CLUB 27 by Antonio Ricardo Scozzi
As the fog grew ever thicker around his Mercedes, Jack McCracken had to admit he was utterly lost somewhere in the San Bernardino Mountains.
“What the fuck?” he muttered to himself as he took a long, nervous drag on his cigarette. “Where the fuck am I?”
Jack slowed his car to a crawl and leaned forward towards the windshield, as if that would help him peer through the grey mists completely obscuring his view of the road. While driving back to Los Angeles Jack had gotten off Route 15 at Cajon Junction to use the bathroom, but rather than getting back on the same route he’d somehow missed it and instead continued along Route 138 higher into the mountains. He wondered how he could have been so distracted to miss the onramp as he took another swig of bourbon from his ubiquitous flask.
As he drove, Jack could feel himself climbing higher and higher into the mountains. Shrouded by this implacable fog, however, he couldn’t get his bearings at all. He might be going in circles for all he knew. Jack stopped in the middle of the road, getting out to look around, and was struck by how bizarrely quiet the dark night was. He could see the vague shape of trees looming around either side of the road, but he could hear nothing—no night animals, no wind through the trees, not even the sound of faraway traffic. It was almost as if the fog was absorbing sound as much as it was blocking light.
Lost and utterly confused, Jack took another long drag off his cigarette before flicking it away, looked around one final time, then got back in his car to begin slowly crawling forward again.
The fog had settled in not long after he’d started moving up the mountains on 138, quickly thickening into a wall of mist. At almost the same time, Jack’s Bluetooth gave out, cutting off the music to which he’d been listening and plunging him into that weird silence. He’d checked the radio, but every station offered him nothing but quiet, leaving him without even the hiss of static. Jack had tried to bring up his GPS, but he had no service up in the mountains, and so there was no way he could even call his wife, Kai, to track his phone and give him directions.
As Jack wandered aimlessly through the impenetrable fog, he’d come to several intersections he couldn’t identify, each option just leading him further into a dark sea of fog. Jack had turned in these intersections almost randomly, making his confusion about his location even worse. He thought he’d passed Silverwood Lake a little while back, but if that was the case some mountain top developments should have been on his right, yet all he saw was inky blackness, shrouded in thick mist. Jack had taken the road trip from LA to Las Vegas dozens of times before and never once had any issues with the drive, until tonight.
Tonight, the night he’d been forced to say goodbye to Emily.
He thought about her now with just a touch of sadness as he crept his way through the murky fog. He’d been instantly attracted to her the first time he saw her with her perky little tits and her ginger hair and her sweet Mid-Western girl smile. Emily had told him she’d moved to LA from Nebraska to make it big, and she was a recent enough arrival to still have stars in her eyes. He’d found that boundless, naively innocent enthusiasm somehow quaintly attractive to him, knowing it’d only be a matter of time before the filth of the movie industry crushed her soul, too.
Most of Jack’s career in Hollywood had been as a stunt man, so he was well accustomed to managing and conquering his fears. Over the years he’d developed quite a reputation as a man who’d do things few others would, earning the nickname of “Crackhead McCracken” due to his willingness to risk injury doing stupidly dangerous stunts—yet despite that, Jack was starting to feel a deeply unsettling, unreasonable dread creeping into his heart as he seemed trapped in this never-ending fog.
Jack continued to think of Emily as the fog got thicker, something he’d thought to be scarcely possible. The fog wrapping around and closing in on his car like greedy fingers made that fearful sense of impending doom grow. He chuckled nervously, flinching at the sudden sound of his own laugh.
“Well, Emily,” Jack muttered to himself. “You seem to be having your revenge on me, don’t you?”
That would be a well-earned revenge. As the son-in-law of Hugh Pettibone, one of Hollywood’s most powerful and successful movie producers, Jack had assured Emily he had major influence and suggested he would pull strings for her. Jack had told her he helped oversee various projects and had a hand in choosing actors, so he could guarantee her a role in some upcoming movie. All she had to do in return was favour him with her company.
Jack, however, had been shamelessly lying to Emily just to get her to sleep with him, because while Pettibone certainly was his father-in-law, he despised Jack with a passion and treated him with unrestrained contempt. Yet nonetheless, Jack’s ruse worked, just as experience taught him it would.
Emily had been a great lover—one of the best he’d ever had, he fondly recalled with a devilish smile—but she should’ve known better. She should have known not to get too attached to him, Jack reasoned to himself, to develop feelings for him. She should’ve known that their relationship was entirely about sex, purely primal, solely focused on carnal satisfaction. She should have known she was nothing but a pleasant distraction for Jack in what was an otherwise pointless existence for him.
He’d told her clearly enough a year earlier, at the very beginning of their affair. He could distinctly recall the questionable odour of the downtown motel they met at their first night together, one far away from the prying eyes of the Hollywood hills and the Pettibone family’s considerable reach. He’d lain there after filling her for the first time that night, gently stroking her red hair, admiring her green eyes that contrasted against her milky white skin.
“You know I’m crazy about you,” Jack had said, “but you also have to know this is all we can ever be. Two horny lovers, meeting secretly as often as we can—I mean, at least until you make it big and forget all about me.” Emily had giggled at that. Jack very much liked that giggle, a sexy mixture of youthful innocence mixed with native lasciviousness.
He’d continued his thought, saying, “No dates, no hanging out, certainly no proposals of marriage. Just sex. You okay with that?”
Emily had leaned in to kiss him, and then, with a playful wink, said, “Of course… not like I want to get married.”
“That’s what they all say,” Jack said to himself as he floated in a sea of fog, just to break the unearthly silence in his car. “That’s what they always say… at first.”
Speaking out loud had made Jack even more aware of the crypt-like quiet. That was an image he instantly wished he hadn’t conjured. He had a sudden vision of himself trapped in a crypt, driving in never-ending circles in some foggy tomb for all eternity. Jack felt like he was literally floating through a black void. As he did, Jack felt that gnawing dread creep ever more deeply into his heart, and he had to work hard to push down his growing panic.
“PANIC!” Jack screamed suddenly just to shatter the silence but also because his thoughts had turned to how he’d felt not long ago thanks to his perky little ginger lover.
Emily should have known better, Jack again had told himself. She should have known better than to fall in love with him, and she certainly should have known better than to tell him she was in love with him. She absolutely should have known better than to have told him she was pregnant with his child.
Emily had dropped that on him like a ton of bricks. She’d called him, which immediately sent up red flags because they normally only ever texted. Emily told him then that she was pregnant, and as chilling as those words were to Jack, much more so was the joyous, ebullient tone to her voice. He’d heard those words a few times before with other lovers, usually followed by a brief pause and then the words, “Don’t worry, I’ll take care of it,” coming swiftly afterward. Having lovers take care of such inconveniences was certainly a benefit for Jack, especially as it marked the perfect point at which to end their relationship.
“But not with you, Emily!” Jack yelled out loud as he became more disturbed by creeping through this blackened void in grating silence. “Oh, no! Not you, Miss Emmie! You had to go make things difficult, didn’t you?”
She’d had the audacity to be thrilled about carrying Jack’s child and had made it clear she had no intention of aborting their baby. When they met later that night Emily had told him again she loved him, that she wanted to be with him, and that their baby would bring them together. Emily wanted Jack to leave his wife and be with her. Screw the Pettibones, she’d said. Screw them and their power and clout and multiple Oscar wins. They could start their own production company, she’d enthusiastically told him.
“You don’t need them, Jack,” Emily had said. “They need you. That whole place would fall apart without you. You’ve said so yourself.” That’s when Jack started to feel panicked, trapped in his own web of lies.
When Jack had lied to Emily about being able to pull strings for her with Hugh Pettibone, it wasn’t just because his father-in-law hated him and treated him contemptuously, it was because he had nothing to do with the business. Jack’s father-in-law saw to it that he was kept far away from developing scripts, hiring directors, overseeing stages of production, or any of the many other things a producer does. Kai ran her father’s production company for him with great success, and Hugh made damn sure “that fucking former stunt man” remained as far away from his business as possible.
Not only did the Pettibones most assuredly not need Jack as he had led Emily to believe they did, but he also had no money to his own name. Jack didn’t work anymore, neither as a stunt man nor as the bit actor he’d occasionally been, so the money he had access to was what Kai earned herself, mingled with the massive profits from the production company. To ensure this was a benefit of marriage Jack could only enjoy while married, Hugh had insisted they sign a prenuptial agreement. If Jack should ever be divorced from Kai for any reason, he’d lose everything he had and go back to the life he’d lived before he met Kai on set and then swept her off her feet.
At that time, he’d been living in a crappy little apartment in a seedy part of LA, driving a beat-up Sonata, and typically eating ramen noodles. He now lived in an opulent mansion in the hills, drove a Mercedes-AMG GT convertible, and enjoyed every luxury modern American life could offer the super-wealthy. Jack might not technically be a member of the elite, but he enjoyed the castoff benefits of being so close to that stratospheric level, which was good enough for him. There was no way in hell he was losing all of this for some freckle-faced redhead from Marsland, Nebraska with silly dreams in her head.
Then, to make matters worse, Emily had said it. She’d said the words that led inexorably to this night, to Jack ending their relationship. “You need to tell Kai,” she’d implored Jack. “It’s the right thing to do. And if you don’t, Jack, I will.”
At that moment, Jack knew what he had to do.
“You just had to say that! Ain’t that right, Miss Emmie?” Jack yelled into the painfully quiet night, “You just had to go ahead and say that, didn’t you? DIDN’T YOU?”
Laughing much more loudly than he would’ve if not for the piercing silence, Jack feared he was about to lose his mind, that he was going to finally crack, when he suddenly saw a cool blue light glowing diffused through the fog, then the blink of a flickering red light. He thought for a one quick moment the lights were coming from a police car, and with it, help in getting out of this foggy nightmare, but as Jack crept forward, he saw the lights were roof-height. When the fog dissipated slightly, he was able to see the glow came from a neon sign mounted atop a non-descript white roadside building. Framed by a blue neon circle, the word CLUB flashed in red neon, followed by a red 27. They both flashed one time together, then stayed lit for a few seconds, and then both went out to start the cycle again.
When Jack saw the unexpected bar beckoning him on this lonely road, he let out a long sigh of relief. While typically pleased to see any bar, Jack had never been so happy to see one before in all his life. He felt almost like he was melting into the seat as the tension that had been building in the hour of wandering the mountains seeped out of his body. To help release the tension further, Jack lit another cigarette, knowing he wouldn’t be able to smoke in the bar. He’d feel better still, he decided, getting a few beers as he also got directions back to Route 15.
Jack pulled into the lot in front of the small bar, seeing there was only one other car parked out front. When Jack got out and was able to see the other car more clearly, he was shocked and delighted to see it was a pristine 1970 Chevrolet Chevelle SS 454, what he’d always personally considered the pinnacle and perfection of American muscle cars. Jack had always been into cars, and, as a stuntman, he’d gotten to drive some of the best cars on the planet. He was a sucker for a gorgeous car, and one with 450 horses in it was even more irresistible.
“Oh, my, my, my…” he whispered to the night, the noise of the buzzing neon sign the only other thing he heard. “What a gorgeous girl you are.”
Jack flicked his cigarette into the small parking lot, eager to get a few beers and then the directions to get off this mountain. He opened the door into a small antechamber that had black velvet curtains separating it from the bar itself, beyond which he could hear the low murmur and music of the bar.
As Jack pushed aside the curtains and looked around, he was very surprised to see that the bar was much larger than it appeared on the outside, and far more packed than the one car parked out front would suggest. He assumed there was a parking lot in the rear he couldn’t see due to the fog.
He saw now that this was more of a venue than just a bar. There was a small stage on the opposite end of the space, on which a young, sultry woman with a great sweep of black beehive hair sang softly and seductively. Small tables were aligned around the stage, many of which had patrons sitting at them, with a large, U-shaped bar to Jack’s left. There was a haze hanging in the air that at first confused him until he realized most of the patrons were smoking.
He looked over at the bar where he saw that the bartender, a handsome young black man, was wiping down some glasses with a cigarette lazily dangling from his lips. Seeing there were several empty barstools available, Jack sat down, once again in a familiar environment and feeling comfortable at last.
“What can I get you?” the bartender asked him, though with his gravelly voice and thick southern accent it sounded more like Wha’ kini’gitcha?
“Beer,” Jack said, lighting his last cigarette. “Surprise me with something local.”
Jack turned in his seat to take in this strange place. He saw the young woman on stage, sitting lazily on a stool, as she sang something bluesy, softly yet powerfully, a voice full of love-lost pain. Jack, being more a primal kind of guy, paid little attention to the song itself and instead keyed in on her body. He noted her face was lovely, but her long black hair tumbling down her shoulders, coupled with the great bouffant she had swept up on the top of her head, was truly striking. Jack also saw she had various tattoos on both arms. He always found women with visible tattoos enticing because he liked to find the ones they had hidden beneath their clothes.
As Jack sat there watching the woman sing, his eyes began to sweep along the walls of the bar, taking in the décor of this dimly lit space. He saw that mostly it was decorated with posters from long ago concerts. Jack saw one for The Rolling Stones Rock and Roll Circus show in 1968, another for a Drifters concert from 1960, and then another one for Stone the Crows from 1972. Not being very interested in either music history or art these posters didn’t keep his attention for long, but he liked the vibe created by these many posters being scattered haphazardly all over the walls.
As his eyes slid along the walls taking in the posters, they stopped suddenly on something that he hadn’t seen in years. Along the wall not far from the bar was an old-fashioned cigarette vending machine, looking like something straight out of the 60s.
“Whoa,” Jack said, to no one in particular as he stamped out his finished cigarette. He approached the thing like he was seeing a long-lost friend. “I didn’t think these things even existed anymore.”
When he got to the machine, he was shocked and thrilled to see that it was well-stocked with every brand of cigarette imaginable, even some he no longer thought were available. In the first level he saw his Marlboro brand along with Camels, Pell Mell, and other popular current brands, but in the bottom row were Merit, Doral, Lucky Strike, and More, brands that he hadn’t seen since he was a teenager—in some cases, brands he’d never seen at all.
Eager to get a fresh pack of smokes, Jack looked to see where the price was indicated, but he could find none. In fact, he couldn’t see anywhere to even put money into the machine. There was no place to slip in dollar bills, nor any place for coins. Jack was just about to ask the bartender how to work it when he saw a hand-written sign pasted to the machine that read
Help yourself and stay awhile.
“No way,” he muttered to himself, as he slowly reached out to grab the knob. Not believing things could actually be this easy, Jack paused a moment with his hand on the clear plastic knob, then pulled it. A pack of cigarettes was distributed just like he remembered.
“No way!” he said again, more emphatically the second time. Jack grabbed the pack of Marlboros and looked around, thinking perhaps he was going to be confronted for stealing the smokes. Instead, the patrons paid him no attention at all and simply applauded as the woman finished her set, waved once, and then strode off stage. Knowing a good thing when he saw it, Jack pulled the knob again and got himself another pack of Marlboros.
“A big round of applause for Amy, everyone,” a deep, smooth voice sounded from over the speakers. “Thanks so much, Amy. We love you. Enjoy some oldies from The Fabulous Wailers now until our next live set begins later.”
Jack was about to go back to his seat at the bar when he noticed, interspersed between the various concert posters, were numerous beat-up old license plates. He’d seen bars decorated like this all over the country so he wasn’t impressed by the originality, but being a car guy he always liked the touch.
The first one he noted was at eye-height, a rusty, discoloured old New York plate from 1964. He looked at a different one just a little higher and saw another old plate, scratched, scraped, and dented, this one from California, 1970. Jack was just about to search out another one when he realized there was an odd coincidence with the two plates. The California plate read ACW 9370, while the New York plate read CRH 52064. Different numbers and letters, but the same unusual pattern.
His eyes darted now to the next he could find, a British-style plate. He couldn’t tell where exactly in Britain it came from, but again it was the same pattern, this one reading AJW 23711. Though relatively new, it was also rusted and cracked.
“Huh,” he said. “That’s… odd.”
Jack took several steps back so he could find more plates. Again and again, the same pattern repeated itself. Regardless of where the plates came from, regardless of the registration sticker year on the plate, they all followed the same basic model. He saw a PWH 24475 and a JLJ 10470, there was a JAH 91870 and an RCM 3873, he could make out a DMA 21075, an RLJ 81638, and a JDM 7371. He turned slowly, seeing that these rusted, dented plates occupied every bit of free space in between the concert posters, and covered the entire venue wall space.
Jack returned to his barstool and took a long swig of his beer, drinking it all in one draught. He lit a new cigarette as the bartender said, “’Nother?” Jack nodded wordlessly.
He really liked the cool vibe in this place, and loved that he was able to smoke here—he didn’t know how they got away with it, nor did he care—but still, Jack figured at some point he should try to get directions off this mountain. Wondering how late it was already, he asked the bartender, “What time is it?”
The man poured a drink then looked at Jack, taking a long drag off his cigarette. The bartender exhaled slowly, then simply shrugged. “Time don’t matter when you in the club,” he said as he walked to give the woman who was singing earlier a vodka.
Jack dismissed that odd answer as his eyes were drawn to the singer. Her beehive hair was quite striking, as were her Cleopatra eyes, and indeed the entire sultry, confident way she carried herself. Jack had the sinking suspicion he’d seen her somewhere before, though he couldn’t place where. That was nothing new for Jack; not only did he come across dozens of new people every year due to the Pettibones’ production company, but he was also just terrible with remembering who people were.
That thought of the production company suddenly brought all his memories crashing back on to Emily, the whole reason he found himself in this cool, if not a little odd, place. Jack took another deep swig of his beer, then stared into its amber depths as he thought of her again.
“She should’ve known better,” he mumbled to himself as he took a drag off his cigarette.
He’d called her some days after her ultimatum to tell her he was going to talk to Kai about them and that he would be leaving his wife. But first, he wanted to blow some money in Vegas and asked her to come with him. Emily was, of course, only too thrilled at this news, and jumped at the opportunity to spend some time with Jack playing in Las Vegas.
Jack had booked them a suite at the Planet Hollywood Resort and Casino for a few days. After getting them both settled into their room, he’d given Emily a $5,000 stack of $100 bills and told her to go have fun at the casino while he conducted some business. He remembered with some guilt the look of wonder and awe in her eyes as she saw the stack of money, knowing full well she’d never seen so much and that it would completely overwhelm her.
He felt some guilt because of that, but not much, and not for long.
Jack raised his head to rub his eyes as a headache began to set in, one he had no doubt was the result of fatigue, stress, and getting lost on this mountain. He looked around at the other people sitting at the bar, something Jack would always do to size others up. On his right, the singer sat several stools away from him, but she paid him no heed as she chatted with the bartender. A few stools away from her sat another patron, but this one had apparently had far too much to drink as he muttered unintelligibly to himself, his head down almost on the bar, his hands wrapped tightly around the back of his head. A long-ago burned-out cigarette sat dead in the ashtray in front of him.
On his left sat a young man with shoulder-length blond hair, wearing black sunglasses. He sat there smoking, and drinking a beer, as he sang something gently to himself Jack couldn’t quite make out. At the far end of the bar sat a young black man with a shock of frizzy dark brown hair crowning his head, chatting and laughing comfortably with a young white woman, with long straight hair. Jack noted, with some amusement, that both looked like they’d just returned from a hippy-themed costume party.
He again had that sinking feeling that he has seen these people before, that he somehow knew them or recognized them from somewhere, but he couldn’t quite figure it out. The beers were not helping his recall one bit.
“Alright, folks,” the smooth voice from the speakers again said, “time to change it up a little as we enjoy a few songs from Spanky and Our Gang until our next live set… sometime later.”
Jack finished off his beer, and before he could even ask for another the bartender had a new, icy cold brew placed before him. Since he figured it’d be rude to decline the beer and invalidate the man’s effort, he started on his third drink that night.
As he did, Jack thought of the beer he’d drunk after it was all over. He’d brought a cold six-pack with him because he knew he’d need them afterward.
After returning from the “business” he was allegedly conducting there in Vegas, he joined Emily in the casino for a few hours before telling her he had a surprise for her. The look of bright, joyous anticipation on her face when he did was almost too much for Jack to bear, yet still, he persevered. She giddily insisted on knowing what it was, but he refused to tell her as that would ruin the surprise.
He did, however, tell her it was in the desert outside of town.
Jack took side road after side road until they were driving on unpaved, packed desert dirt. As they approached what he said was their final destination, Jack handed Emily a silk scarf and told her to put it on as a blindfold. When she asked why, Jack simply said to her, in his most sincere voice possible, that it would make the surprise even more enjoyable and to trust him.
Emily did, so she did as he asked.
When they arrived, Jack took Emily by the hand and walked her gently several steps in front of the car.
“Wait right here, and don’t move,” Jack had said as the sun started to set and the desert air cooled around them. “I’ll be right back. I need to get something from the car for you.”
“Okay,” Emily said eagerly, giggling a little and biting her bottom lip.
Jack went to the trunk of his car and got out the baseball bat and shovel he’d brought from home. He leaned the shovel against the car to use later, and even as Emily jumped a little in eager excitement and clapped her hands happily, he swung that heavy bat as hard as he could. Jack struck the back of Emily’s head with such force that her skull shattered with a sickening wet thwok! and she immediately fell dead onto the desert ground. Despite that, Jack took a few extra swings at her head, cracking it open and spattering the dry Nevada sands with her brains and blood.
Had Emily not been blindfolded, she would’ve seen she was standing in front of a shallow grave cut into the rocky sands, one Jack had just dug earlier while she was at the casino. After killing Emily, Jack tossed the bat into the grave, then easily dragged her limp, light body, and dumped it into the sandy hole. It took him no time at all to cover her with the displaced earth he’d dug up earlier, being sure to scrape up the copious amounts of blood that had soaked into the sand. Once he was done, Jack drank some cold beer as he looked over his handiwork in the growing dusk, and he could see nothing but a slight rise in an otherwise unremarkable desert landscape.
His Emily problem was taken care of, once and for all.
Afterward, Jack went back to the hotel and enjoyed the next several days playing in Las Vegas by gambling, drinking, and entertaining various escorts in his lavish hotel room. It was, overall, a great few days for Jack away from LA… with the one small drawback of being forced to kill Emily.
“Here’s to you, kiddo,” Jack said to himself as he raised his pilsner of beer, “you beautiful, stupid ginger, you.”
As Jack stamped out his cigarette and was just about to ask the bartender for directions off the mountain, he saw the patron he assumed was drunk had now lifted his head. The man’s bulging eyes darted wildly everywhere, never lingering on any one place for long, and his hand shook as he brought a cigarette up to his mouth. His skin was a pale white that glistened with a thin veneer of slick sweat, and Jack could just make out what he was saying as his muttering turned into softly toned speaking.
“They’re all dead,” he whispered harshly. “They’re all dead… they’re all dead…”
This was the first time Jack had been able to get a good look at the man since his arrival and he saw he was dressed in early 1970s style. His skin-tight polyester shirt had a garish paisley design and the gigantic butterfly collars that were so popular back then. In perfectly appropriate 70s styling, the man had his shirt unbuttoned well past his pecs, showing off his hairy chest and the several gold necklaces he wore. Although he couldn’t see the man’s legs, Jack was willing to bet he was wearing bell-bottom pants and lift shoes with three-inch heels.
Jack had seen many people have an adverse reaction to drugs over his years in Hollywood, so he wasn’t shocked to see the man’s strange behaviour. He was, however, for more taken aback by this man’s hardcore dedication to a terrible sense of fashion.
“Hey, get a load of this guy,” Jack said to the blond-haired man next to him. “He thinks it’s 1973 or something.”
The younger bar patron glanced up from his reverie to look at the man for a moment, shrugged, then said to Jack, “Time don’t matter when you’re in the club.”
Jack was about to ask what he meant by that, when the 70s-man’s ranting increased in volume, drawing his attention away from the patron. Jack looked over and could see now that whatever else was going on, this man was either utterly terrified or in the midst of a mental breakdown, or perhaps both. His eyes bulged even more, as if seeing horrors he had no words to express, and his mouth was twisted back in pure anguish and pain. His entire body now shook as if he was chilled to the bone.
“They’re all dead,” the man said now, more loudly than before, as he also began to titter madly. “They’re all dead… they’re all dead… they’re all dead…”
Although he was not by nature an overly compassionate person, Jack was becoming concerned about the man’s increasingly bizarre behaviour. “Hey, Mac,” he called out to the man. “You okay? What’s going on?”
The man’s wildly searching eyes lingered on Jack for just a moment, but he gave neither answer nor recognition. Instead, he shook ever more violently, so violently he was barely able to get his cigarette to his mouth. He was now laughing loudly as he all but screamed, “They’re all dead! They’re all dead! THEY’RE ALL DEAD!”
The man dropped his cigarette and lifted his hands to his long dirty blond hair. He took two great fists full, and even as his shaking escalated further, he began to pull out great chunks, some of which pulled off bits of his scalp with them. Ignoring the pain, ignoring the blood that now poured down his face, the man just continued to pull out his hair as he shrieked, “THEY’RE ALL DEAD! THEY’RE ALL DEAD! THEY’RE ALL DEAD! THEY’RE ALL DEAD!”
Jack looked around quickly and saw that not one other person at the bar paid this man any mind. The music continued to play, people chatted and smoked and laughed and drank, yet none even looked at this man going publicly and very loudly insane. They merely continued as if he didn’t even exist.
Jack rushed over to him and pulled down his bloody hands to stop the self-harm. “Mac, what’s going on?” he asked the man. “You need an ambulance. What’d you take tonight, man? Did someone slip you something? Where’s your cell phone, man? We need to call 911.”
Rather than answering, the man instead grabbed Jack’s arms and looked at him with panic-wild, unblinking eyes. “THEY’RE ALL DEAD!” he screamed madly right at Jack, laughing maniacally, “THEY’RE ALL DEAD! THEY’RE ALL DEAD! THEY’RE ALL DEAD! THEEEEEEY’RE AAAAAAALL DEEEEEEEEAD!”
With a strength born out of his panic, the man pushed Jack aside, sending him stumbling to the ground. With a piercing shriek that trailed off into more maniacal laughter, the man bolted for the door. Jack rushed to follow him as quickly as he could, though by the time he got back to his feet the man was beyond the curtained veil and through the vestibule.
Still, Jack could hear the man’s laughter outside and his constantly repeating, “THEEEEEEY’RE AAAAAAALL DEEEEEEEEAD! THEEEEEEEEY’RE AAAAAAAAAALL DEEEEEEEEAD! THEEEEEEY’RE AAAAAAALL DEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEAD!
Jack ran to the black velvet curtain as quickly as he could, stepped into the small antechamber—and stopped cold. For one moment he questioned his own sanity because of what he saw, so bizarre and horrifying and nightmarish as it was.
The fog outside was gone. The entire landscape of a southern California mountain was gone. Instead, it had been replaced by the cold, inky black of outer space. Numerous stars twinkled in this weird spacescape, and in the distance, Jack could see a luminescent cloud glowing a pale green mixed with a sickly yellow. The man who had gone mad and run out into this was now floating serenely in space perhaps twenty five yards away, still screaming and laughing insanely.
Jack knew this simply was not possible. His mind, rejecting this unbelievable reality that now presented itself to him, grabbed onto his sanity by trying desperately to remember what those clouds were called so he could seize onto something, anything, that was real, predictable, and logical.
“Nebula,” he whispered to himself as his mind reached back to his 6th-grade science class. “They’re called nebula.”
Jack stood in the small antechamber, arms still pushing hard against the walls as he had done to stop himself more quickly, too afraid to move as he tried to take this all in. A cold breeze wafted in from the wide-open door, but he could breathe normally and was not being sucked out into space, as science fiction movies had led him to believe. Swallowing hard and licking his dry lips once, Jack took a tentative step towards the doorway, and then another. He was far too terrified to go further, but he went far enough that he could look up and down to see there was nothing out there but an endless expanse of void. They floated in what looked like the deepest reaches of space.
As his mind worked over the mind-shattering implications of this, he heard something that sounded like a deep animal roar combined with an unearthly shriek coming from somewhere behind the building. It was like nothing Jack had ever heard before, and it filled him immediately with an unreasonable terror that made him step away from the open door. From inside the bar, he heard the music replaced by the sounds of the patrons rhythmically hammering their tables as they chanted as one a single, unintelligible, guttural-sounding word. Jack heard the roar again, this time now as a long, purplish snake-like tentacle slithered its way through space towards the man slowly floating away.
The massive tentacle swiftly snaked its way towards the man, wrapping itself around him several times like a boa constrictor killing its prey. As the man’s insane laughter turned immediately into screams of terror and pain, the patrons in the bar increased the speed of their chant to a fever pitch, and as the thing to which the tentacle belong snatched the man away with one final triumphant roar, they cried out as one. Jack then heard silence in the bar, swiftly followed by the cool music playing as it had before as if nothing untoward had happened at all.
Shocked, confused, and terrified, Jack stood in the vestibule for some time just staring out into the unchanging blackness of space as he barely clung on to his sanity. As he stood there, with the sounds of music and chatting and laughter going on behind him, he was suddenly overcome by the intense odour of fetid, rotting flesh. At that moment, that strange, punctuated moment, it all became clear to him.
Standing there, looking out into space with a look of defeat and dull acceptance on his face, Jack gently closed the door. A handwritten sign was scrawled there for any who might decide to leave Club 27. It simply read
Welcome to the Void
“Makes sense,” he said to himself. Some patrons inside the club suddenly laughed as if responding to his witticism.
Jack turned to go back inside, and because it had all become clear to him earlier, he knew exactly what to expect. He was, by no measure, a smart man, yet in this one instance, Jack “Crackhead” McCracken had everything neatly figured out. Nothing from here on out would surprise him.
He pulled back the velvet curtain to see the bar venue exactly as he had left it, with two significant exceptions. First, everything was bathed in a pale blue light as if the stage lamps had been twisted around to shine on the crowd, but the source of this light was indeterminate. The entire space just seemed to glow a pallid blue as if by natural luminescence.
The other notable change was that every patron in the Club 27 now appeared as a rotted, putrefied corpse. Everyone else in the crowded bar was a walking carcass, their slimy, blackened skin hanging in tatters and exposing bones everywhere, the clothes they had been wearing now tattered and torn rags. Maggots wriggled in their putrid flesh, falling to the floor in a constant flurry. The patrons’ eye sockets were black and devoid of eyeballs, though rotted lids still clung to the empty orbs. The entire venue now smelled like a rotten, wet crypt.
Despite this, the patrons all carried on as if nothing had changed. The young hippie with the shock of dark hair still chatted with his friend with the long brown hair, both of whom laughed happily as before, though now those laughs sounded like two slabs of concrete grating against each other. The blond-haired man still smoked and sang softly to himself, though the cardigan and flannel shirt he’d been wearing were reduced to putrefied, blackened rags. The singer and the bartender chatted as before, just like nothing had changed, despite the maggots falling out of their mouths and eye sockets and noses as they spoke to each other.
Jack slowly and mechanically approached the bar as would a shell-shocked soldier return to the front lines, then sat on his bar stool. He finished off the beer that he’d started earlier after first picking out a wiggling maggot from its frothy head. As the corpse-bartender approached to get him another, Jack asked, “So… I guess I’m stuck here forever, eh?”
“You can stay as long as you like, and leave whenever you want,” the man said, his voice now gargled and gravelly, as if the dirt of the grave still clutched his throat. The bartender held up his rotted, maggot-infested hand, strings of flesh still clinging to some of the fingers, others exposed down to the bone. He then raised his decomposed index finger.
“But there’s only one way out…”