The bar served a homebrewed beer that was met with one of two responses: an approving grunt or an approving nod. The biggest draw to the Rosebud, however, bigger even than the homebrewed booze, was the entertainment. The stage hosted college jam bands, acoustic folk rock, poetry readings, small dramatic performances, stand up comedians—the whole nine yards. Like any other place that offered live entertainment from amateur performers, the Rosebud saw its fair share of stinkers. Unlike those other places, the Rosebud saw a great many acts that played far above their talent levels. Seventeen year olds with sloppy strumming and a strained voice would step into the Rosebud on occasion and belt out gritty Delta blues with so much soul that the audience knew what it felt like to be wired to a running car battery. Story tellers that stammered and stumbled their way through introducing themselves cast the entirety of the bar into a silent reverie with a voice so smooth butter turned green with envy as they spun tales of mystery and deceit, of hope and heroism. Most would then leave the same way they came in, stammering and strained.
The Rosebud was a veritable Mecca for amateur artists and entertainers. You were not necessarily going to land a record deal playing at the Rosebud (though one band had done just that), but you seemed a lot more likely to put on a quality show.
Minor superstitions had developed around the bar. Some performers swore that turning the Rosebud’s front door knob three times in alternating directions before entering was what brought out the bar’s lucky streak. Other’s claimed that multiple magic-saturated “ley lines” intersected beneath the bar and leaked some of their power into the air of the Rosebud. Even the occasional street corner zealot came by to protest the demon that obviously resided within the Rosebud to give power to “Satan’s Rock and Rollers”.
More peculiar than the stage and far less spoken of, was the room back behind the bar, its door neatly nestled between two shelves of liquor. A rusted horseshoe hung over the backdoor which, like everything else in the Rosebud, was well worn and lightly battle scarred. Unlike the rest of the bar, however, beneath the smell of alcohol and tobacco, the door smelled of fresh topsoil and a more pungent smell, unfamiliar to the Rosebud’s single-minded patrons. Not that it much mattered, only Lloyd got close enough to make out that smell anyway.
Lloyd was the bartender. He was of average height and weight. His brown hair, which defined the “just rolled outta’ bed” look, fell just over two muddy green orbs set deep into his long, thin face. Lloyd was known to be heavy-handed. His drinks were a bit strong, his jokes a bit off-color, and his language a bit foul—he fit well in the Rosebud (which worked out well, considering he owned the place). He was one of those men that could have passed for anything between 40 and 55 years-old. The only wrinkles on his face were those at the corners of his eyes and lips—laugh lines—and gray touched nothing of the mop on his head or the stubble on his jaw, they all told tales of a younger man in an older man’s body. His eyes though. His eyes were well used. They had seen a great deal of sights and clung proudly to those experiences resting beneath their scummy green ponds. His intelligence was nothing to write home about. He could read people relatively well, but was neither the most observant of people nor did he wish to be. What he was, was himself. He was an aging man who was happy with his lay in life. Running the Rosebud was fun, tending its bar was fun, and giving young kids a place to perform was fun. Lloyd was content.
Lloyd woke up and, after a full minute of bemused grogginess, remembered why he never drank with his patrons. Lloyd always woke up old, now he was waking up old and hungover.
David Harris had taken it upon himself to jab at Lloyd’s stark sobriety until the well-aged bartender obliged the well-aged heckler and threw back a well-aged shot. And just what reason had he for not enjoying himself? Last call had been all of thirty minutes away and his regular stool-warmers were the only ones left in Lloyd’s cozy little dive. No risk of theft from those not unlikable drunks and the week was finally drawing to a close.
One shot had a habit of becoming two and two often became three. Lloyd had not found this night to be the exception. Five shots and one far too heady beer later, Lloyd noticed a buzz thrumming warmly through his skull and decided last call would come seven minutes early. With a slight wobble in his step, Lloyd escorted his regulars and their good natured protests out the door.
The buzz managed to avoid impairing his coordination too terribly much and the night’s clean up went by entirely without incident.
A short trek up a short stairwell only resulted in one half-stumble (a fact Lloyd was quite thankful for the next morning) before the stairway gave way to a bedroom above the bar. Sometime after collapsing into his bed, but before his warm buzz had cooled, Lloyd slipped into a deep, alcohol-induced black out.
This morning, however, the sun was a bit too bright and the street below was a bit too loud and Lloyd sent out a growled notice of his displeasure with both while noting thankfully the low-grade hangover he was sporting. On the bright side, today had all the makings of a more simplistic day. It was a Saturday and thus less people had work and many of those people would want a drink. Those people coming in early wouldn’t be drinking to socialize and thus the beginning of the day would be fairly quiet and fairly profitable. The night would ramp up considerably when the regulars showed up and the band readied itself to perform for the always-larger crowds of the weekends. On tap was a stand-up comedian and after her, two bluesy guitarists who were supposed to be quite good. The problem with all of that was the string of stinkers that had been on-stage at the Rosebud lately. People had grown rather weary of sub-par singers and mediocre musicians. Combining a few good entertainers with a trip to his lucky horseshoe would be exactly what the Rosebud’s patrons wanted and happy patrons equated to a happy bartender. Lloyd rolled his shoulders stiffly and cracked his neck to the left, then to the right. He always tightened up before heading through the backdoor.
No sooner had the backdoor slapped shut then did a cold breeze begin its caress of Lloyd’s nape. The lack of any logical reason for a cross breeze to exist did not phase Lloyd in the least. For all that currently filled his mind, surprise numbered not amongst the clutter. Lloyd knew the breeze to be as natural as the performances last night in his bar and the cause for both lay behind an earthen-smelling door.
Lloyd has known for some time what he was doing down beneath the bar. The same faceless voice that pervaded his mind during his trips made sure he knew. Necromancy was an art that could only be practiced willfully and Lloyd’s bargaining with what resided in his bar was just that, necromancy. He had not sacrificed a virgin nor had he drank the blood of a cat while chanting beneath the full moon’s light or made a pact with Lucifer at the crossroads, he had not offered anything at all to trade. The voice had told him that the power of this pact came simply from Lloyd’s life. As Lloyd lived, he would have the power to invoke the room’s strength. He had willingly bound his life, his soul, to the room and its’ gift. But Lloyd, like so many others saw himself as above the consequences, as the exception. He was consorting with what he did not control, but it was for the good of others (or so he justified it when his conscience stirred). No man makes a deal he does not feel he can come out on top of and in this respect, Lloyd was no different.
Lloyd rolled his shoulders stiffly and cracked his neck to the left, then to the right. He always tightened up before heading through the backdoor. He turned and gripped the brass doorknob, feeling it rattle loose from the door and wondered when the damn thing would just break off. After five or so seconds of musing the knob warmed in his hand. Lloyd always expected some strange iridescent glow to accompany the warmth, but none ever came. The knob cooled again and a light thunk announced to him that the bolt had just retracted. He twisted the knob left, felt it catch, and twisted again until the latch snicked free. After ten seconds of further finagling, the door loosed itself from the warped frame and swung out toward the bar. Immediately, humid warmth cast a sheet of sweat over Lloyd’s forehead and the smell of sour earth stood his nose hairs on end. His deliberate, controlled steps became heavy and unfocused. Sharp whispers rattled soundlessly through Lloyd’s mind, egging him one.
Not that it was necessary anymore.
During the earlier trips into the backroom Lloyd had put up some measure of resistance. With each trip through, resistance became more cumbersome, exhilaration more electric. No, after almost nine months he almost could not manage without at least a monthly visit into his backroom.
He exhaled and rolled his shoulders again—a nervous habit he had developed as a teenager. He stepped into the dark room and caught his forehead on a dip in the ceiling. His vision flashed and burning spots swam behind his eyes. Lloyd swore sulfurously and shook away the spots. Growling sullenly about whores’ sons, he ducked his head and stepped into the room. The door back behind the bar was always through to lead to a supply room or a janitorial closet. Stepping through the door would lead one into a small closet filled with Clorox and toilet paper-lined steel shelves on either side of the door. Straight ahead, however, was where Lloyd’s backroom differed from the average bar’s storage area. Between cheap metal shelves was a stairwell.
Said stairwell was unusual on multiple accounts. First was the angle of the stairs. The first landing was down twenty feet of stairs sitting at a seventy degree angle. Another was that after one reached the first landing the stairway became completely unfinished. The walls and ceiling were made of tightly packed dirt. The steps themselves also changed, not to dirt, but rather to harshly cut stone. The stairway’s final oddity was the climate. As one strode deeper into the ground the temperature was expected to drop, cooled by the sun’s absence. Lloyd’s stairwell, however, grew only hotter and more humid as it grew deeper.
Within three steps of the entrance the humidity began eating at his knees.
Freshman year in high school, Lloyd Hamilton, third-string running back and bench warmer extraordinaire, found his way onto the field in the fourth quarter of a blow-out victory. Two quick tosses in a row mustered a first down. The defensive line jumps the gun and Lloyd’s third play, on 1st and 5, was a Dive run, straight up the pipe. He wormed his way past the defensive linemen before both the middle and right outside linebacker found his knees. Weak knees and ankles did not mix well with running backs and Lloyd was rather forcibly reminded of that. Both knees resembled fleshy oatmeal for quite awhile thereafter. Lloyd’s knees developed a rather thorough and lasting disliking of humidity.
He reached the first landing and continued down, his limp establishing itself more and more prominently the further down he went. His footsteps changed from the sharp clap of concrete to the uneven thump of raw stone.
Hooking up lighting in a cave-like descent and lighting a professional, if sparse, stairwell were two entirely different matters and the former was a conundrum currently beyond Lloyd. The light from the first set of steps was dwindling and no new light sources were leaping forth to Lloyd’s aid, but he knew the path well enough by now.
Thirteen steps down Lloyd ducked. On his first expedition down he had smacked his head but good just inside the doorway—as he had done again not too long ago—and then again on a dead root hanging down from the ceiling. His first encounter with the dastardly trickster had nearly sent him cascading down the entire length of steps. After the ambush, he had been very tempted to take a flashlight and pick down and dig the root out. What kept him from doing just that was the image of his pick carving the soil out from around the root and the whole damn ceiling falling down atop him. He knew it was ridiculous, with such a small root and such tightly packed earth; the worst cave-in would be no more than three or four handfuls of dirt falling. Such a disaster would necessitate a shower, not a hearse.
Thus, afraid of digging the root out and wary of abusing his skull any further, Lloyd had counted out the steps from the top to the root and ducked every time his count hit lucky number thirteen. He hit the second landing without further incident.
Two steep descents covered, two left. The dwindling lights faded out entirely. Another hundred or so steps at a seventy degree angle was now to be taken in total darkness.
Lloyd did not hesitate.
He stepped straight off the landing and into the next set of steps.
The foremost thing Lloyd had noticed about the stairs when first he descended them was how much stone hurt when one’s chest and chin were bouncing over it. The next thing he noticed was how many different profanities he could utter before he hit the second landing. The third thing he noticed was the comfort that enveloped him. A later appointment with his physician had told Lloyd of the sprained wrist and bruised collarbone the fall had given him, but at the time, lying in a crumpled heap next to a broken flashlight Lloyd had felt nothing more than the calm placidity of a windless day’s lake.
It was the same feeling he had now. Lloyd felt himself lose focus on the now and drift back to his first descent.
A pair of disembodied hands gripped his shoulders. No fear-fueled paralysis accompanied them. No hairs stood on end. Lloyd did not even start. He simply accepted the hands’ presence as if they had always rested firmly upon his shoulders.
The hands nudged him forward gently. A warm reassurance saturated his brain and he followed the disembodied guide’s lead down the steps. The rational part of his brain protested weakly, but the hands simply squeezed his shoulders reassuringly and the rational protest dissolved.
After so many descents, that rational protest now made no appearance whatsoever.
The remaining landings passed by in an unseen, unimportant blur. All that mattered was the assurance afforded by the guide. It promised to fix the burning within his mind. True to its word, another door met him at the end of his descent.
The door was eager, hungry even. A low hum reverberated through the earthen landing. Both the door and Lloyd’s own body vibrated in time to the hum and he found himself once again unsure as to which was the origin of the sharp buzz. Regardless of starting points, the reception point was the same: his left hand. Beneath the halfway-to-worn leather glove Lloyd’s hand thrummed heatedly. Without any conscious thought the glove was jammed deep into the pocket of his faded blue jeans, now empty but for its’ thin lining.
Lloyd’s left hand gripped the grimy brass of the knob and waits, his own hunger nearly equaling that of the door. The wait stretched on endlessly, or so Lloyd’s hunger told him. The itch in the back of his brain burned ceaselessly on, as if to drive the very sanity from his mind.
Desperate and tortured, Lloyd’s brain registered a decade, then a century, and finally a millennia’s passing before the brass broke its’ slumber. A fiery brand was struck alight against his palm and clear, piercing agony ruptured his entire skull. Every sense was burning. Nerve-endings across his body screeched protest. All the while, his brain stood helplessly by, shocked to inaction.
Swept up in the anguish was a cool spring of pleasure. As if a hard rain had overflowed the spring, its water washed over him; a mother kissing a skinned knee. The salve doused the white heat of his hand and dulled the deep burn in his skull to flickering embers. Despite the salve, he still needed to fight tooth and nail against his knees’ urge to buckle.
Lloyd pulled his hand away and locked gazes with the brass of the doorknob. Scratched into the front of the knob was a crude eye:
The eye—dead only moments ago—now glowed with life, through if the light was actually real or simply in his head, Lloyd did not know.
The eye looked to be the work of a determined, if shaky, pocket knife and was—now Lloyd was sure of it—glowing with heat. It also matched the recently acquired mark on Lloyd’s palm. The eye stood out as a brand against the weathered flesh of his left hand. The low thrum had all but subsided from Lloyd’s consciousness when a sudden howling roar snapped to the forefront of his mind. The door’s vibrations had easily tripled its earlier output and every bone in his body howled in agonizing harmony with the thrumming. His nerves pushed out onto his skin and crackled electrically. His eyes felt swollen twice over, and even the salve of a mother’s kiss could not stand against the pain.
Another eternity passed, longer than any time before, and he could scarcely hold onto the reward he currently quested for and had previously endured such agonies for. Imagining a treasure worth the torture was nearly out of reach as a second lifetime inched by on waves of anguish. Infinity passed him by once more and the sobbing heap could no longer remember his own name.
Time, like a face in the water, passed until, all at once the pain abated. Gone was the bone grinding cruciation, the blinding affliction, the mind melting misery and in its’ stead was only the sweetness of a summer spring.
No matter how many times Lloyd entered his back room he was still struck with the same sense of awe, hunger, and terror. There was no light source within the earthen room, yet everything was clearly visible inside the room as if the very walls gave off an iridescent glow that could not be directly perceived. The floor, despite being dirt was so flat and smooth it more closely resembled a dull metal than soil. Resting in the center of the room was a severed human hand coated with wax, short, gnarled wicks jutting from the tip of each finger. Lloyd’s mind told him this was a Hand of Glory, and a powerful one at that, though he had no way of knowing this. Upon first spying the hand there was absolutely no mistaking its authenticity.
Lloyd had spent his first five minutes in this room down on all fours dry retching before he could regain some semblance of poise.
As if being led through a guided tour, his eyes abruptly lifted. A mass of gnarled, blackened roots slithered through the earthen ceiling. At first glance the roots seemed entirely random, but his eyes held true upon the roots until the image coalesced. The roots, jutting out from the ceiling’s soil formed an inverted pentagram. The points sprawled randomly out of the circle and within the pentagram’s center was the same nervous pen-knife scrawled eye. Without needing to check, Lloyd knew the center eye of the pentagram matched up exactly with the necrotized hand.
His eyes ventured up to each of the room’s corners. At each corner was a pair of eyes, one on each wall. Though the eyes looked as if they had been rubbed into the earth with an unsteady finger, he knew if he smeared the eyes they would promptly right themselves—and would promptly punish him.
Watching. Standing solemnly sentinel, the eyes gaze was madness. To meet the gaze of these eyes was to drive out any manner of sanity. Given the opportunity to rip my mind apart, these eyes would do so simply because they could.
The thought passed through his entire body with a steel surety. This same surety told him his life was no longer his own to control.
Tonight was Running Water, an interesting funk-heavy jam band with a rather unfortunate name. Months prior, bassist and band leader Jimmy Teak had approached Lloyd asking about chances to play at the Rosebud. He had offered Teak a slot within the week. They were good kids and had an interesting sound and style, but nerves dampened Running Water’s first performance at the Rosebud. Lloyd liked them, so he offered them a second shot. The day Running Water was set to come back to the bar Lloyd went to the backroom.
He turned the warm doorknob. He hunched beneath the doorframe. He ducked the low hanging root. The sense of cold swept over his, emptied his mind and stunted his memory. He shambled back up the steps. He setup the stage.
Five lit candles surrounded the four teenagers onstage. They were playing one hell of a set. They had burned through two incendiary songs and Teak had found himself some confidence. He slung his bass around, banged his head, and flew around the stage like a man possessed. A raging bass solo found Teak resting his bass guitar on his knee and picking madly at the four strings. He let himself fall forward to his knees, still blasting out chest crushing bass. He was also resting firmly outside the circle of candles. Warning klaxons flared to life in Lloyd’s head. A slimy, unnatural coldness stole his breath and locked his muscles in place.
The rumble in his chest stopped.
The bass guitar was no longer playing.
Teak, still on his knees, was slumped over his now silent bass guitar. The singer, a scrawny kid named Jenkins, let the song roll on, in favor of checking on his now crumpled friend. It took Jenkins no less than thirty seconds to realize the bassist was no longer breathing.
The performance disintegrated from there and the singer shouted for help. Help came, but the ambulance’s five minute response time was more than six minutes too late. Teak had died before his chin lolled to his chest.
Cause of death was later attributed to a massive brain hemorrhage brought on by a hemorrhagic stroke. Light in party experience, drugs, and years, Teaks was in no way the obvious candidate for a stroke, but as the coroner who diagnosed Teak’s cause of death said “shit happens”.
Lloyd knew otherwise. He was not disputing the cause of death, Teaks most definitely died of a stroke. The otherwise that Lloyd knew of was that this was not just shit happening. Teak had been the first performer to step outside the candles before finishing a performance. The moment he had done so Lloyd felt it. He had felt it the same way he had felt everything else involving the Rosebud’s backroom. He had been blindly guided to knowledge he did not possess. Despite the total lack of rational means for him to know it, Lloyd had known that Teak should not have crossed the candles.
Necromancy is a disgusting act. It marks its’ practitioners. It marked Lloyd. He became sullen, morose. His happiness seemed to wither and anti-social behavior became a constant flavor of the week. Laughter became a burdensome chore and, when performed at all, reeked of insincerity.
Sleep became a distant dream. Resting for four hours a night became a praise-worthy blessing and what sleep he had was but a mirage for he would awake more tired than when first he set his head down. Days would pass when he would count the seconds to when he would blink next, for blinking was likely to be the closest he would be to sleep. The walls shimmered and flashes of color accompanied each creak and crack of the bar.
Paranoia set in. Everyone was too drunk to drive and would crash their car and die. The families would sue and win. Financially and emotionally destitute, Lloyd would die at the end of a noose. Shadows danced across his periphery and melted away beneath his directed gaze. His hair stood on end across his entire body the moment his eyes closed for sleep as if a sentinel figure stood watch over his prone form. Patrons were no longer allowed to smoke and drink at the same time for fear that they would drop their lit cigarettes into spilled alcohol and ignite the flammable liquid.
The Rosebud, as well-kept a dive as ever there was, started taking on water.
Paranoia and mental torment soon gave way to physical pain. Physical pain parted for debilitating agony and Lloyd was forced to close down the bar temporarily.
Lloyd had read a few books and heard a few news stories, he knew a bit about addictions. He knew they were, almost without exclusion, perilous to one’s health. He also knew that breaking the addiction was a grueling task that inflicted anguish upon the addict, both mentally and physically. Finally, Lloyd knew he was thoroughly addicted himself. Lloyd had bound himself to whatever unseen horror acted through the backroom and depriving himself of the room for this long had been like a junkie trying to cut heroin cold turkey. The biggest difference between heroin and the backroom was that heroin had no mind, had no ill-urges. Heroin was an inanimate substance, the backroom was an entity that had made a bargain with Lloyd and intended to ride that bargain just as fair as it could. It would have Lloyd using the room and it would rain down whatever agonies were necessary to do so. The room knew that men lived short lives and judged them by the treasures they accumulated, be those treasures money and power or memories and family, the backroom would tear Lloyd from any and all of it. It had made a bargain and would not be cut out on its’ share.
Gotta go downstairs. Downstairs stops the pain.
Lloyd turned to the door and was but three steps away and could not cover the space. His knees were filled with shards of white-hot glass and he collapsed…
Downstairs makes it stop. Make it stop…
…slugs of molten lead burrowed deep into his eyes…
Stop the pain. Make it stop. Make it leave…
…tendrils of barbed wire lacerated his intestines, kidneys, lungs, liver, heart…
Downstairs soothes. Soothes. Stops. Stop. Soothe. Stop. Stop. Stop.
A stumble. A kid. Seventeen. Limp. Head lolled. Arms splayed. Bass quiet. Candles burning.
Crystalline shards of thought, shattered by a junkie’s pain, fused momentarily.
What power lay down within the back room did not lay dormant to be used at man’s discretion. Rather, it lay in wait to seize the throat of those unwary and unwise enough to call upon it.
Lloyd had used the power within the room. He had grown to like using the power. It had made his bar quite popular. Few others could match the entertainment quality of the Rosebud. Yet he had noticed the pull was not one-way. As he took from it, so did it take from him.
Lloyd’s thoughts began to splinter again. Jagged waves of pain laced each attempt at coherent thought, punishing all resistance. The pain picked greedily through his mind, fracturing what little was lucid and tainting what little was pure. Lloyd felt a pair of familiar hands grasp his shoulders firmly and, with clawed hands, crawled through one of the three steps to the door.
Stop. Stop. Stop. Stop. Stop.
The pulsing, tribal chant abated and reason granted him one brief moment of thought. My life is no longer mine to lead. As the thought came, so did the strength to undo his first step and slump down against the floor and push himself away from the door.
Stop. Stop. Stop. Stop. Stop. Stop.
The chant was now faster. The voice, now warped and decrepit, was no longer his own. It was no longer the voice of reason urging him away from the door, but rather another entity entirely urging him away from his current course. Lloyd did not stop. His hands fumbled beneath the bar and with considerable effort drew a heavy Remington pump-action shotgun. He had bought the gun for his occasional hunting forays and had decided it would double nicely for defensive duties at the bar. Until this night, however, he had never felt the need to using it as such. Now, he found himself pumping the first 12 gauge shell into the chamber.
A ridiculous thought came to mind. A childhood memory of his mother scolding him about washing his apple before he put it in his mouth, she told him it would be filthy. Filthy things were bad for him and would taste terrible on top of it.
True to his mother’s word, the barrel of the Remington tasted terrible.