Lang parked the van several blocks from Clevell Park and walked. Even during daylight hours it bothered him to visit such places, but addiction called. Lang pulled out a pack of cigarettes and tapped one free.
"Hey," said the young man's tenor voice.
Pausing, Lang turned his head and faced the speaker.
The bearded man, in his early twenties, sat on the stone wall surrounding the park. He swung his skinny legs and let his heels bounce off the wall.
"What?" Lang said.
"Ya got another?" The man smiled and raised his eyebrows.
Lang reached into the left chest pocket of his coat and brought out the pack.
The man dropped from the wall and limped over. He smelled of dumpster gunk and unwashed armpits. A denim coat, tattered and stained, was tied around his waist. The man's shirt and pants were equally filthy and worn.
"Thanks, man, I really appreciate it," the man said.
"Sure, no problem. I try to help when I can." Lang retrieved a lighter and lit the man's cigarette. "You don't seem like the kind of guy who should be bumming cigarettes and smelling like an overfilled port-a-potty."
The young man chuckled. "Circumstances, man, just bad circumstances." He took a drag from his cigarette. "Hey, what did you mean about helping somebody out?"
A real smile tugged at Lang's lips. He knew the guy was biting. "Well, I try to find people, much like yourself, and offer them work."
"Man, I could use some work."
Lang's smile broadened.
After gaining the young man's confidence by showing off a worn Bible he kept in his pocket and reading a verse, Lang escorted the young man to the van.
With some chitchat, Lang found out that the man's name was Burt. He listened to Burt's sob story of being shot in the leg when he was thirteen by his father, his eventual addiction to drugs, and his path to becoming a social outcast. Lang nodded and "umhmmed" at the appropriate times, thinking about home all the way up to the driveway.
Burt got out and admired the house.
"How much ya gonna be payin' me?" he asked.
"Room and board plus twenty to thirty bucks," Lang said and walked up to the door.
Burt grunted what Lang considered approval. Lang snapped open the deadbolt and pushed open his door.
"Home sweet home, huh?" Burt said cheerfully.
Lang smiled and ushered his guest into the house and into the kitchen.
"I need to put a supporting brace here," Lang said, pointing to a spot on the kitchen floor. "You'll have to go under the house."
"So, you have the tools and the lumber for me?"
"Yeah. They're downstairs in the basement."
"With all the dead bodies, I suppose?" Burt snorted.
Lang laughed loudly and wondered if the Burt could hear the irony in it. He ambled over to the basement door and opened it.
"It's pretty dark under there, so you'll need a flashlight," Lang said loudly, as though Burt was hard of hearing. He turned and faced Burt, listening to the silence in the house.
"Not a problem, man. I've lived on the street for three years. A little dark ain't gonna scare me."
"Well, that's goo-" Again he started to speak loudly, but stopped once he heard the creaking. It started around the edges of the house, somewhere near the foundation walls, and migrated toward the basement. Lang lowered his head, listening to the house come alive. As suddenly as it had started, the squeaking and popping ceased. A dreadful, waiting silence once again reigned over the house.
"You hear that shit, Burt? That needs to be fixed today," Lang said.
The young man's eyes widened and his mouth made an "O."
"Yeah, man, that sounds serious. The house ain't gonna fuckin' fall on me, is it?"
"Naw, it ain't gonna fall," Lang said, rapidly flexing his fingers as the slimy stirring of addiction wiggled to the surface.
Lang entered the basement door, but hesitated while searching the gloom. Fear wriggled in his chest.
Ten or eleven steps melted into the darkness. Vague forms blurred with an illusion of movement. Before taking a step forward, Lang felt for the light switch on the inside wall. Light from a single low-wattage bulb ripped open the darkness, exposing the house's empty bowels. Nothing could be discerned in the recesses under the house. Mustiness from dirt and concrete flavored each breath.
Before they reached the bottom of the stairs, Lang turned to face Burt.
"You might to be careful of spiders and creepy-crawlies."
"Ahh, no problem. I've slept with rats and cockroaches. A few spiders ain't gonna hurt me."
Lang nodded. He felt the itching in his brain, the antsiness of nerves needing to be sedated. He was aggravated by Burt's jovial manner toward getting to work. In fact, it was all he could do to keep from pummeling the skinny-assed freak.
Within the darkened crawlspace, something bumped a supporting beam. Lang stood rigid.
"You all right, there?" Burt asked.
"Yeah, but sometimes rats run around down here. It freaks me out a bit."
"Shit yeah, man, I know what you mean. They used to scare me too, when I was a kid," Burt said.
The last statement and the irritation of not having his craving fulfilled threw Lang into a rage. He turned toward Burt and drove his forearm into the man's chest, knocking him backward into the stairs.
Burt caught his balance and stared wide-eyed, as if trying to determine if he should fight or back off; Lang knew he had at least have forty pounds on him. He didn't give him a choice. He charged again, grabbing Burt's long, greasy hair and yanking him away from the stairs.
Lang's strength increased from desperation as he dragged the cursing man toward the crawlspace. Burt struggled to regain his footing and beat on the hands gripping his hair.
Lang stopped a few feet from the crawlspace and shoved the man to the floor. He moved behind and placed his right arm around Burt's neck and lifted him. Burt choked and made a pitiful squeak when Lang tightened his arm.
"Listen up, you son of a bitch, I'm tired of fucking with you. I need my fix," Lang said through clenched teeth. He manhandled his victim closer to the crawlspace. Placing his left hand on the small of Burt's back, Lang pushed and released his chokehold in one motion. He didn't have enough leverage to get Burt all the way to the wall. Burt stumbled, turned, and took a small, pleading step toward his attacker.
"Hey, man," Burt said as he attempted to catch his breath, "I'm a nobody! Killing me ain't gonna get you in the papers. People won't even notice I'm gone."
"Exactly, Burt; that's exactly what I want. You're worthless and insignificant and nobody will miss you. In fact, people expect your kind to disappear. You know what else? I bet people thank God that your smelly, disgusting ass is gone." Lang walked up to the shivering man.
"Come on, man," Burt said, voice quivering. He placed one hand in front of his crotch as if to ward off a blow, held up the other in defense.
Lang shoved Burt toward the low basement wall.
As Burt attempted to move away from the crawlspace, Lang's reptilian providers attacked with blurring speed.
They snagged Burt's thin wrist. Startled, he tried to push himself away or at least brace himself from the tugging. Futile. Another reptilian claw reached out from the darkness and hooked into the flesh of Burt's shoulder.
The scream was sickening, high-pitched and phlegmy. Lang covered his ears to muffle the pleas.
Burt punched and slapped. The clawed hand dug into Burt's shoulder, puncturing his skin. Ribbons of blood flowed from the wounds. Claws dragged the man up over the wall. His feet kicked and thrashed, until they melted into the murkiness. Burt screamed once more, but the cry was cut short.
Lang paced back and forth in the dim light, waiting to get his reward.
"Come on, you fuckers."
A moment later, one of them crawled into view. Thick drool oozed over its jutting lower jaw and dripped onto the concrete. Horn-like growths sprouted on its face. Rattlesnake eyes stared unblinkingly at him. Slit nostrils sniffed the air.
The creature held itself up on two bowed and thick arms that ended in stub-fingered hands. Lang could barely discern the latter half of the creature, which tapered into a long tail with no apparent back legs.
It slapped its elongated chops together for a moment as if chewing. A crude pouch of hide hung from its neck and swung with the movement.
Primitive lips struggled to form words. A thick gray tongue slid across the lower jaw.
"Bring more fresh," it croaked, turning its head to signify the recent quarry, and again faced its servant.
"I will next time. At least I brought you some food ... can I..." Lang held his words though a jittery tight wire seemed to vibrate in his spine.
The creature gave a gurgled bark. Another being, half slithering and half crawling, moved into the shadowy light; it also had a small pouch hanging from its neck. Bracing itself with one muscular arm, it reached up and probed with its taloned fingers in the pouch. To Lang's relief, the creature extracted two soft, marble-sized balls and dropped them on the cement floor. Lang bolted for the gifts and nearly slammed his head into the basement wall. The monsters turned and moved back under the house.
Scooping up the harvested mushrooms, Lang sat down and placed one on his tongue; he slowly chewed, savoring the moment. He sometimes cursed the day the creatures had forced him to eat the first mushroom. They hadn't let him out of the basement until he'd eaten it. Yet he blessed the ecstasy that followed the consumption.
He expected to drift off into an ethereal euphoria, but nothing happened. In fact, the mushroom tasted bland, without the usual semi-sweet, spicy taste. He stood and turned to yell at the creatures, only to find himself face-to-face with one. Its eyes, set in a permanent glare, glistened. Lang gave a startled squeak and backed away.
Swallowing hard, he said, "I think you gave me the wrong thing. These don't taste right."
The reptilian creature, which had been bracing itself on curled fists, lifted its left hand, opened it, and revealed two more mushrooms nestled in its calloused palm. It stretched out its arm, urging Lang to receive the gift.
Lang hesitated, though the burning addiction squirmed in his brain like maggots burrowing into ripe meat. His hands twitched, knees buckled, eyes blinked, stomach spasmed. Self-preservation gnawed at Lang, who wasn't sure whether to take a chance and satisfy his craving or stay safe.
The creature watched its puppet scratch and prance about. Finally, it dumped the narcotic and backed away. Lang rushed over and stooped to get his long-awaited fix. As he did, something dripped onto the back of his head. Still hunched over the mushrooms, he reached up and wiped off ... saliva. Fear surged through his nerves.
"More," said a raspy voice, "fresh."
Lang stood to bolt, but he was hooked. Long claws scratched his neck and tugged at his shirt. He squealed. Veins snaked in his straining neck. He twisted and pulled, but the creature's strength was superior. It pulled him just as it had done with Burt.
Another creature waited until Lang was within reach, then snagged him by the hair and wrenched his head back.
They yanked again and found purchase in Lang's soft flesh.
Burning pain burst through him as nails bit through muscle. He screamed for help and thrashed around. Talons ripped and tore his skin. The edge of the wall slammed into his upper back and scraped all the way down and over his butt and legs. He smelled the reptilians' fetid odor and heard them rustling through the darkness.
The reptilian leader, the one who had given Lang his first mushroom, poked Lang in the stomach. "More fresh."
"Please, I brought you food! I've been good! I- I-" Lang started crying.
Lang's shirt was shredded and peeled off. Hot breath and spit showered over his exposed abdomen and chest. Suddenly, excruciating pressure exploded in his belly as the creatures bit into the fatty flesh and gnawed pieces off. Lang's throat became raw from screaming before it was crushed by reptilian jaws and serrated teeth.
Burt scrambled out of the crawlspace just in time to see Lang's twisting legs dragged over the basement wall. He gasped and coughed, wiping snot and blood from his nose and mouth. One of the creatures had placed its gnarled hand over Burt's face to keep him quiet. They had hissed and grunted to one another before attacking the other human.
Burt's shoulder throbbed where sharp nails had dug into it. His body ached from struggling. Dust, urine, and blood mingled on his clothing, covering him with a pasty mud. He sat, shivering, in the corner.
A rooting noise sounded from beneath the house. Burt swallowed back bile. He began to rise to his feet before seeing movement out of the corner of his eye. He collapsed again to the cement floor.
The reptilian leader, its face covered with blood, slithered down to the floor. It raised itself up, balancing on its lower half. Burt squirmed before it.
It pointed at Burt. "Bring fresh," it said, and dropped four mushrooms and pointed. "Eat."
Hand trembling, Burt picked up one of the mushrooms and placed it in his mouth. A semi-sweet, spicy flavor flowed over his tongue.
The effect was instantaneous.
He fell to the ground and reveled in the intoxication. The reptilian slithered back to the crawlspace, lowered its head, and pushed its way under the house.
Burt looked at his disheveled clothing with dreamy eyes. "After two months, I'm finally gonna get to take a shower."
Neither the slurping of blood nor the ripping of meat disturbed his lovely inebriation.
The Harrow: Original Works of Fantasy and Horror. ISSN: 1528-4271
The Harrow is published by THE HARROW PRESSSM