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MUSIC HELL - Novelette 2: “The Buzz Killer” featuring Slayer

- Jun 13, 2018 at 01:01PM
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WARNING: These short stories contain horrific images and extreme violence. For every action, there is a reaction, and because music has reached such an unprecedented level of artistry, the evil in the belly of the world has crept to the surface. Please read with extreme caution. Each month, a different super-star band will be cursed, haunted, stalked, and terrorized by vicious serial killers, demented miscreants, blood-sucking zombies, and hideous demon-spirits. Fear is a disease. You will be infected.

Lead Characters:
Tom Araya – vocals, bass
Kerry King – guitars
Gary Holt – guitars
Paul Bostaph – drums

Heavy Reading:
Before you delve into our second MUSIC HELL novelette, we strongly encourage you to enhance your reading experience by streaming Slayer’s twelfth and final studio album, Repentless, released on September 11, 2015, via Nuclear Blast.



When they’d completed Repentless, Kerry mentioned that he still had songs falling out of his pocket, a shit-ton actually, and he’d been hoping that they could lay down some new tracks by 2018. But there had been follow-up commitments for the record, multiple appearances, videos, scheduling conflicts, family issues, and now with the “Final World Tour” and the following wind-down, it didn’t seem likely, at least not this year.

Then on May 10th, they played the opener at the Valley View Casino Center in San Diego, with the arena packed to the rafters and the crowd so loud the band literally felt the stage shake. It was like coming home, and after the show they all agreed that they owed some new music to the greatest fans in the universe, like now, this summer, while the juices were flowing; they’d make time…in between tour dates, fuck it, they’d manage.

Was it practical?

Hell no.

Since the Henson Studios in Los Angeles was booked through September and Terry Date had other commitments he just couldn’t break, they’d have to improvise, putting together their own private recording space and producing the music themselves.

And retirement? Well sure, that hadn’t changed. Though they were done with the road as soon as the tour was over, there was nothing in fine print that said they had to stop writing together, especially when it was red hot and sparking.

music_hell_novelette_2_the_buzz_killer_featuring_slayer

#

The tour had a big break in it starting at the tail end of June, and since they were scheduled to pick things up on the east coast late July, it made sense to come up with a location that was “gig-central.”

Kerry found a place. His very first guitar teacher back at Calvano’s Music in South Gate had a close friend on the staff named Hannah Hoffman, who had stayed in touch with the band through their publicity department starting in the early 2000’s, since her grandson Conner had grown up such a Slayer fan. Her daughter Mia (Connor’s mother) lived in Chester County Pennsylvania with her husband Liam, and they had a hunting lodge just outside Atglen. The address was “Crum Creek Lane” without a street number. It was a dirt road in the woods, totally isolated for ten miles in every direction and bordered by the Cedar Hollow Hunting Preserve and a forested area called Scutters Falls. Perfect. If a serial killer came for you wearing his “dead skin mask,” no one would be able to hear your “hallowed screams,” ha-ha, and they could crank up their amps without anyone complaining.

Of course, it didn’t happen overnight since they had to get the place set up in pieces. It wasn’t as if they had all of their back-up shit in one storage unit, and this gave them the opportunity to give work to some of the roadies and techies they couldn’t bring on tour this time around. But even so, they didn’t want to make it any more complex than it had to be. Hell, there was no way they could produce the same kind of final product they’d be able to crank out in L.A., so they quickly determined that they weren’t looking for a polished finish. They were looking for something notoriously “Slayer,” something dirty and right in-your-face, back to the garage, and if they went sixteen-track with the bare minimum of recorders, speakers, outboard gear, and microphones…all-in and committed to pure guts and grit…maybe it wouldn’t be just a demo. Granted, it wasn’t going to be perfect, fuck no, but “perfect” was pretentious. “Pristine” was boring. Much more fun to get raw and bloody.

Over the course of the first shows on the tour, they spent a lot of their down-time making individual notes and a master-list, each playing the other’s “editor,” eliminating the excess, sticking to their guns when a certain piece of gear was a priority. Since they didn’t want to fuck with their “A-Rig” out on the road, Kerry was good with one of his signature heads and two cabinets, and Gary insisted on keeping it simple with his Kemper Pre-amp and the Marshall profiled into it. They’d take their stage guitars with them from the road, and Tom made a note to call Jeff Moore at ESP so he could send him a new Araya model TA-204 FRX with some minor changes he wanted in the pickup design.

By the end of May, they’d sent most of the parts and parcels to the hunting lodge all the way down to the spare cables and guitar picks, but it wasn’t until June 10th or so that Paul decided that he’d break his traditional commitment to birch in the studio by duplicating the Yamaha Oak Custom set he was currently using on stage. He’d commute with his best live snare and a backup once they finished the first leg of the tour at the Secret Solstice Festival in Iceland on June 21st.

After a few weeks of necessary R&R, they could meet at the hunting lodge July 13th, Friday the 13th, you bet your sweet ass. They’d have eleven solid days to record. The 25th would be allocated for travel, with their backup crew bringing four or five small U-Hauls to grab everything back, (except what they left behind for quick overdubs between future shows), and the tour would pick up on July 26th in Gilford, New Hampshire.

Eleven days.

In the woods.

But the fucked-up shit started the first night they got there...

Check out the cover artwork for Slayer’s studio recording Repentless.


#

They had decided to all meet at the Philadelphia Airport and go to the lodge together in a rental van, since Crum Creek Lane didn’t show up on any map that they Google searched, and sharing the ride eliminated the chance of one of them never making it, spending a night in a dive motel somewhere off the beaten path. Tom thought it was funny actually, calling it a “clown car,” but supposedly the place was a real bitch to find even with solid, hand-written directions. All their friends dropping off equipment throughout the month had complained about getting lost between Zion Hill Road and 342 South, saying that before you knew it you were caught up in a maze of unnamed access roads threading through the wilderness like dark twisting tunnels…on your own with no one to talk you through. Mia and Liam, who lived a town over, were supposedly on vacation in Spain without tablets, lap tops, or electronics, total getaway, and “Grandma Hannah” had never had the pleasure of visiting the lodge, thank you kindly. Hunting made her feel sick and dizzy, and Connor, the twenty-four-year-old grandson, didn’t have a cell phone. From what Hannah had said, he was a real rebel, a “spirited young man” who didn’t believe in selfies or social media. To the band that was totally bad-ass, and in the true spirit of this adventure, they impulsively decided to leave their Samsungs and iPhones and tablets behind, going old school all the way, eliminating any chance for distractions. Once they got to the place, Connor would show them around, Hannah said, make them feel right at home, and if he wasn’t there when they pulled in, the spare key was inside the grill cover out on the front porch.

They’d been driving around in the woods for an extra half hour or so, when Gary spied the entrance to a logging road partially blocked by huge branches on both sides, half splintered off and drooping across the access point like jungle war camouflage. They didn’t have tools, so the four of them got out and worked together, pushing the thick branches until they snapped the rest of the way, then dragging the wood scrap into the brush. From deep in the woods an owl hooted, and there was a woodpecker up high to the right knocking idiot rhythms. A small animal skirted through a cluster of reeds and cattails across the way, and dust rose up through the van’s headlights like spirits.

It was one of those dirt roads with a center-line of crabgrass sprouting between the tire marks. After a short discussion, they got back in the van to give it a try, driving slowly, soon turning down a couple of unmarked off-shoots that seemed to lead them deeper into a maze that seemed endless. Finally, they reached a juncture where the stand of trees to the right thinned to a swath of brambles and wild honeysuckle, and there was a street sign, leaning left, with dull paint-chipped letters saying “Crum Creek.” They actually cheered.

About two hundred feet in, the dirt road veered a bit, becoming a driveway it seemed, as you could feel the tires bump over to the “chock ‘n gravel” of crushed stone and cinder, not quite leveled off, making the sudden view of the lodge in front of them bob and start in the headlights. They came to a halt about twenty feet from it, and just sat there for a second.

“Well, that’s some real frontier shit,” Kerry said.

“More like the cabin with the haunted video tape in The Ring,” Gary answered. Tom nodded. The knobbed logs were stacked with a primitive sort of notching technique at the corners where there was overlay, and the one window in the small protected porch was darkened. The three stairs looked crooked and warped like a funhouse, and there was ivy creeping up the posts of the handrails. The flying gable roof, like what you’d see on a tool shed, had weeping algae stains and patches of moss fingering down along the old asphalt shingles…and…was it sagging right there in the middle to the left? Hard to tell, but Kerry hoped not. Sag meant water damage. Paul sniffed, and said, “I’ve never seen The Ring,” and they all piled out of the van.

Suddenly, something jumped into the light from behind some overgrowth to the left of the porch, some dude in a black tee-shirt, dark green military khakis, and motorcycle boots. He had tattoos covering his arms like sleeves and his neck like a collar, ears too. He had white-blonde hair tied back in a ponytail with long wisps hanging down both sides of his narrow face, and he leaned back, put up his hand-horns, and shouted “SLAYER!” at the top of his lungs. In the true spirit of the common exchange Tom and Paul did it back, yet Kerry was already walking past him.

“It’s thumbs-in,” he said wryly. “Thumbs-out means, “I love you,” and we haven’t been introduced.”

“Yeah, but I love you guys already!” the guy said, following Kerry up the stairs like a pet dog. “My favorite album is Reign in Blood, of course, but you can’t look at that one in the vast scheme of things without considering its follow-up, and your best song is “Seasons in the Abyss,” and you shouldn’t ever rock Slayer without giving kudos to “Disciple,” and I’m not just saying that for Paul’s sake, I really really dig it.” He was almost out of breath, up on the porch next to Kerry, and he squinted back into the van’s headlights. “I know,” he said, nodding, grinning stupidly, “you don’t need for me to list every great Slayer song. Shit, we’d be standing here forever! And you don’t need for me to make Paul feel welcome, I mean, who the fuck am I, right? Just a lifelong fan, that’s all!”

Paul waved back amicably, and the guy turned to get the key in the door. “We got outdoor floods,” he said, “so you can save your battery. Then I’ll show you around. I got your beds made up, and the kitchen is stocked.” He snapped the tumblers over and began working the second lock. “I’m your biggest fan,” he continued, “and I’ll bet you miss Jeff and you used too many knives in the “You Against You” video, I mean, six would have been enough to cover limbs, core, and head, fucking duh.” There was a padlock on a cane bolt at the base of the door, and he had to change keys for that, squatting there, sort of talking down at the porch deck. “I play guitar,” he said, “and it’s the Dean product, fuck you very much, but if you don’t like Dimebag and celebrate his memory that’s your fucking problem, and if you don’t let me play on a track or two, I’ll kill you in your fucking sleep, just kidding.” He stood and turned around smiling, making his nose scrunch. “Come on in,” he said, “I’m your biggest fan. I’m gonna look after you like a fucking Game of Thrones squire and shit, and I love you guys, I love you to death.”

He had the door open, and Kerry put his hand on his shoulder.

“Connor, I presume?”

The guy nodded eagerly.

“Shut the fuck up.”

They all laughed, Kerry clapped the kid on the back, and they all went in to the hunting lodge. Days later, huddled together and whispering, they would revisit some of that “porch speech,” looking closer at it, analyzing the parts that were inappropriate, like the stuff about Jeff, and the other shit that was dangerous in a literal way. They’d all agree that it wasn’t their fault initially, no way, hell, if they started being thin-skinned about everyone who thought the band’s personal business was their own, they wouldn’t have a fan base. And people kidded each other all the time, expressing emotions ironically, talking in metaphor and hyperbole as a matter of course. When you said, “I’ll kill you,” it didn’t mean “I-am-going-to-murder-you.” It usually meant “quit it” or “fuck off” or even, “I dig you.”

This hadn’t seemed all that different. In fact, when you thought about it, the videos for Repentless were gorier than most horror movies, at least the commercial ones, and that didn’t make the members of Slayer bloodthirsty killers. It was art. A valve to let steam out, aesthetic tapestry with all sorts of strategic social commentary, like conversation could be, especially the banter and the bullshit get-to-know-you scenarios where people were feeling each other out.

Some were clumsier about it than others, but that didn’t make them real threats. Most people didn’t even realize they were being assholes, and most of the time, you just had to take them aside to talk about boundaries.

None of them ever got a chance to have that talk with Connor Hoffman.

And it was the biggest mistake they’d made in their lives.

Get nutty with the video for Slayer’s “Repentless” single.


#

Inside the lodge it smelled like sawdust and cedar, a pleasant yet “close” sort of aroma, and when Connor flipped on the lights, they took a second to drink it all in. It was a single-floor set up with lofts on either side that had built-in stepladders and thick wooden safety railings. There was an open-air kitchen area in the back behind a bar with stools in front of it, and a few small rooms sectioned off beneath the loft-platforms, two to the right and a smaller one back in the left corner.

Tom pointed at each space in turn, musing almost to himself, “Live room, isolation booth, control room, machine room,” and he was smiling like a child, eyes sparkling. He often did this, even when discussing things that didn’t necessarily warrant humor or warmth, just the way he was, yet in this case, the rest of the band was smiling too. Though the exterior of the place hadn’t been maintained very well, in here it was newly renovated, with honey-spice tongue and groove paneling and thick shag carpeting, most of it covered with rows and stacks of equipment and gear, all neatly placed, but in no special order.

“Hey,” Gary said. “Thanks for getting us in, but we’ve got a lot of setting up to do here tomorrow…”

Connor darted glances between them as if he’d just been betrayed.

“It’s still early,” he said, high up in his nose. “Don’t fuck with me. I wanted to tell tattoo stories. Especially with Kerry. I was looking forward to it.” Color had blotched into his cheeks, eyes dry and hot. His goatee was so fine and blonde you could see the acne on his chin through it, but this was more than a misguided twenty-something stuck in adolescence. This was a grown man’s suspicion, and it had snapped into his expression like a magic trick, giving that eerie effect of someone grinning convincingly, putting his hands in front of his face and then quickly removing them, unveiling a scowl. It played here like cleverly executed psycho shit, so animated you wondered if he was kidding, and since he knew you were wondering, he kept playing you, making you dance. Or maybe the kid was just tired…nervous meeting Slayer for real, overreacting, hell, they’d seen it before.

“Bathroom’s behind the kitchen,” he said stiffly. “Shower’s out back, and I highly recommend a fucking drip-dry. Nothing like the forest breeze on your balls, running up your crack to the small of your back.”

He turned and stalked to the door. But after shoving it open, making it bang against the outer wall, he stopped right there in the archway, motionless, arms hanging long at his sides. Seconds ticked away. Too many. He was like that dude turned away, facing the corner at the end of the original Blair Witch movie.

“One million, five hundred thirty-eight thousand and seventy-six,” they heard him say dully.

Gary looked at Tom and raised his eyebrow.

“What you say, kid?”

Connor turned, eyes different now. Same blue, different flavor, as if the bristling summer heat had turned pale and clouded.

“Leaves,” he said.

“What?”

His eyes gained back focus, but not all the way.

“Leaves. That’s how many are outside right now. On the trees, on the ground, in the grass, in my sightline.”

“You can…count leaves?” Tom said carefully.

“Yeah,” he said, coming back down to earth, but friendly now, as if he’d forgotten his frustration about the tattoos. He shook his head hard, made the “brrrr” sound, and said, “Whoo-wee, yeah…yes, always could. Leaves, fissures, grass blades, slots in the bark, branches, you name it.” His smile fell and he looked down at the floor. “Wish I knew why,” he said. “Seems it would have some kind of purpose, you know?”

“K,” Kerry said, “No problem, I’ll bite. How many pieces of equipment are here on the floor? Must be hundreds counting the thumb screws, adaptors, and cables. I’ll count it all in the morning, and if you’re within ten I’ll give you a grand.”

“I can’t.”

“Why not?”

He shrugged.

“Only works outside. Like with nature and shit.”

“How convenient.”

“Huh?”

Kerry smiled and pointed his index finger with the thumb up like a pistol.

“I said, ‘I believe it.’ And tomorrow after we get this stuff set up, I’ll talk tats, that’s a promise.”

“But I work until five. I’m moving some busted concrete at the plant, and then I’m pickling steel at the rec center.”

“We’ll be here. Instead of just coming in, wave a red rag in the window. That way I can give you the ok sign if we’re not in the middle of a take.”

“Promise?”

“Promise.”

“I trust you.”

“Goodbye.”

The kid left. A few seconds later they heard his truck pull away, and it sounded like a real clunker.

“Construction’s probably a good trade for him,” Paul said reflectively. “Lets him work off whatever he’s got going on, you know what I mean?”

There were murmurs of agreement, but they didn’t discuss it. They were tired. Soon they found there was beer in the fridge - Stella, Busch Light, Sorachi Ace, Duvel, and some Bell’s Two-Hearted Ale, as well as some Coke Zero, waters, a pineapple, two cantaloupes, eggs, and a few Pyrex bowls with potato and macaroni salad covered with Saran Wrap. There were fresh beans, snow peas, asparagus, and a variety of cold cuts in the crisper, rib eyes and T-bones in the freezer, burgers and ribs, a couple of rotisserie chickens and filleted rainbow trout, with condiments in the door that actually looked like they had fresh expiration dates.

“Here’s to the Hoffmans,” Tom said, raising a bottle.

“To the Hoffmans.”

“Salud.”

“Fucking right.”

They drank heartily. It was surprisingly cool in here, they didn’t need the air conditioning. Up in the lofts, the beds were made up with fresh linens and down comforters as Connor had indicated, and while there weren’t any elk heads on the walls, just notices with listings of hunting seasons and bag limits, the place already felt just like home in a way…familiar somehow, startlingly so, especially for Tom, and this confused him. Déjà Vu was the kind of thing that happened to him all the time, but the feeling was always tethered to something in his life, something concrete, even if it was off in the margins where he had to search for it. Just a question of connecting dots that normally didn’t go together. This one, however, was particularly disconnected, as he knew he’d never been in a place like this. It was as foreign to him as Japanese Geta shoes to a redneck, but sitting there at the bar he had that distinct sensation of being right where he was supposed to be, or rather, right where someone or something wanted him to be, like the perfect picture for the wall, or an ideal trophy to stick on the mantle.

Someone tugged at the bottom of his shirt.

“Hey mister. Nice collection.”

Tom spun around, spilling drops of beer on his jeans. No one was behind him. Nothing but the dark clutter of equipment, some of it stacked waist high on the floor. He turned back slowly, resting his elbows on the bar. Paul was leaning into the open fridge with his hand on the door handle, and Kerry was talking to Gary about C sharp and drop B tuning. Again, Tom had the distinct feeling that someone was watching him, and he looked over his shoulder as casually as possible.

There in the porch window outside was a face, cupped by two hands like parenthesis, nose to the glass. It was a boy, maybe eight or nine, blonde hair falling across one eye and shaved to the skull on the opposite side. He talked, and it misted the window. He was outside, but Tom heard his voice up close like it came through an ear bud.

“I like collections,” the boy said. “No one ever looks at my collections.”

Then he was gone. For a second it looked like a stereotypical puff of smoke filmed in negative, but it was just the breath-mist fading on the glass. As if that wasn’t as bad…

Calmly, Tom turned back to finish his beer. He supposed he could have alerted the guys, told a ghost story, dug himself into a hole, made them laugh, but some things were better to keep to yourself. In terms of his personal beliefs, spirituality and the supernatural were slippery slopes he cared to acknowledge intellectually, keeping an open mind with academic distance.

But the little bastard had tugged on his shirt.

And the next morning there was a surprise waiting for them there on the floor.

Slayer (w/ Lamb Of God, Anthrax, Behemoth, Testament) @ Budweiser Stage (Toronto, ON) on May 29, 2018.



#

Gary saw it first. He was the early riser, and he’d volunteered to set the alarm clock on the night stand for 6:00 AM to make the first round of coffee.

“Hey!” he’d said in a harsh whisper, standing up there at the edge of the loft in a tee shirt and his skivvies, arms folded across his chest, looking down into the living space. In the other bed, Kerry rolled over, pulling the covers over his head, and across the way he heard Tom and Paul stirring.

“Hey,” he repeated, “Holy fuck, check it out!”

Kerry sat up.

“Why you whisper-yelling?”

“Look.”

In a moment all four were peering over the railings, speechless.

The entire studio was set up, all the leveling amplifiers and speakers and reverberators, the drums and the microphones, towers and rack mounts. Every cable was plugged in, every filter in place, every toggle-switch ready. The board was on standby, and someone had hung soundproofing blankets in the rooms doubling as isolation booths.

The four of them climbed down and walked through in amazement. Each station was fortified with the given player’s particular gear, and it was clear that whoever did this had studied the YouTube video for the making of Repentless meticulously, down to the small round end tables, desk lamps, and the small multi-colored spools hanging on hooks. The exceptions were twofold. There was decidedly less equipment altogether, bare bones as planned, and instead of drink bottles, juice pouches, tissue boxes, and coffee cups, the place was littered with clown figurines.

It gave the place an eerie old-school circus effect, since the small statues had that Victorian look, like the kind you might find in a place that had popcorn ceilings, vinyl couch slipcovers, and floral and cottage decorator plates mounted on the wall.

Gary walked over to the soundboard, where his ESP LTD Signature guitar case was lying on a side table. One of the porcelain statuettes was on top of it, a hobo clown sitting on a straw basket and holding an umbrella. It had a hat cocked on the side of its head, mime-lines around the eyes and heavy blackened five o’clock shadow. Gary moved it to a nearby surface, flipped down the latches, and pushed up the lid. Something moved inside it, and he jumped back, what the fuck?

It was a snake, a big one, dull yellow with irregular purple diamond shapes patterned along its thick body, and like something coming out of a charmer’s basket, the head rose up, forked tongue flickering, the vertical pupils like slits in cold gems in some alien wasteland.

“Whoa there,” Kerry said softly, moving quietly, grabbing a drumstick and stepping in to rub it along the snake’s back. “Easy honey,” he said, and after a couple of moments he reached for the coil closest to him at the back of the reptile, and when he lifted it out, it coiled around his forearm. Someone sucked in their breath, but Kerry continued slowly unwinding the rest of it from the tail end.

“Weaker in the back,” he said, grabbing it gently with his free hand up at the base of the head when it came in close enough to lick him.

“Careful it doesn’t cut off your circulation,” Paul said. Kerry smiled.

“It’s just a baby,” he said. “Less than four feet. It’ll grow to ten, minimum. It’s a Purple Albino Reticulated Python.” He frowned. “I’ve talked about this type in interviews. Kid knew what he wanted to surprise us with.”

The front door slammed open.

“That’s right, dudes!” It was Connor Hoffman. He came through the doorway dressed in his work clothes: black chemical resistant bib-coveralls with bright red suspenders. He had on an American ink flag biker bandana, and he was holding Gary’s guitar. By the neck with one hand. “You want this, I suppose?” he said.

Gary ran his thumb and index finger down the corners of his mouth.

“Conner,” he said carefully. “If you’re going to tote around a guitar, you hold it down by the bottom as well.” Connor’s eyes went big, like Ooops!” Quickly, he brought his free hand up under and cupped the bottom hard, a ring on his finger making a distinct “clicky-tac” sound on the mahogany. All four of the members of Slayer sucked in their breath, and Gary stepped toward him.

“C’mon,” he said, “give it up.”

Connor pursed his lips, nodded his head, “yessir,” and held it out forward. When Gary reached, however, the kid pulled it back, eyes laughing, mouth open like he’d just tricked a child.

“Hey,” Kerry said. “Stop fucking around and take back your snake. Pretty girl you got here.”

“How do you know she’s a girl?”

“You just told me.” He walked over. “Also, the body tapers down after the cloaca, was this a test?”

They both shared a grin, and Connor handed Gary back the guitar absently, next taking the python and letting it slither across his shoulders.

“Well, gotta go,” he said. “Saturdays I make time and a half.”

“Now hold on there,” Tom said. “You came in here last night and set all this up, but how did you do it without waking anybody?” He smiled as if addressing a true friend. “Not that we don’t appreciate the fuckin’ amazing attention to detail.”

The kid just stared back blankly for a second.

“Say what?” he said.

“The gear,” Tom answered. “Everything.”

“Not me.”

“You’re kidding.”

Connor shrugged.

“How could I possibly?” he said. “Must have been one of you. All I did was bring in my pet snake Medusa here and the clown figurines a half hour ago. Thought you’d like ‘em like I do. They’re my mom’s. I always loved clowns.” He turned and started for the doorway. “But yeah, you guys sleep like the dead. Two of you snore. Must be all those years on the road, making you block out noises and shit.”

The band exchanged a quick glance, and Tom followed the kid outdoors to the sunshine. The wind was keen, blowing his hair to the left, and the porch boards creaked under his bare feet. Connor had parked on a slant, and his brown pickup truck looked like it came from a war zone, bumper dented in three places, and the paint on the passenger door sanded down to its primer blotches. The back bed was crammed full of clean-up and digging tools, fifty-gallon drums with rakes, brooms, and shovels poking out, next to a couple of machines that looked like pressure washers. There were also a number of big dirty white plastic jugs that had skull and crossbones insignia on them, half hidden by the sidewalls. Probably muriatic acid; he’d said he pickled steel, right?

“My man!” Tom said. Connor was feeding the snake into a wooden crate he had on the passenger seat. Tom came forward, one foot on the top step, the other down on the second. “My friend,” he continued, “who’s the boy?”

“What boy?” He shut the door and walked across to the other side of the truck.

“The blonde,” Tom said. “Eight or nine, with the pale blue eyes. He has his head shaved on one side, and a long flip coming down over the opposite eye.”

Connor stopped short and stood there, palm on the hood just above the driver’s side headlight.

“What?” he said flatly.

“Do you know him?”

Connor’s breath starting coming fast, and then he stormed over, working his arm through his suspenders on one side, reaching inside his coveralls. For a crazy second, Tom thought he was going for a gun, but it was only his wallet. The kid took a second pawing into it and snatched out a photo.

“You mean him?” he said. He was at the base of the stairs now, face twisted in like a screw, and Tom took hold of the picture carefully by the corner. It was one of those school pictures where the subject was showing all his teeth, fake smiling. The photo was curled at the top edge and speckled with wear.

“Yes,” Tom said. “That’s the one. Who is he?”

Connor stared an extra second and snatched the picture back, returning it to his wallet and pants pocket, one overall strap still dangling down. He about-faced and stalked back toward his truck. He dug the gum out of his mouth, and tossed it to the left, glaring after it.

Suddenly, he halted dead in his tracks, like he’d walked into a wall. As if for support, he rested his right palm, ironically, on the same place on the hood as before.

“Five thousand, nine hundred, and sixty-four,” he said, gazing into the woods, clearly mesmerized. “Leaves,” he continued dreamily. “Purple ones, on the horsemint plants over in the grove and the meadow just past it, starting at the uprooted oak and those birch trees.”

He shook his head, getting out the cobwebs apparently, and carefully climbed into his truck, starting it and pulling around so he was parallel. He had his elbow up on the window rim, and he sat idling, staring back at Tom and the other three who had gathered in the wide doorway. His eyes were still glazed over, but it seemed little by little the smoke was clearing.

“Joey,” he said dully. “His name was Joey. My little brother. He died of a sudden pulmonary embolism ten years ago.”

The color came back into his face and his eyes sharpened.

“And you don’t want to mention him again. I don’t care if you’re the Beatles, Ozzy, or Led fucking Zeppelin.”

He pulled out with a short kick of gravel and cinder.

Would you survive if you found yourself in Slayer’s “You Against You” video?


#

“I say we bail,” Paul said.

“I vote we stay,” Gary countered. He had his hands wrapped around a cup of coffee, hunched over it, elbows up on the bar. “We can only fit about a fifth of the gear at best in the rental van, and considering the way he handled my ax, who’s to say he wouldn’t come in here the second he saw us driving away…bringing a big piece of wood scrap from the back of his truck, or even a wrecking bar to pull a destructo-act?”

“He’s at work.”

Gary shook his head.

“We don’t know that. He could be in the woods, taking turns watching us and counting the dandelions and crocus petals. By the time we found our way out of here and got to a police station, he could trash everything.”

“He’s a kid,” Kerry said. “He’s mixed up, I’ve seen worse.”

Paul smiled ruefully.

“Would have been nice if we’d brought along our cell phones, huh…”

“Yes,” Tom said quietly. “And there’s no Internet through the television in the kitchen either. Its twenty years old, standard cable.”

“Classic,” Paul said.

“Oh yeah,” Tom agreed. “More and more like a horror movie minute by minute.”

No one laughed. No one had chided him about seeing the “ghost” either. The thing they had voiced as the number one mystery, was how the studio got set up. They all knew, after a brief cross-examination, that it wasn’t one of them playing a trick on the others, and therefore deduced the obvious. Connor was lying about coming in at 5:30 AM, it was him all along, and yes, it was possible. Maybe. If he’d been at it all night, he could have pulled it off, since as said, there was but a bare bones representation of the set-up they usually used to put together a record. And while the idea that they’d all slept through the affair was a stretch, Connor was right about one thing at least. They were, in fact, heavy sleepers, learning over the years to catch a snooze in busses, on planes, back stage if they had to.

And as far as the thing with Tom and the vision of the dead boy, well clearly at some point Kerry had mentioned the Hoffman’s, maybe years ago pulling out the fan mail like they had done at times throughout their career as a band on their down time. People sent them family pictures regularly. He just had forgotten and Tom had forgotten that they both had forgotten, that’s all.

For Tom, however, it was not so easy to dismiss. The boy had tugged at his shirt. And his voice had seemed real. Or did it? Now that there was some distance from it, he wasn’t so sure. He did have an overactive imagination. It’s one of the reasons he was in a rock band to begin with.

Kerry had walked over to the recording area to turn his amp off standby, and Tom stayed there at the corner of the bar, trying to work all the ins and outs of this thing. Of course, he had considered maybe two of them going in the van to the police and two of them staying behind to watch the equipment, but what were the cops really going to do when they got here? Had a crime been committed? And after giving a report, was the band really going to run off with their tails between their legs, hoping that the cops would leave a squad car behind to watch over the lodge until they could send back four or five small U-Hauls to get everything?

Inevitably, there would be a scene. With the Hoffman’s, not just Connor, but his parents as well, forced to come back from their vacation early, and wondering why their open hospitality had been reciprocated with such mistrust and suspicion. There would be a police report. Connor’s name would be on it. Official and all that noise, and what had he done exactly so far?

He’d set up their equipment for them, and he’d shown off his pet snake.

Kerry starting playing a riff, and it was so fucking wicked, they all remembered why they came here in the first place. Before they knew it, a half hour had passed, and Gary was throwing down this alternate pattern an octave up that was totally bad-ass, Tom was pounding out a bass line, and Paul had worked up a sweat. They moved it forward, tried things, rolled back the tape, made adjustments. When they had everything up to the first chorus, they took a short break, ears ringing. Kerry had a topic he was working for the lyrics, and he showed Tom what he had on a note pad. Tom parked himself with it cross legged on the floor, running both hands through his beard, and sitting in the middle of what Kerry had started, he made a change here, a scribble there, and then he walked across into the vocal booth. Gary sat on a bar stool by the controls and tucked his hair behind his ears. He played with the levels a second, then said,

“You’re on.”

“Check, check.”

“You’re good.”

Gary rolled it back to the cut they’d done last, and on cue, Tom sang in a hearty growl,

“Go break out your pesticide

Mix up your insecticide

We travel in packs

And fill in the cracks

And feed the need for your genocide.

Pull legs from spiders and wings off of flies

Get out your swatter, your poison, your lies

We swarm in the crevices

You are the nemesis

Cursing our blood as it dries.”

The tape ran into the next part where they’d been hacking out a bridge, and Gary turned off the tape. It was good, they all felt it.

The door was open, and Connor Hoffman was standing there with his mouth hanging open.

“Lunch break?” Kerry said.

The kid didn’t answer. It got uncomfortable.

Hmm?” Kerry pressed.

“The key,” Connor answered.

“To what?” Gary said, and Connor swiveled his head toward him slowly, like one of those ventriloquist puppets.

“The key to my gift,” he said. “To my talent, your lyrics, it was there all along, I just didn’t see it…I just needed Slayer to open my eyes, to kick it off, like a trigger.”

“To what?” Gary repeated.

“To the world,” Connor said. He turned in the archway, half in and half out, back against the doorjamb, the sun making his face look bleached compared to the shadows slanted across him from the neck down.

“Don’t you see?” he said, looking off to the forest out there. “The counting was never really about the leaves and grass blades and bark fissures. That was just cover, camouflage, markers, and indicators. It’s what’s been nesting underneath that always had meaning, in the grooves of the tree trunks and beneath in the dirt, in the grasses, on the undersides of stones, in the creases and slivers, water-pockets and crannies.”

He cocked in his head at them, smiling primly, eyes glassy, like he suddenly felt sorry for them.

“You see,” he said. “I’m the Lord of the Flies. Not like that fucking stupid book we read in ninth grade, but for real.” The smile tent-pitched up into his cheeks as if a boomerang was jammed in there.

“I can talk to them,” he said. “I’m doing it now. With my mind and shit. And now that I know what I’m looking for, I can scope and scan and send signals a lot farther than the grove and the meadow. I can see all the forest for the trees, praise the lawd!”

The smile vanished.

“Don’t leave the lodge,” he said. “Don’t even try it.”

He stomped off, slamming the door hard enough behind him to knock down two of the clown figurines.

Slayer at Copenhell (Day 3) @ Refshaleøen (Copenhagen, DK) on June 24, 2017.


#

That’s it. We’re out of here, right fucking now.

They threw some clothes in a couple of backpacks and small travel bags. They grabbed their guitars. Threw open the door.

Connor was out there, leaning against the hood of their rental van.

“Gotcha,” he said. “Don’t matter. I slashed all four tires.”

He had. They looked like mashed potatoes under their rims.

“Now, boys,” he said. “You could try running off in four different directions, but I guarantee you won’t get very far. My soldiers know these woods and they’re faster.”

“Your soldiers…” Tom said.

Connor’s eyes went half-lidded.

“Ah,” he said softly. “A non-believer.” Kerry set down his guitar case.

“There are four of us and one of you, kid. Who says we’re running anywhere?”

Connor nodded.

“Right,” he said. “Quite right. Let’s put it this way. Step off the porch, you won’t make it to the truck.” He pointed at it. “My tires are still good here, but you won’t even get to touch the door handle. Bet you a grand, how’s that motherfucker?”

“Enough,” Paul said, pushing through, stepping onto the top wooden stair. It creaked beneath him, but two other sounds were far more definitive. The first was Connor purring up in his nasal cavities. The other came a second later, as an insect flew in from the left, hovering for a moment, then landing with the slightest of ticking sounds on the wood right behind them, wings back, walking the groove between logs to the top right edge of the doorjamb. It was a wasp. The four band members backed off toward the porch window, and another wasp landed, this time in a channel between logs at chest level, then another in a waist-high groove, and yet another down by their feet.

Connor was humming a bit louder, and from the woods there were wasps coming in with regularity now, some brown, some dark red, some striped deadly yellow, flying in three, four, and five at a time like black ops helicopters, killer drones with membranous forewings in blurs and then dead-stops on the landings, wire thin-waists, and sleek hanging abdomens. Too quickly, the wall was brimming with insects from the door to the near corner where the logs were saddle-notched up to the roof.

Connor had stopped humming.

“Believe me now, boys?”

“We believe,” Paul said.

“What?”

“We believe!”

“That’s better,” Connor said. “Speak up when you’re spoken at, will ya?”

By now, the swarm had blanketed the wall behind them almost to the porch window, left, right, and above the archway, bristling like a live mossy skin. The exterior lamp up to the left was almost entirely covered as if it had on a furry bulb sock, and the mass was spreading above them, in clusters up under the overhang.

“You win,” Tom said, “call them off.”

Connor put up his hands like, “What took you so long?” He said something under his breath, and the wasps peeled away from the building in threads and in streaks, all gathering to the right of the porch, swelling out there in a broiling cloud that hung there just a moment too long, and then shot off into the shadows and trees.

Connor’s hands were still out, his shoulders shrugged up, his smile as wide as the world.

“Well, c’mon, guys!” he said. “Let’s have a group hug and a blood oath and shit. ‘Cause I’m pumped and I’m primed, I’m loaded and locked, and now I’m the new fifth member of Slayer!”

Slayer’s “World Painted Blood” song and video are no joke. Check it out!


#

They were strangely practical about it, just putting their heads down, trying to find a way out of this thing. Connor had promptly taken off in his truck, and they had tested the waters, or rather the woods, trying to see how far they could get off the porch. But the moment one of them reached the last stair, that roiling cloud formed at the edge of the parking clearing, whining furiously, as if to say, “Go ahead, asshole, try it.”

When Connor had come back with his Marshall and his Dean From Hell CFH, lightning bolts and all, he had promptly broken the porch window with a tire iron (in case they shut the door on him) and then demanded that they re-do all the arrangements in the live set, making accommodations for a third guitar. When they refused, claiming they would just sit on their hands, he hummed up in his nose and the window frame got quickly populated with bees, skittering along the rim between the glass shards, and overflowing down the wall in a moving, bristling cyclone shape.

Oh, the guys got practical in a hurry.

The solos were easy once they came to grips with the idea that giving them up was a matter of life or death. They went democratic. Connor would take a third of Kerry’s and a third of Gary’s, and though his pattern work was way watered down, the kid was actually almost proficient, the prototypical die-hard fan with mediocre talent who practiced a lot. The problems really came from his immaturity and basic inability to understand what it took to make a solid wall of sound in the rhythm sections. He didn’t have the mastery over his electronics to find a way to sit in a different spot in the EQ space, he and couldn’t get it through his thick head that he couldn’t be at the same position on the fretboard as one of the others, slamming the same open E chord. It was also difficult to convince him to get rid of his string noise, the extra delay and all the pick slides and pitch-harmonics he kept pulling. He was a ham. He was playing with Slayer, and it worked him like a bout of hot Scarlet fever. He wouldn’t even roll off his volume knob at the cut-offs and breaks, and for the first time in their careers, the band sounded sloppy.

By the time Connor left them it was 8:30 PM, and they were exhausted. The kid had mentioned that he had a bone to go pick with his parents, who were sure to bitch and moan that he’d let his dinner go cold on the plate…about his still living there at age twenty-four, about playing his Call of Duty WW11 all night in the basement, often falling asleep in the beanbag chair leaving the lights on and the flat screen blaring, leaving dirty dishes and half-empty Dr. Pepper cans in the living room, letting his hamper overflow, the usual noise. It wasn’t until he’d been gone a few minutes that Kerry mentioned blandly that he had thought Mia and Liam were on vacation in Spain.

But was it information they could use?

Would have been better if they’d known the trip was canceled back when they were in the planning stages, when they’d had a chance to communicate before getting here. Maybe they could have arranged with the parents to come visit the lodge at some point, check on the way their son was taking care of them. Maybe there was a CB in a hidden closet since there was no land line. Maybe there was a rifle hidden under a floorboard.

But would good would that do at this point? You pull a gun on this nut job, or even a kitchen knife, you’d better be ready to use it…and what of the last orders he had probably given to his “soldiers” in case of their master’s demise? You couldn’t shoot bullets or effectively swipe a meat cleaver into a cloud of attacking wasps and killer bees.

They were fucked.

Unless the kid was bluffing. Yeah, just like none of them would have been excited about having to shoot or stab the kid (if they had the chance), maybe Connor Hoffman wasn’t capable of actually murdering a player in his favorite band. But…scary version? He was just looking for an excuse to waste Gary or Kerry so he could replace them. And if the whole band didn’t work out? Well, then there was Anthrax, Megadeth, and Metallica, and Avenged Sevenfold, Slipknot, Volbeat, and Godsmack, and an endless sea of rock stars he could go and keep hostage.

A selective apocalypse.

And shit, at this point they just wanted to make it out of the hunting lodge!

They drank beers, came to no solid conclusions, and eventually retreated up into the loft area. It was tough to doze off, though, with the wasps in the window. It felt like that old fable where the dude had a sword hanging over his head by a thread, and all four of them drifted in and out of patches of sleep and bad dreams.

At 1:48 AM, Tom got up to get a drink of iced tea. He climbed down, walked through to get behind the bar, opened the refrigerator, and dug behind shit for a Snapple. The lamp in there flickered, and a shadow crept in from behind him.

“Hey mister.”

Tom almost jumped right out of his skin, but since the neck surgery he’d learn to control his body motions and go slow at all costs. He straightened carefully, turned, and shut the fridge door softly behind him.

It was the ghost of Joey Hoffman. From the window across the room there was only residual moonlight, so it was tough to make out much besides the glint of the boy’s eyes and the fine edges of his haircut hanging long on one side. Tom towered above him, but he felt like the small one.

“Hi,” he whispered downward, eyes slowly adjusting to the gloom. The form before him rocked side to side like small boys did, exchanging weight from one foot to the other.

“No one can hear us, silly,” the boy said. His expression flatlined. “Connor did a bad thing.”

“What bad thing?”

Joey hung his head.

“He killed them.”

“Who?”

Joey looked back up, and the sudden mischievous glint in his eye wasn’t just some reflection of residual moonlight.

“Do you want to see?” he said.

“See what?”

“What Connor’s doing right now. Through his eyes.”

“You can do that?”

The boy laughed.

“Sure! I’m a ghost, silly!” His grin again faded. “But it’s scary,” he said. “I can only look with you so long before I’ll have to close my eyes.” He lowered his voice as if telling a secret. “Connor used to get mad at me.”

“For what?”

“For not looking. He said I had to learn to be brave. He’d shoot down a pheasant and make me watch him tear off its feet and rip out the feathers. He’d catch a rabbit and break its neck, skinning it, pulling the fur over its head.” He poked out his bottom lip and crossed his arms hard. “I didn’t like it!” he said. “He scared me! But I kept trying because he promised if I could make myself watch that he’d look at my collections!” His eyes moistened with tears. “He promised, but he never did, because I always chickened out.” He put his hands together then, making the praying shape. “But please, mister, please? Watch with me so I don’t have to do it all by myself! If you do, I’ll keep my eyes open long as I can, and if I close them I’ll open them quick, I swear to you, swear to God, swear it!”

“All right,” Tom said, keeping his emotions in check, trying to force down the rage that had risen in his throat at the idea of an older brother getting away with such things. Some crimes weren’t against the law, but it didn’t make them any less ugly. “All right, Joey,” he repeated. “I’ll watch with you.”

“Then say the magic words.”

“What words?”

“Snake eyes, Slayer style.”

Tom said it. And…

Slayer (w/ Lamb of God, Behemoth) @ Blue Hills Bank Pavilion (Boston, MA) on July 25, 2017.



#

...and suddenly he was in Connor’s truck, not only with Connor Hoffman, but as Connor Hoffman, looking through the windshield at the entrance to the tri-county municipal dump. In the bald glare of the headlights there were the swerves and divots that big vehicles with mammoth tires had cut into the dirt road leading up to a fence gate with a sign that said “Service Entrance.”

It was strange, being inside the mind of another. Tom was still himself, his host unaware of him, yet he had access to all Connor’s senses, his thoughts, his physicality - a live wire for sure, strong for his size, a lot of adrenaline. But that wasn’t the thing at the forefront. It wasn’t even the high rancid smell of old refuge out here. It was Connor Hoffman’s recent memories, not playing out like mini-movies, but more like cold facts on a check list.

He’d killed both his parents tonight in the kitchen with his Dad’s 33” / 30 oz Louisville Slugger. He’d stuffed their bodies in a pair of hundred-gallon blue plastic biohazard drums he had in the truck, and next, he’d called in three thousand Asian Tiger mosquitos, the clean-up crew, who swept in from the woods to suck up the blood on a microscopic level, all of it, every drop and each streak on the bodies, on the premises, on Connor’s clothes, his face, in his hair (he’d LOVED that part). Then they’d flown all that evidence off into the night.

And now Connor was here. At the dump, where he was going to get rid of the bodies. But how? Tom couldn’t quite read it. The fucker kept saying in his mind over and again,

“I’m an artist,” but drawing it out in a fake French accent, like, “I’m an arteeest!” and Tom had the feeling he wasn’t talking about his new command of the insect world. It was something else. Something…

#

The world had gone dark, and Tom assumed it was Joey closing his eyes. He tried to communicate with him, but there was no response in the blackness. Joey was here, but more as the projector to Tom and Connor’s current shared consciousness. In other words, the young ghost was just the theater now. And the curtains had temporarily closed.

Here in the dark, time became indiscernible, and Tom tried his best to think some of this through. When he considered Joey’s casual attitude toward the death of his parents, treating it like a riddle, it was easy to assume he wasn’t overtly shattered because they’d crossed over to his side. Where they were now, and why they weren’t communicating along with their youngest, wasn’t Tom’s concern. Maybe there was a waiting period before you could go yodeling across worlds or something.

In more concrete and practical terms, Tom figured bugs couldn’t eat bones, at least not overnight. The part that puzzled him, however, was this noise about Connor being an artist, or “arteeest,” as he called it. You would think that the dump would make for a shitty canvas.

The eyes of Joey’s grand theater opened.

And Tom Araya screamed himself hoarse.

#

The vision through the misted Plexiglas looked like something from outer space at first, alien, half human/half seedpod with the muscles and tendons exposed in tight bands and crosshatch. Bottom center was a curved rack of bared teeth, bucked out and lipless. The eyes were gone. The cranium was bald and spotted, and the ears were melted red nubs.

“You see, Mother,” Connor said aloud, muffled and close because of the Hazmat helmet he was wearing, “I saw Breaking Bad, you know, when he pours acid over the body in the tub and takes out the floor while he’s doing it.”

Into the sightline through the Plexiglas his hand appeared, gloved, heavy yellow industrial plastic with a black Dot-Knit grip guard. Like a drafting pencil, it held what looked like a detail brush.

“But Mother, be real. Dumping muriatic acid all over the place is a low class move, and now I get to prove to you how pickling steel all these years has made me into an artist…an arteeest, ain’t you proud?”

He reached over and dipped the acid brush into one of the big plastic jugs with the skull and crossbones insignia, wiping some excess off on the rim, next maneuvering the brush back to the middle of what was left of his mother’s face, where her nose had been. Ever so gently, he stroked the triangular area, making the grist bubble and hiss, exposing one side of a void where the sinuses drained. Then he carefully repeated the application on its twin to the other side, forming a pair of black slits that made her look amphibian-like.

He stopped, there was a noise.

It was growling and barking. Junkyard dogs. On the move.

Connor pushed to his feet and stepped around what remained of the bodies of his parents splattered on the plastic sheeting. Before him was a lane cut through gargantuan rises to each side: tires, twists of steel, brick piles, and what appeared to be a mountain of appliances cut to two sections, one with ovens and air conditioners foregrounded by old computers and television monitors.

From around the corner as if on cue, two forms came skidding and redirecting, pawing the ground hard and galloping forward. It was a pair of Rottweilers, one light brown with white spots on his chest and the other a rough dirty gray. Both had steel studded choke collars.

Connor yanked off the Hazmat helmet. The air was cool and the greasy perspiration had flattened his hair. The dogs were about a hundred feet away and closing, the brown one in the lead kicking up dirt, barking hoarsely.

Connor reached out with his mind in a concentrated scan. In a pile of factory exhaust fans there was a massive hive affixed to the inner right corner of an enormous industrial draft hood that came from the roof of a ball bearing plant. Inside the paper-like labyrinth swarmed twenty-nine hundred and fifty-eight Black-Bellied Hornets, two hundred and seventy subservient males surrounding their queen and the rest a disciplined company of vicious asexual female mercenaries.

Connor addressed the queen directly, and the hive around her buzzed. Recently they had ravaged an eclipse of gypsy moths, and while it left some of them gorged, they accounted for such things by eating in shifts, and there were over twenty-two hundred soldiers still hungry, ready for war. The word went out quickly, scores of troops funneling through the honeycombs, secreting pheromones, and storming out of the entry hole, darting and weaving in a savage alarm dance.

Simultaneously, Connor called out to the one thousand and nineteen German Yellow Jackets in the hive nestled in a crux at the bottom of a pile of splintered wooden utility poles and old railroad ties past the clumps of sheep sorrel by the cyclone fencing east of the service entrance. They exited, swelled, and shot down through the air.

The brown dog was hit so hard by the first wave he was knocked sideways, rolling, howling, and the rest of the Black Bellied Hornets followed in an arrow formation that shot down and spread. For a moment they took on his shape in the dirt, making it seem he’d changed colors. He jumped up, pawing at the air and flailing, and the swarm rose and retargeted. Again, they stuck to him like a second skin, this time covering his eyes, and he fell to his side in jerks and hard spasm.

The grey Rottweiler had tumbled head over heels into a pile of rusted tin ductwork, and after the crash and shudder, he jumped from the wreckage running in circles as if chasing his tail. The swarm of German Yellow Jackets mimicked his movements like a cape following a bull.

All of it was over in a matter of seconds.

Through Connor’s eyes, Tom stared. Before him were two very dead animals, one lying twenty feet north at the edge of the lane on his flank, and the latter ten feet closer on his back with his paws up. The insects were still busy, thrusting, working those abdomens like pump jacks, hard clockwork, machines.

Connor looked back down at the bodies of his parents.

Both were gone from the waist down, stringy threads hanging off of their ribcages, splatters of excess congealed on the plastic.

Joey closed his eyes.

Tom opened his and the sun was up. He didn’t recall climbing back into the loft, but he had, and he’d slept. Badly. He woke the others. The wasps were still in the window.

The band huddled at the bar to measure their options.

Slayer performing “Raining Blood” on The Tonight Show starring Jimmy Fallon.


#

There weren’t many, that was for sure. Talking even made them nervous, though they were pretty sure Connor hadn’t been able to teach English to his insects over the course of an evening. Still, they tried their best to speak softly, realizing rather quickly that they had more questions than tactics at this point.

Considering that Tom’s vision was real in the first place, why the dump, not the woods?

Because if you spilled muriatic acid, it was harder to find the burn marks in a wasteland of spillage.

Why a baseball bat?

Because it was personal.

Why now?

Hell, that one was easy. Connor was a nut case, living on the edge of it like millions of others in the world, primed for a tipping point. In this case it was power and it had corrupted absolutely, removing the loose threads of morals everyone had tried to stitch into him.

They looked over at the wall calendar hanging on the fridge door. It was Sunday the 15th. Their friends weren’t showing up with those U-Hauls for ten days. Long time to wait for the cavalry, and when they got here, an ambush would be waiting. Could the four band members make a mad race to the trucks without being overwhelmed? And when the cab doors were thrust open, how many wasps would get in? How far could their incensed brothers and sisters fly in pursuit? More important, what was the scope of Connor’s influence? Could he communicate with insects in New Hampshire from here? If Tom’s vision from last night was real, the kid’s power was increasing exponentially. The wasps that had blanketed the porch yesterday had started by coming in slow. In the junkyard, they’d been quick as lightening and nasty as fuck.

“The question,” Tom said, “isn’t whether or not the kid can control the behavior of insects. We saw proof of that on the porch. The question is whether or not he’s a really killer.” He stared at his hands folded on the bar. “I know what I saw last night. I also know it wasn’t a dream. When you’re dreaming you could think it’s reality, but it doesn’t work the other way around. I was awake for that part and I know it, but I didn’t see this first hand. Before I go calling anyone a killer, I have to see it for myself, with my own eyes.”

They all nodded in agreement. When it came to hard “proof,” none of them had seen Connor hurt anybody. Tom had had a vision. A terribly detailed and realistic vision, but a vision it was just the same. They had no way of checking to see if Mia and Liam were actually dead, so common sense would dictate that they had to assume they were alive. Like the innocent until proven guilty thing.

“Yeah,” Paul said. “The problem is that to determine if he’s really capable of murder, we have to sit here waiting for him to kill one of us.”

“Capable?” Connor said. He was in the doorway. “You aren’t convinced I’m a killer?”

Kerry stood up, making his bar stool scrape back.

“You know,” he said, “you keep doing that, sneaking in here like a fucking creep in the brush…”

“Quiet,” Connor said. “You bore me.” He looked up at the rafters, eyes glassy. “I’m tired of Slayer,” he said. “Practice the set without me. Allow for my parts. I’ll meet you in Gilford on the 26th, so make sure I’m given backstage access. Be prepared for my stage entrance and my introductory solo.”

He looked right at Kerry.

“And I’m going to play it slow, fuck your fast shit. You’re going to surprise me with one of your tunes that has a melodic build-up, and you’re going to extend it before the speed-riff. Twenty-four measures, minimum, key of F. I’m going to make that Dean From Hell wail and scream, and if you don’t cooperate, those types of sounds won’t just be coming from my guitar.”

He stalked off down the steps, and they watched him through the frame until the bees swarmed in the entrance way, clouding the view, as if for cold spite. The sound of his truck was louder than the buzzing and whining for a moment, and by the time the insects settled, he was long gone.

“Wanna see the basement?” Joey’s voice said.

They all jerked and started at that one. Gary spilled his coffee and Paul knocked over one of those clown figurines that had been perched at the edge, sending it overboard, shattering.

“What the fuck!” Kerry said.

“Where is he?” Paul said.

"Doesn’t matter,” Gary answered. He looked up and around. “We all hear you Joey, so talk to us. There’s a basement?”

“Yes, silly.”

The band all looked at each other.

“Where?” Tom said.

“Trap door’s in the floor,” the boy said, giggling at his rhyme.

They all leaned and looked down around past the half-wall, and low and behold, there was a cover-panel built into the floor, its border-lines filled with dust from disuse, the entire affair going longwise from the sink all the way to the fridge and almost as wide as the room itself. On the wall below a pot rack, there was a small crankshaft and chain with a hook, and on the trap door, a recessed steel eye you could flip up.

“What’s in the basement?” Paul said.

“Supplies,” Joey said. “For my school projects. I used to do them here because Connor kept wrecking my murals and models and dioramas and bean mosaics.” His voice lowered. “It was also a good hiding place for some of my collections.” The tone brightened. “I like your collection! All your music gadgets and gizmos! Didn’t I set them up good?”

“You did fine,” Tom said. “Why are you letting all of us hear you right now?”

For a second, Joey didn’t respond.

“Because I want everyone to believe you,” he said finally. “About me and about Connor.” Another pause. “He’s gonna do another bad thing, you know. Really bad, in like an hour, and I want you to see. I want all of you to see, and I’ll try to keep my eyes open even longer this time, I swear it!”

“Basement first though, right?” Gary said, letting his eyes float around to each of his band mates. The unspoken communication was clear. Common visions were fascinating, but the basement was far more important. It opened possibilities, tangible ones, maybe things they could use.

Everyone pushed back carefully in their chairs, wondering if this new move would set off the bees. But the insects stayed where they were in the window. Evidently, their orders were singular. Don’t let the members of Slayer leave the premises through its only exit. Paul bent to pick up the figurine that had broken in three pieces on the floor, a black and white crybaby clown with a long frilly shirt, striped bloomers, and a cone shaped party hat.

“Maybe I can look through some of your school supplies and find some Elmers,” he said. “Wouldn’t want to leave this one broken knowing how much Connor loves clowns.”

At that, Joey laughed, and was so consumed that it seemed he had trouble stopping. Significant? Maybe. Everything was relevant, but the basement was just more important right now.

Yep, there’s a Repentless comic book to check out!


#

Nevertheless, it was disheartening. The door came up easily enough using the crank shaft, the wonders of elementary physics and all that, but the cellar-space, spanning the entire expanse of the lodge, was basically useless in terms of its contents. The floor was covered with a gray utility carpet, and besides a water boiler, a heater, and a sink with an attached sump pump, the rest of the perimeter was loaded with racking units and cabinets filled with brick-a-brack that didn’t help their cause. There were boxes of Christmas ornaments, piles of stiff folded ground cloths, shelves of paint and varnish, a wet vac, bird feeder kits, canvas lawn chairs, cardboard boxes with papers, a set of board games, a folded-up treadmill standing on end, an old busted crock pot. Going through everything was tedious and exhausting, and it took the utmost patience to humor this ghost by admiring the humongous cubby set-up crammed with his school supplies. It seemed he had led them here for a reason, but it was lost on them. What could they do with all these packages of balloons, spare newspapers, cardboard, watercolors, crayons, and construction paper? The most “aggressive” thing they could find were a few pairs of children’s safety scissors with the blunted ends. They’d been hoping for some kind of fogger or fumigation machine you could shoot insecticide with, but there just wasn’t anything here. They were making a second, half-hearted sweep, when Joey’s voice echoed about the space.

“Sit down,” he said.

They sat. The hour had passed, and it was time for all of them to watch Connor do a “bad thing” through the eyes of this strange, youthful spirit. Tom was thankful the boy wasn’t making them form a circle and hold hands, but his sense of dark humor was short-lived.

“Snake Eyes, Slayer Style,” Joey chanted in monotone, and the basement all around the band vanished.

#

Joey’s eyes opened for Slayer, and they were in Connor Hoffman’s mind, and he was smack in the middle of downtown Philadelphia. He wasn’t looking at a street sign, but from his thoughts the band knew he was on “Broad Street,” just north of “Locust.” The irony of that was not lost on anyone, and Connor walked up the street, musing excitedly to himself, “This is my coming out party. My coming of age.”

He stepped along the sidewalk, and a gentle wind was making the successive light pole banners boasting “Figaro” and the “Fighting Aids” ribbons ripple like the sails of small, hearty schooners. The sky above was a pale blue canopy, and people were bustling around, most of them looking determined to get somewhere. Connor passed a construction site to the right, and a fire truck moved off behind a double decker tour bus, yielding a sudden, clear view straight up Broad Street.

Ahead was City Hall in the middle of the thoroughfare three blocks north, a remarkably elaborate structure, fortress-like in a Victorian French Renaissance sort of a way with turreted courtyard stair towers and monumental arched portals. From its center rose the mammoth white clock tower, forty stories high and adorned with William Penn’s statue above the observation deck, all of it centered between the frame of buildings leading up to it in what appeared to be some grand, imperial corridor.

Suddenly, there were vibrations, and it wasn’t the subway rumbling by underground.

It wasn’t just the band who noticed. Connor looked around, back toward the University of the Arts, and a street drummer in a threadbare army jacket who’d been playing hard on a collection of plastic buckets by the entrance, stopped what he was doing and gazed all around like he was trying to figure out which way the wind was blowing. A few feet away in front of the Wawa, a woman in a trench coat and high leather boots lowered the cell phone she’d been gazing at and came to a halt.

Connor looked back up along Broad Street. Many had stopped walking. A few that had been riding ten speeds had braked and planted one foot to the street with the other up on a pedal, looking around, removing sunglasses and ear buds, one dude taking off his helmet and was resting it on his hip. It was as if the world had paused, and people were looking out yonder, toward what would seem the direction of the trembling.

There was a sound now, born of the vibrations, swelling like a siren from a distance with no tangible pitch or recognizable tone, like a stockpile of old television sets tuned to the same empty channel blasting high pitched static and snow.

People were squinting, some covering their ears, and then they were pointing.

Behind the City Hall clock tower the sky was darkening. It was a cloud swirling high behind the structure, then taking a rolling pitch downward, and the stunning visual somehow “humanized” the monolith, making it look like it had a massive scarf being whipped off its neck in slow motion, the black cloud fluid and saurian, nearly as wide as the city block it consumed.

The scene went dark, as Joey apparently closed shut his eyes, but they opened promptly, as if he’d gotten a quick burst of courage.

Out front, Broad Street had darkened, the black cloud coming on in waves that churned and swirled into each other in barrel rolls, sounding like a million stadium airhorns ramped three octaves up, making the air pulsate and quiver while the concrete buzzed underfoot.

People were running. Horns. Brakes screeching. Up at Chestnut Street the assailed looked like tiny stick figures falling down, running into traffic. A block closer at Walnut Street they looked like toy soldier-dolls, flashes of color, streaks and dashes quickly overwhelmed by the storm like scrap sifted into a factory vat of black grain, and then in the space before Locust Street the hurricane consumed every living and moving thing on the pavement with the sole exception of Connor Hoffman.

The sound was incredible, and through what looked like the dust storm of the century, the band saw cars crashing into each other, people pushing ahead in panic with their hands splayed out in front of them, others rolling in the streets, taking on dark and shimmering contours of likeness, becoming their own doppelgangers wearing masks of expressionless frenzy.

A big vehicle that looked like an army truck plowed down a “No Parking” sign and smashed through a news stand in a burst of debris. The insects that had been covering everything short of the tires flew off in a wave revealing that it was an ambulance. People were running for cover into the parking garage under The Sporting Club at the Bellevue, waving, swatting, pulling shirts over their heads, trampling over the fallen. A blonde with a perky ponytail, a loose-fitting tank top, and shapely black leggings got consumed and ran into the waist-high railing in front of the basement entrance of the “Tavern on Broad.” A shrouded SUV hit her head-on, sawed her in half, and sent her upper body skidding back down the stairwell. A tall balding dude in a purple dress shirt, slim jeans, and brown pointed shoes ran up the sidewalk flapping his arms and bobbing his head like an ostrich, only to be hit dead-on by a taxi that drove him straight back into the Plexiglas of the bus stop shelter in front of the PNC Bank building. More crashes, more horns and screaming. There was a throaty whoosh, and a gushing that sounded like a fire hydrant ripped up from the concrete.

Connor turned back to look at the Southwest corner across Broad Street. A fire-red pickup truck with Yosemite Sam mud flaps was wrapped around the sign pole which was bent almost in double. The white van that appeared to have swerved to avoid rear-ending him had jumped the curb and rammed over what looked like a pair of heavy aggregate trash receptacles that had the undercarriage propped off the ground now, front tires still spinning. The worker on the passenger side had been thrust out through the window and was hanging down over the rim like laundry, green fisherman’s cap lying on the sidewalk below him and both arms covered with wasps like he was wearing long and glistening evening gloves. There were at least twenty infested figures writhing on the sidewalk there, clawing at their faces. Others were in the street quivering or just lying still. A man was flat on his stomach like a chalk line sketch in the middle of the intersection, head smashed flat to the asphalt in reddish-gray gel molded down by the tire marks running through it.

The mass of insects moved on, it was that quick, though some were still swarming the air in hovering clouds, others skittering over the corpses, a bunch of them clustered on the gas lamps on the façade of The Kimmel Center and hanging down off of them like long furry beards. There were sounds of aftermath, none of them human, something made of steel clunking to the street, a faint hissing, glass tinkling.

The scene faded.

The members of Slayer were sitting on the floor of the basement. Numbly, they pushed to their feet, walked to the stairs, made their way to the kitchen. Paul turned on the television. No, it wasn’t a Smart TV, but there would be news.

Channel Six was on the scene already, showing the aftermath. This was real.

The band had a short conversation, and there were no two ways about it. If Connor Hoffman came back here, they had to take him down, most probably at the expense of their lives.

And if he didn’t come back?

Talk about irony. They’d have to do it at the start of their show in New Hampshire. In front of their fans. And Connor Hoffman would go down with a Dean From Hell strapped across his shoulder, a poor yet effectively haunting parody of his better.

But in a very real sense, the worst part was knowing that they were all going to die. Miserably. With ten days to think about it.

Or…maybe not.

Kerry was onto something, working it in his mind, you could see it. He turned off the television.

“I keep thinking,” he said carefully, “about the way Joey laughed at the idea that Connor loves clowns.” He picked up a piece of the statuette Paul had left on the bar and looked at it thoughtfully. “I think Connor says opposite because he’s scared shitless,” he continued, “like a life-long phobia, and I’ll bet his mother filled the house with these statues because she was trying some modern psychiatric bullshit, probably some psycho-babble she read in one of those self-help books, trying to normalize the sight of them, getting him used to it, but it never really worked, driving him nuts just under the surface.”

Gary nodded cautiously.

“Pretty big theory,” he said. “How’s that going to help us?”

Kerry paused a minute, gazing at the broken statuette like it was the Jewel of the Nile.

“C’mon,” he said. “Back down to the basement. I think there’s something we missed, something hidden, something important.”

“Like what?”

“I don’t know. But I know we’ll know when we find it.”

Ten minutes later, after they all searched high and low for something most probably there in plain sight, Tom moved aside a couple of lightweight clothes wardrobes on wheels at the far end of the space. He stepped behind them and bent down to lift up a corner of the cotton white masking fabric that ran floor to ceiling, spanning the entire front wall of the lodge. It had clearly been put up to cover the ugly horizontal piping, yet lined in a neat row underneath it, there was a bunch of stuffed Hefty bags, twelve of them, the big leaf and garden type.

“Guys,” Tom called back over his shoulder. “I think I just found Joey’s collection.” He nudged one of the bags with his foot, and the band walked up to gather behind him.

“What gives,” Gary said. Tom put his hands in his pockets, still staring at the trash bags.

“I think I know what Joey wants us to do,” he said. “And if we’re going to pull this off, we’ve got to get busy.”

“With what,” Kerry said.

Tom turned to look at him impassively.

“Arts and crafts,” he said. “Paper Mache to be more specific.”

Watch Slayer’s “South Of Heaven” video here and pray they get out alive!


#

Slayer took their positions on stage at The Bank of New Hampshire Pavilion, and they’d never been so nervous before a performance. Anthrax and Lamb of God had rocked the living shit out of this place, but the crowd wasn’t worn down in the least. They were amped, fists in the air, splitting the explosively hot night with their screams and their war-calls, all the service bars and lounge space in the tented areas emptied - the Coca Cola Courtyard, On the Yup!, and the MB Tractor Midway - all drained to mere stragglers, with every seat filled under the pavilion roof and all the space loaded to the gills beyond in the lawn sections.

It was 10:17 PM, full dark, and that was fortunate. The open-air “park” effect in full daylight would have killed their plan before even starting, and even here with prime conditions, the ploy was a desperate pipe dream.

They’d had ten days to prepare in the lodge, and they’d needed them all, spending hours upon hours in the basement, kneeling on that hard, fucking rug, working the newspaper strips through the flour and water mixes they kept refilling in the glass Pyrex bowls. The size of each parcel depended solely on the length and width of the given balloon, so getting enough together to finally form a collective “whole” was like trying to build a sandcastle one grain at a time with a pair of tweezers.

They also endured a lot of false starts. It took a number of tries before realizing that tearing the newspaper made it stick better than cutting it, that the strips came out too lumpy if you didn’t smooth each through your index and middle fingers, that coating the balloons with Crisco made it easier to pull them out after the shells dried.

Finally, they’d made eleven rough larger sections, but when they laid them out they looked cockeyed and lame. Three had to be done over, and by the time they spread them out across the floor, satisfied, they had seven days left before show time. The painting took two days, because they all had to do different parts, making them match, working as carefully as possible so they didn’t have to start over. By the time they had everything completed, ready and dried, covered with ground cloths, they had to go up and figure out the best song for Connor Hoffman’s walk-on music.

The bastard had insisted on something that worked as background to a wailing lead, something with an elongated introduction before the speed-riff, and it sickened them that this old fashioned, ham-handed sort of kick-off basically trashed the massive opening they’d been unleashing with spectacular stage craft and pyrotechnics. Of course, they had plenty in the canon for Connor Hoffman’s “canned-pitch” hello to the world, but it wasn’t introductions, speed riffs, or even the quality or potency of the live prologue that they could afford to go dwelling upon. They needed a song that had those good, old fashioned power chords following the long introduction. Old school, scary power chords, like the “stingers” John Carpenter used in Halloween, fitting Connor Hoffman’s proposed purpose and their hidden one.

Wasn’t hard to decide on, and they practiced it all day, making it perfect. And the next. And the next. There was lag time between, but they didn’t record new material. Instead, they practiced the set. Like a memorial, because either way, they weren’t going to get a chance to play it. They had Connor Hoffman to thank for that, and a proper thanks he would get.

If things fell in place.

And they got lucky.

When there had been two days to go until the pick-up at the lodge, they’d undergone the wearisome task of unplugging and unscrewing everything, and moving a lot of it down to the basement. Many times, they looked cautiously up at the broken porch window, but as they’d surmised earlier, the bees and hornets had a singular purpose. They weren’t to let them leave until the U-Hauls showed up. If Connor had broken his vow and come back suddenly, they would have been fucked, but he didn’t, and maybe the band was getting a bit of a nod from Lady Luck after all.

When the crew showed up on the 25th with the mini-U-Hauls, there were bro-hugs and handshakes, broad smiles and claps on the back, and when the guys in the band insisted that they themselves had to bring out the “gear” covered in drop cloths, no one questioned it. No one in the crew even mentioned the busted-out porch window; rock and roll, right? The insects had retreated to the woods, and from that vantage point, the little beasts couldn’t tell what was an amp with a black vinyl cover or otherwise. All as planned…thank Heaven or Hell, God or goodness, whatever the fuck you believed.

They’d gone right to the gig a day early. They’d unloaded what they needed and cleared out the back stage green room; management gave it the OK, anything for Slayer. Lucky again, it was spacious, and when they put together their masterpiece, they were even luckier when it fit through the door without breaking. They suspended it on a wire above the stage, spent half an hour adjusting the angle and stopping point, re-set it, shrouded it in black curtains, and put in a call to sound and lighting.

Done.

Now it just came down to the timing.

And here they were, on the unlit stage, with the crowd stewing in anticipation in front of them, a swarm themselves, oddly mirrored by the plague of hornets and killer bees bristling above them, infesting the entire underside of the pavilion roof.

When exactly was Connor planning to rain down his storm of insectile pestilence on the unsuspecting crowd just beneath and beyond in the grass? After the opener? The last encore?

Tom, Gary, Kerry, and Paul were hoping they’d figured a way to stop this before the first verse. All four were sweating in the stifling heat, hearts pounding. The plan was crazy. Like Connor. But it had to work. After all, they were betting everyone’s lives on it.

Stage right in the wings, the thin beam of a small tactical flashlight came up, and Connor Hoffman was there in the dim glow of it, talking to their stage manager, discussing his walk-on. He was being told that the follow-spot would pick him up the moment he crossed the curtain line, and he could use the residual light to find his mark, the “X” made of reflective silver duct tape twenty feet in, giving him the entire right side of the stage to himself. Tom was at front and center. Kerry was way off stage left, and Gary was up on the drum riser.

In the wings, the head techie flashed the M20 with the red filter.

Go time.

Tom stepped up to the microphone in the dark.

“I want to thank everyone very much for coming tonight,” he said. The crowd cheered back lustily, and his voice met their volume with a hard-edged battle-call.

“Are we gonna have some fucking fun here, or what?”

The audience exploded. Kerry started finger-picking the beginning to “South of Heaven,” and the place went berserk, absolute frenzy.

“Please welcome,” Tom shouted, “the badest-ass motherfucker of the century…the newest member of Slayer, Connor Hoffman!”

The roar was biblical. Whether this was appreciation, surprise, or raw jealousy wasn’t clear, but as was always the universal equalizer, volume was volume, and Connor walked out into the spotlight riding the wave. He had on a black Slayer tee shirt, ripped jeans, and engineer’s boots, no headband or ponytail, lots of Livestrong bracelets and thin leather necklaces, fine blonde hair looking fire-white in the spotlight. He started playing his lead, killer balls and body to it, and for a moment, Tom had a pang of regret. The kid sounded good, and he was playing it for everything it was worth, every bend, every squeal, every physicality he’d worked on to accent each note, most probably built upon and revised over the course of years, like ritual, in the living room, the garage, in his room in front of a mirror, growing up playing along with his favorite Slayer songs, dreaming of what this night could be like.

Connor had moved to the very front of the stage and had his foot planted on a monitor, guitar up on his thigh, neck vertical, and he was working a thirteen note sweep that was daring and brilliant. Up on the riser, Gary had been providing the high accents, and now instead of picking them, he was doing what they had practiced, switching to hammer-ons so he could free his right hand.

To reach out and undo the slip knot holding together the black masking curtains. To unveil their creation from the basement.

Something was wrong. He couldn’t get the knot out. Amazingly, he was still hitting his notes in time, but he was clearly struggling with the tie-cord up there, making the whole thing bob and sway, and Tom thought for sure the delicate structure they had so meticulously put together one balloon and Paper Mache shell at a time was about to fracture.

Connor had just flicked off the G string, dumped the bar, and tapped a harmonic, catching it perfectly, making it squeal. The crowd responded, half for the guitar acrobatics, and half for the spectacle going on behind him stage-right on the drum riser. Gary was at the point of yanking at the cord, and Connor had brought the guitar neck down to horizontal, pulling his version of the two-handed fake echo technique, sliding his fingers up and down the fretboard nailing the octaves, and Gary hit a strange note, and Connor noticed, and Gary ripped that fucking cord right out of the fabric as Connor started to turn.

The black curtains fell away revealing the gigantic figure they had created, dangling on a wire, and Gary gave it a shove, sending it down the zip line they’d fastened to the overhead lighting rack.

It was a massive circus creature, eighteen feet high, six feet taller than the Coop’s “FrankenAlice” stage puppet, and ten times more gruesome…all the small shell-pieces coming together like pointillism, with the outlines and strips of dried newspaper giving it a ghastly, veiny look. The head was a bright white skull with hair made out the bristles of corn brooms, painted bright orange and jutting out on each side like wings. The eyebrows were long upside down “U” shapes painted in electric blue, and the eyes were filled-in jet black with exaggerated lashes, white pinpoints for pupils. The bulb nose had red rubber spikes on it like a spiny-ball dog toy. There were black oil drop tears on the cheeks, and the mouth was a fierce red upside-down triangle, rounded edges, grinning like it hurt, covering the chin and stretching almost all the way up to the temples. Skeleton teeth were scratched into the red paint to give the effect it was laughing maniacally through them, and its gargantuan body was clad in what appeared to be a silver jumpsuit with a neon-green neck ruffle collar, oversized buttons shaped like captain’s wheels, and jumbo polka dot clown shoes.

Just as Connor turned full around, the thing hit its stopping point, five feet away, jerking and swaying, with the band hitting that critical power chord right at the strike point. Three spotlights blazed down, and Connor Hoffman’s expression was one of absolute terror, not a “thinking” fear, but a visceral one, mask-like, exaggerated, as if he’d become the “tragedy” side of the happy-sad drama faces.

He popped off the strap, and took his guitar by the neck, rearing back and swinging it hard, like he’d probably done in his kitchen with that Louisville Slugger, and when he made contact, confetti exploded from the clown like an oversized party favor, or rather, a piñata, and like slapping someone forehand and backhand, Connor swung for his life, for the fences, bashing the chest, the arms, both legs, the humongous Paper Mache carcass jumping and swinging on the hook and bursting confetti all over the stage, dark confetti, sticking to Connor’s sweaty face and bare arms.

But it wasn’t confetti. The members of Slayer had filled each small shell with the contents of Joey’s collection, that which he’d been hoarding in trash bags for what must have been years, starting when he figured out his brother’s true prodigal talent. Hell, Joey probably tried to tell him a million times that he knew why he could count leaves, but Connor never listened, never took the time to look at his kid-brother’s enormous collection of dead bugs, the kind of reverent testament only a small boy would think of.

From the underside of the pavilion roof came an immediate swarm, the gargantuan colony of wasps and killer bees sweeping down to the edge of the stage, blocking the crowd-view, a black nebula, a storm-cloud, wavering there.

They were making a determination it seemed, focusing on their own dead brothers and sisters, aunts and uncles, the children and elderly that were sticking to Connor Hoffman’s skin and piled in mounds and drifts at his feet.

There was a sudden high-pitched drone, as if a decision had been made, and before the colony took him down, the band could have sworn they heard them say in clear English, one word they had, in fact, learned, spoken like military judgment with the whine of their wings.

“Murderer.”

Then echoing about the space like an out-tro or that last movie shot that left you breathless and drained, was the voice of young Joey Hoffman, welcoming his brother to the other side, saying,

“I kept my eyes open for you, Connor! I kept them open the whole time! Ain’t you proud of me? Ain’t you proud?” Ain’t you…”

The MUSIC HELL Series & Future Stories:

- Coming soon.... Volume 5 featuring Halestorm
06. Novelette 2: “The Buzz Killer” featuring Slayer
05. Volume 4: “Blood Lust and Skin Hunger” featuring Carpenter Brut
04. Novelette 1: “The Shadows of the Asylum” featuring Anthrax
03. Volume 3: "The Ghost of the Hot Checkered Flag Girl" featuring Asking Alexandria
02. Volume 2: "The Hiss of the Eliminator" featuring Electric Wizard
01. Volume 1: "The Sculptor" featuring Trivium

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