I. The Tunnel at the End of the LightA Chapter by Mike Lamb
Chapter One. A drunk drive to the center of the Earth with Death. It only gets weirder from here.
Black Cadillac. Me in the passenger seat. Death at the wheel. I could swear he was trying to kill me a second time.
I don't remember how I died. Hell, at this point I can barely remember how I lived. But based on my current situation, I'd say it's a pretty safe bet that my card's been pulled.
First off, there's Death--towering over me, cloaked in crawling shadows and decay. Sniper rifle in his hand. Smoke still oozing from the barrel. Scythe blade for a bayonet. Bandoliers form an x across his chest. Every last bullet's inscribed with names and numbers. He casually slings the murder weapon across his shoulder. Tools of the trade.
Then there's the all-too-familiar corpse lying crumpled and motionless at my feet. Same face, same shaggy brown hair, same black button-up shirt, the sideburns, the devil beard, the tattoos--yeah that's definitely me. Enjoy the dirtnap, you selfish b*****d. At least I managed to leave a good looking corpse.
So basically my host body's been shed like a dead snakeskin, meanwhile I'm left in the company of this rotting skeletal horror. The patron saint of heart attacks, homicides, and all things fatal--from the embarrassing and unpleasant to the unspeakably gruesome. And now he's come to piss on my parade. Worst f*****g day of my life.
Death pauses for a moment to light a cigarette and takes a long, slow drag. The smoke pours skyward from the hollow sockets where his eyes should have been. He stares at me; I stare back. He gestures for me to get in the car ("Trunk's full, you can ride shotgun"). I give him a deadpan look that says you've got to be f*****g joking. He isn't.
In the next instant we're already inside the car. First comes the seat belt like a boa constrictor, then comes the click of the door locks. The tires make a tortured squeal against the pavement as we speed off into oblivion.
Death hands me a pack of smokes. The label says "Brimstone" and there's something about soul cancer in the fine print. Ah, what the hell. Smoke 'em if ya got 'em. Already dead. Or dreaming. Or having what could easily be considered a very severe acid flashback, even by my standards. I'll just let the bet ride on dead for now. The other two theories reek of hope and delusion. I don't want that f*****g with my head later.
After an uncomfortably long stretch of complete darkness we arrive in a tunnel. The speedometer reads 120mph. Everything around us has the sickly green tinge of florescent lighting. I keep seeing dark stains in the road--maybe oil, maybe blood. Don't know and don't care to speculate.
130mph: we hit a hitchhiker wandering along the side of the road. The impact instantly shatters him across the hood of the car, but mostly under the wheels. Death flips the wiper switch to clear the blood from the windshield.
140mph: we hit another hitcher. Death is laughing like a madman. I ask if he's been drinking. He says yes and hands me a flask. I take a shot and grip the door handle. It's gonna be a long ride.
The downward slope of the road gets worse by the minute (three) and that crazy b*****d's still accelerating (four), swerving to hit (five) every luckless drifter (six) in our path. That's seven, now. And there's eight. Nine. He thinks this is fun. He's having a great time. He's carving scratches in the dash for each victim. He's making a sport out of drunken vehicular manslaughter. And ten.
Strange noises are coming from the trunk--pounding fists and muffled screams.
"What's in the trunk?" I ask accusingly.
"Mind your own damn business," comes the answer from the deranged drunken specter at the wheel. Reaper's taking my soul on a suicide run, but it's none of my business. My immortal soul? Guess we'll find out soon enough.
The overhead lights flicker on and off erratically, and the shadows start getting weird. The whole tunnel's becoming more and more...warped. My vision's completely distorted and my perception's going into overdrive. The brain flips on a red warning light inside my skull. SENSORY OVERLOAD. PREPARE TO SHUT DOWN. I should be worried about that. Maybe it's nothing serious. Probably just a mild hallucinatory delirium brought on by the stress of...well the stress of being f*****g dead, for one thing. Dead, paranoid, pissed off, and in all probability well on my way to having a complete psychotic breakdown. Ah, sweet mother Sanity. She left without even saying goodbye.
Time for the heavy question. "So…where we going, Bones?" No response. "Tell you what, just drop me off in Tijuana. That's about as far south as I care to ride with you."
If he's listening he ain't feigning much interest. He tilts back a full bottle of whiskey and kills it in one swig, along with another highway martyr (thirteen). The next one dives out of the car's way, but still gets hit with the empty bottle as Death hurls it out the window. Anyone ever tell you you're a mean drunk?
The lights overhead are getting dimmer, but that unnatural phantom glow is still all around us. The patches of reflected light seem almost phosphorescent in the increasing darkness. Cracked, deteriorating pavement. Walls that glow and breathe. Shadows that can't or won't stay still. Everything is wrong with this scenario.
There’s something else, though. Another little perceptual paradox. Death's physical appearance keeps changing and shifting from one moment to the next. Just subtle details at first, but the black spiraling ram's horns are definitely new. Sometimes it's a human skull, sometimes it's an animal. Sometimes blood red, sometimes polished white. Sometimes the putrid yellow-ochre stain between the two. But the overall theme is fairly consistent. Creepy b*****d.
I take another swig of whatever the hell was in the flask Death gave me earlier. Christ, that's horrible. It tastes like gasoline and it burns like napalm. I just went blind for a few seconds.
I'm not even sure how fast we're going anymore. The speedometer cuts off at 180. The highway's melting. The world's a blurry haze of lights and shadows. I almost didn't even notice the sign we passed that read ABANDON ALL HOPE. Almost.
We come up to a tollbooth in the road. We crash through the gate without even slowing down. The gatekeeper just stares at us from his post. The lights disappear and we ride in darkness again. Blood on the headlights. The hi-beams shine crimson.
Death lights up another smoke. Flame torches the tip of his cigarette and almost incinerates the whole thing. The excess fire burns down into the paper ash and the tobacco starts to smolder. He takes a deep drag. The cherry throws a tiny red glow across the side of Death's face. He turns to look at me. He has skin now. And eyes. It's the face of a man and not a corpse. He smiles an evil smile. Then his skin dissolves and he's right back to the classic rotting skull. Laughter. Careless drunken swerving. I don't think I like this guy.
There's a dull roar from the wheels as the pavement gives way to the metal grating of a bridge. The lights are back. There's a line of bare incandescent bulbs suspended from the ceiling, casting a faint warm glow down the path. Not much better than candlelight, but it’s light just the same.
The tunnel seems more like a cave now. There's murky water flowing under the bridge. Something huge and scaly breaks the surface. Something horrible. It's not a fish. Don't ask me what it is. Don't know, don't wanna know, don't f*****g care. Just keep driving, Bones.
Between the dim lighting and the breakneck speed, it's hard to make sense of all the details around me. Several of those details just crawled out from under the bridge. The distorted silhouettes suggest something human, but don't make a very convincing case for it.
One of them is eating something--a dog? Maybe a goat, I can't tell. As if to answer my question, it pitches the head of its meal at the car. It was a goat.
There's more up ahead. Some stay in the shadows and watch as we pass, others come out to greet us. One jumps on the hood of the car. It kicks a spider-web fracture in the windshield before scurrying over the top of the vehicle. Then comes that horrid sound--claws trying to tear through solid steel, one deafening scrape at a time. We pass by two or three more of the creatures. They scratch wildly at the car doors from the railing of the bridge. They're taunting us, laughing and howling.
I glance over at Death to make sure he's not passed out drunk at the wheel. I get the feeling he's not taking this very seriously.
The thing on top of the car is pounding on the roof. Another whatever-it-is thing jumps on the hood and starts gnawing on the windshield wiper. A third one is hanging on the passenger door, scraping its teeth across my window. Staring at me. Smiling. Mocking me. Well f**k you, too.
A clawed hand penetrates the roof of the car. I duck out of the way as it tries to grab me by the hair. It can't quite reach me, so it grabs Death by the shoulder instead. The drunken reaper swerves hard and flings the rabid freak into the river. The car slams into the railing of the bridge and crushes the creature that was clinging to the passenger door. Ha. Serves you right.
Only the one on the hood remains. It's trying to break the windshield with its head, leaving bloody face prints on the glass. It shoots us a menacing look, then lets out a bloodcurdling shriek.
Death pulls out a revolver and calmly deals with the problem.
Good. Now I can focus on bigger problems. I drink another shot and look to the road.
One by one, the light bulbs start to go out as we pass underneath them. I gotta admit, they got the horrorshow theatrics down to a science.
Did I mention the screams coming from the trunk? They haven't stopped. It's amazing what you can tune out when you're being carjacked by trolls. How does the old fable go again? Something about three goats trying to cross a bridge…
Doesn't matter. I'm not going to entertain any theories about trolls or monsters or f*****g Morlocks and mole people. The fewer things I have to transfer from not real to real the better. They were probably just vagrants spun out on crank. Everyone knows vagrants and junkies live under bridges. Vagrants with horns. And hooves.
Damn, I really hope I'm crazy. Not dead and not in this car. Doesn't seem like too much to ask for, does it? Any minute now I'll wake up in a straitjacket and one of the nice young nurses at Wherever-the-F**k Asylum is going to come strolling by my padded cell to bring me applesauce and Thorazine. She'll say, "Were you having that awful nightmare again?" and I'll just drool or say something crazy.
See, what'd I tell you? I knew the old it was all just a dream bit would still be floating around inside my head. So where was I? Oh, right--highway to Hell. Drag racing to the center of the Earth like a kamikaze rollercoaster. And all the screws are loose.
We come to the end of the bridge. We crash through a barricade. The lights are gone. Again. Starting to get claustrophobic. Cave's almost like a mine shaft now. Not to mention the strange men in respirator masks taking pickaxes to the walls...which are mostly bones. The miners pay no attention to us. I'm grateful for that much.
Wrong again. We catch a pickaxe to one of the tires. Actually, make that all of the tires. Never turn your back on a horde of freaks with sharp objects. There's a wake of sparks trailing behind us from the naked metal rims. I think we might've flipped a couple of times, but given the speed and angle of descent I can't even tell. This entire ride feels like a car crash.
It's starting to become unbearably hot. Of course, somehow I knew it would. Black smoke. Pools of magma. Somewhere there's a volcano god taunting me. High speed human sacrifice in a big black coffin on wheels. This is why I'm a pessimist.
Everything's a blur. Feels like we've been falling for hours, maybe days. I finish off the last swig of napalm and let the flask drop onto the floorboard.
We finally crash the last gate. Flash of blinding light. Red molten sky in every direction. It's another world. And below us, the Core. Just a dot at first but getting larger by the second. The magnetic field locks onto us as we tear through the mantle. The car is a ripped-up flaming scrap-heap at this point. Why we haven't melted yet is beyond me. All hail the great magmanaut.
We close in on the Core. It resembles a scaled down version of the Earth in black and red. Even the shapes seem to mimic the continents. A massive iron serpent is coiled around the molten sphere. It slowly chases its own tail. Large chunks of half-melted rock and debris rotate in orbit like satellites. Forked tongues of electric current snap and resonate between them. The force of the magnetic field is close to crushing the car. It rips off the hood and the doors…
As it turns out, Death has wings--so he splits ("See you in Hell, daisy pusher!"). Which leaves me alone--trapped inside the shattered steel carcass of a '76 Eldorado with four flat tires and a fucked-up paintjob. Plummeting. Rapidly. Certain f*****g doom. Might as well be flying a comet into the sun and exchanging solemn glances with Icarus.
It's around this moment that I realize the first great Cosmic Truth that all souls come to know in passing: only the living fear Death; the dead merely regard him as an a*****e.
© 2010 Mike Lamb
AboutArtist, writer, and a drunken lunatic prophet. I am the author of Jack's Inferno, a dark comedy bizarro/horror novel about Hell, previously published through Wordplague (now defunct). I am also a pro.. more..
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