Chapter 1 The Long Dissent
Spencer Beltram was not a superstitious man. But that’s not to say that he never was. There was a time when he would see omens and signs all around him, whether he wanted to or not. But his faith in general has long since been tested; particularly in those matters surrounding all things supernatural and otherworldly. But on a day like today, when everything seemed to be working against him, memories of the olden days came rushing back in torrents, reminding him that there are powers in this world that refuse to be ignored. Anyone else may have considered the events of the past few hours to be mere coincidences, or just simple peculiarities; while others may have seen it as nothing more than a run of bad luck. But Spencer has seen enough to know that there are forces moving behind the curtains of our daily lives, which could drive the average man to insanity — or beyond. There are more spirits in this world than there are the living, and not all of them are keen on sharing this plane with these poor, mindless souls whose bones are still dressed in their Sunday’s best skin suits. If one were to look upon the afterlife through a microscope, it would reveal worlds within worlds; cultures within cultures; tranquility and unrest; good and evil; and a war that exists between the holy and unholy that has been fought since all before the dawn of civilization. And each tiny speck beneath the lens of the spirit world is weaved in layers upon layers, overlapping and branching out like an entire nervous system within a universe that’s far vaster than our own. To know this is to be enlightened. But to see it, and to live it, can be a curse that only a select handful of open-minded individuals can endure. This, among other things, is but one reason why Spencer had abandoned his faith some years ago — and not because he couldn’t handle it, but because it was not the reason why he became a member of the Vodoun religion in the first place. It was actually of great comfort to him to know that there was life after death. It made the passing of his wife almost bearable, just knowing that her soul would carry on. But he began practicing Vodou as a last resort, in an attempt to deal with a near-crippling back injury that would’ve likely paralyzed him had he not resorted to such extreme measures.
Spencer and his wife Abigail had been visiting Mexico City when they were mugged and brutally attacked by two masked thugs with guns. His wife had been pistol-whipped and left for dead, while Spencer had been shot once in the gut when he tried to fight them off. The bullet had passed through his large intestine and ended up lodged at the base of his spine. No doctor would risk performing an operation on him, because there was a better than average chance that Spencer would spend the rest of his life in a wheelchair if they had. So he began experimenting with any means of relief that he could think of: ranging from acupuncture, injections, physical therapy, and even holistic medicine. But nothing seemed to help, and Spencer was becoming hopelessly addicted to prescribed narcotics, which were only barely making a dent in his pain and hardly improving his quality of life. It wasn’t until he moved from Louisiana to Haiti to seek out the finest witchdoctors in the world that he was finally introduced to the one thing that actually helped ease his pain: the Vodoun religion. It wasn’t until he’d met the third witchdoctor, Artis Lalumiere, that he was introduced to his newfound faith. And it was then that Spencer learned the truth about Vodou. Neither the religion itself, nor the people who practiced it, were anything like what Hollywood had led people to believe. It wasn’t the monstrous, nightmarish horror show that has been depicted in American film and literature. In fact, even the word “Vodou” has been twisted and bastardized, and was replaced with the incorrect spelling, “Voodoo.” But Spencer quickly learned that Vodou was nothing like the stories in which it was portrayed. Nor was there anything sinister or vulgar about the culture or its people. And it was then that he also came to understand a much deeper truth. The lies were likely spread to evoke fear and hatred for the African people, and to influence the white man to segregate them even further, casting them in a bad light and reinforcing their outcast status. The Vodoun religion had originated in Africa, but was brought to the United States during the time when the first Africans were taken from their homes and forced into slavery. But the religion had only become stronger as a result of these difficult times, and was then practiced in secrecy, unifying the black community in strength and solidarity. But to this day, it is still a highly misunderstood culture. And it is, for the most part, still concealed behind closed doors. (That is, at least in America anyway.) But in Haiti, where Spencer had spent three years of his life, he’d seen a very different side of Vodou, and witnessed an open and accepting community of people whose main focus is to help those in need, and to better those who’d come to them for guidance. And it was through this guidance, as well as prayers and spiritual awareness, that Spencer’s pain had finally become bearable. But the real reason why he had left this faith behind, as well as the country which had welcomed him in with open arms, was because the spirit world had become more real to him than did the world of the living. And his wife’s spirit in particular had become far more prevalent in his life than he’d anticipated. Certainly, she would always be with him in spirit; but he never intended for that to be the literal case. One major aspect of the Vodoun religion was to communicate with the dead, and to accurately interpret signs and symbols. But Spencer wanted nothing more than for Abigail’s soul to rest in peace.
Eventually it had become too much for him, and he’d left Haiti and moved back to the United States, taking up residence once again in Louisiana. But Vodou had become such a prevalent part of Louisiana’s history that Spencer had only traded one scenery for another, but still treaded in the same deep waters as before. It wasn’t until he finally moved to Kentucky that he finally found the closure that he so desperately needed. But although he had given up the Vodoun religion, it did not entirely give up on him. Even without the prayers and songs, he was still able to utilize certain herbs and natural medicines that helped him to maintain his health. Sure, he still had a bullet lodged near his spine, and nothing was going to change that. But he did manage to keep his pain level at a bare minimum, so he essentially succeeded in the end. But as with all injuries, he still had his share of bad days as well as good. And although this particular day was going exceptionally bad, it had nothing to do with his condition — physical or otherwise.
This day had begun like any other: with tea and breakfast, fresh herbs and supplements, and a shower and a shave. Then he set out early to drive into town, prepared to do his once-a-month grocery shopping. Where he lived, in the town of New Zion, Kentucky, it was nearly two miles from the closest shopping center. So the price of gas was too high to take the trip more often. On his way to the store, he’d seen a neighbor of his, Esther Salles, waiting at a bus stop just a few blocks away from his house. So he pulled over to offer her a lift.
He rolled down his window and asked, “Are you headed into town?”
The middle-aged woman, who lived only a few houses down from him, appreciated the offer, clearly not looking forward to the long trek ahead of her. Just like Spencer, she didn’t have the easiest time getting around, and she walked with a cane due to a hip replacement that she’d had a few years ago. She thanked him and began to walk towards his car when Spencer noticed that a young boy who was standing by her side did not move to follow her.
“Isn’t the lad with you?” he asked.
“Sorry?” she replied with a look of confusion.
“The boy,” he said with a tiny nod as he gestured to the child who was still standing under the awning at the bus stop.
The woman didn’t respond right away, but turned to look behind her. Then she looked back at Spencer with a blank expression as she responded, “You know, I think I left my wallet at home. I’m going to have to head back for it. But thanks anyway.”
“Okay,” said Spencer as he watched her slowly walk away. The boy began to follow closely behind her now, but stopped and waited when the woman turned once to look back at Spencer. She actually looked a little shaken, as though she was upset by something he had said. But when she started to walk again, the boy now turned and stared back at Spencer as though he was waiting for him to pull away. But the woman continued to walk, even slower now, and never once looked back to see why the boy was lagging behind. Spencer began to drive away now, but had a strange feeling about what had just happened. He sensed that Esther was lying about leaving her wallet behind, and he suspected that she would be returning to the bus stop as soon as he was out of sight. He was almost tempted to double-back, just to see if he was right. But he thought better of it. Whatever had made her so anxious would just be worse if she saw him pass again, and she’d probably think he was spying on her. Of course, she’d be right, even though that was not his intention. But he couldn’t help but feel that something was very strange about her reaction. And on that note, there was something about the boy that seemed oddly familiar. But he couldn’t quite put his finger on it.
When he arrived at the grocery store, he found that the parking lot was nearly empty, which was surprising. Although it was early in the morning, it was still Saturday, which was usually their busiest day. And this was the nearest grocer in several miles, which is shared by three different towns. Nevertheless, Spencer was pleased not to have to deal with the crowd. And he was even happier that he wouldn’t have to stand long in line. That has always been the most difficult part of his shopping experience, due to his injury. But this day had started on a rather peculiar note, so it seemed perfectly plausible for it to continue this way. And continue it did.
Once inside the store, Spencer encountered a man behind the butcher’s counter who looked and smelled almost as rancid as the meet he was carving. Whatever it was that he was cutting looked so discolored that Spencer couldn’t even tell what kind of meat it was. And there was something in the vicinity that had a pungent, sour stench to it; so foul that Spencer had to walk away before he gagged. This store had always been reputable for its presentation and cleanliness, so Spencer was appalled by the appearance of the butcher’s cuts, as well as the state of the butcher himself. There looked to be at least a week’s worth of dried blood on his apron; and his hair and beard were a greasy, nappy mess of curls and knots. Spencer had actually planned to buy a few chicken breasts for the week, but quickly decided against it. After what he’d just seen, he figured it would be safer to just buy some canned goods instead. But as he made his way through the aisles, something else caught his eye. He stopped to look at an array of picture frames that were displayed on one of the shelves. There was nothing unusual about the frames themselves, but he now remembered why the boy at the bus stop looked so familiar.
He had only been in his neighbor’s house once, and only because she needed help setting up her internet. Spencer was one of the only people who’d welcomed her to the neighborhood when she’d first moved in, so he was the first person she had met. She asked him about the cable and internet providers in town, and Spencer knew quite a bit on the subject. He even offered to hook everything up for her, just to save her some cash. She was reluctant at first, but didn’t know anyone else yet, so she took him up on the offer. While he was fixing her connections, she was in the process of unpacking. Spencer couldn’t help but notice how sad she looked as she was arranging her picture frames on her mantle. One picture in particular had nearly brought her to tears, and she got choked up when Spencer asked her what was wrong. She wasn’t able to answer the question, so Spencer didn’t attempt to press the issue. But he did catch a fleeting glimpse of the photo before she gently placed it face down. After that, Spencer was never invited into her home again. Nor could he recall ever seeing any visitors at her doorstep either. The woman lived a reclusive life, and probably preferred it that way. That would explain why she moved to the middle of nowhere, so far away from other people. But Spencer suspected that her seclusion was a result of something traumatizing. And he sensed that it had something to do with the boy in the photograph. Although Spencer had only seen the photo briefly, he had a pretty good memory of the image. But that was over three years ago, and he had never seen the boy in person until today. Surely, he would’ve looked older by now; but he still looked exactly the same after all this time. And then a dreadful thought occurred to Spencer; one that might explain what had happened today.
The boy, who Spencer had always imagined was the woman’s son, had probably passed away some time ago. That would explain why the woman looked so upset when she held his photo, and why she lived alone now. It would also explain why the boy looked no older than he did in the photograph, which must’ve been taken some years earlier. But what didn’t make any sense was why Spencer should see him now, and why his neighbor appeared to be completely unaware of his presence. Spencer had always known that those who’d practiced the Vodoun religion had strong connections with the afterlife. He’s even heard stories about people who have successfully contacted loved ones who have passed on. But he’s never heard of anyone who claimed to have seen a spirit in person; let alone seen one himself. So why now?
As Spencer stood in the grocery store, pondering over this revelation, he wondered what it could mean, and why the boy should appear to him in such perfect clarity. He’d always imagined that a spirit would appear differently; maybe somewhat translucent, or surrounded by a glowing aura, or something to that effect. So now he began to question whether or not this was the first time he’d ever encountered a ghost. Had it not been for the fact that he recognized the boy from his photo, there was no way he could’ve known that the boy wasn’t real. At least, not in the physical sense. But he may very well have been seeing spirits his entire life and not even known it. Then again, if this was in fact the first occurrence, it could mean something else entirely. It could be a warning. And since the whole day has been a little strange so far, the idea of it being a warning didn’t seem so far-fetched. In any case, he didn’t have anywhere to go after shopping, so he knew he’d be going straight home afterwards. He felt pretty confident that nothing could happen between now and then.
At least he managed to make it through the checkout lane without further incident. But once he was out in the parking lot, he could smell something pungent and fragrant in the air, like incense or burning leaves. The smell became stronger the closer he got to his car. And when he unlocked his trunk and opened it, he thought he heard something scurrying inside. He had an old spare tire and some blankets within, which he moved aside to check beneath. But even though he found nothing, the scurrying sound began again. Only, this time, it was followed by a rapid scratching noise, like claws on rusted metal. He lifted the tire on its side this time and looked underneath, but still saw nothing. But when he placed the tire back down again, he could hear what sounded like something wet slapping on the pavement beneath his car. He quickly bent down to look and caught a glimpse of something slick and shiny scuttling towards his front wheels. He walked around to the front of his car and waited to see what would emerge. At first, he only saw the snout of some small animal come into view. Its nose was wet with blood, and was swollen and gashed open on one side. It breathed hard and shallow, probably smelling Spencer standing only feet away. The creature was likely too frightened to come out, and it waited to see if Spencer was a threat. But Spencer made no sudden moves. He remained absolutely still and silent, watching the animal for a brief time. Finally, it poked its head out a little further. And from what little Spencer could see of it, it looked like a possum. But it was too severely wounded to know for sure. The gash on the side of its nose ran all the way up its nasal passage, ending just below its left eye. Spencer could see a marble-sized ball of blood swelling out from the hole in its face, which was inflating and deflating as the animal struggled for air. Less than a minute had passed before the creature built up enough courage to drag itself out into view, finally deciding that Spencer meant it no harm. Judging by the state of it, it would not be getting very far, and it would likely die within the hour. The rest of its head was badly mutilated, and its fur was heavily matted and soaked in blood. Only one of its legs appeared to be unbroken, which it hobbled on as it struggled to move. Another was almost completely missing, despite a small stub of bone that was left dangling from the dismembered limb. But the worst of it was dragging behind it, bright red, in thin, long coils of entrails that had burst from its body. Now that Spencer could see the tail of this animal, wrapped up around its intestines, he was sure it was a possum.
The only kindness Spencer could offer this creature would be to put it out of its misery. And that’s probably why it decided to show itself to him now, as difficult as it was to do so. This was not an act of courage, but rather a desperate plea to be released from its torment. Spencer could not recall running over the animal with his car, but it was looking very likely that he had. How else could it have gotten lodged beneath his undercarriage like that? But whether Spencer had hit it or not, the least he could do is end the agony that the poor creature was in. He went around to his trunk again to fetch a lug wrench. But upon his return, he discovered that the animal was no longer there. The trail of blood was still gleaming vivid red against the black pavement. But the animal itself was nowhere to be seen. Spencer bent down to look beneath his car again, but saw no sign of it. Nor did he see it beneath any of the surrounding cars either. There wasn’t even so much as a smear of blood to mark its departure. In a way, Spencer was relieved. As generous as his intentions were, it would not have been easy for him to dispatch this animal. He was glad not to have to do it.
He finished loading his groceries and drove home. But the strange events of this day had only just begun. Upon his return, his phone was ringing as he walked through the door. But his hands were full, so he ended up missing the call. He put down his bags in the kitchen and then checked his answering machine. The red light was flashing, and the counter displayed five messages. He pressed the button to listen and waited as the tape rewound to the beginning. Then the machine clicked loudly and began to play. At first, a soft crackling noise came through the speaker. He was just about to skip to the next message, assuming that the first one was blank. But as his hand reached for the button, an unexpected voice from his past broke through the white noise.
“Spence? Are you there?” said a man whose voice he hadn’t heard in nearly a decade. His voice sounded garbled as the crackling continued. But there was also something somber about his tone, and his words were spoken slowly and drawn out, with long, despondent pauses in between each sentence.
“It’s Reggie,” the man continued. “Reggie Walters. I know we haven’t spoken in a long time… but I really need to talk to you.” There was another long pause. Then the receiver was put down.
The second message began. Only, this time, there was some urgency behind it. “Spencer, it’s Reggie.” The words were spoken faster now; almost breathlessly. Spencer’s hand still hovered over the machine. But as the message continued, he reached behind him to pull over a chair. “I hope you’re getting this. I don’t even know if you’re still around, but I really need to speak with you.” There was another pause. Then he said, “Alright…” and hung up.
Then the next message began. And this one sounded even more urgent than the last. “Spence, it’s Reggie. Where are you, man? I don’t even know if I can say any of this over the phone. But we gotta talk. It’s important.”
The next message didn’t sound nearly as frantic as the previous two, but the contents of it really had Spencer on edge. Reggie’s tone had changed drastically now, and he sounded like a man who was about to take his own life. His tone was so slow and melancholy that Spencer could almost picture him loading a gun as he spoke. Whatever was going on must’ve been much more serious than Reggie was able to say, and it made Spencer nervous to hear Reggie’s next words. “Spence, I know we’ve had our differences in the past… and I understand if you never want to hear from me again… but I think you’re the only one who can help. Please come quickly… I’m sorry.”
The final message was nothing more than static: about 20 seconds worth. There was no hint that the receiver had been put down at the end of the call though. It just cut to silence once the machine couldn’t pick up any sound. “Come quickly,” Reggie had said. But in the previous messages, he’d only mentioned that he needed to talk. Spencer had only been out of the house for a couple of hours. What could’ve changed so dramatically in that short span of time? And what could be so desperate that Spencer was the only one who Reggie would be willing to trust so implicitly? These messages raised many questions, and Spencer stared at his answering machine as he pondered over what he’d just heard. But he knew that the only way he would get any answers is if he picked up the phone to call his old friend back. It would do no good to put it off. He was just going to have to swallow his pride after all these years and hear what Reggie had to say.