AUTHOR’S NOTE: Once, long ago, I was keynote speaker at a writer’s conference in the Lehigh Valley up north. I didn’t really know what I was going to talk about. I felt a little overwhelmed, because, at that point in my career, though I’d sold several novels and a handful or two of stories, I wasn’t sure I had the experience to speak on a subject that would prove useful. Then…I started talking (it’s a recurring theme…). What I talked about was the fact that my ideas don’t just come to me. Often – I live them. I told them this story – it didn’t happen exactly as I wrote it, but it was closer than reality should have allowed. The house – the church – the guy who looked like Charles Manson… so much of this I did not make up. Then I wrote in my buddy Wayne Allen Sallee – who was present that weekend, a weekend where I’d come to author Elizabeth Massie’s house for something we called Pseudocon – a writer’s retreat of sorts – a gathering of friends that I have to this day, though at least one has passed from us. Many of these people are authors I now publish. All of them have influenced my life, and my work. If you go to Waynesboro, VA and turn between the two silos and see a house with a car in the front yard – radio playing – beside an old church. Think twice before you ask for directions.
You Lookin’ For Herb?
It was getting dark, and the road ahead was fading quickly to shadows. Dave looked about himself nervously, hoping against hope that he’d see something familiar, something that would let him know he was on the right track. For about the thousandth time that hour, he cursed himself for forgetting to bring Beth’s phone number.
The Virginia mountains were no place to be lost at that time of night, especially when the only landmarks you could remember that might make everything all right were three giant grain silos off to one side of the road, and you could barely see the side of the road. It was not starting out to be the best night of his life.
In the seat beside him, Jo was squirming uncomfortably, trying to look unconcerned, but not doing a very good job. She was taking it like a real trooper. It was their first time away together, and they hadn’t been dating that long. His first fear had been that she’d be furious, and that their weekend would be ruined, all by his own ridiculous mistake.
The roads that turned off to either side were all numbered with identical signs. He knew that the road he needed was eight hundred and something, and since he couldn’t make out a thing along the roadside, he opted for the one that seemed to ring a bell. 813. It might not be the right one, but it was a place to start.
“I’m sorry about this,” he said, turning to Jo with a lopsided grin. “I can’t believe her phone is unlisted!”
“It’s okay,” she said, returning the smile, if a bit nervously. “Is this the road?”
“I’m not sure, but it looks familiar. If this isn’t it, we’ll come back out here, make our way into town, and I’ll figure something else out.”
She nodded, and he drove on down the dark, deserted road, paying close attention to the many potholes and the steep ditches. She had offered up her car for the trip, even letting him do the driving, and he had no intention of taking advantage of that trust.
On either side they passed farm houses, some showing lights, others seemingly deserted. Nowhere was there a sign of life or a familiar landmark, and after a couple of short miles, he had to admit that he was lost.
Just as he’d begun to look for a place to turn around and head back the other way, he spotted one last house on the right side of the road. There was a car parked in the front yard, its door open and the dome-light on.
“I’m going to pull in and ask whoever that is for directions,” he said with relief. “It looks like they just got home!”
Jo didn’t say anything, but he noticed that she was gripping the armrest on the door tightly and her lips were compressed in a very, very poor imitation of a smile. It didn’t help that there was an old abandoned church in the lot across the way from the house.
He stared at it, realizing almost immediately what seemed out of place. There was a “FOR RENT” sign on the door! A church for rent, and it came with its own small cemetery out back. Swell. How many gods could be in the market?
He pulled into the driveway behind where the other car was still parked, and he turned off the ignition.
“Wait here?” he asked.
Jo didn’t look enthusiastic about being left alone, but it was obvious that she’d rather be near the ignition and the gas pedal than walking into some strange country homestead and chatting up the locals. That was fine. Alone, he could hurry it along, find out where that damned road with the three silos was, and they’d be on their way. Once they’d finally reached Beth’s and gotten settled in, he was certain things would be fine. At least he hoped they would.
Crossing the unkempt yard quickly, lips twisted in a friendly smile, Dave approached the car. It was obvious now that, though the door was open, the dome light and stereo on, the occupant of the vehicle had no intention of getting out and going inside. Judging from the two flat tires on the closest side of the vehicle and the flowers growing up through the fender in front, it was more of a home addition than a vehicle these days.
Just as Dave was beginning to think that maybe Jo was right, maybe they would be better off just finding the place on their own, an arm slipped out from the car’s shadowy interior to dangle loosely over the door, which was slightly ajar, and a face appeared in the window.
If he hadn’t known the man was in prison, and that the idea was ludicrous, he would’ve sworn that the face belonged to Charlie Manson. Long, greasy hair dangled past thin, emaciated shoulders, and the eyes that stared out from the shadows of that car were feral – like those of a rodent, or some wild predator, gleaming at him through the darkness.
“Yeah?” the man said, and the dry, rasping sound of his voice, followed by a rattling cough, brought things back to reality. It wasn’t Charlie Manson, that was for sure.
“Excuse me,” Dave began brightly, holding out a hand that the other man ignored pointedly, “but we’re looking for the Lindbergh place – it’s a farm near here. I think we must have taken a wrong turn off the main road back there.”
He pointed vaguely back the way they’d come, trying without success to remember just which number turnoff they’d actually taken.
“You lookin’ for Herb?” the man asked, his eyes slightly unfocused. He acted as though he hadn’t heard a word Dave had said, and it was obvious that he was drunk, or stoned, or both. At least Dave hoped he was.
“No,” he answered slowly. “I don’t know any Herb – is he a relative of the Lindberghs?”
The man looked at him as if he were crazy. “Nope, don’t think so. He’ll be here in a little bit, though, you could wait.”
“But I don’t want to see Herb,” Dave burst out, exasperated. “I’m just looking for directions to my friend’s farm.”
“I don’t know these parts too well,” the man told him slowly. “You might go inside and ask – someone ought to be able to help you.”
Dave turned, giving Jo a “what can I do?” kind of shrug, and looked about himself quickly. He saw the church next door, its graveyard pointed directly at him and the “FOR RENT” sign hanging at an ominous angle on the door.
“Shit,” he said under his breath. He thanked the man quickly and headed for the front door of the place, hoping against hope that someone with half a brain would be inside, and that they could get out of this madhouse and back on the road quickly.
Just as he reached up to knock on the door, a breath of fetid air washed across his shoulder, and he realized that the man had slipped up behind him. An odd sound was filling the air – at first he thought it was just his head buzzing with the sudden burst of adrenalin brought on by the man’s sudden appearance – but it was more than that.
A piano. It was a tinny, off-key rendition of some sort of jazz tune, and it was coming from inside the house. Without a word, the man reached around him and pushed the door open, letting the music escape into the night.
Dave coughed quickly, backing up as the scent of the inner rooms hit him. There was a moldy, yellowed sheet hanging from the door frame like a curtain. The place smelled musky, like a huge litter box, or an abandoned barn that rodents had taken over.
Moving ahead of him, and thankfully pushing the nasty, rotting sheet out of the way, the man preceded him inside. With a deep breath, which he held as long as possible, Dave followed. There was a light just to the right – another doorway, similarly curtained to the first. It was from beyond this that the music was rolling forth, much louder now, still filled with so many discordant notes that he knew the instrument must be horribly out of tune.
Parting the “curtain” of the second room, he stepped inside and stopped cold. Seated across the room at a run-down, lop-sided old piano, sat what appeared to be a very greasy Little Richard impersonator. Dreadlocks hung down to shoulder length in back – greased or extremely dirty – and the man’s bony black fingers danced quickly over the chipped ivory of the keyboard. He swayed from side to side slowly, lost in the music – such as it was.
Then, with a sudden lurch, he stopped playing and spun his head over his left shoulder in a single, fluid motion, catching Dave staring and meeting his gaze flatly. There was no emotion in those eyes – no life of any sort, for that matter. No color. They were white, empty, blind eyes. Dave shivered involuntarily and glanced away, but when he gathered the courage to turn back, the pianist was gazing at his own fingers again. Dave couldn’t be certain what he’d seen, but the image of those milky-white orbs strobed in his mind.
“You looking for Herb?” the man asked quickly, not looking back again, or seeming to really care what Dave might be looking for.
Shaking his head, Dave answered. “No. I’m up here to visit some friends, the Lindberghs. They live down one of these roads, eight hundred something. I think the address is 870-B.”
The man continued to stare at him as if he hadn’t spoken at all. “You aren’t lookin’ for Herb?”
Holding his anger in check, Dave started to tell him again what he was looking for, but the first man cut in again.
“I know a guy named Wayne Lindbergh.”
“Great!” Dave cut in quickly. “Where does he live? Maybe he lives nearby, or he’s related?”
“Lived in Richmond,” the man said flatly. “Never been around here.”
Now anger was passing off into nervous fear. This was going from bizarre straight into late-night horror movie reality way too quickly.
“You don’t know where 870-B might be?” he asked, starting to turn for the door.
“This here’s 111,” the man at the piano told him slowly, as if dredging the numbers up from far, far back in the abyss he’d once called a mind.
About 555 short, I’d say, Dave thought. Aloud, he said, “Well, I guess we’ll just go and see if we can’t find it ourselves, then. The road has three grain silos off to the side.” He threw this in as a final hope, but no sparks flew.
“You can try the trailer park,” Manson said, pointing down the road one further than the turn off Dave had already taken. “Someone there can probably help you.”
“Great,” Dave said, backpedaling quickly and pushing aside the curtain over the door. It was time to get out of there and hit the road – quick. Next would come the chainsaws, or the axes.
“You sure you don’t wanna see Herb?” Little Richard asked as he turned away. “He’ll be comin’ by here later …”
That was it. Dave turned and lurched toward the front door, pushing the tattered sheet aside and slamming the outer door open with his palm. Somehow the Charles Manson-looking grease-ball had made his way back to the door at the same time. He leaned in close as Dave barreled out into the night and said, “We are a commune of musicians.”
Right, Dave thought as he hurried to the driver’s side of the car and slammed the door behind himself. Little Richard in there plays the piano, and you play the stereo out front, right?
“Did you find out anything?” Jo asked, taking in the expression on his face and the hurried, nervous movements he kept making as he started the car and backed out into the street.
“We aren’t staying for drinks, let’s just leave it at that,” he said, trying for a grin that never quite made it and turning to concentrate on the road ahead.
He drove to the next road, turned down it and headed toward the lights of the trailer park. Swell. More of the same, he was sure, but he had nothing else to try. In the distance he saw two figures walking down the road, both with hair down halfway to their asses. Shrugging, he pulled to the side of the road and asked about the silos.
“Oh, you mean 870?” the first of the two boys asked. They were both dressed normally enough – rock-group t-shirts and jeans, boots and leather belts. “That’s two roads back, you can’t miss those silos, once you turn off.”
Thanking them, Dave turned around once more and headed back the way he’d come. He found the Lindbergh farm easily enough, pulled in behind the other cars – everyone else, it seemed, had found the place in the daylight – and he and Jo went inside to join the party.
Everyone that was gathered there was a writer or an artist. They were the “Guests of Honor” at Out-in-the-BooniesCON, or some-such thing, a local SF gathering that would begin the next day.
After everyone was settled, Dave told the story of their harrowing experience on the next road down, and Beth’s eyes widened in horror.
“You don’t mean the ‘”Green'” house, do you? God, everyone wonders whether those guys are axe murders, or what.”
“One and the same,” Dave countered. “Not axe murderers, though, I don’t believe. They claim to be a commune of musicians.”
Everyone laughed, and after a few more drinks and a few more stories they all turned in for the night, the old house and its eerie inhabitants all but forgotten.
The convention had ended early, and after everyone had gathered back at the farm, Wayne and Mark convinced Dave to go back to the old Green house.
“Let’s go see those guys, man,” Wayne said. “What’s the harm? A beat-up piano, a few old sheets – maybe we could take a guitar with us and jam?”
“You’ve got to be kidding,” Dave had grinned at him in exasperation. He was not kidding. Insane, probably, but not kidding.
So there they were, the three of them, the women having opted for something a bit less adventurous, like horseback riding, walking down the road toward the old house and its neighboring churchyard. Dave wasn’t sure whether he wanted to go there at all, but he wasn’t going to back down if the other two were going.
They made the expected wisecracks about the “FOR RENT” sign on the church, wondering which ancient god would take the owners up on it. Mark did a pretty good rendition of the slinking, clubfooted pace of a Romeroesque zombie, pointing at the graveyard and saying, “New God moved in, made us leave, He did. Said, no Christian God here, no Christian dead here, left us just like that, homeless.”
Dave’s laughter cut off midway through the first chuckle when they rounded the corner. The car wasn’t there. The weeds weren’t even pressed down where it might have been there before. He turned, eyes wide, and just stared at his companions, who were looking back at him like he was the lunatic.
“Maybe it wasn’t this place,” he said dubiously. He knew that it was. The angle on the old graveyard was just as it had been the night before. Moving as if he were in a trance, he made his way to the front door and made as if to knock on it. There was no need. The door stood a few inches ajar, hanging from one broken hinge that was half-rusted through.
Inside the sheets hung, just as he’d said, and he brushed his way past them both in a rush, heedless of the many spider’s’ webs and scuttling things that shot out in all directions as he passed.
The piano was gone, too. There was nothing in the house at all, in fact. Nothing but the smell, which he remembered only too well, dust, and a family of sparrows that shot out the window in a burst of sound and feathers, nearly stopping his heart.
“Telling the tall tales again, eh?” Mark observed, looking around the place and brushing a cobweb off his arm. “Commune of musicians?”
Dave staggered to the window, his face ashen, and stared across the lot outside at the church. Something else was wrong. The sign – the ludicrous, cockeyed “FOR RENT” sign was gone.
Then he heard it. It was faint, at first, winding its way through his senses so deceptively that he thought at first he was imagining it. It was the music, the awful, discordant piano music. The piano was gone, but the music lived on, it seemed.
“There!” he cried, turning wildly to where his friends were examining some dusty relics in the back corner of the room. “Do you hear it?”
Not waiting for an answer, he rushed back out into the yard. The music was louder there, coming from the direction of the old church. There were lights on, too, he saw, coming from the windows between the cracks of the old boards that held them shut. He stopped, his eye caught by a small pamphlet lying on the ground at his feet.
Picking it up, he peeled it apart carefully where the morning dew had glued the pages together.
The First Church of Light and Vision, learn the wisdom of the stars.
There was more, but he couldn’t quite make it out. It said something about the coming of a God, or a savior, or perhaps just a traveling evangelist. He couldn’t quite make out the name. It looked like HE..B. He turned to show his find to Wayne and Mark, but they were nowhere to be seen. Frowning, he returned to the old house, looking carefully through each room. Gone
“All right, man,” he said aloud. “This isn’t funny.” He figured they were outside, hiding and waiting for him, and he was in no mood to play their game. “Let’s just get back to the house, okay?”
No answer. He made his way into the yard again and something drew him toward the church. Maybe they’d just gone over there to check out the music. It could be that the graveyard extended to the other side of the church, that there was another house, which would explain the music. He started forward, watching every shadowy nook where his two friends might be lying in wait, and approached the old church.
As he drew nearer, it became obvious that they had somehow managed to get that piano into the church itself during the night. The music was coming from inside, and, against his better judgment, he moved to the door at the end of the building. There were plenty of cracks in the old wood, he could just look inside and see what was going on for himself.
Before he could bend down to have a look, however, the door burst open. Light flowed out and around him, surrounding him on all sides. Charles Manson stood framed in the doorway, his greasy hair actually combed back and braided and his arms spread wide. Where there had been dull, mindless oblivion in his eyes the night before, now they burned with a strange, wild light.
“I knew you would return,” he said, grabbing Dave’s arm and propelling him inside.
Across the room, Little Richard sat with his back to the two of them, dancing his hands over the keys of the ancient piano. This wasn’t what had captured his eyes, though. There was an altar at the front of the room, and on it a feast – or what appeared to be a feast – was laid out. Mark and Wayne stood there at the table, turning to meet his confused gaze with wide, feral grins. He saw that their eyes were alight with the same odd spark as Manson’s.
Wayne waved to him, and he saw what was in his friends hand. It was a leg-bone – a human leg bone – and the skin was rotted and flayed from it, black with dirt and maggots. As he tried to pull back, retching violently, Mark called out to him, slipping back into the odd, Monty-Pythonesque accent from earlier.
“I was wrong, Davey, so wrong. Herb don’t want the Christian dead to go, we have to get rid of them ourselves!”
As his head hammered to the wild, incomprehensible banging of the piano, Dave heard the doors crash shut behind him. There was another figure behind the altar, taller, darker, blending into the shadows themselves. As the light began to course through him, eating its way to his eyes, he felt the first pangs of hunger, and he moved forward, moved to the combined beat of piano and stereo – the car had somehow been parked to the left, behind the pews, and Manson had resumed his seat.
As he reached for a rotting hand, he began to wonder. He wondered what instrument he would play.
This story and many others are available in my collection: The Call of Distant Shores – many of the stories in that book, including the title story, are born of vivid memories.