Mary SanGiovanni and I have a ritual when we curl up on the couch at nine o’clock in the evening and watch television together. I always pick the first movie, and she always picks the second. We do this because I am always ready for bed by eleven at night, and Mary often stays up until one or two in the morning—and also because she likes to pick the worst horror movies you’ve ever seen. I’m talking films that make your average SyFy Channel schlocker look like Academy Award caliber movies. And it’s not so much that she likes them, either. She doesn’t. She just has a natural talent for picking bad films. The difference between us is she’ll commit to watching the damn things, regardless of how terrible they are. I won’t. If there’s anything you’ve taken away from this series of columns (of which this is number thirty-seven) it’s probably that life is too short. And if life is indeed too short, then it certainly shouldn’t be spent watching shitty movies. Especially if you are sleepy.
Tom Piccirilli watched some weird movies. I wouldn’t call any of them shitty, but many of them were certainly bizarre. In my latest non-fiction collection, Unsafe Spaces, I write about how Tom and I used to call each other “big brother” and “little brother.” He really was like a big brother to me, down to turning me on to cool movies that I would have otherwise never discovered—El Topo and Holy Mountain and Riki-Oh: The Story of Ricky. When Pic was still alive, and Mary and I had started dating, he and I had talked about us coming out to Colorado to visit for a week, and the four of us (Pic, his wife Michelle, Mary, and myself) could watch weird movies together.
Unfortunately, we never got the chance to do that. Pic got sick soon after, and the next time I got a chance to visit, it wasn’t with Mary, but with authors Geoff Cooper, Mike Oliveri, John Urbancik, and Michael T. Huyck Jr. instead. We’d gone to say “Get Well Soon” although it felt like we were saying “goodbye.” And, as it turned out, we were indeed, mayhap a little early. But even then, we managed to watch a movie—The Raid: Redemption, which John, Mikey, and Coop hadn’t seen yet, and Mike, Pic, and I didn’t mind watching again
But I digress.
Mary and I were home from Louisville, curled up on the couch and watching movies. Although I hadn’t told Mary, I planned on pulling the heist the next day—by myself. (If you’re a new reader to these columns, you should know that by this point in our narrative, I’ve become convinced that the spirit of J.F. “Jesus” Gonzalez wants me to steal his ashes from a bookstore where they are interred behind a wall. My plan is to replace said ashes with some dirt from H.P Lovecraft’s grave, which I assume will look similar. Part of my inner circle also believe this is what Jesus wants. The other half of my inner circle believe it is all in my head, and that my brain has been irrevocably rattled after spending months crossing the United States of America in a bourbon-and-sleeplessness-fueled haze while on a book-signing tour. Regular readers to this column are equally divided. Regardless of which camp you belong to, you should know that these things have already happened. I’m writing this in February 2017 and the events I’m describing took place in October 2016. You should also know that all if this is true. And you should also know that things are about to go terribly awry.)
Around 11:30pm, Mary found a terrible movie to watch on Shudder, and I kissed her good night and headed off to bed.
I dream often, but I rarely engage in lucid dreaming. I’ve done so, on occasion, but it takes my subconscious a little while to figure out that I am, in fact, dreaming, and even longer to figure out that, “Hey, you’re aware you are dreaming and therefore, this is a lucid dream, and let’s make shit happen.”
That night, I began dreaming pretty much as soon as I fell asleep. Or, at least, it felt that way to me the next morning. And unlike other lucid dreams, I was aware of what was happening almost immediately.
I walked into a hotel lobby filled with hotel potted plants and hotel furniture. Music played overhead—the bland sort of music you hear in hotels and elevators, almost offensive in its inoffensiveness. Two women moved around behind the registration desk, but they were those faceless, almost formless sort of dream people that you’ve no doubt encountered in your own dreams. Even if they’d had features, I don’t think I would have noticed. My attention was focused on Tom Piccirilli, who was sprawled out in one of the lobby chairs, grinning. Tom hadn’t smiled much when he was alive, at least not in public. Neither of us had. But boy, when he grinned, it was fucking infectious. And it was that way now, in this lucid dream. Returning the gesture, I sat down in the chair next to him.
“Hey, Pic! This is great. I don’t think I’ve had a dream about you yet.”
His grin remained. He seemed so damned real, down to the fingerprint smudges on the lenses of his glasses.
“Is that what this is? A dream?”
“What are dreams, really?” Pic shrugged. “How are you doing, little bro?”
I started to say more, but was interrupted by a loud clamor from further down the hall. The corridor was hazy, and I couldn’t see what was there, but it sounded like a bar. When I turned back to Pic, he nodded as if in confirmation.
“Well, now I know this is a dream,” I said. “This is the afterlife I always joke about—a hotel convention bar, and you and Jesus and Dick Laymon and Rick Hautala and everybody else are all hanging out.”
“Except you’re not joking when you say it,” Pic replied.
“So…that’s a real thing? That’s where we are right now?”
“Right now? Things don’t happen in the order you experience them, little bro. This is happening now, but not for you. Not yet.”
“I don’t understand.”
“This is now, but you won’t get here until later. Time is a flat circle.”
“You didn’t write that.”
“Neither did you.”
“You’ve been reading my column.”
There was another round of laughter from the unseen bar. Then Pic adjusted his posture and leaned forward.
“Listen to Mary. She’s one smart paisan. And I should know.”
“Listen to her about what?”
“About the ashes.”
“But I didn’t steal the ashes yet, and I’m not taking her with me.”
“This is all very confusing, Pic.”
“It is now. It won’t be later. Now, listen to me, little bro.”
I leaned forward. “What’s up?”
* * *
There were more dreams after that, but they weren’t lucid, and I barely remembered them upon waking. Now, months later, I can’t remember anything about them at all. Something about a sandwich, maybe?
I woke up at five in the morning. Mary snored softly (except she insists that women don’t snore—they “snuffle”). I got up, made some coffee, read the news, looked at the Internet, drank the coffee, and then grabbed my kit bag. It was the same kit bag I’d carried with me on tour. The same kit bag I’d hauled around the country, except it no longer held my laptop or Kindle or Moleskin notebooks or pens or switchblade knife or bourbon flask. Instead, it held screwdrivers and a hammer and other assorted tools. The only thing from the tour still inside that bag was the ISIS psychic suicide bomb, and the only reason that was in there was because Weston Ochse and Rain Graves had gotten the best of my superstitions, and I was afraid to touch the fucking thing.
I waited until the store was open, and then I carried the bag out to the Jeep. Mary was still sleeping (after a night spent watching terrible movies, she sleeps till eleven or noon).
When I got to the store, I was happy to learn that Jim was busy appraising a sizeable book collection a customer had brought in to sell. This was good. It meant he wouldn’t wander into the back. We exchanged a few pleasantries, and then I headed to the horror section in the rear of the store. Nothing suspicious about that. No, sir. Not at all. And nothing suspicious about me stopping in front of the shelf behind which my best friend’s remains were interred. And nothing suspicious about me kneeling down in front of that shelf. Had anyone walked by, it would have appeared that I was just perusing the book spines.
Until I began pulling the books off the shelf and placing them aside.
And then slid the shelf out of the way, coughing at intervals to mask the sound.
And then stood before the bare wall.
And then unzipped the kit bag.
And then realized that I’d forgotten H.P. Lovecraft’s grave dirt.
I stood there, screwdriver in hand, looking at the wall. Jesus was there. I mean, I didn’t feel him this time. There was no supernatural presence. No feeling. But he was there, physically. He was inches away, just behind that wall. All I had to do was pry it open. So what if I didn’t have the grave dirt? Did it really matter? I could stick the psychic suicide bomb in there instead. I could still get him out of there, still take him home. Wasn’t that what he’d asked me to do? Home, Jesus had said, when last I’d stood in this spot.
I thought about the previous night’s dream. It had been a lucid dream. I had been in control. Why then, had I not gotten up and walked down that hazy corridor? Why had I not gone to join the others in the bar? Would Jesus have been there if I had?
Go home, Pic had said.
But what had he meant?
I stood there a long time, debating.
And then I made a decision.
* * *
It was around two in the afternoon when I got home. Mary was awake, ensconced at the kitchen table, sipping tea and writing. She looked up from her laptop.
“Good morning, Keene.”
She glanced at the kit bag. “Have you been out having adventures?”
“I was at the Emporium.”
“Oh.” She nodded, then paused. Her eyes got wide. “Oh…”
“Is there coffee?”
“There’s tea. And don’t try to change the subject. Did you…?”
I raised my head and met her stare.
“Did I do it? You tell me.”
Mary studied me for what felt like minutes. She raised her mug, took a sip, and placed it back on the table. Then she closed her laptop, and turned to face me again.
“You have always been the kind of person who was driven by impulse and impulsive ideas. When you were younger, you used to act on them.”
I snorted. “And I don’t anymore?”
“No, you don’t. You might pretend that you do, but you don’t, because you have more to consider now. To be honest, no, I don’t think you stole Jesus’ ashes, but I do think he is with you, and he communicates to you, even if you don’t always recognize it for what it is. I don’t think he’s happy.”
“Would you be disappointed in me if I didn’t take them? Would you feel like I was betraying him?”
“No,” Mary answered, “because it’s not about where his body is, but where his mind is. He has always been fiercely loyal and protective—of his daughter, his wife, and you. He knows Cathy is tough, and can take care of herself. He knows she will take care of their daughter, and I think he knows that I’ll take care of you. But he’s not quite ready to let go yet—of any of you. He needs to be told he can go, that everything will be okay.”
“Maybe so,” I whispered. “But if that’s the case, then what did he mean by ‘Home’?”
Mary smiled. “I think you know, Keene. Think hard about it. You said you felt impressions of the words ‘Home’ and a sense of doom. But were they really?”
“It wasn’t doom. It was more of a sense of things ending. A finale. Maybe change. I think I took that to be a bad thing, but now…I don’t know. Maybe it’s just time I focused more on this.” I gestured around the house. “And less on what we do for a living. I mean, I guess I’d already decided that, in a way.”
“You mean the plan to retire on January first?”
“They’ll never let you retire completely,” Mary said, “but I think you can get away with staying home for a good long while. And maybe be less involved in trying to remain the horror genre’s Batman. There’s a new generation of writers that grew up reading you—not just your fiction, but the stuff you wrote about this business. They were trained by you. You saw them out there at every stop on the tour, and every time you did, they told you that they’ve got this. It’s time you stepped back a little bit and let them do just that.”
I took my kit bag into my office and dumped it onto a chair. I didn’t open it. Not then. Instead, I changed clothes, feeling guilty as I did so, because I’d done what Mary had accused me of doing when we’d started the conversation. I’d changed the subject. Not with coffee or tea, but with debating what Jesus had meant by “Home.” If Mary ever realized that I never answered her question—did I take the ashes—she never mentioned it. In the end, it didn’t matter. What mattered was what was said when I’d gotten back home.
Dreamworld Pic was right. She’s one smart paisan.
“Want to go out to eat?” she asked, after I’d changed my clothes and walked back into the kitchen.
I shook my head. “No. Let’s stay home.”
Brian Keene writes novels, comic books, short fiction, and occasional journalism for money. He is the author of over forty books, including the recently released Pressure and The Complex. The father of two sons, Keene lives in rural Pennsylvania.