THE DENIZENS OF LOUIE SHEPARD

by Michael Wolf


If it's true that every dog has his day, then call me Fido, thought Louie as he knelt beside the large hot tub to oblige the request of the woman. She was lying naked, face-down on the redwood deck next to the audibly churning hot-tub. She had simply asked him to rub oil on her, but Louie had read enough Penthouse Forum to know what might eventually happen. He gave it only a passing muse that he had no idea who this tanned, naked goddess was—or even what he was doing in this steaming redwood bath house—it was more important to take advantage of the situation before it slipped away.

Louie could live to be 600 million years old and it would still amaze him how soft a woman's body could be. He ran his well-oiled hands over the graceful swells and swales of her back and legs, edging closer to the more erogenous zones with each pass, carefully monitoring her for any negative reaction.

He had just slipped his hand between the supple recesses of her thighs when she turned. Louie's heart skipped a beat then he gave her his best "It's O.K., I know what I'm doing," smile. Any fear of miscommunication was quickly dispelled, however, when he saw her purposeful grin and felt her hand slide up his back.

"Take off your clothes," she whispered, punctuating her words with a flickering tongue in his ear. She eased away with a glimmer in her eye that told Louie it was showtime. He moved upright on his knees and tried to take his shirt off by standing and pulling it up over his head. The shirt was in the air, covering his head and arms before he realized it was stuck—the collar was still buttoned. He stumbled around, struggling with the shirt, looking like some kind of blind, crazy sail with legs, when he heard her giggle. She was next to him. The he felt her hands on his body again and a gentle push sent him head first into the hot tub with his shirt still wrapped around his head and arms.

Shit, was the only thought that had time to go through his mind before he fell into something that was not water at all. He felt a soft crunch as if he'd landed in a stack of hay, then a feeling of being tickled all over by little feathers. But it was the strange way the "feathers" seemed to flit over his skin with a million lives that instilled a sense of urgency in removing his shirt. With brand new panic, he tore away his shirt and found himself chest deep in a black, twisting mass that seethed and bristled with life.

Spiders.

Millions of them, crawling over one another and making the eerie rustling noise of countless tiny scrambling legs. With a gagged scream, he lunged forward only to succeed in submerging himself completely into the arachnid bath. Darkness and cold mindless terror engulfed him. He opened his mouth to scream again but it was quickly filled with the skittering madness. He could feel every hideous appendage madly raking his body and he was suffocating, his mouth stuffed with writhing horror. He felt himself lose control of his bowels and did not care. It was at this moment of insanity that the sheer impossibility of the situation came to him.

Dreaming... I'm fucking dreaming! Louie thought. He suddenly realized he had fallen prey to an incredible swindle of his senses. He lost his fear but not his revulsion of the spiders as he clambered up and began his habitual ascent through the layers of muddy dementia that separate nightmare from reality.

Louie fought to wake up. He was fully aware he was dreaming, but remained deep within the convoluted folds of his subconscious. He was a drowning man, fighting his way to the surface of the winter lake only to find it frozen over with an impenetrable layer of ice.

(claw at the ice)

Then an sudden impact around his neck started his eyes open and bulging. Innate orientation instantly put him in the familiar setting of his dimly lit room although in a position just as terrifying. He choked once from the pressure on his trachea then the cold, hard hand that had awoke him, closed around his throat like a wrecking yard claw.

(pound on the ceiling of ice)

Louie's eyes fluttered and his lungs bucked, but it wasn't until he saw the large figure hovering over his bed, that he realized what was happening.

(look for light, pound on the ceiling)

Something he had thought about a thousand times before just before drifting off to sleep; a stranger in his house, and he had Louie pinned and helpless against his pillow. The intruder's head was covered with a stained, white pillowcase and tied off with a length of dirty bullrope. There were holes cut out for one eye of an illusory luminosity, and another just a dark hole of seeming nonexistence.

(pound, look for the light)

With incredible strength, he held Louie to one side as he turned his intentions to his wife, Catherine, who lay obliviously sleeping beside them. Louie saw the glint of the stranger's blade in a rising meaty fist. He felt the bed pump and heard the soft chucking sounds of murder.

(ice rending, groaning... weakening)

Then it was him. Louie was The Stranger, stabbing Catherine's limp body two times, knife raised for the third, before he realized that he had changed personas. Her lifeless face framed by her luxurious auburn hair made his gut wrench and he was bending over when he saw what was on the end of his other arm. He looked down to where he was laying just before—and saw the stranger there instead of himself. Louie looked at the bloody knife in his raised hand and screamed. He screamed again and again, each successively louder until he finally did break through the last plane of sleep.

(face through, glaring light... air... breathe... breathe)

He was awake now. He was sure of it. He glanced at Catherine and saw her sleeping safely. His head was spinning; he felt sick; but at least he was awake. He rolled out of bed, picking at the pajamas glued to his body with sweat, and fell towards the bedroom door. He slid down the hallway against the wall like a sailor, deep within the viscera of a storm racked ship. His sight would not stabilize or focus, so he made his way down the hallway from memory.

"...time is it?" he muttered. It seemed like hair was growing on his eyes, but as he rubbed them he could make out the clock. "Only eleven thirty... Jesus," he moaned, then put his face against the wall.

He had been asleep for one hour.

Louie began his "waking up" routine. Everything he looked at in his decorous condominium was gilt with an alien sheen. He felt groggy but dared not sleep until he was fully detached from the invisible tendrils that still bound him to his nightmare.

He was a grizzled veteran of the slumber wars. Batteries of doctors had tried to "cure" him of his affliction with an array of drugs that had unpronounceable names and side effects ranging from yellow feces to nosebleeds. All were unsuccessful. Nevertheless, Louie privately prided himself at keeping a cool head through it all. Even his wife had a hard time telling when things were going badly for him. It was only when she had woken up more than once to find him sallow faced and clutching the bedposts, babbling about finding his genitals or trying to kill imaginary things with an invisible weapon, that she insisted he see a doctor.

Now he had his own way of dealing with the aftershocks of each successive trip to the nighttime netherworld. His favorite was to smoke a cigarette and watch television. He had quit for over three years, but had been driven back to the habit. He remembered his first smoke after all that time. It went down easy. It went down good. Like he had never quit, and he thought he heard a papery whisper as he inhaled that first puff that said, "Welcome back, Louie... Old friend."

Yes, but at these times, a smoke and the blessed TV were the only sure link to the outside world that kept him busy while he cleaned house in his brain. What worried him lately though, was the way the usually definitive line between dreamland and reality was beginning to meld. He could start to tell Catherine about something and then realize he wasn't sure if it really happened or not. And the real creeper came when he began to have trouble with his eyesight. He started to notice things skirting just inside of his peripheral vision. At first they were just amorphous multicolored shapes that would vanish spontaneously when confronted. But lately they had started to become bolder and more lucid, with clearly defined features, and Louie started recognizing them as the denizens of his "sleeping disorder."

Ordinarily, a person might think it was time to quiver on over to the nearest basket weaving academy, but for some inexplicable reason he had managed to hold a kind of detached rational to even some of the most horrible apparitions. (Probably for the same reason he despised those flailing characters in the monster movies who always went catatonic at the first sign of trouble.) As long as every other aspect of his life remained intact he could justify his sanity.

But it was on nights like these that the little beasties were particularly active. He tried to concentrate on the television. Star Trek was on and Mr. Spock was performing the Vulcan Mindfuck on a giant stone caterpillar. Most of the time it only took around fifteen minutes to shake the sticky membrane caping his senses after waking, but this one was stubborn.

He was rubbing his brow, contemplating the woodgrain on his coffee table and thinking, This can't be happening to me, I drive a Volvo for God's sake. Nothing ever happens to people that drive Volvos. The fingers of his free hand strolled over the perfectly cleaned and waxed surface of the table, he glanced down to the immaculate, plush carpeting that resisted stains better than any other brand, then to the precisely stacked magazines, and cracked a mischievous little grin. He had been playing a subtle little game with Catherine for years. She was an impeccable housekeeper, whipping every room of their condo into a photo from Better Homes and Gardens. With all the effort she devoted to it though, sometimes she wouldn't always have time to kick back and talk, or just watch a movie together. But it made her a tempting straight-man for Louie's brand of irreverent humor. He would leave a pair of underwear, the dirtier the better, right in the middle of the magazine page they called their bedroom. Then he'd step back into the doorway and frame his work. If it looked as bad as a booger on a birthday cake he would go ahead and tool around the house, amused with himself, waiting for the other shoe to drop. It always did. He chuckled softly at the memory of some of his academy award worthy performances of ignorance he laid on her when confronted.

It was then he got a whiff of a strange odor. It was a slight, sour ammonia that welled under the cupped palm of the hand over his face. It teased the center of his groggy head. He paused, then cracked his fingers to look around the room and confirm to himself that it was just another mind quirk rolling down the pipeline. Instead he saw something that topped every drunken-buddy ghost story he had ever heard.

* * *

There was a kind of man sitting in the easy chair directly across from Louie. He was Death's ugly cousin, escaped from a locked back bedroom while the Grim Reaper was distracted by someone who came knocking. He sat back with his arms clenching each hand rest, his skin a waxy yellow disease pulled taut over a mask of gleeful rage, with one dead eye that looked off to the left at nothing, while the other boiled and danced like a porthole to hell. Then, in claymation motion, it pulled from its bony lap two wads of material that it held up, one clump at each end of its outstretched, gangly arms. It cocked its head in a grimaced pseudo-grin then let unfurl a dirty rope, and a torn, bloody pillowcase.

Louie knew him.

He was the character in tonight's nocturnal horror show. The man who had switched places and was at the end of his arm after he dreamed he had murdered Catherine. Louie remembered the dream—and him—but the shock of the seemingly real life encounter made him freeze and stare with his heart beating like a salvo of M-80s exploding in his chest.

Then the man-thing got up from the chair. Louie couldn't take his eyes off it but he couldn't move either. As it rose, Louie saw he left a gray smear on the easy chair. Putting his mottled, bony hands on the coffee table it leaned within a foot of Louie's face. Rancid vapor puffed from his rotting maw as he spoke. "Hi Louie... Got any gum?"

Its head kicked back in a shrieking laughter of many more voices than its own. Then his head snapped back into a staredown with Louie so fast, it looked like trick photography. The creature had shifted moods instantly into an almost orgasmic anger that shook its grotesque body and clenched its lipless jaw so hard that Louie saw two of his yellow-gray teeth actually crack. Louie had never actually felt hatred in his life but this being positively seethed and bristled with an unspeakable malevolence.

"G-Get... outta here!" Louie heard himself stammer. Words seemed pointless, but he hardly knew he was speaking in the first place.

The creature's expression suddenly slacked and his lidless, jaundiced eyes skipped back and forth quickly. His bad eye only grudgingly mimicking the active one. Louie had seen this, "Is the coast clear?" ritual in the deadpan delivery of a punchline to a dirty joke. But then he remembered it from the faces of the heartless junior felons of his youth on the streets of Pittsburgh, right after they had beat you to a bloody pulp, and right before they gave you that final kick in the face.

"We're going down Louie, and it's good." The thing shuddered, panned the ceiling luxuriously, then back into the staredown. "Gotta wreck you... drag us from the pickup, put your dick in the dirt."

Us? Louie thought. He didn't understand at first, it talked like one of those old riddles of Egypt. Then he figured "us" was it, and the other creatures he had dreamed of.

"No, not me and other creatures I have dreamed of..." It said, and grinned at Louie.

"You know what I'm thinking?"

"I'm looking for something to bash us with, Shepard."

The thing was right. Louie was scanning around for a weapon within arms reach but the most deadly thing he could see was a newspaper lying on the coffee table. Yeah, a rolled up newspaper, the crux of home security. Then he thought of his gun in the nightstand, remembered what this thing could do, and quickly wiped his mind clean so as not to give up any kind of tactical advantage. The creature looked puzzled for a second then brightened up and continued talking as if suddenly remembering a funny story.

"Do you remember when you were a kid Louie?" It clattered, then kept talking without waiting for an answer, "You would get in some nasty fights with Wayne wouldn't you?"

"Who doesn't fight with their brother? Who are y..."

"You would go to your room just twisting with rage, wouldn't you? And you would pound your fists on the bed and wish Wayne was dead. You even imagined bashing his head in with a hefty rock, didn't you?"

"You can't tell me that. What the hell are you anyway?!" Suddenly Louie was angry as well as scared. He was getting defensive, which was only second in line on the instant boxcar bump of emotions, the final, offending boxcar being guilt. The thing was right...

"Watched his forehead cave-in, didn't you?"

...but so very wrong at the same time. Louie had realized a long time ago that he loved Wayne firmly, and the sibling wars they had while growing up were pretty common stuff. Wayne lived out of state now...

"Saw his brains spill from his ruined skull, didn't you?"

...but he seldom missed an opportunity to visit. Always the older brother and always the bachelor. An excellent computer salesman now, "I could sell a glass of water to a carp!" is something Wayne loved to say. We would just smile and nod at his shopworn quips because everyone knew he was an unquestionably good guy. If anything, the memories had only...

"Didn't you?"

...drawn them closer when tempered with the all-healing elixir of time. In fact, it never was that big of a deal to anyone the next day, much less Louie, but the way this creature said it made him feel dirty and criminal.

"Hey... We've been out, Louie." It graveled flatly and momentarily broke the staredown to concentrate on the newspaper. It then looked back at Louie, cocked its malformed head, and like the ghost of some evil, wall-eyed librarian it said sweetly, "Page three."

Louie lifted a hand for the paper, he was suffering from an acute case of brainlock trying to dissimulate and catalogue the incredible chain of events that were happening to him. But for now he moved as an automation, unfolding and turning the paper to page three.

It poked at him, "Read, Shepard."

He searched around the page and found a tax levy story, a human interest bit, and then the only thing it could have been talking about:


                    BAGLADY KILLINGS CONTINUE

          An anonymous tip lead police to the discovery of 
          the third victim in a string of grisly skid row 
          murders. The dismembered body was found in the 
          trash receptacle behind 35th street in the Lebanon
          Hills district. When police were asked if the
          killer had followed his earlier pattern of missing
          body parts they had no comment. The homeless
          victim was well known by...

Louie glazed over and stared at the paper long after he had finished reading it. A burning began to rise inside of him. His body was on auto-pilot now. Primary fight-or-flight chemicals, inherited from his Neolithic ancestors and tempered by civilization, coursed through his gut. He began breathing deeper... and harder... fanning the glowing spark of desperation that kindled the coals of human defiance. The fuel then quickly exploded into a flame that consumed his fear and made him stand up to face his antagonist. "Who... are... you?" Louie asked evenly through a clamped jaw.

"Who do we think Shepard? Put it together." It leaned closer and Louie winced at its foul breath. "Can't figure out who wanted to bash that fat hen at the market today? Remember she wanted to pay for her groceries with pennies counted one-by-one while you were standing behind her, late for work?" It sucked a breath in deeply and Louie heard something rattle deep in its sinewy chest, and continued. "Can't figure out who wants to lay that new girl at the office? Can't figure out who wanted to kill our own brother?"

"Are you supposed to be me?" Louie asked, retaining a convincing golly-eyed interest while he ransacked his brain for some way out of this situation.

"I am of you Shepard, but I am not you."

Then from the silhouette of a man burned into a future forgotten wall after a nuclear holocaust, middle finger up in the final act of defiance, Louie found the courage and strength to lash out. He sprung a chokehold on the creature while it was still talking. Its neck collapsed in Louie's hand like papyrus, exposing iron hard vertebrae in its neck and Louie just squeezed anyway. The thing laughed hoarsely and seemed not to care too much that he was being stood up and throttled. "WHO ARE YOU?" Louie bellowed.

"Of you, by you and for you, Louie, but separate and distinct. The backside, the devil if you will. The Great Scapegoat. The evil in everybody trying to get out, but with you it was easy."

"Bullshit!" shouted Louie and started shaking for all he was worth but it was like trying to bare-handedly unearth a telephone pole.

The thing continued indifferently, "The drugs helped, especially that one from the experimental program that quack doctor of yours recommended. And I'm sorry we had to put us through all those terrible dreams but that was an important part of my birthing process."

Louie was at fever pitch and cried "If I'm crazy then... then..." He rattled the creature as hard as he could one final time. It just cackled at him again and Louie let go and dropped on the couch in frustration.

"Your not crazy Louie, the truly insane never doubt their sanity." It continued, "If you want proof, maybe we can go down to the big freezer and maybe see if any parts of those victims we read about might maybe be stashed in there."

The statement hit him like a anti-tank missile. He could go and see but he didn't want to find out. He had not looked in the storage freezer for a month.

"What's more important is the business at hand. We know things, don't you Shepard? We know things about that slut Catherine." Louie jumped at the mention of Catherine. It had hit a nerve. He didn't completely understand what was going on but he was going to make sure she wasn't hurt by any of it. A glance saw it wringing its hands and smiling, "Yo, Shepard, here's the real meat. John Skykes, remember the name?" Louie liked almost everyone he ever met but he remembered John Skykes as the most self-centered asshole in the world. "While you were in Fresno, last year, she fucked him."

"What? She wouldn't do..."

"You found his number in your phone book, dipstick! What else do you need?" Louie was finding it hard to look away—its eye had locked on to him.

"There was a reason for that," said Louie, wisps of gray vapor swirled and collected in his head, confusing him. "He knew one of Catherine's friends. And... and... and that was the only way she could get a hold of her!" The fog roiled and coalesced. Fog... fog...

He felt a voice inside him.

It was a bad voice.

And it was quickly gaining ground in Louie's head as he stared into the thing's eye.

A change came over the man-thing. Louie watched its good eye glow and its pupil became the center of attention. It seemed to glow and spin like some kind of reality vortex. Louie felt his will being siphoned away, being replaced by anger.

Diffuse, general anger at first, then more specific.

Anger at Catherine, and the creature seemed to guide its path. "While you were gone they had some drinks, yes, and you know how after a couple of drinks she turns into The Whore of Babylon." it said.

"I don't..." Louie's words stumbled, "she was with Skykes..."

"She's been with many before Skykes."

"She isn't..."

"Around the world with Louie's wife!' that's what he brags to your friends. Kinda catchy, don'tcha think?"

Through the fog in Louie's head, a shape began to form. "...can't do this... I'm..."

"He rode her, Louie," it said, "rode her like a dog."

Louie imagined the scene. Then he remembered how Catherine had treated him just that day, perfectly innocent, as if nothing had happened. Great liar.

The shape in the fog became clearer. It was a face. The face of this creature in front of him, and it exuded an emotion.

Revenge.

Excellent liar.

An emotion that became him. Revenge. Sweet, sweet revenge. "That cunt," Louie hissed.

Perfect liar.

"Good... Good... Now that you know the truth, we must go to her." It turned and moved toward the hall. "Go to her and put things right. Follow me, Louie... Follow me."

It had an obscene walk, like his legs were hinged wrong, and Louie followed. Face slack, arms also hanging limp at his side, he followed.

They walked through the living room, into the bedroom with Louie on one side of the bed and it on the other. Catherine laid sleeping between them.

"Get your gun Louie."

He mechanically stooped down to the end table drawer, opened it, and pulled out his nickel plated Colt automatic.

"Think Louie, think about what she did to you. Aim the gun Louie."

Louie's hand rose and the barrel centered on her face.

It started getting exited and jabbered, "Think about it Louie, she made you look like a fool! Everyone knew but us! All your friends are laughing at you!"

Louie's arms started shaking, the gun had turned hot and sweaty with the dancing barrel pointed at Catherine.

He despised her for what she had done.

(think about it later... not now)

He saw her passion, saw John Skykes entering her, heard her moans and breathing. The whole encounter ran through his mind like a grainy home movie.

"Kill her!" the creature hissed, obviously trying to keep its voice down.

(stop...)

He saw her beginning to climax with that jerk, John Skykes. Close up of her wedding band pressing into his back. Her legs tensed and cocked in the air. Louie hurt so much. He saw Skykes...

"She's a whore Louie and you're her cuckold!"

...riding her, leering, basking in the pleasure she gave, and he didn't deserve.

(see her sleeping, you love her)

Louie was shaking violently now, streaming perspiration and puffing madly.

"I have to," Louie whispered, "and it'll be O.K... I'll leave..."

"Shoot her you coward!" It was hopping and waving its gristle strips that it used for arms.

(no)

"...and everyone will know what she's done to me."

Almost on its own, his hand clenched and the explosion of the gun threw Louie crashing against his folding closet doors. The mind lock was broken. And as he laid on the floor, he was smashed with the realization of what he had done.

He had shot his wife.

Shot her... shot her... in the head.

(God help me. )

A scream slapped him back to reality before he had a chance to feel anything more. He saw Catherine sitting up in bed facing away from him, and at the demon. She was shrieking.

Louie blinked—and again, hard—then was sure.

He had missed.

The way he was shaking he couldn't have hit The Graf Zeppelin if he were standing next to it, and now his head was clear and he was in control of himself.

The thing threw a caustic glare at Louie, its sparse, wild hair and both eyes pointing different directions made it a wall-eyed, maniacal sight. It started to move towards Catherine and everything inside Louie instantly turned to stone conviction. He had one chance only. In a precision sweeping motion, he leveled the gun and fired an easy head shot at the hunkering creature.

A tuft of scalp flipped away from his deformed head and he made a sound like someone gargling eggs as he dropped to the floor behind the other side of the bed. Louie watched him fall and only had time to see Catherine's imploring face before he felt the blow to his head and his consciousness exploding into streaking lights and a high pitched whine. He knew nothing more until he heard Catherine's voice in ever increasing clarity over the sound of a reverse recording of someone being thrown down a well. His face broke the surface of the murky loch that had become his world and he became aware of her physical presence. He had only been senseless for a moment, but it seemed like two minutes of oblivion.

He opened his eyes and croaked, "Cathy..."

She lit up like Christmas in July, "You're awake!" she gasped.

Louie gulped dryly and rasped out, "You're OK. I... I didn't mean to..."

Before he could finish she had him in a firm, but awkward hug. Louie felt her breath hitch and warm tears on his neck as she spoke softly. "Save your strength Louie," and began to rock him slowly. "Save your strength."

"One thing babe..." he said to the ceiling.

"Yeah Lou?" she said, and sniffed.

Turning to her, slightly wall-eyed with a strange half-smile he whispered, "Got any gum?"

© 1997 Michael Wolf


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The Denizens of Louie Shepard, 4 April 1997