Story of the Week

 

BLACK TATTOO
(A LADY GRINNING MOUTH STORY)

JUNE 18

That night I was driving hard along Interstate 40, heading out into the New Mexico desert with a keg of beer resting on the passenger seat beside me, and an assortment of Schedule 1s stuffed in the foot well.

I was keeping one eye on the road and one eye on the storm clouds gathering behind me, and I figured I’d just about make it to the Goat House before the heavens opened.

I’d painted crosses all over the interior of the truck. Chained a big iron cross to the bull bars. It didn’t matter how hard I tried to keep them out, they still managed to find a way in. The radio kept bursting into life. Garbled voices. Mangled sentences. Back-to-front vocabulary. And way back there in the distance, the sound of a woman’s voice singing “Baa-Baa Black Sheep.”

It was the sound of the swarm.
End times are here, my friends.
Hallelujah!

Staring in the rear-view mirror as those apocalyptic skies mounted behind me, I knew the swarm was on its way. The world is seriously fucked up, how long did you think God would let this shit go by before he finally snapped?

I rolled the window down and stuck my head out into the night.
‘Sweet Jesus!’ I howled, ‘let your fiery wrath rain down upon this sinful world.’

Charlene is crying in the back of the truck. I’ve taped her mouth shut and trussed her up good and proper. For her own safety. She’s twelve years old. She likes watching “Anne with an E” on Nickelodeon, and she likes reading YA romances. I tell her that shit will rot her brain. But kids always think they know better.

Winding the window back up I can see tentacles of lightning illuminating the skies behind us, lighting up the interiors of red boiling clouds, and every now and again the crackle and boom of far away thunder, like the sound of righteous warfare.

About an hour ago I was pulled over by a state trooper. He kept his lights flashing as he got out of his cruiser and ambled towards me. He looked confident and butch. He looked like King of the Road.

I pointed towards the storm and asked him if he knew what it meant.
He frowned. ‘What storm?’ He asked.
I realised he was a sleeper.
Poor bastard.

I shot him in the face and left him lying on the side of the road. He was still twitching when I drove away.

I arrived at the Goat House around ten past midnight, leaving the road about forty-five minutes earlier and striking out across endless miles of flat desert. The four-wheeler could handle the terrain, but only just – it was a rough ride and I badly needed to keep my wits about me.

It didn’t help I’d recently downed a quart of whiskey. It didn’t help I’d snorted enough coke to re-float the Medellin Cartel. By the time I arrived at the house my brain was crawling with locusts. The entire world appeared to have turned blood red and a hot dry wind was blowing out of the west.

The Goat House was a small adobe bungalow erected sometime in the mid-sixties by hippies according to some, renegade bikers according to others. It was built into the wall of a towering red stone mesa, swaddled in shadow and looking about as bleak and forbidding as anything this side of a bad mescaline trip.

I took Charlene out the back of the truck and slinging her over my shoulder, I carried her with me to the house.

Approaching the dilapidated exterior of the building I saw shop mannequins standing out front dressed in the tattered remains of tuxedoes and wedding dresses. They looked eerie and otherworldly. I almost imagined their heads turning to follow me as I passed them.

The interior of the building was crawling with shadows, the wooden ceiling rafters black and rotten to the core, and there were gaping holes in the ceiling through which the sky was visible, and in the middle of the building stood a single block of stone like a grey mortuary slab.
Weird feature for an abandoned house to have. That slab. The moon shone down through a hole in the roof situated almost directly overhead, illuminating it in a weird, unsettling way.

I snapped my flashlight on and swung the beam around.

Veins of green and white fungus patterned the walls, crawling across layers of shit and graffiti five decades deep, if I could imagine the inside of a schizophrenic’s head, then those walls would be the perfect angry metaphor.

You could feel the tension in this place.
The nightmares that had soaked into the walls.
The people who had died screaming on that stone slab.

I set Charlene in a corner of the room.
She looked terrified.
‘Don’t cry, baby,’ I told her, ‘we made it, we’re here, just like I said…Didn’t I say…Didn’t I tell you we’d make it?’

I murdered her parents three days ago, around the same time I kidnapped her from the outskirts of the small town of Coyote Falls, New Mexico, but I knew she didn’t hold that against me.

Her parents were sleepers. I had woken them up to the coming glory. They were singing from the choir right now.
I was the fucking good guy.

I stroked her hair, choosing to ignore the way she flinched from me. She was tired. It had been a long hard journey. Kids tired easy.
It’s almost over now, I told her, you can sleep soon….

I went back outside and brought in the full-length mirror I’d stashed in the back of the truck.

The dust kicked up by the approaching storm was making it increasingly hard to see, everything was tinged the colour of blood.

The storm was almost here, you could hear heaven’s outcasts waxing and waning on the great red wind coming down out of the west, the sound of heavy chains being dragged across the sky, and the moaning and wailing of every lost soul….

Five years ago I killed a man who owed me fifty bucks.
I waited until he came home from work one evening then stepped up behind him and slipped a garrotte around his neck. It was a good feeling, pulling that wire super tight and ramming my knee up into the small of his back, and this guy was flailing about and making all kinds of wheezing sounds as he tried to breathe.

Just before he died he got strangely calm. He quit struggling, and in clear Spanish, he said, “is this what you want?”
‘More than anything,’ I told him.
After he was dead I went through his wallet to make it look like he’d been robbed.
There was fifty bucks in his wallet.
The exact amount he owed me.
Life has a sense of humour.
You just can’t take it too seriously.

I stumbled back into the Goat House, slamming the door shut behind me, and then I leaned the mirror up against the nearest wall.

The frame was ornate and made of heavy brass. The surface was black scrying glass. I’d angled the mirror so that it reflected the whole of the room behind me.

I recite the Lord’s prayer backwards as I set about scraping the fungus from the walls into a shot glass, mixing it in with bourbon, and sinking the resulting concoction in a single swallow. Damn. It tasted bad. But almost instantly I felt my veins catch fire and my head balloon and the entire building started to transform.

I grabbed the child by the hair and dragged her across to the mirror where I stood staring at my own deranged features. ‘I brought you a gift,’ I roared as I pulled Charlene’s head back, exposing the pale white of her throat, ‘I know you can hear me, Ramirez, I know you’re watching me from the other side, I bring you the gift of innocence – in return I ask that you make my flesh a doorway, grant me a black tattoo, grant me a guardian angel of my own, let men fear me as they fear all those who walk with the shadow folk….’

I felt something dark rippling beneath the skin of perception. An unseen presence was standing at my shoulder, whispering obscenities in my ear, encouraging me to cross the final hurdle. Not many do. Not many can. But to raise an angel one must be prepared to open the darkest doorways of the soul.

I took a breath, closed my eyes, and slashed the knife across the child’s throat.

I hear dead children now, crawling around beneath the floorboards, rattling their bones and gnashing their teeth, and these are the innocent, they are calling out to me as I bleed Charlene’s corpse into a copper urn, pleading with me to return them to their mommies and daddies, and I could say that the fungus makes me immune to mercy, but the truth is I have no mercy, no compassion, no humanity left….
The orphanage took everything from me.
Except my faith in the ever after.

I smear some of the child’s blood across the walls.
…Voices whispering in the darkest corners of the room, the sounds of furtive motion, like animals scuttling around in the gloom, things roused by the proximity of suffering, by the murder of innocence….

I get down on my hands and knees and crawl backwards across the room.
Our Father who art in Filth
Hollow be thine name

I stared into the black mirror.
The room reflected in the mirror wasn’t the same room I saw around me.
In the reflected room there were cadavers and mummified skulls dangling from the rafters, strips of animal flesh still clinging to the bone. There were shelves lining the walls, stacked with the shrunken heads of dogs, goats, cattle, and mountain cats, and snake skin carpeted the floor, and right at the back of the room there was a set of stairs leading to an upstairs floor that didn’t exist in the real world.

A sickly green light was spilling down those stairs.

I stared at that light in the mirror. I felt a thrill of dread creep along the nuggets of my spine. I’d broken through to the other side. I’d torn down the veil between this world and the next.

The storm struck a moment later.

The building shook and groaned and the heavens were split asunder by bolts of lightning that lit up the world bright as creation day, and I wept and prayed as I stripped naked and laid myself upon that slab of stone.

…Footsteps moving about upstairs…no, not exactly footsteps, more like the sounds of cloven hooves, accompanied by the faint bleating of goats, or sheep…but there was no upstairs…and then I’d hear the sound of a man groaning in pain, the sound of children whispering and giggling, and a woman singing “Baa-Baa Black Sheep,” her voice crackling and tinny and far away….

As I lay there I heard the dreadful sound of those hooves descending the stairs that didn’t exist. Instantly I opened my eyes and saw a weird light playing against the walls of the room -it was the fungus I had imbibed, my body was burning, my head reeling, and there was an ugly, twisted voice whispering in my ear.
I stared across at the mirror.
A black robed figure was shuffling down those phantom stairs, moving step by laborious step, its head covered in a cowl that looked like lace, that looked like dried snake skin.
My heart gave a painful spasm in my chest. I had succeeded – despite the inconceivable odds I had conjured the sorcerer, Ramirez Barbero, the infamous “goat man” of nineteenth Century Spanish American lore.

Through the spilling of a child’s blood, I had managed to open a doorway between worlds.

I clenched my fists as the sound of hooves crossed the room towards me, and moments later I felt cold fingers caressing the skin of my back and I shuddered as a voice whispered in Spanish.
‘Is this what you want?’
‘Yes,’ I stammered, ‘it is what I want….’

I continued to stare into the mirror – the figure was standing over me, its face lost in shadow, and even as I watched, it leaned sideways and dipped a long black nail into the blood I’d gathered in the copper urn – then straightening up, it drove that nail into my back.

I screamed in unbelievable pain and in that moment every black vision crashed through my skull.

I saw albino snakes wriggling out of the vacant eye sockets of half-buried skulls. I saw corpses stripped of flesh and hanging upside down in the forest, and all the trees were white and ashy looking. I saw a woman trying on the faces of dead men. Laughing as she peered through their eye-holes. “Is this what you want?” She asked me.

…Entire towns obliterated by enormous tornadoes, roofs torn upwards, walls collapsing, nothing will be spared, and Novembers so black they cast a shadow over the rest of the year, and grinning, grinning, that woman, that fucking woman, her grin a mile wide and its like a knife plunging into my heart, and I realise that all the faces she’s trying on are the faces of people I’ve killed.
And the pain is beyond measure….

The doorway to hell had been opened.
The ordeal lasted all that night –
The pain, unimaginable – the visions – I drank to numb the pain, but it only heightened the visions….
She was grinning at me.
“Is this what you want?’ She hissed.

In the morning I woke alone – the Goat House was empty, at some point during the night the storm had passed, leaving the earth smelling of gunpowder.

I cried out as I got up off the slab, the ache in my back was excruciating, and grabbing a half empty bottle of tequila I downed a swallow and beat my fist repeatedly against my skull, my jaw set in a terminal grin….

I realized I couldn’t stop grinning.
It was all a fucking joke.
Everything….
Everyone….

I staggered towards the mirror and twisted so I could see my back….

There she was, my guardian angel, tattooed into my back and still bleeding, and her eyes were wide and staring, her mouth convulsed into a hideous grin.
Lady Grinning Mouth.
No one would dare cross my path now.
I was protected.
I had a guardian angel to protect me from the darkness I knew would follow the storm.

I emerged into daylight, arms held up as police cruisers arrived screaming from every direction.

“I surrender!” I yelled as the cops emerged from their vehicles, guns drawn, howling at me to spread-eagle on the ground.
As I lay down on the ground the cops converged on me.
‘Its ok, its ok,’ I said as they cuffed me and dragged me to my feet, ‘it’s ok, man, I have a guardian angel now, I’m good with the Lord.’

And afterwards they’d tell me I was grinning from ear to ear.