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July 15, 2024

The Beat

By Rick McQuiston

Jay heard it before he even got out of his car.

With a sharp twist of the ignition key, he turned off his old but reliable Cadillac, waited for the inevitable backfire, and slowly, painfully dislodged himself from the driver's seat. His lower back had been reminding him all day that he was aging, so his mood hovered somewhere between miserable and lousy.

And the last thing he felt like hearing, aside from his boss screeching about his lack of production, was that rumbling bombast that tried to puncture his eardrums every time his ears were subjected to it.

Jay trudged across his unkempt lawn, over his pitted concrete front porch, and into his much too small house. With each step he took the noise grew louder, more threatening, forcing him to finally put his foot down. This was his home, the house he and Cassie shared ever since they exchanged vows so many years earlier, and he wasn't about to watch it fall apart under the assault from a bunch of drums.

When he married her there was some extra baggage though: her teenage son Lester.

Lester was a lazy kid who did nothing all day except play video games and bang on his drum set, and being anything but talented, was quite proficient at driving everyone within earshot somewhat insane. He also harbored a darker side, a depraved aspect of his personality that he indulged in with alarming regularity: the occult.

More than once Jay overheard him through his bedroom door, chanting some bizarre ritual mumbo-jumbo. He didn't understand any of the words, most of sounded like gibberish, but occasionally a few were recognizable. Hate, surrender, pain, and the most disturbing one: death.

Cassie never seemed to mind her son's strange behavior though, merely shrugging it off as teenage angst.

And then there were the drums. His set was small (a simple kit of three drums accented with a single cymbal perched above the high-hat) but it sounded like so much more.

Much more.

Every day when Jay came home from work the sporadic rhythms coming from Lester's room would greet him like a bully, seemingly reveling in the punishment he was forced to endure.

Jay set his briefcase down on the floor and stood in the foyer, listening to the maddening rhythm (or lack of) that was cutting through the thin door of Lester's room like it was rice paper, vibrating the furniture, the walls, and most of all: his nerves.

The drums sounded more annoying than usual too, and Jay thought to himself that his beloved stepson was probably playing worse than he usually did on purpose.

He closed his eyes and found himself trying to follow the beat. In the past Lester had hit the snare drum at regular intervals, at least offering some semblance to rhythm. But now the snare beat was all over the place, dodging the spot it would normally fall on.

He tried to understand it but couldn't. It made no sense.

He stomped down the hallway, intent once and for all put a stop to his stepson's behavior. With every step he took, a growing unease gnawed at his mind. The drums were sporadic, a seemingly aimless and noisy meandering of hits, and every time he expected one it wouldn't happen, popping out a second or two later.

It drove him mad almost as much as the noise itself.

He reached the bedroom door and stood before it, his heart pounding in his chest. Should he knock first, or just walk right in?

He grasped the door knob and slowly turned it. The drums were becoming quieter, and slowing as well. The high pitch resonance of the snare was losing its punch. The cymbal crashes were reduced to light glancing blows, shimmering accents to the fading rhythm.

He pushed the door open.

Everything seemed normal. Granted, the room was messy (soiled clothes and fuzzy remnants of past meals dotted every available space), but there wasn't anything that concerned him. He'd seen Lester's room before, and despite his disgust, he generally let him be.

Lester was sitting behind his drum set. His unkempt hair hung across his shoulders in oily strands resembling wet noodles. His arms rested on his lap, each hand gripping a battered drumstick. His left hand was tensed so much that his normally flabby arm actually looked muscular, dilated veins pulsing just below the pasty skin. It looked as if he was about to raise it up and smack a drum at any moment. But the worst part was his expression. It resided somewhere between blank indifference and nervous anticipation, with precedence being given to the latter.

Jay stood in the doorway. He didn't know what to do. Cassie apparently wasn't home (although her car was in the garage -- he guessed she'd gone for a walk), so he couldn't rely on any help.

He stared at Lester.

Lester didn't seem to realize he was even there. He simply sat on his frayed drum stool, starring right past his stepfather as if waiting for something.

Jay stepped into the room, being careful not to touch anything.

“Jay, Honey, I'm glad you're here.”

The familiar voice immediately relaxed and puzzled him in equal measure.

“Cassie?” A short pause followed, a thick silence that seemed like it was solid. “Where are you?” He heard her, it was Cassie all right, but he could not see her. There were no shadows (at least not enough to conceal a person) and the closet door was wide open, revealing a tiny space crammed with dirty clothes.

Then he saw her face, her pretty visage framed by the dark flowing locks that he fell love with, despite the baggage of her lazy son.

But it was only the face. It seemed to float in a small recess directly behind where Lester was seated. How he hadn't noticed it before he didn't know.

Jay stared at Cassie's unblinking smile. His gut churned with nausea, fueled by dire warnings about his predicament. The whole situation was odd, unsettling, frightening. He strained to see any other part of Cassie's body but only saw her face, her pretty expression suspended in the shadowy sea.

He decided to try the direct approach.

“What's going on here?” he demanded to know. “Somebody please answer me.”

But only silence responded.

“I want answers now!”

Still no reply...until Lester suddenly raised his right arm high above his head. The drumstick wavered between his palm and fingers like a sword. And his face, his pasty, unwashed face, split into a devious grin so full of malevolence that the implications it no doubt harbored literally filled the room like so much poisonous gas.

“Just one more to finish the beat,” he drawled in a squeaky tone reminiscent of a rat squealing in delight over fresh carrion. “Any drummer knows it's important to complete the beat, to wrap up the rhythm that they have created. It's just like a song coming to an end.” He still held the stick above his head. “In a way, it's the most important part: the ending.”

And with those words Lester brought the drumstick down in a blinding flash. All Jay saw was a blur of flesh, fabric, with a splinter of wood at its tip. The stick cut through the stale air of the room, crashing down directly onto one of the cymbals, a dingy saucer of handcrafted hammered brass, and instantly created a deafening but not wholly unpleasant cacophony

Jay wanted to cover his ears but suppressed the urge. Somewhere deep inside he harbored a fear of using his hands for something other than preparing for a physical assault.

He closed his eyes to somehow lessen the discomfort.

Silence ensued, magnified by the darkness he saw. It was a welcome break from what he had seen, but fear (along with sheer curiosity) compelled him to eventually open his eyes.

The first thing he saw was Lester. Still seated behind his drum set, his stepson now wore an enormous, satisfied grin.

“It's done, the song is finished.”

Jay stared at the boy. He didn't know what to say, what to do.

Lester's smile stretched wider. “I may not be the smartest guy around,” he said quietly, “but I do know how to tap into the unseen arts.” He lowered his gaze, practically inviting Jay to follow.

And Jay did follow, looking down on the floor beneath the drums.

A tangled mass of gibberish encircled the set. Numerous lines, some straight as an arrow, others swirling into ornate designs that flowed into one another seamlessly, challenged any and all who tried to follow their pattern to retain their sanity.

Jay found himself mesmerized by the drawings. It seemed to be written in what he guessed was blood, a thick substance that apparently had blackened on exposure to air, and the speculative realization softened what remained of his courage.

His eyes focused on the central area of the mass. There, partially obscured by the weathered shell of the bass drum, was a vague figure. It resembled a bipedal humanoid, but also sported thin aspects of some type of bloated insect, like a freshly-engorged tick. Somehow the abomination managed to merge the characteristics of the two together, creating a bizarre nightmare beyond rational thinking.

“It's taken me quite a while,” Lester continued, “but I finally managed to finish the song. Hopefully his excellency will approve. We'll just have to wait and see.”

Jay hardly heard him though. His attention was by then solely on the grotesque image on the floor. He couldn't tear his gaze, or his thoughts, away from it.

A sudden chill pervaded the room, a slow deliberate cold that effectively siphoned away any natural warmth with its embrace.

Within seconds Jay could see his breath.

A moment later he felt goosebumps.

Another minute and his hands and face were feeling numb.

He forced his gaze off the floor. Lester's arms were outstretched on either side of his body; he wasn't affected by the cold at all.

He looked past Lester at Cassie.

Cassie stared back at him, a trace of a smile on her face. A blemish then formed on her left cheek. Bigger than a quarter in diameter, it gradually expanded, increasing in size until it became a deep hole. Another then formed on the opposite cheek, same size as the first, growing until it matched its brethren on the other cheek.

“Hopefully,” Lester chimed in, “he'll be pleased.”

As Jay watched in horror, rooted where he stood by sheer terror, a long, blood-red talon emerged from each hole on Cassie's face. They were ferociously curved, crudely resembling a mad sultan's blade, and gleamed in the dim light like polished marble. Then they moved toward each other, pinching Cassie's face until they touched, each razor-sharp tip kissing its twin.

“Yes!” Lester cried out, without looking back. “His Excellency is pleased! Yes!”

The facade of Cassie was ripped apart like so much paper.

“Oh my God,” was all Jay could manage as the demon, dripping mandibles clicking together, scaly hide bristling with vermin, baleful eyes narrowing into slits as they focused on its prey, slid forward on myriad legs, fully entering the world, the world it would soon devour.

Article © Rick McQuiston. All rights reserved.
Published on 2024-02-05
Image(s) are public domain.
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