. Phoenix again. Never look at that stone grin that froze yer bones. Never have to hear the fuckin' cats yeowlin'. He was gonna buy two dogs—wasn't gonna let any cats near his beach house in Mexico. The sign said just ahead.
$50,000. Just ahead. Long afternoons alone with a cold beer— drunk and ready for a nap if he wanted, unless he wanted her around. Everything he wanted, just ahead.
Hours and hours in the dark. No sky, no horizon. Now—wet and repeated endlessly. No shore. Minute by minute. No clouds. Minute after minute. No moon. Hour after hour. Rain. Leviathan.
Out of it. Hot summer complaining. Cactus. Sand. Moon—low and somehow energetic, smiling in satisfaction. Rev. James Theodore Ellison's sermon instantly ended, cut off. Joshua trees, bent old crones, twisted and passing for dead. The yellow spine down the middle of the road, dry, untouched by the merciless storm. Everything here in this exhibition of midnight and the small hours of morning bone-dry.
The hill off to his left. What passes for a road leading to it. Brakes. Left at the big boulder, just where he was told it would be. The tires quieter in the sand. Slow, not wanting to kick up dust. Three minutes late, not wanting to face Mr. Phoenix.
The Pontiac stops in front of three large rocks, sentinels, white as bones. They have no eyes, arms, hands. Still he sees them as dangerous. Something about them pulses. They don't belong here. His finger touches his mother's crucifix under his shirt before passing between them.
He steps from the deep black shadows of the sentinels on to white sand. Ground from bone, he thinks. An ocean of bones.
Two more steps—ghost steps. He feels he's walking up a long hill toward a great dark house, carrying something obscene and unwanted. He feels slight. Stops. He doesn't know if he should get The Package out of the trunk. Doesn't remember his instructions. Was there a script that disappeared? He'd like to turn back. But he doesn't know the way.
The flash of a match, a scar burning this cell of night. Mr. Phoenix without his dark-brimmed hat, face under it, glowing black edge to black edge. Mr. Phoenix carved out of sharp moonlight. Smiling. Smiling that blasted, open-faced, silent smile that soured his stomach, that could hit you like a shot to the ribs. Mr. Phoenix seated at a table under a canvas pavilion. Saxophones—a pair?—coming from a tape recorder by his feet, playing blind, surging, interstellar meditations, the lost music of some vertical invader awakened from slumber, hungry, hunting. Saxophones screeching and yeowlin' like those fuckin' blacksouled cats had their tails on fire. And his cats, pushing each other aside to lick his hands. Mr. Phoenix singing, "In the Outer Nothingness, Heavenly Things dancing in the sun . . . They Dwell on Other Planes." Empty well-deep voice—thin, stone lips hardly moving—reflecting yesterdays gone with the wind.
Not a drug deal. Not a delivery of some hijacked old shit. Devil worship? He turns his head and looks back at the Pontiac. At the trunk. The trunk he'd never looked in.
"Sorry I'm late, but the rain—"
"It stopped just over there. Freaky. Like there was a barrier it couldn't pass through."
"Rarely does the rain hunt in the Halls of Fire." With a hand, thin wisps of curling smoke rising off it, he removed his sunglasses.
Red eyes leveled at him. Unblinking. Stabbing red eyes, bare of all except contempt.
Fuck, that's . . . unholy! His mouth open—language flattened out with a bang, the burning air rushing into it.
The dark man has not moved. As cursed shadows tethered to forgotten riddles his cats sit at the edges of the table.
"Heavenly things dancing in the sun . . . They Dwell on Other Planes." Empty well-deep voice. Thin, stone lips hardly moving.
How does he do that? His hand moves to his left for comfort— no gun. He has a gun, but it's on the seat of the car. Forgotten in haste; to get this over and get out of here, to get his money.
The moon falls between cracks in the clouds. The air smells of light-devouring blackness. And the black man has not moved. And the scarring pattern of the swelling music boils on.
All he can do—simple and terrified—is stare. At the loud red eyes. He wants The End. Wants the money—his money. Wants to leave, to be on his way to Mexico. Wants Now to be over. But all he can do is stare.
The song the black man sings ends. The red eyes grow cold, the smile widens. "So we have arrived. Dark and light in shadows on this hill. Dark and light, one to take and one to give."
Shit, the package. It's still in the trunk. "Right. Sorry. I'll get the package."
Low laughter dancing. "I've no need for it. I know the way."
"But I have it. It's in the trunk. Right where your man said it was. I've never touched it. Never even looked at it . . . Could I get my money? And go?"
"Money? Oh, yes, that. Calm yourself, my boy, you'll have no need for money—not that there ever was any. Not where you are going."
The stone smile.
Going? I'm going to get my fuckin' gun. He'll give me my money, then . . . and I'll put two in his head for fuckin' with me. Shoot his fuckin' cats too.
"Johnny, I can see by your face you think to do me violence and leave. That will not happen. I control the opening of every door. I've a few moments to fill, so allow me to amuse you with a detail or two about you and the road traveled.
"Your dear mother was a drunkard and a whore, not that she took money for her wanton rutting, mind you, but for a few cheap drinks she would spread her legs wide. And I had a need, a need that required a vessel to carry a drop of my essence. A need for an act to occur under a star engraved in times ancient. A little song in her ear followed by a several glasses of gin and she . . . how would you put it? She fucked like a rabbit—climbed on top and took to my lust as if she were a maggot to an apple. I left her sleeping and dripping with my seed."
Black laughter brands him.
"I never saw her again, yet I've kept an eye on you. The night you were born the moon was fire-red—did she never tell you of The Burning? My pets were there, watching, walking in your first dream. After engraving you they came and reported to me. As the years found themselves whitened by the teeth of time, I've sent one of my servants to check on you from time to time. You'll recall the attorney who suddenly showed up to rid you of your legal entanglements when that girl died. He was a servant I employ on occasion. And Pitt—even the worm fears the scent of what he sends to the soil, did you ever wonder why a coldblooded monster like that befriended and protected you in jail? Again, my handiwork. Remember the evening your father fell down the stairs to his death, consumed by the spleen of a hard drunk?"
Mr. Phoenix's finger strokes the neck of the cat sitting at his right hand. "Mesah was there watching that night and made certain the coarse mite flew to the Labyrinth Where the Damned Howl. I could not, after all, have you damaged. Every time some loose extreme put you at risk I cut it back to nothing."
Assaulted by the life sprawling in his telescope of memory, his skin crawls. He wants out of the bullring, wants the weathervane to turn. Wants something sane. Wants his life to be another life, one not framed in the shipwreck of 100 sabbaths, not washed away by the teeth of 1,000 drinks. He is too stunned to cry. All capacity for speech is stitched shut.
"Though your life has been dark and violent, have you never taken note of the fact that in 32 years no scar has been born upon your body?"
His mind weak, beaten down. He is desperate for words. For some key to freedom.
"I see you wish you could trade the empty box in the trunk for your liberty. Yes, Johnny, the box contains nothing." The word a grave.
"You see, for this, what shall we call it? Prelude To Windfall, perhaps . . . You needed to come here freely. The package was merely a vehicle for you to do so. I can see you're searching for a reason for all this . . . I'll be plain. I am called by many names. Tonight the verse of stone and wind call me, The Opener of the Way. You and I are here to open a door. A door opened by the harvest."
Harvest? Like in dead?
He would run—the keys are still in the Pontiac's ignition, but finds himself bound, held knee-deep in sand.
Mr. Phoenix's hands glow. Tendrils of jet-black smoke curl from his spider-fingers. There is a blade in his hand.
The black man stands. His stone smile widens.
He finds his tongue, hisses, "A door to what?"
"To something you'll never see, nor would you understand."
Lost and overwhelmed. "I don't—"
"The only thing you need understand is there will be blood spilled."