Estimated reading time — 13 minutes
It was my fifth day in Gloaming, Nevada – an unincorporated township skirted on all sides by scorched barrenness. I had never been this far west before, and so the craggy, acacia-dotted desert was dazzling to my senses. I remember wishing that I could extend my stay, but also knew that doing so would be impossible. My business in the town was concluded, and the presentation had gone well. I was expected back at the home office on Monday.
Rather than spend my stay at a hotel, I lodged with two old friends who had moved out to the area after graduation. Jason and Clara were old sweethearts who eventually married and moved west to “live freely and without external instruction,” as they often phrased it. They were glad to host me for the week, and I enjoyed catching up with them – even if they had become hallucinogen-fueled desert spiritualists.
I was afraid to try mescaline, and I was especially terrified to experiment with psychedelics so far away from the (relatively) settled streets and services of Gloaming. Still, Clara assured me with eager confidence that the experience would be safe as well as beautiful. “When we’re way out there in the silent air of the desert,” she told me, “and the peyote kicks in and there’s no motion at all except for us and the campfire, all under a billion glittering stars…” She searched for more words, but instead could only smile serenely. “You’ll know what I mean.”
I agreed to join them on one of their “trips” before returning home.
That night, as we were preparing for the drive out together, Jason retrieved a glass jar with a tin screw cap from his closet, and held it up for me to see. Inside were perhaps two hundred small, clear gelatin capsules. Jason removed the tin cap and tipped several of the strange pills into his palm for me to inspect. I saw that each capsule was packed with shredded bits of something fibrous and hazel-colored. It reminded me of tree bark.
When we were ready, the three of us headed out together. Jason drove while Clara directed him out of the city, then along dozens of miles of unpaved roads. Eventually we were completely off-road, and I could feel the crags and small boulders of the landscape beneath us jostling the car as we drove. Soon Clara and Jason decided that they were satisfied by the pristine quality of the nature around them, and so Jason parked the car. The two of them set up camp while I prepared a makeshift fire pit.
When the dusk came and deepened into night, Clara lit the campfire they had built and Jason brought me my dose of peyote, along with a beer to help me swallow down the fistful of capsules. “Just eat them one by one,” Jason advised. “It won’t take long.” He demonstrated, placing a gelcap onto his tongue, sipping his beer, and then opening his mouth to show that the pill was gone. Over by the campfire, I could see that Clara was taking hers three or four at a time, pausing only to swig from her drink.
Soon we had each finished taking our dose. We drank and watched the fire together, and waited for what would come next. At first we spoke aloud to each other while we waited, but before long we were sitting in silence. The emptiness of the desert pressed inward with a tangible urgency for quiet, and it had rendered us mute.
Eventually, I noticed that I had become raptly attentive to the campfire flickering in front of me. Prismatic streaks of color had begun to spark out from the flame and into the night air, each one cascading like a living mote of light. I felt giddy, and noticed that Jason and Clara both seemed to have entered similar states. With smiles and searching eyes, they were watching the stars.
I turned my eyes back towards the fire, eager to lose myself once again in its dazzling movement. I began to melt back into its warmth, but soon noticed in myself a strange sense that something large was moving through the darkness nearby. Turning my focus towards the motion, I saw a human shape standing alone out in the desert, only barely illuminated at such a distance by the campfire’s flickering light. If it were only a few paces further away, I thought to myself, the shape would be completely obscured by darkness.
“I see something.” I heard myself say it out loud, but my voice sounded hazy and strange. Jason and Clara lazily turned their attention towards me. With a peaceful smile, Jason spoke.
“What do you see, Vince? Describe it for us.”
I strained against my own vision, which was already limited by the dark but now also warped by the peyote. Indeed, even the sand and the trees seemed to be moving and shifting around me. Still, the figure was not something abstract. It looked like a large man who was marching in place unsteadily, listing back-and-forth as he did so. It would take a step forward, then two steps back, then perhaps four rapid, mincing steps in our direction again, then another three steps back. It was staring in our direction the whole time this went on. The figure’s torso bounced gently against the elastic, up-and-down motion of its knees.
“I see a person,” I began hesitantly. “Or, I think I do.” I shifted in place nervously and then corrected myself. “I don’t think it’s a person. The eyes haven’t blinked at all.” Indeed, the eyes were shining bright to me, like two illuminated pinpricks against the darkness around them. They never flickered or dwindled at all as the figure marched.
“It’s probably just an owl,” Clara offered, her back still turned away from the thing. “Does it seem like the eyes are darting around in circles, or making shapes in the dark?”
“Yes,” I replied with a sobbing sort of crack in my voice. “But see for yourself, it’s not like an owl.”
Clara propped herself up on one arm, and looked over her shoulder to follow my pointed finger. Her lazy smile turned suddenly into a deep frown, and I felt nauseous to see the way her face had dropped. Jason noticed too, and turned to look with the same, sudden loss of relaxation. It seemed the thing was really there.
A series of warbling, clicking vocalizations rang out suddenly from the thing’s direction. As it continued, the procession of sounds grew more complex and strange, and soon the noise was rolling over itself like an ungodly, squealing battle-cry. It seemed to me that the thing was calling out to us deliberately, and this idea made my whole body tense up until I began to feel paralyzed. Clara and Jason began to shout at the form which still marched aimlessly without moving closer.
“Get lost, asshole!” Clara’s voice rang out fiercely, but I could hear that she was growing afraid.
“You’re going to wish you hadn’t fucked with us!” Jason added, projecting his voice across the desert in a similarly unsure tone.
But the thing did not seem to mind their threats. In fact, it began to advance slowly and deliberately. Soon it was close enough to the campfire that I could see it more fully. I wasn’t sure, but I felt that I could see the thing spasm badly across its whole body with every few steps that it took. It was as if the creature was struggling through some kind of grand mal seizure at it moved – and somehow it was winning the fight. In my vision and in my mind (both of which were already swimming with peyote fantasies), the thing contorted and twitched like a grotesque and poorly-directly marionette.
As it lurched unevenly across the sand, seemingly unresponsive to our shouted insistences that it leave, the thing began to click and mumble its strange sing-song noises again. This time, though, the sounds it made were more like English.
“Just get lost already!” Clara shouted, and rose to her feet to confront the humanoid creature that was now only a short distance away.
“Juss geh loss!” the creature bellowed back, and then added a hiccupping sort of chuckle that echoed softly in the night’s silence. It did not slow its approach.
“Find me the car keys,” Jason said quietly to Clara. “I’ll scare it away.”
Keys in hand, Jason moved quickly to unpack a tire iron from the trunk of the car, and then stood by the campfire with the makeshift weapon brandished over his head. “This is your last warning!” he shouted. “Don’t make us hurt you!” He took several steps towards the thing, as if prepared to attack. To our relief, the creature planted its feet and stood still. Clara and I shared a glad smile before turning our attention back to Jason.
When we did, however, we saw that Jason had dropped both the car keys and his weapon to the earth. He was now walking – lazily but deliberately – towards the thing that now stood patiently in the nearby darkness. The creature, staring at Jason with its shining and seemingly lidless eyes, waited patiently for him to join it where it stood, and then seem to lead Jason backwards into the opaque dark beyond the campfire in a marching sort of dance.
It had squatted down low and craned its head forward into Jason’s face; that’s what I saw. It seemed to me that the creature had hypnotized my friend with its unbroken stare as it backed away into the dark. Worse still, the thing actually had to stoop down, drop its shoulders, and bend its knees before its eyes were level with Jason’s. Whatever it was – it was much taller than humans generally get.
Clara and I both began to scream. We were so lost in panic that we couldn’t register anything besides our own begging sobs for Jason to return to the campfire – to please, please, please come back. We howled until we were both breathless, and when we finally stopped, we felt that utter and complete silence from before pour back over the desert. For perhaps a minute, the emptiness of the place was punctuated only by the soft crackling of the fire.
Then there was Jason screaming – screaming from somewhere that sounded like it was an impossible distance away. He was crying out in the kind of frantic anguish that only comes from someone who truly can’t believe the pain that they’re in. I looked at Clara in wide-eyed terror, and she mirrored my expression perfectly as her head swung around to look back at me. As suddenly as they had begun, Jason’s lamentations died into silence with a slushing, drowning sort of final gasp.
I was too petrified to move, but Clara was already on her feet. She hoisted me up by the front of my shirt and ran me over to where the car was parked. Before I could even fully register what was happening, she had pushed me into the backseat, and then rushed to retrieve the car keys from where Jason had dropped them on the ground. Soon she was back, sitting in the driver’s seat and doing her best to start the engine despite her badly shaking hands. “Which way is the road into town?” She whispered urgently, as if afraid to raise her voice too loudly. “Which way did we come from? Answer me, Vincent!”
“Just go,” was the only response I could muster. “Just get us away from here.” I felt an overwhelming vertigo at that moment, as if my spirit was trying to escape my doomed body, and so I shut my eyes tightly to regain my orientation. After a short while sitting like this, I realized that Clara wasn’t talking to me anymore. In fact, she wasn’t making any sound at all. My head was swimming so badly that I had been certain the car had at least lurched into motion, but when I opened my eyes Clara was sitting placidly in the driver’s seat of a stationary vehicle. She was staring silently through her window. As I followed Clara’s gaze, I saw that the thing was back – perched on its haunches a short distance away. The illuminated orbs in its eye sockets were focused on her. It was drawing her away from me.
I pleaded with Clara not to leave me alone as she removed the keys from the vehicle’s ignition and dropped them casually to the vehicle mat at her feet. She stepped out of the car and towards the creature. I stumbled dizzily from the backseat, and attempted to grab her around the shoulders. In automatic response, she elbowed me viciously in the guts and left me winded. I collapsed against the car, and when I found the strength to raise myself up again, she and the creature were gone.
I struggled desperately to get the car back into motion, but the combination of mescaline and adrenaline in my system made progress difficult. The steps involved in starting the engine, then putting the car into drive escaped me, and the lettering on the manual gearbox felt alien – as if I had forgotten the Roman alphabet completely. It did not help that as I was working to start the car, I could hear Clara’s voice (always so sweet and calm before tonight) now screaming wildly with a throat that sounded choked with gore.
Clara always spoke like music: pleasant, and soft, and wonderful. What tore through the cold desert air now, though, were ragged and wordless gasps of pitiful agony. The silence that eventually followed was worse, though. It told me that I was all alone.
I turned to peer out the driver’s side window from where I sat, still having failed to start the car. I could see that the creature had returned – once again lumbering playfully out from the obscurity of darkness, but this time directly towards me. I felt as if my panic would cause me to faint at that very moment, but mortal fear galvanized me to keep fighting. I finally managed to summon the engine to life, but pressing on the gas only caused the engine to rev in park. I could feel the creature’s eyes on me, and I knew that it was nearly at my window. I turned my back away from the window as deliberately as I could while still pressing the clutch down with one foot, and gripped the stick shift to pull it into a new (but arbitrary) position.
My vision was swimming too heavily to discern precisely what gear I was now in, but I did not care so long as the car would start moving. I faced forward and prepared to step on the gas, but suddenly found myself staring directly into the eyes of the creature. It was perched on the hood of the car now, and watched me through the windshield with those bulb-like, electric eyes. I closed my own eyes tightly, in a final bid to resist the thing’s hypnotic lure.
I was preparing myself to die, but a monstrous shriek and the sound of wild, receding footfalls broke my terrified meditation. It sounded to me as if the creature had suddenly been attacked, and was now fleeing. After remaining motionless for several moments with my eyes shut, I noticed the faint sensation of sunlight on my eyelids.
Sunrise was breaking over the distant mesas. The creature was gone, and it occurred to me that such a horrible thing could only exist in hellish darkness. For the first time since the creature had appeared, I felt as if maybe I could relax. Completely distraught, I drew the deepest comfort I’ve ever known from the warmth of the sunlight on my face. I lost consciousness without realizing how exhausted the night had left me, and slept for a few hours. When I awoke, I found that the peyote had mostly worn off, too. Feeling mostly sober now, I drove straight into town to find help for my missing friends.
I went to the police, and tried to tell them my story in a way that would seem at least halfway believable. I admitted everything that I could, knowing full well that it all sounded like a stereotypical “bad trip”. Skeptical and more than a little annoyed, a pair of officers eventually agreed to follow me out into the desert to investigate the details of Jason and Clara’s disappearance. Together we found the remains of our campfire, and a snarl of erratic tire-tracks in the sand. But there was no sign at all of my companions. Nor did the officers detect any signs that a struggle had occurred anywhere near the site.
The police soon concluded that the disappearance of my two friends was probably a simple matter of Clara and Jason having been surprised by the strength of mescaline. “They thought they were prepared by their previous experiences,” said one of them, already walking back towards the cruiser to drive us into town again. “And so they trusted themselves to wander out into the night alone.”
“Shared delusions are fairly common in these sort of scenarios,” the other officer agreed. “You were lucky it was your first time trying this stuff. You were too overwhelmed to follow them, and so you stayed by the fire instead. That, and the fact that you sat in the car with the engine turned on until sunrise, probably saved you from freezing.” He paused and raised his gaze upward, as if stopping to feel the sun on his face. “We’ll do our best to find your friends out here, but in all honesty I’d be surprised if they survived the night.”
I’m home now, safe, and far away from whatever that terrible creature was. Or at least I think I am. But I’ve realized something awful, and more and more the idea is driving me crazy. There’s no way for me to be completely sure that I’m not still out there, hypnotized and being led to my death while the fantasy of escape goes on. Let me try to explain it a little better. Every night since I left Nevada, I keep having the exact same dream. Every. Single. Night. The same terror plays out in my mind in precisely the same way, and it always goes just like this:
I’m driving out of Gloaming. It’s around noon, just after the police have told me, “We’ll do our best to find your friends.” I’m glad to be heading home. I consider calling my mother before I begin driving, but then realize that I don’t know what I would say if she answered. I’m still shocked and exhausted, so I decide simply to make distance between myself and the town.
I press eagerly on the accelerator as I drive, and yet for hours it seems as if I can make no progress. With a creeping sort of anxiety, I realized that there has not been another car in sight for hours. Even the signage on the roadside has dwindled away to nothing. My surroundings are now like an unfinished painting: jarringly without details. This is nothing like the road on which I had originally traveled into town. I don’t recognize anything.
With a suddenness that rends my heart from top to bottom, the steering wheel melts away from beneath my hands. The car, the road, and even the sun above me all dissolve in an instant.
I find myself standing in the undisturbed sands of the desert, teleported back into the almost perfect darkness of that gruesome nighttime. The creature looms and croaks a sound nearby, staring directly into my eyes. I realize that I’ve been looking back into its face for who knows how long. The safety of that morning’s sunrise – the relief of my narrow escape – they were all simply delusions inflicted upon me to occupy my mind as I march myself towards execution. In this dream, my waking life is the fantasy. I am still out there with the creature.
The thing howls at an ear-splitting volume, and I brace my hands against my skull in an attempt to resist the sound. Still, my knees buckle and I fall to the ground. The thing is inches away now, and I can see that it draws oxygen into itself from a number of chitinous vents which dot its chest and neck. Periodically, they suck inward like gasping mouths before relaxing again.
As the thing leans in to consume me, the sounds it makes become quieter and more discrete in tone. It begins to suck air more rhythmically, and releases each breath with a low hiss. “Haaa… Eeeeeth… Haaa… Eeeeeth…” As I feel it finally touch me with its hand-like appendages, it chokes out words. “Eeeeeth… Don’t you… Haaa… Miss your friends?”
With a slobbering, suctioning sort of sound, the flat and featureless jawline of the creature unfolds into a gaping maw. Chevrons of razor-edged teeth present themselves from fleshy folds all along the inside of the thing’s throat (which has now spread open like the distended jaws of a snake.) Now exposed to the air, they shimmer against the blackness of the night like stars.
In this dream, I am still under the effects of the peyote, and so I see ghostly emanations of impossible color snake outwards from the creature’s face and form. Quivering hallucinations pool around the thing, like lesser nightmares gathering to join it. Jeering, ephemeral demons spring through the night air towards me with each eager spasm of the thing’s face. Fractals drip from its lidless eyes, and I can feel that I too am weeping.
In this dream I can’t stop having, the sun does finally rise over that expanse of forsaken desert, but I am not alive to greet it.
CREDIT: David Feuling
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