The Devil Went Down to Iowa, by J. L. deGarie
A loud thump on the counter startled Paul. He looked up from reading the latest issue of Decibel magazine to see his co-worker, Alison Pastain, standing next to a large stack of hardback books with her hands on her hips and fierce glare in her eye.
“You could put that down and help me, you know,” she said.
“Sorry,” Paul said. “I didn’t know that shipment had come in yet.”
“You would have if you didn’t have your nose buried in a magazine every time it got slow.” She took the magazine from him, flipped it closed and set it on the counter. Her tone was softer now. She wasn’t really mad at him. Ali was actually a pretty sweet girl, despite her outward appearance, which usually consisted of punk attire – pants that hugged her legs and ass, quirky t-shirts, and lace-up boots. Or maybe you’d call it grunge. Paul wasn’t quite sure. He had lead a pretty sheltered life until his father finally let him get this job at Harold’s Books.
Ali’s best feature though was her shoulder-length blond hair, often shot through with streaks of color. She had straight heavy bangs that fell across her face, hiding her beautiful green eyes, when she tilted her head just right. Paul could look at those eyes all day. But if he did that, he had a feeling that Ali would figure out that he had feelings for her.
“You’re right. Sorry,” he said. “Let’s get that stuff checked in and then maybe we can close early tonight.” Friday evenings were never very busy at the store, and tonight was no exception.
“Deal. I need time to go home and change anyway. You’re still coming, right?”
Paul nodded. “Wouldn’t miss it for the world.”
Paul was hooking up with Ali later to go a local bar called The Edge. It was going to be his first time seeing live music. Other than church music, that is.
His father, Roy Markham, was a born-again style preacher. A self-proclaimed mouthpiece for the Lord himself, which endeared him to decent church-going folks so much that Roy and his family had moved five times in the last ten years. Once even in the middle of the night. That had been fun.
Paul had to admit that when his father first announced that their latest move would be to Iowa, land of cows and corn, Paul had not been happy. He was 18, a senior in high school, and had planned – still planned – on moving out and far away from his crazy father as soon as he graduated.
Now, though, he had met Ali and found out that there was a thriving music scene here. He was content to explore that as much as he could until he heard back on all of his college applications.
Paul got home just after 8:00 p.m. He closed the front door quietly, trying to avoid his father’s notice. It didn’t work.
“You’re home early.” His father strode into the foyer as Paul hung up his jacket. “I hope you are not shirking your chores at that little store.”
“No, sir,” Paul said. No point in antagonizing his father by pointing out the having a job was not the same as doing chores. He needed the job, or rather, he needed the money from the job to be able to move across the country to whichever college he got into.
His father gazed down at him with his brows drawn and lips pinched. Paul took after his mother. He was only 5’8″ and wiry. His father was a big barrel-chested man who could be quite intimidating without saying a single word. It was a character trait that had served him well throughout his years preaching his version of true faith.
Paul knew tonight’s look well. His father was pissed about something.
“Follow me.” His father turned and walked into the office he used to receive parishioners.
Paul followed. Like always, the room smelled of leather and cigar smoke.
His father took a handful of letters in opened envelopes from his desk drawer and dropped them into Paul’s lap. “I have taken the liberty of responding with your refusal.”
Paul looked at the envelopes. Stanford. University of Washington. Others. These were the responses to his applications.
“But—” he began.
“No. You are not leaving this family in its time of need. Your mother is sick, and the people of this community need me now more than ever. I expect you to do your God-given duty as my son and stay here to care for your mother and support my work.”
Paul bit back his initial angry response. Paul’s mother was not sick. She was an alcoholic. Paul had tried to talk her into getting treatment several times, but even AA hadn’t helped her. She was sober once for a week straight before Paul’s dad lit into her about something and that was that.
Paul took a deep breath. His father didn’t take defiance well. “You can’t decline for me. I’m 18. I can do what I want.” He got up with the letters still in his hand. “I’ll call the schools back on Monday.”
“No.” His father voice was thunderous. “You will not. You will attend me as God intended or you will face His wrath. And mine. Now go to your room.” He yanked the letters out of Paul’s hands. He tore them in two and tossed them in the trash bin.
No matter, Paul thought. He knew which schools had sent them. He could still call them and see if their offers were still open.
Paul went up to his room and changed into other clothes for the club. He shimmied down the trellis outside his bedroom window but, with all the adrenalin in his system, slipped at the end and landed with a pretty loud clang on the bottom of the gutter downspout.
He held his breath for a moment, hip throbbing, but he heard nothing from inside the house. His father must still be in his office preparing his next sermon.
Paul ran to the corner just in time to catch the bus.
When Paul arrived outside The Edge, Ali was deep in conversation with two other people. Paul recognized one of them as Ali’s brother Jesse. He looked a lot like her except that he had brown hair instead of blond, and he stood a couple of inches taller.
On his arm was a petite woman with spiky black hair wearing a blue minidress so skimpy that it made Paul blush. He had to remember to keep his eyes on Ali as he walked up to them.
“Hey.” Ali gave him a quick hug. “You remember Jesse? And this is his girlfriend, Veronica.”
Veronica smiled at him and held out a hand. “So you’re that ‘hellfire-and-brimstone” preacher’s kid? I heard about that dude. Heard him speak once, too.”
“Oh? Do you go to church?” Paul asked her. He tried to keep the skepticism out of his voice. That might come across as rude.
“Yep, just don’t always stay awake for it.” She smiled up at him and winked.
Jesse laughed and pulled into an embrace.
“Come on,” Ali said as she slipped a fake ID into Paul’s hand. “Let’s go in.”
They found a table near the dance floor.
“I’ll be right back,” Alison said as the others sat down. She headed toward the bar.
“This place is awesome” Paul said, looking around. The converted warehouse was two stories high. A long bar, fronted with silver ribbed metal, dominated the left side of the spacious area, and the large dance floor in front of them pulsed with flecks of light from the immense rack hung from the ceiling.
“Yeah, you’d never guess there was a fire here eight years ago that almost destroyed the place. They did a good job fixing it.”
Veronica giggled. “Gotta love insurance companies. Cheers.” She took a swallow from a silver flask then handed it to Jesse, who did the same. She seemed pretty drunk already to Paul.
“Here,” Alison said as she returned to the table. She set down a pitcher of beer and three glasses. “If the cops show, just slide your glass over in front of Veronica. That drivers license may have fooled the bouncer, but the cops around here are a bit sharper.”
Ali poured glasses for herself, Paul and Jesse. Veronica kept the flask that either she or Jesse had snuck in.
Paul took a big sip. He had never had beer before, thanks to his overbearing jackass of a father, so even though he wasn’t sure if he was going to like the taste, he was damn sure going to enjoy drinking it.
It wasn’t half bad.
Jesse leaned over the table. “So, Paul, did you know this place is supposed to be haunted?”
“If you believe in that stuff of course.” Jesse paused. “Do you? Believe, that is?”
Paul shrugged. “I don’t know. The Bible says ghosts don’t exist. But… What’s the story?”
Jesse rubbed his hands together as if in glee. “OK, here’s the deal. Back eight years ago, this bar was a big time hit. Heavy metal bands, goth bands, rock bands, you name it. They all came here and played. Fifteen dollar covers were common. This was the cool place to go.”
“You come here then?” Paul asked. He knew that Jesse was a few years older than Ali so it was possible.
“Yep, I was only eighteen, just like you, but I had a fake ID. Had no problem. Fun times, man.”
The cocktail waitress set down another round of shots, four this time. Of something called Jim Beam. Ali had said it was whiskey. Paul picked up one of the glasses.
“The Devil’s drink.” Paul immediately shoved his father’s voice out of his head.
“Here’s to good times with friends.” Ali hoisted her glass.
They all clinked glasses. Paul threw his down just like he’d seen Jesse do earlier. It burned, and he coughed hard. Tears came to his eyes.
Ali shoved a beer into his hand. “Drink.”
He did and immediately felt better.
“Damn, Ali,” Jesse said. “You need to get that kid out more.” But Jesse’s tone wasn’t mean.
“So what happened to make this place haunted?” Paul asked.
“Ah” Jesse leaned forward again. “I was there the night it happened.”
“That Roger Strands was killed. The night of the big fire.” Paul looked at Ali for confirmation. She nodded.
“Whoa” Paul said. “You saw someone get killed…Wait, who’s Roger Strands”
“Yep. Roger Strands was the lead singer for a band called Razorwire, a neo-grunge rock band that was just starting to make a name for themselves. They played clubs all over the Midwest and rumor had it that they had a record deal in the works.”
“Cool” Paul took another sip of his beer.
“Then came November 12, eight years ago. The show here started at ten. I got here just as the opening act, some cheesy heavy metal band called Zero Tolerance, was finishing up. The crowd so thick, it was standing room only, and they weren’t in a very good mood. I mean that first band really sucked. I don’t know what the promoter was thinking booking them.
“Anyway, Razorwire came on not long after that. They were awesome, man. The crowd was into it. I knew the bartender, Billy Z, back then, so he let me come stand behind the bar where I wasn’t getting slammed into.
Ali leaned in. “Now this is the good part.”
“Then it happened,” Jesse said. “Half way through the second set, someone threw a bottle at the band. Hit Roger Strands in the head, split his eyebrow open.”
“Why would someone do that?” Paul said.
“It was probably just some drunk asshole, but it pissed Roger off. Understandably, too. Shit, that had to hurt. So he threw his guitar down and jumped off the stage right into the crowd. I think he saw who did it because he pushed his way through crowd straight over to some guy, grabbed him, said something to him, then shoved him down. Roger looked like a devil. Black hair all sticking up. Blood was still running down his face, and he was angry.
“That started the brawl. The drunk had friends. It was an all-out melee within just a couple of minutes. A lot of folks just made for the exits. The dance floor got slippery with blood, and then I saw flames lick up the cloth at the side of the stage. Someone – a woman – screamed ‘he’s got a knife'”. Jesse gazed off into the distance as if reliving the moment.
“Billy Z and I decided it was time to get the hell out,” he continued. “He’d already called the cops, and there was no breaking up that big a fight. We went out the service door in the back. I could smell smoke and hear sirens. People were still screaming inside. It was horrible.” Jesse took another sip of his beer. “By the time it was over, the fire was out, six people were dead including Roger Strands who had been stabbed three times.”
“Wow.” Paul didn’t know what else to say.
“The song they were playing when Roger got hit with the bottle was ‘Welcome to the Devil’. Now they say that whenever that song is played, his ghost rises and walks again across the floor, leaving bloody foot prints.”
“Really?” Paul asked.
Jesse shook his head. “Nope. It’s total bullshit, man. I’ve heard that song on the DMX in here and nothing happened. Personally, I think it’s just an urban legend that the new owners of this place have encouraged to drum up business.”
“It would be kind of cool if it were true, though, right?” Veronica said.
Jesse looked at her. “No. Sorry, baby. It was pretty nasty business.”
“Alright,” Ali said. “Enough of that morbid stuff. We’re here to have fun.”
The lights dimmed.
“Here we go,” Ali said.
An hour later the lights came back up as the band took a break. Paul sat stunned for a few moments.
That had been awesome. No better than awesome. Was there a better than awesome, he thought. The pulsing lights, the crunch of the guitar, the thump of the bass drum that he could feel in deep in his chest. Live music kicked ass!
He could not believe what he had been missing all those years. All those years of sitting at home – of being forced to sit at home – while his friends went out and partied. His dad always told him that that was the way to sin – that that type of behavior led to sin – and he never gave Paul enough credit or believed that Paul was smart enough to resist temptation. How could just listening to music be sinful? Paul was so tired of his father’s ravings…er, preaching, he corrected himself mentally.
He turned to Ali and said, “That was awesome.” Yes, he had just been thinking that.
“Yeah, they’re a great band. Want another beer?” She stood up and stretched.
Paul shook his head. He was already feeling the one he had already drunk, and he didn’t want to be so light-headed that he missed any of the rest of the music.
Jesse stood also and pulled Veronica to her feet. “We’re going out back to…uh…have a smoke.” He winked at Veronica, who giggled in response. “Back in fifteen.”
“Or twenty.” Veronica giggled again and patted Jesse on the cheek.
He kissed her, then grabbed her hand and dragged her toward the back door.
“What in God’s name is going on here!” The voice rang out over the murmur of the crowd and the house music. It came from the front of the bar.
Paul cringed. He recognized that voice. His father.
“Where is my son?”
He hunched down in his chair and seriously considered making a break for the back exit, following in Jesse and Veronica’s foot steps. The pounding beat of the house music continued, but the crowd noise dulled.
“This is a house of sin. A den of iniquity and all of you shall be forced to do penance to an angry God. You shall repent or be condemned to the flames of Hell.” Paul heard his father’s voice getting closer and closer.
“Alright, enough, old man.” A gruff but reasonable voice broke into the tirade. Thank the Lord for bouncers, Paul thought.
“Back, sinner.” There was a thump and then the sound of glass shattering. Paul turned then to see the bouncer sprawled on the wood floor amidst glass shards next to an overturned table. Paul’s father was stronger than he looked, and he must have caught the bouncer off guard.
The murmurings of the crowd took on a more ominous tone. Paul decided he needed to do something.
He stood up. “Hold it,” he said to his dad.
“Ungrateful spawn!” His dad pointed his staff at Paul, the staff that he always carried when he was preaching away from his pulpit, the staff he used to “smite” evil-doers. His ungrateful spawn being at the top of that list, Paul was well familiar with it. He knew what probably coming.
He took a couple of steps backward as his father approached him.
“What have I taught you about temptation?” His father’s voice was a roar in his ears. “About giving in to the wickedness of the Devil’s music?”
He took another step backwards, which made him just a bit out onto the empty dance floor. It felt as if everyone in the bar was watching the spectacle now. Paul wished he were anywhere but there.
“And you ignore my words. You ignore God’s words.” His father raised the staff above his head.
“Don’t,” Ali cried from somewhere off to Paul’s left.
The staff came down. Paul knew better than to try to block it. The punishment would be even worse once they got back to the privacy of his parents’ house.
The staff hit his head with a crack. Pain drove him to floor. This was harder than he had ever been hit before. His temple felt sticky, and he put a hand up to it. It came away red. He looked down and saw a drop of blood hit the floor.
“You shall obey me,” his father shouted. “You shall not associate with sinners and pagans and Satan-worshippers.” He waved the staff around to encompass the room and all its occupants.
Paul vision was quickly clearing. More drops of blood hit the floor. He vaguely recalled reading somewhere that head wounds tended to bleed a lot even if they weren’t serious. He hoped that he wouldn’t need stitches.
He stared at the blood.
He was aware of his father’s continuing to rave in the background and sound of additional, more angry voices.
The blood droplets melted together, moving more quickly than realistically possible. The pool of red spread unnaturally across the floor.
Ali’s voice broke through his consciousness. She was trying to pull him to his feet and away from the blood. Yet still he stared, fascinated, as if he couldn’t physically take his eyes off of it as it spread to cover the entire dance floor.
Screams erupted from the crowd as they backed away from the sea of red.
Then footsteps appeared in the blood.
Beside him, Ali shrieked. “Oh, Lord! Get back.” She pulled on his arm.
The footsteps were actually reverse foot steps, areas of dry bare wood in the sticky red pool that now covered most of the dance floor.
Paul stood up. Ali pulled on his arm again, but he didn’t move.
His father’s voice was no longer present. Shocking to Paul. He looked at his father, who stared at the foot prints, his face white and drawn. The crowd was thinner now. Paul heard the sounds of doors slamming. People running out.
A thin fog welled up over the dance floor and the blood, thickening up even as the sounds of patrons fleeing, stumbling over tables, shattering glass, became louder.
Out of the fog, stepped a ghastly figure. Tall. Taller than Paul’s father, with a sallow face and a shock of black hair. Blood streaked his face.
“Strands.” The voice was no louder than a whisper, but Paul heard it. Jesse stood by the back door, Veronica tucked behind him. He looked like he’d seen a ghost…which of course, he had, Paul thought.
“Strands?” Paul repeated and looked at the slowly approaching figure.
Its eyes were glowing and red with blood-shot whites. They stared at something over Paul’s shoulder. At Paul’s father.
The lights above crackled, sending a cascade of sparks downward. The bar went dark for two heartbeats until the emergency lights kicked on.
In the eerie silent half-light, the figure continued to walk forward as if slogging through snow drifts, one foot carefully in front of the other. Paul stepped to the side, and the figure passed him.
Paul’s father hadn’t moved. Whether he couldn’t or just didn’t want to Paul didn’t know.
“Stop.” Paul’s father suddenly found his voice and control of his body again. He shoved the staff at the ghost. It passed right through.
The ghost laughed, bone chillingly cold and hollow.
“I said, Stop. In the name of the Lord, our God and Savior, stop, demon!”
The demon or ghost or whatever it was ignored his father’s words. It grabbed the staff from his father – Paul was surprised because the ghost had just been so insubstantial – and swung it at his father.
His father ducked and fell to the floor. He fished his crucifix out of his tunic and held it up, mumbling something Paul couldn’t make out. He scrabbled backwards. The ghost pursued him.
In the ghost’s hands, the staff transformed into a sharp-ended spear, still wood with the brass handle that Paul knew so well, but the end pointed at his father was pointed and dark as if already tipped with blood.
Paul knew he should do something… say something…but his feet remained planted. Ali’s hand was warm on his forearm in the chill of the bar. He could hear her breathing, her panting.
The ghost laughed again, raised his arm, and threw the malformed staff. It struck Paul’s father in the chest and sank in with a wet thump.
Ali screamed. “Oh my God,” she gasped. “Shit! Oh my God.”
Paul’s father choked and spit up blood. He still clutched crucifix in his hand. He tried to raise it but his arm fell slack.
Paul was in shock. His father wouldn’t survive that wound, he knew. But was he sad or not? He didn’t know. He was numb.
The ghost turned and looked at Paul. He nodded once then dissolved into thin air.
“What…” Ali clutched his arm.
The blood on the floor and the fog faded almost as quickly as the phantom.
The bar was silent and almost empty. Paul looked around, dazed. Jesse and Veronica still stood by the back exit. The bartender stood behind the bar, holding a baseball bat. Two other large men that Paul assumed were the bouncers who tried to break up his father’s preaching flanked the front door. A few other patrons stood near the exit, looking as shocked and pale as Paul knew he was.
His father took another gasp and slumped back onto the floor still. His dull eyes gazed up at the ceiling, not seeing.
His father was dead. Dead.
Paul couldn’t believe it. He was free…in a totally weird and unexpected way, he was free from his father’s tyranny. Freed by a ghost. He couldn’t believe it. Even though he had just seen it happen.
He let Ali pull him towards the doors. As he stumbled out onto the sidewalk into a light rain, he heard the faint strains of:
“Welcome to the Devil” coming from inside the bar. Then the sound of sirens downed it out.
J. L. deGarie’s bucket list includes running a marathon, learning to make home-brewed beer, and being nominated for either a Hugo or a Nebula award (or both!). You can find J. L. online at jldegarie.wordpress.com.
Don’t forget to download J.L.’s short story collection: The Devil Went Down to Iowa and Other Stories.
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Tags: fanatics, ghosts, J.L. DeGarie, spirits