Nefast by James Kracht

Friendships are usually remembered by how they strayed and ended.

I was once asked if I had dreams.

Forgive her -- she was only a high school guidance counselor. How could she have known? How could I have explained?

Yes, I have dreams. And I do not enjoy them.

I revisit dream-places, archaic book-filled hovels perched at the ends of staircases that ascend the precarious slopes of rusting mountainsides. I have been to the enclosed marketplaces of another world where ceilings are impossibly high and lost in mists and darkness. I have seen cryptic shops, disturbing in their wares, and I have repeatedly glimpsed a decrepit man, his face hidden beneath a ragged cowl, wandering the ruins of a dead icebound city.

What it all means is still a mystery to me.

Recently I was told that this ability -- to return -- is a gift. I do not agree. I do not want to go. I simply arrive, and while nothing terrible has ever happened, I sense that something is watching me. I have always sensed that. Something is watching still.

In the waking world where I live out my days nothing is amiss. I never feel as though I'm being watched. But once, as a child, something captured me in its immortal, alien gaze. And before my eyes this thing I could not see took one of my friends away. It happened on a playground, at school. A boy named Troy disappeared at the end of a drainage ditch, where a steeply angled grate covered the cement passageway that led to the sewers. It did not make sense to us, as children; we had tried for weeks to get through that grate, to explore that dark place, to retrieve a coveted football the shadows had stolen from us. Yet somehow, Troy had gotten through; my friend Daniel claimed he'd seen the bars bend apart on their own. All I saw was Troy standing within -- in that place we could never reach. A look of surprise had crossed his face.

It did not matter what any of us actually saw -- Troy had vanished moments later. And when he did, I saw something -- something I could never understand. My mind was too young. What I saw held no logic -- there was nothing I could process, except perhaps for the concept of light; there was a flash in there, a flicker of green, and a strange sphere in silhouette -- a thing that I had always thought was our lost football. Of course, no one believed that Troy could have gotten through those bars and a manhunt was launched for his abductor. No one ever saw Troy again; his parents became ill and eventually moved away. Shortly after that a new family moved in. We came to know of them as the Lees, and more importantly, we came to know their stocky, heavy daughter -- Kelly Lee; no one really liked this girl. She was aloof, though at the time we used different words. Perhaps it was the way she sang to herself -- the only lyric we could understand was her name, which she'd sing over and over -- Kelly Lee! Kelly Lee! -- as she skipped along. Her parents, meanwhile, were rarely seen, preferring to stay indoors. No one was ever sure of their full names, or of what they did for a living.

Time passed and Troy's disappearance became the stuff of playground legend. No one ever played near the sewer grate again and the area was eventually built over when the school expanded the gymnasium. Daniel and I remained close friends. Daniel was awkward, though. He was painfully shy; in high school this led to problems, which were made all the worse by a quirk in the way the school districts were laid upon the city. Daniel and I were in different zones and we were forced to go to different schools; to me, it felt as if he had been cast socially adrift. Kelly Lee, who lived only a few houses down from Daniel, went to the east with him -- and I to the west. I always talked with him on the phone though, and as long as I knew him he never once doubted what had happened to Troy on the playground all those years before. He had seen the sewer grate change; I had seen something just as strange and it created a bond between us.

We grew older.

On a cold weekend night midway through our high school careers it became clear to me that something had changed in his life; as we talked on the phone I could hear laughter in the background -- that of a girl. Later in the conversation I heard him groan. I asked what was happening and I'll never forget the reply: "Kelly is sitting on me."

Daniel was small, you see. And Kelly Lee, always larger than most girls, had grown. I tried not to judge but I began to wonder what was happening to him now that I no longer had a daily presence in his life. If any of the past conversations we'd had were true, she simply wasn't his type at all. I figured it was convenient for him -- this girl living just down the street -- so I decided it didn't really matter; I was glad he had someone, even if she was so strange.

Throughout high school Daniel never left Kelly Lee's side, and, once we'd all learned to drive, we often spent time together. I found her bossy and arrogant and she still hummed that strange tune to herself as she waited for Daniel and I to stop playing our video games. Her attitude soon earned her the moniker The Beast among our circle of friends. If you could have seen the way she moved, the way she barked and became manic and unbearable -- the way she suddenly quashed our conversations like Melville's great white whale tossing a boat of harpooners into the air -- well, in a way, it was something to experience, at least once.

Daniel and I moved apart as the years passed us by, but we always tried to keep in touch via the telephone; I'd be lying, however, if I said I wasn't surprised when the wedding invitation arrived. Daniel was marrying Kelly Lee, something I thought even he would never do. I don't recall much from that dark ceremony -- and it was indeed dark. No one can quite remember all the details, and in light of what I later discovered, the ceremony itself -- the very fact that it happened at all -- seems farcical. All of us who attended seemed to have our memories affected by something unknown. Of the facts, there are but few: It was held in a church, this wedding -- a lonely place called Danforth Chapel on the outskirts of the city. We had finally glimpsed Kelly Lee's father for the first time; he was an emaciated wreck dressed in an ill-fitting, antiquated black suit and he seemed familiar to me even though I had never seen him before. The most striking aspect of the wedding was time -- which seemed to start and stop fitfully, leading to a blurred denouement where the bride and groom vanished.

I can remember getting into my car. There was no reception.

Suddenly, I was home.

A tense, uneasy year passed wherein I could not find Daniel. His parents had both fallen ill shortly after the wedding and died a few weeks later. The cause was never determined. When he finally contacted me he sounded different, deeply unhappy, and he divulged a telephone number which I later discovered was a pay phone. We spent the next few weeks trying to catch up on the past and there were topics Daniel would not speak of, such as his wife and in-laws. He revealed little about the previous twelve months and, at my urging, he told me where he lived, though reluctantly. Shortly thereafter I received a call, late in the evening. It is still partly recorded on my answering machine. I have listened to it over and over, even going so far as to digitally sample it in an effort to determine what could generate such an aural anomaly. Daniel's panicked words were few -- "Help me! Something is happening! She changed, she . . . " Dominant in the background was a repetitive sound I'd heard before -- I knew the pattern, but it had taken on a new, ominous quality: "Kelleee-lee! Kelleee-lee!"

Daniel's apartment was in a remote part of the city still under development. There were cotton farms out there and mixed among them, where farmers had sold their lands, were sprawling modern apartment complexes and small strip malls, built quickly and cheaply and lit with a diffuse orange lighting. Daniel's building was at the rear of the complex. From our past conversations I'd gathered enough information to determine which apartment was his; when I saw his car, so forlorn and covered with dust, as if it hadn't been moved in months, I immediately knew that something terrible had happened.

The windows of the apartment were dark. The patio door was utterly black, as if a great curtain had been hung inside. The glass seemed to shudder at times and I could hear the building itself straining, creaking, bending. I ran to Daniel's door and found it unlocked. I pushed inward but was met with a type of resistance that made no sense -- it was as if the door moved on its own and was then pushed rhythmically back, like waves of force were gently beating against the other side. Then in one sudden moment that gentleness turned to pure force, and the door slammed shut, bursting outward. I stumbled backwards, falling to the pavement as a wall of shattered wood and unearthly blackness spilled towards me; within it, before a mass of what appeared to be writhing, shifting eyes, I saw Daniel, my childhood friend, floating in a lambent haze, his face frozen in terror, a large can of gasoline still clutched in one hand.

Then I heard that piping cry -- "Kelleee-lee! Kelleee-lee!"

It bellowed forth like a tidal wave.

In that hideous wall of plasticity I could see other bodies; they were silhouetted by a flickering green light that emanated from the heart of the beast. An appendage, gurgling as it emerged, began to reach out -- seeking to consume me. The ground began to shudder and I squirmed backwards, trying to get away. Again came that strange sound, becoming more defined with each burst. "Kelleee-lee! Kelleee-lee!" I regained my feet and ran, stopping for nothing, not even my car. I gave but a single glance at the horror of that place as I went, and surprisingly, standing directly where I had fallen was Kelly Lee's father, his shoulders sagging, a vacuous grin splayed across his skeletal face.

It felt like I was leaving my life there, abandoning it in the face of something unknowable, as if everything had led to that moment: the disappearance of Troy, my dreams and visions, Daniel's possession. I left everything outside that apartment. All I have now is a haunted present -- and a forfeited past.

I could not, however, stay away. The next day the entire complex had been cordoned off by the police and not a single resident -- animal or otherwise -- could be found. All that remained of Daniel's apartment was a stinking hole in the ground and a masterfully bored tunnel that exposed the sewage system. The incident was later blamed on a natural gas explosion that had erupted under Daniel's apartment. I stopped reading the newspapers at that point; their pathetic attempts at explanation were laughable and deeply disturbing, for I knew that no one would ever understand. What I had witnessed was irrelevant.

I still have my dreams and I still revisit strange places. At times, a familiar visage appears -- Kelly Lee's father, though I have not seen him in the waking world since that night. I have the distinct sense that he has always been there, in my dreams, watching me. I have seen that detrital face peering from gloomy shop windows. I have seen him shuffling down strange pavements, glancing knowingly back at me along streets whose tree-lined edges blot out the darkening skies above; and I have seen him in that frozen bygone city staring downward into a vast dark passageway -- as if waiting for something.

Yes, I have dreams. And I do not enjoy them.

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© 1998 Edward P. Berglund
"Nefast": © 1998 James Kracht. All rights reserved.
Graphics © 1998 Old Arkham Graphics Design. All rights reserved. Email to: Corey T. Whitworth.

Created: April 10, 1998