I had gone through Dark Side of the Moon, Wish You Were Here, and part of Animals when we finally stopped. The door opened, and I was instantly hit with the smell of Eucalyptus Trees. We were parked near a small grove of them. Farmers often plant Eucalyptus along the road to stop soot and wind from wrecking their crops, and sure enough, we were right on the edge of farm country. The fog had thinned enough for me to see acre upon acre of orange groves and strawberry patches and garlic fields and more stretching off on one side of the road. On the other side, was dark, damp wilderness.
Three guesses as to which direction we went.
And so we walked into the darkness along a small muddy path into the hills, each of us carrying something. I got stuck with a large, heavy bucket of white paint. The rest had paintbrushes, spray cans, and even several large boxes of Kosher Salt.
It was dark. Unbelievably dark, in fact. And yet, in the small patches of light available, I could see shapes moving. Small and quick. I could hear them rustle in the tall, dry grass. Rabbits and mice, of course, but tell that to the me of four days ago. Not to mention, where there’s rabbits and mice, there are bound to be rattlesnakes.
Despite the cold, I was soaked with sweat. At least my labor was keeping me from freezing to death in the fog. I hadn’t packed a very light coat, after all, it’s California, but something about this place just kept me on the verge of shivering.
It was well after midnight when I saw the barn emerge from the mist. Like a great whale skeleton, all that was left where the steel beams hold up the tin roof. I finally knew where we were. Just about everyone in Orange County has heard of the Scary Dairy, the burnt down old dairy farm run by inmates at a former mental hospital. Most everyone spends at least one Halloween here, hoping to find the ghosts of former patients or conduct séances. It’s just, when VII told me IV and Bunnyman’s story, I just didn’t think they were talking about THIS specific burnt down dairy farm. The story I heard was that one of the patients went postal and burned the place to the ground, and that his spirit still haunts the grounds. Naturally, I don’t believe in ghosts. I was more afraid of the gang members and tweekers who also frequented this place, as evidenced by the copious graffiti covering the crumbling buildings. We walked to the adobe like structure just beyond the barn.
IX gave the order for us to form a circle. He took out his Swiss Army knife, poked his finger with it, and said for all of us to hear, “To Reason, to The Black Sun, and to The Piper at the Gates of Dawn.” He held out his finger, and let a solitary drop of blood fall to the ground. He passed the knife on to VII.
“To Reason, to The Black Sun, and to The Piper at the Gates of Dawn.” He pricked his finger, gave his blood, and passed on the knife to VIII.
VIII, instead of pricking his finger, ran the blade slowly against his palm. He silently passed the Knife to VI. He cut his hand, and passed the knife to II, who also cut her hand. Then, they both joined their hands together, blood mixing with blood. The knife never came to me, thank god. I don’t much like the sight of my own blood.
“Fire with water” IX announced. He handed me a box of salt and told me to make a circle around VI and II. “Earth and air.” VIII and VII stepped into the circle of salt. IX dug into the pocket of his Metallica hoodie, and pulled out an egg, and a mercury thermometer.
I should probably mention that it was about this point when I noticed that II and VI were taking off their clothes. Yeah, freaky Pagan cultist stuff, I know. VII and VIII had their backs turned, but there I was, front row view to the whole show. They left their masks on, but still, poor VI looked like he was going to die of hypothermia. He had no muscle mass to speak of, and his arms where covered in blotches that I assumed where probably from Heroin use. II, on the other hand was just pale and the kind of slender you’d expect a Tolkien elf to be. I also realized that this was the first time I had ever seen a naked woman (in person, I mean.) and my mind went back to IX’s joke about me being the “Virgin Sacrifice” needless to say, it really stung. Anyway, I felt uncomfortable, a fifth wheel gone flat.
“Anything else?” I asked.
“Anything else?” I asked.
“You can whitewash the buildings,” he said as he handed me a paintbrush and a spray can. “Spray the Glyph on when you’re done.”
I went to my duty. Every so often peaking back over my shoulder to see what was going on. The four in the circle started to chant. I don’t know what language it was, it didn’t sound Latin, or Greek, or anything I’d ever heard. It was sharp, guttural, and gave me kind of an uneasy feeling in my gut. IX sprinkled salt in several other patterns. I could see triangles, squares, Greek and Hebrew letters, and more still that I never got a clear look at. Probably for the best though. What the hell am I saying? I don’t believe in this crap! I went back to my errand like one of Tom Sawyer’s unwitting victims until I felt had painted over enough gang signs. I waited for the paint to dry, still kind of ashamed to actually watch the ritual, and I took the can of black spray paint, and I made a circle. “That’s me,” I thought, “A zero.” Next came the X through the middle. When I saw it completed, I had this sense of foreboding. That’s me, crossed out, exed through. That’s when I felt the bright, hot white pointed at my direction.
I turned around, all five of them silhouetted in a bright spotlight, bright enough that it hurt to look at. IX, VII, and VIII dropped to the ground and began to scatter the salt. II and VI picked up bits and pieces of their clothes, lying in a pile on the ground and ran. After a moment’s hesitation, I booked it too, the sound of dogs barking at my back. I ran and I ran into the dark, my lungs filling with cold air, so cold that it hurt, so cold that it felt like I was drowning. The barking got louder, and louder, and louder.
I stumbled, I ran with all the grace of a marionette tangled in its own strings, and I dived into a sage bush, thorns cutting at my skin. I heard footsteps. My pursuer ran past. I inched out of the twigs. It was human. Long blond hair that I had seen once before. On Halloween, in fact, being loaded into an ambulance. I don’t know what made me do it, and if I could go back in time, I would have punched myself in the face for doing it, but when I saw him, I took of my mask and shouted, “Over here!”
He turned around, puzzled. A line of stitches ran along his forehead. He looked at me, and shouted, “What are you, stupid? Put your mask back on!”
Ok, I though, it’s a start.
“Are you Noctis?”
“Yeah, put your mask back on, before I put it on you myself.”
I complied. “Do you have a name.”
“Gwin Opneeth” he said (at least, I think so. I’ll have to look up the spelling later)
“I need to talk to you.”
“Not now. Look, just get out of here.”
“No.” I said. Once again, I don’t know why. Maybe I was just sick of being left in the dark. Maybe I was just sick of being Zero, waiting for the day I’d get an X through me too, and I would have said this to Mr. Gwin, if my thoughts hadn’t been railroaded by a loud, screeching sound.
All bravery and bravado left me. My legs where jelly, my entrails were cold water, and everything seemed darker. Gwin gave a whistle, and a pair of dogs bounded up to him. “I’ll distract them.” He said.
Them? Jesus Christ!
I ran. I didn’t know I could run so fast or so far on such short breath. I would fall, and I would get back up again only to run more. Nose running, eyes watering, and sweat flowing like a cascade, I am blind and alone in the dark. My hands brush up against something sticky.
“Oh god, Blood!” I think, but when I clear the sweat from my eyes, I find it’s just paint. And there’s a trail of the stuff, half trampled in the mud, but still fresh. I follow, sprinting, and gasping the whole way until, at last, I run into the cold, white, metal body of the van. I feel secure, safe, and absolutely frigid.
I open the door, and huddled like a small, broken toy, is II, wearing nothing but a t-shirt, shivering and sobbing. What else could I do but give her my jacket.
And it’s just the two of us, silent and alone. And it takes me a good whole minute to realize that she’s not even wearing her mask anymore. Her face is covered in mud, except for the small canyons carved by her tears. “She’s pretty.” I think. Then I remember that I’m probably going to die here. I take my mask off, put my arm around her, and spend the next hour letting her cry on my shoulder.
When I heard the footsteps, I was afraid, sure, but at the same time, I felt, I don’t know, ready. I didn’t mind that there was so much I wanted to still do, so much I wanted to see and experience, but at the same time well, I thought about the Serenity Prayer. And I’m not religious by any stretch of the imagination, but this little diddy always, I don’t know, gave me some sort of comfort:God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change,
Courage to change the things I can,
And wisdom to know the difference.
Luckily, those footsteps where more of a saving grace than an omen of doom. IX and VII hopped in the van, started the engine, and without a word we were on the road. And we drove, silent but for II’s sobbing. Down the 101 down through LA to the parking garage.
The sun had not yet risen, the fog had become frost, and I was more than eager to get back in my car, crank the heater, go home to my bed, pull the covers over my head and tell myself that this whole thing was just some awful dream.
“Move fast,” said IX as they killed the motor.
“What?” I said, half groggy. VII opened the back door, and II and I crawled out. I ran to my car, jumped inside, turned on the lights and the heater, and put it in drive. I was done, no more, time to go home. And yet, Caught in my headlights, there he was, the dude in the grey hoodie. Except, this time, it was dudes in grey hoodies. Plural! And that’s all I could see, the baggy grey clothes.
And there was a scream. I knew that voice. It was II.
The Van flew past and out of the parking garage, I followed, and so did the grey men. I could see them in my rearview mirror, and they looked normal enough. I went down the deserted road at a brisk 30 miles per hour. Where they gaining on me? No, couldn’t be. I floored the accelerator, and looked again. Arms aren’t supposed to move like that, are they? I turned my rearview around so I wouldn’t be tempted to look back. I was going at least 70 now, residential streets, mind you! Then, THUNK! As if something just struck the back of my car. I didn’t want to think about it, didn’t want to stop, I turned, I changed lanes, I got myself completely lost. It wasn’t until the sun was starting to rise that I dared to look. I pulled into a parking lot. On the back of my car was a ring of small scratches.
I’ve been typing this almost 6 hours. The librarian’s starting to look at me a little funny. I guess this is where I sign off, but I will be back, because I’m still alive. I don’t know how, but I’m still alive.