by H. David Blalock
The yellow glow of the bridge lights is a parody of a sunrise I will never see again. The thing inside my head is aware something is amiss, but it has yet to grasp the danger. It will all end here. My car slows as I glance in the rear view mirror. At this time of the morning the Interstate 40 bridge across the Mississippi River is quiet. The odd eighteen-wheeler roars by me, and those cars that do approach change lanes quickly to continue on with their business, oblivious to what I carry.
I pull over to the emergency lane, what there is of it, on the south side of the bridge, pop the hazard blinkers' switch and sit for a second, listening to the click-click-click of the blinker relay. Fat raindrops begin to splatter against the windshield while the last strains of something by Led Zeppelin choke out of the radio. I kill the engine and open the door.
It is a brisk October night. There is a breeze here, throwing the gasoline and diesel fumes off the span and into the river. I follow the flow of the wind until I am at the south rail and look to the east, toward the Memphis skyline. I catch the lights from the hotels on Union and note the orange canopy of light over the city, a false dawn that never wanes once the true sun disappears.
Over the side of the rail I see nothing. The water of the Mississippi is a very long way down, too far to pick out. The raindrops fall away from me and into the dark. It is in that darkness that I hope to find peace, peace from something that began years ago.
Larry Calligri was my closest friend. We frequently spent long nights haunting the bars and underbelly of the city, secure in the immortality of youth that nothing could touch us. We shared alcohol, lies, grass, and women. We were kindred spirits, interested in the same things, given to the same vices. We spent hours in spirited discussion over drinks at bars on Beale before staggering home well after midnight.
It was the early '70s, and we were med students at UT Medical. Larry was headed for top of his class and had his eye on neurosurgery. I was a year behind him, set to take summa cum laude and go on to greatness as the MidSouth's foremost cardiac specialist. For kicks we latched on to the occult, the latest designer drug for the intellectual appetite. We were convinced that there was scientific truth behind everything, including the occult, and determined to find it. We dabbled in the arts, played with the rituals, laughing at its pretensions while inwardly quivering just a bit at its possibilities. We even drove all the way to Oklahoma City and then to Kansas City to buy books at occult bookstores, building an impressive library of quasi-esoterica. We convinced ourselves we knew what we were doing.
We were children playing with a loaded weapon.
The night of the seance I served as the medium, with Larry on my left and the other eleven arrayed in a circle on the floor of the apartment. A single candle provided the only light in the room, casting flickering shadows across the walls and on the ceiling. The seven men and five women sat quietly listening to the occasional crackle from the incense imbedded in the candle wax as it combusted.
Our group had grown from just Larry and myself to this size over the space of three years. Each person had been chosen from among several candidates, retained because of their intelligence and insight. Those who didn't measure up were slowly excluded from the circle. We never forced them out of our society, just became more cool toward them until they left of their own accord. How could we know that we were leaching out those qualities we would need: compassion, care, empathy? They seemed to interfere with what we wanted to do, bring ourselves to a higher understanding of some "greater level of being."
We sat there and I performed as I had dozens of times before, mouthing the words. We were one in the circle, thirteen hard intellects with hardly a real soul between us. There was fear, true, but it was subdued and chained under scientific detachment, just another thing to be analyzed. We all expected to review this session afterward as we had the others, taking it and our feelings apart, reducing it to terms and formulae without blood or bone.
I mumbled the incantation, repeatedly conjuring the entity to appear to us in graceful and comely form, abjuring it by the power of the Names of God to come in peace and without malice. The words I had said dozens of times. The answer I would experience once. The consequences I would live with for the rest of my life.
I choked as something squeezed my throat shut. I tried to open my eyes, but found them just as tightly sealed. I could hear the others, hear their murmurs turn to alarm, then terrible screams that faded away as my hearing shut down.
I strained against the force that held me fast with inescapable strength, trying to move just the slightest part of myself, to convince myself I was hallucinating by simply opening my eyes so that I could reconnect with reality. But no part of me would listen to my commands. I was detached from my body, yet contained within it.
In the darkness that was all I could see, I began to perceive tiny lights, infinitesimal but distinct against the homogenous blackness. I was afloat in a night sky that extended as my heaven and earth, without reference of up or down. And, for a moment, I was alone in that darkness, the only living thing in that universe.
Then I sensed something else there, sensed it in that its very existence announced it in a universe where only I should have existed. I felt its approach with a dread that cannot be expressed, a certainty of lingering death. It was a disease, a filth, a horror that was given life by a call from the power of thirteen intellects and manifested in an essence that could only exist by feeding on that quality that made up its fabric. It was aware, conscious, in the way any predator is aware.
And it hungered.
Then, somehow, Larry was there, within the universe. He seemed unaware of the thing's existence, more concerned with me and my condition. He called to me and reached out to touch me. I wanted to shout, to warn him of the threat, but it was too late. I saw it melt into him and become a part of what he was as easily as I might pull on a coat. He showed no discomfort and I soon doubted my feelings as the sense of dread I had experienced vanished in a moment.
I gasped and found my eyes open, staring into Larry's. He asked me if I were all right, then turned to tend to one of the women who had fainted. There was a large burnt area on the ceiling, twelve feet above the floor, and the carpet around the candle was scorched well beyond where we were seated.
We dispersed that night by unspoken agreement to our homes, never to discuss that session again. It marked the end of our meetings, and we eventually grew more distant from each other until only Larry and I kept in touch.
For years, I have awakened from a nightmare in which I watch the thing that clambered out of the darkness and fed on our combined power take on psychic form and depend like some horrendous tick from Larry's back, its misshapen head buried in his neck, gorging itself.
Then, two weeks ago, I received the call from Larry.
"I'm in New Orleans," he said. He sounded tired and upset, his voice slightly slurred. "I'll be coming in on the 8:30 train. Can you meet me at the station?"
"Why not fly, if it's that urgent?" I suggested.
"No, no, I can't. It's too dangerous."
"Flying isn't all that dangerous..."
"That's not what I mean, Mark," he interrupted. "I can't talk about it over the phone."
"All right, Larry. Eight-thirty?"
"Right. And thanks."
And he was gone.
I met the train, but Larry wasn't on it. The police got my name from a note on his body. They told me that he had died peacefully in his sleep during the trip. They asked if I could come in to identify the body. What I saw turned my soul to ice.
It had been seven years since we had last seen each other, but I knew him. Barely. The hair had gone completely gray, the face slack in more than death. His clothes were stained badly, old stains, and the body, even though the coroner had done his best to clean it, showed signs of bad hygiene and abuse. I did the necessary and quickly excused myself. On my way out, a policeman handed me an audio tape they found on Larry. It was in a large manila envelope and the policeman gave me an odd look as he handed it to me.
"Was he a drug user?" the policeman asked.
I shook my head. "Not that I knew of. Haven't really been close enough to him to know, though. Why?"
The officer nodded at the envelope. "Don't listen to that in a dark room," he said cryptically.
Back at my apartment, I dropped the tape into my player and sank into the sofa with a drink to calm my nerves. I lifted the remote from the coffee table and pushed play.
"Mark," Larry's voice came out of the stereo speakers. I could hear a television playing in the background and every once in a while a siren or passing car. He must have made this before leaving New Orleans. "If you are listening to this, then I am dead. At least, I hope so. God may yet have mercy on me and let it happen. I have tried so many times, but it won't let me. One way or the other, please pray for me." He paused and gasped as if in pain. His voice was haunted, hollow. I could hear despair and desperation in that voice. I sometimes heard that same quality of confusion and resignation from a patient just before surgery when I had to warn them of the possible complications.
"I have to be quick. The alcohol only slows it down. Hear me out, Mark. Please.
"Eight years ago we brought something into being. During the seance, something came through. You couldn't see it because it was all around you, holding you down and paralyzing you, but we could see it. Several of us tried to get to you, but it struck at us until we had to give up. We had to watch while it coiled around you, through you. I thought I could explain it away later, Mark. A mass hypnotic hallucination. A figment of the light. But, whatever it was, it was real. I know now, it was real.
"When you woke, you seemed fine, and it all seemed to melt away so quickly that it was easy to rationalize. We should have talked about it. We shouldn't have let ourselves be separated. We let ourselves be used, Mark. We became carriers."
There was a choking noise and I leaned forward to listen more closely. Larry sounded as if he were asphyxiating, but suddenly his distress disappeared and his speech became more hurried.
"Why I can sense mine, I don't know. Maybe one person in a million can, and they call them insane, I don't know. What I do know is that it's in me and it's feeding on me. I believe it gets its sustenance from intelligence and memory. I have learned to sense them in others, Mark. In Alzheimer patients they are very strong.
"I'm fairly sure they incubate in the midbrain. Trauma brings them to the surface, and they get diagnosed as schizophrenia, manic depression, nervous exhaustion, anything to deny their true nature. They live and feed, Mark, live and feed on their favorite prey: mankind.
"I had to get to you before yours became too active. Mine has recently increased its feeding, and I think it's about to breed. I shudder to think what happens to the host... to me when it... they do. I hoped that I could stop it by suicide, but I can't find the strength to do it. Or maybe it won't let me.
"If you get this, you must believe me... Your parasite is ten times larger than the one I carry. It was the original that tore through the opening and held you in place. Once it gets ready to breed, it will pick a time when you are near people and make its move. I think they propagate and travel through physical contact.
"I read that you will be speaking at the Cardiac Surgeons Compendium at the Convention Center this weekend. It is absolutely vital that you at least postpone this, Mark. Stay away from large crowds. For your own sake and the sake of others."
The tape fell silent. A twinge of pain brought me back to the apartment.
I looked at the glass that lay shattered on the rug by the sofa. I did not remember picking it up, dropping it, or cutting myself on the shards. Blood coursed across my palm as I walked into the kitchen and turned on the tap. I picked bits of glass from the cut and ran warm water over the gash.
It was too fantastic. What kind of insanity had taken hold of Larry? I wasn't qualified to diagnose this kind of disorder, that was the purview of a psychologist. Still, as I listened to the echoes of his voice in my head, I imagined I felt something stir within, as if awakening from a long sleep.
The rest of the night is a blur. I dressed to go to the Convention Center, even got as far as Riverside Drive before realizing where I was. If not for the car that darted out of Union against the light, I might have pulled up into the Center garage and finished the night with all the awareness of an automaton. The adrenaline surge of the near miss wrenched me back into consciousness. I leaned over the wheel and sat staring at the light as it turned yellow, red. The situation was unacceptable. I was a man of science, a man of reason, and this thing that Larry described was impossible. Nothing like that could exist on earth. Yet, here I was, listening to a replay of Larry's words in my mind, and, incredibly, I could sense a movement within my mind.
I guess I had always known it was there. I just had never considered it a threat before. It was a part of me, and as I thought that, I remembered the vision the night of the seance, how the thing had become a part of Larry. It had put him on like a coat, I recalled, to protect it from the cold of the outside. It had used him... me. And, in a few hours I knew it would become more powerful. It was ready to breed, and it was manipulating me to find its young new hosts.
In a flood I recalled the arrangements I had pushed and sponsored, the markers I had called in, to get this Compendium together. More than anyone else, I was the motive force behind it. I had bullied, begged, cajoled, promised, and threatened peers and subordinates to break schedules, alter timetables, and change itineraries so that only the finest minds would attend. It had already been billed by the local news media as an historic meeting, something that happened once in a lifetime.
The depth of my guilt pounded into me, strength pouring into my mind, and I felt something inside recede, puzzled, almost alarmed. I downshifted, swung right on Union to Third, left and up on to Interstate 40. I know what has to be done.
I look down again at the blackness under the bridge. Somewhere there is a faint sound of a boat's horn, and I can sense the coolness of the evening deepen. The water will be cold. Very cold.
The rain drummed steadily down now, and the security guard at the Convention Center garage yawned. The sound of the rain and the long graveyard shift worked to lull him to a nod. His head snapped up at the sound of an approaching car.
The Beamer slid down the ramp quietly, and the guard recognized it as Dr. Mark Anson's. The doctor's silhouette behind the wheel was a familiar pattern. The guard accepted it without question. He waved the vehicle through.
As the guard turned back to reach for his coffee mug to fend off the damp chill, he missed the face turned briefly toward him, a face slack with more than fatigue. The car rolled into Dr. Anson's parking spot and the door opened. If he had been watching, the guard might have noticed the doctor was soaked to the skin. He might have noticed the dull, haunted look in the man's eyes. He might even have noticed the state of the man's clothes, as if he'd been swimming in the muddy waters of the Mississippi.
Dr. Anson stepped on to the escalator leading to the Convention Center.
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"Inner Enemies" ©H. David Blalock. Reprinted by permission
of the author.
Raven Electrick ©2000-2001 Karen A. Romanko. Clipart by Corel®.