Summer nights in the small college town were something straight out of a Pulp magazine: a risqué combination of nostalgia, science fiction and impossible stories. Every year from May to August, the place was left largely empty due to the legion of students who had skipped town for the break. Vacated dormitories languished across campus and the streets were quiet, even when they shouldn’t be. Time lurched, unbothered. The resulting desolate landscape was beautiful and haunting; the perfect setting for a massacre in a Tarantino film. Only the locals remained for the most part, taking care of the city’s mundane functions and pretending any of it mattered.
I had just finished my Junior year at St. Dominic University and, as usual, going back home abroad was not a feasible option; so I stayed behind working for the school’s Grounds Department digging holes, mowing grass and whacking weeds. The pay was minimum-wage but doing it full time meant I had enough cash to cover rent, buy groceries and even venture the occasional dance with the devil at the local watering hole. Life used to be cheap in small-town America. Every day after sundown, temperatures would drop to double-digits while a cool breeze tempered the hot asphalt. In the absence of a skyline, darkness followed. By the time I’d burned through a joint and drank a six of Modelos sitting on my rooftop, conditions were just perfect to go for a walk. I wandered the streets at night equipped with a 30GB 5th Generation iPod filled with enough angst to get the girl and take revenge on my enemies. Walking carelessly down the middle of the road, submerged under electric guitars high on overdrive pedal effects; every step taken was a reassurance of my dominion over the city in the dark. I was powerful. I was alive. I was wrong.
It was well past the small hours one night when I took a few turns off of 16th St. down rows of ordinary homes, each with their AC unit sticking out the window. At the end of every driveway, decrepit mailboxes withered under a crescent moon. Streetlights were scarce and spirits roamed unopposed. On my earbuds, Matthew Bellamy was just about to hit the high note in “Sing for Absolution” when a pair of creeping lights in front of me caught my attention. It was a vehicle. I moved over to the right and kept walking, expecting it to drive by. Instead, the car slowed down and came to a stop under the streetlight straight ahead. A wisp of smoke tied to a cigarette’s cherry emanated from the open window on the driver’s side. Fuck. I thought. Here we go. It wasn’t unusual to get harassed by some of the locals on occasion; they were an antiquated, religious bunch and my appearance left much to desire according to their standards. Still I didn’t break pace, this was my town after all. The vehicle was an old white sedan rusted at the edges with a few dents on the hood and one chrome antennae standing tall. A plastic crucifix hung from the rearview mirror. Behind the wheel, a woman with long gray hair and a wrinkled face looked at me wide-eyed and wary. A glowing cig hung from her thin lips. I pressed pause.
“You need to take that shit off n’ burn it, compadre,” she said in a menacing, raspy voice, taking a hit and exhaling a heavy cloud of smoke. Her left elbow rested on the window frame and the flickering cigarette, now at the tip of her fingers, pointed straight at my chest. The smell of cheap tobacco hung in-between us. I rolled my eyes and smirked, realizing the reason why this woman was pestering me. It was my shirt. I was wearing a vintage Mötley Crüe Shout at the Devil 1984 T-shirt, the one with a giant inverted pentagram—the Sigil of Baphomet. A cursed garment in her eyes, no doubt. To me though, it was a cool piece of rock and roll history; a work of art in its own right. A collector’s item. It was also just a cotton shirt, one my father wore a long time ago.
“Fuck off, lady. Jesus is dead,” I replied with derision, hoping this would offend her enough to leave me alone. Instead, the crone let off a loud, mischievous cackle that made me uncomfortable; her wide grin revealed multiple cavities and stained teeth. Though unnerving, there was an unmistakable honesty to her reaction; the sort of transparency only a lunatic possesses. I turned away and resumed walking. The sounds of rattling phlegm and malice, somehow disguised as laughter, reverberated behind me. Then, silence. The night was quiet again except for the car engine’s steady growl which meant the hag wasn’t driving away. An eerie sensation crawled on my skin. I looked back defiantly to find her staring at me; her striking blue eyes gleaming on the side mirror of the old sedan. She seemed excited. Stupid bitch, I thought, half annoyed. The car’s bright red brake lights blinked and began to move, slowly disappearing in the dark. I took the next available turn down a narrow road to my right, scoffing at the pathetic woman and her superstition while deciding whether to restart the song or just let it play. Unconcerned, convinced five thousand years of religion was all make-believe, pitiful stories for fools and children. Arrogant, underestimating the whims and appetite of our Creator. Alone, unaware that demons are anything but superstition; quite the opposite, they come in many different forms and their taste is...most eccentric. And thus despite the bedlam’s grim warning, I continued my stroll undeterred—a mistake I would soon pay for in flesh and blood.
Thick misgiving clouds began to take a hold of the sky; indifferent, the stars above did nothing but contemplate. Shadows crept uncontested. A string of alternative rock anthems and a few turns later, everything looked the same deep in the suburban sprawl, yet nothing seemed familiar. I found myself in an alley, walking on loose gravel when I saw it: a person. A man, sitting on a porch to my right; just far enough from the dim streetlamp to appear as nothing more than a bleak silhouette: an apparition. But he was there; the weak incandescent glow coming from inside his house betrayed him. Attempting to show traditional courtesy, I nodded and made a small hand gesture—the figure didn’t move an inch. Not good.
“Way down, mark the grave,” crooned Gerard Way in my earbuds as I strode past the man when he calmly stood up and began moving towards the road, towards the light. Moving in the dark he seemed more arachnid than human; a few crooked steps later there he was, under the streetlight, ten feet away and impossibly tall. I stood still, awkwardly staring at the specimen before me. Everything about him was just a bit too long for comfort: his limbs stretched to abnormal lengths and large tendons protruded at every joint. An excess of cartilage gave him a grotesque appearance. Acromegalia, maybe? I thought, gawking at the man in disbelief. His pale skin drew a sharp contrast with the black Metallica T-shirt he was wearing: rows of cross-shaped headstones lined up on a field—the cover art for Master of Puppets. Nice. There were dark stains on his jean shorts and he was barefoot. Wild hair. Absent eyes. Morose lips. It was hard to tell if he was even looking at me. I pressed pause and took off my buds.
“Hey I’m looking for the Leper Messiah, seen him around?” I asked, trying to lighten the mood, embarrassed to have stared for so long. No response of any kind. Not Verbal. Not Physical. Nothing. After a second of silence I turned around and resumed my stroll, feeling uneasy. I put the headphones back on but did not restart the music; the sound of my footsteps carried me to the end of the block. I took a left and couldn’t help looking back. He was on the same spot, under the same incandescent light yet something was different. Maybe it was the increased distance between us but now he seemed alert. His head was definitely tilted in my direction. Feeling even more unsettled I picked up the pace. It was time to head home.
Checking over my shoulder every few steps I reached the next street. Before making a right turn, I looked behind me one last time to make sure my sinister encounter was over. The empty road was mostly dark and the trees swayed back and forth to the wind’s ominous melody. No sign of him. Relieved, I pulled out my iPod and began scrolling down the long list of eyeliner bands, looking for something upbeat; the screen’s blue glow illuminated my face as I made my choice: “Chop Suey!” by System of a Down. Satisfied, I pressed play and put the Apple device back in my pocket. Looking up, my short-lived sense of safety vanished. I could see the man, barely, a block away on the opposite corner—hunched-over on the obscured sidewalk. His foreboding figure poised perfectly still. Had he been there this whole time? I was sure the street was empty just a minute ago but then again...it didn’t really matter, at that moment there was only one thought loud inside my head: this fucker is following me. I looked away and continued walking, this time a little faster. Once out of his field of vision, my stride sped-up into a run.
“Wake up!” barked Serj Tankian in my ears as I took a sharp right into an alleyway. Empty trash cans stood witness to the terror in my movements.
“Grab a brush and put a little make-up!” I made a left into an avenue and kept running; my black Converse high-tops gripped the hardened concrete at every corner.
“Hide the scars to fade away the shake-up!” The track raged untethered in-between melodic hooks and sacrilegious questions. Six more blocks in, the Campus Tower was finally visible. Slowing down and breathing hard, I took off my buds and looked around; silent rows of homes stared back at me.
I walked the next several blocks with caution: catching my breath, sticking to the sidewalk and without any music. Instead I listened to the sound of rustling leaves harmonizing alongside a choir of crickets; the ghostly call of a lone owl accentuated their tune at will. I was in the middle of an intersection when the somber, natural symphony came to an abrupt halt. For a second, there was absolute silence. Then, with a loud pop, every streetlamp around me went out: shards of glass rained down on the pavement followed by near pitch darkness. A drop of cold sweat ran down my neck. Far off in the distance, erratic footsteps moved wickedly up and down the neighborhood. It was him, he was coming for me. Afraid, trying not to panic, I flipped-open my Nokia cell phone and dialed 911.
“911 what’s your emergency?” a female voice inquired in a monotone, professional demeanor.
“Hey yeah, listen, I think I’m being stalked by some guy,” I said, checking in every direction, trying to pinpoint the threat.
“What’s your location?” the operator replied.
“Um, a few blocks west of campus,” my heartbeat accelerated, the footsteps were getting louder.
“I’m sending a patrol your way. Do you have a description of the suspect?” she asked, mechanically typing on her keyboard.
“Yeah he is tall, dark hair, pale skin, lanky and pretty fucking unsettling. He’s wearing a Metallica T-shirt a couple of sizes too small for him.” Silence. “Hello?” I ventured, feeling a knot in my stomach. The footsteps were close now.
“Run...” said the voice on the other side of the line, quiet and meek—scared. I stood there, frozen. “Run!” shrieked the emergency operator in a terrified pitch. At the same time, the approaching sound of bare skin on broken glass cut through my spine; I peered into the darkness—he was close...only two blocks away, moving towards me in a horrific manner. His four extremities were bent at exaggerated angles, hands and feet making contact with the ground at a syncopated pace. With every step, the man’s hips and shoulders shifted mechanically from side to side, disjointed. There was no energy wasted in his movements, every muscle-twitch was sharp and with purpose; a fine-tuned supernatural predator. Quick, ill-boding steps carried him viciously through the road leading straight to me. A primal fear overwhelmed every nerve cell in my body; then, a shot of adrenaline mobilized my legs and I began sprinting in the opposite direction. Prey, after all, always makes a run for it...though usually to no avail. But maybe there was hope for me, still; I just had to find the patrol car. Am I even going the right way? But there was no time to think. In a matter of seconds, I felt the man’s razor-sharp hand grip my hair from behind while pulling me down. His grip tore off a piece of my scalp as he put me hard on the ground. In an instant, his entire frame was on top of me. Arms. Knees. Elbows. Legs. Every one of my limbs pinned down. His right palm pressed so hard against my face I felt my right cheekbone crack and sink, while his heinous fingers and toes dug deep into my body at every point of contact. A pool of blood began to take shape under my head. The man looked at me with dull eyes and opened his mouth; I looked up in horror to see it was full of molars. No incisors. No canines. Only an excess of malformed bicuspids clustered on top of each other, tearing through bleeding, bright red gums.
“Help!” I screamed desperately and repeatedly into the night. There was no reply. An eerie stillness descended upon us. What the fuck?! was my last feeble thought before I closed my eyes in disbelief; a brutal death seemingly inevitable. Instead, warm bile, blood and meat poured down on me from his insides. The man was vomiting. He gagged, loosened his grip and retched some more. The stench of organic waste filled my nostrils. I suddenly felt his entire weight come off me and watched him heave a few feet away: arched back. Limbs twisted. A ghastly figure spewing thick fluids in the dark. Wide-eyed and in shock I felt paralyzed. Get up! I thought desperately but my body didn't respond. On his knees, suddenly the ghoul began trembling and making guttural noises. He straightened his torso and gripped the pavement with diabolic strength; his wide open mouth faced the sky. I sat there, terrified, unable to move...until I noticed a lumpy, round-shaped object the size of a soccer ball inside of him, slowly working its way up his neck. Fu-cking move! Overcoming terror and pain, using my last ounce of adrenaline, I managed to stand up and flee—slow at first, wounded. Behind me, a loud thud on the ground followed by a hollow gasp. I turned around just long enough to see that the round-shaped object, now laying on the asphalt, had a face. I looked away and kept moving as fast as my legs could take me; too scared to even scream. Drenched in filth, every pungent breath reminded me I was a dead man. Nauseated, I took off the foul T-shirt and dropped it on the callous road.
The sound of my frantic footsteps echoed on the empty street. I searched my pockets for the cell phone but it was gone; must’ve dropped it when that thing took me down. I kept running. Up ahead, red and blue lights flooded an alleyway; as I drew closer, a vehicle’s headlights poured into the street. I stepped into the light and the high beams came on, blinding me. I heard the car door open.
“Don’t move. Put your hands where I can see ‘em,” commanded a voice without hesitation.
“H-help!” I managed to blurt out, raising my hands and gasping for air; blood dripping from my mangled body.
“Dispatch I found the possible victim on 13th and Ash, I’m taking him to the ER,” he said in a hurry, turning off the lights.
“Please, we need to get the fuck out of here!” I blurted out, my eyes still readjusting to the dark. The cop proceeded to give instructions but his voice quickly faded into background noise. It was over. We were dead. The demon was here, standing still-as-a-granite statue on the sidewalk; only a few feet away from me but outside the policeman’s field of vision. Wild hair. Absent eyes. Morose lips. On his left hand, a grimy black piece of cloth hung in-between his blood-tainted fingers.
“Hey you listenin’ to me?” I felt the officer’s right hand on the back of my neck. “Lower your voice, get in the vehicle and keep your fucking head down,” he said, walking me to the car and checking over his shoulder every few steps. He was clearly agitated. I slumped in the backseat, dreading the moment those headlamps came back on, convinced the creature would be standing right in front of us, eager to kill. I expected his fiendish claws to shatter through the window, grab me by the neck and crush my windpipe at any moment. But nothing of the sort happened. The cruiser switched gears and we drove away in silence.
There was blood everywhere and my mind was in pieces. The officer had an apprehensive demeanor about him; the sort of look one has when you haven’t been on the job long enough. Neither of us said a word. A large Sonic drink sat in one of the cup holders; in the other, a crumpled AllSup’s burrito wrapper covered in grease. Scattered shotgun shells wavered nervously on the passenger seat. The policeman adjusted his rearview mirror in my direction.
“You ok back there, amigo?” he asked, lowering the window an inch and covering his nose. My stink was suffocating. I remained silent. The officer pressed several keys on his Mobile Data Terminal, a John Wayne bobblehead stood smug on the dashboard. Sirens blaring, a couple of patrol cars sped past us in the opposite direction. The back of my head felt wet.
“They won’t find him,” he said, almost annoyed, rubbing his left shoulder. “But maybe that’s a good thing.” I looked up at his reflection for the first time. He noticed. The officer shifted his weight on the seat and hesitated; after a short pause, he continued in a serious tone. “Whatever that thing is attacked you tonight, it shows up at random in boondocks all across the Great Plains. Always during this season. Always in the dark. Any townie sum bitch from here to the Mississippi can tell you about it.” He took a sip through the red, plastic straw and kept going. “Hell, the locals even have names for it depending on where you’re at. Ever heard of The Collector or Metalhead? Every podunk around calls him somethin’ different; it’s like any other urban legend, you know how it goes...this one just happens to be true.” There was a hint of pride in that last remark. The faint radio transmission’s steady buzz, occasionally interrupted by law enforcement code, played in the background to the officer’s words. “Every now and again, relatively speaking mind you, we get reports of a sightin’: ‘there is a creepy tall man at the end of the street’ or ‘a long freak is lurkin’ in the alley’, you know, that sort of thing. It’s fine most of the time but every now and again it doesn’t end well—old people know better than most.” He gripped the steering wheel with both hands. I leaned back and took a deep breath, my whole body was beginning to throb. The officer turned on the blinker and continued, unabashed. “My own uncle saw him up close for a second back in ‘86: he was driving home from work late one night when out of nowhere a towering pale man, standing in the middle of the road, forced him to slam on the brakes. The truck’s headlights landed on the thing for a split second; then, it was gone. My uncle swears this guy was wearing an Iron Maiden T-shirt, the one where Satan is hanging on puppet strings—The Number of the Beast,” he said raising his voice, it was apparent the officer was trying to keep me awake. A neon red cross appeared on the horizon. “You’re not the first, you know? Survivor, I mean. At least not according to the stories we hear from neighboring police departments. The way I see it, Metalhead likes to play with his food,” the policeman asserted. “Poor bastards, apparently they never en…” he stopped himself before finishing the sentence, a funereal silence filled the space. If the rumors he’d heard were true, a cruel fate awaited me. Exhausted, I placed my forehead on the steel mesh-cage between us and started to sob quietly. Lighting up, the iPod’s LED in my pocket managed to highlight the dark stains on my jeans. Blood, just starting to coagulate, dripped sluggishly down my naked chest. I lost consciousness in the backseat of the patrol car. Humiliated. Broken. Defeated.
That was the last summer I ever spent in the Faustian town, its bloodied streets belong to the devil alone; starving ghosts roam the sullen roads, feeding on the anguish of his victims...feeding on me. I can feel them every day, a heavy sense of dread resting cold on my head; painful at times, like wearing a crown of lead. Soon after being released from the hospital, once the numerous stitches on my body had some time to heal, I packed my suitcase and left the cursed, derelict place—never to return. One last picturesque sunrise, full of color and fiction, witnessed my departure at dawn.
Today, fifteen years later, I live covered in scars: a daily reminder of my harrowing escape and the terrifying possibility of undiscovered horrors. Most people can’t understand how everything changes, once you’ve seen a demon dead-in-the-eyes...if something like Metalhead can exist in the flesh, who's to say there aren’t a thousand other creatures of nightmare? Legions, even: supernatural, capricious lifeforms with evil-intent and sinister appetite, ripping apart unsuspecting humans in the darkest corners of the Earth. And so I spend my days in fear and self-imposed isolation; only going out when absolutely necessary and never past sundown. Just to be safe. There are six deadbolt locks on my front door, each with its own stainless steel security chain. Aluminum roller shutters reinforce the plexiglass windows of my small apartment. I’ve been working with different construction crews in the big city since, only ever taking daytime jobs though. Just to be safe. I never finished my degree. After work, most of my free time is spent in front of the computer screen, looking for signs of him or his kin. Though things may seem normal on the surface, macabre tales of unexplained disappearances and violent ends abound...if you know where to look. Whispers of “the pale man” pervade certain online forums; however, actual sightings are scarce. One single blurry picture evidences his existence: perched on top of a streetlight, his unmistakable ghoulish appearance fixed on the person holding the camera. A living gargoyle. Apparently the JPEG was found and leaked a few years back by a rookie working the Evidence Locker at the police department. The sorry son-of-a-bitch who took the photo remains unidentified, his head was never recovered.
Sometimes I lay awake at night, unable to sleep; wondering if the sound of looming, ever-approaching footsteps is coming from outside the door or inside my head. Paralyzed, afraid of shadows and dust. Certainly, once you begin to doubt your own thoughts, madness becomes inevitable; sanity gets peeled away like a scab, leaving behind a festering psychosis. Damaged. Irreparable. Shattered pieces of what once was a man. Beware, evil exists. Alone in my room, surrounded by empty fast-food containers and a meticulous variety of religious iconography; I grit my teeth and curse my luck that I ever walked the desolate, haunted roads of that small college town. Marked for life. A sacrifice, plaything for the damned. Another martyr to its beautiful, bedeviled summer nights.