The school bus knocked down the highway, engine sputtering and coughing as it struggled to keep pace with the rest of the traffic moving through the small town. The paint was faded yellow freckled and chipped in rusted patches with a thick black smoke belching from the tailpipe as it struggled to make it to the off ramp. The school district had been covered up in black paint after it was auctioned but a bit of brightly colored duct tape and some crooked letters had dubbed the vehicle The Magic Machine. The driver was dirty, shirtless and scrawny with pale, sallow skin and black, curly hair covering his chest and arms. A mane of the same raven hair lay greasy and flat against his back and matched the scraggly beard that dripped off his chin in a hirsute waterfall. There was a lazy, overfed black and white splotched pit-bull lying on the broken vinyl seat behind the driver’s chair as the bus groaned over a rumble strip on the shoulder.
The Magic Machine was the driver’s home, his palace on wheels and sanctum sanctorum as he traveled the country on a meditative journey to find a higher plain, a state of Nirvana in his faux Buddhist wandering. He was a self-styled guru of his own faith, a throwback of his father’s psychedelic generation who traveled from town to town living off his incoherent but strangely charming philosophies on life, the universe, and everything. He spouted out half realized philosophy and theology, excerpts he’d skimmed from college textbooks and self-help guides. Speaking in quotes gleaned from dust jackets on new age self-help books he sounded convincing enough to the handful of lazy, over privileged youths he preyed on. Telling a generation that had grown up with everything at their fingertips that they deserved more for nothing, that freedom from order was their birthright gave him everything he needed. His followers fed him, gifted him money, and pleasured him in his bean bag bed in the back corner of his rolling den of iniquity. It was the life he’d always dreamed off, interrupted only occasionally by an unexpected teenage pregnancy or some other run in with authority made his easy going lifestyle impossible.
He was on the run from his latest spiritual persecution by a sheriff on the Tennessee-Georgia line whose daughter he’d left nine weeks pregnant after convincing her to “loan” him the money in her savings account. Now, running on empty, hungry, and in need of a woman’s touch, he wondered how much further he’d have to travel before he could rest again.
And that’s when he saw her.
Up ahead in the road the girl was barely noticeable. Short, petite yet curvy at the hips and chest with just the right sort of suppleness to entice him he had to do a double take as he slowly rolled by her. She was wearing a yellow sundress and had her slender, pale arm stretched out with a thumb hiked towards the air. Her dark hair glistened in the midday light. She could have been fifteen or she could have been thirty. At a distance, at speed, he couldn’t tell. Not that it really mattered to him. Gas, grass or ass, nobody rides for free, he thought with a wicked smile as the bus stopped on the shoulder of the highway. He pulled out the stop sign, hastily painted over with a pastel peace sign and opened the door. He smiled as he leaned out the side door and waved at her. Hips swaying with every step, he could feel a tingling inside him, a warm sort of expectation as he glimpsed into their future. She’d thank him profusely for picking her up. He’d woo her with his view of life, the story of his journey of self-exploration and persecution that would eventually make her fall in love. With his philosophy of the world owing him and, vicariously, her all the pleasures and desires the two of them had been denied they’d pull off into some back roads, out of the way hole in the middle of nowhere and fuck until he’d had his fill.
Then, when she stepped out to get some fresh air, to reconnect to her earth mother or inner goddess or whatever other mindless nonsense he had awakened inside her, he’d put the bus in gear and be back on the highway.
He was the big bad wolf as he welcomed little red riding hood aboard.
He had no idea what he was getting himself into.
“Thank you so much.” the innocent looking girl with dark hair and black eyes said. She spoke breathlessly in a voice that warbled just a bit with every syllable. “I would have baked out there if you hadn’t shown up when you did.”
“Couldn’t let one of our earth mother’s children stay stranded in this callous, industrial world.” he said, kissing her hand. “My soul couldn’t bear the thought of leaving you there.”
The bus grumbled up the off ramp and made a turn away from town. Gas stations and fast food joints gave way to suburbs and then a rural spread of open fields and wooded passages lined sparsely with homes or barns.
“So, where would you like to go, beautiful?” She asked, rubbing the pit-bull’s stomach as she sat behind the shaggy pseudo-savior driving the bus.
“Anywhere you want to, gorgeous.”
There was a moment’s pause.
“I was talking to the dog.” she said coldly.
“His name’s Brutus,” the bus driver said, laughing. “I’m not big on labels, but that’s what was on his collar before he set himself free. I prefer to call myself Sun Child. So much more in tune with my soul than the chains of John that my parents oppressed me with. What about you?”
“Bêtes Noire,” she said in a flawless French accent.
“That’s beautiful.” John the Sun Child said. “What’s it mean?”
“A thing of dread,” she answered. “Anathema. Bane or dislike. The Black Beast. It doesn’t translate to English as beautifully as my sister’s name.”
He ignored the definition, the warning of the danger he was in as the fleeting thought of some incestuous ménage flittered through his mind. “So, you’ve got a sister? What’s her name?”
“Nimmermehr,” she said. “Nevermore. The raven that drove Poe to madness and ultimately suicide. She always did have a way with the poets.”
“Babe, you’re one trippy chick.” John laughed as he pulled off into an opening in the woods a few miles from the interstate. He parked the bus in a shady thicket and killed the engine. “So, I kind of need to recharge and rest.” he continued, unbuttoning his pants as he stood up. “Care to join me?”
“How funny you should welcome me.” Bêtes Noire said as she stood up to join him. “You have no idea how refreshing it is to have someone invite me in like this, to accept me. Tell me, what do you think I am?”
John laughed again, oblivious to that fact that the girl’s slender fingers had turned black and began to rot into sharp syringes. Her eyes were darker than before, black as night with little flecks of white that twinkled false starlight as he looked at his own reflection in them.
“You’re a part of the world, babe, something beautiful, you know? Why don’t we go out there and share that with each other?”
Her fingers were serpentining over the floor, vines crawling steadily up his leg without him ever noticing. The needles bit all at once, ten long, cold nails infiltrating his flesh, his sinew, breaking bones and syphoning the precious life he had valued so much. The pain was immeasurable. Convulsing, he stared wordlessly at her as the spinning column of teeth inside her gaping maw shined for him. Deep inside the open hole of her throat, the voice warbled one final time.
“I am older than this world, John.” she snarled. “I know of your dread, the fears that keep you company lying on your fetid mattress. Share your hell with me.”
The broken radio in the front of the bus crackled. Too late the mono sound speakers warned him that the girl was a man eater.
Anna Myers was a college dropout with a trust fund and a one bedroom apartment she’d turned into an art studio. Her parents were gone, her father by his own hand in a drunk driving crash, her mother off with some cult in the far flung reaches of no man’s land. Her sister had disappeared when they were children leaving her with no family, nothing at all except for her art and the money her parents had set aside for her. Over the years following her sister’s disappearance, her father’s death and her mother’s manic back and forth with various religions she’d found herself more and more introverted with every passing day. She had tried for years to deal with her emotions, her issues stemming from a lifetime’s worth of loss in only a few short years. Therapists and pills and spiritual guidance had all failed her, left her feeling empty inside. It was only her art that brought her closure, peace after a lifetime of disruption. She had tried and failed to become a teacher finding coursework and classes too restrictive to the life she dreamed of. She quit her job as a teacher’s aide, gave up on her children at the local elementary and devoted her life to her true passion.
Her living room was covered wall to wall in drop cloths to catch any glob of paint that might stray from her brush or canvas. All her work was abstract, dark visions of landscapes and scenes beyond the world she lived in. She’d sold a few, mostly to cafes and head shops around town and was making a name for herself with fellow college drop outs and local artisans but it wasn’t the acclaim she was after. There was something else, something larger at work inside her. Each painting, each scene depicted something new from that strange, otherworldly landscape. A part of her soul was in every brush stroke. For reasons she could never hope to understand she spread each piece to the wind where she felt it was right, never realizing the pattern forming, the significance of each painting.
The nightmares kept her awake most nights, drove her artistic fire. She watched again and again as her little sister was pulled inside out into another world, replaced instead by a monster that perverted her flesh for its own selfish desires. She watched in horror as that tiny little body imploded and collapsed into a world of hellish depravity and desolation. The grass was brown glass, each blade a delicate knife to pierce the skin and break off in needling spines into the flesh. The sky was the color of fire lit by a swirling, flaming vortex that had replaced the sun. Every tree and bush was a burnt matchstick reaching up into that hellish void as the asphalt road melted into a black river for the damned to swim across.
She stood naked in the living room of her small apartment, her skin a patchwork of different shaded paints. Blue eyes darted back and forth across the canvas as her fingers worked the brush in frantic, desperate strokes. There was too much red. She stroked the excess from the brush across her bare stomach. Now there was too much black. She brushed it off on her thigh. Before long her body was as much a tapestry of autumn shades as the canvas she’d covered with her latest work. A gorgeous woman, seductive in her curves and sinew but hellish and horrifying otherwise. Her eyes were black and soulless. Her fingers were slender knives reaching out from her open hands. Her hips and breasts distracted from the atrocity of spiraling fangs inside the gaping maw of her mouth. Anna finished with her initials in black in the bottom corner and wandered into the bathroom to shower off the excess paint from her skin.
The title of her latest piece: La Bêtes Noire.
“What are you afraid of, Daniel?” she whispered in his ear. Her breath was cold, fetid and made him gag with every syllable. Rotten flesh, black and putrescent covered her arms as she reached around from behind him and slid her thin, bony fingers down his chest and into his lap. Danny twisted, tried to turn and see her face. Black lips parted to reveal the buzz saw smile.
Danny Oldham jerked in the passenger seat as he woke up from the nightmare he’d had. He was cold and dripping in sweat as Novak’s Crown Vic turned into the parking lot at the precinct. Novak looked at his startled passenger as he put the car in park.
“You going to be okay, Danny?”
“Look, I’m sorry I asked you to do that today. I really am. It’s just, well, I wouldn’t have any leads if it weren’t for you.”
“La petit mort: the little death. Closest thing I’ll ever get to staying dead, I think. Still you’ll wish I hadn’t by the time we’re through.” He lit a cigarette and blew a ring of smoke around his head.
“So, you’ve dealt with this thing before?”
“Not her, specifically but something similar. Wiped out half a town before we drove it out.”
The two got out of the car and shut their doors in an unintentional unison. The air was humid, thick and the telltale scent of a storm was alive on the breeze. In the distance there was already lightning flickering across the gray sky.
“How old are you now, Van?”
Novak looked at his friend questioningly. “Thirty eight come December. Why?”
“Just keeping track of time.” he answered absently as he walked off towards a nearby bus stop. “Speaking of, swing by my place in the morning and pick me up.”
“We going somewhere?”
Danny nodded. “I want to meet the sister. Whatever’s going on, she’s going to be involved.”
“How can you be sure?”
“Because, she’s still alive when no one else is.”
The Black Beast had haunted Danny Oldham’s dreams for a lifetime. Danny had been alive for a lot longer than he’d ever readily admit to anyone and she’d been there, taunting him throughout it all. Like those monsters he’d battled, he existed out of time and reality as others saw it. This was why he never stayed dead, why he could see in the blood of others that genetic memory of their last moments on earth. It’s why those creatures from beyond reality always seemed to hone in on him wherever he tried to run. During the Depression he’d faced down a similar monster with a reputation for driving people to madness. It had called itself Bedlam and by the time it was done, half the town of Loafer’s Corner had gone mad and ended their own lives in fits of psychotic rage. He could still feel the knives and bullets, the insanity that had been ripped across his own flesh during the melee. Every scar criss crossing his skin was another reminder of that short lived war. It was something he hoped he could prevent this time as he took another fistful of sleeping pills and washed them down with more of the cheap, store brand vodka he had bought on his way back to the room.
“This is how you honor my memory?” The woman asked from the foot of the bed. Danny didn’t flinch, didn’t crane his neck to look for her. He knew she wasn’t there, not in any tangible form. Alice Crenshaw had been dead a hundred years, ripped apart by Bedlam before he could ever make his way to Loafer’s Corner. It was Alice’s death that allowed the beast to become flesh in the real world and, in the end, had made it possible to send it back to whatever hell it had come from. Her memory still lingered in Danny’s mind, a bit of her soul forever trapped inside his own.
“Tonight? Yes, this is how I honor your memory.” he said, placing a silly straw in the bottle of liquor.
She was on top of him then, blonde hair hanging down in his face as if she were still alive, still the vital young lover he had known so long ago. He could smell the honeysuckle and jasmine on her freckled skin, the warmth of her thighs as she straddled him.. Her blue eyes looked longingly at him.
“Why do you do this to yourself, Daniel?”
He rolled to his side to escape her. She was waiting there, lying on her side in the checkered dress she’d warn the afternoon she died.
“Get out of my face.” he snapped.
She smiled sweetly and caressed his face with her hand. He could still feel the warmth of her skin across the gulf of time.
“Daniel.” Her voice was a melody. “You’re a gift. You have a chance to save lives, to change the world. Don’t waste it trying to destroy yourself.”
“I don’t want to be here anymore.” Danny said more meekly than before. “Not without you.”
“You lived forever before I came along.” She argued. Her voice was a melody.
“That was before. I need you.”
Like the mirage she was, Alice faded away and left nothing but an empty space on the bed.
“I’ve never left you, darlin’.”
Danny’s head began to spin. He could feel his breathing becoming shallow, labored with every inhalation. He tried to prop himself up but couldn’t move. The bottle of vodka slipped from his hands and toppled over onto the bed, the silly straw sticking in his eye.
This is going to suck if I wake up tomorrow, he thought to himself. Who the hell am I kidding? When I wake up tomorrow.
The light began to fade from the corners of his eyes. The room was getting colder. He’d been down this road before. He’d be dead in a few minutes, or at the very least comatose. He felt his pulse slowing, his heart beating a little less with every passing second. He’d soon answer Hamlet’s famous question.
In that sleep of death, what dreams may come?
He looked at the world through a distorted lense. Everything in his periphery warped clockwise or counterclockwise around the magnified tunnel directly ahead of him. The room was warm and smelled of sawdust and fried chicken. Wood panel walls surrounded him, covered in patches of pictures. Can The Circle Be Unbroken rang out from the old Victrola in the corner as Danny walked cautiously down the hall. He knew the house the way a man knows his lover. Every last board, every nail in the wall and every hinge on every door. He could have closed his eyes and walked blindly without stubbing his toe or toppling anything. With a questioning hand he reached for the bedroom door and pushed it gently open.
Alice Crenshaw stood naked in front of the large, ornate mirror she’d inherited from her grandmother. Her left hand was between her thighs holding tightly to her genitals as her right hand clenched tight around her throat. Her lips were turning blue, eyes bulging in their sockets. A wild, unnatural smile curled her lips. It wasn’t her but the thing in the mirror that forced her hand, pulled her like a puppet for it’s own amusement. Danny reached desperately for the arm choking Alice, ripping at the invisible strings tightening her muscles into a death grip. There was an invisible whip, a sharp, burning pain through his chest and face that sent him flying through the hall into the kitchen table. There was a grotesque crunch of bone, the slurping, splattering sickness of flesh and meat and fluid being pulled into another world.
Danny stood up in the flames of Main Street a decade later as Bedlam worked his magic on the tiny, rural hamlet in the Tennessee valley. People had gone mad, their bodies covered in a patchwork of runic symbols they’d carved themselves with butcher knives and their own broken fingers. Alice, rather Bedlam in Alice’s skin, stood on a heap of bodies in the middle of the road. Her skin was ruptured with the black arms of some giant spider reaching out through every wound. Her face had split at the mouth, her jaw hanging open in a macabre, manic smile as she laughed. Blood pooled in the center of her corpse pulpit, flickered in an unsettling, unnatural light as a bridge began to form across time and space.
“He is risen.” she shouted in a thunderous voice not her own. She snapped backwards in a quick, unnatural action and glared with eyes redder than the flames rising up from the charring bodies in the street. “He’s coming for you.”
Danny choked, gasped and rolled from the bed into the floor. Morning was casting an emberous orange glow through the seams of the curtains over the window. Behind him, the clock radio on the nightstand clicked and the AM country station came to life through the broken mono speaker.
Will the circle be unbroken? the Carter Family asked in song.
Danny removed the straw and felt the unsettling pucker as the wound closed in his aching eye. Looking at his reflection in the television, he staggered to his feet.
“Nightmare’s not over yet, is it?” he whispered to himself.