By Harman Burgess
From the July 2021 issue of CHM
I can no longer tell if I am dreaming.
My skin seems thinner somehow, I can’t focus on things like I used to, my bones ache when they move. It wasn’t always like this, was it? I can feel a migraine unfolding deep within my skull, the hard seed of some infernal flower that’s set to explode in violent crescendos of pain.
I glance around the hotel room looking for a medicine cabinet or a mini-bar or (preferably) both. Nothing. There’s only a flat single bed, and a white-tiled bathroom to show that this room is meant for human occupation. I know there’s some aspirin in my car. Rule #1 of being a travelling salesman is to never leave home without it. But it’s a long walk to the parking lot, and the headache isn’t that bad yet. So, I lie down on the hard, single mattress and close my eyes. Maybe sleep will take me before the headache gets going.
My breathing slows as the light behind my eyes solidifies into an inky blackness. The pain retreats, flowing back on itself like the tide. And right as I’m on the edge of unconsciousness, free of the burden of reality, the bloody phone rings. Groaning, I crack open one eye and reach for it, placing the cool receiver to my ear.
“Yes?” I grunt.
“Edward?” asks an unfamiliarly feminine voice.
“Yes,” I repeat. “Who’s asking?”
“Your Boss, dumbass,” says the voice, the pitch shifting to a higher register giving the impression of a playful kind of serenity, like clean spring water on a summer day. “The one who pays your salary, processes your expense reports, does all the admin… sound familiar?”
It doesn’t, and there’s a pause as I try to remember this woman’s name. Before I can work it out, the voice resumes speaking:
“Have you sold anything yet?”
“Look, lady,” I say, glancing at the clock-radio on the nightstand. “It’s 11pm here. Nobody except serial killers buy steak knives at 11 pm. I have an itinerary worked out fo–”
She interrupts me, the pastoral affectation gone from her voice. “Get out there and find the serial killers then! I’m the one paying your hotel bill, for Christ’s sake! All the porn you’ve been watching, the free food you’ve been mooching off me…”
She continues droning on, and I mean to interject and tell her she’s got me confused with a different employee, but the headache is growing so I remain quiet.
“Are you even listening?” she asks.
“Yeah, I’ll get right on it.”
But before I can clarify what it is, the line goes dead. I sit up; my bones grinding together like specks of grain in a mill. This place is bound to have a bar, at least there I’ll be able to do something for my headache while I make a stab at working out what the Boss wants me to do. I lock the door behind me as I go.
Perhaps the best word to describe the hotel bar is medium. The wallpaper is a very medium shade of brown; the pimple covered bartender wiping glasses behind the counter is exceptionally medium, and the clientele (myself included) are the physical embodiment of the word. I slide into a sticky, plastic-upholstered booth with a glass of Guinness, nobody taking much notice of me.
The pain in my head has increased to a throbbing jackhammer, pounding away at the sides of my mind, making it difficult to think of anything else. I sip my drink and sigh. God, I wish I still smoked. It’s been years since I did, but being in a place like this makes all my old bad habits seem so much more tempting… I take another sip and rest my head in my hands.
Suddenly, the urge to run fills me. I don’t want to be out here in this butt-fuck rural hellhole, trying to sell shitty steak knives to people who probably don’t even know how to use cutlery. I want to be at home. Better yet, I want to be on a warm beach somewhere, with a friendly young waitress bringing me cocktails instead of this watered-down rat piss. Why’d I even come here? I don’t even remember wh—
There’s a bang as the bar door slams open. A woman in faded jeans and a large bomber jacket enters and strides purposefully towards my booth. There’s a few startled murmurs about the disturbance, but none of the other customers pay much attention to her. She slides into my booth, brushing cascading strands of auburn hair out of her face.
“Can I help you?” I ask.
“Don’t you recognise me?”
Her voice has the same playful ring as it did on the phone, and recognition floods through me. “I do, now, but I must be getting dementia as I seem to have forgotten your name…”
“Emily,” she says. “So, you sold anything yet?”
“I only just got here, okay? My head hurts and–”
She cuts me off. “That sounds like bitch talk to me, sonny.”
The idea floats through my mind that maybe I’m not the one being a bitch, but I don’t dare say it out loud. Instead, I ask:
“Do you want something to drink?”
She glances contemptuously at the almost empty glass in front of me. “I would never drink on the job.”
I push the glass away and lean back in the seat, the upholstery groaning as I move. There’s a pause as we consider each other, the dull grumble of the other patrons providing a sort of accompaniment.
“Why are you here, then?” I ask to break the silence.
“Can’t I check up on my employees?”
“Wasn’t that what the phone call was for?”
She squints at me in a perfect display of confusion. “What phone call?”
“Um,” I say, profoundly. “Ok, then. Consider me checked up on. I’m going to bed.”
“Hold that thought, there is a reason I’m here, actually. I need you to drive the frying pans to this location,” she takes a white scrap of paper out of her pocket and slides it to me.
I pick it up. Rather than an address, a series of co-ordinates are listed in neat pink handwriting. “Don’t we sell steak knives?”
I get my phone out and punch the co-ordinates into a GPS app. A little red bubble pops up about 2 hours away, in the middle of the desert.
“Really?” I ask. “What’ll I do with them there?”
“You’ll know,” she says as she stands.
“Right,” I say, also standing. “What are you going to do?”
She looks to the pimply bartender who has finished with the glasses and moved onto chopping limes. “Have a drink. Goodbye, now.”
I unlock my shit-bucket car and clamber into the driver’s seat. The clock on the dashboard reads midnight. Great. I check the glove compartment for the aspirin, but it’s missing. I resist the urge to hit something. I twist the ignition key and—after a few false starts—the engine kicks in with a rattling cough. The case of steak knives in the back jingling like little sleigh bells as I reverse out of the parking lot. An electronic voice from the GPS advises me to go straight. So I do.
Cars go by as brief flashes of dazzling light. I fight to keep my sinking eyes open, the beer coursing through my system makes it feel like I’m watching the world in slow motion. Why am I even driving? This can’t be safe. I sho–
A large truck with its high beams on barrels past me, blasting its horns at deafening volume. The pain in my head intensifies. And a series of words runs through my head on repeat:
Gotta keep going, gotta keep going, gotta keep going, gotta keep going, gotta keep going…
The road runs out about a kilometre from the destination. A big white chain is draped across the end of the road, and beyond that is sparse bushland that looks like it’d shred my car’s suspension like it was made of butter; rolling waves of rocky dirt interrupted by the occasional wilting shrub. A crescent moon projects a sickly silver glow over the land.
My headache is really going now, and I just about understand how Zeus must’ve felt when he made Hephaestus smash his head in with a hammer. I massage my temples as I consider what to do next. Maybe it’d be best if I left and came back in the morning fully rested. That sounds good. I move to put the car in reverse, but as I do so my head erupts with pain. It’s as if my consciousness has been poured into a spinning blender; my joints seize up, my limbs lock in place, and I slowly collapse on the steering wheel. A malicious presence is pushing into my mind, twisting all the delicate neurons and things together like spaghetti.
“Stop!” I yell through gritted teeth. “Stop, I’ll do it, but please stop!”
The pain subsides to a dull throb, and I grasp the dashboard, tears streaming down my face. Message received, loud and clear.
After I recover a bit, I open the door and go around to the boot. When the Bosses tell you to do something, you’d better do it. I pick up the case of steak knives and start walking. Balancing my phone on top of the case, I step over the white chain. My boots crunching on the hard ground, blending in with the symphony of cicadas and other buzzing things that have started up.
The glow of my car’s headlights fades to nothing behind me, and soon I’m completely alone with only the GPS’ electronic drone for company. The pain making any sort of reflection impossible, my only option is to:
A faint purple pinprick appears on the horizon, shimmering with the crystalline lustre of a small gemstone. It pulsates and flickers as I draw closer, growing larger and larger; sometimes a searing iridescent white, sometimes a bloody red. My headache fades as I head towards it. Finally, after what seems like an eternity of painful walking, I crest the top of a small hill and get a proper look at the source of the light.
A gnarly, twisting tree is growing out of the desert floor. Its thick roots tearing into the undergrowth. The light seeming almost to be a kind of reflection of its true form, as if the air itself is trying to hide it. A head on view of the tree probably would’ve been enough to kill whatever remains of my sanity. A disturbing thought comes to me as I draw nearer: maybe it already has.
Two hooded figures stand before the tree, their dark robes in stark contrast to the magnificent light, their faces blank voids that I can’t quite see beneath their cowls. I place the crate of frying pans (frying pans?) before them like some kind of offering. And a high, nervous sort of laugh escapes me. This situation is like a bad joke: what does a tree need a frying pan for? To fry things, moron.
“Here you are then,” I say, calming down enough to speak clearly.
A genderless, inhuman voice reverberates through me like a cathedral bell, the kind of voice that makes insects curl up into little balls. It seems at once to come from the two figures, and from the light itself. It speaks as if reading from some vast unseen contract:
THE GOODS, FREELY GIVEN, HAVE ARRIVED. PAYMENT WILL BE RENDERED; IT IS COMPLETE.
The box vibrates and rattles as if there’s something very small and very nasty trapped inside it and not kitchen utensils. The voice comes again like crashing waves on a distant shore, this time addressed to me:
DO YOU WITNESS?
“Erm,” I say. “Yes, yes, I witness. Whatever that means.”
The light shimmers brighter, I have to squint to see what’s happening. The box vanishes, dissolving into the light like mist. I hear a human scream of pure daemonic agony, and then it’s over.
“What now, then?” I ask.
The two things (I am rethinking my initial assumption) turn their attention to me; I feel like an ant crawling across their shoes and they’re debating whether to squish me. Suddenly, I care very much what they think of me, very much indeed. In that moment I know with absolute certainty that they and what they represent are really the ones in control of my existence, that my choice in the matter is a comforting illusion they permit me to hide behind; that my thoughts and emotions are little more than fragmentary shadows in whatever bright world they inhabit.
YOU ARE NO LONGER NECESSARY TO US, the voice decides, PAYMENT HAS BEEN RENDERED.
“What are you going to do with the box?” I ask, despite myself.
A vast consciousness bears down on me. I feel thin lattices of pain threading themselves through my mind, as reality fades around me. I am on the cusp of some realisation, some hidden truth that would be revealed if I continue standing here. Something that wouldn’t just drive me mad, but make madness seem like relief.
Without hesitating, I turn away from the tree and the shadow things and run. The consciousness turning its attention away from me; the pain retreating from my mind. I’ve just been lucky, I think as I run, very, very lucky.
I don’t look back.
The faintest sliver of sunlight pokes out from below the horizon as I pull into the hotel parking lot. I’m dead tired, and fairly certain I’ve been driving like an absolute lunatic– swerving and speeding all over the road. But my head is clearer than it’s ever been. I get out of my car and walk up the stairs to my room. Suddenly, I realise I need to take a leak and—for some reason—this strikes me as absolutely hilarious. But I don’t laugh, no I can’t do that. I open the door and discover that…
… that my room has been completely and utterly trashed. My luggage has been ripped open and scattered about the room, the bed is snapped clean in half, there are deep gashes in the wallpaper. I walk through the ruined room like a deposed King would a battlefield. Strangely, Emily’s clothes are folded in a neat pile by the door; her jacket smelling faintly of sulphur. But my bladder is about fit to burst, so I leave the clothes where they are and head to the toilet. If Emily really is my Boss, then she can take care of this mess.
Waves of sleep crash over me as I enter the bathroom; as soon as I’ve relieved myself, I’m going to find a clean patch of floor and fall asleep. I unzip my fly and reach down to flick the seat up. Ahhh, that’s better. There’s a faint sprinkling on the legs of my trousers, though. I look down and see that there’s a severed head in the toilet, strands of fleshy string trailing from its neck like cobwebs. I stare at it for a moment, unsure of what I’m seeing. Hang on, I know this person: it’s the hotel bartender! I jerk backwards from the bowl in silent disbelief, leaving a trail of urine behind me.
This can’t be real.
I stumble out of the bathroom and fall onto the broken bed, stuffing my penis back into my pants as I do. And then I lie on the bed unable to think of anything but the bartender’s pimply face gaping out at me like a startled fish, my urine trickling down his hair. I don’t think I’ll ever forget the image. The minutes drag by. The head is like a physical presence in my mind, I can feel it lying there, taunting me.
The phone rings, a high wailing scream. I move slightly to pick it up, then stop. No more. No more. The phone rings on, but I’m not there to answer it.
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