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Category Archives: short story

Recently, Kirsten and I caught the new Netflix documentary Devil at the Crossroads about the life of Blues legend Robert Johnson.

In June of 2004 I had to attend a class at Keesler Air Force Base, Mississippi for four weeks.  Keesler is located on the Gulf Coast in Biloxi, Mississippi right down the road from Gulfport – a very popular vacation spot.

My weekends were free and I spent my time going for runs on the boardwalk, swimming in the ocean, playing some classical pieces on my guitar, catching up on reading, and writing a story churning around in my head. But one particular weekend a series of strange occurrences beset me and left me with a rather bizarre story to tell.

Friday after class I returned to my hotel room a little tired and decided to take a nap before dinner.  During this nap I had the strangest dream.  I was driving in a big convertible Cadillac down a country road when I came upon a black man running down the side of the road.  As I approached he turned and I could see terror sprawled on his face.  His wide eyes saw me and he thrust his thumb in the air indicating he needed a ride. I slowed down and noticed in his other hand he was carrying a worn guitar case.  I stopped to pick up the man and he removed his hat to wipe the sweat from his brow as he hurriedly climbed in.  He thanked me and introduced himself as Robert.  I started driving again and I noticed he kept turning to look nervously behind us as we drove and made small talk.  Obviously something was after him and he kept searching to see if it was behind us.  Finally, as we passed a sign which said Union Church, the dream ended with a large dog racing into the road ahead of us.  As I slammed on the brakes to avoid hitting the animal he screamed something about the hellhound.

I awoke from this dream with a start and was momentarily confused as to where I was.  As I regained my bearings I thought about the dream.  The dream was easily interpreted as a meeting with Robert Johnson, the infamous blues guitarist and native of Mississippi.  It struck me as a strangely vivid dream and my thoughts kept returning to the story of how Robert Johnson had supposedly met the Devil at a crossroads near Clarksdale or Rosedale in order to make a deal with Satan. Supposedly he had traded his soul for fame – it was an old myth which had been retold many times, in many different forms.  The story of Faust and Paganini were probably the most famous versions; but the Robert Johnson story had spawned similar stories about the members of Led Zeppelin and was recounted by other artists including Charlie Daniels.  There was even a movie made in the eighties called “Crossroads” about the legend in which the protagonist avoids losing his soul by playing an arrangement of a Paganini violin caprice on the guitar.

I went to get some dinner and thought more and more about the story of Robert Johnson.  The details were sketchy but the legend had prevailed.  Johnson had been an untalented blues guitarist who hung out with notable bluesmen Willie Brown, Charlie Patton, and Son House.  He left Robinsonville and returned home to Hazlehurst where he met Ike Zinnerman.  Zinnerman, an Alabama native like me, used to proclaim he had learned to play guitar by sitting on a tombstone in an old graveyard late at night.  Most people believe it was under Zinnerman’s tutelage Johnson became such a good guitarist.

But rumors began to spring up it wasn’t Zinnerman at all which caused Johnson to become so suddenly good.  When Johnson returned to Robinsonville his old idols took notice of his marked improvement and Son House began to tell of how Robert had met Satan down at an old crossroads in order to sell his soul in exchange for his blues playing abilities.

Robert himself never denied this rumor and, in fact, wrote several songs such as “Me and the Devil Blues”, “Hellhound on My Trail”, and “Cross Road Blues” that seemed to confirm the story.

Supposedly, according to another blues guitarist named Tommy Johnson, a person wishing to make such a deal with the Devil would sit at the crossroads about midnight and play their guitar until a strange black figure would arrive.  This black figure would, of course, be Satan himself.  Satan would take the person’s guitar, tune it, and give it back.  This would be the end of the deal and the person would suddenly possess supernatural skill and whatever fame and fortune they so desired.  But in all such tales there is never a satisfactory end and the poor individual who pays their soul usually is haunted by tragedy and pain.  In the case of Robert Johnson, he died of poisoning from one of two possible people in a jealous love triangle only a few years after tasting a little of the enormous fame he now possesses.

Just where this notorious and mystical crossroads is, is also a matter of some speculation.  Most accounts place it somewhere around Clarksdale and Rosedale in the northwestern corner of Mississippi.  But this doesn’t really seem to fit with Johnson’s sojourn back to his hometown of Hazlehurst.  Something in my dream kept gnawing at me.  It was the place name of Union Church – I had never heard of this place before in my life.

After eating I returned to my room and proceeded to peruse the road atlas of Mississippi.  I quickly found the cities of Clarksdale and Rosedale.  It took me a few more minutes to locate Hazlehurst off of I-55 and Highway 28.  And then I saw something which gave me a little bit of a shock – southwest of Hazlehurst was a town called Union Church!

Suddenly, the sign in my dream flashed back into my mind and I could see there was a number alongside the name of Union Church and the number was nine.  I looked at the map and calculated nine miles outside of Union Church coming from Hazlehurst would place the location of where the hellhound stopped the car in my dream inside of the Homochitto National Forest at the crossroads of Highway 28 and Highway 547.  For several moments I sat in bewilderment wondering what the dream could mean.  The similarity of the dream to the map was eerily accurate.

The dream and my following discovery on the map kept buzzing around in my head.  As I sat in my hotel room and strummed on my guitar I wondered how long it would take to get to the Homochitto National Forest.  I sat down with the map again and did a rough calculation of approximately 180 miles.  If I drove 60 miles per hour from Gulfport to Highway 28 and then 50 miles per hour on the smaller highway till I reached the forest, I concluded I should be able to make the trip in four hours pretty easily.  I looked at the clock and it was almost 6:30 p.m.  That would put me at the crossroads this very night at around 10:30 p.m.  Plenty of time to make it before midnight.

Before I had time to question the absurdity of my actions I had grabbed a few articles of clothing, some toiletries, the road atlas, and my guitar and was pulling out onto I-90 from Biloxi to Gulfport.

As I drove the two-door rental car along the coast I pondered just what it was I was hoping to achieve on this trip.  Would I really meet someone claiming to be Satan at the crossroads?  If I did have a chance to trade my soul for fame, fortune, and guitar virtuosity, would I do it?  I used to dream of being a well known guitarist but that had faded over the years. While I still enjoyed music and worked hard at improving my playing, I really had no desire to be known for my playing ability.  I still entertained dreams of being known for my compositional ability on the classical guitar but that too was secondary to my real passion – writing.  If I had to choose what posterity would remember me for it would be as an author of short horror and weird fiction.  Now, if I had the chance to trade my soul for fame, fortune, and writing virtuosity, I would definitely do it.  That’s how badly I wanted to be a well known author.

I recall the drive very well.  I grappled with the urge to smoke on the drive is why.  I used to be a very unusual smoker.  I never really was a true smoker by any stretch. I never smoked during the day for one. When I did smoke was when I had a few beers in the evening.  I would smoke when really bored or when stressed out about something, too.  I always exercised fairly regular to ward off the bad effects of smoking so I didn’t really over worry about my habit. I did want to quit completely because I knew it was unhealthy.  I had been doing pretty well on the trip so far at quitting but the drive was really boring.  Finally, I gave in to my desires and stopped to buy a pack of smokes.  After having the first wonderful cigarette I cursed my weakness and vowed to quit after I finished the pack.  I had done it many times before but this time it really stuck in my memory.  You’ll understand why in a moment; but first, let me tell the rest.

It was about 9:45 when I reached Hazlehurst.  I briefly entertained the idea of stopping and seeing one of the town’s Robert Johnson tourist attractions but decided it would take too long.  No, I was being driven by an inexplicable force and my only concern was my dream-revealed destination.

The rest of the drive was over quickly and I soon was entering the Homochitto National Forest.  The crossroads was immediately inside the forest and before I realized it I was upon the Highway 547 sign.  I stopped quickly and pulled over on the shoulder of the road staring at the sign which said Union Church was nine miles down the road.  I looked at my watch and it read 10:27 p.m.  I sat for a few minutes and smoked another cigarette. The traffic on Highway 28 was light – only an occasional car passed by.

I waited until there was no traffic coming in any direction and then I retrieved my guitar from the back seat and found a spot to sit. It was a nice night – hot but clear. A slight wind blew from the west which served to make the heat at least tolerable.  It was fairly dark but I could see well enough to find a dead log at the edge of the woods on which to sit.  I was close enough to the road to see it but hidden enough where passing cars wouldn’t notice me.

I opened my guitar case and pulled out my guitar.  I felt a little weird about the whole affair but I thought it would at least make for a good story to tell my friends.  At first I started playing some blues licks but I felt the need to play something a little more challenging.  So then I started playing Paganini’s Caprice No. 24 for the Guitar.  This was a rather difficult piece I had been working on recently and it somehow seemed appropriate at the time.

I played this piece and then played a few others then took a break to smoke another cigarette.  Then I got up and walked around for several minutes and returned to the log to sit and wait.

It was getting close to 11:30 and I was growing bored of this whole ordeal.  I decided to play the Paganini piece one more time before calling it a night.  My attention was completely focused on my guitar when a voice made me jump and scared me so bad I dropped my guitar as I rose and retreated from the voice.

“Whatchoo doin’ out here this late at night, boy?”  I recovered enough to regard an old black man standing at the edge of the road about 20 or 30 yards away.

I really didn’t know what to say in reply so I made up a lie. “I’m just passing through and was getting sleepy at the wheel so I stopped to get some fresh air and wake up a bit before continuing on.”  Was this really the Devil coming to make a deal with me?  The old man sure didn’t look like the Devil to me.

“What kinda music you playin’?” he asked walking a bit closer.

“Oh, it’s classical music,” I said by way of explanation.

“Uh huh,” he mumbled as if not really caring.

“What are you doing out here this late?” I asked.

“On my way home.  My name’s Esau,” he said.

I introduced myself as I walked over to meet him and shake his hand.  “Do you want to tune my guitar?”  I couldn’t believe the words came out of my mouth as I spoke them.  It sounded so ridiculous and I cursed myself before I had even finished the sentence.

“Tune your guitar?” he said in confusion.  “Tune your own damn guitar, boy.  I don’t know how to play no guitar.”

“I’m sorry,” I said uncomfortably.  I produced a cigarette and lit it.

“Mind if I get a smoke from ya?” he asked.

“Not at all,” I said offering the pack and my lighter to him. He took a cigarette and lit it, took a long drag, and made a face as if he were relishing the taste.

After a moment he looked at me and said, “Well, I guess I best me moseyin’ along.”

“Yeah, me too,” I said.  I remember thinking if he were the Devil then he sure didn’t make me feel scared; and he sure didn’t seem to care about making any kind of deal for my soul.

“Well, it was nice meetin’ ya,” he said as he headed back to the road.

“Nice meeting you too,” I returned.  I picked up my guitar and began putting it back in its case. He made one last comment before getting too far out of earshot which completely changed the harmless little encounter into something I swear made me think he was actually the Devil.

“Thanks for the smoke, boy.  I’ll settle up with you when I see you again.”  This last comment struck me as so strange I couldn’t formulate a response.  Before I realized it, he had disappeared into the darkness.

You might well think this chance encounter was just a coincidence and his comment at the end meant nothing at all.  I would’ve dismissed it too if the story had ended there.  But it didn’t.

I had planned on spending the night in my car and heading back to Biloxi the next morning but I was too rattled to sleep – especially at the crossroads.  So I drove back that night.  I had pretty much convinced myself my imagination was running wild trying to attach some weird meaning to an otherwise harmless encounter by the time I reached Hattiesburg.

I smoked as I drove and promised myself that after this pack was finished, I would quit again.  The pack was getting low and just after I went through Gulfport I pulled the last cigarette out of the pack and nearly had a wreck at what I beheld.  The cigarette was a solid black cigarette with one white marking on the side – a skull and crossbones.

I had to pull over to the side of the road to catch my breath.  My heart was thundering inside my chest.  My mind reeled at the meaning of the cigarette and just how it could’ve gotten in the pack.  Did the old black man use some slight of hands or was he really the Devil?

It took me several minutes to regain my composure. I drove back to my hotel room and sat on my bed looking at the cigarette wondering what to make of it.

Finally, I decided it was the Devil I had met and he knew it wasn’t virtuosity on the guitar I wanted.  No, he knew it was virtuosity in writing I desired.  That was my passion; my weakness.  I also knew the deal would be made if I smoked the black cigarette.

I can’t say how long I sat there struggling over whether or not to smoke the black cigarette.  I won’t tell you what I finally did but one day you’ll know…one day, you’ll know.

 

In 1991 I was a medic in the U.S. Air Force assigned to a refueling squadron in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia.  Mostly, this entailed performing sick call a couple of times a day and issuing medicine to stop attacks of diarrhea rather than any real attacks by Iraqis.  The Saudi Arabian government had allowed us to inhabit a fairly nice community they had originally built for the Bedouin nomads who roamed the desert and periodically migrated into Riyadh.  But, the Bedouins, being fond of their nomadic lifestyle, had refused to occupy the permanent buildings.  This village was called Eskan Village and it lay on the eastern border of Riyadh.

I first met Michael Shaler at the clinic we had established at Eskan Village when we were scheduled to work “sick call” together. We immediately hit it off.  Shaler was a very outspoken guy and his looks were stereotypical of his California origins.  He was blond-haired, blue-eyed, and spoke with the slang of a surfer at times. He was constantly bubbling with energy and was always looking for some type of adventure; and when there was no adventure to be found, he would settle for mischief.  What was not to like about Shaler?  His cheerfulness and playfulness were infectious and no matter what you were doing with him, you would be guaranteed an entertaining time.

All of the medical personnel were billeted in the same area of Eskan Village and Shaler and I managed to be placed in the same villa.  We were, in turn, billeted adjacent to the troops who worked in Life Support.  This job refers to the men and women who maintain and equip the planes with life saving devices such as parachutes, oxygen masks, flares, life rafts, survival rations, and such equipment.  We had made friends with some of these enlisted men and would routinely hang out with them along with a couple of other medics from our unit.

The roofs of the villas were designed as a type of deck and had a four-foot high wall completely enclosing it.  We frequently would go over to the villa occupied by the Life Support guys and hang out on their rooftop while off duty. I remember one day when Shaler got the idea of talking the Life Support guys into bringing home a life raft from work and inflating it on the rooftop so we could fill it with water in order to have a small pool for cooling off in.

Another time Shaler talked us all into filling surgical gloves with water to make water balloons.  We then would throw them at people passing by the villa and duck behind the wall of the roof laughing and giggling while the unsuspecting victim would be left soaking wet wondering where the projectile had come from.

[A view of Eskan Village. Notice the walls around the roofs.]

[A different flag our neighbors flew. The view is from behind the roof wall.]

I mention these specific examples for two reasons.  The first is that they illustrate Shaler’s attempts to liven up our drab existence in the desert – his sense of adventure and mischief in an otherwise dull situation. The second, and in retrospect, more disturbing, is that they stick out in my mind as involving water.  This may sound rather trivial, but you must hear the entire story to see that maybe these ominous portents were signs of the horrible fate that eventually befell Shaler.  But signs like these are easily overlooked when they occur and only stand out in stark relief when viewed in retrospect.

I’m not really sure how Shaler heard about the cave, but he came to our group with the plan to visit it already formulated. The others in our group were Billy Jubinski, Jose Juarez, and Timothy Clay.  These last three were all Life Support guys.  We were all on our way to dinner at the compound’s chow tent when Shaler joined us smiling from ear to ear like the Cheshire Cat.

“I found out about a cave that isn’t more than 25 klicks from here.  This weekend we’re gonna check out a truck from the motor pool and go do a little exploring.”

“What the hell are you talking about, Shaler?” Jubinski asked.

“It’s supposed to be a really big cave with a pool in it,” Shaler said excitedly.  “The pool is huge and we can go swimming in it.”

“Who did you hear this from?” Clay said.

“I have my sources,” Shaler replied obtusely.

“Your sources, huh?” I said echoing Clay’s skepticism.

“Yeah, listen, the pool is deep in the cave so it’ll be pitch black in there.  We’ll need flashlights, but I was wondering if you guys have any really big light sources?”

Jubinski gave Shaler a reproving look for a moment, but Shaler just stared at him with that big, shit-eating grin locked on his face. Finally, Jubinski shook his head and said, “We have beacons for signaling which are pretty bright.”  With those words it was decided that we were going on Shaler’s little spelunking expedition.

It was later in the week that Juarez announced his idea for taking a handful of chemical glow-sticks that we could use to float in the pool of water in order to light the pool while we swam.  Our excitement grew as the weekend approached and Shaler was nearly beside himself with anticipation.  On Friday our excitement was interrupted by an event that drove the exhilaration of the weekend’s expedition from our thoughts.

[Bill, David, and Doc Mitchell.]

[An excursion to Diriyah. For some reason I thought a fanny pack was worth the loss of cool points.]

[The ruins were along the river where palm trees were a rare sight in the Arabian Desert.]

Shaler and I were on duty when a call came in from the guard on duty at the entry control gate of the compound.  He said there had been a bad wreck just outside of the compound on the freeway and he didn’t know if any American soldiers were involved or not.  Shaler, Dr. Fleming, who was the Flight Surgeon on duty, and I got in the ambulance and responded to the accident scene.

Apparently, a bus full of Arabic workers had driven off of the overpass and nose-dived onto the freeway below.  There was no Saudi Arabian transit system, or any real traffic laws for that matter, to speak of.  The workers pushed the carrying capacity of the busses to the limit and they rode the busses to and from work like sardines packed into a can.

The quickest way for us to get to the accident was to drive down the exit ramp on the wrong side of the road.  As we turned onto the exit ramp a truck stopped us and the Arab driver jumped out yelling in Arabic.  We got out and I immediately saw he and his passenger had thrown whatever survivors they could grab into the bed of the truck.  There were at least eight bloody and moaning people in the back. We couldn’t understand a word the driver was saying and Dr. Fleming finally convinced the man to take the poor, wounded passengers to the nearest hospital.  They were badly injured but alive.  Our services would be needed for all of the victims still entangled in the wreckage.

When we arrived at the wreckage it was a chaotic mess.  There were numerous injured and dead strewn across the freeway.  People who were driving but not involved in the accident were crowded around and trying to assist in whatever way they could.  We began to go through the task of triaging the patients and looking for the ones who needed the most immediate medical treatment.  Just after we arrived the Saudi Arabian emergency medical services arrived and began to take control of the scene.  It was a blur of activity, but eventually we were able to remove ourselves from the scene. Just before we left I caught Shaler staring at the dead bodies.  One particular body was lying with his head at an unnaturally sick angle and his eyes wide and glassy.  He appeared to be looking right at Shaler and Shaler just stood and stared back at the dead man.  I clapped Shaler on the back and caused him to stir from his dazed look.  “C’mon, Man,” I said.  “We can go now.”

The rest of the day Shaler wasn’t his usual, jovial self.  The carnage of the accident really affected him and I too felt sobered by the event. That night, back at our villa, he awoke in the middle of the night with a yell.  I didn’t say anything to him, but I somehow knew he had had a nightmare about the wreck and the dead bodies.  The next morning, however, Shaler was back to normal and the excitement of the day’s trip had shoved the bus wreck from our minds.

[Another excursion was to the camel market where I drank fresh camel’s milk – and still wore a fanny pack.]

We procured a desert-camouflaged, four-wheel drive Bronco from the motor pool, loaded our gear, and headed out into the ancient Arabian Desert.  The excitement was high and we had the feeling that we were embarking on an exploration of uncharted territory.  Jubinski drove and Shaler rode shotgun as the navigator.  He had a map spread across his lap and he and Jubinski debated routes and locations while the other three of us joked and talked as we bumped along ever more rugged terrain.

We turned onto a sandy road and in the distance could be seen a long chain of cliffs.  The cliffs seemed utterly out of place lying in the midst of endless miles of flat desert.  As we approached, the cliffs continued to recede and it soon grew apparent that these cliffs were quite large.  The road finally turned to run parallel to the cliffs and we could see they were approximately three-hundred feet high and held flat plateaus across their tops. These flat tops grew to be several hundred feet across at some points.

We drove along this road, occasionally turning toward the cliffs as other roads appeared, as Shaler and Jubinski tried to find the location of the cave mouth.  It was slow going and nearly an hour elapsed before we found what we were looking for – and there was no mistaking that this was the cave mouth we sought.

My only experience at cave exploration was when I went as a child on a school fieldtrip to Rickwood Caverns in Warrior, Alabama.  Those caves were an extensive network of stalactite and stalagmite-ridden, limestone caverns.  They were irregular and filled with mineral formations and the omnipresent dripping of water.  The cave we were approaching was a gigantic mouth yawning from the depths of the desert.

The cave-mouth kept growing and growing until our Bronco was a mere period following a vast oval zero laid on its side.  I estimated the mouth of the cave to be larger than a football field and it continued at that size to descend at a 45-degree angle into the base of the cliff wall and down into the bowels of the desert.

We piled out of the truck and stood staring in awe at the vast behemoth that confronted our eyes.  The only other time I felt so insignificant before the size of Mother Nature’s handiwork was when I stood at the rim of the Grand Canyon stunned and silent.

[Ain Heet – A stunning view of the cave mouth.]

Several minutes elapsed before the spell was broken and we donned our gear to begin the trek down into the cave.  We whooped and talked in excitement as we set off.  The path was a boulder-littered and sandy rock field that we scrambled over and around with the thrill of adventure coursing through our blood.

We hiked like this for several minutes until we finally entered the vast shadow of the cave’s ceiling and the temperature immediately dropped to a more tolerable level as the baking desert sun was blocked; however, the air was still as dry as the caress of a mummy’s hand.  The cave ceiling loomed high above us and I felt as though we had entered the mouth of a giant, fossilized behemoth.

We picked our way slowly down the rock field for another 45-minutes as the light slowly dimmed and the cave mouth began to close.  Every so often I looked back at the cave-mouth and noted its size – first, as wide as my arm span; next, the size of a football (at which point we turned on our flashlights); and finally, no bigger than an egg.  And then we came upon a wall of boulders and our progress was abruptly halted.

[Abdul was a local man who told us the cave was avoided by the locals because it was associated with desert djin, or evil sprits. He warned us not to go in.]

[Mike Shaler is on the far right.]

“Well, Shaler?” Jubinski said.  “I thought there was supposed to be a pool down here.”

“There is,” Shaler said, scanning the boulders with his flashlight beam.  “There is supposed to be a crack in the rocks that we can climb through to get on the other side.”

“How do you know this, Shaler?” I exclaimed.

“I told you.  I have my sources.”

“Seriously, man,” Juarez began, but his comment was cut short by Clay.

“Hey, guys, over here!  I think I found it!”

Sure enough, Clay had found a slim crack between the boulders through which we all managed to worm our way through to the other side.  When I emerged on the other side the first thing I noticed was we had entered a totally new kind of darkness.  A darkness so profound it was palpable.  At one point someone made the suggestion to turn out all flashlights and I couldn’t even see my hand right before my eyes.

The wall of boulders ended as abruptly as it had emerged and the cave continued on in its previous manner.  I suspected the blockage was the result of a cave-in but kept this observation to myself.  We went on for another ten or fifteen minutes and then the humidity assaulted us.  It was like walking into a sauna and there was little doubt we were approaching some type of water source.

It wasn’t long before we reached the pool. Shaler, whatever his source of knowledge, had been right.  The pool was magnificent.  Shaler broke into an animated dance while yelling and laughing in triumph.

“I told you, boys!  Didn’t I tell you there was pool?  It’s gorgeous!”

The water was so clear it looked only a few feet deep.  Someone announced they were throwing a rock in and there followed a loud “bloosh” and my flashlight caught the location.  The water rippled and the rock was seen descending to the bottom.  It was apparent that the water was very deep.

[The only rock out of water is the large one in the foreground.]

The three guys from Life Support removed the lights they had brought and soon we had illumination well enough to see most of the pool.  It was the size of a small swimming pool and got deeper as the cave continued to descend. At the far side, the roof of the cave eventually met the water’s surface and it looked to me that this was the very bottom of the cave; however, there very well could have been more to the cave system.

We quickly stripped down to our swimming shorts and raced to enter the water.  Of course, Shaler was the first to plunge into the pool, but we all followed immediately after.  The water was exquisite.  It was cool, clear, deep, and big enough for us all to enjoy.  We soon discovered a boulder that jutted out of the water enough to provide a platform for jumping from and we all took turns climbing it and leaping in funny gyrations into the water.

With no one watching, Juarez slipped from the pool and shut off our lights.  We were thrown into pitch blackness and everyone began to yell with a tinge of fear in their voices until Juarez laughed at us and told us to hold on. Then, little green lights began to appear from where he sat as he broke the chemical sticks.  Each time he broke one he tossed it into the pool.  We tread water and watched each green stick glide through the air and plop in the pool.  Soon, they were floating all around us and the pool began to emanate an eerie, green glow – it is that same fluorescent green glow that haunts my dreams now and, when I see it in my waking state, I cringe from it like an arachnophobe from a spider.

Jubinski was the one who came up with the idea to tie the glow-sticks to rocks and submerge them.  This was done and soon the entire pool glowed a sickly, luminous green even more profound than when they were floating on the pool’s surface. I can’t remember how long we swam this way before Shaler announced he was going to try and dive as deep as he could in the back of the pool to see if it continued into another chamber.

Several times he disappeared and we waited for his return with news of his discoveries.  Shaler was a good swimmer, having grown up on the west coast beaches of California, and we were a little worried at how long he was gone beneath the dark waters each time he went under.  He went three times and returned with nothing to report but the fact that there was just rock as far as he could determine.  The fourth time he went down he returned quickly in a mad haste to get out of the pool spluttering and splashing all the while yelling, “I saw something!  Get out! I saw something down there!”

We all rushed to get out of the pool before questioning Shaler.

“What was it?”

“What did you see?”

“Was it a fish?”

“Are you sure you saw something?”

Shaler was visibly shaken and he tried to explain, but it came in fragments and I was sure he was trying to hide something.

“I don’t know…it was moving…but it wasn’t a fish. No, it definitely wasn’t a fish. It was moving…  C’mon, guys, let’s get the hell out of here!”  Shaler found the rescue beacons and turned on the lights so that the bright, white light drove the green glow away and our visibility was drastically improved.  We all retrieved our flashlights and searched the pool, but there was no sign of anything in the water moving.

We were all suddenly aware of the alien remoteness of our location and even though we all thought Shaler had just imagined seeing something, no one wanted to be the first to venture back into the pool.

Jubinski said, “I think you were seeing things, Shaler.”

Shaler commenced to drying off and merely said, “I saw something.  Don’t get back in.”

“You’re freaking me out, man,” Clay replied.

Jubinski broke the tension by saying, “Let’s go, guys. I want to explore the cliffs anyway.”

We all hastily dried off and dressed while keeping a wary eye on the pool.  We returned up the slope and hurried to squeeze through the crack in the boulders without saying very much.  At one point, before crawling through, I looked back one more time at the pool and a chill slithered down my spine as I beheld the glowing, green pool far below in the remote depths of the cave.

Once we emerged on the other side of the boulder obstruction, the darkness returned to a normal darkness and our moods were immediately altered for the better – all, that is, except for Shaler.  He remained silent and consumed in his own thoughts.  As we began the arduous trek back up the long tunnel Juarez came up to me and whispered, “Hey, man.  I bet Shaler is just messing with us.  I bet it’s just another one of his pranks.”

“Yeah, I bet you’re right.”  But I still didn’t believe it.  Something about the look in Shaler’s eyes when he came out of the water told me he was genuinely terrified.  He kept looking over his shoulder as if he were afraid that something was pursuing him.

By the time we struggled up the rugged path out of the cave we were so exhausted we didn’t have the energy to do any further exploring.  We all, except for Shaler who was unusually quiet, agreed that we could return to do further exploring at a later time.  And so, fatigued and hungry, we climbed inside the Bronco and headed back to Eskan Village.

Shaler never recovered from that trip into the cave. On the contrary, his condition spiraled into madness at an alarming rate.  In the days immediately following our excursion he seemed withdrawn and said very little.  I tried to engage him in conversations and frequently asked him if he was feeling all right. He made vague comments and refused to elaborate on anything.

Several nights later, I heard him thrashing and mumbling in his sleep.  I went to check on him and he awoke with a violent start.  Whatever nightmare had haunted him it must have been a very vivid one because he was very shaken.

[We supported aerial refuelers (KC-135’s) and had many opportunities to ride along with missions over Iraq.]

About a week later, I awoke in the middle of the night after hearing a noise.  When I rose to investigate what had caused the noise I found Shaler’s bed empty. Assuming he had risen because he couldn’t sleep and had probably gone for a walk, I returned to bed.  He was back the next morning and I didn’t think much more about the episode.

Several nights later, I heard Shaler leaving again and this time I watched him through the window and saw he was carrying a flashlight and a large water bottle.  Evidently, he wasn’t going out just to get fresh air, but was headed somewhere in particular.  It crossed my mind that it might be the cave, but I just couldn’t bring myself to accept this because of how much the episode in the cave had scared him.  I was confused and decided to try and follow him.

He kept to the shadows as he wound his way through Eskan Village.  I stayed back and made sure I wasn’t seen.  We finally arrived at the tent that was used as the motor pool.  But Shaler didn’t enter the tent.  Instead, he pulled a set of keys from his pocket and got into one of the Broncos.  I remained hidden as I watched him drive off.  I couldn’t believe that he would go back to the cave.  That’s where he had to be going, but why?  And especially by himself!  The thought of it made me shudder.

I returned to my villa and tried to sleep, but it was useless.  I lay awake wondering just what Shaler was up to.  It just didn’t make any sense.  Why would a person who was so scared return alone to such a dark and desolate place? Maybe he wasn’t even going to the cave. Or maybe he was meeting someone else at the cave and going in with them.  Maybe Juarez was right in his assessment that Shaler was just playing a joke on us.  Perhaps Shaler was returning there to build on his joke.  It just didn’t fit, though.  Shaler’s nightmares and the way his behavior had changed were all wrong. Unless his practical joke was far more elaborate than I expected.

I decided to attempt to follow Shaler all the way into the cave if he made another trip.  I remained awake until Shaler returned several hours later.  I couldn’t stand not knowing what he was up to and I confronted him when he entered our villa.

“Where have you been, Shaler?”

“Garrett, My God!  You scared the crap out of me.  I couldn’t sleep and -”

“Don’t lie, Shaler.  I know you’ve been to the cave.”

“What are you talking about?” He said trying to feign that my insinuation was hurtful.

“I followed you to the motor pool.  I know you went to the cave,” I lied trying to make him confess.

Suddenly, he grabbed my shirt and pulled me close saying, “What did you see?  Did you go into the cave?  Did you see them?”

His eyes were wild and his behavior was scaring me, but I pushed him back and said, “See who?  No, I didn’t go in the cave.”

Then, Shaler’s face changed.  I know no other way to describe it other than to say that a transformation spread across his face.  “I saw them in the pool, Garrett.  They were calling me to join them.”

“What the hell are you talking about?” I said horrified.

“I know you think I’m mad.  What else would you think?  But, I tell you it’s true.  That day we all went to the cave, I saw them in the dark depths of the pool. I don’t know who or what they are but they came to me in my nightmares.  They showed me what eternity looks like, Garrett.  I’ve been down there for hours just gazing into the pool; watching them.”

I was stunned.  I tried to make some sort of reply to his gibberish, but could think of absolutely nothing to say.  He watched me with that same wild look on his face and then it completely drained out of his face and he began to chuckle.

“I’m just kidding, Garrett,” he said trying to play it off.  “I was just messing with you, dude.  I did go down there to the cave, but I took some other guys down there to swim.  You know, like a tour guide.”

“What?” I said bewildered.  In my sleep-starved state I didn’t know whether he was kidding or serious or just plain lying.

“Yeah, there were these Army guys who wanted to go down there and the only time they could go was at nighttime.  I mean, it is a pitch-black cave after all, right?”

I was so tired that I didn’t bother to try and make any sense out of what Shaler had said nor his erratic behavior.  I went to bed and fell into a deep sleep. The next day I didn’t see Shaler at all. I went to work at the clinic and he went with one of our Flight Surgeons on a flight.  The flight they went on lasted well into the night and I was so exhausted after work, I went to bed early.

I awoke in the middle of the night to the sounds of Shaler’s nightmare fits.  I went to his doorway and listened to him.  He was mumbling and thrashing about in the bed and I stood and listened for several moments.  I could only make out a word here and there but I gathered he was dreaming of the pool and was telling someone that he was coming to meet them.  I stood there horrified as chills spread through my body. What madness was afflicting him? I gathered my nerves and decided to wake him.

I entered his room and beheld him in the throws of his nightmare ranting and writhing.  I cautiously touched his leg and called his name, “Shaler!”

He awoke with a start and stared wide-eyed into empty space before his eyes focused on me.  Then he startled me by grabbing my wrists.

“Garrett, my God!  I’ve seen them again.  I must go back to the cave.”

“It was only a nightmare, Shaler.  You were just dreaming.”  He merely brushed off what I said and rose from the bed and began searching around for his clothes.

“They’ve shown me eternity.  You can’t imagine the mysteries they’ve revealed to me.”

“Snap out of it!  You’re talking crazy.”

“Am I?  Have youseen them, Garrett?”  He continued to dress and I grabbed his arm. He jerked violently away and then shoved me.  Then a horrible look leapt into his eyes and he growled, “Get your filthy hands off of me.”

I was stunned.  This wasn’t the Shaler I knew.  He was mad.  “What the hell is your problem?” I countered.

I tried to reason with him but we just argued. He dressed and I followed him out of the villa.  It was in the street out front that I tried to grab him again.  This time, however, he wheeled on me and landed a hard punch right on my chin that knocked me out cold.

I awoke still lying on the pavement of the street.  Shaler was nowhere to be seen.  I pushed myself up and rubbed my chin trying to gather my wits.  The cave; Shaler had gone to the cave.  I had to go after him.

I rose to my feet and thought through how I should proceed.  I didn’t have a vehicle and I really couldn’t remember the route to the cave even if I did have one.  The day we went Jubinski had driven.  I decided to go to the Life Support villa and wake Jubinski.

I checked my watch and it was after 1 o’clock in the morning.  Eskan Village was dead silent.  When I arrived at Jubinski’s villa, I could tell that no one was awake.  I didn’t care, though.  I pounded on the door until Clay finally opened the door rubbing his eyes.  I explained to him I needed to talk to Jubinski and he let me in then went back to bed.  I woke Jubinski and pleaded my case to him.  He groggily listened to my story and saw I was obviously distressed by Shaler’s bizarre behavior.  Finally, he consented to go with me to the cave.

Once he was committed to the journey we had to acquire a vehicle.  We discussed sneaking a truck from the motor pool but this seemed a bit risky.

“What about an ambulance?” He said.

“What do you mean?”

“The clinic is on 24-hour shifts so let’s get an ambulance.”

“I can’t just go get one.”

“No, but you know the people working there. Talk them into letting you take one.”

It was worth a shot.  We headed over to the clinic and I talked to the two technicians on duty.  After about ten minutes of haggling and bribing they let us take the spare ambulance and agreed that if anything came up they would cover for us.

As we drove through the hot Arabian night I told him the entire tale of what had been going on with Shaler.  He agreed that it sounded like Shaler had lost his mind. We discussed several possibilities and I finally told him about the episode with the bus wreck.  When I told Jubinski about the ambulance run we had made the day before we went on our cave expedition he agreed that was probably the catalyst for Shaler’s mental malady.

When we finally arrived at the cave, it was disconcerting to see the desert-camouflaged Bronco sitting there empty, dwarfed by the ominous cave-mouth.  As we made the long journey into the depths of the cave, I experienced a growing sense of dread.  It was comforting to have Jubinski as a companion and I tried to drive out of my mind the hideous thought of making the descent alone.

We made it to the wall of boulders and located the crack.  I volunteered to go through first.  My heart was thundering in my chest as I squirmed through the narrow opening.  I didn’t know what to expect or why I had such a profound sense of dread.  I felt as if I were entering a vast, ancient sepulcher.  I emerged on the other side and played my flashlight beam over the immediate area.  Nothing but rock and silent space met my eyes.  I waited nervously while Jubinski wormed his way through the crack.  When he emerged beside me I felt a bit better, but there was still an oppressive aura of unnatural remoteness that pervaded the cave.  I felt as if we were aliens intruding into a forbidden crypt.

I wondered what Shaler was doing.  Was he completely out of his mind?  Would we find him swimming?  What if we found him raving mad?  Or even worse, what if we found him dead?

We trudged on and suddenly Jubinski grabbed my shoulder pulling me to a halt.

“Turn off your light,” he whispered.

“Are you crazy?” I retorted.

“Shhhh,” he hissed snapping his light off.  I reluctantly complied and we were suddenly plunged into utter blackness.  After a couple of seconds the sickly green glow of the pool emerged from the darkness.

“Look, it’s the pool glowing,” I heard myself whispering.

“Impossible.  Those glow-sticks would’ve burnt out days ago.”

“Maybe Shaler brought more.”

“Maybe,” Jubinski said in disbelief.  Then Jubinski shouted, “Shaler!” and I jerked in a spasmodic wave of fear shot through my body.

“Jesus Christ, Jubinski!  You scared the shit out of me,” I said with a mix of anger and fear.

“Sorry,” he said and turned his flashlight back on. He called several more times as we continued picking our way down toward the pool but his cries just echoed through the cavern with no reply coming back in return.

Finally, we made it to the pool.  There was no sign of Shaler anywhere.  The pool’s weird, green glow was simply eerie.  We apprehensively scanned the water of the pool fearing what we might find there.  The water was as still as glass, though.

“If he were swimming, the water wouldn’t be this calm,” Jubinski offered.

“Do you think -”  But my question was cut off by a sudden, primal scream.  I fell backwards in stark terror and whipped my light in the direction of the scream.  There, framed by the light, stood Shaler with a flashlight in his hand and the inert form of Jubinski lying beside him.  Shaler had attacked Jubinski.  I couldn’t tell if Jubinski were alive or dead.  Shaler had a maniacal stare on his face and was breathing heavily.

“Garrett, thank God you came.  It’s all clear to me now.  I know what I must do.”

I was terrified.  I tried to speak, but the words stuck in my throat.  I began to stumble backwards.

“It’s not just me they want,” he said icily. “They want you too.”

He lunged at me then.  I recoiled and tried to put distance between us but the rocks were too cumbersome to navigate in the dark.  He swung at me with the flashlight and I was able to duck the blow.  I got a punch off at his stomach and felt my fist bury into his abdomen.  He let out a woosh of air but managed to wrap an arm around my neck.  I tried to pull free but his arm was locked around my head. I didn’t think; I just reacted.  I tried to push into him and drive him to the ground but instead, he fell backwards into the pool.  He still had me in a headlock as we splashed into the cool, green water.  I pried at his arm and struggled to break free but it was no use.  I was running out of air and panicking.  Just then I felt a strong sense of being pulled deeper into the water.  Then I felt my head pop free from his hold and I pushed away from Shaler.  I clawed at the water in an effort to find the surface; to find the air I so desperately needed.  I managed to open my eyes and I saw Shaler being pulled down by a throng of shapes.  Their hands were wrapped about his body and I could see Shaler’s face calm and serene as he smiled back at me.  Just before I broke the surface of the water I saw them disappear into the green-tinted darkness and one of the figures looked at me!  It was the most hideous thing I’ve ever beheld in my life.  I’ve tried to convince myself that it was just an illusion; just a trick of the mind caused by the lack of oxygen or my rattled nerves.  But sometimes, when I let my guard down, the realness of it overtakes me.  Deep inside I know the truth.  I know what I saw.  It was the face of the dead Arab from the bus wreck.

I clambered from the pool in an outrageous panic. Jubinski wasn’t dead, thank God. I don’t know what I would’ve done if he were.  I probably would have lost it.  I shook him until he came to and then I told him that Shaler was gone.  I told him that he had dove in the pool and never come up. I couldn’t tell him what I really saw. He wouldn’t have believed me anyway.

We made our way back out in a complete daze. When we got back to Eskan Village we sought out our commander and told him the entire story.  Of course, I left out the part about me seeing the things in the pool.

They sent a team back into the cave to try and find the body of Michael Shaler but he was never found.  After that it was forbidden for any serviceman to go to the cave.

Before I left Saudi Arabia I managed to talk to one of the men who went into the cave to search for Shaler.  I just wanted to know one thing.

“When you went into the cave did you see anything unusual in the pool?”

“There was nothing in the pool,” he said thinking about it.  “But the pool did give off this really creepy green glow.”

My last horror collection I wrote is entitled The Other Side of Despair. It was inspired by my studies in Psychology as well as the classic weird stories of Robert W. Chambers that was The King in Yellow.

I was posting a link to the book in a thread and happened to see a review. It was refreshing to see someone get the book as I intended it!

Here is the review by Arnstein H. Pettersen with many thanks from me, sir! I’m glad yo enjoyed it:

Using the science and art of psychology to descend from the ledge chiseled by Lovecraft, further into that dyscognitive abyss.
(Also containing the short story collection that amass to the tale of ‘The Scourge of Wetumpka’, which firmly resides within the Cthulhu mythos.)

The horror genre often brings psychology into the mix as it plies its trade; dread does after all reside within the limits of our minds. Yet only rarely does one find an exemplar of the genre as The Other Side of Despair, where the matters of the psyche is at least nine-tenths of the tale. Its eclectic assortment of short stories persists in pitching the perceptions of the fantastical against the fabrications of the mind, leaving the reader lost for answers in a dilemma akin to that of figuring out which one initiated the (seemingly) etrnal cycle of causality between the chicken and the egg. And to present this dilemma as vividly as possible we have to gain a most intimate insight into the cogitations of the perceiver – or if you prefer the imagery: to observe the prancings of the Devil through the eyes that behold him. It is clearly no coincident that the stories consist mostly of monologues, excerpts of diaries, and personalized letters; ways of narration that are tightly bound to the core of the narrator’s world and interpretation thereof. Yet, despite their differences, they belong to a common literary universe, amassing the information of the individual story into something larger, perhaps even into something resembling answers.

The first monologue is titled ‘Shockley House’, and it is these 18 pages who serve as our introduction to the overall theme of the book. It details an attempt to research hauntings as a psychological phenomena – “Ultimately, it falls into the psychological realm because a statement of belief about witnessing something supernatural, […] is a statement about the psychological state of the person’s belief in what their senses have conveyed to them.” – where the researchers utilize a house rumored to be spectrally inhabited in order to coax their patients into believing the haunting to be real. It is a tale that goes to great lengths in attempting to give a scientific rationale for the phenomena, postulating that it is indeed made from mental fabrications; and much of it is, unexpectedly, quite persuasive. Yet, after wholeheartedly attempting to win the reader over to its logic – going so far as to make nearly testable hypotheses – the tale changes. The aforementioned dilemma begins to form as the rationale begins to shows its cracks, through which the fantastical seems to seep out into reality. The resulting horror results as much from the questioning of the world fabric as from the happenings themselves, making it a truly Lovecraftian experience despite lacking a common mythology.

The following short stories do an even greater job of muddling the dilemma, bringing such vagaries as shadows and dreams into the deliberation. Especially difficult is the tale called ‘Children of the Wasteland’, which bases its premise on Zhuangzi’s butterfly conundrum: “Once upon a time, I, Zhuangzi, dreamt I was a butterfly […] unaware that I was Zhuangzi. Soon I awakened […] Now I do not know whether I was then a man dreaming I was a butterfly, or whether I am now a butterfly, dreaming I am a man.” (In fact, the tale is so convoluted that a tip is in order to facilitate the reading. It is not a spoiler and the reader will still have to do much puzzling to make sense out of that one. The hint is: Put to mind Brother Humphrey’s prayer.) Also, the tales are in a sense interwoven through a common world although the clues we are given to this lie discretely placed. The most obvious one is that several of the tales take place in Rathbone Asylum, but closer inspection will reveal others too. This is without a doubt one of the most intriguing works of horror which I have ever come across.

The bonus tale, ‘The Scourge of Wetumpka’ – which is quite some bonus since it covers nearly a hundred of the two-hundred and twenty-four pages of the book – has no connection to the tales of The Other Side of Despair. It is constructed from several short stories, each of which present its own part of the narrative; it builds upon H.P. Lovecraft’s Cthulhu mythos, not to mention the works of several other authors who have continued his legacy, but most importantly it builds upon ‘The Colours from Outer Space’ to such a degree that the reader should be adviced to read that short story before embarking upon it. Indeed, this tale could be considered a continuation of the excellent tradition of fanfics (a tradition ancient compared to the term ‘fanfic’ and its modern stigmas, even predating our Current Era/Anno Domine), or, if one prefers to describe it as thus, it is a honorific towards one of the inspirations and thus co-creators of any current work of penmanship. Yet, it goes beyond this and brings to light obscure bits of history and actual conundrums, with notes carefully added with the information on what is accurate and what is embellishment, so as to avoid corruption of the facts. I was particularily fascinated by how little embellishment was needed for the author to connect the fictitious cult of ghouls to real historical events. In my opinion, this is a very welcome addition to the Cthulhu mythos. Also, since it consists solely of letters, clippings, recording transciptions, and similar, it would be an excellent piece of source material for game masters planning role-playing forays into the mythos universe.

Before ending the review, I’d like to note that David Maurice Garrett is not just a writer but also a musician (not to be confused with the violinist David Garrett) with currently six releases behind him, all of whom relate to the horror genre and Lovecraft’s works in particular. There is even a soundtrack for ‘The Scourge of Wetumpka’ among them. Whoever intends to delve into this book would clearly do well to check out these releases as well (the soundtrack in particular, of course).”

 

The story entitled “The Children of the Wasteland” that Arnstein mentions was featured on the Podcast Random Transmissions.

David

I am super excited about one of my stories from The Other Side of Despair being featured on the latest podcast episode of Random Transmissions. This podcast is super cool and you should go and check out all the episodes!

Random Transmissions

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My new book is out! So, what exactly is it about? Ever since I was a teenager I’ve loved to read Edgar Allan Poe and H.P. Lovecraft. If you’re not familiar with these revolutionary authors, well, frankly, you should be! Anyway, my love for their work spread into other authors within the genre of short horror stories. This genre also includes other short works that aren’t exactly horror, but overlap with it nicely – a better term might be short dark fiction, or even short gothic fiction. This includes stories that are weird, strange, bizarre, suspenseful, or scary. Think of most any episode of The Twilight Zone and you’re on the right track. This genre actually influences much art today. If you’ve seen the first season of True Detectives, there were numerous references to a work by the weird tale writer Robert W. Chambers. This work, called The King in Yellow, was actually the basis for my current book. It is a set of stand alone short stories that all share a common trope, or story arc thread within them. In the case of the King in Yellow it is a play called The King in Yellow that drives people mad. In my book, The Other Side of Despair, it is a mental institution that is the backdrop for the protagonist of each story. BTW, the title comes from a quote by the playwright T.S. Eliot: “Where does one go from a world of insanity? The other side of despair.” So, if you want to expand your mind by exploring the minds of the mad, check it out.

The Other Side of Despair

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Infinity.  The human mind cannot even grasp the meaning of such a word.  To contemplate it during the brief snatches of sanity in the depths of Hell drives one right back into the screaming jaws of insanity.  But it’s not an insanity of senselessness.  It’s not the insanity of blank-faced oblivion.  Not an empty mind defunct and destroyed behind vacant eyes.  Oh No!  It’s a cold, calculated insanity where chaos runs amok and logic is only allowed in to heighten the misery to the apex of suffering.  It’s an insanity designed by pure, malicious evil.

The torments of Hell are a creeping, crawling evolution with no end in sight.  Like mad scientists the demons react to the specimen’s actions with sterile precision.  A torture may go on for years extracting every ounce of suffering from the doomed individual with only minor tweaks in administration.  Each variation is a carefully calculated and shaded nuance that prevents the damned from building the least bit of sensitivity to their unique ordeal.

The longstanding formula of Hell is nine parts suffering, nine-tenths part chaotic insanity, and one-tenths part logical sanity.  The latter being the small, finite hope needed to contrast and compare infinite damnation.  But it is abundantly clear that the spark of hope is the real thing in each person that is being tortured.

The longstanding maxim of Hell:  Hope be damned.

*

Thargus Ramuntula swept into the dingy cell like a flitting shadow and poured into the empty chair against the darkened wall.  Thargus was a lithe and dramatic demon.  He nestled into the darkness, unseen except for his slit-like, red eyes.  The two malevolent eyes studied the grotesque fiasco at the center of the room with mirthful intent.

Stephan Iskander was Thargus’s current subject.  A neon light projected a wavering, sometimes flickering beam of light on the form of Stephan who was strapped into a rusty, filthy, blood-caked dentist’s chair.  Fat leather straps secured his arms, legs, chest and head to the chair.  Stephan’s eyes were inhumanly wide with terror as he strained to look at Thargus hidden in the shadows.

It was difficult to see just what Stephan really looked like due to the large strap across his forehead and the bloody pulp that used to be his mouth.  Metallic hooks were anchored at various places within that pulp; cables, stretched taunt, radiated out from Stephan’s mouth into various places around the ceiling.  In life, Stephan had had a horrible phobia of the dentist and Thargus had chosen to spend the next several years playing upon this fact.

Thargus had grown bored of the most recent bout of torment and this day a profound sense of melancholy had settled over him.  It was rare that he felt these saturnine moods covering him like an oppressively heavy cloak, but today he found himself in need of sharing his dour mood with his subject.

“You probably spend a lot time regretting raping those little girls, Mr. Iskander.  And I’m sure you wish you could go back and change your life.  Knowing what you know now you’d probably be a model saint, I’m sure.  It’s funny, huh?  Why doesn’t He just show you all this beforehand and then you’d all be so good.”  He said the last word as if it caused pain to his tongue.  Stephan only groaned and continued staring wild-eyed towards him.

“I shouldn’t be telling you this but I’m feeling rather philosophical today.”  And with these words Thargus sat forward into the edge of the light as if he were about to impart some vast secret that would forever change the workings of Hell.  His skin was blackish blue and his lean, red tongue momentarily worked its way over his needle-like, yellow teeth.

“You shouldn’t beat yourself up about any of it because there is no such thing as freewill.”  He paused a moment for the dramatic effect, but it was lost on Stephan.

“That’s right, Stephan.  From the very beginning it was determined that you would do every single thing you’ve ever done and that you would wind up right here.  You might have thought you had a choice but it was always known; every little thing you would ever do.  Now isn’t that a kick in the ass?  The great, good, all benevolent, Big Guy created you knowing that he was sending you on a one-way street to Hell.

“Doesn’t sound like a very nice thing to do, now does it?”

Thargus paused to pick at his teeth with one long claw before settling back into the darkened chair.  Just then the door to the chamber opened and a lesser demon entered.  This demon wore a long white apron smeared with blood.  His head was hidden behind all manner of devices including a jeweler’s loupe and a doctor’s headlamp.  Stephan began to struggle and moan at the presence of the demon whose task it was to administer the excruciating tortures.

The demon paused and looked over at Thargus.  Thargus grunted with annoyance and waved his hand as if swatting a fly.  The demon squealed in pain and then scattered into thousands of tiny particles that disappeared into the darkness.

He continued as if there was no interruption.  “The supporters of The Great and Wonderful Oz would have you believe that there is a loophole that preserves your freewill.  They say that He doesn’t influence your choices; He just knows what you will choose when you freely make a choice.

“What a load of shit, right?  I mean, even your addled brain should be able to see the flaw in that logic.  He still knows what you will choose way before you ever existed and, yet, He still created the whole thing knowing that you would choose to be a pitiful little sex pervert – a slave to your drives and desires.”  Thargus rose suddenly from his chair and began to circle Stephan, his large, clawed hands clasped behind his back.  Stephan squirmed as his wild eyes tried to track Thargus’s circuits.

“Did you really have a choice, Stephan?  After all, His knowledge of your choices existed before you did.  Do you see the absurdity of the whole tragedy?”

Thargus stopped, grabbed the top of Stephan’s head in his huge hand, and shoved his face a fraction of an inch from Stephan’s face as he exclaimed, “Do you see, Stephan!”

Tears began to stream from the corners of Stephan’s eyes.

“The secret is this, Stephan:  God isn’t the great guy he’s cracked up to be.  God is a real mean sonuvabitch.”  Thargus released Stephan’s head and once again began to circle the chair.

“And still, He likes to keep this whole charade going; pretending he is good and we are bad and that all you mortals have a real choice between the two.  He cast me into this shit hole for all eternity because I point out his flaws – now that’s childish.  And he makes you think this is all your fault, when you never really had a choice – now that’s just evil, Stephan.”  Thargus stopped and stared piercingly into Stephan’s eyes.

“Wouldn’t you agree, Stephan?

“Well, I’ll tell you what I’m going to do.  Call it a rebellion, if you will.  ‘Cause, even from Hell, I can still piss Him off.

“How, you ask?  By bucking the rules.  Going against the establishment.  Upsetting the status quo.  By turning Hell into a little slice of Heaven!”  And Thargus began to roar with the most malevolent laughter Stephan had ever heard.  It was a deep, hearty laugh that erupted from Thargus’s abdomen.

“I’m giving you the day off, Stephan.”

With the wave of his hand the chamber transformed into the facsimile of a filthy bedroom.  Stephan found himself standing there, nude, his face no longer mutilated.  Thargus stood beside him, his huge form dwarfing the bewildered Stephan.  Stephan’s hand shot to his mouth and he felt his jaw for damage but there was none.  Stephan felt perfectly whole.

But there was a third person in the room, too.  Cowering in the corner on the floor beside the bed was a girl no more than eight or nine-years-old.  She was sobbing and curled into the fetal position.

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My story “Shockley House” was published in this year’s Halloween anthology The Yellow Booke.

July 2

I now spend the majority of my day caressing the walls – they are so clean that the shadows roam freely over them. I just sit and hum, and sing, and listen to the things they say.

The wisdom in their whispers is earth shattering. I see so many things that I never saw before. I’m beginning to realize that this illness wasn’t something that originated in me, but was planted in me by the ones out there.

July 8

I can only paraphrase their messages to me. I now see that one must sometimes pass through the fire to emerge on the other side as a new creature. Like a phoenix rising from the ashes after being burned alive. Like a butterfly awakening from a cocoon after a long period of transformation.

I see now that my life encased in this place, encased in my neurosis, my disease, my isolation, was all meant to be a cathartic process. Now, thanks to the shadows engulfing me, I have been purged. Leached of my sickness and given a clear path out of here.

They showed me worlds that shimmer and places of abundant peace where my new form will roam free. Free to wander those other lands only hinted at in their dim, ghostly visions. I know now that my flight above the guitarist was but a prelude to a journey I’m now ready to take.

Across the vast gulf of space and time there are worlds waiting to be seen. But before I can mount up with wings, I must set right the wrongs leveled on me by Dr. Kaplan, Angela, and Jeff. My preparation for tonight’s dinner has been meticulous but I must not falter. I must face this last obstacle with resolution and a steel will. My new friends have counseled me and taught me and opened my eyes to so much new knowledge that I sometimes feel an amazing sense of awe at the things the shadows say.

June 24

Awoke again last night hearing that tune in my head. While I hate the song, I find myself humming it as I clean. I tried to go back to sleep but it was useless so I just watched the wall. As I watched I noticed that the shadow seemed to move. It wasn’t anything startling or even very specific. It was more like breathing. A pulsing to the rhythm of the tune playing in my head and my own breathing.

Now that I’m fully awake I know that it was the tune playing in my head that caused my own breathing to match it and that the shadow only appeared to be pulsing to the rhythm of my own breathing – just an optical illusion, right? But at the time I was certain that it was the shadow leading the whole thing.

I’ve become obsessed with the shadow on the wall and I actually caught myself just staring at it as I was sitting on my bed putting my shoes on.

June 27

I spent the last several days researching memory lapses and became quite overwhelmed with all of the information. I’m sure that the incident with the homeless guitarist wasn’t real. I believe I had an episode of dissociative amnesia brought on by the stress of my doctor’s visit.

I also believe that the hallucination with the man in the alley was of a dreamlike nature – a waking hallucination dredged up from my subconscious. The part that really has me perplexed is the tune he was playing. Did my mind concoct that too? Is the repeated playing of it in my head because I created it, or did I hear it somewhere else?

There’s now another shadowy spot that commands my attention. I can’t say if it’s a completely different spot or if it’s connected to the other spot on the opposite corner of the wall. I spend what seems like hours in my room cleaning the walls or just sitting on my bed humming that melancholy melody.

June 28

Angela called last night to see how I was doing. I told her about Jeff’s visit and how irritated it made me. She claimed to have no idea but I’m not so sure.

She seemed to be pleasant but now I distrust her and Jeff. I tried to be nice back to her but wound up making an excuse to get off the phone. I’m just so confused these days. I miss the times when we were close and could talk.

I had all of these conflicting emotions about the whole thing so I went to clean the wall and became so engrossed in the scrubbing and humming that I began to hear a chant. It had to be a figment of my imagination but it seemed so real.

The lyrics to the weird song were frightening to me too. But now I’m beginning to see Jeff and Angela for what they really are.

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June 21

I’ve made a concerted effort to quit washing my hands at least every hour but it’s so hard. The urge consumes me. It’s so bad that I feel I have to wash to release the pressure.

I found myself humming the melody to that damn tune while I was cleaning the kitchen and when I realized it, it scared me. I don’t know what happened or how to explain the incident in the alley, but I think it might have just been a dream. It’s so unlike me that it couldn’t have been real.

I started researching memory lapses and blackouts and I’m relatively sure that’s what happened to me. It’s the only reasonable explanation.

June 22

Last night I had a strange dream. At least I think it was a dream. I think it was like when you awaken in the night and you’re in that zone between sleeping and waking where you mix reality with your dream. I must have been dreaming about a mold or some other type of discolored spot on the wall that just wouldn’t come clean. This makes sense because I have such a fear of disease and filth that my nightmares tend to be about my inability to be clean enough or be healthy enough.

Nevertheless, when I awoke I instinctively looked to the wall where the spot was located in my dream and saw, to my horror, that there was in fact a spot on the wall. Groggily I arose and went to inspect the spot but it was only a shadow!

It was so weird because then I lay in bed and watched the spot wondering if I saw it in waking and unconsciously incorporated into my dream, or if I dreamed it first and then it just so happened that the shadow took on the shape of the spot in my dream?

June 23

Jeff came to visit today. At first I was so glad that he had made time to come by. Having my brother visit is such a rare thing that I was quite literally giddy. As it turned out, though, he’s about as much of an ass as Dr. Kaplan.

I knew the visit was bad the moment I let him in the apartment and he said, “Jen, you look terrible, are you getting any sleep? And this place smells like a swimming pool!”

I mean, what kind of greeting is that and how am I supposed to respond? Did he really expect me to be all cheerful and happy after he waltzes in here and starts in on me?

Things didn’t get any better from that point on, either. All he did was chide me for being such a recluse and obsessing over how clean everything is. He has no idea what I’m going through.

To be honest, I don’t even know why he came by. He claims that he was worried about me after he and Angela hadn’t heard from me in so long. He acts like it was my doing but it was he who put an end to Angela’s and my relationship. Does he really think I don’t remember that? And do you show your concern for someone by barging in their home and berating them about their lifestyle?

I was so furious by the time he left that all I wanted to do was work out. I figured a good sweat would burn off some of my anger. I went up to my room to change into my workout gear and noticed something strange. The place on the wall where the spot was in my dream was really discolored. At first, I thought it was a trick of the light, but as I got closer, I saw that it was true. There is something odd about that patch of wall.

I never did my workout. I wound up venting my anger into cleaning the wall.