Sleep, Cousin of Death

I don’t notice the dead bodies any more. An unhinged jaw attached to a lifeless once-was ringed by an oblong hexagon of soaked pine slats scarcely registers among the high-rise book shelves and rigid tendril candles that dominate the bowels of the Devore family crypt. The ghostly attendant rendering ministrations to an audience of skull pedestals and misshapen pastel crystals is but a flicker in the periphery. There is nothing in this place of soot, ash, and dust that has not already been seen and unseen more times than there are days in any of our lives.

Choosing to visit Solomon Island for its Samhain festivities is akin to watching a porn flick because it has a well-written plot. Once the veneer fades, the ever-present smut continues on as it always has, existential grounding or not. I didn’t return entirely of my own accord – my presence had been requested by a secretive individual bearing the name “Jack” who claimed to have an offer I couldn’t refuse. It was equal parts boredom and fatigue from endless field operations that led me to assent to a holiday stay in fog-shrouded Kingsmouth, a popular tourist destination for those who choose to escape reality by vising a tornado-ringed Halloween town where you can’t swing a dead cat without hitting the shambling drowned.

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A painstakingly hand-written letter using overly flowery calligraphy appeared to invite me to midnight coffee in the attic of the local academy for the occult. Had I been asked to share chai, I might have declined; I have always preferred beans to leaves. I rebelled against the lukewarm, flavorless bedtime tea of my childhood by drinking the strongest coffee I could find. What I found waiting for me on the shin-high rectangular table in the school’s fully furnished loft was a viscous, heady tar the color of skunk shit that set my veins on fire and relocated the auditorium echo of my heartbeat to a place between my temples. It tasted as if the devil himself had been blazing up until sunrise and capped off the night’s bacchanalianism by squatting over a coffee pot. My body hummed with exquisite potency as a hooded figure entered to my left and sat down awkwardly at the table across from me.

Neither an introduction nor tact were on offer that evening: “You are very serious and boring. This elixir will change that.” The rim of my bone-white mug hovered inches from my lips. I stared blankly through my prescription glasses into the folds of the rough woolen robe opposite me and saw nothing. There was no movement as he continued: “Take this pistol and dispatch the rider who will appear on the southern shore three hours hence.” A lacquer-handled black revolver appeared from an overly long sleeve and went directly into my waistband. Thereafter, silence – not even the ticking of a clock’s hand in the background. My interlocutor’s death warrant was trailed by a wake of peaceful stillness.

“He appears once a year when the fornication of mortals is at its filthiest. The…coffee…is needed to see him, especially by a soul with a disposition so disagreeable.” An audible in-breath. “I smell it on you.” Frowning, I took another drink from my cup and felt as if my body had suddenly decided to shed its skin. The figure moved ever so slightly. “You are ready. In return for this favor, I will leverage my control over the spirits of the living and see to it that your love is requited by anyone you wish. Simply come to my side and whisper their name into my ear.”

I stood up carefully with saucer and cup in hand by pressing the outer arches of my feet against the floor. My office shoes drummed softly against the old wood that carried their weight. The fabric of my black slacks tautened against my left knee as I knelt down and whispered: “Shani.

An almost imperceptible nod. “Return to me when you have completed your task and your love shall endure until your weary body comes to rest.” And then, as disjointedly as he had seated himself, the figure rose. He padded without sound to the top of the stairs and descended out of sight. The pleasant quiet returned.

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Presently, the coffee took full effect. The bones of my body hummed as if struck by a tuning fork. I meditated in silent bliss for nearly three hours before departing the attic for the southern shore where the lighthouse meets the sea. A full moon hung low in the starry sky as I made my way down rolling, sandy hills. When I arrived at the concrete pier that overlooks the tower’s lonely beacon, I found myself gazing thoughtlessly at the intoxicating luminescence reflected by the night ocean. Transfixed, I crossed my arms and opened my mouth slightly as I waited for Jack’s bane to enter stage right and submit to a bullet between the eyes.

Shortly, a chill breeze flattened my hooded sweatshirt against my breasts and crawled across my face with icy fingers. A sing-song nursery rhyme whispered its way into my ears:

Saccharine stillness
In the land of the dead
A bucket of treats
For the price of your head

There, beneath the water tower, sat a skull-masked rider atop a horse the color of blackest night with eyes like glowing embers that were painful to look at. The pale moon cast a wretched shadow across the beaked end of the rider’s facade. He inclined his head ever so slightly in my direction and I clutched my chest in pain. A volcano erupted in my rib cage. I cried out in agony as my stomach expanded uncomfortably. My hand reached reflexively for the pistol that was now grating against my spine. White-hot lightning arced through my back as the gun left its waistband holster. With my left hand fiercely clutching the fabric of my shirt and hoodie, I rounded the revolver on the rider’s lifeless face, took aim at a spot between the sockets of his bone mask, and used every bit of strength I could muster from the right-hand side of my body to pull the trigger.

I remember looking up at the night sky with vomit on my chin and blood pooling around the back of my head.

To my left the sounds of the amusement park’s roller coaster screaming a violent symphony of steel and wood. To my right the ocean’s spray soaking my clothing as wave after wave of piss-scented water roared past the shore and up onto the stone slab that had received my fragile body with dispassion. It was here that I was going to die. I closed my eyes and prepared to fade into the inevitable.

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Bright, piercing light rushes toward me. I extend one hand toward the center of it feebly. The brilliance of the background diffuses and is replaced by the sterile white walls of a hospital room. A thin, cream-colored blanket covers my body. A needle has been inserted into my left arm. The tubing is held in place with medical tape. My right hand caresses the angular cheekbone of a strong, rugged face framed by a tied bun of short, thickly braided hair. Shani returns my gaze evenly. Her right hand rests on my shoulder reassuringly. I pull gently on the back of her neck. She leans closer.

“You’re a good person,” I whisper, and place my lips softly on her cheek. She pauses, then kisses me briefly on the forehead before standing back up and taking my right hand in her left. “You need to rest now,” she says, caressing my knuckles with her thumb. I smile and drift off into sleep.

I did not expect to wake, so the opening of my eyes came as quite a shock. I bolted upright into a sitting position with such force that my battered body’s pained breathing could not keep up. I sucked in air with a loud, howling gasp. In front of me, I heard the sound of glass shattering and a half-hearted curse. “Oh my gosh, ma’am!” called a boyish tenor from my right. “Are you all right?”

The sheriff and her deputy appeared on both sides of my makeshift cot and guided my head back to its pillow with steady hands. I stared at the cool grey ceiling of the police station as their faces appeared above me. Helen, the experienced veteran, and Andy, her fresh-faced deputy. Just like in the TV shows. The worried creases in Andy’s forehead brought the word dapper to mind.

“I’m sorry about your coffee,” I croaked.

“Oh, honey,” said Helen with more compassion in her voice than on her weathered face. “Coffee can be replaced. You can’t.” Andy looked at Helen for a moment, then back to me. I was in too much pain to chuckle at his charming innocence. “Say, ma’am – we found you way out by the lighthouse near the Franklin mansion. What the heck were you doing out there?” Helen frowned and waved her hand dismissively. “Let her rest,” she chided. Andy took a step back. “Oh, gosh. I’m sorry, ma’am.”

Helen looked at me calmly. “We’re still working the crime scene. It appears that you were ambushed by a lone assailant. We have a suspect but all of our leads are coming up dead ends. Name is Jack Lambert. He seems to have vanished into thin air and taken any useful evidence with him.”

I opened my mouth to speak but before anything could make it through the filter of phlegm that guarded my voice box, Andy began to converse animatedly.

“You know, it just occurred to me that Jack Lambert sounds a lot like Jack O’Lantern,” he volunteered. Helen sighed and crossed her arms as she rounded and walked a slow, knowing gait back to her desk. Andy didn’t appear to notice. “Around this time of year, Halloween, that is, my Nanna – my grandma – used to tell us all kinds of stories about Jack and how he would play tricks on everyone. They said he’d go after anyone, especially the big-shots who thought they were too good for tricks. He’d make business propositions to them, stuff that sounded like there’s no way it could be a trick. That just meant that it was a really good trick.”

I humored him. His story seemed harmless enough. “What about the rider?” I rasped.

“The rider, yeah. I heard Miss Rogêt, you know, what the fortune-telling lady calls herself, talking about that, and she said that Jack has a more serious cousin that rides a fiery-eyed horse around in the underworld. He doesn’t like to play tricks like Jack does on account of he’s so serious, but he’s just as angry at mortals for condemning him to roam the land of the dead for all but one night of the year, so he goes along with his cousin’s pranks.”

I settled my head back into the cushioned recesses of my pillow in a vain attempt to make it harder to hear Andy’s Bedtime Stories for Naughty Children. Apparently he interpreted my reluctance as worry, as he immediately returned to my side and placed a comforting hand on my left shoulder. I feigned a pained grimace. No luck.

“Well, at least they’ll be asleep for another year now,” he reassured me with the cutest, dumbest smile I had ever seen. Andy strode back to his bar stool perch near the windows of the police station as if he were a victorious arena gladiator approaching Caesar for the final verdict.

As I watched him walk, I got to thinking that the Devil’s Own Coffee had been some pretty powerful stuff, all right. Combined with sleep deprivation, it’s possible that I saw things. A “gun” that did nothing more than create enough force to knock someone back. A dream in which my subconscious generated movies for me to watch based on recent events in the waking world.

Nonsense – there’s no way that it was all a set up. Right? Andy raised a pair of binoculars to his eyes and started scanning the width of the window pane in front of him.

“Yeah, Andy, this Jack O’Lantern and Mr. Black Stallion of yours might very well be asleep until next Halloween,” offered Helen gamely. “But you wouldn’t know it from looking at this town.” She glared disdainfully at the back of Andy’s head. “Or the people in it.”

If I hadn’t been too tired to talk, I would have voiced agreement. I didn’t feel as if I knew anything more about reality now than when I had first arrived. Given the company I kept, perhaps it was better that way.

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