As Christmas Eve approaches, I’m republishing here a tale from last year about distance running, monsters, debt, and self-sacrifice. For those of you who run around New Hampshire and think there’s something familiar about the leader of the little club of marathon-running supernatural detectives who meet at McGill’s, perhaps he was an inspired creation. Merry Christmas!
Jerome and Treadmill: A Modern Victorian Yuletide Horror
By Ernesto Burden
We all turned around when Jerome came banging into McGill’s; he threw the old wooden doors open, setting the bell ringing wildly and the evergreen wreath with its broad red bow flapping; his face was gaunt underneath a crust of sweat and rhime. A blast of cold air and a cloud of snowflakes rushed in on the wind before the door slammed shut behind him. We watched him lurch, stiff-legged to the bar and order. The bartender poured him a shot of bourbon and then pulled the tap to pour a pint of strong, dark beer. Jerome slipped his cap off, removed his thin, black gloves, drank the bourbon in a trembling swallow and then, with a somewhat steadier hand, picked up the pint glass and turned a craggy squint across the tavern. He spotted us instantly, at our usual table by the great stone fireplace, and limped across the room.
A storm was blowing through the millyard, howling up the river, and Jerome’s snug, day-go orange running jacket was mounded with snow on the shoulders. He shrugged out of it and threw it over the back of a chair into which he then eased his lean frame with a sigh. He rested his forearms on the scarred wooden table — which we’d speculated was centuries old, far older than the tavern itself; perhaps some of its gouges or chips had been applied by a long-ago wayfaring Colonial-era traveler — and breathed deeply.
“What-” Father Peter began but Jerome held up one finger to silence him. Then Jerome lifted the glass to his lips and drank deeply. When he set the pint glass down on the table it was half empty.
“Okay,” Jerome said. “That’s better. I think. I’ve slept a full day away and gotten my run in and now I’m here and can begin to think straight again after what happened last night.”
“You look terrible,” I said.
“So would you,” Jerome replied sharply, “if you’d seen what I have these past two nights.”
“Tell us,” Father Peter said gently. His in-the-confessional voice, we called it.
“Another bourbon,” Jerome said. “Which one of you men is going to jump up and get it for me? Then I’ll tell you everything.”
I rose and went to the bar. McGill’s had been serving drinks to the denizens of the Amoskeag millyard, on the banks of the broadly muscular Merrimack River, since sometime in the mid 1800s, and to look at him, the barman, Clancy Shaughnessy, might well have been employed there the whole of that time. Grizzled neck, bulging eyes, a bizarre shock of snow white hair that drifted around his head like a halo and decorated a gnarled, woody face from which issued a rattling baritone voice with a distinct gaelic lilt.
“Bourbon,” I said, “up.”
“Fer Jerome, then?” Clancy raised a fluffy white eyebrow toward the glass rack that hung above his head, festooned with garland and holly.
“Yeah,” I said. “He’s all shook up over something.”
“I don’t doubt it,” said Clancy. “It’s the solstice, you know. You don’t know what you’ll see out there. Festival of Alban Arthuan.”
I suppose I had known it, but hadn’t given it much thought. The longest night of the year typically passed in secular, technocratic America, with little but astronomical note, but here in the Amoskeag, it didn’t pay to ignore these special dates, especially those fraught for older nations with mystical portent.
Our little club, which gathered at the ancient table in the corner by the fire each week to talk about running and other, stranger matters, should have seen too much of that supernatural layer that lay beneath the stolid stones of the millyard to approach such a day in ignorance. Yet I for one had forgotten. And no one else had mentioned it as we awaited Jerome’s arrival.
“Of course,” I said. “I should have thought.”
“All caught up in Christmas,” Clancy snorted.
That, I mulled as I walked back to the table, was surely the case. My antiquarian bookshop, up on North Street, was never busier than in the weeks leading up to Christmas (though selling old books, in this digital era, makes busy a relative term). Good Father Peter fervently dedicated himself to inspiring in his parishioners at St. Gabriel the Archangel an awe and solemnity prior to Christmas that included extra masses, carol sings, candlelit rosaries, children’s pageants and massive penance services where more than twenty priests from around the diocese and beyond were brought in to hear confessions in the candlelit shadows of the old Gothic church while Gregorian chant rose solemnly to the high arches of the ceiling. That, I admit, was the service I took advantage of each year, for the opportunity to kneel in the comforting shadows and whisper a confession to priest I did not know and might never see again.
Present that night, beyond Father Peter and me, there was Dan Breton, a software engineer who had five children all younger than twelve years old, Toby Chesney, who taught music up at the state university and was in the midst of his winter revels programs, and Roland Archambault, who worked as a baker in the big Discount Club out on Willow Drive.
And of course Jerome Stanislaw, who was our de facto leader, a sharp spoken, choleric, instinctively skeptical collections attorney who was never as busy in all the year as he was during the holiday season. And though the business of collection of debt may seem to some Scrooge-like during the holiday season, Jerome was not shy to point out that the hard-working and trusting lenders of money, the payers of insurance claims for which another party should have been justly held accountable, are also children of the season and deserve a happy holiday as much or more than the various spendthrifts, deadbeats and insurance cheats upon whom he brought his special skills in collections and subrogation recovery to bear.
Two interests brought this motley and oddly diverse group of men together each week; the first a virtue taken to the excess and so become a vice, at least in the opinion of our wives – all of these men were marathon runners. Regular and disciplined attention to physical fitness is of course as much a foundation of moral gentleman’s life as a spiritual and philosophical practice, the pursuit of mental acuity and a hard work ethic. However, there’s a certain manic passion that infects the marathon runner, or at least a certain sort of marathon runner, that takes what might have begun as casual thrice-weekly fitness jogging regimen to extreme degrees of obsession, graphing mileage to mile splits, heart rate to VO2max improvements. For our group, running only fifty miles over the course of a six consecutive days was considered a resting week.
This habit in turn required all of us to don headlamps and reflective vests and trundle out into the night or predawn murk nearly daily, and it was this schedule, which took us all, often alone, through the darkest alleys of the old millyard at the strangest hours, that led to our second shared interest – the experience of and often direct confrontation with the supernatural.
It was this second sort of experience, a symptom of the habits of the first, that Jerome, after another drink of his strong beer, began to relate.
“I had a 14-miler on the schedule on Wednesday night,” he said, “being in the midst of this damn Pfitzinger plan.” There were numerous murmurs of assent around the table, the former Olympic marathoner Pfitzinger and his book of devilish training routines being well known to our group. “I had a court date up north in Conway, and then paperwork at the office when I returned, and so by the time Adele and I finished dinner and I got ready to run, it was nearly 9 o’clock. I don’t know if you all remember, but the wind was blowing hard by 9, and with the snow coming down like to bury a man in a minute, I nearly stayed home and ran on the treadmill.”
“Wouldn’t have blamed you if you did,” Father Peter said wryly. “No sin in that.”
“Ah, but I would have blamed myself, Father,” Jerome replied shaking his short cropped, gray haired head. “No self-respecting Granite State man dodges the weather. Who knows, after all, what the weather will be the day we climb the Hill?”
By the hill, of course, Jerome meant Heartbreak Hill, the third of the Boston Marathon’s notorious ascents. The weather in April in the state just to the south of ours was fickle, and we were as likely to be running in a snowstorm as we were to be sweltering in 90 degree heat. Jerome believed the more he suffered in training, the more likely he was to be prepared for whatever that great race threw at him.
“I took the first 7 miles out around river road and up toward the pond, on the old Amoskeag City Marathon course,” Jerome said, settling back into his chair and gazing up at the ceiling as if seeing again the route in his mind’s eye. It’s dark out there, that time of night, in the storm, there aren’t any cars to speak of.
“After I climbed the last hill and started dropping down toward the pond, a whim took me, or maybe it was just that I didn’t want to wade through the snow on the trails, and I cut into the north end.”
The north end was a sprawling hillside of densely packed grand old houses. We ran there often for the hills and the back streets where there was no traffic.
Clancy had come to the table and listened for a moment as Jerome spoke. When the barrister stopped for a breath, Clancy broke in.
“Can I get you gentlemen anything?”
“It’s a quiet night if we’re getting table service,” Toby noted.
“Aye,” Clancy said, and nothing else. He looked meaningfully at me. I thought, Alban Arthuan.
“We’ll take another round,” Father Peter said. “The IPA.”
“Good enough,” Clancy said.
Jerome watched him shuffle back to the bar and then resumed.
“I was looking at the Christmas lights, seems almost half the houses were decked out and every other had one of those inflatable Santa Clauses driving a train or some such thing, and woolgathering a bit, thinking about anything but court, I suppose, and I stopped paying attention to where I was going. After all, we’ve all run that section of town so often, I’d swear there isn’t a street we haven’t been down at least a dozen times. But even so, there are a lot of streets, as you men know. And I was shortly proved wrong.
“The snow came down harder, and I began to make turnings almost at random. My Garmin tells me how far I’ve gone, so I don’t need to be too specific about my route, especially on these beastly night runs. There were snowdrifts piling up in the road, and the wind was blowing, and I saw a single set of tire tracks in the bright circle of the beam cast by my headlamp, and it was already softening, filling in as the snow continued to fall.
“I was thinking about hills, and considering the idea that I haven’t run enough of them in this training cycle to be adequate to Boston, so I began running up every hill I encountered. Slipping and sliding, two steps forward, one back, hell of a workout. No real thought to direction. If there was a street come up on my left with a good steep climb, I ran up it. If next a hill loomed on my right, that’s the direction I turned. Pretty soon – and I don’t think you’re even going to believe this given how well we know these neighborhoods – I had no idea at all where I was.
“And the first thing I noticed after I realized I had no idea where I was was that the streetlamps were spaced a lot farther apart. And the decorations had changed.”
He lowered his chin to his chest and gazed at us gravely from under bushy black and gray eyebrows. Sipped his beer. Went on with the story.
“The decorations on the houses, row houses, now, and so I knew I was getting near the milyard, weren’t nearly so friendly looking as they had been a few miles before. There was something sinister about them, I’ll venture, something almost threatening.
“You know I’ve never been fond of red Christmas lights, and here the neighborhood seemed to be solely outfitted with them, a bloody, garish scene, murky in the driving snow. And here there’d be a snowman, crooked and out of proportion, coal eyes leering out from beneath the brim of a sinisterly twisted top hat, crooked branch arms seeming to reach toward the road with unpleasant purpose. The windows of the houses were dark, and the porches, outlined in their red lights, were canted as though near to collapse, the chimneys tilted against the snow-black sky.
“I’m not a superstitious man, nor am I prone to nervousness or hysterical impulses-”
Toby Chesney guffawed and then blushed. Jerome glared at him. “It’s just funny, that’s all,” Toby said, to think of you as either nervous or hysterical. Are komodo dragons nervous?”
“As I was saying,” Jerome continued, “I’m not prone to those sorts of emotions, but the hair on the back of my neck was raised up tall by this point. I looked at my watch and two things that caught my attention. The first was that the time had stopped at 10:12 p.m. The second? My mileage was going backwards. I know. I know.” He raised both hands placatingly to us. “Sounds ridiculous. But with each step I took the total accrued distance the Garmin was showing decreased.”
“Bad circuit?” I asked. “Maybe the electronics froze up?”
Jerome impaled me on a gaze of withering scorn.
“You men ever seen the time stop on a GPS watch while the miles start going backward? These things fail, they stop altogether. Or the screen goes blank. Or something. Not this.” He dropped his voice to a whisper and squinted. “Not like this.”
He shook his head and I shrugged. Nodded for him to continue. He looked from face to face gathered around that ancient wooden table and then continued in a voice so low we had to lean forward to hear him.
“I ran another block, thinking if I was coming into the millyard, I’d have to recognize where I was. I the saw the streetlights ahead were all dark. A few scattered red lights illuminated the fronts of the brick row houses on either side of the street, and the wind kept rising and falling, setting off an eerie wailing through the alleyways.
“That’s when I saw the little boy. He couldn’t have been more than eight or nine years old, in ragged pants and worn looking leather shoes. You could see his bare ankles, white as a fish belly, in the gap between his pants and the tops of those shoes. He had on a sooty white shirt, suspenders and a light brown jacket completely unsuited to the weather, with sleeves so short his long pale wrists dangled from them. He was wearing a dark brown flat cap, the kind that people call a cheese cutter, and standing stock still in the middle of the street and staring at me as I ran toward him.
“I blinked, because I could have sworn he hadn’t been there the minute before. But it was hard to tell in that dark, with the snow swirling and streetlights out. I was gripped at that moment by a most unnatural fear, and although it pains me to admit it, I’ve never wanted so much to turn tail and run the other way as I did in that moment. But run from what? A skinny, shivering kid in a snowy street?
“I ran on toward the boy and when I came up to him he raised his hand and called out in a thin, high voice that made my spine itch.”
“‘Please,’ he said. ‘Please, sir, my mother is … not well. I’m afraid. She needs you.’
“I stopped before him and asked, ‘Where is she, son, and what’s the matter with her?’ The boy shook his head and there was a tear glistening in his eye, which in the dark seemed black against his the pallid cheek.
“‘I don’t know what’s the matter with her,’ he said. ‘But I’m afraid, sir.’
“‘All right, then,’ I told him, ‘lead on and I’ll see what I can do.’
“The boy turned then and began to run and I tell you, though I intend to run Boston this spring in less than two hours and forty five minutes – and for the 15th or 16th time, if you’ll indulge me the lack of humility – I could barely keep up with him. We ran for five minutes and I was gasping for breath; we might have covered a mile in that time, and though I may be exaggerating, mark me, it’s not by much. We turned this way and that and the mills rose like dark canyon walls around us and I heard the roar of the river, but I still had no good sense of where in the millyard or even the city we were. I was astonished that there could be so many neighborhoods I’ve never run through.”
“It was not the where,” Father Peter said softly in dawning comprehension. “It was the when that confused you.”
Jerome raised and eyebrow and nodded. “In due time, padre,” he said.
“The boy stopped before the crumbling steps of a row house tenement and gestured for me to come after him up to the door, which he pushed open and vanished into the black void of an unlit hallway beyond the threshold. I paused for a moment, steeling myself again as I felt my courage founder, and then went forward. Into the darkness.”
“Why in heaven’s name did you do that?” demanded Roland, but Dan, who must have been thinking of his own five dear little ones laid a hand upon Roland’s arm and said, “There was a child to think of.”
“There are debts,” said Jerome, who by his trade knew something of the matter of the binding nature of promises, “that we repay not to the one we owe them to, but to his representatives, where we find them.”
It was odd but somehow not surprising to hear Jerome, who affected a demeanor as skeptical, cynical and existential as any man I’ve ever yet, speak in such a way. Scratch the surface and was a Frank Capra-brand sentimentalist.
“The hallway was as black as pitch and there was a dank coldness in there, and underneath a smell of mildew, mold and rotten things. As my eyes adjusted I could just make out the form of the boy ahead of me, the little back, which had seemed straight as I ran behind him, now appeared hunched and crooked, like you’d imagine a little troll or gremlin. I told myself that my eyes were playing tricks, but I didn’t feel convinced. The streets had changed, now the boy had changed. Whatever was coming next would not need to change, I thought. I’d see it in its true form right from the start.
“We came around a corner and a doorway stood at the end of the hallway, outlined by the green witchlight which shone from beneath it and all around the sill. The boy, silhouetted in that light, no longer looked much like a boy at all, but the shadow of some creature not found in any natural history book. Except it triggered some memory – of a passage I’d read once about the life of the child laborers in the Victorian era, how the days in the factory, the long hours in a fixed position with no exercise, warped the spine, which bulges laterally beneath the weight of the head, twisting the pelvis, bowing the legs. That is the creature whose shadow I saw before me.
“‘Mother,’ said the boy’s voice, now hoarse, brittle, croaking and frothing and yet also drenched in terror and sorrow, ‘is in here. She needs you.’ He flung the door open and for a moment I saw the inside of the room and its horrible occupant rushing forward toward the doorway.
“The room was squalid, a splintered table, a single chair, sagging, sodden mattress upon the floor, a tiny coal stove, cold and dark. The light came from the creature the boy called mother, the massive, pale, mottled flesh of which fluoresced with a vile greenish light. She was at least seven feet tall, morbidly obese and naked, so much as it was possible to tell, and in places the skin was peeled away from the frame to reveal dark, wetly glistening fat beneath, and where that was torn, blackish red muscle and pale white bone. Her eyes bulged and her maw gaped hungrily and her outstretched hands ended in something closer to talons than fingers. The floor beneath us seemed to shudder at her elephantine tread.
“I turned, then, my friends, and I’m not ashamed to say, I ran. I ran my ass off.”
“Good heavens,” said Father Peter. “What that race must have felt like.”
“I told you how quickly the boy had run, and his dam was of the same make, but thankfully obstructed by her girth as she passed along the hallway and through the door behind me. I heard splintering wood as I leaped down the steps.
“You know, men, how your legs feel after a longish run in the midst of a longish week of training, that leadenness that defies all desire to sprint. Well that had vanished I sprinted. I ran 400 meter pace for 800 meters and when my arms and legs should have been turning to stone as the lactic acid built up, I kept running. I forced myself to control my speed, found a rhythm in my half marathon pace and kept on going . And behind me, I heard that loathsome tread, closer and closer until at last it was not coming closer, just keeping pace. My breath was ragged and raging and my heart struggled in my chest like it would explode. My legs were numb. My shoulders were knots. I ran without any purpose or direction except one – away. Away from those footsteps behind me.
“Sometime, what felt like a hundred years later, I saw streetlamps again, and blinking white Christmas lights, and realized I could no longer hear the footsteps behind me. I stopped running then and doubled over in the street, my hands on my knees, trying to find my breath.
“At last I stood, and I recognized the neighborhood. I walked for a few minutes while I recovered. Then I jogged home. But I didn’t go to sleep. I started to put my gear together, because I knew I wasn’t done with that boy and his loathsome guardian. I had to go back.”
“Go back?” demanded Roland, blue eyes ablaze with anger. “Go back? When? Last night? You went back there alone, last night?”
“I did,” Jerome said, letting his gaze roam slowly around the table to meet each of our eyes. “I had to.”
“Of course,” I said. “Last night was the solstice. Whatever spirit was abroad last night would be even stronger. And if that little boy is the lure, then that creature you found in the rowhouses was the anglerfish. And she would fish again!”
“Just so,” Jerome said. “And I could not, in good conscience, let someone else fall into her trap, knowing as I do, methods that might be employed in stopping her.”
“Knowing as we all do,” Roland barked, emphasizing the word all. “Why would you do a damn fool thing like going alone when we could have helped you?”
Jerome held up his hand. “Men, I have never doubted your hearts, your intellects or your abilities when it comes to investigating and dispatching the most savage supernatural enemies. However, you’ll recall how, in my tale, I was forced to run at the end. I ran the race of my life, for my life, and only just succeeded in escaping the creatures clutches. I knew that if the ritual failed, I would need to run that race again. And as much as I respect your talents on road and track, not one of you has ever cracked 2:55 in the marathon or 17:30 in a 5K. I would have been perhaps improving my odds of escape by putting you in mortal danger. You remember the old joke about not being able to outrun a bear? Punchline is, I don’t have to outrun the bear, I just have to outrun you.
“I knew that if I told you what I was up to, you’d insist on coming, would not ever consent to letting me go alone. Given the great courage and loyalty I knew each of you would demonstrate, my only choice was to keep you out of the picture entirely. Until the work was done.”
The table was silent a moment as each man considered his most recent personal bests.
“Brave and foolish,” said Toby at last.
“Yet not a fatally foolish,” said Father Peter, “apparently.”
Roland stood then, and looked from man to man then back to Jerome. “You don’t know what the hell you’re talking about,” he said and slammed his mug down on the table. “That’s not brave or foolish. Just goddamned arrogant.”
“Roland,” Father Peter said gently.
“To hell with it,” said Roland. Then quietly, to Jerome, “To hell with you. I’m taking up cycling.” And he yanked his coat from the back of his chair and stormed from the bar.
“He’ll be back,” Toby said. “He hates cycling. And he can’t swim for a damn.”
Jerome smiled a dry, almost-humorless smile, but there was something of his old merriment in his eye. When he spoke next, his voice had regained that compelling storytelling cadence that he employed in the courtroom and the judge’s chambers to hold his listeners fixated while he extracted from them whatever agreement he had in mind.
“You recall how last year we worked together to design a portable, man-packable extremely rapid-setup version of Carnacki’s old electric pentacle, replaced the vacuum tubes and whatnot with fiberoptics and LEDs and rebuilt the frame with the ultra-lightweight thermoplastic resins we obtained from high-end fly rod blanks to snap it into its full pentacle shape with a flick of the wrist?”
We all nodded. Carnacki was an Edwardian-era paranormal investigator who’d been one of the first to successfully mix science with more time-honored ritual. I’d sourced Carnacki’s ghost-hunting methods using the obscure volumes in my bookshop, and his electric pentacle was a perfect example of how science could support and amplify an existing mystical method. I had not found this odd – after all science springs from the same ontological seeds as all else in the universe – there is no reason it should not coexist with and affect and be affected by the supernatural.
“I packed this, along with the normal kit, and at last fell into a fitful sleep. In the morning I canceled several appointments so I could review the steps of the ritual until I was entirely refreshed on it and would not need to refer to the documents in order to perform the appropriate steps or speak the words.
“After that I downloaded the data from my Garmin watch and analyzed and mapped it. The waypoints were clear all the way up until the time it had started running backward, and I presumed that would be enough. I’d be able to follow the same odd, rambling course I’d run the night before, right up until when things went strange. If there was some way in which the pattern I’d drawn through the streets had caused the boy to find me, or for me to slip through time and into that strange neighborhood, I would insure I replicated it at least that far. At that point, I suspected the path would find me, rather than the other way around.
“And so prepared, I napped through the late afternoon, then rose and ate an early supper, and as both darkness and snow began to fall, I set out for my run.
“I followed the same path as before, careful to run at the same pace. It was uncanny how, in the falling snow, the night seemed a duplicate of the one before – all except for the pack I was wearing in which I had stowed my gear.
“I noticed the change in lights first, then glanced down at the Garmin. It had, just as on the prior night, begun to run backward. Men, I was suddenly deeply, terribly afraid. That creature’s monstrous visage was indelible in my mind’s eye. I shuddered as I ran, and in the baleful glow of the red Christmas lights on the otherwise dark rowhouses, I sensed again uncanny eyes upon me.
“Then I saw the boy. He showed no recognition upon seeing me. Merely repeated the same formula he’d spoken the night before.
“‘Please,’ he said. ‘Please, sir, my mother is … not well. I’m afraid. She needs you.’
“I stopped before him and nodded. ‘Lead on.”
“‘I don’t know what’s the matter with her,’ he said. ‘But I’m afraid, sir.’ I nodded again. He knew only these lines, or perhaps, if time is as strange as I sometimes think it is, could say only these words because they were the words he’d said then, now and always, in a united past, present and future. What, men, would time seem to be to us if we were outside it, observing but unbound by it? Each moment might be eternal, a loop.
“My heart broke then, men, because as I saw those narrow shoulders begin to disappear into the snow, I imaged what eternity would be like for a little soul like that, trapped in a matrix of fear, horror. He might have been twisted by the experience, but I was sure he’d once been human. The creature masquerading as his mother? That I doubted. There are places and times when the fabric between worlds is stretched too thin. Yule time is one. A mill in which children are forced to labor until their bodies are twisted and their young lives drained from them is another. Where the fabric is thin, things slip through. And they make use of us, these creatures, as food, as playthings, often both at once. Because what to them is more delicious than our fear and sorrow?
“I followed him through the doorway into the darkened hall just as I had the night before. But something was different this time. There was an air of anticipation, of evil glee, of biding. As though I’d just stepped into an open mouth and its owner was just pausing before snapping her jaws shut on me. The green light that had been leaking out from behind the door at the end of the hall was absent. All was silent.
“The boy turned and looked at me. Again his body had gone through its terrible transformation, and he was hunched and misshapen. And then he said something that I knew wasn’t part of his script.
“‘Help me,’ he whispered. And those sunken eyes gleamed with tears from the hollows of gaunt, ash-white cheeks, and I knew here in this place time was fluid again. Things could change, the script could be rewritten. I was in terrible danger.
“I reached into my bag and, grabbed the small bundle of poles and loosed that catch that bound them together to allow the electric pentacle to unfold itself and prepared to throw it down upon the floor, even as a hideous voice rasped behind me and the dark hallway flared with sickly green light.
“‘Huuuuuman,’ it groaned. There was nothing womanish about the sound, or human even. The voice oozed with the inky ichor of the demonic realms. It raised the goose flesh on my arms and the hair on the back of my neck stood up.
“The creature had placed itself between me and the exit. I whirled and cast the pentacle upon the floor. The device sprang open into its full dimensions, fiber optic lights glowing in the shape of a star enclosed in a radiant blue-white circle, and as the demon lunged forward, corpulent arms outstretched, talons grasping, I too stepped forward, into the pentacle.
“It was as though she’d smashed into a brick wall. At the perimeter of the pentacle she staggered back, stunned. Then the misshapen face reworked itself into a leering smile.
“’Human,’ she giggled, a horrid almost girlish laugh. ‘Clever human. You knew Carnacki?’ She frowned. ‘No, wrong time, wrong space.'”
“Now it was my turn to laugh, which I did, though it was a dry laugh as all my spit had evaporated. ‘Reading, demon’ I said. ‘Fundamental.’
“‘You know the lore?’ it wheezed. When I nodded I thought the temperature in the room dropped another 15 degrees as the thing summoned its full powers.
“‘You can banish me,’ the demon said. ‘But you will doom him in the process.’ She pointed with a long, black talon at the boy, twisted, huddled against the hallway’s wall. ‘I must release him or he will be with me. Forever.’”
“It was clear to me the creature wanted to bargain, nevertheless, its hard to overstate the shock I felt upon hearing the proposed terms.
“‘We have looked into your soul,’ the hellspawn sneered. ‘We find it lacking.’
“I snorted. ‘Big surprise,’ I said. ‘You might as well get in line. My wife beat you to the punch years ago on that one.'”
“‘You jest,’ the creature said, sidling around the outside of the pentacle, ‘yet you know damnation awaits you. Your sin is pride. And because we are just, we will tell you the truth. Our bargain, your agreement thereto, will turn upon that sin.'”
“‘Make your terms,’ I said. To tell the truth, I was getting pissed. ‘You’re testing my patience, demon.'”
“I imagine you two were even on that score,” Toby broke in. Dan shushed him as though he were shushing one of his kids and Toby looked piqued for a moment but did hush up. Jerome seemed to not hear either of them. He was lost in his story, reliving the encounter in the old row house as vividly as though he were there again.
“The creature was wrong about my sin,” Jerome said. “Do I suffer from a lack of humility when I talk about my running? Perhaps, though as you men know, most of that’s just joking. But false pride? Runners are practical people. Our numbers tell our stories, and no amount of puffery makes us faster than the tests we take and the results they produce.
“‘Will you meet my challenge?’ the beast asked me. ‘I will,’ I responded.” Jerome looked at us grimly. “There is a formula that even the foulest products of the pit must observe,” he said.
“The creature,” he continued, “held out its taloned hand, mottled, wrinkled, sagging flesh that glowed an eldritch green, and spat upon it some black ichor of blood and phlegm. Then reached toward me. I knew what it wanted and spit upon my own hand. We shook and the bargain was struck.
“It turned its back to me and shambled down the passage, quivering hips brushing the walls on both sides of the hallway. I hesitated only a moment and then stepped from the pentacle and followed. I was safe, for the moment.
“We came out of the building on the other side from where I’d entered and into a little courtyard the was bounded on the far side by the high brick wall of one of the mills. We crossed the courtyard, picking past broken stones, cast iron scrap and drifted snow, and through a door into the mill. There in a massive chaos of shadow and echo, of high ceilinged space in which hulked the shadow of ancient, silent machinery, stood the objects of our test.
“I suppose that some of you know that the treadmill is not a modern invention?”
A few of us nodded. Father Peter steepled his fingers and raised an eyebrow.
“The Victorians used them in workhouses and prisons. They could turn mill wheels, grind, corn or wheat, or power machinery. Of course, since the device principally one of punishment, designed to keep prisoners out of mischief and make them sorry for their crimes, the true value of the final product mattered little.
“Much like the true value of the modern treadmill,” Dan said. Father Peter nudged him. Again Jerome ignored the interruption.
“Before us stood the grim ancestor of our modern treadmills – a long cylinder comprised of wooden slats, like a steamboat paddle wheel, an apparatus of torture, connected to a mighty milling wheel by rusted crankshafts. It was clear that it had been designed for many men to stand side by side upon the thing, all stepping forward and up upon each slat together, running the wheel, as it were. The wheel in turn, would power the mill.
“‘You like to run?’ the demon asked me. ‘Run with me. Meet the boy’s quota before you die and you’ll both go free tonight and I will return to my master to await a new summoning. But if you expire on the wheel before I have tired, you are both mine.’
“It climbed up onto the paddle wheel, which trembled beneath the weight of the thing, and gripped a rail that ran along the apex. It nodded back at me and I ascended and stood next to the thing, shuddering at the stench that was unleashed as the folds of putrid flesh quivered. It looked at me, and I gave back its hard stare, trying not to quail in the horrid non-light of those eyes, the cosmic, eternal darkness behind them.
“‘Run,’ the demon said.
We ran, or climbed, each step pulling the wheel back toward us, bringing a new step within reach. It was hard, men, as hard as that storied run up Heartbreak Hill. Hell, as hard as the race up Mount Washington. All the worse because I knew that there could be no pause, no rest, no cool drink from a kind volunteer at a water station. We would run until one of us collapsed, and if it was me the boy’s soul would be lost. And so would mine.
“I won’t bore you with the details of the race. You’ve been in enough of them to know that what feels, to the runner, like a fantastic and epic voyage of great duration through the recesses of one’s darkest psyche, to a bystander simply looks like a man charging by with a determined look on his face. I assume this was much the same—if the determined man were side by side with an gargantuan demon on a massive paddle wheel in the shadows of a decaying mill building.
“Sometimes the demon would push the pace and try and break me. Sometimes I pushed back. And sometimes as I pushed I sensed weakness, a tiny crack in the repulsive armor of hellish power. That tiny ray of hope spurred me on. As the hours wore by, that ray grew brighter. I realized something the demon hadn’t – at least hadn’t back when she’d made her bargain with me.
“Human pastimes have changed somewhat since the heyday of these mills, and while I don’t presume to know what cultural changes are known to or relevant to demons, I could speculate based on her presumption that I’d known Carnacki that she knew little about our current time. Or that the men and women of our time – at least a fair number of us – consider running for three or four or more hours at a time to be entertainment. Were there ultra-distance events in the Victorian era? I’m sure. But were they common enough for this demon to have considered coming up against a marathon runner by happenstance? Apparently not. For as the hours passed and that mighty mountain of green and decaying flesh pounded on, it began to sound labored in a new way; I heard fear in that gurgling breath.
“‘What happens,’ I gasped at it, trying not to sound as exhausted as I was, ‘when dawn comes and I am still running?’”
“‘You,’ the creature managed haltingly, ‘cannot be. You should have collapsed by now, just as Pheidippides did upon the soil of Athens after his run from Marathon.’
“‘Times change, creature,’ I said. “More than a half a million people run a marathon every year these days. Grandmothers and grandfathers. Moms with jogging strollers. And me? I get up every day thinking about two things in life. One is how to collect debts and the other is how to run stronger than I did the day before. You picked the wrong barrister to wrangle for that boy’s soul with, and the wrong method by which to try your case. You’re in my courtroom today, demon.’
“‘No,’ it bellowed, finally understanding. ‘No!’” It turned to me, would have torn me to pieces, but it had made the bargain, and it had to abide by it.
“‘Niki,’ I gasped, just as Pheidippides had with his last breath. Victory.
“Then the sun came up. It was that simple. The dusty, frost covered windows glowed with that glorious light of dawn and it was as though the motes in the sunbeams were sprayed from a supernatural sandblaster. The light tore the demon’s flesh away, stripped it to bone in moments and then pitted the bone until it was nothing but tissue. It all happened so fast as to be anticlimactic – if I hadn’t been so weary, and if the boy had not appeared at my side to help me stagger down from the wheel.
“He was still frail, but no longer disfigured, and his eyes were unclouded by the horror he’d survived. He touched my hand and it was like having the hairs on your skin stirred by a light wind. He bowed his head and then raised it again to look into my eyes. And he grew as bright as welding torch for an instant and then vanished.
“I staggered out of the building, and even as I turned to look back at it, it was changing, shifting through time until the crumbling old facade was fresh and the high walls were stamped with the signs of computer technology companies and upscale restaurants, a high end gym. It was morning, and I’d run for more than six hours at a demonically fast pace, and was, finally, home.
“I hope you don’t think less of me, but I confess,” Jerome said, “I called a cab. I went home, cancelled my morning appointments and slept the day away. Then I got up, had dinner, took a recovery run, and came here.”
“The pentacle?” I asked. “Your gear?”
“Lost,” Jerome replied. “I doubt anyone could return to that time, that place, again before the next yule, and perhaps not even then now that the demon has been dispatched. We’ll need to build a new pentacle.”
“Sooner,” Father Peter said, “than you might think.”
“Oh?” Jerome raised a bushy eyebrow.
“One more round,” Father Peter demanded. “Then I’ve got a story to tell you.”
Note: This story references the Boston Marathon several times. I wrote most of it before the real horrors at Boston last year, and prefer to consider this story having happened before that innocence was lost.