WE FEAR THE REAPER (excerpt)

WHAT FOLLOWS IS AN EXCERPT FROM AN OLDER DRAFT OF MY NOVEL-IN-PROGRESS. CRITICISM WELCOME, OF COURSE, MY DEARS.

On the streets, they called it ‘Charlie’. In the labs, they called it cocaine hydrochloride. To Sam Warren, though, it was sweet hell crushed into tiny white crystals.

Fall of ‘67, that had been the year he’d gotten hooked on the shit. Long before it was glamorized by the ‘totally bitchin’ punks that had came and went on the heels of Reagan. He’d been a freshman in college (it was that or the jungles of Nam, what kind of fucked up Hobson’s choice was that?), and already smoked pot with a small circle of hippie friends. It was there he had met Celia, an older red-head chick with freckles dusted over the slopes of her breasts. That was a piece of minutiae that stuck with him, nearly twenty years later, her stout refusal to wear any garments above the waist unless she absolutely had to – a common occurrence then, but new to him. He remembered the many occasions he had stayed over at her place ( a dingy little apartment she shared with her cousin and two other guys on Haight Street, though that never really seemed to bother him), the purple bell-bottoms she wore and little else, the sweet smell of her warm skin as they made love on her little mattress. He supposed she’d been pretty, but there had been little to see through the ever-present green clouds that encircled them. That had been the basic cycle: light up, make out, pass out; wake up, light another. A sweet cycle too, for a nineteen year old kid with not a  damn clue as to what his future was gonna be. Pardon the French, cherie, but who gives a flying fuck?

 

It had been a languid afternoon, cool autumn air flowing through an open window, the divine sound of Simon & Garfunkel from a battered thrift-shop record player. He lay propped with one arm on the mattress, rolling another joint, when she came out of the bathroom. A little baggie was clutched in one hand.

“Forget the weed,” she told him. “ This shit’s hotsy-totsy.”

“Hotsy-totsy?” He snickered. “ What are you, some twenties sheba?”

“Shut up, Sammy.” She crawled in beside him, twitching the baggie in front of him. “Know what’s in here?”

He shook his head. At the time, his ‘psychedelic’ knowledge was little to none. How quickly that would change.

“Some smoke it, some mix and shoot.” She grinned at him, blowing a few loose strands of vivid red from her face. “Me? I’m a little more rock-and-roll.”  She palmed a tidy pile of the white powder, and without pausing, snorted them in one fluid motion.

Suddenly the bag was thrust beneath his own nose. “Your turn.”

He hesitated. This was something different, a tangent from the routine. Pot was good, man was it ever, but when a half-naked female was offering some new way to get wrecked, what were you supposed to say? No? Hell! Integrity was never a quality associated with the youth of the day, and Mrs. Warren’s little boy was no exception.

Seeing his expression she gave a long-suffering sigh. “ Don’t lose your balls now, kid. It doesn’t look good on you. Plus, you’ll kill my vibe.”

“I haven’t lost my balls. I just like to know where the strange shit I put in my body comes from.”

“I got it from Hank, “ she replied, referring to her cousin. “He got it from a friend.”

“Well damn. I thought you bought it off some loony dope who thinks everyone he meets is his friend … oh, wait. That is Hank.”

That pissed her off. She shot him a narrow, smoldering look. “ Know what? Fuck you, man, and fuck your judgments, too. If you don’t like it, then leave.” Clutching the baggie to her chest, she made to get up.

Realizing with an exclusively male short-sightedness that he had hurt her, Sam reached and caught her arm, trying to both soothe and restrain. “Hey, hey now,” he murmured in her ear, his fingers lightly trailing against the nape of her neck. “ I didn’t mean it, okay? You know I like Hank.”

“What about me?” She asked. She wasn’t looking at him, but he could tell in her tone that the mood that had gripped her was slowly passing. “Do you like me?”

“I guess that depends,” he said, rolling his eyes at the insecurity of the question, but not wanting to encourage it, “on whether or not that stuff is as good as your weed.”

Silently, she passed it to him.

He took it and sealed his fate.

 

He was still smiling when he opened it, smelling the contents. A faint wraith of almost citrus and something more – he could never determine what, only that nothing else was quite so fantastic – rose from within, making his nose tingle with anticipation.

Click,click. Whirrrr.

Startled, he impulsively stuffed the baggie under the fork of his crotch, before realizing that the sudden noise was just the projector, coaxed lethargically from its repose with a bad-tempered cough and splutter.The screen before him flickered twice, then glowed a brilliant, ghastly white. By this light, he was able to once again survey the theater room. It was desolate, like the streets outside, though in a few hours, once the two schools on the upper west side let out, that would change. The local teens would come sauntering downtown to commence the evening’s revelry, the age-old small-town ritual.

For now, it was just him. That is, him and Bernie up in the rear balcony, the old coot who for all purposes ran the theater most of the week. Hell, he probably owned the place now, he’d been there since before the grassy knoll. As a child growing up, this theater had been Sam’s safe haven from a broken home – a dad that had survived for days in the rat-swarmed trenches in France with a fellow soldier who had choked to death on the bullet lodged in his throat, yet was taken prisoner of war in his own home by the contents of his flask; a mother who left home more and more frequently as the years passed, leaving her son to endure her husband’s volatile moods, finally leaving for good when he was fifteen. But never mind, it didn’t matter, things were different now. The past was past, even if the memories last.

On the screen, the opening credits started to roll, superimposed on a huge mass of dark shapes that flitted and screeched across the frame, winged imps of chaos and disorder. He settled back into the chair, the baggie appearing once more in his palm. It didn’t take long before he had snorted enough to where his eyes began to water, the air burning his nasal airways. A little disoriented, he tried to watch the screen, but was distracted by something on his arms. He looked down and saw

There were bugs crawling on his skin.

He itched, trying to displace them; more appeared to take their place.

He itched harder, grazing thin pale lines down his arms. But the little black fuckers kept coming, more by the second, like one of those Greek monsters that grew two new heads every time you cut one off. Only this was creepier … and real? “What the hell?”

“You see him too.” The quiet voice was almost completely drowned by Paul and Art crooning ‘The Boxer’.

I am just a poor boy, though my story’s seldom told …”

He looked up and saw her across the room. “Celia?” She was completely nude (her bell-bottoms were strewn next to his own abandoned clothes at the foot of the mattress) sitting Indian style with her back to him, facing the dark corner. “What are you doing over there? And who’s him?”

She didn’t answer him at first, and he noticed how savagely she was gripping her bare thighs; tendons stood out starkly as her fingers deeply dimpled the white skin. Her entire frame was taut, motionless but for the slightest quiver of her upper torso every moment or so. “ Him. Sammy, he’s right behind me. I can feel him breathing on me, I can hear him … laughing. He’s always laughing at me.”

Alarmed as he was by her manic tone, he couldn’t get up and try to help her. He had his own little problem. “Calm down, Cee,” he told her, returning his attention to his arms, which had become red and inflamed underneath the swarming mass, “No one else is here.” Scratch, scratch. “Just you and me. And all these – “ scratch “- goddam bugs.”

“That’s how it starts,” she muttered. “He came from the bugs. He is the bugs.”

“Who?! There’s nobody h -”

The Reaper!” she screamed at him, jumping to her feet and whirling around, pointing at the empty air with one trembling and nail-bitten finger. It was then that he saw just how skinny and ill she looked: there were dark creases beneath her eyelids, her ribs and hip bones shone, and her legs reminded him of the gawky limbs of a newborn foal. Her eyes were ablaze with the intensity of her fear as she glared at him, a dark trail of crimson dribbling from her left nostril. “The Reaper’s who! He comes from the bugs and he says I’m going to die soon, that when I do he’ll be waiting to eat my soul! He says he’s always waiting, even when I can’t see him I can hear him laughing. He’s always laughing at – SHUT UP! LEAVE ME ALONE, ASSHOLE!”

As if in response to some unseen touch, she jerked backwards and almost stumbled back to the floor, flinging droplets of blood as she regained balance. Cowering against the wall like a deranged Playboy centerfold, hands splayed over her ears, she began to cry.

“Jesus, Cee! You’re on a bad trip, is all, chill. Come lay down and it’ll go away soon.”

Too far gone into her hallucination, she paid his words no mind. Suddenly, without a warning, she turned and bolted from the room. He heard her choked sobs and rapid footfalls fading, then the sound of the front door being wrenched open. Then nothing. He was alone in the apartment, too stunned to move as the folk-rock duo broke into haunting chorus:

Lie-la-lie. Lie-la-lie-lie-lie. Lie-la-lie …”

“Jesus,” Sam said again and shook his head, bewildered. Then went back to work on his arms. Scratch, scratch. Scratch, scratch.

After an hour had passed and she hadn’t returned, he left. He called her the next day, but she refused to talk about the incident. He asked if she still wanted him over that weekend, maybe go to a concert at the Fillmore on Friday? Groovy, she had replied in a dull tone.

By Monday, Celia was reported missing.

The Birds ended, in the same incomplete manner he remembered when he had first seen it. The generically pretty blonde heroine drives off into the night with her hunk-a-love interest, only to be replace by another blonde, Janet Leigh. Driving alone through rain to the motel where Norman Bates, psycho killer and collector of stuffed birds, awaits with dress, wig and knife.

After years of abusing the drug, he’d learned to tolerate on some level the crawling sensation that began with his arms and spread quickly to the rest of his body. Those damn bugs were still there, of course, after a line of the stuff they always came, sending prickles of pain as they wriggled out of his pores. And they were sure strange looking, as large as a bumblebee but with the beetle-like, glossy purple-black bodies and barbed jaws that snapped threateningly at one another as they traversed the landscape of of his dermis. Beneath their bisected shells were translucent wings with large, pulsating snaggles of dark veins. Strangest of all was the noise they seemed to be emitting: chitchitchit, a sound almost like the scraping of dry old bones. To him, though, it was as familiar as the lively tune of the morning songbird in the wee hours.

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