The Force Within
by John W. Steele
Table of Contents|
parts: 1, 2, 3, 4, 5
Descent Into Hades
Reggie Suggins ran until he could run no more. His chest heaved, and his lungs burned. Every time he thought he could travel no further, Samael ground his knuckles into the nerves of Reggie’s spine. The pain seared through his ribs, down his legs, and exploded in his feet like bolts of cosmic energy. Somehow he found the strength to go on.
He’d avoided the cops by hiding in snake-infested culverts and filthy stinking sewers. The troopers drove by, oblivious to his presence.
On the way out of Nashville, several vehicles tried to run him over. “Put some clothes on, faggot!” a man in a rusted blue van screamed. Reggie dove over the guardrail and rolled down the embankment. The van was the best of the worst, but none of them had the skills to destroy him. Through the grace of a higher power, a railroad bridge appeared in the distance. Reggie ran up a cinder-strewn incline, and they headed down the tracks.
They walked deep into the night. The rails gleamed in the moonlight like silver ribbons to hell, and Reggie followed them into the gloomy unknown. There were helicopters, but they clustered in the outskirts of Nashville. Their neon blue strobe lights pierced the darkness and scoured the ground. But Reggie and Samael were beyond them now; only the rails and fickle maw of tomorrow waited. Naked, cold and hungry, they forged into the night.
Reggie ambled barefooted on the crushed stone track ballast. His feet were bleeding and swollen. Each step felt like walking on broken glass. He wanted to rest, but Samael would not allow it.
They traveled on until, at the foot of the slope, a tiny marsh appeared. Its water looked dark and murky. Moonlight reflected on the lily pads. The song of swamp peepers filled the air, and the pond smelled like rotten eggs.
“We need to get into the water,” Samael whispered.
Reggie inched his way down the tangled slope. He waded through the cattails and entered the mire to his waist. His feet sank knee deep in the muck. Samael reached forth his arm and dug clay from the side of the bank. He packed Reggie’s bullet wounds with the mud, and the poultice felt soothing. It seemed the wounds had withered away leaving a dimpled crater about the size of a dime, but his body looked like it had been ravaged by smallpox. They rested a spell in the pungent silt, and then continued on their journey.
When the lights of the city grew dim, an American Legion post appeared on the outskirts of town. A flood lamp illuminated the front and the rear of the building where a dumpster stood along the back wall. But it was the Salvation Army clothing drop that caught Reggie’s eye. They scrambled down the bank and snuck over to it.
The street marker at the intersection read: Kings Highway. Reggie looked up and down the road, but he saw no headlights. He opened the donation drop door and crawled inside. It smelled like a chicken coop, and the clothing stank with a musty fume. He ripped open a black garbage bag and rummaged through the contents. A beat-up pair of Wranglers lay buried in the heap. One of the legs was spotted with what felt like axle grease, and the other one was riddled with tiny holes, but the zipper worked. Reggie felt glad to have them. He slid them on, and they were a perfect fit. He dug deeper.
At the bottom of the bin, he found a heavy blue hoodie. The front of the garment held dim white letters he couldn’t read. He tried it on. It was baggy, but it felt warm on his skin. They climbed out of the bin and stood in the light of the lamp. He held the sweatshirt to the radiance and looked at the stencil. It read: ARE YOU SAVED?
Reggie reached into the pouch and touched what felt like a cash register receipt. He pulled the stub from the pocket, and his eyes lit up. His fingers held two crumpled one-dollar bills. Reggie felt like he’d just hit the lottery. He folded them carefully and slid them into the watch pocket of his jeans.
His eyes searched the darkened area at the side of the clothing bin. An old pair of leather boots sat at the edge of the stall. They were worn and ragged, and the sole of one boot had separated from the upper. He picked them up; they smelled like cat urine.
He hobbled over to a wooden rail that ran along a walkway that lead to a baseball field. Then he sat on the crossbeam and tried them on. They were a tad too big. He limped back to the bin. Samael reached inside and recovered a threadbare tee shirt. Reggie ripped it in half and stuffed it in his boots. He slid his feet into the brogans. They felt like an emperor’s slippers, and the screaming pain in his feet subsided. He had a notion that his luck was about to change.
His stomach rumbled. But, more than anything, he needed a drink. He remembered the thrill of vodka, the silky burn when it drained down his throat, the hypnotic rush of glory, the rapture of oblivion. Samael urged him forward, and they walked over to the dumpster.
Against the rear of the building leaned a warped two-by-four. Reggie raised the lid of the refuse bin and propped it open with the stud. A milk crate sat next to the garbage stall. He pulled it over and stepped up. He swung his leg over the rim and dropped to the floor.
Inside it was quite dark, and the cube stank like rotting fish. Reggie remained still as his eyes adjusted to the darkness. There were scratching sounds. He found a broken broom handle leaning in the corner. He picked it up and prodded through the trash.
Something squealed. Reggie thrust the pole into the rustle. A large rat scurried from the vile heap. In its mouth it held what appeared to be a half-eaten hamburger. A dim spark of feral radiance leaked from its mindless red eyes. It dropped the burger, hissed and showed its teeth.
Reggie recoiled. Samael reached forth, and the rat bit his fingers. He grabbed the vermin by the neck and dashed its skull against the wall of the dumpster; the rat screamed. Again and again, Samael pounded its brain on the wall of the bin until it opened like a hard-boiled egg. Samael cast the flea-infested carcass to the floor, and Reggie stomped it hard with the heel of his boot.
The burger lay skewed in a greasy puddle. Reggie picked it out from the fetid pool. He wiped it on his sleeve and swallowed it down. They climbed out of the dumpster and stood in the beam of the lamp. The arm pointed towards the tracks.
They climbed back up the embankment and walked along a narrow path that had appeared out of nowhere. The sun began to rise behind a blanket of slate grey clouds. Reggie glanced at the arm. Samael’s fist now looked more like the head of a python. It peered from his chest and darted side to side, its wicked eyes sharp and alert.
They walked for a long time. On the other side of the highway stood a “Squeaky Pig” take-out adjacent to a Sunoco mini-mart. The python swung its head; they wandered across the highway and entered the restaurant.
A young girl with a chocolate-colored complexion stood behind the counter. Her name tag read: Gayle. Reggie stepped forth and laid his two dollars on the buffet. “What it will be, sir?” the girl asked. Their eyes met, and they shared a long and sustained look. Reggie said nothing.
“I’m saved also,” the girl said. She looked over her shoulder and then reached into her apron and removed a tiny change purse. She opened it and pulled out a five-dollar bill. Gayle looked again at the ragged, filthy man standing before her. She reached in her purse, pulled out another bill just like the first one, and laid them on the counter. “What will it be, sir?”
Reggie gazed at the shining menu on the wall. “Number five,” he said, his voice contrite. The girl turned and filled the order. When finished, she placed his food on a tray. Gayle helped him put the cap on the beverage container. She put the fives in the register and handed him a dollar and change. Reggie lowered his eyes and nodded his head.
Reggie and Samael walked to a table in the corner and sat. Reggie wolfed down the meal like a starving animal, then guzzled the drink and chewed the ice cubes. They sat for a while and stared out the window. He thought about Nora.
A trooper vehicle sped down the highway. Samael pointed toward the rear exit. Reggie placed the dollar beneath the soda cup. He pulled the hoodie over his head and lowered his eyes. They stood up and left the restaurant. Rain began to drizzle.“Where are we heading?” Reggie asked.
“North,” the python said.
“What’s in the north?”
“The same thing that’s in the south, only cooler,” it hissed.
They ambled forth, two lost souls locked in Hades with no hope of redemption. For an hour they walked, putting the miles behind them. Memories of the last days bubbled out from the murky past. It seemed Reggie had awakened from a nightmare.
“Why am I still alive, Samael?”
“How do you know you are?” the serpent whispered.
“Are we lost in a dream?”
The snake hissed, “We have entered the realm of shadows. Deal with it.”
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Copyright © 2020 by John W. Steele