KEVIN J. ANDERSON AND JANIS IAN
A graveyard. Night. Lurid branches scrabble across the blood-red moon. Silence, whispers, then a hush of anticipation. Fifteen boom boxes encircle a grave. Giant woofers (removed just that morning from an unsuspecting car) sit with bass ends flat against the massive gravestone.
Here at peace at last lies Thor
Troubled by the Dark no more
The four aging fans in attendance for the midnight show—the ritual—had polished their studs, mangled their hair, added dye where needed and bleach where not. They wore their finest black leather, but left the jackets open to expose too-small T-shirts from concerts past, fabric memories that paid homage to their hero’s mind-blowing shows, when he’d been alive. Thor. The writer of the greatest song in the history of mankind.
“Man, we really should have put a line from ‘Dark Carbuncle’ on his tombstone instead,” Conk said. “I mean, so everybody could see his genius for all eternity.” His given name was William, and he went by the handle of “William the Conqueror” from some impressive historical guy, though most of his friends didn’t get it. They thought “Conk” just meant he liked to bash things.
“Anybody can hear his genius just by playing the song, shithead,” said Kutfist, ending with the sharp sneer he’d practiced all week. “Trust me, we didn’t want to deal with the rights issues.”
“Yeah but, dude, ‘Dark Carbuncle’ is an awesome song, right?” said Dredd, and though he’d said it many times before, nobody disagreed. Especially not on this night of nights.
The lone girl in the group, swaying to the music of a silent song, twisted a lock of hair around her finger. “Kinda creepy, ya think?” Despite the spiderweb tattooed on her chin, Longshanks was always the first to back away from anything remotely disturbing. “I mean, we’re raising him from the dead. . . .” Her voice trailed off.
“God, lighten up, ’shanks. You’ve been this way since grade school. What can he do to us? He’ll be in our power.” Sneering, Kutfist turned toward the others with a shrug. Women. Jeez.
“Yeah, and ‘Dark Carbuncle’ is such an awesome song. . . .” Dredd’s usual sentence trailed off as a cloud covered the moon.
“It has to be tonight, on the anniversary,” said Conk with finality as he connected the last of the speakers. The Wikipedia entry had been very specific on that point.
Kutfist scanned the graveyard in disappointment. “I can’t believe we’re the only ones here. Elvis gets tons of fans on his Death Day every year!”
“Elvis fans don’t know that ‘Dark Carbuncle’ is an awesome song,” Dredd assured him. “Or they’d be here.”
Longshanks tugged harder on her hair. “And what’s he gonna look like with a fractured skull, Kut? I mean, part of his head might be gone. Ecchhh.”
Kutfist pushed his trifocals farther up his nose. “Shut up, ’shanks. The man was a god. That last show we saw was unbelievably amazing. He’d never have killed himself, never. We can finally find out the truth now, so just stop worrying and shut up.”
Nodding, Conk stood up. Brushing leaves off his hands, he pulled a few folded sheets from the back pocket of his jeans and handed them each a paper with the lyrics printed backward phonetically. That was the worrisome part. They knew the lyrics forward well enough to sing them the required seven times, but the backward part made Conk nervous. “We’ve gotta get it right, or we’ll end up raising Frank Sinatra or something. Seriously, you can’t be too careful with the Dark Side. Don’t screw it up.”
With tears in his eyes and excitement in his heart, he reached down to the nearest boom box and pushed PLAY.
Thor opened what was left of his eyes and knew he wasn’t in the Ritz. It had been a long time since he’d stayed in high-class hotels on tour, and now suddenly he experienced a flashback rush of the last images he remembered.
A motel room, after the show, his ears still ringing from feedback and amps turned up to eleven. Used to be his ears would ring from the screaming fans . . . used to be all-night parties, used to be groupies and sex—but the groupies were not as attractive now, and Viagra could only do so much. Ditto the gigs, no more backstage excitement when Mick visited, no more telling the roadie to bring the chick from row five back to the luxe hotel. Now, a gig was just a gig, something to get through until he figured out what to do with the rest of his life.
He hadn’t slept a full night in months—years—and now somebody was playing that damned song so loud it echoed right through the walls of this fleabag purgatory of a room. Where the hell was this?
Thorton Velbiss—Thorny to his friends (not many of those), Thor to his fans (not many of those either)—was not having a good day. First, that pounding bass drum was unacceptable. The only noise he wanted to hear with this kind of hangover was the sound of vodka over ice. Second, his fucking hit record from two decades ago was playing, with the bass booming so wide he could swear the damned thing was sitting on his face. The only time Thor would tolerate listening to “Dark Carbuncle” was onstage, during a show, when he lip-synched his way through it for an audience of haphazardly fat metal-heads bent on reliving their youth.
I was ferocious back then, ya know? Really fero. And taller, I think. Maybe just skinny. Now I have to wear a corset. Still, I had a hell of a good run. Just one hit, but it kept me in chicks and booze. . . .
Fuck, no, it’s a horrible song. Piece of shit me and Dirk the Drummer whipped up one night while we were wanking off. Farthest wank got to title the song. He won.
I hate that fucking song.
’Sides, I can’t hit that high note, never could. Brought a ringer into the studio, never thought it’d be a hit. We had great shit on the album, great shit . . . and all anybody ever wants to hear is “Dark dark dark. Dark dark dark. Dark dark dark, I’m a da-da-da-da-carbuncle.”
Makes you want to puke.
Gotta lip-synch it now anyway, can’t even hit the low notes. At least I remember the words. Stupid effing words—even I don’t know what they mean. Last time I saw the big El, Scotty Moore had to hand him the lyrics to “Love Me Tender.” Speaking of hand . . . hand me that vodka, wouldya?
He’d forgotten there wasn’t anybody here. What the hell, he’d serve himself.
He’d been an altar boy in his youth, a good little Catholic, though that was part of his secret past. The headbangers would never understand it. He hadn’t prayed in . . . what? Thirty years? Not since he’d picked up a Les Paul, plugged it in, and let wail.
Now, as he felt around for the bottle, trying to shake the cobwebs out of his head, he wondered who’d have the nerve to play that scrotum of a song right on top of his room. Boom boom boom. Trying to shut out the sound, he drifted back to the last gig.
It was like reliving a nightmare over and over again, singing that song every night. His agent said this tour could maybe revive his career (but then, he always said that)—opening for some fifteen-year-old one-hit wonder. At least if there was any justice in the world, it should have been one hit, but the kid was coming off his fourth top ten record. Turned out he was a metal fan, though, and loved “Dark Carbuncle” (and wasn’t that embarrassing), and demanded Thor as his opener (though what his Top 40 demographic would make of it, only God knew).
Thor had checked into the motel under a fake name, just in case anybody noticed. Grabbed a quick nap (not that the fans needed to know about that either!), packed his crotch, hit the lobby. Out by the kid’s tour bus, a few rabid Thor fans began jumping up and down, one paunchy guy with dreadlocks yelling “Dude! Dude! ‘Dark Carbuncle’ is an awesome song!” Thor stopped to see if they wanted autographs and noticed that two of them wore pizza delivery uniforms.
“How should I make this out?” he asked a girl with a weird chin tattoo. Glancing at her name tag, he hazarded a guess. “To Tiffany?”
The girl went beet red. “Uh, no, Longshanks—just make it to Longshanks.”
He smiled inwardly, but outwardly gave her the long, slow I could change your life, babe! look. She brightened and giggled at her friends. At least he’d made somebody’s day.
On to the show, which sucked. Of course. How the hell can anyone play music at two in the afternoon, under a wide open sky, looking out at a bunch of hayseeds whose big weekend excitement was probably going to be the pig race? Real waste of Oreos, that one. He sped through the set, not even bothering with the pyro at the end, sneering when people applauded the opening chords of “Carbuncle.” Idiots.
I used to dream about being a Beatle, you know? Back in the day, I played the Garden. Twice. Well, only once as the lead act, but still. Alice Cooper, Ozzie, Rob Zombie, they had nothing on me. Eating a live bat, hell—I used to shove worms up my nose, just to line the coke! Now look at me . . . playing some friggin’ rodeo for a hundred bucks. Pathetic, that’s what it is.
Why couldn’t I have died young, in a private plane crash? At least that would be a respectable ending.
Afterward, back at the motel—still daylight out!—he drank most of the quart of Stoli that Mr. Four-Hit-Wonderkid had nervously presented him at sound check. Scratching at his empty stomach, Thor decided to surf the vending machines for dinner. Peanut butter cups and a vodka chaser, the perfect road meal.
He barely registered the Muzak droning through the elevator speakers, until he caught himself humming along. Son of a bitch! Bland whiter-than-white harmonies accompanied by easy-listening strings. Dark dark dark. Dark dark dark. I’m a da-da-da-da-carbuncle, hiding in the dark. Unbelievable. His song. That frigging publisher had sold him out, turned him into effing elevator music, music for supermarkets and dentist’s chairs. Fucking asshole. And his agent was probably in on it, too. Scum, they were all scum.
He’d show them. If he couldn’t die young, at least he could die tragic. “Dark Carbuncle” as elevator music—the last straw of all last straws.
Thor stormed back to his room and grabbed the .38 he always carried. Flopping backward on the bed, he spun the cylinder—five bullets, one empty chamber. Go out like a man, yeah, playing Russian roulette. They’d all be sorry then, even those stupid pizza-parlor rejects. Barrel to the head, click click and it’s over. Jimi, Kurt, make way for the next dead rock legend.
Thor raised the gun. Winced at the cold feel of metal against skin. Paused. Squeezed.
Click? A barrel loaded with Super-X 500 hollow points, and all it can do is go click? Un-fucking-believable.
He tried again.
Hell, how could you lose at Russian roulette? He hurled the gun across the room, where it skittered to a halt on the bathroom floor. Throwing his legs over the bed, Thor grabbed the vodka, took a long slow drag, and made his way to the bathroom, where he somehow managed to drop the bottle on his toe. Yelling out loud, he jumped—and landed barefooted on the gun, which spun crazily against the tiles while he fell backward.
Sickening crack of his head against the tub. He lay on the cold, hard floor, feeling his life ebb away. Frigging humiliating way to die . . . for both a former alter boy and a former rock star.
On the other hand, maybe God wouldn’t consider this a suicide. Good news. His last thought was that he’d finally be able to get some effing sleep. Safe in the arms of the afterlife.
Until some fuckheads called him back for an encore. . . .
Graveyard, night, big speakers booming, a familiar chorus sung again and again with enthusiasm, if not harmony.
Mmm, I ain’t no spoonful
Baby I’m a mouth-full
and I’m gonna tumble,
rumble crumble tumble
your Dark Carbuncle
Conk, Kutfist, Longshanks, and Dredd sang the beloved words seven times seven (almost as many times as in the actual song), and three times more backward, until they were hoarse with it. Conk finally signaled the end of the ritual by switching off the boom boxes. They reeled in the sudden hush, breathing heavily.
“How long is it supposed to take?” Longshanks whispered.
“Give him a few minutes.” Conk tried not to sound uncertain. The Wikipedia entry had been unclear on that point. “He’s coming all the way back from the dead.”
Kutfist sneered. “He never started the concerts on time either.”
“Yeah, I loved waiting for ‘Dark Carbuncle.’ What an awesome song,” said Dredd. No one disagreed.
Suddenly the earth began to tremble, and something stirred beneath the leaves. The ostentatious tombstone they’d banded together and paid for all those years ago pulled loose and tumbled backward, leaving a gaping hole.
Five grime-encrusted fingers pushed through the soil, followed by a hand, then another, clawing at the dirt in slow motion. Finally, a body heaved itself out of the grave. Covered in dirt, putrid clothes, and rotting skin, Thor raised himself up and tried to wipe the crust from his eyes.
The four fans cheered, whistled, and applauded as he swayed. “Omigod, it’s him, it’s really him!” Conk dropped the papers and stared. What a Wiki entry this would make!
Longshanks was jumping up and down. “He looks just like he did on the Avenger’s Revenge tour!”
“He’s staggering like he did on that tour, too,” Kutfist said, without the sneer this time. He looked nervously around. “C’mon, gotta get him to the van.”
The undead rock star lurched and shambled, looking disoriented but not entirely out of character. “Come on, Thor!” Longshanks pleaded. She lifted up her T-shirt to flash her breasts; Thor had never noticed her when she’d done it at concerts, but this time he shuffled toward her, making moaning, sucking sounds from deep in his throat.
“Hurry up, get him into the van!” Conk said in an urgent whisper. “Before some other fans show up. He’s ours!”
“Wait! We can’t leave the speakers—I borrowed them from my uncle’s catering company,” Kutfist said. “He’s got a bar mitzvah tomorrow; he’ll kill me!” Fortunately, since Thor was having a hard time orienting himself toward a vertical life, they had plenty of time to retrieve the gear and pack it into the pizza van they’d “borrowed” from work.
Conk started the engine while Kutfist and Dredd turned in their seats to stare at Thor, who was crammed into the third-row seat with Longshanks. “Now he’s with his true fans!” She sniffed, then frowned. “Is he supposed to smell this bad?”
“I think that’s just an old pizza I forgot to deliver last week,” Conk said.
As the van careened out of the cemetery, Dredd leaned over the seat and said earnestly, “Dude, ‘Dark Carbuncle’ is an awesome song!” He extended his hand, then thought better of it and withdrew.
They jabbered excitedly as they headed off to Conk’s garage. “I’m gonna have him teach me guitar. We could do some killer riffs together!”
“I want him to sign some autographs—impress my girlfriend for sure,” Kutfist said. “Hmm, maybe even sell them online.”
Longshanks tentatively nudged one of the scraps dangling off Thor’s ruined face. “Hey, we could sell pieces of his skin. Talk about a real collector’s item!”
Kutfist returned to the sneer. “What are you thinking? Anybody who bought Thor’s skin could clone him—then we won’t have the only one.”
Longshanks dropped her gaze. “Well, we’d still have the original. A clone is no better than . . . a cover band.”
“How about we just sell locks of hair?” Conk suggested. He didn’t want them to argue during this ultimate moment of fannish glory.
As the van pulled up to the two-car garage, the undead legend seemed to be getting his bearings, croaking slightly more comprehensible words. “What . . . happened? Where am I?”
“You’re with us—your real fans!”
Parking in the dark garage, they opened the doors and helped Thor out of the van. Conk hit the button and closed the garage door, then triumphantly switched on the lights to reveal the setup waiting in the other parking space—a small stage, microphone, boom box, and guitar.
Herding Thor forward, Kutfist shouted, “We brought you back from the grave for this, dude!”
Thor automatically stepped onto the stage and into the light, then stared at them in confusion. Longshanks sprang onto the stage beside him and shoved the guitar into his hands. “Omigod, Thor—now you can sing ‘Dark Carbuncle’ for us, night after night after night!”
Thorton Vebliss fell to his knees and screamed.
Surely this was Hell. Surely.
When he’d emerged from the darkness, he’d wondered what the fuck was going on. Why was he covered in dirt? Some superextravagant part of the stage show he couldn’t recall?
Then he remembered, and now he knew exactly what had happened. This was truly eternal punishment. Every bit of his Catholic upbringing rose in his throat—the priests’ lectures, the nuns’ scoldings, the fear of damnation. It was too much for any man, let alone a dead one.
Rotting ligaments snapped as he dropped to his knees and began to cry. For the first time in years he prayed, and for the first time in his life he really meant it. He confessed, he repented, he begged forgiveness. He reminded God of his years as an altar boy, how he’d been in the soprano choir until his voice had changed. He also pointed out that, technically—though God seemed to have overlooked the detail—he hadn’t committed suicide and didn’t deserve damnation. It was merely an unfortunate accident.
“Just please get me out of here! I want to go to Heaven. I’ll do whatever you say; you won’t regret it! Please!” He put more soul into the request than he’d ever spent on one of his stage performances, but even Thor was surprised when the cluttered garage and tiny group of fans swirled away into mist.
The new place was bright and shining, filled with sunlight and rainbows. He saw smiling beings in white robes with wings gathered on a nearby cloud, and an impressive, bearded man on a gleaming golden throne in front of him.
Holy shit, exactly the pictures the priests had painted, down to the last cliché! Choking back tears, Thor knelt before Him.
“Welcome Thorton Vebliss, my wayward son.” The Almighty smiled with a warmth that made Thor tremble. “I am so glad you are finally among us. We have prepared a heavenly reception for you.”
Thor could only stammer, “Thank you, thank you, Lord!” He didn’t know what else to say. Everything was so . . . clean. So . . . cheerful.
“Rise, my son. Rise, and greet your Father.”
Thor rose and moved toward the throne.
“Later, there will be manna, and angel food cake,” God promised, patting him on the shoulder. “But first I have a small request.”
God seemed almost shy as he said it, and Thor thought, I could really like this guy. “Anything, Your Omnipotence. Um, Your Magnificence. Anything you want, just name it!”
Taking him by both shoulders, the Lord turned him toward the nearby cloud, where the choir of angels suddenly pulled back their wings, revealing the electric guitars they wore. One sat behind a drum kit.
Snapping His fingers, God materialized a 1959 custom Les Paul and held it out to Thor. “Play ‘Dark Carbuncle’ for us, my son. I have always loved that song.”
Thor fell to his knees, screaming.
© 2010 Kevin J. Anderson