One early autumn night, after a spectacular sunset and a gloomy but all-encompassing deep blue dusk, a man in his eighties opened the door of his old house to welcome another, younger, fellow.
“Professor,” this younger man said, extending a hand. Winters shook it, grip strong. He smiled down thick spectacles in recognition of the boy he’d taught years before. He’d been in his sixties then.
“Mister Speck! David Speck, boy, look at you. All grown up, no joke. I see you’ve brought wine as well,” Winters said, spotting the oblong object resting in the crook of Speck’s arm.
“Oh, this?” David said, smile mirroring Winters’, eyes sparkling with memories of another time. “Don’t get excited, it’s only white wine. Probably won’t even get us buzzed. You look like you could still go for a round in the ring, Professor Winters!”
His old professor laughed.
“Well, I’ve aged. I’ll leave it to you to determine if I’ve aged well. But I’m hardly in boxing shape. Now, come in; we’ve been apart too long to be holding a conversation on the front step.”
Winters stepped aside, and Speck stepped up and through the threshold.
The two, awkward at first, quickly fell back to their comfortable roles; teacher and student together again after twenty years. A bucket was rooted out and filled with ice, and the wine sat uncorked on the table while fond voices took turns in the living room.
“I see you’ve got quite a few of my books,” the younger man said, looking around. A bookshelf dominated one wall, a middle shelf showcasing several thick hardbacks. Winters smiled.
“Yes, and you’ve got quite the knack for sending them to me. I would buy them, you know. Be proud to, but you won’t let me.”
“There’s no point in you buying something you’re not going to read.”
Winters, crumpling a newspaper for fireplace kindling, feigned offense.
“David! How little faith you have in your old friends. I’ve read them all, and expect to do so again. I love finding characters that remind me of myself, then I wonder…”
“If they’re based on you? Of course, I take qualities from all over, but every once in a while I’ll write a character that, in my mind’s eye, is you. Don’t gloat; I draw inspiration from a lot of people.”
Winters bent to stoke the fire with a piece of wood.
“Yeah, that’s me. Just another face in the crowd, a nameless extra in a novel. Funny, I thought you were visiting me because you wanted to pay respect to the one who taught you everything you know. Instead, you tell me I’m just one of your pawns.”
He dropped the slat of birch so it would stand against the tinder, then David’s old professor eased himself into the comfortable chair opposite his former student.
“I’d know that self-deprecating persona anywhere,” David said, laughing. “I’m mad at myself now, I can’t believe I haven’t come to see you before today.”
“I’m mad at you too. Books are a poor substitute for a friend. Thank you for responding to my request for a visit to the house. I’ve decided it’s a good time.”
“A good time? I don’t know, Professor. You’re sounding pretty ominous.”
“I have a story to tell. If you like it, feel free to use it. Expand on it. God knows I’m not going to be around too much longer.”
David scoffed at the suggestion. “Professor, take a look at yourself first before you start announcing your funeral. You’re in better shape than I am!”
“I appreciate the flattery, David; however fate is harder to persuade. Would you like to hear the story?”
Dark but for the illumination the flitting tongues of fire and bright expressions of nostalgia gave, the room was a perfect environment for storytelling. The time for small talk had ended. Winters’ cool, soothing voice took over.
“It’s from one of my experiences, having to do with my second-year roommate at Iowa. I was twenty years old at the time, very sure of myself, incredibly naïve. This was 1954. My roommate was a pleasant fellow, reserved in many aspects and at that time still untarnished by college life.
“His name was Brew Easton, a name I remember for its unusual frankness. He was tall, abnormally so, but that’s about the limit of what I remember of his appearance. I knew him for maybe a semester before...well, we’ll come to that.
“We got on well at first. He was the sort of fellow who didn’t have many friends and didn’t try very hard to acquire them, but the absence of a social life had left its mark on him. I think I was the closest thing he had to a friend back then, and I had no problem letting him follow me around. For about three weeks, that’s what he did.
“When we talked it was usually me trying to get him to lighten up, trying to get him to talk about something frivolous, like girls or sports, or Dostoyevsky, Hell I don’t know! He didn’t seem interested in the topics I was, and pretty soon he got tired of my company and started doing things on his own. I was fine with how it turned out.
“One day, he skipped classes to sleep. When I returned from the library that evening he was still there, under the blankets in the same formation as the night before, snoring like a dog. At the time, I thought “It’s college, that’s not weird at all.” So I kept up with my life. I didn’t think anything of it. Now, of course I know that I didn’t want to think anything of it.
“It wasn’t until two weeks later that it became glaringly obvious that something was wrong with my roommate. We weren’t getting along well by then. Brew hadn’t said a word to me since the day he’d played hookey to sleep; it turned out he hadn’t been to class since, was on the road to failing out. He wasn’t well, he hadn’t showered, he stank. I thought he was having a mental breakdown, which would be a plausible explanation of the situation, but I didn’t do anything to try and find out what kind of help he needed, or what I could do.
“The silence between us was uncomfortable, and at night, above him in my bunk, I sometimes wondered how I’d feel if he jumped from our fifth-floor window. It was an odd divergence, at once feeling responsible for saving a life while wishing for the relief of throwing off that burden. Thinking of it only because I was tired of living with a cloud so full of moisture.
“He might have been depressed, but Brew wasn’t suicidal. What I witnessed later led me to think he was caught up in something much, much worse.
“The next day my Philosophy class ended early; it had started snowing unexpectedly, and the professor made a few vague statements about the end of the world and was gone out the door, leaving everyone stunned and confused but happy to be out of class nonetheless.
“I slogged back through three inches of fluff, thinking the sudden blanket of white odd for the middle of September, and dismissing my professor’s strange exclamation out of hand; he was an old, eccentric guy, and I secretly believed that his sanity had left him long before that day.
“Outside my door, I pulled my key from my pocket and had almost plunged it into the lock when I heard voices. I recognized Brew’s, but not the others. There were so many of them, but none of them sounded like any human voice I’ve heard, before or since.
“I put my books down on the plaid carpeting, and turned my head to the wood, to listen.”
Winters considered his former pupil, then relaxed his eyes and focused through David Speck, into the past. His lips moved silently, mouthing words he’d only ever heard once before, from a host of mouths behind a door on the autumn day in which it had snowed. Curious, he had thought, watching the white puffs drop endlessly, snow in September. Curious. That was before the voices, before he’d put his ear to the cold surface and stopped existing. Sitting with the crackle of the fire behind and his student across, he could almost hear them again.
How had it gone?
“You’ve condemned yourself, boy. Arrogant and meddling. If only you’d kept the phrase in your head, not disturbed the sacred order of things by speaking to call us, Fate would not so happily have plucked your string.
“You’ve lived with the knowledge of your penalty for a fortnight, and we’ve come to tell you there is a week left. Before you are to pay penance.”
Brew’s voice then, breaking in with such sadness and resignation it was hard to make out:
“I know what I’ve done, and what I’m to pay, but a week? That’s hardly any time at all! The last two weeks went by so fast!”
“This next will go faster.”
Each of the voices Arthur didn’t recognize was a fell blend of whispers and gruff exclamations that reminded him of dogs barking. Eavesdropping became maddening, setting fire to his eardrum and numbing his brain.
“Then it will be over, and your time on this plane will be at an end.”
Another voice, different, older: “An eternity to follow.”
“Yes.” There was no emotion in Brew’s voice, no more sadness. Only flat acceptance.
“To follow where there is no light," the voices sang in a chorus, "down roads where Death has sewn his seed. To where the Wicked reap it. To follow until the soul rots and takes new form in Darkness. An eternity to follow, boy, is your sentence. And for calling upon those who keep the Order, you shall serve every moment in agony.”
It was the last thing Winters, slumped against the door, recalled hearing. The end of the memory.
There was no more.
Winters remembered himself, an old man seated by the fire entertaining a guest. David sat with his eyes closed, apparently taking the moment of silence for meditation.
“I’m sorry, my boy. I knew I’d have trouble telling… Time has gotten away from me; it’s already late, we’ve barely had any of the wine you’ve brought. Why don’t I get us another glass?” The older man began to rise.
“I’d much rather hear the rest of the story,” David said from behind closed eyes. “If it isn’t much trouble.”
Winters sat back down.
“You’re right. No stops, no excuses. I have to finish it, as much for me as for you. I need to make you believe, to feel how I felt, and don’t know if I can. I’ve gotten old. Don’t know if I have the strength for it.”
“You’ll do just fine.” The former jibing tones in their voices were gone, had been gone since the moment Winters had announced he had a story to tell.
Winters massaged his skull with knotted fingers.
“The voices I heard from outside my room, David, were not from here. Not this universe. They spoke of a crime Easton had committed, and of his sentence. At the time I didn’t understand. I put those voices out of my head, convinced myself I hadn’t been there, listening.
“For a time, I forgot anything had happened. The snow melted quickly, leaving no evidence of its existence, and I went to class, and at night I’d stay up studying while Brew slept, and I kept my mind on normal things — real things.
“Then, a week from the day of the freak snowstorm, my Philosophy teacher never showed up. He left seventy students in their chairs, staring idly at the door, wondering how he’d forgotten about class. After fifteen minutes we all left, scattering in all directions. Like the week before, I walked to my dorm and stood outside my door, a cloying déjà vu tickling my bones.
“I opened it to find a broken man. Brew lay on the floor, sobbing. I threw my books on my desk and stepped forward, for a moment uncertain of my duties.
“‘Brew, what’s wrong? Are you all right?’ I said. He turned his head to look at me. But I don’t think he saw me, not then. I knelt, and put my hand on his back.
“‘Brew,’ I said, ‘It’s all right. Everything’s all right.” I helped him to a sitting position, and he stared at my face. I saw a flicker of something in his eyes.
“‘Arthur, what’s happened?’ he asked me. ‘What’s happened to me?’
“‘I don’t know what you mean,’ I said. ‘Come up here, sit down on your bed. Tell me all about it.” I helped him to his feet, and I noticed how thin he’d gotten. His skin stretched over bones, pale and translucent. For three weeks, he’d eaten next to nothing, killing himself slowly. I hadn’t bothered to notice. I began to get frightened. I was afraid of what he would say, and already the pit of my stomach was knotted in anticipation. Brew’s eyes dried, he swallowed and cleared his throat.
“‘I should start by saying goodbye,’ he said. ‘My time’s almost up, and you’ve been a good friend. I’ll miss you.’
“‘I don’t understand. Where are you going?’ He looked into my eyes, and I felt the world around us spin.
“‘Everywhere,’ he said.
“‘Nowhere,’ he said.
“He told me a lot I didn’t understand. The most important items were that he’d used words of magic to summon a higher power, and when the blue men appeared they told Brew of the sentence for that crime.”
“What had your friend summoned?” David asked, no longer able to keep himself from interrupting.
Winters shook his head. “He couldn’t tell me what they were. But he knew, and very adamantly, that they were responsible for keeping order in the universe. Without the blue men, he told me, everything would be chaos. Complete disorder. Brew called them that day, and their work for a moment was interrupted. An unforgivable offense, punishable by the worst damnation, even if he was only a kid who didn’t know the power of what he was dealing with.”
“Why did he call them blue men? Do you know?”
“I tried to get him to describe them, but he told me he forgot what they looked like only a minute after he saw them; what stuck with him the most was the idea they glowed hot with blue light. A blue you can feel, he insisted. One he’d never seen before or since. Also, he spoke of their eyes. ‘Voids of light,’ he said, ‘and full of a kind of suction. You want to move closer, but you won’t be able to get away again.’
“The blue men made him feel like a child, crippling his mind with fear and torturing his subconscious. The feeling lingered for hours after they appeared, and he felt it would dissipate if he slept. He told me that sometimes when he woke up, he believed it had all just been a dream. For a few seconds at least. Then he’d remember, and go back to sleep.”
Winters sighed. For a moment, neither of the men said anything.
David jumped in his chair and looked toward the fireplace. A log had split, sending a stream of sparks up and into the flu. His heart thumped, adrenaline pumping through his system. For a moment he was filled with panic, the urge to flee, to get out and drive, nowhere special—just away.
Winters was speaking again.
“I’m not sure I should, but I’m going to show you something now, and when you see it I want you to keep your mouth closed. Alright? It’s been a long time, and sometimes I wonder if I’ve got it all right, but I want you to promise me you won’t ever say the words I’m about to show you. Can you do that?”
“Of course, Professor.”
Winters laughed. “Of course.”
David tapped his knee. Winters reached under his chair and pulled out a small wooden box. He opened it, delicately pushing the lid up with his thumb, and took out a yellowed index card.
“It’s the words he used to summon them, the tiny bit of magic he’d found. He gave me the words, warning me never to speak them aloud. I’ve not. Even though I was suspicious because the phrase is so simple, so small, that I always had a hard time convincing myself it could have held such power.”
Winters held out the card.
“Before you read this. Don’t say it out loud. Keep your mouth shut.”
“Okay.” David took it.
He squinted at the old card, trying to make out the looping script which held the secret to summoning the blue men. He stared another moment, then looked up at Winters.
“This is all? This card is what got your friend in so much trouble? I mean, it’s so…short.”
David looked again. On the very center of the card was written:
Once again I am in need
Come, my servants
with all your speed
He read it again, rolling the words over in his head. He handed it back to Winters, who replaced it in the box and slid it into his chair.
“I know, I know, it doesn’t seem possible, because they’re written in plain English, but it actually happens that those particular words were never meant to be spoken by any man. They’re for higher beings, beings who exist on a separate plane, but who reach into our world from time to time.
“If you’re skeptical, I understand. I wouldn’t have believed either, except that Brew ended up with the words — he said a man was handed them by a man in shredded clothing outside the library. Written on the card I just showed you. The temptation to taste the words, feel them roll off his tongue, it must have been too much. At one point he said them. He couldn’t help it.
“I remember Brew spoke to me for over an hour. At some point, he stopped and asked me the time. He excused himself to the bathroom and locked the door. At length, he began speaking to me again.
“‘It’s going to happen any minute now, Artie. I don’t want you to panic. They’re coming to collect. Something may — you may not want to come in here after they take me. The price I’m meant to pay...it’s nothing good.’
“I tried reasoning with him; I pleaded for him to come out, to talk to me. He told me no, he was being taken, taken so that he could “follow.” He said it with a strange fluidity.
“‘To follow where there is no light, down roads where Death has sewn his seed. To where the Wicked reap it. To follow until my soul rots and takes new form in Darkness. And for calling upon those who keep the Order, I shall serve every moment in agony.’
“‘Who?’ I remember yelling, standing outside the door. ‘Who are you supposed to follow?’
“Just before the wet crunch that accompanied the wave of blood from under the door, soaking my bare feet, Brew Easton spoke his last:
“‘Lucifer, called Light-Bringer, Angel of the Outer Plane.’”
David Speck’s eyes were sticky—he’d been driving with them glazed open, staring down the middle of the road at the yellow lane divider.
He blinked stinging tears and tightened his grip on the steering wheel.
It was late; Professor Winters’ story had taken well into the witching hours. David’s dashboard clock hummed an iridescent 3:13 and the little car sped through the forest. Sleep was more than an hour away; his bed in the hotel he was staying at was fifty miles from his former professor’s little house.
Unable to find anything to fit his mood on the radio, he switched it off and drove in silence. He found himself thinking about his old professor’s story. Surely it had been made up, Arthur Winters had at one time been known for being able to invent elaborate, compelling stories on the spot—and pass them off as fact.
Still, there was something about this story, something more vital than anything he’d ever heard, like it was still happening, like he’d seen beneath a layer of reality to another world, one in which physics was an orchestration by beings behind the scenes. He’d felt as if he were there, with his old professor and his roommate as those otherworldly events had occurred. Something about it just felt true.
Then there was the note card, which had looked old as hell and the handwriting—people hadn’t written like that for decades. Of course, he couldn’t know for sure. He’d have to get the card looked at by someone who’d know the difference. But then, was it anything he actually wanted to share? Expose that type of evil and danger to an appraiser, even if it was only on the strength of his old teacher’s scary story?
David promised himself he’d decide on the validity of what he’d heard in the morning, when he wasn’t poisoned by sleep deprivation. The wine, the combination of firelight and warmth, and the practiced dramatic beat from his old professor had all contributed to his sagging eyelids.
He gave me the words, he remembered Professor Winters saying, warning me never to speak them aloud. I’ve not.
He drove, biting his lip. What were the chances somebody would never say some words they were told not to say?
He became suddenly certain, though it had been fun to pretend otherwise, that the story was an elaborate fabrication by old Artie Winters, in order to prove he still had it, still knew how to spool out a yarn. David laughed, pumping the gas, glancing in the rear-view mirror.
“The story ends with the literal Devil, no way in Hell, right? Good one, Professor Winters!”
He laughed, a little giddy.
“Once again I am in need,” he said, slowly, testing himself.
“Come, my servants, with all your—”
David couldn’t say the last word. He’d never been able to, not even as a child playing Bloody Mary in the bathroom with the lights turned out.
It was dead still in the car. The night was dark and the headlights showed a steady stream of lane dividers. He could keep quiet, maybe go back to the radio, or he could say the last word.
Just as he had once imagined a dead woman appearing in the mirror on the thirteenth incantation of her name, teeth dripping with blood, reaching to pull him through to join her, he imagined now the shapeless and horrible beings with deep blue eyes coming to life in the seat next to him.
What if Arthur’s story was true?
He felt himself, in the pause before the last word, decide to break the incantation. He’d change the last word. Just to be safe.
Home. I’ll say home.
The decision to do it sent waves relief through the knot of fear, he already felt so much better.
He opened his mouth.