It’s been six days since I saw it last and I’m starting to think I might have finally given it the slip. I’m not jinxing it though. It’s a tricksy thing. A sneaky, snake-like thing. It knows just how long to wait to make you think it’s gone when it’s not. It knows just what shadows will hide it best.
I haven’t slept more than an hour in that time. When I check the rearview for any signs of it, any hint it is still behind me, I see a face so sepulchral my heart does a somersault. I look frankly decomposed, close to melting into the phony-fibre seat. My flesh is luminescent. I wish it didn’t shine so brightly. It must be an angler fish’s lure for the Thing Which Follows.
I check the petrol levels every couple of seconds which is almost as often as I check the rearview. My neck and eyes ache from the repetitive strain of these birdlike movements but I cannot stop these habits any more than I could stop myself driving.
At some point, I will have to stop to refuel. The Skoda is fuel efficient by even modern standards but still not nearly enough for my liking.
Out here in the dark, on these roads that are almost nameless, there is a kind of peace, or there would be if I wasn’t being followed. The wheels are silent on the timeless asphalt. There is hardly any disturbance of unnatural light – the headlights are the only electric lights for miles. There are trees here, fields, small houses which look empty and antiquated as though I am driving into some distant epoch; I try not to see faces and limbs in the twisted shapes by the roadside.
The Shell petrol station is charging a fortune for unleaded but I have no choice. I pull in under its horrifying lights, bathed in pearlescence that makes me nauseous. Surely it can see me, here, lit up like a Christmas tree, standing on a stage under floodlights? The thought makes me gag.
Get a grip. Get it over with.
I exit the car, pull the unleaded nozzle from its pump and begin filling up, straining my ears to hear any remote disturbance over the whinnying of the station pump as it decants fuel into the engine. I watch the meter go up, wondering how far I can push the capacity of the engine, whether it will tolerate a modicum of overfilling to give me that extra time and distance.
I shift my feet and kick something, which rattles as it skids across the ground. I look down and see a cassette tape. Frowning, I pick it up, turn it over. The thing is unmarked, nameless. I pocket it.
All at once the station lights turn off and I can no longer see the meter, can no longer see anything. My car is a hollowed out rendering, all edges and no fill, its exact dimensions picked out by slivers of moonlight that look like suspended wires. The breath in my lungs tastes like petrol, its sweet reek, its fresh-laid tarmac smell, and I feel lightheaded. The darkness suffocates my eyeballs.
I know what is happening. The door to the station shop opens and the store clerk walks out, his footfalls loud as a shoe-sole smacked against skin, the noise of his fingernails scratching at sweat and grit in the flesh-folds on his belly audible even over the dying whine of the pumps.
‘What’d you do?’ he asks,
I slam the nozzle back on the pump, close the refill door, get in my car, and turn on the engine.
‘Hey!’ he cries, but the shout dies half in his throat when he sees what is coming up the road towards the station, sweeping autumnal leaves into a hurricane of blackness that precedes its coming, and the it itself too terrifying to be seen, the cloud a kind of projection to cover what it really is, like a censor black strip.
I scream out of the station at 60 miles per hour and rising, not even looking at the road, just in the rearview at the red rear-lights as they disappear into something inchoate and yet formidable.
My hands grip the wheel so tight the skin on my knuckles feels like it is splitting; my teeth are clenched so hard that they are pushing the roots deeper into my gums, drawing blood; my heart pounds in my chest loud enough to drown the sound of the long, low whimper which escapes my lips.
As the car reaches 100 miles per hour, the shadow starts to drop back, to dissipate like fog dispersed by wind.
It almost had me.
Christ, it almost had me.
I breathe and slow the car down to 70, foot trembling on the accelerator with the anticipated need to speed up again.
Christ, I think. There’s a word I’ve not said in a long time.
Once, I was Rev. John Marduck, beloved of the small community I tended. Halcyon days, some would say. They wouldn’t know the truth. How unfulfilled I was, this sense that God wasn’t the full picture, that I was teetering on the edge of the divine but never quite making the jump. I guess it was because I stopped seeing the life in what I did. It was all dead.
When I signed up to become a priest my head was full of the Bible stories. It was full of Jesus overturning the tables of the money-changers and calling them hypocrites. It was Jesus going out into the desert and fasting for forty days. It was miracles and demons and stands.
What my service as a priest turned out to be was old biddies turning up to church every Sunday, dragging their brattish kids along, muttering gossip about their husbands. It turned out to be begging for donations at every turn and getting reprimands when I didn’t raise enough. It turned out to be fat load of ceremony, words and mumbo-jumbo that didn’t sound one bit like the Gospel of John.
And then I met Clara.
I spot something gleaming by the roadside, a glimpse of something forbidden. I pull over. Fuel levels are low again. It feels like each refill lasts a little less each time.
There is a car by the roadside, engine killed. It looks abandoned and there are no people in the tree line, or if there are, they are hidden, but at this point I am not scared of people. I’m not scared of psychopaths or rapists or killers.
I pop my boot, grab the empty plastic container, the tubing, a woodcutter’s axe, close it with a soft thud which seems to carry for miles down the abandoned A road in both directions. The road is bright next to the treeline, as though silver has been threaded into its cheap tarmac, as though it is dewed with divine teardrops, God weeping for us.
I walk over to the car and peer inside. My throat closes and I stagger back. The car’s not empty, there’s a body curled up on the backseat, a woman, certainly dead if the colour of her skin and the red line around her neck is to be believed. She wears a purple dress hitched up, exposing legs, cheap jewellery, makeup so thick it is almost hiding the deathly colour of her cheeks.
There’s a discarded condom on the seat, semen still leaking from it.
Somewhere in the woods a shovel hits dirt.
I must move quickly. I run around the other side of the car, pop the fuel lid, unscrew the seal, push the length of plastic tubing down into the engine. I balance the woodcutter’s axe against the car within easy reach.
I suck on the tube until the petrol flows into my mouth, burning my throat like whiskey. I spit, trying to make it quiet, wipe my lips on my sleeve, and insert the other end of the tube into the container so that the black liquid begins to fill it up. I curse every splash as the liquid fills the container and listen for any slight pause in the rhythmic digging noises.
Come on. Come on.
When the container is half full I chicken and remove the tube, reseal the fuel door, run back to my Skoda. I cannot fill up here; I must go on a little further. I throw the axe, tube and container into the boot, get in the driver’s seat, kill the headlights and race off, blood washing my mouth as I cut into the gums.
I tell myself it’s worth it if it means one less stop.
When I see her for the first time in the pews she is iridescent. Blonde and blue-eyed, her flesh shining as though illuminated by headlights. She wears a figure-hugging dress, low-cut, a dress that screams the word seduction to the rafters.
Amidst the grey headed bent-double effigies, she moves, an angel. No, angel is the wrong word. A nephilim, something almighty and gorgeous and wicked sent to earth to tempt and terrorise fragile men and women alike.
And I felt fragile in that moment.
I felt something else too.
After a little over a month, that’s all it took (around 40 days, which was part of what made me think it was a sign), she wore my resistance down and I bedded Clara in her grimy one-room apartment. I popped my cherry. The first time took about 5 seconds. I was in for a couple of thrusts and that was that. I remember staring at the weeping condom, thinking What have I become?
I’m not ashamed to say I cried. Clara did not humiliate me. She sat by my side, holding me in the dark, whispering strange words.
‘The shrine of Dahaka is washed with children’s tears. You are still a child, but soon, you will become something else. Dahaka will miss your tears.’
I had no clue what she meant, was adrift, held on only to the sensation of her warmth because now there was not even God to love me.
She was patient. She knew I would come around.
The second time we made love was quite different. Still imperfect, but better
The next morning I woke hungry. We went at it a third time, and now, I gave her what she and I both wanted – something beyond articulation. I had the taste for it, found my body moving in ways I didn’t know it could, found myself doing things I never thought I’d be able to do. Animals don’t have to be taught many of their behaviours, they just know. I just knew. This way had always been in me.
‘That was power,’ she said afterwards.
Then Clara tells me about her strange beliefs. Clara says she has seen beyond the film of darkness. Clara says she has touched the untouchable deep, reached her hand into its ink and felt the beating heart of chaos. Her words are like foreign language on my ears but I cannot hear enough of her poetry.
She has books on her shelf I’ve never heard of before: Scott Cunningham, Manfred Lurker, things my parishioners would have been appalled at but which made me gleeful. She says she can change things if certain rites are performed, see the future, that there isn’t one god but many. I had part of the picture, she said. But now I was beginning to see the whole landscape.
She says she can show me this magic, that I’d already felt some of it when we were intimate – what she calls ‘carnal’- but that there was more, oh so much more. I am hungry for this too. My hunger for her body and for her mind are inseparable.
That’s how I took off my white collar and became something else.
I don’t see the corpse in the road, I’m too busy checking the rearview. The bloated deer explodes over the bonnet, sending guts spraying up the windscreen and making the car jerk violently as though over a speedbump.
I turn on the windscreen wipers and spin the wheel, because the car is travelling at such speed the smeared flesh has caused the wheels to skid. The Skoda swerves left then right; I regain control and breath for the first time in what feels like minutes.
The wipers spread the blood around the windscreen, making it more translucent, shallow, but not washing it out.
As the wipers collect more gristle, nuggets of tissue, oil-thick blood, I find myself falling backwards through the seat, the car absorbing me, until I am sat with my back against a tiled wall, cross-legged, sitting on linoleum, staring at the bathtub where Clara is submerged.
Her ribcage is exposed, half crushed on one side with shards of white poking through her breast like misaligned teeth. Her face is squashed and leaking, turning the bathwater crimson.
A few minutes ago, I scooped her up off the pavement, choking on my screams, shaking as though in the throes of a stroke. Sometimes, when things happen so beyond our comprehension and control, we deny them. So I decided that Clara had a few grazes, that all she needed was a clean bath and some plasters. I lowered her into the bath like a mummy into a sacred sarcophagi.
She was hit right outside my house. The driver was nowhere to be seen. Random act – a lightning bolt from heaven, no less. My former-colleagues in the church would have said everything is meant to be. Clara would have said: ‘Not all gods are benevolent.’
Eventually it sinks in. Reality, that is.
I contemplate something as I watch her body sink into the water, slabs of skull peeling away slowly from the brain and dropping with a plonk. I contemplate whether I am yet good enough to work the spell Clara once whispered to me about. I decide I must try, more to honour her memory than to succeed, or at least, that’s the lie.
I light a votive candle, burn incense, draw signs in blood, bow my head, and pray as never before.
‘Clara, come forth.’
But what comes is not Clara. What comes is the Thing Which Follows, the dark night without end, the endless drive, six days without light, the exhaustion and madness and panic, the thought that I wish I had been Clara, rotting in the bathtub, dead in an instant, than what I am now.
I drift between lanes, caught in liminality, half-asleep, half-dead, half in a dream. How did I come to this place betwixt? How did I arrive?
I guess it’s the oldest story. Lines crossed that should not have been crossed. Every action an equal and opposite reaction.
I am driving and the map rests on the wheel and it tells me there is a petrol station in seven miles. I have used up most of the fuel in the tank and the fuel in the container too. The fuel gauge visibly drops second by second, impossibly fast. Perhaps there is something wrong with the engine? I have not seen another car on the road for three days. I have not seen sunlight for six. I do not know how this is possible.
Right now the window is open so that the cold air blowing in will keep me awake. It freezes my face, making my features feel like they are set beneath a layer of ice, a numbness growing behind them like a second face metastasizing, soon to push through the old one.
I drive for ten minutes, twenty. Still no turnings, no sign of any vehicles, and no petrol station.
Fuck fuck fuck fuck fuck.
The accelerator is losing responsivity. The dashboard lights flicker like disturbed candles in an arcane temple. The wind carries with it screams like painful lovemaking. The windscreen makes everything red-tinted. Flecks of gore peel from the car as it shudders along the roads lit with moonlight.
‘I know there’s a station in seven miles,’ I say, because quite apart from the map telling me, I’ve been there before. ‘I know it’s there. I know it’s there. I know it’s there.’
But another twenty minutes, another drop in the gauge, another unblemished strip of silver road, and there is no trace of it. There are no signs indicating mileage to the next stop. There are no buildings, only trees that begin to take on the form of dark onlookers. The headlights are weak, barely throwing illumination over the road ahead.
I know it’s there. I know it’s there.
The rearview seems to have some kind of speck or mark on it.
The engine’s growl quietens and quietens. I push the accelerator to the metal and the Skoda does not move any faster. The speed gauge also begins to drop as the fuel hits 0, the dial-hand slumping like a toppled tower. The engine makes clicking noises, like water dropping repeatedly onto someone’s forehead in a torture ritual. There is a creak, girders flexing in extreme weathers.
The car slows and slows. Tearfully, I kick at the accelerator, change gear uselessly up and down, punch my broken fist again and again into the dashboard, whose lights wink out.
I know it’s there, dammit! I know it’s there! A little farther!
The car finally slides to a stop, empty, lifeless; the headlights snap off as though they are nothing but cheap lightbulbs.
Silence for a moment.
I take the cassette tape out of my pocket and put it into the tape-player.
A long hiss like a shuddering breath. There is a brief burst of music, warped and underwater, a voice screaming about Christ the saviour, a woman’s laugh, more static, static which deepens unnaturally until it is at a register almost below hearing, painful to the ears, slow as heroine, so slow it is a new language.
There are words there in the static, unbearable, terrifying words.
I know it’s there.
But there is nothing: no station, no hope. The cassette continues its dark litany as my rearview turns opaque, no longer reflecting anything, the road both before and after becoming invisible.
A blackness arrives which makes tree and road and car indivisible from one another. My breathing is an interruption of the hissing noise which reigns like a god. The blackness fits into every space, closes around the car like a blanket falling over it, or the walls of a tunnel. I pop my seatbelt and lie back, for a moment feeling the shadow of another long embrace in the dark, for a moment remembering that children’s tears wash the shrine of Dahaka.
The cassette cuts out and I feel a presence in the back of the car, a person. The darkness deepens and deepens until it is agony to even hold open one’s eyes.
I whisper her name, a fleeting string of syllables the night swallows.
She answers with my own, as we share a final communion.
Joseph Sale is a Graphic-Horror writer, editor, gamer and creative. Originally from Bournemouth he studied English with Creative Writing at the University of Birmingham.
He is a regular contributor on GameSpew. His short stories have appeared in magazines and journals such as Silver Blade, Edgar Allan Poet Journal 2#, NonBinary Review and Fiction Vortex. His story ‘Descent’ was chosen for Dark Hall Press’s Technological Horror Anthology. His first horror novel The Darkest Touch was released in April 2014, published by Dark Hall Press. He was nominated for the Sundress Award for Literary Excellence 2014. He has since authored Seven Dark Stars, Across the Bitter Sea, Orifice and The Meaning of the Dark.
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