By Mack Moyer
The January night devoured the sunlight earlier than usual, clamping the world in its frost-fang jaws precisely at five o’clock. Henry Aberdeen and I were in my truck, rattling down Lehigh Road back toward Aberdeen’s house when we saw it.
Aberdeen was drunk again and growling about post-production CGI when the flare overhead caught his eye. He made me pull over then pointed it out to me, slashing a red trail through the sky.
“Sa’fuckin meteor,” Aberdeen said, his bloodshot eyes trained on the thing as it shot down overhead, black smoke trailing as it thudded into the empty field flanking the road.
“Yeah cool,” I said. I wanted to get back to work, but I doubted Aberdeen would be in shape to do much of anything once we got back.
Aberdeen stared at the plumes of dust rising up from where the meteor had made impact. I couldn’t sit still, not after that last Adderall. I didn’t like the way the chemical crackled through my veins, but it was necessary to ward off sleep, to keep at bay the exhaustion gnawing at my bones.
I hadn’t slept well since my father died. Each night, if I were lucky, I’d manage maybe three hours of sleep before the nightmare came. The nightmare was always the same. My father laying on the plywood deck of a high-rise construction site. Me, standing over him, staring into the gaping chasm that had been his torso. He’d smile a blood-soaked smile, his tobacco-stained teeth smeared red, and he’d whisper, “Just like the movies, buddy.”
I’d wake up, flopping out of bed or screaming or both, with the image seared into my frontal lobe. It got so bad that I began to fear going to sleep at all.
That’s what brought me to Henry Aberdeen, up here in the rural armpit of Northeastern Pennsylvania. Yet, the vague hope that I’d be able to rid myself of the nightmare seemed distant now as Aberdeen gazed at the smoking crater.
I was just starting to think that Aberdeen had fallen asleep when he turned to me, his face flushed in the dim glow of the dashboard. “Ride up to it,” he said. “Wanna get a look.”
I didn’t argue. I knew better than to get him riled up.
“Cut your fuckin’ headlights,” Aberdeen said as the truck rolled toward the crater. He leaned close to the windshield, stubby fingers clutching the dash. “Look’a that thing.”
The crater glowed red, like a dragon buried under the soil, glaring up with an angry eye. I hit the brakes twenty feet out. “Fuck are ya doin?” Aberdeen snarled.
I began sweating profusely, felt it trickling down from my armpits. My palms were slick against the steering wheel and I was struck with nausea as I stared at the dragon’s eye up ahead. The truck grew stifling. My lungs ached for fresh air, but I didn’t dare roll the windows down, terrified to breathe in the toxic brimstone wafting up from the crater.
Aberdeen’s rounded knuckles knocked into my shoulder, giving me a jolt. “Johnny, just drive up to the fuckin’ thing,” Aberdeen said.
I let my foot off the brake pedal and the truck lurched forward. Aberdeen didn’t signal for me to stop until we were right next to the small crater. He got out of the truck, his portly frame rolling forward, a side-to-side waddle that gave the impression he could tip over at any moment.
Aberdeen leaned over the crater, sweat streaking down his face as he stared into the dragon’s eye. “Gemme my gloves, Johnny. Pry bar, too.”
I fetched his things from the pile of clutter behind the seats—empty beer cans, tools, drill bits, wrappers from microwavable gas station cuisine. The thing in the crater had cooled by the time I gave them to Aberdeen, now just a black mass lodged in the soil.
Aberdeen pulled the worn nylon work gloves over his sausage-link fingers and used the pry bar to exhume the thing from the soil. Though it had cooled considerably, even from a distance I felt the heat radiating from it. I imagined it hurtling toward us from some dark corner of the cosmos and grew nauseous again, overtaken by a powerful sense of vertigo.
Fat as he was, Aberdeen was still a powerful man. He shed his coat as he worked, the muscles bulging under the sleeves of his white V-neck T-shirt, stained with pasta sauce and cigarette ashes. He pried the thing out of the crater and hefted it onto the grass. He inspected it with the small penlight attached to his car keys.
This was no meteor. It was rectangular in shape, about the size of a shoebox. The brief flashes of the thing from Aberdeen’s penlight caused my already weak stomach to contract with sharp shooting pains. I vomited in the grass, Aberdeen was too enamored with his discovery to notice.
His eyes grew skittish, his gaze flicked this way and that, as if he expected thieves to descend on him to steal away his prize. Aberdeen hoisted the thing into the bed of the truck.
“S’go home Johnny,” he said.
I’m an ironworker. A rodsetter, specifically. Don’t get us confused with the structural iron guys who couldn’t hump a single length of five-bar across a work deck. My dad got me into the union. He’d been a foreman for the Local 405. When I turned eighteen, I passed the apprenticeship test and a week later I joined my dad’s deck gang on a high-rise.
I wasn’t much to look at–scrawny, weak–but I could carry a hundred pounds of rebar on my shoulder without whining about it. My dad taught me how to lay steel and tie rods the right way, running right up the carpenters’ asses as they put the finishing touches on their formwork.
My dad warned me going in that I’d have to work harder than the other guys. I was the foreman’s kid. If the guys smelled any nepotism, they’d run me right off the job. “And that’s the way it should be, buddy,” my dad had said.
I earned my stripes, by which I mean sixty-four stitches on my right arm, while helping my dad land a load of steel on the top deck. The wind was a bitch that day and the tower crane operator was cabling down too fast. My dad signaled for him to ease off but, before the operator could, a wind gust caught the load and spun five tons of razor-edged rebar right in my direction.
A long mouth opened along my arm, the fascia and flesh weeping red like wine dribbling down a drunk man’s chin. I didn’t make a peep about it until after I helped Dad detach the load from the crane cable. After that, I earned some respect. I became one of the guys and, when the stitches came out, I had a pale ragged snake on my right tricep to prove it.
Four years later I became a journeyman, a proper rodsetter constructing black steel skeletons in the Philly skyline. I loved my job. I loved working alongside my dad.
Anyway, it turned out my dad had even worse luck with tower cranes than I did. I’d hardly been a journeyman for six months. My dad was running the column gang on a high-rise near the University of Pennsylvania, right off Market Street. We were thirty floors up. I never found out who was at fault for it. Maybe the ratchet strap malfunctioned after the steel was already in the air or maybe the guy who rigged the load wasn’t smart enough to inspect it properly.
I was signaling the crane that time. The load didn’t look right but there wasn’t much I could do about it, not when it was dangling fifty feet overhead. I heard a snap. The load listed to the left. A single twenty-foot rod slid off the load, an ebony blow-dart shot down from the sky.
My dad was on the other side of the deck, arguing with a carpenter boss about deadlines. He never saw it coming. Black razor steel kissed him from his left shoulder down to his right hip and my dad opened like a blooming flower.
Now sitting on Aberdeen’s workbench, the awful beauty of the thing was laid bare. Mid-relief sculptures covered the obsidian material, a continuous, looping depiction of grotesque biomechanical copulation.
Its violent landfall hadn’t made even the smallest scratch upon the sculpture. Carved into the mass were vaguely humanoid figures engaging in unspeakable depravity with the machine, an unthinking collection of pistons, gears and wires.
It was hard to tell where the beings ended and the machine began. Their flesh fused with the machinery, innards tangled in the gears, with their faces coiled in blissful agony as they gave themselves over to the machine.
Without thinking, I reached out to touch the sculpture. Though it appeared to be dry, my right hand glanced a slick surface, as if the thing were covered in an imperceptible layer of fluid.
Oil or sweat, I couldn’t tell which.
I could feel the substance trying to force its way into my pores. An invasion, I thought, a profane fluid seeping into my flesh, intent on binding itself to me on a cellular level.
An image forced its way into my third eye, ones and zeroes cascading down my field of vision, bioelectric mind-rape. I saw myself, flesh bound with steel, tiny vents etched into my skin hissing steam. The hulking machine loomed over me, within me, and I felt circuitry pulsing within my intestines. The machine came to life. I opened my mouth to scream. A hive rustled in the honeycombed obsidian pathways within me. Clouds of nanobots, like microscopic gnats rumbled through my esophagus, tiny metallic wings flapping as they swarmed past my lips. My painful erection tensed within the coaxial cable attached to my cock. The machine chugged, pistons glowing molten orange, pumping, pumping, until I ejaculated boiling machine oil.
I pulled my hand away and ran to the small sink in the corner of Aberdeen’s workroom. I vigorously washed the sweat/oil from my hand, purging my flesh of the revolting substance.
Aberdeen paid me no mind. He simply grinned like a convert after a baptism. “Johnny, this is important,” he said. “Nobody can know about it. Not yet. Just us.”
“I was gonna get back to work,” I said, wanting nothing more than to get away from the thing.
Aberdeen looked back at me in confusion, as if he’d momentarily forgotten our arrangement. “Yeah Johnny, you g’back to work,” he said. “I’ll be out ‘n a bit. Gonna tinker with this thing for a little while.”
And I left him there, alone in his workroom, just Aberdeen and the thing from the crater.
My dad had been a fan of Henry Aberdeen’s work without ever knowing the man’s name.
Every Friday night after work, my dad parked himself on the sofa with a twelve-pack of Budweiser and watched his favorite movies. He had a bottomless appetite for grindhouse horror, slasher flicks, and sci-fi creature features.
As a kid, I’d avoid the living room television at all costs on Friday night. My stomach was too weak for the nightmarish depictions of chitinous space aliens oozing acidic saliva or shambling undead with necrotic flesh sloughing from their faces.
One Friday night, my dad—several beers deep, I must note—pulled me onto the couch with him. I tried shielding my eyes from the monstrosity on the screen, some bizarre sex demon clad in leather, its translucent skin pierced and studded with sharp objects.
“No, hold on buddy, check it out,” my dad said. He paused the VHS tape and pointed to the demon. “Look, that’s just a guy.”
I peeked through my fingers, too scared to get a better view. “It doesn’t look like a guy.”
My dad explained that it was just an actor wearing layers of makeup, paint, and prosthetics. “Half the shit on that guy’s face is made with stuff you can find under the kitchen sink, buddy.”
“That’s all it is. Most of the time, the shit that scares you the most is just made up of littler shit that ain’t scary at all. C’mere, look closer.”
My dad bent down in front of the television, the snarling sex demon still frozen on the screen. Not wanting to look like a sissy in front of my dad, I followed him.
He pointed to the demon’s hideous face. “That’s just rubber and clay, bud.”
Now up close, I could see what my father had been saying. I imagined grabbing hold of that demon’s face and yanking on it, good and hard, and how the rubbery clumps of makeup would tear off.
“Just rubber and clay,” I repeated.
“That’s right,” my dad said.
I wasn’t so scared of those movies after that. I’d join my dad on the couch every Friday night, eagerly awaiting the nightmares so I could imagine pulling them apart, one tangible layer at a time.
I recalled that memory one night while I was sitting up in bed, chewing Adderall to fight off my creeping exhaustion. I tiptoed down into the living room, careful not to wake my mom or sister, and opened the bottom drawer of the mid-sized entertainment center on which our television rested.
I’d almost forgotten they were here. All of my father’s favorite VHS tapes, still sitting snug in their cardboard covers adorned with over-the-top schlock art, now faded and frayed with crisscrossing white crinkles.
I pulled out an armful and sat on the couch with them. I fetched a beer from the kitchen and lit a Marlboro just to complete the scene, then went about looking up each individual title online, reading reviews on retro horror movie blogs, laughing at just how terrible most of these films were.
Though they had different directors, I noticed a single thread linking the films. It first occurred to me when I realized that, despite the awful reviews, the films were all praised for their costume design. The lead designer on all these films had been a man named Henry Aberdeen.
Aberdeen had no social media footprints at all. His IMDB page didn’t even include a photograph. However, Aberdeen was something of a cult legend among horror movie geeks, a near-mythical master of on-screen eldritch beasts and body horror. His career had apparently been cut short by Aberdeen’s bitter attitude, exacerbated by his enthusiastic consumption of booze.
Per Aberdeen’s bio on CentralDread.com:
Henry Aberdeen (born 1958, Philadelphia, PA) never did reach the heights of Rick Baker or Tom Savini, but he very well could have if not for his personal demons. As a young man, Aberdeen traversed high-rise construction sites as a union ironworker before setting off for Hollywood as a self-taught costume designer.
I stopped there, my mouth agape. I read that paragraph again and again as a half-formed idea slowly gestated into something actionable.
I called out of work the following day but still drove to the union hall. The business agents had been good buddies with my dad and they didn’t mind if I went nosing through the member contact info. When it comes to collecting dues from their members, the union kept meticulous records.
Aberdeen hadn’t been an active ironworker for years. The royalty checks from his films must have dried up around ’95, because after a lengthy gap, Aberdeen resumed union work. Not for long, though. Aberdeen threw his last rod in ’98 and cashed out on his pension a year later.
There was no email or phone number but the mailing address had him in Monroe County, about two hours north of Philly.
Without really considering if Aberdeen would be willing to help me, or if my plan would actually work at all, I bought two pill bottles of Adderall and a gram of meth, packed my shit into my pickup, and headed north on the turnpike later that morning.
Aberdeen lived in a ramshackle house nestled among a thick ring of hemlocks and evergreens. A large garage lay about ten yards behind the house with a rusted Camaro sitting out front. I noted the union stickers on the rear bumper.
The porch floorboards creaked underfoot as I knocked on the dented aluminum screen door. I felt Aberdeen’s approach as much as I heard it; foreshock tremors preceding an earthquake.
He glared at me through the screen door mesh. “What?” he asked. Even four feet back, I caught the whiskey on his breath.
“Mr. Aberdeen, my name’s John. I’m sorry to approach you like this, but I got your contact info from the union.”
He pushed his considerable bulk through the screen door, rumbling toward me, rounded fists clenched. He was short. Most long-time rodsetters are; carrying steel on one’s shoulder compacts the spine after a while.
“Listen kiddo, the Designer’s Union can suck my dick, buncha princesses, all of em. Just cause you got your union card don’t mean you can come knockin on my door when I’m tryna–”
“Mr. Aberdeen, I’m from the 405. I’m here because I want to ask you for help.”
He stopped. The floorboards groaned beneath him like they might give out. “You throw rods?”
“I’ve been a journeyman for almost a year,” I said.
He grunted. “Yeah?”
I started reaching for my wallet. “I have my book, if you don’t believe me.”
He pulled up my shirt sleeve and inspected the scar on my right arm. He grinned. “Nah, I believe ya. C’mon in Johnny, we’ll have a beer and see what I can do for ya.”
Aberdeen’s house was a menagerie of the grotesque, with models and paintings and molded masks in various stages of completion. Aberdeen explained that these days, he got by mostly on commission work for horror buffs with deep pockets along with a little help from his pension from the 405.
“What about you, kiddo?” he asked as he took two beers from the fridge. “You tryna get into the industry or somethin? It’s tougher than ever with all that fuckin’ CGI bullshit.”
Over beers and cigarettes, I explained to Aberdeen what happened with my father, and what I needed from him. “I don’t want to learn your trade to get into the movie business,” I told him. “I just want to be able to sleep again.”
Aberdeen tilted his bottle to his lips, took a long drink then puffed his Marlboro as he considered my request.
“I can pay you,” I added.
He waved me off. “Fuck that. Rodsetters gotta look out for each other, Johnny. Consider yourself my apprentice.”
Aberdeen was a harsh teacher, but a fair one. Exactly what I expected from an ironworker-turned-artist. While he didn’t accept payment for his lessons, he did make me provide my own tools and supplies. His workshop in the house was a sanctuary, of sorts, a place for the man to construct the images from his nightmares. I’d have to find other lodgings to craft my own.
He let me set up shop in the garage, once I cleared out the garbage, a process that took the better part of two days. Aberdeen let me sleep in his guest bedroom (only half a day to clean that one out) while I studied under his tutelage.
Over the first few weeks, Aberdeen hammered the fundamentals into me. How to work with plaster and clay, how to form molds, the proper ways to apply paint, and so on. I was an eager pupil and, despite my fatigue, soon I was crafting decent practice prosthetics.
He grinned in surprise at my latest work, a recreation of his sex demon. It was only a bust and not as expertly crafted as the original by any means, but it looked damn good. “You’re comin’ along Johnny,” Aberdeen said. “Tomorrow we’ll start on your real deal.”
But Aberdeen never got further than helping me with the blueprints, because one night later, we found the dragon’s eye, the thing from the crater.
Aberdeen locked himself away in his workroom. He didn’t leave except to borrow my pickup to make trips for material. He’d be gone for twelve hours or more before returning with scrap metal, copper pipes, and heavy iron gears. He didn’t want any help. “I gotta do this one myself, kiddo.”
He worked day and night. I couldn’t tell if he slept or not. I listened to him work, the growl of a grinder blade, a hissing blowtorch, the booming clank of a hammer, metal-on-metal. I had no interest in his new endeavor, nor did he want to share his progress with me. The few times I saw him, he’d be apologetic. “Lemme finish this new idea, Johnny,” he said. “Fuckin’ thing is like a pebble in my boot. Gotta get it out, ya know?”
Even with Aberdeen’s workroom door shut and locked, I felt the toxic presence of the thing permeate the house. The air tasted vile, like cum and machine oil. At night, it whispered alien profanities in my ear and I couldn’t shake visions of it, where it came from and what built it. I pictured a mad acolyte, carving the thing from molten rock or some mysterious metal, chipping it piece by piece with a trembling reptilian claw while caught in manic delirium, arousal and release and sanctity. I saw vast skylines stretching to grey horizons, towering power plants buzzing electric, a mechanized planet gnawing at its own core, one crafted from flesh, damp and squirming. No matter how often I scrubbed my hand, I couldn’t rid the oil/sweat from my skin.
The nightmares became worse. More vivid. No longer did I simply watch my father die night after night. Now I could smell the contents of his innards, the shit-stink from his lacerated colon. I’d look into the fading light within my father’s eyes and feel it all, the horror and confusion and panic as he bled out on the plywood deck.
I decided that I’d go back to work without Aberdeen. If I didn’t finish my project, I would go mad. I kept away from the house, away from the thing he taken from the crater, and took what I needed to the garage. Once I got back to work, I didn’t sleep at all. I upped my dosage and saw the world through a methamphetamine prism, a glass window smeared with dirt.
The invisible oil/sweat stain on my skin itched horrendously. Whenever I’d stop working, it grew so insufferable that I considered peeling the flesh off with a razor. Yet when I worked, that mad itch grew into a muse, guiding my hand as I built precision silicone molds and layered them with clay and plaster.
Before long, I worked without taking any breaks, drenched in sweat despite the vicious February winter slicing through every crack in the garage walls. I’d blackout for hours at a time, only to snap back into focus to find that I’d added meticulous touches to my project, a near-perfect recreation of the horrors that haunted my dreams.
I was just beginning to paint a new prosthesis when I heard Aberdeen pull into the driveway in my pickup. I hadn’t even known he was gone. He saw me, gave me a curt nod, and that was when I saw the woman in the truck with him.
Her face looked like leather, with blackened teeth, and I imagined that if she removed her coat I’d see that her arms were potted with injection marks. A prostitute, I thought, from one of the truck stops off Route 33. I wondered how much Aberdeen paid her, or if he was honest about the services he needed.
They disappeared into the house. I got back to work.
A week passed before I saw Aberdeen again.
I was on my hands and knees, just about finished with the last layer of paint. Outside, a gentle snow fell from the midnight sky. Inside the house, I heard Aberdeen working. His hammer clanging, a hydraulic impact driver whirling, tightening, and I suspected that whatever he was building in there, he was almost finished.
A yawn escaped my lips. I thought it was about time for another blast of crank. I blinked and, that quickly, sleep pounced on me.
“Just like the movies, buddy.”
I thrashed and screamed as I awoke. I’d been asleep for forty-five minutes. My heart chugged along and I snorted another line. I returned to my project. It was all but complete, save for one issue that I had yet to resolve. When we’d drawn up the blueprints, Aberdeen had suggested that I go to a butcher’s shop or, barring that, into the woods to find a dead animal. A deer, perhaps. I’d yet to do either. Ultimately, Aberdeen ended up aiding me with my project, after all.
Outside the garage, I heard footsteps crunching in the snow. Aberdeen waddled into the garage holding something in a plastic tarp, something that steamed in the frigid night air. His shirt was splattered red.
“This should do it for ya,” Aberdeen said as he lay the steaming pile of guts down on the floor in front of me.
I didn’t ask where he got it, but I’d noted that the prostitute never left the house. It didn’t matter to me. Nothing mattered, except for the project.
“Thanks,” I said.
Despite his gory appearance, Aberdeen’s eyes radiated peace. I didn’t smell any whiskey on him. He was tired, but sober. “How long before you’re finished?” he asked.
I shrugged. “Dunno. Not long.”
He smiled as he looked over my work. “Kiddo, that’s better than anything I ever did.”
“Yeah, it’s pretty good, ain’t it?
“I’m sorry I couldn’t help ya more.”
“No worries, Mr. Aberdeen.”
“It’s just…that thing we found,” he said. His smile widened. His graying stubble was specked with dried blood. “It was meant to come to me, Johnny.”
“I should probably start finishing up,” I told him. “I’m so fucking tired.”
“I hear ya, kiddo,” he said. “But if ya could do me just one lil favor?”
Of course I would. Rodsetters have to look out for each other.
“Before ya leave,” Aberdeen went on, “just pop into my workroom. There’s one bit I can’t finish on my own.”
“You got it, Mr. Aberdeen.”
“Hank. Just call me Hank.”
“You got it, Hank.”
When he left, I packed the viscera—still warm—into the gap inside the project. I arranged the guts as accurately as I could before taking a razor knife and splitting it with a diagonal slash, upper-left down to the lower-right.
I stood over my work, judging it as objectively as any artist would of their own work. Some proportions were off, most notably in the hands, though not by much. The wear-and-tear on the workboots didn’t quite ring true, and I couldn’t find a matching hardhat.
But the central core of the project was spot-on. I looked down at my recreation of my father’s death, his eyes wide with fear, his mouth smeared with blood. Down on my knees beside him, I took his hand into my own and held it tight.
I ran my fingers over his face, noticing that the oil/sweat stain on my hand no longer itched. I took hold of the painted clay and plaster, dug my fingertips into the flesh facsimile, and I pulled it apart, one tangible layer at a time.
After I tore the nightmare to pieces, I collapsed on the floor, eyelids heavy, and for the first time in months, I slept without dreams.
Inside Aberdeen’s house, the presence of the thing from the crater was overpowering. The air felt greasy, like walking through it would leave me covered in a thin layer of oil. I drew a breath and sulfur filled my lungs.
The door to his workroom had been left slightly ajar. Behind it, I heard fluid dripping and garbled respirations. The floor groaned under a heavy weight. I pulled the door open and beheld Aberdeen’s unspeakable creation.
It was a patchwork monstrosity cobbled together from dozens of disparate spare parts, yet it’s resemblance to the horrors sculpted on the thing from the crater was unmistakable.
Aberdeen was suspended aloft, fused with the machine. Steel and aluminum and sheet metal pierced his naked form, binding him to his creation. His skin rippled with power outlets, sewn crudely into his flesh, with power cords connected to a nearby pull-cord generator, sitting idle. A thick bouquet of rubber-skinned copper wires had been jammed into his throat. The corners of his mouth had split to accommodate the mass. Those wires ran to thing from the crater, still sitting on Aberdeen’s workbench, encased snugly inside the flayed flesh of the prostitute, so tight I could make out the sculptures through the skin.
Aberdeen opened his eyes. I saw at once that he was in tremendous pain, but he endured the agony like a martyr caught in a lion’s jaw. He nodded toward the generator. I realized what would happen if I turned the generator on and my first instinct was to flee, to forget this awful scene, but as I watched a single tear roll down Aberdeen’s cheek, I knew that I couldn’t betray his trust.
Not now. Not after what he’d done for me.
I yanked on the pull-cord. The generator rumbled to life. The machine hissed and bellowed. Slowly, the gears started to turn.
“Thanks, Hank,” I said, though my voice was lost under the machine’s roar.
I shut off the lights and closed the door behind me.