Heavy Metal Horror
Sixteen year-old Hal Hughes loves three things: his camera, his girlfriend, and heavy metal from the 1980s. Possibly not in that order.
John Graze, a local recluse and former frontman for the legendary band Left Hand Ritual, is Hal’s idol. When Hal learns that Graze has come out of hiding, he’s curious. When Hal finds out that his girlfriend Macie’s high school musical has Graze as an advisor, he’s absolutely mystified.
Hal spies on the former metal god and sees him performing strange, gruesome rituals. With the assistance of an eccentric expert on sorcery, Hal discovers the horrible fate in store for Macie and the rest of the musical cast.
Soon Hal is fighting off warlocks, creatures, medieval re-enactors, and rivals for Macie’s love. Time is running out and John Graze’s magic is getting more powerful by the day. Can Hal stand up to the new master of evil?
Read a sample below!
It was early in June when all this started. School had been out for a couple of weeks, and I had been working at my aunt Jaya’s restaurant ever since. I was sweeping the floor and checking the napkin dispensers when she called, “Hal! Delivery!” and held up a paper bag with an order ticket stapled to the top.
“Okay.” I stowed my broom and picked up the bag. It was full of good-smelling white cartons wrapped in foil. I hadn’t been working there long enough to be sick of the smell of Korean food, and I wondered if that was going to happen by the end of the summer. I hoped not. In my family, eating at Jaya’s restaurant had always been sort of a treat, involving a special trip all the way downtown and a selection of food we never saw otherwise. So far, even when I was bussing tables or cleaning the bathroom, I still felt like I was part of something unusual and interesting. I hoped that would last.
Everyone called the restaurant “Jaya’s,” but its full name was “Jaya’s Authentic Foods.” My aunt had opened it up years and years ago, right after she married my uncle Tim and moved to America. Back then, her English still had training wheels, which is why the name sounds more like a grocery store than a restaurant, but after being in business for so long, she doesn’t see any reason to change it.
I checked the order ticket as I headed through the kitchen toward the back door. 1151 River Park Drive. That was all the way on the other side of town. I grabbed one of the insulated carriers from the peg by the door and zipped it around the paper bag. Even then, I was going to be pushing it to get all the way out there before the food started to go lukewarm. I hurried into the alley and got into my worn-out old Honda Civic. When I put the carrier on the passenger seat, I checked the order sheet one more time. That was when I noticed the name Jaya had written above the order.
Whoa. For real?
John Graze is our local celebrity. Well, he is to me. If you know all of Ronnie James Dio’s guitar players, or if you can name at least one Mercyful Fate album, maybe he’s a celebrity to you, too. His band, Left Hand Ritual, used to scare the hell out of people back in the 1980s. Even now, when the portraits on the backs of their albums look goofy and quaint, their music is still some pretty creepy stuff. They were sort of a cross between Candlemass and W.A.S.P., but if you aren’t a big enough fan of 1980s metal to know what that means, then just trust me. They’re awesome
I love that kind of music. I love the way it sounds when I throw a garage-sale metal tape into my car’s temperamental old cassette deck. I love looking at the unbelievable art on the album covers, and I love the way the bands looked back then. It was all so theatrical. With their gigantic hair and steel-reinforced costumes, they all looked like space pirate opera singers from another dimension.
After he split with Left Hand Ritual, John Graze disappeared for few years, but he eventually ended up back in his old home town of Lamasco, Indiana. When I put it that way, it sounds like he stumbled off a Greyhound and collapsed onto a park bench, but in reality, he bought a mansion. People with mansions get a lot of things delivered to them, which was where I came in.
I backed out of the alley, drove north for a couple of blocks, then got onto the expressway and headed east. Soon I was out of the center of the city, past the office buildings, the factories, and the row-house neighborhoods. I drove as fast as I could without making myself conspicuous. Technically, 1151 River Park Drive wasn’t in Lamasco at all, but instead in Newburgh, a little village that’s now more or less of a suburb, connected by highways and long corridors of shopping centers.
John Graze’s house was in a neighborhood of tall trees and large houses spaced far apart. It had a few acres of lawn in front of it and a forest behind. It also had a wall going all around the property and a pair of iron-barred gates. The paint on the gates had begun to bubble and flake, and I could see the masonry crumbling in places along the wall. I sat idling in front of the closed gates for a second and wondered what I was supposed to do next. I didn’t see a button or an intercom or anything, but it wouldn’t be the first time I’d missed one of those. I was about to get out and search when the gates shuddered and began to grind inward on their own. As I drove through I kept an eye out for signs that a legendary metal musician lived here. Aside from a big, black car in the garage at the side of the house, there weren’t any. No chanting cultists in robes, no frightened virgins running for their lives into the trees, just ragged grass and shrubs that looked like they’d been growing wild for quite some time.
Once I reached the house, I took the order out of the insulated carrier and ran up the front steps. I rang the bell and looked around. The place was big and old. It looked like it hadn’t been painted in a while. It was the kind of place you might expect to find an elderly widow tottering around in, followed by a couple of loyal cats.
While I was daydreaming, the door opened, and there he was. John Graze himself, big as life. His hair had gone gray and it was cut short, but there was no doubt it was him. He still had the same eyes that I’d seen on the backs of the Left Hand Ritual albums. There was something else, too. He had a presence, an odd kind of energy, if I can use that phrase without sounding like a New Age goofball. Whatever it was, John Graze still had it, and it made me take a step backward and hold out the order at arm’s length.
He paid me and took the bag. “Thanks,” he said in a soft voice, then disappeared back inside his house. I stood on the doorstep for a few more seconds until my mind unfogged itself enough to move.
Back in the car, I reached under the passenger seat and dug out my camera. It was a Holga, a big, bulky plastic thing that I had bought at a flea market last year. Even when it was new, it would have been incredibly primitive. The focusing was guesswork, the shutter had exactly one speed, and as far as I could tell, the aperture switch was purely for decoration. But if you got everything right, you would end up with spooky, dreamy pictures of your subject that you couldn’t get with any other camera. If you got it wrong, you would end up with blurry, off-kilter blobs that you’d try to make people think were on purpose. I carried it everywhere.
Yeah, I’m a camera guy. I forgot to mention that, didn’t I? Well, I apologize in advance. I love cameras. I collect old cameras from garage sales and antique stores. I keep a shoebox full of film in the refrigerator. I own a light meter and a bunch of secondhand developing equipment.
So, to sum up: My name is Hal Hughes. I’m sixteen, I listen to heavy metal from the Eighties, I’m fascinated by cameras that normal people would throw away, and I’m a delivery boy. Impressive, right?
Sorry, ladies. I’m already taken.
I held the camera in my hands for a few seconds. I wanted to grab a shot of John Graze’s house, but for some reason I couldn’t bring myself to get out of the car and take it. I told myself that it was against my code of ethics as a delivery boy. I told myself that I didn’t want him thinking the people from Jaya’s were a bunch of nosy freaks. But that wasn’t the real reason.
It was something about John Graze and those crazy rock star eyes. If someone had offered me a thousand dollars to get out of the car and take the picture right then, I don’t think I could have done it. Instead, I stopped the car after the gates had closed behind me and took a picture of the gates themselves. The dark lines of the metalwork and the heavy stone posts made a nice composition, but that was just a consolation prize. I drove as fast as I could until the mansion was out of sight.
The next day I got off work at five, which gave me the chance to pick up my girlfriend from play practice. Every summer, all the high schools in the city school district pooled their resources to put on a production bigger than any of them could accomplish on their own. It was a big deal in Lamasco, and there was always some discussion about which schools had the most students in the cast, which teachers were in charge, and what kinds of biases this indicated on the parts of the director, the host school, and the school corporation as a whole.
This summer they were doing Rent. When I heard about it, I thought it was a little adventurous for a high school production, but I guess people reach a point where they’ve had enough of My Fair Lady. Macie Hart, who I’d been dating for a couple of months now, was playing Maureen. It seemed like a good part: big enough to be noticed, not big enough to feel responsible for the whole show. She was happy with it. This year they were rehearsing at Lamasco North High School, where Macie and I were going to be juniors in the fall. In a couple of weeks, they’d move everything over to the civic center, which was where the show would actually take place.
I slipped into the auditorium and sat in the back row. Up on stage, a couple of guys were singing through a song with the rehearsal pianist. They had it about three-quarters memorized and every so often had to glide over a lyric with hums and la-las. Behind them, a group was working on the choreography. Crew members scurried in various directions and some of the cast were catching a few unsupervised moments to talk, eat, or make out.
I sighed. I missed this. I had been in plays since I was in eighth grade, and I’d even had a little part in the all-city musical last year, but this summer I decided to take a break. Part of it was so I could try to earn some money, since camera gear wasn’t cheap and my parents were only interested in subsidizing me up to a point. Also, I had come down with a killer case of stage fright right before the opening of Grease, North’s spring musical, and the memories were still pretty vivid. When the time came to try out for the all-city, it felt like signing up for an extra dentist appointment. So I decided to skip it. Every time I came to pick Macie up and saw everyone else singing and performing, goofing around and having a good time, I wondered if I’d made the right decision.
But then, I reminded myself, if I didn’t have a job I wouldn’t have been able to afford the expensive medium-format film that my swell camera needed. I held up my Holga and scanned the auditorium through it. Things always look better through a viewfinder.
I saw a girl ducking out from behind the curtain. She was short, with red hair and what you might call an impressive figure. This was Macie. I waved. She hopped off the wing of the stage and I walked down to meet her. About halfway there, I caught sight of a gray-haired man sitting in the front row. At first, I thought it was just somebody’s dad waiting for the rehearsal to be over. Then he turned and I froze.
It was John Graze.
“Hal!” Macie had reached where I was standing. She gave me a quick hug and took my hand, and for a second I forgot all about being startled by a retired heavy metal guy. She does that.
John Graze stood up and started walking over to us. Back in the day, he was rumored to have once bitten a chunk out of an interviewer’s ear. Even now, dressed in nothing more frightening than a black t-shirt and gray pants, there was something about him that made me a little nervous.
“Very good job,” he said to Macie. “You’re coming along well.” His voice was soft and rough, like he was trying to shake off some laryngitis, and there was just a tiny trace of the accent you sometimes hear in people who grew up in this area. I’ve tried to beat it out of my own voice ever since I could recognize it, but it’s probably still there.
“Thanks,” Macie said. “Singing over the band is harder than I thought it would be. It’s a lot different than the piano.”
John Graze smiled. He hadn’t taken his eyes off Macie since they’d started talking. I couldn’t help but notice this. To me, he looked like a snake staring across the pet shop at the hamster cage, but there’s the slightest possibility that I might have been overreacting.
“Just make sure you hear yourself. That’s the key. You can’t think about them. You’ve got to think about you,” he said.
I edged closer to Macie. I don’t think he noticed.
“You’ll be great. I can tell.” That must have been all he wanted to say to her, because he released his hypno-cobra vision and turned back to the stage, giving me a quick nod along the way. It was probably nothing, just a simple acknowledgment that I existed, but it gave me the willies. It made me wonder if I’d irritated him in some way.
Did he remember me from yesterday? Had his order been cold? Impossible.
Out in the parking lot, I held the car door open for Macie. She was wearing a low-cut green top with lace around the neckline, and as she climbed in I took the opportunity to glance down the front of her shirt.
Oh, calm down. You would have done it, too. Well, you would have if you were me. We had only been dating since the spring musical at North, a couple of months ago, and I still got a little flutter in my stomach every time she smiled at me. The way I saw it, it would have been ungrateful not to look.
I started the car and took a quick picture while she checked her makeup in the mirror. She was used to it by this point and didn’t even bother to tell me to cut it the hell out.
Once I’d pulled out of the parking lot, I asked her what in world John Graze, legendary rock recluse, had been doing at the rehearsal of a high school musical.
Her answer: “Who?”
I shook my head. Women.
“John Graze. The creepy guy who told you to hear yourself.”
“Mr. Graze? Oh, right. It sounds different when you say his first name. Mr. Fanshaw—he’s the drama teacher at Memorial, he’s directing—said Mr. Graze was there to help out as a performance coach. And he’s not creepy at all.”
I still didn’t understand why he was there in the first place. It seemed like a waste of the man’s talents, like having Buzz Aldrin be the secretary for your model rocketry club.
“You know who he is, right?” I asked.
“Am I the only person who knows this? Left Hand Ritual?” I prompted. “The heavy metal band? From back in the Eighties?”
I cringed. “No, not like Poison. Not like Poison at all.” Even though Macie’s tastes ran more toward girls with squeaky voices singing over harpsichords and ukuleles, I was pretty sure she was just doing this to wind me up. “For a couple of years back then, Left Hand Ritual were the American Black Sabbath.”
“That’s good, right?”
Now I knew she was kidding. If she’d gotten anything from our relationship up to this point, it was a thorough knowledge of who Black Sabbath was.
“You know those little ‘Parental Advisory’ stickers you see on CDs and things?”
“Well, Left Hand Ritual is one of the bands you can thank for that. They terrified people back then. There were all kinds of stories about them. Like they had to have a bucket of animal blood in the studio at all times. Or that nobody was allowed to speak to them at certain times of the day. Really bizarre stuff. For a while, everybody in the country knew them. Or knew their name, at least.”
“The band collapsed.”
“No. Well, not just drugs. John Graze had some sort of a freakout. He got in a huge fight with the rest of the band on stage one night, then quit the group and disappeared. The band continued on for a while, but they had to replace him with two people: one to play bass, and one to write the lyrics and sing. They made two more albums without him. One was half-decent, and then the one after that was just terrible. As for John, nobody’s seen much of him since.”
“He seems nice now,” Macie said. “He’s got a lot of really good advice on how to sing.”
“I wish I could get across how odd that is. Seriously, if you were going to make a guess at which Eighties metal musician would be least likely to help out with a high school musical, it would be John Graze.” I hesitated for a moment. “Maybe that guy from Pentagram.”
I pulled up in front of Macie’s house. It was one of those big suburban jobs that had been built around the time John Graze was menacing the senators’ wives on the Parents’ Music Resource Council. I ran around to get Macie’s door, then had her sit on the hood for a couple of goofy pinup-girl poses so I could burn off the rest of my film. The hood of a Civic isn’t exactly prime pinup background, but we work with what we’ve got.
That night I hung up the blackout curtains in the basement bathroom and developed the roll. I’m still not an expert at developing film, but I can get images to show up most of the time, and I always feel like a genius when it happens. Like Prometheus. Like Cartier-Bresson. Like that dude at the Walgreens photo counter. It’s an elite fraternity.
I wondered how the shots of Macie were going to turn out. More often than not, they were pretty spectacular. She had that natural ham quality that made her incapable of not striking a pose when someone pointed a camera at her.
I had box full of pictures of Macie. Part of that was because I simply loved taking pictures of her. She was beautiful and the camera loved her. But I had another reason, too. It was because of the of old Sterling Brewery.
The Sterling Brewery was this massive compound of brick buildings on Fulton Avenue, connected by walkways and dotted with smokestacks. It had been built in the nineteenth century, and it was a working brewery right up until some time in the Seventies. I saw it every week when my family drove across town to visit my cousins, and I always imagined what might be going on in those big, empty buildings that looked like visitors from another time. Were there ghosts? Did people live in them? What if they had a whole civilization hidden away in there, unknown to the rest of the world?
Then, one day, it wasn’t there anymore. Just a bunch of yellow bulldozers and a mountain of bricks. Now it’s a grassy lot with a billboard from some real estate developer on it. I can remember what it looked like, but I can’t see it. I miss being able to see it. Even when I see a picture of it in a library book, it’s not the same. It’s not my picture, so it’s not my Sterling Brewery.
When you take a picture of something (or someone for that matter) it’s real in a way that real life isn’t. A picture stays the same. It’s a frozen piece of time. It’s yours. It’s permanent.
That’s why I take pictures of things. That’s why I take pictures of her.
I finished the rinse and hung up the negatives to give them a wipedown with the squeegee. Everything looked all right. After I went over them with a blow dryer for a few minutes, I took them up to my room where I could feed them into the scanner. Is that cheating? Yeah, a little bit. But the truth is, I don’t have any paper for the enlarger yet, and I was able to get the scanner with the film attachment secondhand from my mom’s cousin, who has always been a gadget freak.
Once I was all done scanning, I printed them out on my cheap little photo printer. They turned out pretty well. Everything was in focus and more or less composed well. It’s hard to ask for more than that. The roll started out with a couple of shots of Macie, then a soy sauce bottle on a table at Jaya’s—a composition that was much more impressive in my mind than it turned out to be on film. Then some buildings in the neighborhood south of the restaurant. It used to be a pretty run-down area, but the city’s trying to revitalize it as an arts district. Artists love Korean food, apparently, so I’ve spent a lot of time down there. As I said, it’s good manners not to take pictures of the houses I deliver to, but there’s always something interesting across the street or around the corner.
The only picture I screwed up was the one of John Graze’s gate. I must have double-exposed it with something because there were all kinds of half-transparent shapes overlaid on top of the stone columns and the walls beside them. I held it up to my desk light to see if I could figure out what I’d doubled it with. Double exposures are one of my favorite things in film photography. If you’re lucky, it can make a picture twice as strong as it would be otherwise. If you’re not, it’s just a mess.
As I looked closer, I realized that I was wrong. It wasn’t a double exposure. Those half-dozen ghostly shapes were perfectly lined up with the contours of the walls and the posts. They weren’t overlaid with the picture of the gate. They were a part of it.
I stared at the picture for a long time. I started to see more details in the ghostly shapes. They were the size of apes or deformed humans, with limbs that bent in the wrong direction as they scaled the wall. From the way they were facing, it looked to me like they were climbing over the wall and out of John Graze’s estate.
As much as I told myself that it had to be a freak problem with the camera, the film, or the photographer, I couldn’t quite believe that explanation. It really seemed like I had captured something that hadn’t been visible when I pressed the shutter button.
To be honest, I had been listening to a ton of Left Hand Ritual in the past twenty-four hours and remembering all those gruesome old stories about the band, so I may have been predisposed to that conclusion. Invisible monsters from the lead singer’s house seemed to fit right in with the band’s reputation.
Whatever the explanation was, it was definitely weird. I put the picture in my desk drawer with the others. I’d take a look at it again later when I wasn’t so freaked out.
The next evening, a summer thunderstorm blew up while I was at work. The sky darkened rapidly to a sinister blue-green and the rain began a few minutes later, just as the delivery orders started to come in. I sighed. You know that “neither wind nor snow nor whatever” stuff the post office always talks about? Well, it’s the same for delivery boys.
By the time I loaded three orders into the back seat and pulled out of my parking spot, it was raining hard enough to make it tough to see. I wasn’t worried, though. I had most of the city memorized, and could probably find the addresses blindfolded if I had to. I was born in Lamasco, as were my parents, and I had lived in the area all my life. It’s not a bad place to be, really. Lamasco started out as a port city on the Ohio River, then switched to manufacturing during World War II, when they punched out waves of ships and planes, and the city has retained that old-fashioned heavy industry vibe ever since. In fact, I always half-expect to turn around one day and see everything in black and white. There are dozens of factories inside the city limits, all situated in the middle of the neighborhoods where their workers used to live. Not all of them are still open, but there are enough to keep things from feeling abandoned. I always got the feeling that the city could roll up its sleeves and build you a few thousand P-47 fighters again if it really felt like it.
I spent most of the evening driving around making deliveries. The weather didn’t bother me, but I couldn’t stop feeling nervous. After each delivery I found myself checking the back seat of the car for crouching maniacs. I suppose that’s not too unusual, but the thing was, I kept checking. Every time I got in the car I could feel something behind me, peering out from some concealed place. Eventually, I started to think that if I could look in the rear-view mirror at the exact right time, I could see its shadowy form in a corner of the back seat, ready to spring at me when the time was right. This idea distracted me so much that I very nearly rear-ended a power company truck that had stopped to pull a fallen tree limb out of the road. After that, I did my best to keep my eyes where they belonged, but it wasn’t easy.
Once I got back, Aunt Jaya called to me from the counter as I was drying my hair with an old apron. “Hal! Can you help close up tonight?”
“Sure. What happened to Nate?” Nate’s one of the cooks who works a couple of nights each week. He’s a huge guy, an Asian studies major at the University of Lamasco, and is always asking Jaya about what life was like before she married my dad’s brother and moved to America. The answer is always some version of “it was bad,” followed by an instruction to go and do something menial.
“I let Nate go home early. He has cats.”
“He was worried about his cats and the thunder, so I told him to go home, make sure they were all right. The cats are good for him. They make him happy.”
It was hard to argue with that, so I started wiping down the table and setting up the chairs while Jaya went in back to close up the kitchen. I had more or less gotten over my earlier nerves and wasn’t thinking of much else besides whether I should mop the floor, and if any of the roads back to my house might have flooded. My family lives pretty far out, past the city/suburbs division and even past the division of suburbs and “urbs” of any kind. Macie and the rest of my friends think I live “out in the country,” but it never seemed like that to me. I suppose they’re right, though. No one else I hang out with ever has to deal with snowdrifts blocking the roads, packs of coyotes (I kid you not) or, like tonight, flash floods.
I decided to go ahead and mop the floor. Better to do it and impress Jaya than wait for her to tell me. I was going to end up doing it either way, so I might as well look good. I started at the front of the restaurant, where the big plate glass windows looked out on the street, and watched the rain make rushing sheets under the streetlights. Every minute or so, a flash of lightning would light up the row of buildings across from us: the insurance company, the music store, the bar and grill, and the big pawn shop owned by some friends of my parents. When the next flash came, I happened to be looking up from my mop just in time to see not only all that, but also a hunched shape pressed up against our window.
It’s amazing what you can take in during the briefest of split seconds. At first I thought it was just a homeless guy trying to get out of the storm. Then the details started to sink in: Slippery, waxy skin, dark and purplish like an eggplant. Arms and legs that bent in the wrong places. Built like a combination of man, ape and insect.
The lightning flashed again. This time, I saw the face: Lidless eyes that bulged out like ping-pong balls. A circular mouth with jagged shark’s teeth.
The thing put its hands on the glass and I swear I felt my heart stop in my chest. I knew beyond a doubt that I was going to die of fright right there and cause Jaya all kinds of problems with the health department. An instant later, there was another flash of lightning and the thing was gone.
For a minute, I mechanically pushed the mop around as my mind raced. I didn’t see it, I told myself. It wasn’t there. It was just some optical illusion. It didn’t happen.
I bumped a table and knocked over the napkin holder, and nearly screamed from the noise. I took a deep breath. I looked at the window again, through half-closed eyes. The street was empty. Nothing was pressing its horrible face against the glass. Good. Keep cleaning.
By the time I finished, I was starting to feel more normal. I went to the kitchen and helped Jaya finish up in there. I didn’t tell her what I saw—how could I?—but it was nice not to be alone. There was an unpleasant moment a little later when she let me out the back door and locked it behind me. Even though I told myself that the thing I saw couldn’t have been real, I still imagined that it might at this moment be hiding in the alley, lying in wait for something as tender and delicious as me. I tiptoed out through the rain to my car, holding my keys so that they protruded from between my fingers like some ridiculous homemade ninja weapon, hunching my shoulders against the instant when it leaped out of the shadows at me.
I got away safely, but all the way home I had the same feeling as before, that there was something else in the car, watching me. Several miles out of the city, nearly home, I stopped at the intersection of Petersburg Road and Baseline Road. This intersection floods pretty quickly when it rains, and right then it was a black lake shining in the light from my headlights. I couldn’t tell if the water was an inch deep or a foot deep. If I detoured, it would be fifteen more minutes alone with whatever I imagined to be in the back seat, so I hoped for the best and stepped on the gas. I was lucky. I got through the water without any problems and made it home. I was out of the car and halfway to the door before the engine completely stopped, but I made a point of slowing down before I went inside. My parents were still up watching TV, and I didn’t want to have to answer questions.
Pretty soon, the panic had faded, driven away by my safe, comfortable house and my safe, comfortable parents. I changed clothes and had a sandwich. Before I went to bed, I took out the folder where I’d put yesterday’s prints and pulled out the shot of John Graze’s gate. It wasn’t easy to be sure at first, since the things in the picture were all half-transparent, but it didn’t take long to convince myself.
The thing that had stared at me through the window at Jaya’s was identical to the creatures I had inadvertently photographed climbing over John Graze’s wall.
The next evening, after I’d picked her up from rehearsal and we’d gone to see a movie, I showed the photo to Macie.
“What is this?” She held the picture in one hand and a coconut ice cream in the other. I’d taken her to Lloyd’s, an ice cream shop across the street from school. The place has seen better days—judging by the decor, its heyday was some time in the Seventies—but it’s the only place in town that serves coconut ice cream. Personally, I would choose coconut ice cream only if they were already out of the “burnt tire” and “grease trap” flavors, but Macie loved them. I wasn’t sure if I was losing my mind or if I had really seen monsters, but either way the news was going to be a shock to her, so I figured she deserved her favorite treat.
“That’s John Graze’s front gate,” I explained.
“Really, Hal? Is this what it’s come to? You know, I bet I could get you his autograph if you wanted it.”
“You’re very funny. Look at the picture.” I pointed. “What do you see?”
She squinted at the print. “Who are those guys? How did you do that?”
“I didn’t do anything. They were there when I developed the picture. But not when I shot it.”
She gave me a look and took another lick of her ice cream. “Come on.”
“Seriously. They aren’t camera tricks. I swear.”
Macie frowned at me and I said, “That’s not all.”
I took a deep breath. “Look, I realize this is going to move me from ‘took an odd photo’ to ‘possibly in need of psychiatric services,’ but there’s more. Those things in the picture? I saw one of them last night.”
So I told her what had happened at Jaya’s. I tried to keep the story plain, the way you would when describing a traffic accident to a police officer. Given the subject matter, though, it was hard not to make the whole thing sound like a ghost story. I got the feeling Macie was waiting for me to jump forward in the booth and shout “Boo!” When I didn’t, it took her a second to face up to the idea that I was being serious.
Macie’s a practical girl, the daughter of a tax lawyer and an insurance accountant, and not the kind of person to believe in monsters. Neither am I, really, except that now I did.
She didn’t say anything for a few long seconds. I got the feeling she was taking the time to choose her words carefully. Eventually, she said, “I know you’ve been listening to Mr. Graze’s old band a lot, right? The imagery in those songs in pretty bizarre, isn’t it? Maybe it sort of got into your head a little bit and…”
“I didn’t imagine this,” I said. I think I said it pretty calmly.
“I never said you did, Hal.” She tapped the photograph. “This is a weird picture, no question about it. And I’m sure you saw something yesterday. I just think you may have… I don’t know… enhanced it.”
I was about to protest further, but then I stopped. What did I think was going to happen? Did I think she’d believe me if I just explained it one more time? All of a sudden I felt immense sympathy for every crackpot with a poorly-focused snapshot of a UFO, a half-effaced Bigfoot footprint, or welts from a heavy session of alien probing.
“Come with me.” I stood up.
“I’ll tell you when we’re moving.”
“You want to go look at his house, don’t you?”
“Maybe,” I admitted. Am I that transparent? Apparently so.
“I don’t know. I understand if you don’t believe me, but I can’t let it go, and I can’t think of anything else to do. Let’s just go over there and see if we see anything strange. That’s all. Please?”
She gave me a hard look, then finally nodded. “Okay. Let’s go.”
Once in the car, I leaned over for a quick kiss.
“Mmm, coconut,” I said.
“I thought you hated coconut.”
Another kiss. This one a little longer. “For some reason, it’s growing on me.” All on their own, my fingertips found themselves between the buttons of her shirt. “You know, we could just forget about this whole thing,” I offered.
“If I believed that, I’d say yes.” She gave me a half-serious shove. “Drive.”
When we were on the road, she asked again, “We’re just going to look, right?”
“Really?” I could tell she’d been seized by the sudden fear that this might not be the best of ideas.
Instead of a reply, I pushed a Manilla Road tape into the cassette player. A few songs later, we pulled up to the front of John Graze’s estate.
“This is where he lives?”
“Definitely.” I declined to mention that, back before things got weird, I’d kept the delivery order with his address on it as a souvenir.
“It’s gloomier than I expected,” Macie said. “After getting to know him at rehearsals, I figured it would be something cheerier. Though I guess gloomy people can like musical theater, too.”
“I’m not sure if that’s true. Anyway, there’s the wall and the gate from my picture. See anything?”
“No. Do you?” she asked in a cautious voice. I think she wasn’t sure what to do if I said “yes.”
“No.” The longer we sat there, staring at a house and a wall, the more I felt like an idiot.
Finally, after another long minute of absolutely nothing, I started the car. “This was dumb,” I said. I switched on the lights and pulled back onto the road. “I don’t know what I was trying to prove. I guess I had the idea that if we got back to the spot, maybe you’d feel some of what I felt and, well, I don’t know what was supposed to happen after that. I really hadn’t thought that far. I’m sorry I dragged you out here.”
I tried to see if she was annoyed or not, but she was looking in the opposite direction, out the window. For a second, we were on a stretch of high ground that let us see over the wall a little bit, into the woods behind his house.
Macie pointed. “What was that?”
An old fortress-like Methodist church quickly cut off our line of sight, but I got a glimpse of something that glowed with a bright yellow-orange light.
“Was that a fire?”
“Turn here!” she said.
I executed what felt like a movie-stuntman turn to get the car onto the narrow road that ran alongside the back edge of the woods.
In places, the belt of trees was thin enough to see his wall. As I drove, Macie scanned the view, in the hope of getting another look inside. “That was a huge bonfire,” she said. “What do you think he’s doing?”
The trees were broken up by a run-down antique store with dark windows and no cars in the gravel parking lot.
“Pull over there,” Macie directed.
I stopped the car behind the store. When I shut off the engine, Macie looked at me for a second with a strange expression.
“Let’s go see.”
“Really?” I asked.
“I thought you wanted to know what he was doing.”
“I thought you didn’t,” I said.
She shrugged. “Now I’m curious.”
That’s my girl. When Macie was at a girls-only summer camp in junior high, she and some friends had “borrowed” a canoe one night and paddled two miles across a lake in pitch darkness to visit the boys’ camp on the opposite shore. When she wants to be, she’s fearless.
We got out and started to creep through the trees, about as stealthily as you might expect from two people who spend most of their time indoors. The blue twilight was starting to deepen, but it was still light enough to see the outlines of each tree and keep us from tripping.
The wall was high. At least six feet and topped with little iron spear points that had fortunately rusted into softness with the passage of time. I gave her a boost up, and it is a testament to how focused I was on our adventure that I kept my hands where they needed to be while lifting. Most of the time.
“Camera!” She hissed down as she perched on top of the wall.
“Too dark! Sorry!” I whispered back. If I hadn’t loaded it up with slow-speed, fine-grain film yesterday, I might have had a shot. As it was, it was pretty useless outside of direct sunlight.
I scrambled around and found a thick branch to lean against the wall and use as a step-up. Once I reached the top of the wall, I could see why Macie was so excited.
Behind his house, where most wealthy people might have had a swimming pool or an elaborate barbecue, John Graze had something that suggested all his band’s moralizing critics had been pretty much on the nose. A gray stone boulder, ten feet tall or more, stood at the edge of the woods. A raging bonfire sat in front of it, contained in a round fire pit. As the flames threw light and shadow across the stone’s face, it seemed to flicker in and out of visibility. One instant, it was gone, just a darkness among the trees. The next instant, it was back. The more I stared, the more it seemed that the stone had been roughly carved to resemble some massive crouching monster.
We sat there for a few moments, taking in Beelzebub’s back yard, when a door opened at the back of the house and John Graze stepped out. He was barefoot, wearing a black t-shirt and gray pants. In one hand he held a glass of wine, in the other a rolled-up piece of canvas.
“Maybe we should go,” I suggested.
He drained his glass and set it on the steps, then peeled off his shirt.
“In a minute,” Macie said.
Whatever it was that spooky retired rock stars did, it agreed with him. Even with my beloved girlfriend ogling him, it was hard not to admit he was in damn good shape. Better shape than I was, without a doubt. If this was the end result of groupies, heroin, and Lucifer, I was going to have to change my career plans.
He faced the stone idol and spoke. I didn’t think we’d be close enough to hear anything, but I caught every word.
“I have done what is required. I have arrived from the place I never left. I now come to you, father of fathers, key of keys, to claim what is deserved.”
“Whoa,” Macie said, before I shushed her. I didn’t know what kind of acoustic trick made it sound like he was speaking right next to us, but the effect was unnerving and I hoped it didn’t work both ways.
He knelt down and unrolled the canvas, which contained a kitchen knife the size of my forearm.
“Oh, my God,” Macie said. The fact that it was just some ordinary thing, not a stage prop covered with gargoyles or goats’ heads, made it even more frightening.
He held the knife in front of his chest with both hands and stared up at the stone idol’s face. “I am the sturdy vessel, forged with deliberation and tested against the seven elements and against the nine divisions. I am capable of the highest attainment.”
With that, he stepped into the fire.
He stood in the middle of the fire the way a normal person might stand in a wading pool. His clothes weren’t even burning. He just stood there.
“I walk through the flames and I do not burn,” he said to the idol. “I feel no heat. I feel no pain. I am the adept I claim to be.”
Belatedly, I realized that a lot of this was word-for-word from the lyrics on Black Aura, Left Hand Ritual’s second album.
He held his knife over his head. “I now tear the final seal, step outside of death and birth. I demonstrate that I deserve what I demand.”
After he said that, he turned to his left and looked in our direction. I couldn’t tell if he saw us or not, but I know that he smiled for half a second before he reversed his grip on the knife and plunged it into his stomach.
Macie drew in her breath with a sharp, terrified gasp and I yelped like a frightened animal. The shock of what he did hit us like a wave. We tumbled off of the wall and ran for my car.
We didn’t say anything until we were halfway back to her house. Eventually, Macie spoke up. “Should we… call the police? The fire didn’t hurt him. Maybe the knife didn’t, either. Maybe he’s fine.”
I didn’t really hear her, but her voice must have broken loose something in my mind. “I honestly did not expect that,” I mumbled, more to myself than to her. “I figured he was like all the other guys who write really good devil music: pretty normal. I mean, that’s what they do, right? They take all that darkness and weirdness and get it out through the music. When they’re not performing, they play golf or collect spoons or run a vineyard. That’s what they do, right? Right?”
“Hal, you’re freaking out.”
“Of course I’m freaking out. Freaking out is the only thing that makes sense. Ask anybody. ‘Dear Abby, I just saw one of my musical heroes stab himself with a big huge kitchen knife while standing in a pool of fire and praying to some gigantic Babylonian idol and I’m a little confused about what I should do next. Signed, Lost in Lamasco.’ ‘Dear Lost, you should be freaking the fuck out.’.”
“Do you want me to drive?”
“I don’t think that’s true.”
I turned off of Green River Road and into the maze of streets that led back to Macie’s McMansion. When I stopped at her driveway, my heart was still thudding in my chest and my fingertips were tingling. The blue glow of the security light over the garage made Macie look luminous. I held her hand for a second. “I love you, you know that?”
She opened her door. “You’re hysterical.”