Edmund J Sullivan Illustrations to The Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam First Version Quatrain
Speak of the Devil
Speak of the Devil and you'll hear the rustle of his wings.
“I met him once,” the old man standing beside me at the bar said, nodding his head at the television. His voice sounded strained, stretched, choked off.
I just nodded. I’d driven for twelve hours and I was dog tired but I couldn’t get to sleep. Every time I closed my eyes I saw the road in front of me and as soon as I dozed off some panic button would jolt me awake, telling me the car was veering off the road. Like everyone else, I have my dreams. But I've learned to hide them.
Another twelve to sixteen hours waited for me tomorrow. I needed some sleep so I’d walked across the tarmac from the Super-6 to what looked to be a quiet restaurant. Fortunately it had a bar section where the locals, all in John Deere hats and construction boots, bellied up to the bar and drank Jim Bean with Bud chasers in morose silence. But my luck didn’t hold. I got stuck beside the talkative one.
“I met him once.”
“Who? The senator?”
“No, the fellow standing just behind him. I met him once and he put more fear of God into me than all the Baptist hell fire preachers in Alabama.”
I looked up at the screen. At first I couldn’t even spot the fellow the guy was talking about. The senator was one of those short people who wore boosters in his shoe bottom and piled his hair up top. Still, the one the fellow beside me remarked on was a good four inches shorter, youngish, with sharp teeth and eyes like black plastic buttons. The news shifted back to the anchor and I pulled my eyes away from the television.
“I met him thirty years ago, back when I was young, stupid and reckless,” the old man beside me said, his hand shaking as he picked up his shot glass.
I turned to the talker beside me and gave him my full attention. My first glance had said old man but he wasn’t much older than me. The baseball hat, the plaid shirt and the work jeans tucked into steel toed work boots didn’t jive with the voice.
He stood five ten and couldn’t have weighed more than 150. The hand holding the whiskey glass was washed a baby fresh pink. The short nails had been cleaned. Still the calluses told me this was a man who worked with his hands and the breadth of the palm showed me the power of the grip.
Why had I thought him old? Grey hair, a day's growth of beard, dark patches under his eyes and teeth yellow from smoking Camels without filters aged, I decided. But He couldn’t have met the guy on the television thirty years ago. One wouldn’t have been born and the other would only have been a punk.
“Where did you meet him?” I asked. I knew I couldn’t sleep and, aside from the pinball machine beside the bathroom door, the only entertainment was the television set.
“Back in ‘72,” he began. “I was just out of the service. I’d spent two years in the Marines and thirteen months in ‘Nam. Army pukes spent a year in country but us gung-ho marines had to give an extra month. They discharged me in California and I spent the summer getting a full tan and letting my hair grow long while I enjoyed soap and clean sheets in a little apartment down in the rough part of Venice Beach. Slept late if I wanted to but the trouble was I couldn’t sleep too good, Y’know?”
I nodded. I knew.
“I’d saved a fair bit, made a little on the side. Pa wanted me home to help on the farm but I didn’t know if I wanted that anymore. I’d seen too much. Besides Ma’s cooking and Pa’s bossing there wasn’t too much else to return to. I’d received a ‘Dear Johnny’ letter while loading the big guns just outside of Hue.”
He wasn’t looking at me anymore; he just stared into his whiskey glass, rolling the golden liquid around and around. His voice kept rolling and I knew the story would unwind like a long ribbon, eventually reaching the core. All I had to do was wait for it.
“His name was Hughie, Hughie Nystrom. At least he gave me that name. I’d bought a second hand electric blue convertible and wanted to drive down to Texas. I’d heard there was good money working on the oil rigs and figured after what I’d been through that would be a piece of cake
“Anyway I put an ad in the paper looking for a driver who’d pay gas in exchange for a ride. My pa hammered it into me to never spend a nickel you didn’t have to. I couldn't find anyone interested in leaving L.A. in September to drive to Texas. Most of the wanderers were heading the other way and the rest of the world was working like hell to dodge the draft or pay down a mortgage.
“I got a couple weird calls, one from a guy who was more interested in sleeping arrangements than driving. Then Hughie called. He claimed to be a senior at Texas A&M who had spent the summer working in California and was looking for a cheap ride back home. We met. He looked straight. He could handle paying for the gas, had a driver’s license and didn’t smell of pot or cigarettes.
On the whole he struck me as fine, except for his smile. He wore one all the time and it made him look like he knew a secret the rest of the world needed. Still, I wasn’t going to marry him, just drive with him for two, three days. You do much long distance driving?”
“Some,” I answered. “I’m driving to Monterey right now,” I continued after a second to fill in the silence. He had a way of listening that made you want to talk.
“So you’re just passing through. Drive this way regular?”
“No. My wife and I broke up and I took a new job in California, to get away.
"That’s the nice thing about California,” he said. “You can lose yourself there. Everyone’s from somewhere else. Same in Florida. A family moved to the town I grew up in when I was ten. When I left, everyone still called them ‘the new people’. But take my advice, when you get to California, join a church. It’ll give you something solid. A man needs something solid.”
He tapped his empty glass on the bar three times and the bartender gave him a new shot. I waited, curious. The fellow on the television didn’t look fifty.
“I settled with Hughie on the gas money and he promised to pay as soon as we started driving. We decided to head off on a Saturday morning, before the heat of the day. Just as we finished talking, he became interested in my shoes. Asked me the make and where I got them and what size I wore. I didn’t think anything of it and told him.
“The next morning we headed east. There’s one thousand four hundred and three miles between Los Angeles and Dallas. That’s three days of easy driving, two days of hard driving and one day of solid driving. Neither of us needed to be somewhere on Monday morning so we agreed to take it easy. I let him start, just so I could get a feel for his style. He drove calm and steady, keeping up with the traffic but not making any fuss that might attract attention from the Highway Patrol. The only thing bothering me was his shoes. He had brand new shoes, exactly the same as mine.”
The television had moved on to sports and the baseball results prompted groans and conversation around us. My new friend looked at me and sipped his whiskey. I could see him weighing me for something. I called for another beer. I figured one more might help. Anymore and I’d feel it tomorrow. Finally he nodded to himself and continued.
“Thirty years later and it still gnaws at me. This is like ‘my shamed confession, despairing’. But you have to understand. Sometimes I wake up in the middle of the night and I think I see his laughing face. Sometimes I dream I see...”
He sipped his whiskey.
“On the second day we stopped for gas and something to eat. Back then, if you were off the interstates, most of the places were mom and pop outfits. We hit this little dot on the map that claimed to have a thousand inhabitants but I’d ‘ve bet on closer to a hundred and only on Sunday.
“As we were getting our lunch, Hughie started chatting up the waitress. He was good looking enough and dressed clean, with a touch of money. Here was I with the electric blue convertible and he wore the pressed white shirt. Made me look like the driver but it didn’t bother me.
“She couldn’t have been much over eighteen and you could see she drank in every word he spun about travelling across the country and seeing the world. She kept coming back to our table to top up our coffee. After I’d eaten, I started getting itchy to travel. Hughie offered to pick up the check for lunch while I gassed up. I shrugged and left him to romance the girl a bit more. I didn’t think he get any but I never knew much about girls.
“’Course, you have to understand… Back in ‘72, America was divided into those that served, those that dodged and a mix in the middle. I found out quick enough in L.A. girls didn’t want anything to do with a soldier boy. Fine by me. I knew from ‘Nam that money buys a woman easier than flowers and chocolate and I scratched my itch when I felt like it.
“When I pulled up to the restaurant, Hughie jumped in the front and Amanda, with a little pack not much more than a big purse, popped in the back seat. Hughie gave me a smile and that grin. I shrugged. That was about noon somewhere in Arizona. I won’t say where.
“We stopped at a motel that night. Hughie and Amanda took their own room. I remember being a bit annoyed. Couldn’t he have stopped pussy hunting for a three day trip? Still, I didn’t need to know him the day after tomorrow, so I let it be.
“The next day, when it came to his shift to drive, he asked me if I minded if Amanda sat up front with him. I shrugged and let it be. After a couple hours, in the back, I started to doze. Riding in the back seat puts me to sleep every time. Doesn’t matter if it's a car or a bus or a troop transport. Guys used to envy me that trick back in ‘Nam.
“When I woke up, the electric blue convertible was parked on the side of the road, in hilly country in New Mexico. There was no sign of Hughie or Amanda. I figured they must have decided to pull over for a quick bit while I was sleeping. This was too much. I got out of the car, stretched and walked over to the side of the road to look for a place to piss. There wasn’t much aside from rocks and cactus and I had no intention of waving my whanger around a plant with spikes.
“I climbed up a bit more and found a rock to wet. All I could smell was dust and sage. All I could see was yellow and brown, rocks and more rocks in any direction. When I turned back buttoning up my jeans, I saw Hughie walking back with that damned grin on his face.
“‘Where’s Amanda?’ I asked him.
“‘Don’t you worry about her.’ He was grinning but his eyes were dead flat. There was no humour in those eyes. I’d seen a stare like that (thousand yard) before and it scared me. I swear I would have pissed my pants if my bladder hadn’t been empty. I tore down the slope back to the electric blue convertible, slipping and sliding most of the way. The driver’s door wasn’t locked but the keys were missing. I knew who had them. Then I saw the knife, my knife, in Hughie’s hands and it was bloody.”
He looked at me. I said nothing. Instead I swallowed the rest of my beer in one gulp and tapped on the counter for another. The new bottle was ice cold, wet and slippery in my hand.
“Hughie started laughing. He told me how he’d tied her up with my belt and butchered her in a gully with my knife, as he sauntered closer. I figured he planned to filet me next. I jumped into the car and locked the doors. He held my car keys in his hand by two fingers and dangled them in front of me. I nearly tore my jeans pulling my wallet out of my pants and getting the spare key. I didn’t hesitate. I slammed it in the ignition, put my car in drive and pulled away spewing dust and gravel in all directions. I was doing a hundred before I was over the hill. All the time, he stood there beside the road, laughing.”
The stranger picked up his whiskey glass and tossed the rest of it down, turned the glass over and slipped a tip under it. He turned and looked at me.
“I was twenty miles down the road before I had my wits back together. My first thought was to stop at a place with a phone and call the cops. Then I thought a bit more. What if he was gone? How would I explain a dead girl by the side of the road, tied with my belt? The more I ran over the story in my mind, the worse it sounded. I didn’t expect a young stranger would get much of a hearing with my story. When I finally saw the gas station, I drove right past it.
“I never did call the cops. I drove down to Galveston and started to work on the rigs. After a year of I came back home but I couldn’t handle Pa’s ways, so I moved down here, joined the church, married a local girl and started a family. Trouble is, I still can’t sleep at night.
“It's been thirty years now. II still wake up with the sweats and Hughie’s the Senator’s policy advisor.
“Do you think anyone would believe my story any more today than thirty years ago? But I still wake up in the middle of the night seeing Amanda’s face, the way she looked in the diner, all full of joy and wonder. Sometimes I see her dead face in my dreams and the eyes pop open and look at me. Then I jerk up sharp, glad to wake up, afraid to go back to sleep, wondering if she was the only one.”
I looked at him, my beer forgotten, hearing the clinking of the bottle caps as the bartender opened a couple fresh ones for some other customers. I want the old man to tell me it’s all a joke, to spout a punch line and wash the horror from my mind with some lie. But he only looks at me, waiting.
Finally, I asked, “Why tell me?”
“I can’t ask her for forgiveness.” He tugged his baseball cap in place and walked out the door. I watched him for a second. I looked around the place. No one noticed us but the bartender, who cleared away the glass and pocketed the tip.
“Do you know that man?” I asked.
The bartender looked me in the eye for the first time that night. “Nope. Just a stranger like’n yourself. Want another?”
I shook my head, and threw a twenty on the counter and raced out the door without waiting for the change. I looked left and right but saw no sign of the stranger who burdened me with his guilt. No one walked on the road. No cars moved in the lot. I walked back and forth looking into truck cabs and car interiors. I found a couple embracing but no one else.
Back inside the bartender remembered me and my twenty. when he came over, I asked, “How did the other fellow pay for his drinks?”
“Like you. Cash.”
“Are you sure you never saw him before?”
“Positive. Say man, are you all right? Want I should call someone?”
I shook my head and walked back to the Super-6, packed my bags and climbed in the car and started to drive. I wished I could leave behind the story as quick as I left the town. I couldn’t. I didn’t feel the least bit sleepy and I had a feeling I wouldn’t. Not for quite some time.
Copyright 2006, 2014 Edward McDermott. A similar story was printed in Nuvein Magazine.
Did you enjoy that? Would you like to read more horror short stories by Edward McDermott? Then here's a pointer to another story by me: Sleep no more