Benjamin Acevedos rubbed the side of his neck as he traversed the many sidewalk squares, looking for a place he only hoped existed. His tainted life had begun just a few days before, and though he didn’t realize it just then, he was already well on his way to becoming perpetual.
Ben was a visitor to Ash Falls, and he already didn’t like the place. It was too quiet for its size. That’s what he had decided. It wasn’t how the small city felt somehow squeezed into the surrounding landscape– though it was– and it wasn’t how the streets were almost silent so much of the time– though they, too, somehow failed to echo the midnight chords and distant squeals he was so used to hearing back home. There was something about the combination of size and sound that didn’t sit right with him. He felt watched as he scoured the shops one after the other after the next. It felt like each broad pane of glass was looking back at him just as intently as he looked into them.
All he wanted was to get back to Portland as soon as he could, find the nearest cafe, and settle down with his laptop, his work, and a large vanilla latte.
No, he thought, not a latte. A beer. A dark one. And maybe sitting next to me there would be a pretty girl…
The thought was comforting, and he almost smiled. Then the itch in his neck flared again and the image vanished. Along with it went his sudden need to go home. Replacing it was another uncannily powerful thought that had kept coming to him: If I find this place… if it’s even real... how could I ever abandon it? How could I forgo being surrounded by people like me?
The skin on his neck was a bright blush of color after the hours he’d spent rubbing and scratching there. He wondered if the itch was in his mind or an actual contagion. He honestly didn’t know.
His eyes flicked from storefront to storefront, studying each one in the millisecond he allotted it, seeing nothing of value and growing ever-more frustrated. His gait had been quick and fluid when he’d left his hotel that morning, but now it was slowing, affected finally over the long hours by his little limp. There had simply been too many blocks, too many windows, too many names to read without any even coming close to matching the one he had written on the slip of paper in his pocket. He was coming to think he’d passed the place by and would have to go back... or that he hadn’t walked the right street yet... or that it didn’t exist. One thing he did know was that if he didn’t find it soon he’d end up searching again tomorrow. And the next day as well. And probably the rest of his life.
“Damn,” he mumbled as he rubbed his neck and looked up again to the next storefront. No good. Another Chinese restaurant, that was all.
Not that he knew for sure what kind of an establishment the so-called “Ammit’s Den” would be.
Would pretend to be, he told himself.
Though he had no address and only a guess as to the street–
The South end of town. That’s what that asshole said. But is it here on Honeysuckle or did I miss it yesterday on Willow or Lilac? Am I even close?
– there was one thing about Ammit’s Den that Ben was absolutely certain. Whatever it looked like from the outside, on the inside it would be something else entirely. Almost like a body laced with infection.
There was a steady, pressured spike in his hip now, and if he went much farther the limp would turn into a hobble. He decided to give himself a realistic goal and stick to it no matter what.
Just another five blocks, he promised himself, looking at the rumpled map in his hands. Just to 50th Street. I can still get back to the hotel by nightfall then.
Whether it was luck or fate that then intervened may never be known. Indeed, both seemed synonymous at times within the confines of Ash Falls. Yet it was true that with less than an eyeful of glass doors left to examine, Ammit’s Den was suddenly there.
The place turned out to be a very simple, very old little bar and grill three spots past the 49th Street intersection. A filthy, brown, wooden door impaired by a thousand scratches and gouges just like any of a hundred others marked its humble entrance. Its only adornment was a small, black, dog-like figure burned into the wood just below the arched window at the top. He stared at it a second, fascinated.
What is that? he wondered.
It wasn’t a dog, not exactly, but still something altogether familiar. He blinked and when his eyes refocused he was looking through the giant plate window next to the door.
“Damn,” Ben said again. This time his voice was one of disbelief rather than frustration.
Through the window he could see the people inside that he’d been seeking with such passion. There were a dozen of them, and they didn’t look any different fromany other bar flies. They smoked. They drank. They watched sports highlights on the little TV in one corner. But Ben knew what they really were: infected and dying, just like him. All that Average Joe stuff was just more smoke and mirrors to the facade that was this little hole-in-the-wall lounge.
And how good they were at it! They really did look perfectly healthy. Perfectly content, albeit in a late-afternoon-at-the-bar kind of way. Or was that why a bar had been chosen as their front? Because their deep-set misery could be passed off so easily as Average Joe trying to drown his Average Sorrows? Ben thought about this and decided this was not only accurate, but deviously brilliant.
He stood on the sidewalk looking in like that, afraid he would end up hating the place and he’d be truly alone, unaware that he was again rubbing at his neck. His eyes were watching the bar flies, but soon he wasn’t seeing them anymore. Instead he was remembering a large span of slate-black water. The lake from his nightmares. Too still, that water, even for the middle of the night. Too cold as well, even for late October. And far above was the pregnant tumor of a moon with the screaming girl below–
He shook the vision away. He couldn’t deal with that now. Instead he took a breath and stepped toward the Den’s ugly front door. His eyes slid right past the little black figure there and settled on the handle instead.
“Damn,” he whispered as his left hand reached up to grasp it. Meanwhile, his right was… well, where else? Rubbing the side of his neck, trying to clean the dirt that wasn’t there. Trying to stop perpetual motion.
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Author of Horror, Thrillers, Dark Fantasy, Science-Fiction, & Young Adult