Your dead will live, their corpses will rise. You who lie in the dust, awake and shout for joy. For your dew is as the dew of the dawn, and the Earth will give birth to the departed spirits.
Pickman, California was a perfectly ordinary town.
It rested ever so slightly on the outskirts of the Joshua Tree National Park, and was therefore a mostly dry and barren place for the vast majority of the year.
The town was rather small, at only 9,000-odd inhabitants, but all of them were quite friendly to the tourists who would occasionally pass through.
When she first moved in, Abigail saw (on the short drive to one of the very few apartment buildings there) a post office, a Gamestop, a Walmart, and a six-pointed star painted or hung on every building.
Let us address Abigail.
She was the kind of person who likes to think of herself as having an aesthetic. She wore yellow today, but felt differently about interior decorating. “Dark and moody”, with Christmas lights hung up about the place so as to provide atmosphere. The actual effect, rather unfortunately, was just plain “dark”. There were enough empty ramen cups and undone laundry laying around that “dirty” could also apply, and no amount of Christmas lights would take it away.
Abigail liked getting to know people, and was never sure how to go about it. A convenient conversation piece, she thought, might be the star.
“Christmas”, was the smiling answer that came from the clerk at the Walmart.
“Christmas,” happily agreed the attendant from the Gamestop.
“You know, I don’t really know,” said the owner of the adult store. She was heavyset, with bright pink hair and too much makeup. “It’s April, after all. I guess they just leave it up year-round.”
With this cleared up, Abigail decided the time had come to find a job.
There were few in town, as to be expected from a place very near to a national park, but she got an interview with the Walmart supervisor and halfway through had realized she was basically hired.
Near the end of the interview, the supervisor gave a small smile, and Abigail (for the briefest moment) saw a single eyeball staring from between his lips.
She had been raised properly, and so refrained from screaming.
“It’s in the desert,” the eyeball said, and the lips closed and that was that.
“We look forward to working with you,” said whatever-it-is, and Abigail grinned and said she was too.
The next day she walked into the desert.
Yucca – that was the name most people used for the Joshua trees, why were they called that anyway? – reached up to the slowly brightening sky.
She reminded herself that being paranoid in cases like this, when looking for paranormal activity, was unhelpful. People who looked for signs of paranormal activity generally found it. Whether those signs meant anything were another matter entirely.
The faint whispering sounds came from the winds, she reminded herself. The gentle groans – nothing but the Earth moving, here, miles away from another human being. Here in the silence, you could hear more.
“Hello?” she called out.
“Is there something here?”
“Is there someone here?”
“I didn’t say that.”
“Yes. I did.”
The tree opened, and dead things fell out. Rotten things, that smelled of refuse and the sea.
“I am the something here,” said the dead things.
“I am the someone here,” said the dead.
Abigail turned and fled from the desert.
She was not the sort of person who enjoyed horror movies, but nonetheless had considered herself something of an amateur writer in high school. She knew the tropes, and so was calling her parents before the door to her apartment shut.
They said the usual platitudes, and promised to be down as quickly as possible. It was no short drive, and so she would sit there in her dark room, Christmas lights twinkling on the garbage there, until morning came. Her eyes were kept focused on them, as the room seemed to twist and sway when her gaze wandered.
During the night there was a knock at the door, and the voice of the apartment manager outside, but the voice echoed in strange ways, as if the words being said were going through something other than air. She curled up tighter, and ignored it.
Finally, her phone rang, and she answered to the voice of her father.
“Abigail,” he said, “we’re outside. Are you all right?”
“Yes,” she lied, and answered the door.
Abigail’s parents were perfectly straightforward people, for the most part. Religious, straight-laced, in good business. Not well off, and not quite poor.
Her father was balding, grey-haired, and spectacled. Her mother was none of these, but her face carried lines which spoke of age regardless.
“You have to understand,” she said, “We believe you saw something. Satan works in this world through all manner of ways.”
“‘Your enemy the devil prowls about like a roaring lion, seeking whom he may devour,’” her father said solemnly.
She nodded, and sipped from the hot tea they’d prepared.
“But you have to remember, you’ve had… problems before.”
The tea tasted … wrong, somehow. She wasn’t sure why.
“Dad, I had depression. In high school. That generally doesn’t make you see things that aren’t there. And I swear to you, there’s something off about this town. About the whole place.”
“Show us, then,” her mother said. “You say there’s strange things in the town – show us!”
She looked down. The tea was murky, and not the color tea should be. It felt vile in her mouth.
“Okay,” she whispered. “After my shift, okay? I have my first shift in an hour.”
Would the shower twist into a nightmare as well? She knew all the worst fates that could befall a person in a shower. The water would turn to blood, or hands would come from the walls, or irritating and screechy violin music would start playing.
It was none of these. The hot water streamed over her, and she was clean. The steam filled her lungs, and she breathed easily. Whatever had stalked her mind through the night seemed to recede, and she went to work with – if not a smile on her face – at least no worry around her eyes.
The Walmart was empty, which was to be expected for a town on the small size. The star was painted on, hidden away almost, around the back.
There were some few employees wandering the area, stocking and restocking the little material that a small town might need. They were dead-eyed, but she was decently sure that was due more to their employment than to Satanic forces at work.
“Hi, Abigail,” smiled the supervisor. There was no sign of unexpected eyeballs. “Let’s get you into the swing of things. The boxes in the back room need to be moved.”
“Okay,” she nodded. “Where to?”
“The other side of the back room.”
She thought there might have been a slightly wild look in the supervisor’s eyes.
“It’s important,” he added.
It was some semblance of normalcy. Abigail moved to the back room and stared at the pile of boxes. The pile was unreasonably large; nearly twice as tall as she was. If she listened closely, she could hear laughter coming from the staff room. Making fun of the new person for getting assigned a snipe hunt?
She’d managed to get eight or nine boxes to the other side of the room when she began questioning if there was a staff room. She hadn’t seen one on the way in. Carefully taking a peek out of the backroom door, she noted the store seemed empty now.
There was something odd about an empty store. She’d worked some similar jobs in the past, often working the closing shifts of the day. When the last customer had left, and whatever inane station that played had blessedly turned off. Then there was a strange stillness. Peace simultaneous with an almost haunted feeling. You could hear your every footstep so easily, your every breath.
“You should go home, Abigail,” said the intercom. “It’s not safe here. You’re making things wake up.”
She stepped out into the store proper, and the ground beneath her feet felt soft and malleable, as though flesh was beneath her instead of linoleum.
The laughter grew louder, and she knew if she listened a bit harder she could catch the edges of conversations, as if at a party.
“Go home, Abigail,” said the intercom. “It’s late. It’s grown so late. The sun has set.”
Out the doors, the night sky sparkled. If she did not run to her car, she certainly jogged, and her yellow shirt was too bright, too visible.
Why was the laughter louder still? It still sounded like a party. The laughter was wild, almost bacchanalian. It sounded mad.
The door to her apartment was shattered, and a sense of unreality settled over her. Was this not a dream?
“I must wake up,” she murmured.
Her father’s head lay on the stained bedsheets.
“I must wake up. I must wake up. I must wake up.”
Her father’s eyes opened.
“Abigail,” he said. “Hide under the bed.”
Wasn’t it strange, what stands out in such moments? Dust bunnies and old wrappers. The sheets didn’t hang low enough off the side to give her any sense of comfort.
The voice was audible. It had the wet smack of a sound passing through air.
She could see the bare edges of the whatever-it-was as it entered the apartment. It had the same grey-green tint as the dead things from the Joshua trees. The same slime upon it.
too many stars, said the dead thing as it clambered up to the bed.
“And there always will be,” her father’s head answered.
What followed was a sound of gnawing, and Abigail bit her hand. There was an unbearable pressure in the air, as if the laughter she had heard was only a drone now that crushed all other noise.
Finally, after what felt like ages, the thing crawled down.
need to wake up
Abigail waited there, breathing in the dust of the bed’s underside, until her brain had forced her to action. She didn’t look back at the bed, only tried to keep her eyes straight as the trees outside bent and twisted in strange ways.
Every movement seemed exaggerated, intense, requiring too much focus. From turning the key in the ignition, to pulling the car out onto the road, to driving down the road to the adult shop.
The lady with the pink hair was gone, of course. The supervisor stood there in her place, behind the counter just as if he had always been there.
“Hello, Abigail,” he said, and the eyeball popped and winked between his lips.
She sniffed, more because of the cold night air than tears, and shook her head.
“Am I dreaming?”
“No. No, you aren’t dreaming.”
“That – that thing that I saw in my apartment. The things I saw in the desert.”
The supervisor smiled, and she thought she could see ligaments.
“They’re dreaming. We’re trying to stop them. To keep them how they are.”
“Can we kill them?” she asked. “Can I kill them?”
“They’re already dead. They’ve been dead for a very long time. Longer than you’ve been alive. Longer than this town’s been alive. Longer than the Joshua trees have grown here. The stars help keep them asleep. A lullaby of sorts.”
“So on every building, you paint them.”
“Yes. The stars are harder to see nowadays, so we must make do.”
“I – I think they killed my father. I don’t know what’s become of my mother.”
“I’m sorry. You came at a bad time.”
Her fingers clenched and unclenched by her side, unsure of what to do. Searching for something.
“What can I do, then?”
There was suddenly a very human smile on the supervisor’s face, and his lips closed for a moment, covering the eye.
“You could try ramming it all with a boat. It’d be traditional.”
Abigail looked confused.
The supervisor sighed.
“For we live on a placid island of ignorance in the midst of black seas of infinity, and it was not meant that we should journey far…”
He looked down, and then back at her sadly.
“If you have the willpower for it, go back to the desert. Perhaps you may bring to it the stars.”
“It dreams in the desert,” said the eyeball. “Bring it dreams of silver and needle.”
She walked in the chill of the night air, and knew now that the geometry of the place was deeply wrong. The ground and horizon were not quite horizontal, and not even on the same plane as each other.
“Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil,” she mumbled. Did the words help? They felt empty. Hollow. Such madness as lay on her mind pressed and screamed. A shrieking lunacy of time immemorial awaited her in the desert.
The Joshua trees had waited for her. She could feel what lay beneath them, what lay in them, stirring in their dead dreams. They opened, as if flayed, and the rot tumbled out.
“I am here,” they said.
“I am hungry,” they said.
“I am the only God that ever was,” they said. “Worship.”
Abigail forced herself to look at them. At it. Tentacles and a bloated corpusculence, slick skin – or was it scales? – and milky white things that might have been eyes. Too much of it. Spreading over the desert, out of every tree, from every crack in the dirt. Bigger than the eye could reasonably take in.
“No,” she said. “May I sing?”
“Sing a dirge,” they said. “Sing of the end of all things, of an awakening that will bring the fleeting days of man to a close at last. A final, hopeless scream into a devouring void.”
“No,” she said, “but I’ll sing.”
Not taking her eyes off of them, she sat cross-legged on the dust, and began humming. She didn’t know what, at first. A tuneless melody with a vague rhythm.
It settled into Bowie. Then earlier. Than later. Nursery rhymes and rock songs. Classical pieces, songs without words that were meant more for a piano than voice. Alleluias and soul music.
Until the sun rose, and sank, and rose once more.
Until the last Joshua tree closed, and the dead and dreaming slumbered once again.