Season of the Beast
March 27, 2013
(Editors note: Season of the Beast is chilling tale of a gripping evil that blossoms in an unfortunate autumn for the residents of a small Wisconsin college town. Ray Bradbury said it scared him. You have been warned.Chapter 2 will be published on Tuesday. The novel in its entirety is available for purchase in paperback and ebook formats on Ballot Press and for ebook formats on Amazon.)
By BOB JACOBS
“Red” Phillips was an imp. Short, round, full of the devil, with a blaze of orange hair that shrieked for attention, Dr. Clarence P. Phillips taught psychology at The University of Wisconsin-Oshkosh and had ever since getting his doctorate from Duke. No one called him Dr. Phillips. Nor for that matter did anyone call him James or Jim. He was simply, “Red.”
Some years earlier he could have gone anywhere in the country: Big Ten, PAC Ten, Ivy League—all real schools. He had finished his dissertation making the case for psychic survival just ahead of all the hoopla over near-death experiences and the “tunnel of light” phenomenon. St. Martin’s Press had published it, and to Red’s astonishment, the thing had shot to the Top Ten Best Seller List and stayed there for twelve weeks. Red Phillips was famous and sought after.
The Dean at UW-Oshkosh, a fatuous, academic popcorn ball, had nearly wet himself when Red had agreed to a job interview, and then nearly choked on his tongue when Red accepted the job at this place, which was about as far away from the big time as possible. Red had his reasons.
Number one was that it was a whim. A hunch. A psychic nudge which people in his field learned not to ignore.
Above his desk at the university hung a needle-point slogan given to him by one of the more savvy boys who had passed through his classes and gotten closer to the “Teach” than most. It said in florid italics, nearly hidden in the leaves and wildflowers of the background, TO SIN IN SECRET IS NOT TO SIN AT ALL.
Red Phillips sat in his small blunt-nosed green rowboat, drifting in the turgid current with a fishing line trailing, without any expectations, over the transom. His best pal George Snyder sat propped against the prow swilling from an electric-blue can of Point beer. Neither man spoke. They simply communed.
George was the exact antithesis of his buddy Red in every way, which was no doubt why they remained such close friends. George Snyder was a tall, rangy cowboy, bearded and shaggy as a half-grown sheepdog.
George had arrived in Oshkosh from New York looking anything but shaggy and witty, much less “cool” or “awesome”, in an emotional storm after his wife Susan had simply walked out the door one day and left him sitting on the balcony of their uptown apartment holding a Tanqueray and tonic. He worked in Manhattan for Ayer Advertising as a media planner. It was the kind of job that consumed a man. It had consumed the best of George Snyder. Shortly after Susan walked out the door, he walked too.
The job teaching advertising and public relations in the Department of Communication at UW-Zero paid about a fifth of his former salary at Ayer. But in the five years since transitioning, he had not regretted his decision once.
Throwing away his suits and ties and shiny wingtip shoes and tasseled Gucci loafers had been a statement of principal for George. He affected a deliberate unkempt look now. He wore cowboy shirts, an old vest with four pockets, each pocket stuffed full of his personal belongings like a woman’s purse, button fly Levi 501s, and narrow round-toed cowboy boots with an under slung semi-walking heel, which he had custom made for his very wide feet at Austin Hall Boot Company in El Paso, Texas.
George tipped back the cowboy hat on his head and surveyed the distant shoreline of Lake Butte des Morts. In the slanting light from a rapidly disappearing sun the trees looked like a forest fire in full blow. The colors of autumn bit into his soul. He wanted to weep. Instead, he took a slug from the beer can and squinted at Red.
The small round man dressed in L.L. Bean outdoor chic peered intently at the muddy green surface of the water alongside the boat. His hackles had risen unexpectedly and a chill passed up his spine.
“It’s like watching a pot, bud,” George drawled.
Red jerked upright and turned quickly. “Hmm? What’d you say?”
“You can’t will the fish onto your line by looking at ‘em. It’s like trying to make the water boil by looking at the pot.”
“That is the most asinine observation you’ve made to date,” Red snipped. “Like… I notice your pail is so full of walleye.”
George popped a look at his empty fish pail, shrugged, and took another swig of brew.
Red reached into the Styrofoam cooler, retrieved a bottle of chenin blanc, and poured himself a glass from it. “It’s that rotgut you drink. Point Beer is a laxative for the brain. Too much of it and your mind goes right down the toilet.”
“Yeah,” George said. “I know. But think how smart the sewer rats will get.”
“You know where they brew that stuff, don’t you?”
“Stevens Point, pal. Great place. Great slogan for a beer. ‘When you’re outta Point, you’re outta town.’”
“Yeah, well, the fact is that the brewery is right across the road from an asphalt plant, and all that oil goes right down into the ground water, and they suck it up and brew the beer with it.”
Red sipped his wine, momentarily staring at the water again. George tossed an empty can at him. “You’ve got that ‘ooh-ooh’ look again, pardner.”
“I know George. Something’s… happening… somewhere.”
“What’s goin’ down, Red? Sumpin’ I should know about?”
Red rubbed the back of his neck, where he claimed the buzzes hit him hardest. His cherubic face glowed, and an inner pressure bulged his eyes.
George had learned long ago not to laugh at the fairly comic mask that all this made out of Red Phillips’ pudgy face.
“Wow! This is really heady, Snyder,” Red said, struggling for breath. “It feels like…”
He didn’t finish the sentence. Suddenly his body lurched forward in the boat, dumping the wine into the bilge. Red clutched his head and whimpered. George dropped the beer can and pushed himself back, rocking the little pram dangerously. Water lapped over the gunwale. He noticed that it had grown much darker than it had been only minutes before.
George rolled Red over onto his back. This had all the earmarks of a massive seizure of some kind. George thought of his friend dying out here in the bottom of a goddamned glorified rowboat and felt a tight hot pressure in his own chest.
“Red…. c’mon man, talk to me,” he said, arranging Red’s rigid body down in the bottom of the boat and shoving rhythmically on the chest trying to remember the counts for CPR. The pudgy elf’s muscles were contracted so tight that it felt like pushing against a concrete slab.
“Red… can you hear me? Buddy… c’mon now….”
In a move so quick that George didn’t even see it, Red grabbed both of his wrists and squeezed. George yelped as something snapped in his right forearm.
“Yeow! Goddamn… man!”
Red’s eyes rolled back and George stared into pupils so dilated that the color was all gone. It was like looking down a well hole into eternity. Way down at the bottom of the pit the retinas glowed with amber flame. Red’s mouth opened and a terrible odor wafted out, bringing up George’s breakfast, lunch, and three cans of Point as he lurched over the gunwale and heaved into Lake Butte des Morts, partly in response to the stench, partly in shock over his badly aching arm that throbbed with every heartbeat.
Something else came out of Red’s mouth. It sounded like an attempt at language which just wasn’t making it.
“Raa…! Raaghaagh! … Y’el gecch… yaaghk!”
George turned back from the greasy mess on the water as Red began rolling back and forth violently, yanking at George’s crushed arm. George screamed and tried tearing free. The boat slurped into the dark chilly water and shipped several gallons of water at one dip. George looked up at the sky, preparing to drown in the next couple of minutes and wanting one last glance at the world before checking out of it. Then Red let go of his wrists and collapsed in a limp heap of flesh, mewling softly.
George raised up on his knees, clutching the side of the boat with his left hand. His right tibia was fractured. He yowled in pain, shifting his weight slowly to stop the rocking boat while fixing a crude sling with his nylon windbreaker.
“Crazy son-of-a-bitch,” he muttered, looking down at Red sleeping with the peace of a newborn baby in five inches of slushing bilge water.
With his forearm tied tightly to his body with the jacket, George moved gently to the center of the boat and flipped on the gray electric pump which Red had mounted there more as an elaborate joke than out of any perceived real need. George remembered helping him install it, since Red was about as mechanically inclined as a baboon with a stick. He had joked at the time about Red actually wanting a yacht, but being too anti-middle class to go the whole route.
He wished that Red had gone ahead with his outrageous plan to hang a fifty horsepower Mercury outboard on the boat’s ass end now as he looked wanly across the gloomy water at the shoreline a mile or so away and thought about having to row it with only one hand. His right arm tossed fits up to his shoulder and neck, and he pondered how they might drift here all night if somebody in a boat didn’t come along soon.
Red opened his eyes and looked up at the pale pink sky. He thought how pretty it was. Then it struck him that he wasn’t supposed to be looking at the sky.
He bolted upright and found himself peering into George’s face inches away. George jumped back like he’d been hit by lightning, fell against the prow of the boat and grabbed his burning arm, swearing a blue stream.
“Goddamn you anyway!” he bellowed at the wide-eyed Red who sat in the middle of the pram like an offended Baby Huey.
“What’s wrong with you?” Red asked.
“What’s wrong with me? You overgrown turnip… the question is what the hell is wrong with you?”
“Nothing’s wrong with me…”
George scowled as Red stopped to look around. It was nearly dark now. Lights were coming on in the few remaining summer cabins bordering the lake. He saw the wet bottom of the boat, the overturned cooler with salami and cheese and soaked bread lying in the bilge with the dead wine bottle and broken glasses. Then he noticed George’s arm in the makeshift sling. His face blanched.
“I passed out or… something… didn’t I?”
“‘Or something’ is right. You don’t remember anything about it?”
Red shook his head. His face was a bunny’s caught in headlights. He didn’t look any better after George finished telling him about the events of the preceding hour.
“Jesus, Peter and Paul,” he whispered when George finished. “There’s something very big going on down there, Snyder,” he said, indicating the lake. “And I’m not sure I want to know what it is.”
“There’s something big definitely going on right here, pardner. And if you don’t mind, I’d like to get it to a doctor sometime before Christmas comes along.”
Red blushed and grabbed for the oars.
“Right… jeez, pal… I’m so sorry.”
Red began the long pull for shore.
“Uh… Cap’n Bligh, you might want to ship your fishing pole first,” George said.
Red gave his friend a thin apologetic smile and reached around to grab the pole trailed over the transom. He wound in the line a couple of turns.
“Cripes, Snyder. I’ve hooked the bottom or something here.” He tugged the line and it heaved slowly in. “Nope—not the bottom… it’s a fish, I think. A big fish.”
“Swell, maybe we’ll eat tonight after all. You know, trip to the hospital, fry up some fish. Just another typical heart-of-America day.”
Red reeled as fast as he could. There were supposedly thirty and forty pound catfish in these waters. George managed a smile in spite of the pain. Red had never caught the seat of his pants before, and now it looked as if he had hooked a sturgeon.
“Cripes… what’ll I do? You want me to cut it loose or what?”
George didn’t believe in spooks or big things going on down there or any of that crap, but he did believe in fresh caught catfish. The throb in his arm had subsided to a dull ache. He allowed as how he’d rather have Red pull in the fish than whine for months about losing his expensive rod and reel.
“Not on your life, Tubby. If you’re gonna bust my arm, the least you can do is pull in that fish and feed me. You’ve definitely got a keeper there, bud. Pull her in.”
Red cranked the reel, breaking a sweat. He looked shoreward, scanning the bluffs on the north, the silhouetted trees and the cabins glinting almost cheerfully with warm, inviting lights. The jolt must have come at him from some spot onshore. Perhaps the boat had intersected a vector still charging the psychic atmosphere with the pain and grief and terror and dying of an Indian battle hundreds of years after the actual event. That such battles took place here was a matter of historic record.
Red felt uplifted to think that his sensitivity had become so heightened that he could pick up vibes like this at such a distance from the source.
The rod surged in his hand as the catch let go of something under the boat. Red sensed that the cat had come out of its cover of sunken weeds and logs now, giving up the struggle as catfish do, and was merely allowing itself to be towed to the surface. Catfish were not fighters no matter how large they got, and especially not at this time of the year when they were sluggish.
He would fix a very special dinner tomorrow night for George to make things up. Maybe he’d even invite over the girls who lived next door, if he could keep George from bringing along old what’s-her-name—his girlfriend. Red couldn’t understand what he saw in that woman, but… no accounting for people’s taste.
God, but I can’t believe I broke his fucking arm, Red thought, wondering if he’d said it out loud.
George had seen seizures before. Once in a New York subway he’d been the only one who stopped to care for a fallen epileptic who would surely have rolled off the edge of the platform to his death if George hadn’t been there to help. Damned New Yorkers wouldn’t stop to help Christ off the cross if they saw him hanging in Times Square. It was that callowness, that self-serving turning inward by people in New York that had been more the cause of his quitting the ad business than Susan’s running off with the young computer guy from two floors up in their apartment building.
His arm gave him a sudden shot. He wanted to get in to see Arch Fuller. He’d get George’s arm set and tell him in sepulchral tones that he needed to cut down on beer and fatty food or he wouldn’t be responsible for the outcome. A sign in Arch’s waiting room on the second floor of the oldest bank in town read, “Eat, drink, and be wary.”
George knew he had to get Red to see Arch, too. George decided he wasn’t going to stand for any further bullshit about psychic buzzes this time. The guy was ill and he needed attention even more than George’s own arm.
The line in Red’s hand went slack. “Shit,” he said.
“What’s wrong… lost him?”
The line went taught again. Red reeled furiously. “Nope—just thought I did for a second. But the fight’s definitely gone out of him. It’s like a dead weight.”
“Cats are like that. Try to fool you into thinking they’re logs,” George said.
Off to the right of the boat something bobbed to the surface. Red pointed at it excitedly. “Holy shit, man. Look at the size of that thing.”
A dark shape, two or three feet long, bobbled up and down breaking the surface of the water and heading toward the boat as Red continued to reel, sweating heavily.
“Pull it in, pal. That looks like the granddaddy of all cats there. It’s a trophy.”
In the swiftly falling darkness it was impossible to see the fish well until it was within six or eight feet of the boat. Red stopped reeling then, holding the rod frozen in midair. George whistled softly.
“Oh, my God,” Red whimpered.
The two men looked down as the object bumped against the edge of the pram. Most of the torso was intact, but the arms and legs were missing from the body of what had been a man. The head nodded drunkenly up and down in the mild swell. As Red relaxed the rod, the grisly piece of flotsam rolled over. The face was still there, covered in large, uneven purple welts an inch wide. Blistered and bubbling, they emitted hisses of gas as if they’d been burned into the flesh by white-hot pokers and were now cooling in the water. The marks resembled an enormous handprint, which had held the head in a searing grip.
Red puked immediately over the far side of the boat, dropping his fishing rod into the lake. George, in spite of the sharp pains in his arm, grappled the rod out again, being careful not to touch the thing, which was hooked with a bright yellow three gang bass jig just below the left nipple. The mouth of the corpse was open in a permanent scream of horror. George tried to ignore it as he fastened the rod to its bracket on the transom and nudged Red in the side.
“C’mon pal, let’s get this ship of fools back to civilization, huh. You’ve gotta row it.”
Red turned to him, wiping his mouth on a towel. His eyes were bloodshot and frightened. George thought of a spaniel caught peeing on the living room carpet. He put his good hand on Red’s shoulder.
“C’mon now, man. Nothing to be done for this guy. Probably a boating accident from this summer. Let’s get him to the sheriff and forget it, okay?”
Red swallowed hard. He was buzzing terribly. He supported himself on the gunwale. “George… this isn’t anything the sheriff can help…”
“Not the end.”
“Not the end of what?”
Red sighed and muttered something else. George retreated into his own pain, ignoring Red for the rest of the long pull to shore and safety and the comforting sterility of the hospital emergency room and then the sheriff’s office, where he and Red would do a lot of talking and a lot of explaining and lot of signing forms before they got their lonely dinners at the local Big Boy Restaurant. He didn’t hear anything Red was saying now.
And as the boat pulled toward the sanity of shore, Red would say a number of times to himself, “… the beginning. Just the beginning.”