Monday, June 24, 2013

Dragon Fire Frights: Franklin Street

"I had the dream again, Doc."

"Was there a difference this time?"

"Yeah, I was in a beat up pickup, instead of the Jeep, but still driving down the highway. Kept going faster—too fast. So I pushed down, real hard, on the brakes but couldn't stop.”

"We've been over this before. The dream is about taking control of your life and living at your own pace. You need to make changes, Paul."

"Doc, I have; believe me, I have. But I think my brakes don't work because I'm not supposed to stop. I think something bad is coming: a storm, maybe something else. I think...I think it's time to go now, Doc."

“Next week, Paul.”

“I know. I know.”

Paul got off the couch and petted the ficus on his way out of Dr. Roth's office. On the street, it was a sunny, spring afternoon without a cloud in sight. A small boy towing a red wagon waved at him from the sidewalk, but Paul just looked right through him.

Sometimes he could tell, but in public, he rarely took the chance. Maybe the boy was real, maybe he wasn't. But Paul was tired of all the gawking and murmuring whenever he made the mistake of being polite to thin air. Rather be known as an asshole than a damned lunatic, he always thought.

It was a short walk to the bus stop. Already waiting there was a pregnant woman holding grocery bags along with her daughter. They knew Paul as Franklin because that's the street he always got off on. But oddly, it wasn't even the closest stop to his place. He simply enjoyed walking down that street; something about it gave him a feeling of nostalgia and tranquility.

The mother gave him a nasty look as she secured her daughter, which was nothing new to him. Paul didn't mind, though, as long as people kept their thoughts to themselves. Some guys are so crazy that they don't even know it, but Paul knew and didn't need a damned reminder from every single dope he passed by.

The bus arrived on schedule. He stepped up to put his pass in the fare machine. A kid in the back yelled “Hey, it's the retard!” Paul merely responded with a cold smile. The bus began to move as he looked around for a seat. The mother and daughter were up front, and there was a pretty blond in the middle section.

With his head down, he nervously moved toward an empty spot, which always had to be next to a window. That way, Paul could stare out at traffic until his stop came up. However, leaving him to the mercy of his own thoughts wasn't always a good idea. If things got too quiet, he'd start to hear the voices.

He ended up settling across from Goldilocks, whom he couldn't help but trade glances with. Something about her captivated him: her eyes mostly. And when she caught him looking, he got a nice smile back. To Paul's credit, he was fairly handsome and still in his twenties. But he knew better than to take it any further; women never stuck around too long after learning what he really was.

They quickly came up to a red light. Paul hated those, mostly because it meant the bus would be stopped, and people in other cars would stare at him. A guy with his dog got about halfway down the crosswalk before the pooch dropped a giant deuce on the road. Paul laughed as the man embarrassingly tried to pick it up with a tiny napkin. Then a rusty pickup rolled up. The passenger window had been smashed out and replaced with a duct-taped garbage bag—exactly like the one in his dream. Paul tried moving around to see the driver but couldn't get a good enough angle. “Probably isn't real,” he reminded himself.

The truck began blasting loud, strange music: animal skin drums beaten to complex polyrhythms, overlapped by a discordant sitar and bansuri cacophony. The vibrations shook the bus and greatly upset him; he felt like he was slowly being ripped away from reality. Then chanting started over the dreadful noise. Paul's eyes rolled back into his head. His right hand started to spasm open and shut. And suddenly, he was no longer on the bus, but standing on his front lawn. The sky was now dark, and the cool night air swept through his messy hair and ruffled his unbuttoned coat. It was the third time he'd blacked out within the last few months.

He dug into his pockets, searching for his keys, and felt something wet. It was a soaked, red handkerchief wrapped around a soft clump of mass. He caught a whiff of it and gagged; there was no doubt that the wetness was blood. His hands trembled as he unfolded it. And to his horror, he uncovered a bright blue human eye, now resting in his palm.

Paul became dizzy. He stumbled toward the stoop, dropping the eye in the grass, and grabbed onto the railing for balance. “It's not real; it's not real,” he reminded himself. But Paul went limp, fell onto his hands and knees, and vomited on the steps. His neighbor, Fred Walden, saw this spectacle while taking out the trash and walked up to him.

“You all right, Pauly?”

“Do me a favor and hook up that hose over there, and turn it on for me. I think I drank too much.”

“For Christ's sake kid, you know those pills they have you on don't mix with alcohol. You tryin' to kill yourself?”

“No, just a couple was too much. I didn't touch anything hard.”

Fred helped him wash up with the hose then took him up to the doorway.

“I got it from here, thanks.”

“You sure you can even get those keys in the door? Here, let me help you.” Fred went to grab the keys out of Paul's hand.

“I said I got it!” Paul snapped.

“You're welcome,” Fred sighed and walked off.

The neighbors, across the street, stared out their bay window at a cursing Paul struggling to unlock his front door. After several more minutes, he finally got it. The inside of his place was a complete mess. There were pizza boxes stacked atop old newspapers stacked atop of even older pizza boxes. A lady was supposed to come and clean his house once a week, but she stopped showing up over a month ago, and Paul didn't care enough to call anyone about it. He'd probably have been evicted if his landlords weren't his parents.

The dizziness and nausea had begun to subside as he ran his hand across the wall, looking for the light switch. The old lamp flickered a few times before glowing a dim yellow. Everything looked right, but something felt wrong. Paul made his way to the bathroom sink and splashed water over his face.

“Paul,” said a hissing whisper. Out of the corner of his eye he could see a red blur. As a boy, he used to call it the Lobster Man or Mr. Red. It would show up whenever Paul was alone, and it always tormented him; tonight was no exception.

A loud crash resounded through the house. He quickly toweled his face off and went to investigate. The living room was now unnaturally black with even darker blotches of unreal nothingness floating about it. The air felt dense and put a strain on his breathing. Paul crept along the carpet. Bulb shards crunched under his boots as he hunched down to inspect the smashed lamp.

Whispers emanated from the darkness, enclosing on him. Paul couldn't make them out; the language was like nothing he'd ever heard. His fear intensified, overtaking his movements, preventing him from running away screaming. Chills ran down his spine as he felt a slender, bony hand guide him toward the couch where the phone lay. He sat down, and it rang.

“Hello,” Paul answered.

“My god, what's that noise? Paul is that you?”

“Yeah, it's me.”

It was Dr. Roth who called. He had probably been phoned by Paul's parents who'd probably been phoned by Fred Walden. It was nothing that didn't happen, at least, a couple times a week. Paul could hear the doctor speaking to his wife in the background.

“I've never heard such horrific sounds before. Do you think I should call the police? I mean, that can't be coming from a human.”

“Doc, it's me, Paul!”

Roth hung up. Out of frustration, Paul threw the phone, cracking it against the wall. He could still see Mr. Red in the corner of his eye, contorting his form in mockingly grotesque ways. The shadows around him thickened until he could no longer see, and the air stilled until he could no longer hear. Then the whispering turned to shouting.

Over and over, the voices repeated “the eye is the key,” culminating into one powerful, frightening tone: the sound of thousands of tortured souls speaking in unison. Paul plugged his ears and bashed the back of his head into the wall. But the bellowing only became louder until his own thoughts were no longer heard. Then nothing.

Breaking the silence was an applause from Mr. Red. Paul felt a moment of weakness in the demon's grip and was able to make a break for the front door. He violently opened it—causing it to spring back and slam shut after him. Vaulting off the top of the stoop, he landed in a full crouch. And before him, still real and still sitting on the lawn, was the eye.

Police sirens echoed from the east, sending him into a confused panic. The last time police were called, he was taken to the mental ward and quickly transferred to the asylum: a place Paul swore he'd rather die than ever return to.

He grabbed the eyeball without thinking, wrapped it back up, and took off running into the night. Out of instinct, he headed toward Franklin street, but the buses had all stopped by that time. Paul's lungs burned and heart pounded, but Red's laughter, cackling across the nocturnal air, kept him moving faster.

The houses and trees on Franklin were old, and some had fallen into disrepair over years of neglect. One, in particular, had the notorious pickup in its driveway, which was the only thing that could have stopped him. Paul desperately needed answers. He slowed down and walked up to the truck bed. The gate was left down, and there was blood on a tarp that was fastened across it.

Paul went to the back of the house and found a door hanging off its hinges. Slowly, he swung it open and peered through the narrow gap, but it was too dark inside to see. So he tore it off and let the moonlight poor in. The entrance led into the kitchen. Its windows had been blacked out with garbage bags, and there was an electric lantern placed on a table. He stepped toward it and slipped on the wet, linoleum. Instantly, he knew his clothes were now drenched and stained in someone's blood.

He got back to his feet and grabbed the lantern; it luckily worked. In the light, he followed the gory trail to the basement threshold and down a cracked, rotted wooden stairway. The smell of black mold permeated through the dank air. With each step, he felt more afraid. The basement door slammed shut by itself, but he continued his descent.

The cellar walls were stonework, and the floor was dirt. Dust caked a stack of old porno magazines at the foot of the steps, and thick cobwebs dangled from the ceiling to the support posts. Paul turned the corner and gasped as the lantern fell from his trembling hands. His stop had finally come up: the pretty girl from the bus, now a corpse, laid desecrated within a ritualistic circle of arcane geometry, in the basement of some psychopath's condemned house.

He reached into his coat to match her missing eye with the one in his pocket. But it was no longer there. Instead, it was a wrapped up key. Beyond the girl, on the north wall, was a padlocked door. Paul put the lamp down and popped the latch. Behind the door was an unfinished half-bath with a vanity sink and a dusty, cracked mirror. He took the light closer to it examine it and screamed as Mr. Red leered back at him.

Paul fled up the stairs, through the kitchen, and out the back. He ran to the old truck and found the keys still in the ignition. The engine turned over, and he hit the gas pedal as hard as he could. But as far and fast as Paul would go, he could never put Franklin Street behind him.

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