Estimated reading time — 33 minutes
This is the final entry in Stephan D. Harris’ Harlequin series.
“Sometimes I wonder; what exactly is a monster? Is it really something to be feared, or is it something to be respected? Is that frightening, hideous thing that stalks your nightmares trying to tell you something, something important? Maybe the monster isn’t there to scare you at all. Have you ever wondered about this? Have you ever wondered if the monsters that hide under your bed are actually just there to protect you? To protect you from something so much worse?”
– The Wilcox Journal, 1989
At this moment, at this serene and terrible moment in the outer edge of the Union Street Cemetery, I’m wondering whether or not my thoughts are truly my own, or if they have been constructed by artificial means. By artificial I mean to say externally, unwillingly, or unconsciously; the kind of definition one should consider at the tail end of a mushroom trip just as things start to seem normal again, but not quite. The drug analogy is not what I had in mind, but who knows what I have in mind. Maybe it wants me rattle away like this, maybe it doesn’t, I don’t know.
What I do know is that with each thrust of the shovel, a little part of the Earth has been displaced. I do this while my right hand throbs in pain under the bandages. I don’t even care. After enough soil has been removed, the hole will be ready for the lye. I brought a few bags with me for just this reason. The idea is that even an isolated place like Union Street won’t be able to guarantee safety, so the hole needs to be filled with something that will burn hot enough to get the job done the next time it rains. I can already see the storm blotting out the horizon. Attention is a dangerous thing, this fact I know well. Nobody knows I’m here. The distant thunderclaps remind me. There’s another fresh grave next to the one I’ve already started. I made that one too, only a few days ago. By now the body of Reverend Proust has disintegrated into a carrion wad of filth, a sickening blob of putrefied mucus that not even maggots would find tasteful.
“And you don’t even know why he deserved it, do you?”
I stop digging for a smoke. The thing about habits, they always become the strongest when you know you’re going to quit. The time’s as good as any for a moment of self-reflection though, may as well use it.
Billie left yesterday on her motorcycle, to where I don’t know or don’t want to. She left with a duffle bag full of cloths and food, her bass strapped to her back and a gun or two strapped somewhere else. There were no goodbyes; two people who know each other well enough don’t need words or petty sentiments. Just a silent exchange of nods acknowledging that things will never be okay. I’m not worried for her though, she knows how to survive the chaos. Terry’s ending is a little different. After the wedding was called off, after the smoke settled, he finally gave up holding on to this miserable town. He sold his half of the Broken Window last week, and as soon as he gets a bank or an agency or anyone to handle the house he’ll be leaving for New Orleans. I thought it was kind of funny actually, knowing how the poor bastard doesn’t stand a chance yet still possessing enough human compassion to lie to his face. It’s hard not feel bad about it, but sometimes honesty is the cruelest option. Besides, I could be wrong. The knowledge could be fabricated.
But I digress. The outcome means nothing if the means to the ends are ignored.
By now, the story should be obvious: the Harlequin, the mortuary, the stranger and the willow. I thought I knew what I was doing, we both did. Billie and me, fighting side by side against something we barely understood. We thought we knew how it worked, and we thought it was something we could stop. It sickens me how wrong we were.
“You are always wrong.”
As far as final chapters go, the ending began were the beginning had ended. By this I mean, I may as well recall the appropriate backstories the each of us, me the dark eyed mortician and the pierce studded Billie-Joe Kimble. Oh who to pick first? Let’s go with Billie, she is and always has been the real hero of this fucked up little nightmare of a fairy tale.
Billie was born just outside of Richmond, which is known to be less of a city than it is more of the world’s largest Civil War museum. She never told me much about her childhood, mostly because it seemed irrelevant to her and also because Billie isn’t much for dwelling on the past, but what I do know is that she was named after her father, who was apparently a heavier drinker than she is, but not for a lack of effort on her part. They didn’t get along so well, which makes me suspect that he’s the reason for how Billie learned to keep fighting long after her knuckles split.
“He wanted a boy, but got me instead.” She used to say. Billie, the dainty flower, the girl next door. Short and sweet like a pulled tooth.
Billie never finished high school. When she was seventeen she dropped out in her senior year to start a band in D.C. leaving Richmond in the very same manner she left Charlottesville, no goodbyes. For three years she drifted around the streets of our capitol looking for the perfect sound to compose the soundtrack for the endless anarchy that she felt summed up her existence. A new tattoo there, another piercing here, a week goes by without eating but the next doesn’t sleep. From the way she told it, it seemed like it should have been her very own slice of paradise, but of course even chaos can become boring. What she really wanted was adventure. Obviously the dozens of post punk bands she founded or joined weren’t able to provide this for her, otherwise she might have stayed there instead of making her way back south. She skipped Richmond two years ago, parking her uninsured motorcycle outside of a dinky bar in North Carolina, and there it stayed parked for eight and a half seasons worth of restlessness. Terry gave her a job and a place to live. She met four guys who called themselves musicians, fell in love with the blues, fell in love with Terry not long after. That’s the way it was for just over a year. That’s the way it was until I showed up.
I smoke the cigarette down to the filter and toss it into the growing hole just as the wind starts to pick up. It blows my tie around to the back of my neck and I can’t help but think of it as a noose. I’m wearing the red one today. It’s my favorite.
My story is somewhat dull compared to Billie’s. I grew up in a town called Baily Meadow, a place about an hour’s drive east of Charlottesville. The house I lived in was nice, my parents, a pediatrician and a financial accountant, were also nice. The neighborhood was nice, the school system was nice. The people were nice. I graduated at the top of my class, got a full academic scholarship to the university of my choice and promptly enrolled myself into a mortuary science course at a college in Raleigh, obtaining a bachelor’s degree along with a minor study in decomposition anatomy while simultaneously working through my funeral service apprenticeship. This resulted in my current position as professional embalmer of the Burnswick Funeral Home in the lovely town of Charlottesville, NC; population 943, unincorporated. This was about a year ago by now, and really that’s what my entire life has been working towards, at least the interesting parts. I doubt that anyone would be interested in the dead raccoon that I tried to keep in my parent’s freezer when I was eight, or the dumpster fire that I started when I was fourteen. No one wants to hear about the summer I spent in the juvenile detention center for stabbing a classmate with a broken pencil or the six months I stopped speaking. Those stories are irrelevant to who I am as a person. It’s not like I was a particularly disturbed child just because of a few antisocial interests, I was just different. It’s why I’m so good at what I do. I can ignore the sort of things that would make other choke or gag. Just because I’m callous doesn’t make me some kind of monster either.
“Real monsters don’t hide under the bed.”
By now, Billie must be at least halfway to California, but I try not to think about it.
The final chapter of this little anthology began the day after the butchering of a young hitchhiker in Terry’s bathtub. The following daylight hours included several instances of what would latter amount to something over and above what Billie and I had assumed to be a known truth. From my point of view, the morning went as according to plan with the incineration of the severed limbs of the unfortunate traveler in the Burnswick crematorium furnace as a much needed disposal method of his body, because neither Billie, Terry or I were in any position to explain to the authorities as to why we felt the need to murder a vagrant with a hammer in the middle of the night. “He was possessed by alien brain monsters,” probably would raise more questions than answer. Not to mention that Billie and I were also responsible for burning a farmhouse to the ground earlier in the evening. Cutting the body into pieces at the joints and draining it of blood for easier transportation to a crematorium was by far the best option for the three of us. It helped that my employer had one of those En-V 127 Heat Crushers that does a full incineration in under ninety minutes with a built in pulverizer to take care of the hardened calcium deposits. I had the whole thing done and gone by the time anyone else showed up for work, no one even asked why I was already there in the first place. A funeral home requires constant cleaning; the simple excuse of sanitation was enough to avoid suspicion.
Aside from the sleep deprivation headache, the rest of my day went along as normal as ever, with two embalming’s and eight cups of coffee. Nobody bothered me or my work until after Burnswick and Madelyn left for the day.
They left me alone to lock up shop.
Not that this was an abnormal occurrence in itself. Often I would be the last one to leave, it was just the nature of my work to keep track of how much of what supplies had been used and when more would be required, because running out of formalin halfway through a procedure would be very very bad.
No, what was out of the ordinary was the visitor who walked through the front door just as I was on my way out. Not to my own surprise, I didn’t recognize this man. Because of my long held beliefs, (or more accurately, lack thereof) not once in my entire stay in Charlottesville had I ever joined the ceremonial burial of any of my clients, or more importantly, entered the Trinity Baptist Church.
“I apologize, but we’re closed for business until tomorrow morning.” I told the man. He was wearing a black collared shirt tucked into a pair of blue jeans. He looked to be in his late forties or early fifties, with a head full of perfectly combed salt and pepper hair. Something about him immediately caused a feeling of pure and total contempt.
“But if you’d like, I could pencil you in to meet with Mr. Burnswick first thing when we reopen tomorrow.” I continued, jingling my keys in the most apparent way possible. He stared at me for a beat too long before speaking.
“I don’t believe we’ve met.” He said through a smile. “Reverend Joseph Proust pleased to meet you.” He extended his hand toward mine. I ignored it.
“I’m Stephan D. Harris, head embalmer. Like I said, Burnswick left already and I’m on my out as well.”
“That’s a shame; I guess I’ll have to find him later. But tell me, Stephan is it? How long have you been in Charlottesville?”
“Going on a year by now.” I tried to say without letting the growing frustration show through.
“A year! My word, how is it that I’ve yet to see you in the pews on Sundays? Don’t tell me you’ve been going to that Presbyterian goliath out on the interstate. They may be big, but they won’t give you the same sense of family that I try to cultivate.” The way he spoke his words made me want to grind my teeth down to stubs, but I managed to collect myself.
“I’m not much for taking anything on faith.” I responded in the most polite manner possible. The reverend’s face lost its smile almost instantly.
“Well, that’s disappointing.” His tone was that of a disapproving parent. The kind who think they know what’s best even when they don’t, or at least that’s the way I heard it. “I believe there’s quite a bit you could gain by joining our flock. The world is full of evil, and it gets worse every day, it may be wise to seek the protection we offer. If you change your mind though, you’ll be welcomed with open arms.” Nothing he said sounded like a welcome.
I wasn’t in the mood for this nonsense, not then, not ever. I shuffled through the last two days without sleep, the night before being an exceptional case of overwhelming violence. Drained and tired, the last thing in the world I wanted to deal with was the leader of what Billie has been calling a cult. The Trinity Baptists have been aware of the same sort of phenomena that the rest of us have. Everyone has seen the lights in the sky, everyone knew about aneurism epidemic. The difference being I knew the cause, but they thought it to be a divine message proclaiming the end of days. Most importantly, I’m a sunny day asshole who just doesn’t enjoy meeting new people.
“Listen, it was nice meeting you,” I lied, “but I’ve really got to be going now.” Proust nodded his head as I led him out of building, locking the door behind us. The sun had already begun its descent towards the western sky, stretching the shadows of houses and tress across the ground like they do. I turned right, Proust walked to the left. Just before I was out of the range of ear though, I heard him call out once more over his shoulder.
“Don’t burn any bridges Mr. Harris. You never know what you’ll need to cross.” The side of my face that had had the stubble burned away from the night before began to itch. Just a little, as a reminder.
The walk home was quite, and oddly enough the ten minutes of pedestrian travel wasn’t accompanied by the sense of being followed. Lately, the creeping linger of paranoia had been a problem for myself while walking the streets of Charlottesville alone, but not this evening. In fact, I’d say it was enjoyable for the portions where I could forget about the unexpected meeting with the reverend. Until I reached my front door.
I bought a house last year. Because of the shit economy and the constant fall of property value that started when the Charlottesville Paper Mill caught fire and killed a third of the town’s income, I was able to get a place of my own for a ridiculously low price. I filled it with thrift store furniture and an ever growing collection of books until it eventually resembled the inner dwellings of a reclusive psychopath. I never cleaned the place; medical books lay open and scattered across the floors, empty mason jars and animal bones sat indefinitely on every table, blankets and cigarette butts a permanent fixture of the sofa. In other words, my home was the living embodiment of static entropy. One thing I would always be sure of though was that I would never, ever, under any circumstances, leave my front door unlocked.
When my key refused to make an audible click of a moving tumbler, I knew something was out of place. Stepping cautiously into the living room, I stood still a moment to listen to a faint noise of… something echoing from the bathroom. Mildly alarmed, more annoyed than anything, remembering that I kept a .357 snub nose in a drawer next to the television and so moved to retrieve it. At this point I wasn’t even surprised that something had broken into that house, it was only a matter of time before “they” caught on enough to try something. I call them the Abominations only because I don’t know what the correct terminology would be for a mutated-as-all-hell host body that smiles and giggles as it crawls across the ceiling reaching its absurdly long fingers towards your face to rip out your eyeballs or whatever. It’s what I think happens when a Harlequin worm decides that it wants take direct control of the body that it’s been hiding in, as opposed to quietly causing the victim to slowly loose its sanity. Maybe I’m right about this, maybe I’m wrong. There’s plenty of evidence to suggest that I don’t know what I’m talking about.
“More than you know.”
So there I was, with a loaded single action revolver ready to blow as many holes in something’s face as fast as the trigger could be pulled. I tiptoed my way to the bathroom door, placing one hand on the door knob while the other held Stubs the Gun. Noticing the crack of light coming from beneath the door frame and another shuffling noise, I took a brief inhale, and kicked in the door to my bathroom. It screamed at me the way an animal does, it screamed and scratched and foamed at the mouth as I fired five shots into the legs and once more through the far side of its jaw, the mirror and the sink and the walls dusted with specks of red as I finished the job with a straight razor, my fingers slipping over the blood of its pathetic whimpering throat as a sharp edge ran across the eyes. So glorious, so violent, so beautiful and so vicious, the sound of skin as it peels from bone filling my ears like a thousand symphonies playing all at once over dissonant laughter. My laughter. The kind of laughter that follows the abandonment of all hope, where you laugh….
“The way you would at a sick joke.”
Except that’s not the way it happened, I’m remembering things wrong again. There were no shots fired, there was no blood or symphonies either. But there was screaming, the screaming of a startled girl.
“Check your damn voice mail for once!” Billie yelled as she spat a wad of toothpaste from her lips. “I called you like, two freaking hours ago to tell you that I’d be here.”
This turned out to be true, in fact the message Billie had left me was oddly specific about how I should avoid shooting her when I got home. “Hey Stephan,” it said, “Terry and I had a fight about that crap that happened last night and now he’s all butt hurt about it. I hope you don’t mind, but I’m going to crash at your place until he stops bitching about how we’re going to get ourselves killed or whatever. I’m heading over there now, don’t worry I still have a key, but call me back so I’ll know that you won’t freak out and try to shoot me or something with that snub nose I gave you, because that would suck. Kay, bye!”
“So, is it cool that I hang around here for a while?” She asked me after I had finished listening to her message. Billie had just finished taking a shower by the time I noticed the front door unlocked. She still had a wet towel wrapped around her boney little torso. Catching a glance of the hand grenade tattooed just above where her cleavage should have been, I promptly made my decision.
“Yeah you can stay.” I passed out on the sofa without taking off my suit twenty seconds later.
Waking up I became worried that I had slept through an entire workday, almost falling off the couch as the panic set in. It was dark outside; the feeling was understandable until a look at my wristwatch convinced me that it was four in the morning. An unpleasant way to awaken for sure, but at least the headaches were gone, so I decided to crack the kinks out of my neck and smoke a cigarette before the weight of the world inevitably came crashing down. This is what it feels like to be rested enough to sit quietly in the dark and listen to your own thoughts in peace; temporary.
The first drifts of the cognitive sea lead to Proust so I tried to sail the other way. Some efforts are futile however, and so acceptance must be so. I couldn’t shake the feeling that the good reverend had gotten the drop on me somehow. I mean, I had lived in Charlottesville for going on about a year, and not once had he ever so much as noticed me, or I him. Part of me thought his was strange. No, the word is improbable. It was improbable that for a year I had been working in an industry that is almost codependent with that of the church, and so one would assume that Proust and I would have met at an earlier time. Funerals are primarily of a religious concern are they not? Yes it is true that I am basically an atheist, an atheist that considers the very concept of faith to be a blasphemy against the human condition to search for meaning in an inherently meaningless universe, and so of course I would have done everything within my power to avoid the Trinity Baptists, but just by pure chance we should have been made aware of each other sometime before. Why yesterday of all days? Yesterday at a time when I was the only possible person he could have talked to at the funeral home, the very day after Billie and I had seen the lights of the Trinity Baptist Church at two in the morning, just before we killed those Abominations at the farmhouse?
I knew that he knew something but I didn’t know what he knew. Had I figured out what it was earlier, I would have murdered him right there in the Burnswick lobby.
Sitting in the dark alone with my thoughts started to become tiresome, so I stood up to crack my back before shuffling my disheveled ass to the bedroom. I wanted to take a look at a few things that I’d been sleeping on. Billie was lying face down on the floor of my room surrounded by empty bottles of what used to be my beer stash, I assumed that she must have found some way to make her own fun without my help. Tiptoeing around her, I began searching through a desk where I’d been keeping important tidbits of information, or at least the things that seemed even remotely relevant. Things like photocopies of old newspaper articles about the paper mill fire, notes about who had died around the Charlottesville area from unexplained brain aneurisms, the video of the first autopsy (which I had yet to mail out to anyone who might have found it useful, I hadn’t even considered doing so until just before I decided to end everything at the Union Street Cemetery.) Nothing seemed to connect. If I organized the notes into any sort of coherent narratives, it still looked like a game of connect the dots made by a low functioning mental patient. The paper mill was central to this madness, but the how was the real question. What did a twenty odd year old industrial accident have to do with parasitic brain worms? Where did Proust fit in, if at all?
“They heard the noises, they all knew what it meant. Every. Last. One.”
It didn’t really come from anywhere, or maybe it was everywhere. Maybe it was something I had forgotten about intentionally because the thought itself carried with it a sense of ominous dread so overwhelming that feigning ignorance seemed a better alternative.
Suddenly it seemed very important to put on a pot of coffee. And to take a shower. And to iron my suit, to dump out the ashtrays and cancel all my magazine subscriptions. Cleaning the toilet. All the little things that I did every day, the things I never wanted to do or had been putting off, it all seemed so important. Everything but the dishes but anything to keep me from thinking about what I’d have to do once Billie finished sleeping off her hangover. My memory gets a little hazy around this part, but the last thing I did before we left was phone in to Mr. Burnswick. I told him that I’d need to take a personal day.
“Fade to black.”
“I don’t like this.” Billie said. “I mean I truly, sincerely, genuinely do not like this at all.” Billie rarely displayed any emotion without even the faintest sense of bravado. It was a bright sunny day, not a cloud in the sky, every bird was chirping, every woodland creature in the land frolicked without a care in the world and yet the mere sight of the crumbling ruins of the old paper mill was enough to set off her alarms. What was worse was that I agreed, and with good reason. The stigma that had been put on that place had been enough to keep the crazy homeless people and drunken teenagers away for two decades.
“Yeah, well, we both knew it was inevitable.” I lit a new cigarette with the cherry of the old one while I said this. I think I might have even chuckled a little to myself. It was funny because neither of us had batted an eyelash at the idea of trudging through Lucid Marsh two and a half months ago to look for a cannibal man who lost his mind after being sucked under the water by a man sized worm. That was a perfectly normal occurrence compared to this.
“Probably, but I still don’t see what this has to do with Reverend Proust.” Billie mentioned as she checked her backpack for the third time in ten minutes, as if not kept under a watchful eye the shit load of ammunition would vanish without warning. She had packed it with nearly a dozen or so fully loaded magazines of whatever caliber her illegal-ass machine gun needed in order to explode the air into a hell storm of bullets. Probably an HK417 or 416, I can never tell the difference. As usual she duct taped a flashlight to the barrel and threw in a bunch of painted bunny rabbits to pretty it up. I chose to be a bit more conservative, bringing only the snub nose, a speed loader and a couple of road flares.
We started walking through the tall grass that had sprouted out of what used to be a parking lot before I collected my words.
“Proust knows what we did the other night.” I answered. “He knows about the farm house burning to the ground, and he knows it was us.” Billie looked at me with that type of face confused people make. I pulled a business card from my pocket and waved in front of her eyes. “I used one of these to start the fire. I’m guessing enough was left legible to put two and two together.”
Billie shrugged. “I guess it’s plausible, and I guess you’re right about the mill. We’ve put it off long enough already. Best learn what we can before the lynch mob comes to rape you.” I stopped a beat to try and think of a way to respond to that, but I gave it up in favor of focusing my attention on the goliath whose shadow we stood beneath… the Charlottesville Paper Mill. Fully integrated, constructed in 1958, turned inferno in 1989, killing three hundred workers in under ten minutes, no indication as to what caused the initial fire. Some say arson, others say malfunction, but anyone who survived remembers the cackling laughter heard throughout the cutting line, just before it all went to shit. For what, nearly thirty years now, the remains have sat there, enduring the harsh North Carolina seasons, sitting there, waiting, like a sleeping colossus: massive, angry, and most of all, patient. As Billie and I approached the outer wall, just past a rusted barb wire fence, the tune to “Chop the Willow” started to go through my head. It seemed fitting.
“The clockwork points to midnight.”
“The sounds of metal grinding against metal, the echo of a close yet distant thing feeling its way through its own self-imposed prison, much as the absence of motion between the sway of a pendulum draws attention to the tension between opposites. Time is not relative; it is simply the most probable observable outcome, subjective and arbitrary, never any choice in the matter to begin with but open to all interpretations. The context becomes irrelevant, and we call them wrong things for a reason.”
– The Wilcox Journal, 1989
The main doors were chained shut, probably had been since the fire. Yellow hazard tape tattered around in the wind like it stopped giving a shit years ago. The loader doors were too heavy to lift by hand, another problem. Billie had found a window a few feet above a concrete staircase, smashed in the glass with the butt of her gun while I threw a rubber washer mate over the remaining shards. A push and a pull later, we were in. The mill was surprisingly well lit, actually not surprising at all. A good chunk of the roof had caved in above the pressing line, little rays of sunlight peppering everything. “Where should we start?” Billie asked. I looked around for some sign of direction. “I dunno,” I said back, “Let’s just, look around.”
We did, finding ourselves following a hallway into what was probably the accounting office; a few burnt desks, filing cabinets lying on the ground spilling their innards about. The ash covering the melted carpet reminded me of a woman I had prepared for burial back in Raleigh. She had died in a car collision, but not on impact. Her gas tank exploded, spraying liquid fire into the drivers’ seat while the side door had been pinned closed by another car. It was a closed casket. I didn’t bring this up to Billie, who had found an intact staircase. “Down?” I asked her as she flicked her flashlight to life. “May as well.” She replied.
I apologize for what follows.
I’m not a scientist. I don’t know anything about astrophysics or quantum entanglement. I couldn’t describe how phase velocity works if my life depended on it, Planck’s constant might as well be written in Egyptian hieroglyphs for all the good that it would do me.
Particle decay is confusing, and the uncertainty principle strikes me as it sounds. One thing that I do know however, is that what constitutes reality is entirely dependent on the limitations of one’s own sensory organs, the organs in charge of compiling all external stimuli into a coherent perspective. Most people forget about this, myself included. It’s hard to convince your own brain that it sucks using nothing but your own brain. Sometimes though, a certain external force is so otherworldly, so strange and uncompromising that it forces your brain to admit some humility.
“Why don’t you try it?”
I’m having some trouble remembering the order of events that took place within the basement of that mill. Billie would later have the same problem, so part of me suspects that whatever happened in that mill, whatever it was that broke open the ether to where the harlequins came from was still in effect. I’ve already considered every possibility for this, everything from wormholes, to dark energy expansion, to psychotropic frequencies. Any option is valid, even if I can’t explain it. The only concrete memories are the ones where Billie and I climbed through that broken window, and the one where we leaped out in panic. What happened in between is variable. I know this, because even without a consistent rate of time, I remember three important scenes. Interestingly enough though, Billie told me later that some of what happened didn’t, and some of what didn’t did. I both believe and disbelieve her claims because of two important facts. First of all, she says that we never found Ryan Wilcox’s journal, despite it being held in my hands while she told me this. The second falsehood was when Billie told me that she saw me die. I thought that one was pretty funny.
Because I saw the same thing happen to her.
The Wilcox Journal: I found it in a janitor’s closet that was next to a pile of paper rolls that had rotted themselves back into wood. Billie stood at the precipice of the closet to keep watch while I searched the shelves that once held cleaning supplies. It was one of those leather bound journals made to look like a real book. The fact that it was in decent condition was what drew my attention. Everything else in that mill was either burnt beyond recognition or passively falling apart, so no doubt a healthy looking book would be an object of interest. The first page told me that it belonged to Ryan Wilcox, the previous embalmer of the Burnswick Funeral Home, whose wife had been the floor manager of the Charlottesville Paper Mill. She died in the fire, and Ryan being an embalmer was the one responsible for her remains. It couldn’t have been a coincidence that his private thoughts had returned to the place of his wife’s death, especially when it was Ryan who first discovered the Harlequins, noted their number, and left enough clues for me to track the source back to that place.
“What does it say?” Billie asked. “Let me read it and I’ll tell you.” I said back to her, flipping through the first couple of pages. Eventually I got to a place where all the words had been written in red ink. They read as such:
“They come from a place outside of time, beyond space, far separated from what reason may describe. There’s something wrong with this mill, it changes itself as it needs to, shifting between possibilities as they come and go. It holds onto everything indiscriminately, I can see this place as it was the day before the fire, and decades after. I can see myself wandering the dirty paper machines as they show their faces. I can see the men and women with their candles chanting in their prayer circle around my lifeless corpse. I can even see my successor reading these pages in a closet that I had never set foot in. To him and his companion, I say only this: Do not turn your back to the comedian.”
“What the fuck is happening here?” Billie asked rhetorically when I finished reading the passage. I didn’t have time to respond with anything other than an open jaw, cut off mid word because it was then that I saw it, the air shimmering around the tangled mass of flailing limbs. It had eyes, more eyes than I could count, each and every one of them filled with a hatred that went far beyond sanity, far beyond even the smallest amount of compassion for human life and decency. Something slithered around Billie’s waist, ensnaring her before she could turn to face the monster. I doubt bullets would be able to do a damn thing to help, I doubt anything could have done or even thought to have done would have made even the slightest difference for her sake. Billie couldn’t find the wiggle room needed to break free, not before it started to drag her to… somewhere. I couldn’t reach her in time, even as I chased after it for as long as I could, following after her one outstretched hand, following after the sounds of her screaming. It made no difference. The bloodstains trailed off to nothing.
The Escape: We didn’t know what we were running from. We heard the noise, and we ran from it instinctually, maybe the same way that birds flutter away from an earthquake despite being the best suited to handle the catastrophe in the first place. And why shouldn’t we be? I’ve spent my entire adult life doing a job that would make most faint into a pool of their own vomit. I am no stranger to indifference, but the soft grinding noise faintly heard over the rusting debris made our skin crawl. Billie ascended the stairwell two steps at a time, me following after regretting that I was going to die sober.
“This way, just past the office.” Billie called over her shoulder. Something stopped her once she passed the first set of crapsack cubicles. “Shh.” She turned to me, placing one finger across her lips. Billie crouched under a desk littered with scraps of paper, motioning for me to join her. Instead, I pulled the snub nose from my jacket and cautiously peeked over the edge of the composite board to scan the rest of the office. I didn’t like what I saw.
They had followed us. From the distance and lack of light they appeared to be elongated humanoid shadows, tall and lanky things that shuffled back and forth murmuring to themselves, arms bent like mantis in perpetual prayer. Everything about them seemed wrong, unnatural in both method and manner. Billie grabbed my tie to drag me back down to her level. “What the fuck are you doing?” She asked me in an agitated whisper.
“Looking for a way out,” I said back, pulling a road flare from my belt loop. “Considering the options, how would you feel about making our own?” The hollow grinding noise returned to the background, and Billie’s concerned expression shifted into the standard mania that I had come to know and love; a hatful grin with the eyes of a slap-happy axe murderer, despite the fear inducing infrasound’s echoing from an unknown source. “If I die here,” She said back, “I want you to give me a Viking funeral.”
Billie went left, sprinting as fast as she could into a roundhouse kick to the chest of one of the creeps. I went right, popping the flare, placing a shot from the revolver right into one of their heads, a red mist exploding out the back of its skull. The screams that followed were barely audible over the rapid fire of Billie’s murder machine, but their faces were made perfectly clear by the orange glow of the flare that I had thrown into the mix. One crashed through a flimsy wall with its arms outstretched screaming and biting towards my face, but Billie caught it in the leg with a spray of bullets giving me the perfect opportunity to stomp my heel against its jaw. The ordeal went along those lines for who knows how long. The vicious scratching and flailing of the abominations, the vicious cracking of bones when Billie ran out of ammunition and resorted to her fists and boots, and the absurd capacity for violence at my own hands when Billie tossed me a fire axe to help her dismember the endless ocean of chucklefucks. At one point I couldn’t even tell where the psychotic laughter was coming from, it could have been Billie or the things or even myself. It was definitely my laughter when I caught one scampering across the ceiling, wrestling it down to pry open its mouth with my bare hands, filling its throat with the fire of another flare. It was just around the point where Billie had just finished bashing the everlasting shit out of one with a typewriter when we finally decide to call it quits and run back to the exit, the entire time abominations phasing in and out of our peripherals. The grinding noise had grown to a deafening level by the time we climber through the window. Interesting enough to note that the light seemed blinding while in the mill, but quickly became tolerable once we stepped back into the real world, which probably had something to with the fact that it was the middle of the night.
“How long were we in there?” Billie asked me between heavy breaths as we ran back to my car. I looked down at my watch, bewildered at the fact that hands said it had only been about hour. Just as I was trying to piece together a theory I collapsed to the ground clutching the sides of my head. A brain splitting headache had taken precedence over thoughts, the feeling that someone had taken a power drill to the back of my brainstem turned on high. As my vision started to blur, the last thing I remembered was Billie mouthing words to me, shaking my shoulders in futility.
“In a world of infinite possibilities, the only reality you can conceive is a composite of probable outcomes. And some are more probable than others.”
Infinite Causality: Due to the powers that be, the memory of our escape was still fresh in my mind before it had even taken place, but for whatever reason it didn’t seem to bother me as Billie and I walked down the black charred concrete hallway, following the pipes that ran across the ceiling to the sub-basement where we would be able to find the central dehumidifier, which according to all my research was where the initial fire had started the chain reaction of chemical fires that had spread to the rolling line. Machines exploded, people died, and something wrong remained long after.
“Wait,” Billie said stopping to face me. “Stephan, how are you still alive?” Whatever temporal issue plagued me had apparently caught up with Billie. “I saw those cultists slit your throat in front of the portal, like, ten minutes ago.” I thought back to the massive worm that had dragged Billie off into the darkness, and suddenly the thought of my own death barely fazed me at all. Still though, Billie seemed genuinely freaked out, so I searched through my rudimentary knowledge of theoretical physics for a satisfactory answer.
“Are you aware of the quantum immortality theory?” I asked her, knowing well enough that she did not, confirmed by the puzzled look on her face. I continued to speak regardless. “Well, to sum it up without having to go into detail about quark spins, it simply states that there are an infinite number of possible universes, but you can only be aware of the ones where you’re not dead.” I felt mildly embarrassed for not really knowing what I was talking about, but Billie accepted it anyway because well, what else could she do?
“That’s really fucking confusing Stephan, but whatever, I guess I’ll buy it, and I guess it sort of explains that portal thing that opened up earlier. It was like some weird green lightening hole with all this tentacle shit squiggling through.” Billie paused for a moment. “Um, Reverend Proust was there. I’m not sure what that means exactly, but I think I owe you an apology. I guess he was involved in all this after all.”
“While the alternate version of myself was having his ass murdered, did Proust and his little groupies, you know, say anything important?”
“Something about coming into contact with angels,” Billie said to me. “They’re delusional, and they weren’t angels. Not even close.” I noticed that Billie was holding a shotgun, and thought about what a delusion really was but said nothing.
We moved down the turns of the hallway in a rush because the grinding noise had started to pick up from behind. Eventually we reached a door that maybe once been labeled but had been burnt to illiteracy long ago. The doorknob was partially melted, so Billie had to kick it open like she was mad at it. Her flashlight illuminated the remains of the humidifier. Except they weren’t the remains, it was as one would expect it to be if nothing wrong had ever occurred in the first place. A second later, Billie’s light became obsolete next to the fully functional florescent bulbs that glowed and flickered against the clean cinderblock walls decorated with O.S.H.A regulation posters and coat hooks holding onto yellow hard hats. The humidifier seemed to be doing its job of pulling moist air from the ventilation ducts to be dried and recirculated back into the rest of the mill. Everything seemed to be very right and oh so very, very wrong. My ears popped for no apparent reason.
“Hey Stephan,” Billie said, turning to face me with a nose leaking blood. Her voice seemed off, so did her eyes. They weren’t dead, but more or less what I would normally call numb, distant somehow.
“Your nose is bleeding Stephan.” I pressed a finger up against a nostril, seeing the red pulled away with my own eyes. I didn’t know what to say, but someone else’s words filled in the moment of silence.
“It’s nice to see you again Mr. Harris.” Said an unwelcomingly familiar voice, coming back from the entrance to the sub-basement hallway. Billie and I barely had to turn to see that the voice belonged to the good Reverend Joseph Proust, his face holding a smug look of contempt and satisfaction. His hands were holding something else. Billie raised her shotgun.
“Where in the fuck did you get that?” My voice made it perfectly clear how completely pissed I was. Proust rubbed one of his palms against the perspiring glass, right across the unmistakably printed letters that spelled out “Harlequin No.7.”
“Oh, This?” He said back through a chuckle. “I’ve had this thing for years. True, it would disappear every now and then to fulfill its duty, but it would always return to the one who knew the true plan.” A tendril whipped itself across the inside of the jar, the florescent lighting dimmed and flickered just as they had in the mortuary. Proust looked down at the jar with a slight smile crawling across his lips. “Some fools would like you to believe that our world began with a big bang, but we all know that something cannot come from nothing. Unless of course, this something were eternal.”
“The cosmos is not how it seems.”
The air around the Harlequin was beginning to shift and shimmer with a chartreuse glow spreading across the room. From a nearby intercom, a static voice called out from somewhere higher in the mill.
(Jenna Wilcox to loader four; Jenna Wilcox to loader four.)
Billie gave her shotgun a forceful pump. “I think you might want to put that thing down, like, right the fuck now.”
“It would be my pleasure.” He said, looking not to Billie but right into my eyes alone. “Ashes to ashes Mr. Harris, ashes to ashes.”
I leaped to the ground with both arms ahead trying to catch the falling jar just as Billie fired a round into the good Reverends sternum. He fell with a death rattle caught in his throat, a shotgun shell fell still smoking from the ballistic explosion, I fell with a kick of dust in my face, and the Harlequin No.7, for the second time in rational memory, shattered as it hit the cold concrete floor of the Charlottesville Paper Mill, in the sub-basement ventilation room where the dehumidifier had caught fire by alleged dust particles suspended in the air. Several bolts of chartreuse lightning splintered off into every possible direction, coupled with that all too familiar, unearthly laughter.
If it was a joke, it must have been on us the whole time.
“It’s a funny thing when you regret, the things that haven’t happened yet.”
“I don’t want to wake up from this nightmare, because whatever’s out there must be, no, has to be worse than anything I could scarcely imagine. I’m so sorry Jenna, I couldn’t stop it from burrowing its way into your mind, into your life, into everything you know as yourself. No one wants to die, to undergo putrefaction, to be devoured by carnivorous microbes and processed into methane and sulfur dioxide. Nobody wants that, but at least it’s a natural end, the same thing everyone has to go through eventually. The thing that happened to you, what I let happen, that could have been avoided. I’m so sorry, so sorry. I don’t know where they come from, or what they want, but one thing these joyless harlequins have taught me is that sanity is a fragile thing, and that there was never anything to be done in the first place. Goodbye Jenna, I will always love you… unless they take that away too.”
– The Wilcox Journal, 1989
I woke up in the passenger seat of my charger, my head half tilted out of the window in the way of a stiff North Carolinian breeze. The stars were bright, maybe they had always been bright and this was the first time I noticed. It didn’t matter, what mattered was that Billie and I had made it out alive, or at least alive enough to be aware of it. She was driving in a sensible way, a highly uncharacteristic example of her piloting skills, but still, I knew that she was the one who dragged my unconscious body across the weeded parking lot after I passed out like a frightened French schoolgirl with skinned knee.
“Hey there buddy! You’re finally awake!” I was too focused on the sky to see her face, but I could tell by inflection that Billie was about to insult me. “I was worried that your ovaries were giving you lady trouble there for a moment. Glad you got over it.” There was that shitty attitude I had been expecting.
“Just take me back to my house. I don’t want to think about things anymore.” Billie didn’t say anything, but she slammed her foot down onto the gas pedal in agreement. My head was in a state of absolute agony, so I tried to relax and close my eyes for the rest of the drive.
We found ourselves back in Charlottesville proper no more than twenty minutes later, Billie easing the charger into my driveway at a time of night that didn’t synchronize with my wrist watch. Part of me was trying to forget about the conflicting memories of the paper mill, the other part was trying to drag its legs towards the front door without Billie’s help.
“Come on,” she said, “we can figure this shit out in the morning.” Billie went straight for the bathroom, leaving me standing alone in my living room trying to think of what problem needed to be dealt with first; checking on the Harlequins stored in my fridge or dealing with the throbbing headache with a bottle of Irish whiskey. Both things could be found in the kitchen, so that’s where my feet went, flicking the light switch on my to the liqueur cabinet as I walked across the linoleum floor. Popping the cap followed by a six second gulp, eyes watering as the burn in my throat erased the pain behind my skull, I turned towards the refrigerator. Just as before, he was standing there with a smug bastard smirk across his face, hands held behind his back. I lowered the bottle from my lips in the manner of a disgruntled postal worker, because through rain or shine, I just couldn’t seem to get rid of this asshole.
“Proust, what the fuck are you doing here, and why are you alive?” I thought it was a fair question. A chest full of birdshot usually keeps them down.
“Well, I was just going to take back the little cherubs that you stole, but it would seem that you’ve figured out how to kill the miracles.” Yeah, one man’s parasitic monstrosity is another man’s divine intervention.
“I dosed them in hydrogen peroxide before saturating them in a high potency formalin solution. It seemed to the job of preventing their necromorphic tendencies.”
“Clever boy.” He said back to me, grinning with that fake smile, more teeth than pleasantry. “Unfortunately for you, and luckily for me, there remains one more left to be freed. But you probably don’t remember receiving the gift, do you? No, you wouldn’t, because you have the heart and soul of demon, a filthy blind thing.” Proust removed his hands from behind, procuring a sawed off double barrel. “I can make this easy for you, or very, very difficult.” I took another swig of whiskey before making up my mind.
“Ashes to ashes reverend, ashes to ashes.” He managed to fire off a round just as the bottle smashed across his face, but it went into ceiling rather than my gut. He didn’t get a chance to try again, because I was already on him, twisting his wrist until I felt it pop under the pressure. He grunted in pain through that clenched smile as I threw his head into the sink, stabbing him in the back with a dirty fork while bubbles burst from beneath stagnant dishwater. I pulled him out just as Billie rushed to the scene. She started to say something but I couldn’t hear her, because by then I had Proust pushed up against a wall with my left forearm pressed across his windpipe.
“You’re the only demon here!” I screamed into his bloody face. “The difference between us is that I can actually fucking see it! I don’t know what your goddamn plan was and I don’t want to, and I don’t need to know anything to see how your pathetic miserable piece of shit life needs to end!” I punched him repeatedly, over and over regardless of the pain, breaking several fingers as the knuckles connected to teeth. I didn’t even care and I didn’t stop until his laughter ended with a cough of blood and vomit.
“This is how you found out. This is how it ends.”
I emptied my savings account and gave everything to Billie, all of my money, all of the tapes and notes and everything that remained of the harlequins. I told her to give it all to someone who would know what to do, told her to get as far away from Charlottesville as she could, to get as far away from me. That was two days ago. She left yesterday, the same day I buried Reverend Proust in the weeded over patch in the back of the Union Street Cemetery.
So here I am now, standing with back to the freshly dug hole that will serve as my home for rest of eternity, a home I will never know from behind the endless sea of cognitive oblivion. I don’t want to live with, knowing that it’s been there in the back of my head, controlling my mind in subtle ways since a time I can’t remember because it won’t let me.
As I start to raise the snub nose to my mouth, I hear it again.
“You know what he said right? How we choose who we want, regardless of time or place. The polyps are just a lesser form of growth, a left over breeding mechanism from eons of evolution, no longer needed but still indulged.”
I try to ignore it, but my hand goes numb, and the gun drops to the ground. I’m panicking now, trying to reach down for it but it won’t let me. I’m not in charge anymore.
“The joke is on you. It will end when I say it does.”
Fade to black, again.
Credit To: Stephan D. Harris
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