Soul Survivor

Last Night at Devil’s Eye Lake

The sheriff of Nowhere County had just reclined at his desk with his second cup of coffee when a knock sounded hesitantly on his office door and his clean-shaven deputy shuffled in shyly. There was someone here for the sheriff, said the deputy, and he wouldn’t have bothered him only, well it sure seemed important. The sheriff sighed, nodded once and dropped his feet to the floor, and the door opened on a gaunt, scruffy teenager, dressed in a sheepskin jacket with collar upturned, who paced into the room with none of the deputy’s shyness and seemed almost to be grinning as he said loudly:

    “There were five of us. A cabin in the mountains. Evil. The dead.”

    The sheriff raised his eyebrows. “Dead, you say? You’d best take a seat.”

    The sheriff was not an excitable man, and in his twenty-two years in the service of the law he had heard enough tall stories to want to dig up a few facts before doing anything rash, like going off half-cocked to some cabin in the mountains or committing himself to any paperwork. To him, the kid looked like a drug-casualty, just the type his daughter (now there was a problem worth considering) seemed so habitually taken with. Still, this one looked like a bad case: haggard features, pallid skin, sharp cheekbones. The kid stared from dark-shadowed eyes at imaginary distance.

    “Cold out?” said the sheriff, glancing past the venetian blinds to the street, where snow was falling. “You look kinda cold. You want a cup of coffee?”

    The kid shrugged, and the deputy shouted, “Ida Jane, more coffee!”

    “Well I’m about talked out,” said the sheriff. “You’d best tell me your story. But make it quick, huh? I don’t have all day.”

    “There were five of us –” said the kid.

    “Yeah, you said. And there was evil, and there was death.”

    “There were the dead,” said the kid, and for the first time his gaze fell full upon on the sheriff.

    The sheriff froze. The sight of those wide eyes held him rigid, and a memory flashed before him like a burst of flame. “A p-place in the mountains?” he said.

    “A cabin,” said the kid, “on the shore of Devil’s Eye Lake.”

    “It can’t be!” said the sheriff. “There’s dead there? How many?”

    “Four,” said the kid, and seemed to smile. “Five maybe.”

    The sheriff lifted his hat from the desk and stood up. “Deputy!” he shouted. “Get the snow-chains on the pick-up! We got us an incident!”

    But the kid said, “Sheriff,” staring calmly, and the sheriff slumped in his chair, gritting his teeth against the images that smouldered inside him.

    “Send the deputy,” said the kid. “Listen to my story.”

    And the sheriff was seized by a wild hope: that he would find the salve that would soothe his burning, thirsting mind – the answers he had awaited twenty years! The answers! So he sent the deputy to the lake alone. Then he drained his cup of lukewarm coffee, received another from Ida Jane at the doorway, locked the door and took a bottle of whisky from his desk. “I got me a feeling I’m gonna need something stronger than coffee to hear the rest of this, ain’t I?” he said.

    The kid nodded and told his story, never straining after details, as if it had happened years ago, in another life, in his childhood.

“We left the city yesterday,” said the kid, “on our way to the mountains. There was me – Flash Rogers – my girlfriend Mandy, my ex-girlfriend Sally and her boyfriend Josh. And there was Kilgore – his parents owned the cabin. He was our free ticket, though I sure as hell could have lived without him. But Mandy’d adopted him after they’d met in art class and the two of them had cooked up this holiday.

    “Now Kilgore, he was nothing, some new kid with a crush. But he carried around this black leather book like a preacher with a bible, and the book had a hold on Mandy I couldn’t understand. Turned out it was the private journal of one A. Avery.”

    The Sheriff leaned forward, spilling whisky, but the kid held up a hand and kept talking:

    “Kilgore said he’d found it in the cabin. And without knowing Avery from Adam I can tell you he was a piece of work, given the crap he’d scribbled over the mouldy pages of his masterpiece, all about world domination and how he hated everyone and he’d show them and – hell, you know the drill! But to Kilgore you could see he was a hero, this loser. And even Mandy kept gushing about some hit he’d had twenty years ago with his garage band.

    “I’ll be honest: Mandy had a dark side: she’d gotten high, gone to clubs in the city. Me, I could take or leave her idea of a good time. She’d put on this death-march crap that sounded like it was recorded in someone’s bathroom and act offended if I didn’t like it! I’ve got a tape here: ‘Nosferatu Man’! ‘Cracked’! ‘Ghost Rider’! Yeah, let’s party! She made me play it in the van yesterday, but five minutes in some guy starts shrieking cuss-words in a rainwater tank. I rip it out and next thing they’re singing Avery’s song: ‘... the death of me... the death of me,’ over and over, like a broken record!

    “‘Strolling Bones,’ says Josh. Turns out his dad’s got the reissue – damn devil-boy ain’t even original! And I can just about see Avery in a skeleton suit! But Mandy sighs, like this Skeletor’s her prince of darkness or something!

    “Meantime, Kilgore thinks it’s him she’s gooey over! You could see he wanted to slip it to her, the deviant. He’d given her a gold locket, probably plated, but it riled me. Beats me why she put up with it. She could have taken her pick if she wanted to cheat on me. But the geek sat there drinking her up, and Mandy’d defend him if I retaliated! It was getting to me, you know? I’ve always been popular, never had to worry about girls –”

    The sheriff leaned back. Surely the kid was flattering himself. From his daughter he knew things had changed, but could it really be this skinny, wasted-looking guy was a sex symbol? Briefly, he resolved to take the kid's testimony with a pinch of salt, but no sooner had he done so than he was drawn back in again.

    “– but this was my girl, you know?” said the kid. “So I says to him, ‘Hey Kilgore, you wanna take your hands out of your pants and quit dribbling on my girlfriend?’

    “And that’s when it happens: he snaps.

    “Mandy’d told us he was an epileptic, and one glance in the mirror told me something wasn’t right: suddenly he’s thrashing like a fish out of water! Mandy’s yelling at me like it’s my fault. Sally’s saying, ‘Gross! Get him off me!’ Josh says we’d best pull over and let him sleep it off. As for me, any other time I would have been laughing, but the guy was barely human for a while there!

    “So I pulled over at a roadstop to get a burger. Sally followed. Josh helped Mandy with the geek and then they came too. Kilgore slept it off in the van. Mandy went to check on him while we ate, and he said he was feeling sick and went to the bathroom.

    “When we finished up a thick fog was blowing in across the fields. As I backed out the van it slid on the icy bitumen. Then I pull onto the road, straining my eyes through the misted windscreen, and Mandy remembers Kilgore. She cries out like she’s woken from a nightmare and I spin around to ask what’s wrong. But Josh shouts, and when I turn back there’s Kilgore, just waiting for me to run him over! I mean sure, he must have seen us going and run out to wave us down, but what was he doing on the road? Mandy screamed. A jet of poison squirted deep in my guts: pure horror. I hit the brakes, but it was too late.”

    The kid shuddered. An emotion had seeped down into his body as he spoke. But he stilled himself and went on calmly:

    “I don’t know how it happened but Kilgore’s body was intact. I guess he’d been killed when his head hit the bitumen, and the wheels of the van hadn’t touched him, but he was no better looking for that. His eyes were wide open, and his top lip was pulled back, like he was sneering. Maybe he’d cried out when I hit him, but it looked more like he was laughing. And the weirdest thing? I hadn’t seen him crack a smile all day. Dead, he just wasn’t himself at all.

    “We all stood there, except Sally, who wasn’t getting out in the cold ‘just to look at a dead person’. Mandy was sobbing. Josh looked ready to puke. I kept thinking, ‘Manslaughter, twenty years jail!’ I could still see Kilgore’s eyes in the headlights. I told myself it was jail that scared me, but what scared me worse was the thought of living with Kilgore’s eyes forever after.

    “While Mandy cried and Josh paced in circles I stared out at the fog wishing I could just drift away. I felt like I’d been shot into some far-off place and part of me hadn’t caught up yet. Maybe if it wasn’t for the others I would have been okay just standing there, waiting for who I was now to catch up with me. But Kilgore’s eyes made me want to keep moving, because I just couldn’t tell how I’d react to them when I was whole again.

    “So we loaded the geek in the van and kept driving. Mandy said, ‘Flash, what are you doing? Aren’t we going to the police?’ But there was no way I was spending the night in a cell. Mandy argued, but Josh talked her down, and all Sally could think of was getting warm. I mean, he was dead – what difference did it make?

    “Meantime, Mandy’d got hold of Avery’s book. She’s reading it with little gasps as she cries. I asked her what it said but she just kept crying, till Sally snatched it and read it out loud.”

    The kid hesitated. He scanned the office: the framed photo of the sheriff in Korea, the antique sword above the mantelpiece, the CB radio on the desk. He pointed at the CB and said, “This thing off?”

    The sheriff nodded.

    The kid whispered, “Truth is, I’ve got it here.” He pulled a cracked, black leather book from his jacket, cleared his throat and read aloud:

    Shade of Ash Avery
        Arise from the flames
    Condemn me to slavery
        In your hallowed name
    No prison can hold you
        We float side by side
    Your strength will be my strength
        You see through my eyes

    The sheriff, fighting a mounting battle to keep still, said, “Let me see that.”

    The kid held it out across the desk. “As Sally pointed out,” he said, “that particular piece is Kilgore’s.”

    He flipped through pages covered with Avery’s black scrawl then back to the careful blue on the inside cover. Then he handed the book, with some ceremony, to the sheriff.

    The kid said, “If you look closely you can see where the ink got smudged, say when he heard the van starting and jumped up to follow us. Man, Sally couldn’t stop laughing when she came up with that theory, cracking jokes about how he must have come up with this stuff on the john before he threw himself in front of us, like it was some suicide note and this Avery freak’d meet him in hell for the resurrection!

    “We’d heard about the cabin, of course. Kilgore’d said it was haunted, and I guess that was part of the appeal. But when Sally started reading that book it made sense. It got so’s I almost expected Avery to be waiting for us up on that mountain, to chew the fat over a few beers and talk about cracking the top forty.

    “So when Mandy tried to grab the book and Sally threw it in my lap I took a quick look myself. I opened it to a page with one line, written backwards, and I put it up to the rear-view mirror and it said: ‘WATCH YOUR BACK’.

    “Next thing, Kilgore’s eyes are behind me! He’s come to in the back of the van! I stop and get out and throw open the back door, but there he is, stone-dead, same as before. But as I start up the van the others go silent. They know he’s gotten to me.

“You’re from around here Sheriff, so you’re probably used to it, but I got the creeps the moment we started up that mountain. Bare hillsides, tree-stumps, clumps of yellow weeds. The only sign of life was a few goats, struggling in the slush around a muddy dam, but with a strange calm I couldn’t understand, like they didn’t care if they lived or died.

    “Under an arch of twisted trees the road turned to dirt, and we followed a tight corridor to nothingness. A car’s length ahead, the forest materialised from the fog. A car’s length behind, it dissolved again. The trees writhed. Just the wind, I guess, but it was like the same force in the earth that fed them was torturing them, and all their lives they’d be clawing to escape it. Then we broke through.

    “No trees. It was like we’d entered that world of nothing, till we came up out of the fog. The road hugged a sheer wall of rock. On the passenger side the ground wasn’t there at all. The sun set across a sea of cloud. A few crags poked through like islands, and the lights of the city blinked in the distance. Then we rounded the curve to a crater – a huge couldron, bubbling with fog – and started dropping.

    “The directions to the house were simple, once we’d checked the map in Avery’s book: follow the road to the end and you’re there. As we came around the last curve we saw it, this clapboard cabin with a weather-cock on the roof spinning madly, and a picket fence that held the fog at bay. Behind it, the frozen lake disappeared in the haze.

    “Shivering in my city clothes, I jumped the fence and circled the house, and started the generator in the lean-to out the back. And then it starts snowing, like we’re all in some snowdome from a souvenir shop.

    “Inside a light went on, and lit up Sally in the kitchen window. I banged on the back door. ‘The Sistine Chapel it is not,’ she said.

    “Josh and Mandy walked in, and Sally said, ‘I knew I shouldn’t have come,’ and Josh said no-one’d made her, and Sally said if she hadn’t he would have just taken some other slut instead, and Josh said, ‘Who?’ and Sally started listing off names, and suddenly they were back in the same old argument, about how Josh couldn’t handle commitment and Sally never put out anyway, so what she expected him to commit to he didn’t know, and Sally screamed, ‘Men!’ and Josh took the axe from by the back door and went out to get firewood.

    “As for Mandy and me, we’d been eyeing each other through all of this. But when the others stormed out Mandy just stood there, with her hand around the geek’s locket, until I grabbed her shoulders and said, ‘Mandy, what’s up with you?’

    “‘What about Kilgore?’ she says. ‘Your van leaks! He’ll get wet!’

    “So he gets wet – he’s dead! But try telling that to a girl! Mandy’s holding back tears, says I only care about myself, says I just dumped Kilgore in the back of the van and forgot about him – I’m probably glad he jumped in front of us so I don’t have to put up with him. And I say to tell the truth he was hardly a bunch of laughs, and I can tell I’ve ruined my chances with her for that night.

    “So I try to make it up to her. I get Josh to help me bring him in and we put him on the kitchen table – for some reason she doesn’t want him on the floor. Sally comes to see what the fuss is about and screams like she’s seen a ghost. Then she starts laughing, so I push her out to the loungeroom and we shut the door.

    “We huddled around the fireplace and Josh lit a fire, and without saying his name we started talking about Kilgore.

    “Josh said, ‘Do you think he was in pain when he... you know?’ and Sally said, ‘Did you get a look at him? If that’s not pain I’d hate to see what is,’ and then Mandy started. She wanted us to ‘say a few words’, lay a sheet over him, have some kind of funeral or something! When Sally heard that she damn near pissed herself.

    “Finally I let them have it: it was me who’d killed the guy, and they acted like their lives were changed by it! But I’d watched the geek go down right in front of me, and no-one was going near him unless I said so.

    “Mandy said, ‘He’s my friend. I’ll do what I like with him!’ and I said, ‘What are you going to do with him now, Mandy? You know there’s laws against that sort of thing in this state.’ But she pushed past me, up the hallway, and took a white sheet to the kitchen. We heard her mumbling across the hall.

    “When she sat down I said, ‘Service over,’ and went to get a beer. Time to forget and move on. But when I tried I just felt empty. It was like some chasm opening up in me, and I didn’t know if I could keep from falling.

    “Then I thought of a night a few months back, when Mandy, me and Josh got drunk in the park. We lay there looking at the sky, and the whole way the Earth spun and the moon circled around it and the shooting stars burned up in the atmosphere – it all made perfect sense, you know? And suddenly everything made sense. We all felt it. And we lay there, feeling it, quietly.

    “When I thought of that I tried to grab hold of it. But it disappeared, and I got angry again.

    “What was wrong with me? Maybe it was the cabin. It had these glowing diamond-shapes on the wall. The wallpaper was metallic, and the diamonds flickered, getting smaller and smaller to infinity. Bare globes filled the place. Light bounced off every surface. It was like stumbling onto a stage. You’re dazzled by the spotlights. You try to get off before the crowd starts booing, but everywhere you look the lights shine back at you. You huddle up, make every movement as small as possible, but the place wants a performance from you. The lights shine. The clock ticks. The diamonds shimmer. The corpse under its white sheet glows brightly.

    “And Kilgore says, ‘How do you like it?’

“I spun around. My head vibrated like a bell. I’d been cutting strips off a ham at the benchtop, and still holding the knife I pulled back the sheet and prodded his chest with the handle. He just lay there. Outside the wind blew a gale. It made the house even more like a stage-set, painted on cardboard and propped up in the storm.

    “And Kilgore says, ‘It’s not much, but it’s home.’

    “Then Sally opens the door. ‘You don’t mind if I disturb you and your boyfriend, do you Flash?’ she says. ‘Oh look, you’ve uncovered his face now, so you can share those amorous looks while you work! But he is kind of cute though, isn’t he?’ She leans over, so close she’s almost touching him. ‘You’ll have to fight to keep us girls off him!’ She grabs a six-pack and walks out again.

    “And Kilgore says, ‘She’s right, Flash. The moment I saw you I knew you’d give me everything.’

    “So you might say I’m on edge when I get back to the loungeroom. I can tell they’ve been talking about me: ‘Flash is losing it. That Kilgore guy’s getting to him.’ But I hardly have time to worry about it when I realise how weird Sally’s acting. It wasn’t the bitchiness – that was par for the course with her. She just didn’t seem to care anymore. She’d laugh at anything, like nothing mattered. But the Sally I knew? That shoulder-shrugging wasn’t in her repertoire. When she was my girl, Sally cared about everything.

    “But maybe I’d been watching her too closely, cos next thing she says, ‘Look at him staring! Flash thinks now Kilgore’s gone he can play the outsider. He knows his own rebel act’s tired so he’s trying on Kilgore’s. But he looks like a kid wearing hand-me-downs!’

    “She laughs again – fingernails on a blackboard – and I tell her, ‘If you were a normal girl I’d ask if were having your period, but from what I remember of our sex-life I guess you’ve never had one. Nothing changed, Josh?’

    “Josh put his head in his hands and Mandy shot daggers at me.

    “Then Sally says, ‘Maybe Josh and I would have more sex if he wasn’t always messing round with your girlfriend.’

    “Well hell, what do you say? I left them to it. Sally’s laughing. The other two are arguing. I hear Josh say, ‘Ah, he’ll be all right. He’s a big boy now.’ What did Mandy think, I was losing it? What a price you pay for seeing under the surface! I mean, I said I was popular. I never needed to look that deep, cos the surface was so much fun, you know? But now this huge space’d opened up in me, and something was pouring in, filling it up. I understood things. And one thing I understood: Kilgore’d spoken to Sally.

    “I shut the kitchen door and grabbed the geek by the collar. ‘What’s going on here?’ I shouted. My head’s ringing, but it’s Sally’s voice this time, ringing like a bell:

    “‘Flash, I’m sorry! It wasn’t me, Flash! He swallows souls! He’s taken over my body! Release my soul, Flash! I’m being violated!’

    “It was that word ‘violated’ that sealed the deal – that was Sally all over. I grabbed the knife and held it over Kilgore. But the voice said, ‘No, Flash! Kill the body! Kill my body!

    “I heard footsteps in the hallway. Someone slammed the front door. In the loungeroom Josh and Mandy were still going at it. I took the carving knife and went out the back.

    “The wind was icy. As I pushed forward it damn near lifted me in the air. But the fog kept its distance behind the fence. Shafts of moonlight lit the vapour. The ground disappeared to the right of me. I ran my left hand along the wall, to keep a hold on something solid.

    “At the edge of the front porch I slid on the snow and dropped the knife. I bent down to get it, but it wasn’t there! I fell on my knees and clawed at the snow. Then I saw the gap beside me, under the house. I rammed my arm in up to the shoulder and groped for the knife.

    “As I grabbed the handle I heard the snow crunch behind me. I scrambled to my feet and turned around. A gust of wind tore into me. Something clicked inside me. I raised the knife.”