The story of a terrifying encounter with a monster and its unlikely outcome.
When I met Bryan for the first time, it was 1989. A lot has happened since then in our lives, and I can’t really speak for him; however, that first day, unlike many others, still remains virtually untouched in my memory.
I turned twenty-one that year, which meant I was absolutely legally ready to dive into everything the world was about to offer; needless to say, I’d been craving for it. My hometown, with its well-tended loans and community parties where everyone knew each other, sadly had nothing to offer to me by that point, except for the pressing feeling of nausea and lack of air. I wanted to stretch my wings; I dreamt of casting off shackles and running free. Let the good times roll, you know.
I can’t be hundred percent sure, of course, but I think that I’ve mentioned letting the good times roll when I was describing my agenda vividly to my father; a dedicated Catholic and an epitome of a decent family man, he listened to me from behind the desk without putting away his morning newspaper. As soon as I finished, he rose from the chair, and I noticed, surprised, certain nervousness in his movements.
“Son, I’m not going to stop you. I’m thrilled that you’ve decided to pursue something – even though it is happening a bit later that your mother and I expected.” A corner of his mouth curved downward, then upward, as if he had forgotten for a moment how to smile.
He said much more than that, of course; he was talking about responsibility and decency, pride and family name; career and prospects, investments, bank accounts; seafood, Christmas presents and airplanes, I think… I couldn’t hear anything properly; I was miles away already. As time passed, though, I somewhat hardened to the view that he was touched my sudden outbreak of adulthood. The sad irony was that I only realized it much, much later, many years after I kissed my mom on the cheek and shook dad’s hand, awkwardly avoiding to look into his eyes, how he needed those cliché homilies and pieces of advice to hide behind them – a puzzle that I’d never cracked back then. But I’ve already taken up too much paper talking about my old man, and this is not a story of fathers and sons – it really isn’t.
Anyway, several months after leaving home, I was very far from decent life. On that fated evening I had left a roadhouse with my stomach slightly upset by a bowl of chili of dubious origin; my backpack was loaded with everything an easy traveler would need (mostly canned beer); the spell of the evening joint hadn’t quite gone away yet, and I felt all the power I needed to get back on track to my final destination – which, of course, was CBGB, where I was going to spend all my money on fun and games and save on tickets forever by getting a gig somewhere in the club. “If I’m lucky enough”, I thought, “I could even get a night off and catch the Ramones on tour – I heard a whisper they’re doing The Ritz soon.”
The hike I got that night was a rare success; the driver, a man in his fifties, sporting a walrus moustache, clearly wasn’t fascinated by my appearance (or smell, for that matter); however, he picked me up, promised me nearly a hundred miles’ drive and kept nearly silent throughout the journey; he only asked a couple ritual questions. I didn’t mind silence; leaning back on the passenger seat, I was dreaming of big city life, glowing signs and private cinema clubs, all-night parties, punk rock and even starting my own band; rich kids eager to share their stash with new friends and pale girls in fishnet stockings…
The walrus driver stepped on the brake, and the car stopped with a groan.
“That’s it, kid. Time to switch horses.”
“Oh, thank you.” After digging in my stash for a while, I took out a crumpled dollar bill and a Bud Light. “Here’s for you, man. Sorry, ain’t got much.”
“Save the cash, kid.” The man smiled; his moustache shook slightly. “But I won’t say no to that can. I’ve got a night’s drive ahead.”
“All right, then. Bye,” I waved and walked off the road.
The door shut, and Mr. Moustache drove away. I sat down on the wayside and popped another Bud open. The night was warm and still; there were no lights, and nothing in the world could keep me from falling back on the soft grass, stargazing as I waited for another driver to pick me up.
Half an hour or so passed. I suddenly realized that I hadn’t heard anything even remotely resembling the sound of passing cars ever since I had got there. In fact, I hadn’t heard any sounds at all, save for my own breath and chirping of crickets in the rye field around. Everything that’d been keeping my spirit up wore off completely, and I started to suspect that I could actually be not in the best situation. I got up and took a look around. It was all pitch black; for me, there was no way of telling where exactly – or even approximately – I was. No road signs, no marking, as far as I could see; actually, I wasn’t even sure in what direction I was supposed to move. That’s when I came to a decision that many would call an undeniable evidence of survival of the fittest, directly implying that I was not among the ranks of those, of course.
I decided to cut through the rye field.
Yes, I know what you’re thinking – when you have a road to walk along, the worst idea ever is to step off it. I, on the other side, concluded somehow that there might be a village behind the crops – or a gas station, perhaps; a journey through the sprouting rye would make a great adventure I’d gladly share with my new pals in the big city. Oh, by George, I was at least half-right.
After wandering for a few minutes in the dark, I armed myself with a knotty stick that would serve me as a machete and stepped into the sea of rye.
At first, I have to say, the process was rather entertaining, even if fairly demanding. I was cutting through the crops with the stick, turning on my flashlight every ten minutes or so to see whether there was anything new. About two hours later, though, I began to feel genuinely scared. The path I was making headed downhill, while the crops were getting higher and higher – I had never known that rye could grow up to such monstrous size; I’m not a scrubby man, and the spikes towered a few inches above my head.
“Perhaps that’s how it is going to end for me,” I thought for a second in a sudden bout of desperation. “I will never get to see The Ramones, or even get a job – I’ll just end up here, starved to death, and no one will even find my body, and my bones, bleached by sunlight, will rest here until the end of days.”
About fifteen years later or so, my then-to-be wife and I went to see that movie, Interstate 60. I found it wonderful, and I never miss a chance to re-watch it on TV, but the first time I was struck by incredible resemblance between The Interstate and the place I wandered through on that warm night in the summer of ’89. In both cases, the traveler leaves the conventional road and ends up in a place that’s hidden from everyone eyes, the only difference being the fact that I can’t really imagine anyone in their right mind to follow the way that would lead them to that goddamn field.
I squatted down and felt – for a second only – insuperable urge to burst into sob. And at the same moment, I heard something that blew moment of weakness away in an instant. Not just a sound; neither a quiet, murmuring swish of rye spikes in the wind nor a frog or a mouse sneaking between their feet. No, it was a noise that you wouldn’t expect to hear out in the wild.
The sound tailed away, and I froze, excited and startled at the same moment, and tried to catch hold of its direction. In a handful of seconds, it repeated itself, even louder. West. On my left. There could be no mistake. I threw away the stick, as my forearm was already too numb to be of use, and rushed through the field.
There were minutes of silence, intersperse with the mysterious noise; every time it came back louder and clearer, strengthening my confidence. Now, as it was more distinct and less muffled by the rye, I could more or less identify its nature: it resembled the sound that a giant hammer would make on a tin sheet.
“Could it be that an ogre from a fairytale is tinkering something here, in the middle of nowhere, unheard by mere mortals?” I giggled silently, cheered up by the ridiculous thought. “A helmet or a shield, perhaps. This would make a nice end to this night’s story. Hold on, little sir, let me bend down. I can’t hear you from sixty feet above the ground.”
My feet slipped, and before I even knew that, I was rolling down a hill. The contents of my pack were shaking, and so was I; my mouth was full with grass and soil, and my head got hit with a cobblestone pretty badly. None of it mattered, however; several seconds later I opened my eyes, recovered my feet, looked around and whistled in surprise.
The rye, which I had come to hate so much in the hours before, was all behind me. I stood on the edge of a hollow, spread around for several miles and nicely, evenly sunken into the field in a manner you’d think an elephant footprint would look like. The ground of the hollow was all overgrown with regular-sized meadow grass – truly, a relief after mammoth sprouts I had encountered before. It could’ve been a conservancy, an island of preserved safety and calamity, if it weren’t for something man-made – a farmstead right in the middle of the lowland.
I’m using the word ‘farmstead’ here very loosely, for the lack of a better term; it wasn’t very much like a regular farm we’re all used to seeing. And yet, there it was: a building that resembled a giant stone barn, built very roughly, with no aesthetic impulse put into it whatsoever, and a standalone something that resembled an oversized dog kennel with a broken roof. There was also what I presumed to be an actual barn, a bigger cote and a smaller one, both ferny, with no trace of a pig or a chicken. Next to the main building I noticed a well; there was no shadoof, just a tin bucket hanging on a rope. The wind blew, as though following my thoughts, and the bucket stroke the stone edge of the well, producing the exact same sound I imagined to be the sound of an ogre’s hammer. The noise would have awakened anyone miles around, had there been anyone. But it only took a moment’s glance to realize that the place had been abandoned for years, nay decades; even in the dark of the night, I could see how the nature was steadily reclaiming the land through rust and growth.
Nevertheless, the house was just as good as anything with a roof and four walls for a night’s stay. I could bet there would be roaches, perhaps even mice, but that was not a big problem, considering my dire situation. I still had ample beer, snacks and cigarettes in the backpack to treat myself in reward for the horrifying run I had just completed. In the morning, I thought, I would keep on moving – after all, there had to be an end to that godawful rye.
I hurried down the slope, right to the house. Before the aperture, I paused for a second and sniffed to try and catch any smell that could hint at the presence of a human living, leaving and breathing. All in vain; the air was nothing but frowzy and dump. I looked around once again and pushed the door away; it swung aside with a shriek, and I entered.
The inside of the building breathed out dust and chill into my face, but it wasn’t as stinky as I thought it would be. I took out the flashlight and switched it on. The narrow beam slipped on the wall and the floor, taking out scanty artifacts of a farmer’s life: a lonely brass coat hanger; a small plank-built cabinet; a pile of rags and blankets…
A mousetrap. Gazing around, I stepped forward carelessly and felt immense, jabbing pain. There could be no mistake; it was a mousetrap, and its frame slammed shut, pinning my foot down. I squeaked like a pig and fell down on my knee; my arm twitched, and I dropped the flashlight, which rolled away into the corner. And then I heard the voice. Just one word made me wish I had never been born.
Down, that’s right. When you’re stressed, people say, your thinking capacity enhances drastically; you can go through dozens of ideas in a single second, and it’s not far from truth. The problem, though, is that you can’t do much with these ideas in reality. Who the hell was it? How did he sneak up on me so silently? Could I be so careless? Or was he actually that good? It took me a split second to imagine a vivid picture of the man standing behind: a frenetic, murderous redneck straight from the pages of a trashy pulp book who lures his victims into his haunted house, where he tortures them in the basement, keeping just enough life in their wounded bodies to feel the pain. I lay down on the floor and bit my lip not to scream with the ache in my foot.
“Turn around.” The voice sounded… badly oiled, you could say. It was a male voice, rasping and creaking like an old hinge; there was no doubt that its owner rarely resorted to it. I obeyed – clumsily, hastily I turned around on the floor and saw a vague silhouette in the doorway. The figure’s left arm rested on the wall, right on the lighting switch – damn, I didn’t even expect the house to have wiring in it. Perhaps, I thought, it will all be better with the lights on. Perhaps this is just another traveler, or a homeless man squatting here. In that case, I could try and reason with him – share a beer and a bag of crisps… It also could be a watchman or a beat officer. Either way, whoever it was, I decided, there could be a way to talk my way out.
A second later, the lights came on.
In dim fibrillation of the bulb, I saw a creature that scared me out of my wits. It certainly bore a resemblance to a human person, but something seemed slightly off about it – as if it was a caveman drawn by a child. Its limbs with curved yellow claws looked out of proportion; it was crooking like a werewolf, caught mid-transformation, all covered with thick flocky fur. And yet the worst was the fact that the creature still looked very humane, despite all its feral traits, and a pair of normal, regular human eyes appeared very unnatural on its horrifying neb.
I yelled – desperate, horror-stricken; the scream went on for a minute or so, changing pitch, until I strained my voice, and it faded to whiny groan. As I was screaming, the creature stood silently, without stopping, and this was the reason I kept going; I thought that I could put off my inevitable end for as long as I was able to produce a sound, even if it was one of fear. When there was no air left in my lungs (or anywhere around, it seemed), the creature jumped. A whirlwind of fur and claws took only fraction of a second to reach me, lying on the floor, and I realized how fast it was – there was no point running. Not in a lifetime I could escape the monster. It stood up above me now, and in a few seconds my life would be over in the most unbelievable way.
“I shall warn you…” the creature coughed. “I will eat you by the end of the night.”
I moaned miserably.
“I shall also say that I take no pleasure in this. But this is how it is going to end for you. Now, get up.” It released my leg from the mousetrap, to my surprise.
“I knew you were coming this way, and I cleaned up a little.” The creature coughed once again to clear its throat and pointed to a table with two sagging checkered armchairs next to it. “Take a seat.”
The host went out and shut the door. Transfixed, I looked around. There was no hope of escaping; I knew how fast the creature was, and I knew that it would had never let me make a step out of the house. The windows were too small for a grown man to squeeze through, and there was no back door in sight.
The interior of the house contrasted my expectations – the ones I’d had had before meeting its owner. Sure, it was dusty and untidy, but all the things were more or less in order. There were no actual rooms; instead, the space was separated with partitions that roughly outlined sections of the house: the bedroom in the right corner; the dining room to my left; and something similar to a living room right in front of me. In fact, it was a furnished hall, at the far end of which was a console cabinet with an ancient TV set on it. Barely moving my stiff legs, I came up to the table and sat down in one of the armchairs, raising a cloud of dust.
A few minutes later, which lasted weeks and months for me, the door opened. The creature walked in, put two cups on the table and sat down in the other chair. I caught the scent of the steaming drink. Nothing like tea at all, it smelled bog water and moss.
“I…” My bottom lip was shaking, and my teeth were chattering; I struggled for every single word. “I need to leave. Please. You can take all I’ve got on me. I can write you a check. I can send you money. Just let me go, please. Please.”
I sobbed unwillingly. Before I even finished my plea, I knew it had no point. There was nothing I could offer to the monster in addition to what it already had – me.
“You will not go away. I will tear off your head and eat your flesh before sunrise.” The creature’s voice was calm, its tones measured. “But first, we talk. You’ll talk to me, or I rip your belly open and let you bleed out. If you talk, I’ll keep you alive for a while.”
All right, then. Several hours. I gasped for air. What I knew was that there was a horrible monster at arm’s length, and that it was having me for dinner tonight, as the song I’d heard a lot that summer goes. But it wasn’t going to finish me straight away, and it gave me a tiny glimpse of hope; perhaps I’d be able to catch it at a weak moment.
“You… You want to talk, right?”
“I do.” The monster took a swig of the bog tea. “Ask me anything.”
“What… Who are you?”
“Call me Bryan. This is my name. I call myself Bryan.”
“I call myself Bryan,” it said – was it really its name? I was yet to come to terms with the fact that a dreadful beast could have a proper human name. Could it actually be a human, a victim to an unnatural genetic disease that corrupted its brain and body alike? Or was it indeed a demon, a brute brought to life by evil magic?
“Nice to meet you, Bryan.” No, it wasn’t. “I’m Jay. Where are you from?”
Oh, it was ridiculous. A schoolbook conversation for first-graders played out between a grown man and a thing from a nightmare.
“Here. Born here. Spent here all my life. I’m a farmstead monster.”
“When you say ‘born here’… Do you mean you were born, like, normally?” My attempt to test the waters was fairly weak; in fact, it could easily drown me.
“No. I was born, like, before it was time.” Bryan screwed up its (his?) features, as though the question was unpleasant for him.
“Time for what?”
“For me to be born.”
“What do you mean? How is that? When was the time supposed to be?” I asked, following a sudden impulse. Bryan inhaled. For a few moments, it was very silent in the house, and I could nearly hear small hairs on the back of my neck move. I was ready to see my unlikely partner in conversation rush right over the table and end our talk in a sweep of the sharp-clawed hand, when Bryan finally started talking – in a fluttery, gruff voice, pausing from time to time to clear throat.
“I was born when my mother had me for four months. Father was very angry. He went far into the field and left me there. It was a week, I heard him say to Old Norm once, before I came back. He still was angry and also scared. He took me away once again. I came back once again, and he let me stay. I killed mother when she gave birth.”
The story seemed unlikely at best, but I kept going.
“How did you… survive?”
Bryan gave a shrug of the shoulders.
“Rats, mostly. I was strong. First, I ate stones. And ground. But it was no good, of course. I started eating rats and mice. And I crawled back to the house.”
The seriousness with which Bryan spoke made it obvious: he believed it to the last word. And I, against my own will, was beginning to believe it as well, albeit clearly realizing how nonsensical it was. A fetus of four months does not survive miscarriage, let alone living in the wild for a week, eat rats and stones (my God!) or come back home. It sounded like a monologue told by a grand guignol freak to the merriment of the public.
As if reading my thoughts, Bryan took something from a shelf and handed it to me; I started back instinctively, then looked at the hairy palm. There was a watch; the glass was broken, and there was no hour hand, but the clock work itself was fine.
“Do you know how to use it?” Bryan asked.
“Of course,” I gasped, “I mean, yes, I know. Do you want me to tell you the time?”
“No. Come out.”
We left the house. I shut my eyes briefly in hopes that everything would change upon our exit, and we would appear in the middle of a city – people walking around, chatting and laughing, and a police officer on the corner, close just enough to hear me call. Unfortunately, it was all the same – the hollow, the giant dog kernel, and endless sprouts of rye all around.
“Take the time thing.” Bryan nodded at the watch in my hand. “Walk for ten minutes. Quickly. Run if you want. Then you’ll stop.”
Stupefied, I looked at him. Is he letting me go? This monster? A scared man – and I was scared to death – can cover miles in ten minutes, without regard to the ache in his side, the pounding of his heart, the bruises and scratches…
“Go,” the monster pushed me slightly. I looked at the dial. It was quarter past something. I filled my air with lungs and ran. At first, I expected Bryan to follow me immediately. “Like a lion on the hunt, he will catch me on the run and bite into my neck,” I thought as my legs were carrying me away. The rye embraced me; the crops were closing down behind my back, covering my trail, and I found strange comfort in that. I only allowed myself a few seconds’ respite and ran on. Of course, I wasn’t going to stop. Twelve minutes passed, and I still ran; perhaps I chose a shorter end of the field, and the rye would come apart…
At something twenty-nine, Bryan caught me. Faster than a cheetah, he leaped out from the right and knocked me down; my rib cracked, and I wailed.
“I knew you would cheat, Jay.” His mouth was just an inch away from my ear; I felt his warm breath and drops of saliva on my neck. “I am not mad at you. It must be hard to know that you are going to die so soon.”
He stood up – lightly, easily. I groaned and turned around slowly to see my tormentor’s silhouette – a somber figure against the backdrop of the night sky, its eyes sparkling. And it was the moment when I finally collapsed.
In tears, I asked him why he would keep me alive instead of murdering me and eating me straight away. I wondered what he really was, and how he could even be. I begged to let me go or get it over with, as I felt how I was losing my mind. I called for my parents, face-planting the cold soil… I cursed Bryan, I prayed, I cursed myself, prayed again, wept and grumbled…
Bryan listened to my monologue without a sound, with his arms crossed. When I finally ran out of steam, he helped me get up, took me by the wrist, and we headed back to the farm.
We walked in silence for what must had been an hour; Bryan stepped very slowly, and all I could do was follow him and try not to fall out of step. I had already accepted, through weeping and hysteria, that the walk through the field was destined to be my own green mile. My mind was strangely soothed and void. I made some feeble attempts to enjoy the beauty of the world around for one last time, but the charm of the night, soft touch of the wind and the smell of fresh air completely failed to resonate. I tried to reflect on the life I’d had, but it left me apathetic, too; if anything, I was ready for what was coming. When we finally reached the farmstead, Bryan released my arm from his grip and turned to me.
“I want to show you something.” He approached the wooden structure in the yard, and I followed him, flopping along like a rag doll. On closer examination, the building turned out to be in even more miserable condition that it had seemed to me earlier. The wood was all rotten; rusty nails stuck out inward and outward, and I could swear that the earthen floor was swarming with bugs.
“This is my place. This is where I lived.” Bryan sniffled.
“Why? What’s with the house?”
“My father lived in the house. He’s dead now. He has been dead for ten years. I did that.”
I felt a hot wave rising from the bottom of my stomach.
“You murdered your own father? You…”
“I did not, of course,” he waved aside, irritated – offended, perhaps? “He died because he was a father to a monster. He was a martyr, and he was taken.” Bryan looked up into the sky, as if hoping to see his father there.
“You know, Jay,” he called me by the name, and I flinched, “I cried when he died. He was a good man. He did not deserve me.”
“How did he die?” I asked, trying to keep my voice from trembling. The calamity was gone, and I once again craved for life, even if it only had to last for a couple more minutes.”
“He was ill,” Bryan said. “He fell ill after the villagers came. Old Norm, who lived here, went to town. And I was in the field, hunting. They beat him; because of that, he fell ill. That’s how he died. Because of me.”
“But… Sorry, Bryan, but you aren’t in the story, it seems – are you sure you didn’t miss anything?” I wondered. So far, none of it made any sense.
“Oh, right. I’m sorry, Jay.” Bryan waggled his head. “Thing is, villagers used to live here. They did not like my father. They were sinners, you know. They had cattle and poultry, and they had money, but they never shared. It was against His will, dad told Norm – I heard him say that. Old Norm, he did not agree, but father said that they were sinners. So, he went there and left a warning.”
“Who was Old Norm?” I asked.
“Old Norm’s a man. He used to live here. He was what you call… How do you call a man who cuts trees?”
“A lumberjack?” I suggested helpfully.
“No, not Jack. Norm.” Bryan frowned. “I was talking about Old Norm. Anyway, he lived nearby. He was older than dad. He used to come here to talk to my dad, and he also visited me when dad was away. Norm talked to me. He taught me to talk.”
“How’s that? Not your father?”
“Father never let me talk,” Bryan answered gloomily, “because a monster is not supposed to talk. Every time I tried, he would slap me. But Norm, he was a sinner, unlike father. He talked to me, and he also brought books and taught me to read a little. But I only have three books left. I ripped the rest when I was angry. There are books in the house, but I cannot touch them. I fear to burn.”
“Why not? It is your house now, if I’m right. Am I?” Now, right when I thought it couldn’t get any more surreal… A monster, faster than a cheetah, stronger than a bear – scared of a bookshelf?
“I fear to burn,” Bryan repeated, and his pupils dilated with horror; I could see that even in the dark of the night. “There is a very special book there; Ken-Gems Book, that’s how it is called. If I ever get near it, I will perish in a second. I don’t really want to talk about it, Jay.”
“All right, then…” I tried to compile my thoughts. “So, what happened to the villagers, then?”
Bryan sighed. He resembled a parent, trying to explain math basics to his slow child.
“Father left a sign for them, and they came here in the morning and beat him. After that, they went to town – there was a fair, and Norm was there, too, since dawn. And then dad came out of the house. He was bruised and bleeding, and he called for me, and I came here from the field. He never spoke to me, save for cursing and swearing, but he knew it somehow that I understood him.”
“So, he never spoke you,” I summed it up, “and then he called you once by the name, and you came and did what he said?”
“He did not know my name.” Bryan shook his head no. “Creature – that’s what he called me. ‘Creature!’ That’s what he said. ‘Come here, creature, and be used of God!’ And I came.”
“This is… How could he not know your name, man? You must’ve got it somewhere, right?”
“And he explained,” Bryan went on, paying no heed to my question, “that he could not do anything, for he was a holy man. But I was a monster, and I could serve the Lord to ease my suffering in hell. And I did so. I came to the village and slayed pigs, and cows, and hens, too. I ripped them open, and I spilled blood all around. And I broke everything in their houses. They came back, saw it and left forever I fear – that’s what I heard dad say to Old Norm in the evening.”
He took a break to recover his breath; in silence, I vividly imagined the picture of village folks in their flannels running in horror around the animal farm drenched in blood…
“Old Norm left, too – the following day. This was the last time my father spoke to me. He died the same year. But at least I did what he asked me to. I served him well – even if just once.”
“Bryan.” I tried to make my voice as soothing as possible. “Bryan, listen to me. What you should do now is let me go. You’ve done things, I guess, but killing is bad. If you believe in God, believe it, too.”
“No, Jay.” Bryan stared right into my eyes, and I realized that he was nearly crying. “I know it well that father lied to me. Monster I may be, but I’m no fool. There is no forgiveness for me; he made it up. I will be in hell when I die, and this is what I deserve. I was born a beast, and there is no other life for me than the life of a beast. Now, Jay, can you stop talking, please? Our time is running out.”
He pointed at the sky; it was still raven black, but a thinnest strip of lighter tone appeared somewhere far, at the very edge of giant spikes.
“This way. Please, do not try to escape. I want this to be done properly.”
Without thinking, I followed Bryan. Each step echoed in my ears. Bang. Bang. Every hit brought me closer. Forgive me, friends and family. I guess. You won’t miss me. There will be no funeral, and there will be very little tears. A few years later, your lives will be fine. A few decades later, no one will ever remember me. A few centuries later, perhaps, everything will be gone. Everything and everyone. Save for Bryan – invulnerable, immune to every disease, scrambling through the plants, stalking his next victim in the rye.
We stopped at the backyard. I saw a ladder to the basement, but Bryan walked past it, to a small meadow plot under a giant crooked apple tree. As I drew nearer, I noticed two stones. The letters read: “BRYAN JOSEPH WILKINS, 1932 – 1976” and “DIANE ELIZABETH WILKINS, 1935 – 1976”. Bryan stood there with his head low.
“Grandparents.” He heaved a groan. “When my father left me in the field, and I came back, he grabbed me and brought here. He hit the stone with my head so hard it cracked. Here.” Bryan touched a chipped edge on the grave stone. In morning twilight, all at once I saw not a monster but a young man, confused and ashamed of himself.
“He hated me, you know,” Bryan said suddenly. “My father. For years, I lived as his shadow. I watched him from the rye. I sat on the roof and in the bushes, and I sneaked around the house. He never really knew I was here, but he felt it, I guess. Every day, he came here, to my grandparents’ grave, and cursed them. He said that they were sinners. They came to the big city when they were young, and they danced and listened to music. Then they had a child – bad blood, my mother, and he hated them for that, too. Dad used to come every single day and damn my grandfather’s name. His name was the first word I ever learned.”
“I was supposed to be their cross to bear, he said.” Bryan turned around and put his arm on my shoulder.
“It’s time, Jay. Let’s go.”
He opened the cellar door and invited me in. I bowed down and entered; Bryan followed me in and switched on the light.
On the floor I saw (and felt) thousands of tiny bones; fractured skeletons of rodents and dogs and cats covered the earth with a thick layer. There were bigger bones, too. I tried not to look down; even at death’s door, I shrank at the idea of seeing a human skull down there.
Bryan gently walked me to the corner of the basement, where he tied me carefully and learnedly and fastened my arms to a large metal hook on the wall. By that point, the only emotion I had left was curiosity. How will it happen? Is he going to break my bones, one by one, watching my agony with a scholar’s keenness? Or just slam my head against the wall – roughly, grudgingly yet quickly, with a look of displeasure on his face? Bryan, however, had his own way of doing things. He approached a black box that I saw vaguely from where I was.
“The ritual begins.”
Bryan abruptly fell on the floor, discovering the box behind him. Now I could see that it was a record player. A moment later, ear-splitting noise filled the room. It was literally turning my stomach, and it seemed like my skull would hatch out like an egg shell before Bryan would get to me. He, in the meanwhile, was wriggling and jerking on the carpet of bones, howling and clapping his hands at a weirdly rhythmical pace. For me, it was a torment; Bryan, on the other hand, clearly enjoyed the unbearable wail, doing his dance.
Little by little, however, I started to distinguish bits of patterns here and there in the wall of noise. The vinyl was damaged almost to the point of total annihilation, but it appeared to be an actual record; I could hear hi-hat chirping and what sounded remotely like a male voice coming from someone with his mouth patched up with duct tape. And then the needle fell into another grove, and something happened.
From under endless layers of distorted screeching and hiss, a phrase made its way – a quick succession of low, fetal bass notes. A second later, it repeated itself, strengthening my confidence, and I burst into hysterical laughter. For it was neither the sound of the drums and horns of doom nor the Lord’s Prayers played backwards; it was Jean-Jacques Burnel, slamming his strings in the thunderous intro to ‘Dead Ringer’.
Bryan jumped up quickly and rushed to me. In a moment, his head was only an inch away from mine.
“What is it, Jay?” He seemed surprised and disturbed at the same time. Apparently, I had just ruined the ritual, and he struggled to understand the reason behind my breakdown. “Are you saying you want me to strangle you? I was actually…”
“Stranglers.” My head shook wildly with laughter. “The Stranglers. This record you’re playing, it’s by The Stranglers. ‘No More Heroes.’ I have a copy of this, too.”
“What record?” Bryan looked dumbfounded. “What do you mean, Jay?”
I barely recovered my ability to speak.
“You’re going to kill me to the sound of a band named ‘The Stranglers’. That’s an early record; I liked them more before they went for that ‘Golden Brown’ kind of thing.” I giggled uncontrollably.
The needle had stuck in the grove, and the turntable now was playing the same phrase over and over. Bryan lowered his shoulders; his stature somehow lost a good portion of its formidability.
“I don’t understand,” he said, almost plaintively.
“You see,” now I assumed the role of a patient parent, “when you put on a record – the round thing – what you hear is actually the sound of a band playing; they only do it once, in the studio, and then you can spin it any time you want…”
I went on and on. Bryan switched the record player off and sat down quietly, listening to my rambling monologue on sound recording, punk rock, scenes of the States and the Kingdom, record stores and guitars, on my plans to come to New York and live life to the fullest and on my future band…
“Norm brought it,” he said all of a sudden. “In town, he bought the player for a dollar – that’s what I heard. And it went fitted with that thing… a record. He never played it – not to my knowledge, at least. I took it from Old Norm’s house when my father died.”
The bulb blew, and for many minutes we sat there in silence, in total darkness. There wasn’t much to say.
“So… Are you saying there’s more of that?” Bryan asked.
Another several long minutes of silence. Finally, Bryan spoke again. He sounded wretched, word and endlessly tired.
“Jay… Take me with you. Show me.”
I will not bore you with the description of our journey from that point on – it’s enough to say that it was long and thorny, and full of dangers. At times, I was in terror of my life; however, it all went away after a while. Long sleepless nights and many miles of roads really knitted us together stronger than you would think. As soon as we got to New York, I called my dad and asked him to send a few items from my record collection, and he agreed reluctantly, incoherently grumping about horrible music and young loafers. Of course, I did not get the gig at CBGB – it was 1989, as I’ve said before; everything was very different from what I imagined, and punk rock had gone hiding ten years before. Nevertheless, we still managed to have our share of fun in the city; those were the times of our lives, young and wild. And in winter, after all, we did see The Ramones play The Ritz.
These days, I’ve cut down on fun considerably – party-wise, at least. I haven’t taken anything stronger than a stomach pill in nearly fifteen years, and I can barely make it through two glasses of wine without falling asleep. I spend most of my spare time at home, occasionally going out with folks to see a movie or a game. However, once a year, there is a time when everything changes. I kiss my family goodbye, grab a suitcase and drive all the way to the airport, where I already have a ticket booked.
Bryan moved to the United Kingdom years ago; he grew tired of steel and concrete around and wanted to try something more old-fashioned instead; besides, he had always wanted to adopt a slower, settled lifestyle. He never really got used to the galloping pace of New York.
Bryan has a bright open face and a beard that he keeps short and neat, even though it fairly gives him bother. He goes jogging every morning. He likes green tea, TV quiz shows and cats, and he can’t stop boasting his knowledge of fifty proper ways to cook a chicken.
For the last ten years, Bryan has been working for a trade company, doing all kinds of stuff. He is in good books there, and that’s well deserved; he is a quick learner, and he never shies away from a difficult task – which, of course, pays well.
On top of all that, Bryan has a girlfriend, Emily – first, a lady at his work told me he was dating someone, and then I saw her myself; she and Bryan walked hand in hand along the alley, and from the look of it I can certainly say that my friend is a lucky man, and that they make a lovely couple. I’m not pushing him, of course – he’s a bit shy when it comes to love affairs. Nevertheless, he has already hinted that engagement is in the works, and I couldn’t feel happier for him.
When I come to visit, I always spend a week or so in the UK. I have a favorite hotel, reasonable several miles away from Bryan’s house: I really don’t want to interfere with his private life, especially considering how good it is going between him and Emily.
Still, every evening I pick Bryan from work, and we hang around the city. We always start off nicely, with coffee in paper cups, walking and chatting about all kinds of things. However, we inevitably end up in a pub, and a jukebox is a must.
We do a few rounds of newer singles, but then we always slide back to something we know and love. While Bryan tediously picks the next one, I generously tip the bartender in advance. And then we kick it off – we dance and sing along, we get totally hammered, and we feed tons of coins to the machine. We play every single song by The Ramones that’s out there. And every tune by The Damned, or by Blondie, or even Bowie’s earlier records. And don’t forget The Clash – we’ve been going really hard on The Clash lately. We put on everything that brings us back – and there’s always a place for a bit of The Stranglers, of course.
Then, long after the clock strikes twelve, we leave with a bottle or a couple of beers and finish whatever we have on our way back home. I like to take a stroll and let the juice wear off a little before going to bed, so I always walk Bryan to his door, where we say goodnight to each other. Every time, Bryan kindly invites me to his place, but I never actually come in.
Oh God, I don’t really know why, but I never come in.