The following is an excerpt from my upcoming novel, The Eyes of Mictlan, available now for pre-order at Amazon, releasing on June 8th, 2015.
Chapter 1: Threshold
The summer sky of southern Mississippi glowed orange, purple, and gold as the sun continued its descent below the western horizon. Sam Cristo stepped off the only bus leading into or out of the fringe town of Edgewood and wiped a bead of sweat from his brow. According to the local weather broadcast, which had been blaring through the crackling speakers of the bus driver’s aging radio, the temperature had reached 103 degrees at its peak on this Saturday, though to Sam it felt like twice that.
As the bus made its departure he inhaled a cloud of dust kicked up by the bus tires spinning against the loose dirt road. Examining his surroundings, Sam realized that no one else had stepped off the bus at this stop. According to rumor, Edgewood was not the sort of town that people visited, nor were the native citizens likely to ever leave. At first Sam had wondered why the locals would remain in a place where such terrible things allegedly happened, but he decided that they belonged to the same club as those who remained in homes repeatedly battered by natural disasters like hurricanes.
The bus had dropped him off beside a bench in front of a mini-mart called Ed’s, which apparently doubled as the town bus station. Sam found it surprising that a bus would even bother to stop in a town so diminutive that it did not appear on any map—he had expected to wind up in a larger town where he would have to ask for directions. Then again, if the local stories were to be believed, Edgewood frequently defied common convention. He thought back to the sign he had seen from the bus as it entered the city limits:
Edgewood – Population: 795
Although most of the sign consisted of permanent lettering, the last two digits were the same type of removable numbers one might find at a gas station, as if they were changed on a regular basis.
Sam looked past Ed’s mini-mart toward a saloon called Last Stop, which sat on the mini-mart’s right. To the left of Ed’s stood a small combination post office/police station with a single patrol car parked in front. There was no mail truck in sight. In a town this small, he guessed, the mailman likely walked. Behind the three buildings Sam saw the green foliage of tall trees bordering an extensive forest. Small, rancher-style homes lined the rest of the street on either side. Next to the bench was a road sign with the name Main Street on it.
How original, he thought.
Sam’s hypersensitive skin began to burn under the still potent rays of the falling sun so he decided it was a good time to get inside. He walked toward the Last Stop, determined to throw back a few cold beers. Sam wasn’t much of a drinker anymore but tonight was a special occasion. After all, he had come a long way to track down the murderer of his beloved Jeanette.
A bevy of clichés riddled the inside of the smoky saloon. Pictures of the bartender posing with various patrons surrounded a neon Bud sign to the right of the door. The right wall featured several pictures of youth sports teams dating back five years, while the left wall sported three posters of bikini-clad models. An oak-finished bar lined the far wall, with a door behind the bar leading to a rear room that Sam guessed was a kitchen, based on the smell of frying meat that permeated the air. A heavy-set man tended bar, pouring beers for the three people sitting to his right. He scratched the chin of his unshaven face and turned toward Sam as a beam of light from the open door pierced the darkness of the black-lit saloon.
“Hey buddy, you wanna close that thing?” the bartender said to Sam, pointing toward the door.
“Sorry,” Sam replied as he reached back to close the door while searching for a place to sit. He found an empty stool between a blonde-haired woman and a scrawny, middle-aged man. He felt the eyes of everyone in the bar staring him down as he took his seat.
The bartender tugged on his undersized Confederate flag t-shirt in a vain attempt to cover his bulging potbelly. “What’ll it be?”
“Bud bottle,” Sam replied, choking on smoke emanating from the blonde woman’s Virginia Slim.
“Can I interest you in our hot wings? House special.”
The bartender reached beneath the bar and produced a bottle of Budweiser, which he promptly opened and placed on a cardboard coaster before Sam. “Two bucks.”
Sam reached into his pocket, pulled out a five-dollar bill, and handed it to the bartender. The scrawny man to Sam’s left stood up from his stool and walked over to the jukebox, which occupied the wall in front of the restroom. Moments later, a country song that Sam could not identify began blaring out of the jukebox’s speaker as the man returned to his stool. Sam hated country music, but in this neck of the woods he was well advised to keep that opinion to himself. The bartender returned with three single bills and dropped them on the bar in front of Sam.
“Where’s my burger, Phil?” the scrawny man shouted at the bartender.
“Keep your shirt on, Ed, I’m going back to get it now,” Phil answered as he disappeared behind the revolving door into the kitchen.
Sam studied the scrawny man, wondering if he was the same Ed from the Mini-mart next door.
“What’re you lookin’ at?” the man suddenly snapped at Sam.
“Nothing,” he replied, turning away.
Ed slammed down his drink and rose to his feet. “You callin’ me nothing?”
“Sit down, Ed, he didn’t mean anything by it,” the blonde woman interrupted as she crushed her cigarette into an ashtray.
“I’m sorry. I didn’t mean anything by it,” Sam echoed.
“You just better watch yourself,” Ed warned as he sat back down.
“I will,” Sam replied, wishing to avoid a physical confrontation. Ed obviously suffered from a Napoleon complex—the man barely reached Sam’s chest standing up.
“Ed’s always lookin’ for someone to scrap with,” the woman said.
“That’s right!” Ed interjected. “You just keep your friend away from me, Paula, and I won’t have to hurt ‘im!”
“Thanks,” Sam said to Paula, who was already sucking on a new cigarette. She was even skinnier than Ed. Sam thought she might well be anorexic.
Paula leaned over to Sam’s ear. “No offense, friend, but it was Ed I was really lookin’ out for. He has a habit of getting his ass kicked when he’s had too much to drink.”
“Well thank you nonetheless. I don’t want any trouble.”
“So what’s your story? You don’t look like you’re from around these parts.”
“My name’s Sam. I’m just passing through.”
“Passing through to where? This town ain’t exactly the Mecca of civilization. What brings you to Edgewood?”
“I’m looking for a place.”
“Well that shouldn’t be too hard. There ain’t exactly a lot of ground to cover in this town. Maybe I can help. You lookin’ for someone’s house or something?”
“Well stop beating around the bush, honey. I can’t help you if you don’t tell me what you’re looking for.”
Sam braced himself. “Have you ever heard the name Aceldama?”
Paula jumped out of her seat and threw her cigarette down. “I don’t know what the hell you’re gettin’ yourself into, but I don’t want no part of it! You stay the hell away from me!” By the time she finished her sentence she was halfway to the front door.
“I guess she heard of it,” Sam said to no one in particular.
As the door slammed behind Paula, Phil re-emerged from the kitchen carrying a plate containing one cheeseburger and a side of fries. “Where did Paula run off to?” he asked, setting the plate down in front of Ed.
“Ask our new friend,” Ed replied.
Phil glared at Sam. “Did you say something to her?”
“I was just asking her if she could help me find this place I’m looking for.”
“And what place would that be?”
“Forget about it,” Sam said.
“Look, buddy, you said something to upset one of my loyal patrons, and I want to know what.”
“Fine.” Sam knew what was coming next. It was the sort of reaction to which he had grown accustomed since setting foot in this county. “Aceldama.”
Phil retrieved a shotgun from under the bar and trained it on Sam’s head. “You get the hell out of my bar! And take whatever trouble you’re bringing with you!”
Sam held up his hands. “Okay, okay. Sorry to have bothered you.” He pointed to the three dollars still sitting on the bar. “Why don’t you keep the change?”
“Now!” Phil demanded, motioning toward the door with his gun. “And if I were you, I’d leave town. We don’t take kindly to strangers around here.”
“And the clichés just keep on rolling,” Sam muttered.
Phil pumped the shotgun. “What did you say?”
The threatening voice masked an inherent fear that Sam saw in the man’s eyes. He stood up and backed away. “Nothing. I’m leaving.”
“Damn right you are!” the burly bartender replied.
Sam briskly walked to the door and opened it. As he exited the bar he heard the fading sound of Ed’s drunken voice issuing more idle threats. He closed the door and found himself back out in the summer heat, which, to Sam’s disappointment, had not vanished with the setting sun. He had hoped to leave the bar a little later when it would have been darker and cooler. He leaned against the stone exterior of the saloon, contemplating his next move. There had to be somebody in this shadow of a town who could help him.
The saloon door suddenly swung open, momentarily spewing the sound of country music into the silence of the bar’s exterior. Sam whirled around, preparing to defend himself against Ed, Phil, or some other attacker. Instead he found himself face to face with a smallish old man. The man jumped back, startled by Sam’s defensive posture. Sam immediately dropped his guard.
“Jeez, son, you scared the hell out of me! You could give an old man a heart attack!” the man shouted.
“Sorry. I thought you were someone else.”
The old man looked Sam over thoughtfully. “I hear you’re lookin’ for a certain place.”
“I sort of overheard your conversation in there,” the man offered.
“That doesn’t seem possible. I don’t recall seeing you anywhere in the bar.”
“Trust me, son, I was there. Now do you want my help or not?”
“You’ve heard of Aceldama?”
“Sure have. Been there myself on occasion.”
“You know, you’re the first person in this area not to bite my head off at the mere mention of the word.”
“I suppose people think if they ignore that which frightens them, it will cease to exist. In any event, you’re not going to find too many friendly faces around here. In the past, the appearance of a stranger has often been accompanied by unpleasant events.”
“Then I’ll be sure not to stick around too long. If you’ll just tell me where I can find Aceldama, I’ll be on my way.”
“Are you sure you really want to find this place? It’s not something most people go out of their way to seek. I myself have no desire to ever return.”
“But I’ve come a long way. Can you help me or not?”
“Well, I don’t know exactly where it is—”
Sam was growing agitated, a combination of the heat and the vitriol he had encountered in the bar. “What the hell are you playing at? You just said you’ve been there!”
“What I meant was, I don’t know the exact location—no one does. I can get you to the general area. But I wonder if you’re aware of what you’re getting yourself into.”
“Believe me, pal, I’m well aware. Just point me in the right direction.”
“Very well. Behind this building is a forest that leads to the river. Once you get to the shoreline, follow the river South.”
“That’s it?” Sam asked after an awkward pause.
“Pretty much, yeah.”
“How will I know where to find it?”
“Well, son, if you’ve got blood on your hands, Aceldama will find you.”
Sam whirled around. “What does that mean?”
The old man was nowhere in sight but Sam nearly jumped out of his skin as the man’s voice suddenly boomed from behind: “If you do make it there, you’ll likely wish you never had.”
Sam twisted around toward the source of the voice, finding nothing but empty air. “Hello? … Hello?”
The only reply was silence. After taking a last look around, Sam began to walk toward the back of the saloon and the forest beyond.
By the time he reached the forest, the last sliver of daylight had given way to night. A normal human would have been completely lost in the darkness, but fortunately for Sam, he was anything but normal. He followed a path that appeared to head generally west toward the river. The stagnant blackness of the thick forest was periodically interrupted by intermittent shards of pale moonlight. The cricket-dominated sounds of night creatures flooded the air as Sam trudged along the path, his Nike sneakers crunching the leaves and twigs that lined the ground. He heard the occasional rustling of foliage as various animals scurried around him, never crossing his path—the creatures kept their distance.
The density of the forest increased as the songs of its cricket population reached deafening decibels. Loose debris, disturbed by the wind’s acceleration, swirled around, occasionally hitting Sam in the face. He wondered how such a fierce wind could penetrate this deeply into the woods—it wasn’t natural—then again, nothing about this place was particularly natural. Perhaps, he supposed, it meant he was closing in on Aceldama.
The night soon grew just as cold as the day had been hot, as if some weather god had just flipped a switch. His summer clothing provided inefficient protection from the rapidly decreasing temperature, so Sam picked up his pace to a slow jog. He ran for what seemed like an eternity, realizing in the process that he had seriously misjudged his proximity to the river. Finally, he burst through the edge of the forest—and immediately tumbled down a steep embankment. His right shoulder landed with a thud on a narrow beach, the rest of his body following suit, leaving him prone and staring up at the starless sky. He lay there for a few minutes trying to recapture the air that had been knocked from his lungs.
The howling wind hammered the trees, sending giant branches flying in every direction. Dirt and debris flew into the air, coalescing into a brown funnel cloud that moved over the water. Enormous waves sprang from the river and beat ferociously against the shore. Sam had never seen anything like it. He felt as if he were on the shore of an ocean in the midst of a storm rather than an inland river in Mississippi. He rose unsteadily to his feet, barely able to stand against the violent wind, and began walking south, the river raging to his right. The crickets seemed to be battling the wind and river for audio supremacy. Eventually, the clashing sounds blended into a white noise that pierced Sam’s ears to the point where he thought his eardrums would burst.
Then it all stopped.
The sudden silence caught Sam off-guard and he nearly tripped to the ground as his body continued to push against a wind that was no longer there. The river stood as calm as if the last few minutes had never happened; not even a ripple penetrated its still surface. The crickets had vanished. In fact, Sam could not hear a single sound coming from the forest. He looked around and around, confounded by yet another unnatural shift in the environment, but thankful for the relief (his ears rang louder than the time he had sat near a mammoth speaker for three hours at a Bruce Springsteen concert).
The calm, however, did not last long. A high-pitched noise soon emanated from the middle of the river. What initially sounded to Sam like wind morphed into millions of screaming voices almost singing in a harsh dissonance that reminded him of the “Jupiter and Beyond the Infinite” sequence from Kubrick’s 2001. The voices grew louder as they approached Sam’s position, washing over him in an aural tidal wave. He covered his ears in a useless attempt to dampen the sound. He shuddered as goose bumps broke out all over his flesh.
Then a blinding flash of light materialized over the water and expanded into a long, bright-red beam rising perpendicular to the ground. Hundreds of beams proceeded to bisect the first beam from every angle. The entire luminescent structure began rotating faster and faster until it became a single perfect circle, glowing with every color of the visible spectrum. Sam suddenly found himself dragged toward the center of the entity as he shielded his eyes from its brilliance. He knew this was likely the doorway to Aceldama, but his first instinct was to resist the forces pulling on his body. The struggle, however, proved futile as the tremendous force generated by the portal lifted him off the ground and sucked him in.
Sam ultimately surrendered, allowing the portal to take him wherever it might. Looking around, he saw nothing but multi-colored light surrounding him on all sides, and he thought once again of the wormhole sequence from 2001. He continued to float in mid-air, slowly rotating head over heels as he traveled through the strange formation. Visions of his past began flashing in front of him. Soon every image, sound, smell, and feeling that Sam had ever experienced attacked his senses at a furiously random pace. Having no idea how long he would be in this state of transition, Sam took a deep breath and began to concentrate on the stimuli before him. He discovered that with a little patience, he could actually bring some order to the sights and sounds weaving in and out of his consciousness. So he embraced the images, clinging to the distant memories of his past life for perhaps the last time.
He knew that once he reached the other side his life would never be the same. But then Sam had grown accustomed to change—his life had abandoned any sense of normality and stability a long, long time ago.
-end of excerpt-