It was as if he continued to fall. Even after the explosion of pain from when his head smacked into the roof of the car. Falling, falling through a darkness that watched him. He could feel something vile looking into his mind, its evil tenacity prying past his eyes and into his brain relentlessly crushing his will, peeking into his body and violating him. A sensation of spiders covered in oily hair that were crawling inside of his skin and skull. Gnawing, scratching, nibbling, tickling. Laughter erupted from the greasy arachnids, their mandibles quivering with devilish glee and dripping with saliva. He fell into the black screaming, crying and clawing at his eyes scratchi —
A solitary heartbeat, thumping in the darkness.
Glasses clinked. A toast. Familiar music fuzzily found its way to his ears, that haunting tune:
“Stopped into a church
I passed along the way
Well, I got down on my knees (got down on my kneeees)
And I pretend to praaay…”
Robert’s eyelids were heavy, and he blinked away the sleep. He sat up and looked at a darkened bar, men leaning against a wooden wall talking. A dart thumped into a board amidst mixed cheers and groans, and R.J. wiped at his eyes. He felt like he was drugged, or still drunk from the night before. A nausea twinged in his gut as he smelled himself. He looked down at the ragged suit he was wearing, tattered and stained. He really smelled like something that had died and sat in the sun for too long. Robert mused about the witty comments Linda would have made if she could see him now. The faint smile disappeared from his face as his past experiences came rushing back to him. The bloody mess in the forest, the vacuum of space, the post-apocalyptic hell all filled his mind’s eye.
Where is this? Seems… Normal enough.
There was an empty glass on the table in front of him, sitting on top of a newspaper that read the date. Robert’s heart skipped a beat and he stood up with a start, looking for the bartender. He noticed that his cheeks itched as he strode across the dark wooden floor. A thick beard has found its home where his clean-shaven face used to be. Odd.
“Say, barkeep…” Robert said with a wave of his hand as he sat at the counter. The man turned and hesitated before walking over. Picking up a glass to clean, he looked at R.J. and nodded.
“What city is this?” Robert asked, barely able to hide his hope.
Laughter swelled in the tavern as the bartender told him, and Robert’s eyes lit up with joy. He was home! Well, almost home.
“Pour me a cold one, friend.” Putting a bill on the counter he smiled at the fellow, and the fellow could not help but smile back at Robert’s happy face. R.J. had one of those types of smiles: rare, but when they came you HAD to smile back. Perfect for a travelling salesman. He had closed a few big deals with this talent before. The man poured R.J. a nice cold beer with a modest head, and he took a sip. It was impossibly refreshing to Robert, and he felt he could cry he was so happy. Finally he was safe. Suddenly, the bartender’s smile became stretched almost… like a caricature. His eyes narrowed and changed somehow.
Did it just get darker in here? Or…
“You… do not belong.” The barkeep said with an ominous monotone. The voice was distorted and had undertones of static. Invisible ice crept over Robert’s shoulders and shot down his legs as the man leaned toward him threateningly. Now Robert could see that darkness was emanating from the space around the being. The shadows were pulsing, bubbling out from nowhere, and R.J. felt like he was making eye contact with it. As an elongated tongue curled from the being’s mouth Robert leaned back from the demon barkeeper in awkward horror, and he looked to his left at the man sitting two chairs away. The jovial fellow did not seem to notice this petrifying thing pouring drinks! Robert felt as if he was freezing solid, and leaping from his bar stool he made his way to the entrance, clumsily weaving past people as they enjoyed their night. Passing back frenzied glances at a thing of madness.
“YOU CANNOT ESCAPE.” A roar blew from the darkened space swirling behind the bar, framing the shadowy humanoid. Robert noticed how unnaturally tall it was, and that everyone around him seemed to not notice anything. Talking and laughing, blissfully unaware that something had consumed the…barkeeper? With the blink of an eye the devil vanished from existence, the darkness resting for now. Glasses clinked again and conversations blended into a chorus of humanity. Maybe he was seeing things.
A bell chimed as he left the bar, twinkling in the doorway with warmth.
So much for not escaping.
Considering where he woke up the last few times, Robert felt at ease despite what he saw. He looked at this old city, one he had grown to hate, and saw a paradise. It’s amazing what peering into hell can do to your world-view. It was a nice day out, and Robert walked briskly through the crowd with ease. Folks were avoiding him due to his odor and appearance, and a light laugh came from his chest. There was a homeless man in the window pane next to him, smiling back and wearing the same tattered rags. He couldn’t let his beautiful wife see him like this! She would make him sleep on the couch and bathe in tomato soup for a WEEK! Her smile, with those ridiculously perfect teeth, filled his head with feelings of longing. The beard could wait, but he needed new clothes. Luckily his wallet was still hanging in the clump of threads that used to be his back pocket. A storekeepers eyes changed from suspicious to thrilled quickly with some clean green bills.
As he walked out, buttoning his black suit coat, he could feel the owner watching him. Casting a glance over his left shoulder as he strode away, he caught shadows of darkness surrounding a figure wearing the smile of a Cheshire. Robert’s blood ran cold in his veins despite the sun shining onto the city streets, and he picked up his pace. He felt his paranoia was getting the better of him. Thinking back as he walked, he thought that this really must have all been some strange drug induced amnesia. Robert felt certain that all that had happened had been just dreams, and he felt braver because of this. Finally he was on his way home, to his wife who must have had every cop in the state looking for him. He turned down a block and he could see the park that he went to each morning and —
My car!! Yes!!
He produced car keys from his coat pocket and trotted to his sedan. Amazed that it could still be here after what seemed like forever, he stood and looked around at this day. It really was a lovely one. Birds sat lazily on a wire, watching people going about their lives.
“Hey, R.J.,! Is that you?” A voice shouted out over the hustle and bustle of the city. Robert turned quickly to look at an old friend. The doctor he met once during a sales call, and R.J. tried to get him to buy several vacuums. Several!! At the time, Dr. Charley was incredulous to the point of hilarity. He instantly had a soft spot for this bold salesman, rattling on about how useful it would be to have several vacuums — one for the house, the practice, and back-ups just in case the others broke! Ridiculous! Yet there was logic in his rhetoric. And the only reason Robert did this was so that he could negotiate down to just the two. Start high, they always tell you, set a high benchmark to set the tone of a negotiation. Robert smiled at him as he walked over through the crowd.
“Barely recognized you with that beard, R.J. Lowman! What are you doing with one? Found a job that let you keep it?”
“No… Just…” Robert paused and looked up to the sky. A crow was flying against the wind, struggling and getting nowhere. But it was beautiful, he supposed. Sighing, he looked back to his friend:
“I’ve taken some time off, I guess. From the search. I’ve been meaning to ask you about those sleeping pills you gave me, are you sure that they were OK?”
“What do you mean?” Dr. Charley tilted his head and crossed his arms. He looked as if he was still in the office, wearing his lab coat and stethoscope.
“I had some very strange… dreams, and I don’t remember the last…” Robert sheepishly looked to the ground, “… I don’t KNOW how long.” A moment of silence passed.
“That’s just too bad.” Dr. Charley replied flatly. Robert looked at him in surprise.
“What do you mean, ‘that’s too bad’?! You’re a doctor! Sort it out!” The doctor burst into loud laughter at him, gregariously throwing his head back. After a moment he calmed down and caught his breath, wiping the tears from his eyes.
“Robert, do you still think that I am Dr. Charley?” He looked at the smiling doctor, who watched him with the gleeful curiosity of a child. A bitter cold spread itself through R.J., tracing its path down his back to his feet. He felt weak.
“We are everywhere, Robert. You cannot escape us!” At this, Robert backed up, reaching behind him for the door handle — eyes locked onto his friend.
“What are you talking about? You’re Doc Charles!” The doctor stared back at him in disbelief. He chuckled and shook his head, looking down at the ground as if remembering some punchline to some joke. Robert was horrified. He knew now that what he looked at was not his friend. There was no doubt. He felt the tingling of fear again, surprised he was not desensitized to the feeling. In one swift motion he swung himself into the car and shut the door, turning the engine on. Dr. Cha — something leaned casually onto his car and stared into the window, looking right into Robert’s eyes with a knowing smile. Like a friend would.
“Try as you might, but the cycle must continue, Robert.”
Robert slammed on the accelerator and peeled into traffic. Glancing into the rearview mirror he could see the fake doctor, standing there waving at him with one hand while the other was tucked into his lab coat. Robert whirled his car around the corner, tires squealing over the black asphalt. Pedestrians threw themselves out of his way as he raced out of the city. He had to get home. He had to get to his wife before they did.
” We are everywhere.”
The city finally began to grow smaller in his rear-view mirror, and R.J. breathed a sigh of relief. The radio quietly comforted him as did the dull roar of his engine. He tapped his fingers on the steering wheel over-zealously to the rhythm of the song, the same evocative tune from the bar:
“You know the preacher like the cold (preacher like the coooold)
He knows I’m gonna stay (knows I’m gonna staa-aaay)
On such a winter’s daaay”
He drove for a while, and stopped for gas. As he pumped he noticed a man sitting by his motorcycle in all black, watching him. Dark sunglasses hid his gaze, but Robert could feel eyes on him. R.J. cut the pump early, and got back into his car to leave. The man kicked on his bike and sat on it as it rumbled, glancing at his watch. Robert carefully turned back onto the main road, and got up to speed as fast as he could. He felt uneasy after what happened in the city, despite attempts to calm himself down. The rear-view mirror held no dark motorcyclist. He breathed a sigh of relief, but still his heart pounded in his chest. Thumping against his ribs.
The reflection off of the motorcycle’s chrome flashed in his mirrors. The man in black was coming up on him. Robert accelerated, pushing the gas down and shifting into gear. There was no way that he could out run the bike, he knew, but maybe somehow he could cause him to wreck. The man was barreling up the road, coming closer and closer. Robert felt his heart in his throat beating mercilessly. They were on a straightaway now, and the man in black flew up behind him, and passed him without effort. Then he kept going. Apparently, the only thing that man was looking for was the open road. R.J. felt like a nervous fool.
But then the motorcycle stopped off in the distance, and turned around. It looked like the exhaust was pumping out black smoke but he was surrounded by that darkness. The same thing that consumed the others. The motorcycle roared toward Robert, some kind of demon flying toward him with the throttle pulled back. Robert pushed further on the accelerator as he wiped the sweat from his palms.
He had never played a game of chicken before.
But nothing was going to get between him and his wife.
Not even hell itself.