By Michael Wehunt
The sun was iodine from an eyedropper. It set that fast, trembling and pregnant one moment, broken on the rocks of the million-mile horizon like an egg yolk the next. Distant streaks of jaundiced clouds. I could feel the gaping sky dilate and roll in its socket to regard me. This Texan onionskin flatness was practically desert to me. The nothingness ballooned out here in the old frontier. At least, compared to what I was used to. I was a Georgia boy, born and raised, but we never trumpeted things like that with the barbed pride of a longhorn shitkicker.
The old Volvo had the shakes as I rattled it toward Ditson’s trailer, spuming skeins of dust into the air. Through the half-open window came hot breaths laced with the eely tang of oil. I’d passed a reflectorised sign reading ‘Notrees’ back on 302 and that wasn’t far at all from an honest name. There were sparse trees, but they were short and looked embarrassed to be there in all that dwarfing openness. I could see a wind farm in the distance: giant praying-mantis turbines lined up in waiting rows. They slept in the paling August heat.
My left headlight flickered, loose in its bracket. Like it had something in its eye. I’d turned down a couple of dirt roads not far into whatever it was that called itself Notrees. I fumbled with the scribbled directions in the dying light. One last rutted afterthought loomed ahead. I knocked the turn signal on just for a lonely laugh and took a right. The car hit a dip that slammed its nose into the hardpan and I slowed. Ditson’s place was due any minute now.
Nineteen hours of driving with an extra four hours sprinkled in for naps and gallons of water. I’d marked a lot of ditches along the way. Yesterday, I’d tossed a change of clothes in the car and logged the first of 1100 miles of eyesores. All told, I’d gone from finding out where Ditson was holed up to killing the headlights and coasting to a stop here in this gasping dust in 34 hours.
I got out of the car, pushed the door closed slowly with my weight. Watched faraway shadows heave like tar and reassemble themselves. I sensed the earth lick its lips, a pliant furrow in the air. Just for a moment. Only a tired daze I had to wipe from my face. I leaned back at a contortionist’s angle, fists pressed into the small of my back. There was a muted, spongy chain of pops and I sighed. Made myself walk around a bit to work out any kinks in my legs, then checked the Browning’s magazine for the fourth or fifth time. It was a Hi-Power, but that meant little to me; it was the only gun I’d ever held in my hand. And that had been a lifetime ago until now. I stuffed it in the back of my pants like a movie hoodlum and covered it with my shirttail. Then I walked, trying on an easy smile. Hey, Dit, just in the neighborhood. Thought I’d catch up with an old friend. Right.
The money was only the first thing. And it was, no doubt, the lesser thing. Ditson and I went back as far as seventh grade. He was the brilliant one, while I was the troublemaker. We’d spit water and milk through the slots in locker doors between classes. Sneak cigarettes. Quote Monty Python and make up our own Holy Grail bits, which were horrifically unfunny. And a lot of demon and sorcery card games. Those ate up lunch periods a lot of days for a while.
He was my best friend, despite the fact I never saw him outside of school. Hanging out or staying over was never brought up, not even during the height of the magic cards, when he was obsessed with building his necromancer character up. Come midafternoon, my brother and I’d get on the bus; Ditson would shoulder his olive-drab backpack and march off down the street. I never tried to chum up with him for a walk home; I lived a ways across town and my video games were waiting for me. Remembering 13 from out here in 38 was like a frosted window. I could wipe it clean with my shirtsleeve, but it fogged right back up. But some things just dominated a kid’s childhood; like half of us back then, I was a Nintendo nut. Lunchtime was enough of those flimsy cards for me.
We strayed apart in high school, when girls and pot replaced video games for me. He became heavier, dumpier, while I’d beefed up my tall and lanky. Later, early twenties, we became pretty tight again. Romy kept us close, in a way. But we’d always meet up places or he’d swing by my apartment to eat mushrooms on the porch. Never his place and he’d bat aside questions about it like mosquitos.
In fact, standing here looking into this thin depression in the land, shallow as an unwashed bedpan, I beheld a Casa Ditson for the first time. The trailer was a paltry saltine cracker sleeve parked in the dirt. Looked like it was made of corrugated plastic with snaps to fasten the walls together. A cloud of moths worshipped the haloed lamp by the wafer door. The only god for miles around. Propane tanks lay like mouse droppings at one end. A lump of a car huddled beneath a blue tarp. The whole setup was just flaccid. The road ran into the bedpan’s thinnest lip in front of the trailer. There were maybe five blades of grass around the place. I couldn’t detect any more civilisation beyond here. The blood-orange sky deepened steadily to mauve and indigo. “The end of the Worm, old buddy.” I spat sour coffee taste out of my mouth before correcting myself: “Road. End of the road.”
I hadn’t seen Ditson in five years. I’d had a friendly ear out for him for most of those, and I’d been trying hard to sink a thumbtack – a red one – right through him on a map for just over two. He’d borrowed eight grand from me back in ’06, but like I said, the money was the lesser thing. Even considering I never saw the first nickel of it, it’s most assuredly the lesser thing.
But unease squirmed between my ears. Thing about Ditson was he was kind of tricky, meaning I’d always found something about him hard to wrap my thoughts around. The whole secretive thing about his relationships – or lack of them, really – places he lived, the odd things he did. He’d been swallowed up by science and lab shit. Read voraciously and started coming to school with gashed and swollen fingers. Wouldn’t say much about what he was up to. That was another reason for us sliding apart. He started having the look of a kid who was only in his element when final exam time rolled in. Except starker: He always looked feverish – a cross between eager and shaky – with hard glitter in his eyes. Muttered a lot.
But it was more the books I’d glimpse in his bag propped against the desk legs in biology class. He’d paper most of the covers over, but paper tore and I’d see weird-looking fonts and strange segments of words that made my head swim a little. Which kept me checking every time I saw the chance. The books were purple or black, like bruises, and they looked homemade. Gold or bone-white lettering. That would’ve been around freshman year; not long after that, I started screwing around with girls and, later on, Romy came into the picture.
Romy was a black-lipsticked dopehead – her proud word – with firm curves hiding beneath her Venom t-shirts. A smart mouth that smiled freely. I met her through Ditson; they’d been inseparable in grade school, apparently, lived on neighbouring streets. She had stayed with her father for a few years up in New England somewhere. Then her mom had remarried well and returned with Romy to her rustic stomping grounds in our tree-choked town. She and Ditson reforged their childhood bond as though they were still in it; I half-expected to catch them climbing trees and jumping into great piles of russet leaves. But she was like that: always tucking sullen and broken creatures under her wings.
We were a steadfast trio with a lot of laughs and drugs for a time. Then Ditson just started to fade faster. His skin grew pasty and his eyes sank into his face. He got more erratic and insular. But Romy and me. I loved that girl. We were a real item; made it past that whole sweet-16 hormone fest and stayed that way until she vanished 6 years ago. About two months after I loaned Ditson all that cash. Before a year had gone by, he’d melted away, too.
It wasn’t until much later, at the tail end of a stained and blurry time for me, that I started connecting the proximity of those events. And it took me finding a photo in my mail of an oily-looking book – clearly the one I’d seen in his backpack a hundred times. There was the pebbled-black cover, and spindly gold letters – murkier than I remembered – spelled out Procès d’un Ver. Which I found out translated to “Trial of a Worm.” I never could figure what it was, but after some confusing research, I guessed it might be a grimoire, or black magic instruction manual, which meant Ditson had a creepy hobby. That said something about his faculties. Maybe those magic cards had led to deeper interests.
As time went by, I began to suspect it was only a journal, which somehow said worse things about him. Just looking at a picture of the thing made my eyeballs hum. There were other books I might’ve identified from my memories of those backpack glances, given time and patience, but it was the worm one – the taste of that photo – that made me start thinking he just might have killed my wife. I was sure the cops had closed their half-page report on Romy a while before then. And eventually, as my bleak mourning of her began to harden into something sharper, I stopped looking for her and started looking for him.
And now here he was. Anything else was just procrastination and my stomach roiled with blank dread.
Night was pretty much onstage now. I touched the gun tonguing out above my belt then stepped onto Ditson’s little slice of West Texas. A freshening wind tossed grit in my face as I walked. I might as well have whistled, so hard was I trying for that casual old-pal vibe. I doubted he would buy into it. As I neared the trailer’s door, an opiate drone grew around me and the dooryard darkened quickly. I realised that there were no moths boiling around the harsh blare of the light by the door; instead, a swarm of plump honeybees crawled and blotted the fixture. The ribbed metal of the walls was ungodly with filth: streaks and whorls of mud or, for all I knew, shit and blood. And the stench was already upon me: urine and noisome sweetness. I paused at the door, before its opaque window slats, and wondered if Ditson had gone ahead and prevented me from getting the answers I wanted.
The thrum of the bees purred wetly against my eardrums. The sound of it was an ill thing. I mumbled, “Fuck it,” pulled my gun, and turned the doorknob. It wasn’t locked and I stepped up into the trailer.
“You made it.” I heard the voice, but it took me a long, quavering moment to get my bearings. The stink in the trailer was ferocious. Every surface my eyes caught was a pyramid of cans: soda, microwaveable kids’ pasta, processed meat globs. The air burned my eyes with a pall of grease and the rich, palpable layer of body odour. And bees. In those disjointed glances around the trailer, in all the spoiled food, I didn’t see a single fly. Only bees, hundreds of them. Trundling on the fouled carpet; alighting on cans; papering the walls with their resonant wings.
Perhaps Ditson could’ve brained me in that waxy pause, but when I felt ready to turn my head to the right, I saw that this was probably not the case. He was a wraith devoured by an easy chair. Naked but for sagging yellowed briefs that hung below the flared hipbones. No way he could’ve hit three digits on a scale. Even the loose skin of the once-chubby had wasted away to stretch across all those bones. His hair hung in clotted strands to his shoulders. A pile of years and more than a thousand miles, and all I could do was gape. A dozen or so bees ambled over his body, sluggish and aimless. He was covered with livid welts. The writhing bee above his left eye mesmerised me and erased my voice.
“Come on in. Take your time, man; it’s been a while. Think I’ve been left here just for you.” His voice was stuffed with phlegm and wheeze; it had trouble carrying in the thick air. He smiled and showed me receded gums and loose brown teeth.
“What the fuck’s happened to you, Anthony?” I sensed the situation go slimy the very second a bee landed on the back of my neck. I slammed my palm against it; cursed its guts off my hand. “I fucking hate bees. I do.”
“That’s news to me, Sam. They sure have always liked you. I’m the one who can’t stand them. I can’t wear clothes because it’s worse having them crawl up under them. They have friends, too.” He gestured and I saw dark-brown wasps peppered throughout the room. Bees began to settle upon me, wriggling with calm. I tensed for the first sting.
To hell with this. I needed to do my deed and enjoy the better half of the trip, the return home with at least the salve of closure. “Look, fuck all that. You know why I’m here. My wife. What happened to Romy?”
“You happened to Romy.” This brought the gun swiveling up to level at his face. Even still by the door, I was only ten or twelve feet from his throne of offal. The Worm sat gloating. The Worm … I shook my head hard. He watched me as though puzzled before going on. “What do you mean, ‘wife’? You two never got married. And I didn’t do anything to her, Sam. She just left. She had to get – ”
“Bullshit!” The gun stabbed the air with punctuation. “What’s with the fucking Worm book? That was the book you made when we were kids, right? You sent me the picture of it?” I was slick with sweat. The air clogged my pores, the closeness and the stink of it. The bees wove into a shroud upon me. Still, they did not sting.
“Huh? That was your book. You brought it to school every day.” He laughed, but it died quickly; his face slackened as he saw I wasn’t buying it. “What, you saying you don’t remember your precious diary?”
“Don’t hand me that. I didn’t even know the name of that thing until I got that picture.”
“Holy shit. You really don’t remember.”
I didn’t say anything. It was hard enough to just breathe right then.
“You are the Worm. ‘The Worm of The Grandfathers’ – that’s what you called yourself all the damn time. You taught me how to … build doors for Them, remember? We spent years – years, man – in my basement learning. Becoming, you said. You started changing because They were upon the world. So you could be the Eater and not the eaten, right?” He winced as the bee buried its stinger right above his eye then tumbled like a mossed pebble to his lap.
My own flowed up and encircled my neck. I was starting to realise they simply would not sting me. I opened my mouth several times before anything came out. “You … can’t turn all this around.”
Ditson tried laughing again. This time, he fared better. “How could you forget shit like that? Come on, man, you seen your face in the last 15 years? Your fucking fingers are five, six inches long! Look on the shelf right there. You passed the book on to me. Shit got too deep in me to get it out, but I tried and Christ I’ve suffered; look at me. But then the thing with Romy in the hospital and I gave your money to her to get away from …. ”
He said a lot of words after that, but I didn’t hear any of them. There was only the blood coursing its highways through my skull and the sleepy blanket drone of the bees nestled on me. His mouth was moving, blistered with sores in filmy light. I saw his thick tongue twitching and I emptied the clip into him, walking forward as I pulled the trigger to finish with the bore of the muzzle flashing in his eyes.
The tears and the shaking had already started before I lifted the book off the shelf. Procès d’un Ver. The texture of the cover was like glossy scar tissue. I peeked inside and saw my name scrawled on the first line, along with some odd symbols. It fell from my dead fingers to the carpet.
There was a framed picture a thousand years old of Romy and me with Ditson. Strange to think photographs were colour so long ago. We sat on a checkered quilt and there were trees in the background. Real trees, oaks that ranged far above the frame. Her orange hair flamed like a corona.
I traced her hair with a blood-speckled snake of an index finger. The flesh it was wrapped in was damp and porous. When did this happen? I picked up a thin sheaf of paper and did little more than scan. There were three letters, each written in Romy’s leaning script, the last one dated September 17, 1996. I croaked the words:
“Anthony, thank you again for the money. I won’t be writing again. I’m mending okay. I’d better keep where I am going to myself. Because you may not be as off the deep end about this doorway shit as Sam, but even in the kiddie end of the pool, it’s scary shit. It got scary after high school and that was nothing. That was when it was just his godawful experiments. Before he started turning into that thing. Wish I could put the ends of the earth between me and him. But I hope that at least you will see reason. He’s way past that. I’ll think of you. Romy.”
I picked the book up off the floor, my living shawl stooping with me. Flipped through to the last couple of pages. My thoughts yawned back through all the fetid works and words to those childish magic game cards I carried around with me everywhere I went – the memory surged like strychnine through my veins – and I suddenly understood every last goddamned one of those squiggled symbols: “WORM, I SAMUEL L. BORWICK on this Day 1994 5th of October BECOME a VESSEL. HERE IN THIS VALLEY of DYING STARS. THOSE COMING MULTIFOLIATE.”
And so on. I placed it gently back on the shelf. I was remembering a great deal now. That was human skin I’d added to my original binding, but that had come years after high school, when blood was called for. And the line about dying stars was from Eliot. Ah, my whole fucking life flooded back into me, and how had I lost ten years? How had I lumbered about, thinking Romy disappeared in 2006? But I hadn’t gone much of anywhere, had I? Memories stuttered like playing cards in bicycle spokes. I’d ensconced myself in a moist pocket of the world, waiting in grief – in regret? – for my Mind to be expunged. I recalled the relentless torpid drip of water. Anemic grey light that never quite reached me.
I shuffled over to a smudged mirror and saw my cracked-slate eyes and my withered dark cave of a mouth. A blighted chill climbed up my back, then an abrupt hot gush of emotion for my old allegiances. What would They think of me now?
Then the trailer rocked back on its haunches and settled forward with old-bone creaks. Cans spilled everywhere. The room tipped again and Ditson flopped to the carpet. En masse, the bees abandoned me. The windows dripped with black shapes outside. I felt an Eye upon me. I staggered to the door, each hair on my body fizzing with a blend of elation and terror. The last words of the Eliot poem bloomed in the dust of my recall. Something about the end coming not with a bang but with a whimper. I flung open the door with a lost noise in my throat.
The night wreathed around my soft limbs. Endless smears of sinew took me. I gazed across the cyclopean waste of Texas to the distending horizon.
Bio: Michael Wehunt spends his time in Atlanta, Georgia, avoiding wasps and bees. There is always a piano playing in his mind. Though he is a longtime aficionado of all things horror, “Notrees” is his first published story. Please visit him at: www.michaelwehunt.com.