Hatterras

My boots plod along the intermittently lit asphalt meandering between the low, square brick homes, their darkened countenances taking on a somber tone at this late hour. Each of the stocky dwellings forming an unassuming and uneven frame of the stars overhead, the windows in almost all of them casting dark and somewhat accusatory glances towards my march. Only the occasional pallid suggestion of a wall teased out by stray street-light beams, or the odd echo of a reading lamp leaking out through the blinds provide any hint of what life is locked up behind their glass. My eye is drawn across the lawn to my left as a female figure momentarily crosses the square of ugly orange light bouncing off linoleum and across the table of the darkened dining room. The only person I’ve seen tonight. The road winds farther down and to the left, crossing a pitiful excuse for a bridge over a small brook without so much as a seam in its pavement to denote the transition. Just steel barriers on either side with humble reeds peeking over from the coughing creek below. Standing on the opposite shore midway up the road as it curls up and around the hill is a small, seething spiderweb of a tree strangling a lamppost. The patchy browning leaves catching light behind its globe are an artifact of a world under the sun, the listlessly grasping limbs before it like cracks in the world. I’ve had many dreams like this. If I’m in one now I would not know until I awoke. I pass the tree without slowing down. 

Moving up the narrow upturned lip of asphalt between the parked cars to my right and the private property to my left so as to avoid non-existent traffic, I crest the hill. At the foot of the subtler slope ahead the homes begin to change shape from the earthy shades of unassuming but adequate brick boxes, to the silhouettes of oversized pastel and jagged Jack-O-Lanterns and their impudently glowing crystalline grins. The nice part of the neighborhood. The muted whites and blues of the well to do street. take on an ashen appearance under the night’s eye, like frightened flesh. Well kept sidewalks, well kept lawns. The restful melancholy  of the older quarter of the neighborhood here gives way to the quietly burning, sleepless gaze of a white collar drug addict, the windows of almost every upscale home perpetually bloodshot with orange light from inside. In spite of the colorful flowers, the absent mindedly left on kitchen lights, the tasteful patio furniture, the region still radiates desiccation. The lingering sheen of the previous morning’s rainstorm on the asphalt adds to the frozen, plasticized impression of the thing. Only the faintest murmurs of night-owl conversation (or more likely a television)  provide any sign of human life. I pause and stare into one of the houses for a little bit, eventually wandering up the strip of grass between two of them, pausing again and peeking into a laundry room window and seeing nothing of interest in the staggered cross section of rooms visible inside. Contrary to the advertisement the neighborhood is not, in fact, watching. I continue down the alley between houses and exit out onto yet another slope, this one without any more neighborhood at the bottom of it. Treading downward upon the damp uncut grass, I come up upon a narrow and sloppily paved path intermittently studded with utility valves, wires buzzing insect-like overhead. As best I can tell it exists exclusively for the use of the city’s maintenance workers. The path wanders down between the slope bounding the neighborhood, the woods on the opposing slope softly exhaling sounds of the highway beyond them, the narrow valley between straddled by powerline pylons. 

The surprisingly steep slopes on either side grow as I descend down and out following the wires, stepping over a spray painted smiley face with morbidly crossed out eyes. This little cement trail eventually leads far out past the neighborhood and the slopes. Here I am greeted by another much wider and well used path peeking out from behind its bordering foliage, and I stray from the road less travelled.  Of all the stops on tonight’s excursion, this second to last one is the most markedly different in character after the sun goes down. Its terminus, looming over the trees at the park’s far end, cannot be reached by day. The expansive park, well populated by all sorts of people in the day, is now totally deserted. A place built for the people abandoned by them in the dark. The empty paths and metal benches seem to resent their absence. Unlike the neighborhood, it still feels very awake. The trees and pampas grass catch the moonlight and softly glow. The grey light of the almost full moon provided excellent visibility in such an open area, not much more than a change of tint from daylight to my eyes. Dark cloisters remain beneath the trees, and dazzling lights swarm across the fields. The fireflies blink in and out of being before my eyes, yellowy-green sparks haunting the glades and hypnotizing those that venture here at these ungodly hours. Dragonflies devour the little lights and bats fall upon them in turn, much less effectively. The stars shine high and clear above, overlapping with the lazily meandering lights below. I quiver at the thought of what eyes  see the suns above blink in and out of being just as quickly and insignificantly before them. I am stricken into walking worship. 

My trance is interrupted as one of the bobbing lower lights far down the path begins to swell and move towards me, unblinking, piercing white. The light turns down towards the ground and reveals the human figure holding it. Rare to see someone else down here after dark, but not the first time it’s happened. I move off to the side of the path to let them amble their way by. The squat figure swishes its flashlight to and fro across the ground as if looking for something. I cannot tell anything about them besides their dwarven physique and that they have white smiley faces dotting their pants, and a dark hoodie. They are within ten feet of me and do not acknowledge my presence,  too absorbed in whatever they are doing and too restricted by the narrow cone of light they are using  to realize they are not alone. The light passes directly over me twice as I stand in the grass, but they are intent on the ground, not what is around them, or else simply have abysmal eyesight. If I were a different man down here for a different reason this would end very poorly for them. They pass by and continue searching for whatever bauble they lost. I decide to walk on the grass for a little bit, no sense in letting them know I’m there after they made such a point not to. 

They have made a point not to see a few other things in the park as well. If they had walked their bumbling circuit through the park without aid of unnatural light they might have noticed the head of a  lighthouse silhouetted against the stars and catching only a fringe of moonlight,  jutting up from the woods at its far end. There is no shoreline here of any kind, and no ships to protect from it either. The only water nearby is the ankle deep creek which runs between woods enveloping the tower and the park proper. I’m close enough now that I can just make out the suggestion of the faded black and white spiral pattern on the structure’s neck where the moonlight catches it. The path that has wound its way like a snake through the park now runs in a straight line to the cul-de-sac capping it off, the trees that ring it, and the incongruous, foreign thing beyond them. I have made this trip hundreds of times, often look forward to it even, and yet every time I reach this point the terror of what I’m doing hits my spirit like a hurricane wind. I put my hands in my coat pockets, scrunch up my shoulders and just keep moving. As I reach the cul-de-sac I see a squirming black thing the size of a ping pong ball on the ground. An especially bulbous beetle flipped on its back, stuck with legs flailing towards the sky. I stoop, set it right side up and send it on its way. 

The only thing between me and the trees is the singular metal park bench crowning the top of the concrete lollipop I stand on. I walk past it and over the last bit of grass before the trees. I say “trees” rather than “forest” not only because of the relative civilization of the area, because of the decisively unnatural experience of being among the trees. No matter which direction you look, you see the sleepless multicolored light of gas stations, houses, streetlamps, cars flying by, peeking through the trees. The area is completely encircled by the works and words of man. It’s a crossroads between the abstract thoughts of hundreds that have been reified in physical form as all the banal conveniences and complications of modern life. A desert between cynical plans sketched out in painstaking detail. This is not a forest–it is what’s Left Over. A place created unintentionally in the course of intentionally creating places. That’s why it’s special. 

As I come to the edge of the creek a little way into the trees I can just barely see the foot of the lighthouse peeking through the tree trunks and shrubbery ahead. An electronic billboard far on the other side of the highway beyond the trees cycles to a new advertisement, and the leaves before me take on a red hue. The creek’ banks cut surprisingly deep into the earth for how shallow the water running through it is. It’s bridged by a single long wooden board which I did not put here. I cross gingerly but with ease. Around the lighthouse there is a substantial clearing. I stand at the edge of it, as I always do, shoulder to shoulder with the most adventurous trees. The red-bricked behemoth of a house looms stalwart with its yawning black windows and defiant oversized door not fifty yards ahead. As I always do I stare into the central window above the entrance, housed beneath the central point of the house’s wide roof. 

Every night the master of the house shows himself through that window, and every night differently. I first saw him as a single dancing point of light, cherry red but otherwise not dissimilar from the fireflies which infest the region. Then as a mocking harlequin-gargoyle’s face, as a winged sphere, as dozens of dotted bright eyes dancing in the dark, as a ring of flame, as a golden plumed raptor perched on the windowsill, and a hundred other things I saw him. Each night without fail he appeared to greet me, and each night the mode of his appearance further cut away what was unreal from my mind. Each night I was stricken with inexpressible dread of his appearance, not only because of its phantasmic nature, nor for how its occurrence challenged any sane view of the world, but for love of the lies, the crutches, the sweet false things he cut away from me. Every time I woke up the next day, I was thankful to him for doing so. 

I wait patiently, and yet nothing appears in the blackness behind the dusty window’s glass. 

I wait longer. 

Nothing. 

I have never dared go closer to the house than I am now. He has always appeared just as I come upon this place, and in spite of my gratitude to him, I have always felt that this is perfectly close enough. The thought of entering the house has crossed my mind often, in the same way that sucker punching my boss has. It’s a fantasy that I would regret in the long term if enacted, no matter how innate the initial appeal of it might be. However, it is difficult to deny this absence feels like an invitation, or more precisely, a dare. I wait a little longer, to no avail. 

What the hell.

I begin to make my way across the clearing, in the forcibly casual, hyper-aware way you move when you encounter a beautiful woman or a police officer where they are not expected. I tell myself he’s probably just moved on to somewhere else, his work is done here, he’s helped me all he can.  “It would be egomaniacal for me to believe he would keep seeing me forever!” I tell myself with a self-righteous pat on the back. The prospect of this being the case provides a bittersweet comfort to my squirming mind. The Excuse will always try to worm its way back in. I’m halfway up the creaky steps to the decrepit mansion’s door. I try to talk myself Out but settle on In. I grasp the doorknob, turn, and the hulking old thing opens, vault-like. I step inside, and the door is insistently but not violently sucked shut behind me by a draft.

The dark cramped space reeks of piss and mildew. The thin walls have more than a few holes in them, some with dots of artificial light from beyond the forest peaking through. The low and sharply sloped roof does not even allow for me to stand up straight at the edges of the structure. In one of the far corners, two ravens peck and nibble at a perfect circle of vomit, unbothered by my intrusion. Otherwise the shack is empty. I turn around and for the first time I look out of that incongruous dirty window above the door, and see the stars. Cold wind lashes my bare chest and wraps its icy claws around to the backside of my figure as I leap and thrash and shout the tallow torch in my hand bolstering my frigid frame with just the hint of warmth. The others do the same but I am only tangentially aware of them, however much I am a coherent entity at this point. My mind flies hither and thither technically aware of all, but utterly unattached to any, of my immediate circumstances. I feel like a drugged and exhausted passenger. The naked and screaming celebrants, filthy with matted, infested hair, leathery scar-strewn skin, gnarled claw like nails and strength the likes of which men can now only dream of hurl their torches into a central brush pile as it erupts into a vigorous tendril of flame towards heavens that have only recently begun to see light they didn’t send.

The immolation draws the gaze of the amassed brutes upwards with it. The naked stars gaze back down on them and their howls intensify. The communal scream generates a rhythm, which the screamers lean into, convulsing, striking the earth, swaying back and forth, clawing themselves bloody. Syllables, guttural in sound and sharply ended, appear. A gesture at a word. The ecstatic but uniform glossolalia is suddenly confused, as ridiculous as that may sound, when one of the wretches falls to his hands and knees and begins pawing at the dirt at odd angles, trying to get the attention of his fellows, and then returning to his odd task. This disturbance of the program quickly draws attention as the crowd gathers to gawk at the clearly distressed fellow and the strangely ominous angle he has drawn in the dirt. He is at the point of tears, gesturing wildly with filthy callus-covered hands at the ground, up at the sky, and back again. He moves his hands across the sky, star to star, at those same angles drawn below, and then some of them see it. That which is not there. Several of them fall back screaming. Somebody haphazardly shouts out the two harsh syllables distilled from the night’s screams. A gigantic wild bull charges out of the darkness and gores seven of them to death.  

I pry off my boots and toss them back towards the door of my bedroom, exhausted, actively avoiding giving any thought to my little trek . After a little bit of debate between shower and straight-to-bed, I decide to rinse off first. On muggy nights like tonight, the sweat grime really feels like its stuck to you.  Afterwards I climb into bed and feel warmer than usual, the sheets pressing down upon me, abnormally heavy. I drift down into slushy, indistinct dreams.

IHJ is a local cultist