This story is by Mike Adkins and was part of our 2022 Fall Writing Contest. You can find all the writing contest stories here.
The thick darkness and acrid smoke fill my nostrils and press against my senses as I duck through the doorway into the back of the shop. It is late on a hot August night and somewhere deep down, I know that I am looking for answers in all the wrong places. As I duck in, my arms prickle. My hair stands up. I can’t shake this feeling, but I have to talk to Lilith. I’ve spent too much time trying to find answers and I don’t have much time left.
Twelve months ago I started seeing and hearing things. I tried to ignore them because I assumed I was losing my mind. One day, I blacked out at work. I woke in the hospital. The doctor said it was a miracle I woke at all. I can still see the doctor standing there in his blue scrubs. When I concentrate, I can hear him speak.
“You have Glioblastoma. It’s aggressive. I don’t want to scare you, but I do want to be direct. With the progression you’re showing, your odds aren’t good. There are some treatment options, but the likelihood of it responding is low…” At some point, he said the word fatal.
Fatal echoed in my mind. I wept for hours. I am only 27, I thought, I can’t just roll over and die.
So, I sought far and wide for a magic cure. Some leads turned out to be quack medicine, others turned out to be much more.
New Orleans changed everything. After searching high and low, I was referred to a witch doctor named Bembe. His small house was hard to find but once I found him he was willing to help. Bembe smiled wide and invited me in. He showed me a world beyond explanation. One that filled me with wonder, hope, and fear.
On that night in June, Bembe chanted and mixed his potion in a cast iron pot on the stove in his cramped kitchen. The house was hot, the air was humid, and the lights were dim. A faint smell of gas radiated from the ancient stove. I sat a few feet away from him at his table. His brew smelled of earthy decay and cinnamon. As he stirred, I looked around the room at the voodoo trinkets, and a painting of a woman stared directly at me. Her face was twisted in a scream and she was staring me right in the eye with those huge, life-like, piercing green eyes. The smell of the brew was turning my stomach.
Slowly, Bembe set the spoon down, pulled a live chicken from a sack, and lifted it higher than his head over the pot. It struggled. Bembe quickly slit the chicken’s throat and let it scream and struggle while its blood seeped out in gurgling bursts, down Bembe’s hand, and his forearm, before it dripped and then flowed into the pot. His chanting increasingly got louder.
Bembe set the chicken down and continued to stir with his blood-streaked arms. As he stirred black smoke rose erratically from the bubbling liquid. The smoke took shape, forming small smoky figures that started to move slowly around the room. The temperature dropped quickly and my breath turned to mist.
The figures’ presence felt wrong and they multiplied until the room was filled. Moving back and forth, around and around, chaotically. Yet, there was beauty in their haunting dance. As Bembe’s chant hit a crescendo, he stood taller, puffed his chest, and held his arms wide. I was mesmerized and for a moment everything seemed to stand still. Suddenly the world blurred into motion, and the apparitions raced toward me – into me. I felt them enter my body like cold gusts of wind. It was terrifying. It was exhilarating. I wasn’t healed.
My understanding of everything splintered and shattered like broken glass. I assumed I wouldn’t survive my cancer, but I was filled with an unsettling calm. I knew I had to search for answers to understand what came next. Bembe had proved to me that there was more to everything than I had thought.
Months later, I’m sitting with Lilith at her table in a dark, and smoky room in the back of her shop. The smell of incense and something else fills my nose and my lungs. It burns and the edges of my perception blur into some other reality.
I sense more than I see what she is doing. I feel her drawing on the power of her crystal ball like you feel the acceleration of a car when you press the gas pedal to the floor. She calls to the spirits, which is why I came to her. She will coax answers from them. They flock to her. I can barely see them through the haze, but I see them. Wispy and transitory they slowly fill the room. I start to feel them as well as their numbers grow. The hope, fear, malice, and myriad other strong emotions brought by the dead are overwhelming.
At first, I can’t tell the exact words that Lilith uses, my sense of everything is too foggy. Slowly everything sharpens into focus. I hear and feel her words like she is speaking directly into my mind.
“This man is going to die and wants to know your secrets,” she says.
There are dozens in the small room. The spirits of ordinary folks are like dim projections on translucent smoke.
They turn to look at me. My heart slows, my vision narrows, and the room chills. They look deep into my soul. I feel them asking me “Why?” and then they stop.
One of them says “Open the door.” Others start to echo the first and it turns into a low chant. They all slowly repeat. “Open the door…open the door…open the door…” over and over again.
Lilith tenses. Worry spreads across her face.
“You have been invited,” she whispers. “They want to share their secrets with you. This is a great honor.”
“I knew we would find some answers. The dead love to tantalize the living, but I never thought you would be invited.”
“I can only warn you that many who follow the dead never return.”
Across the room, a black door appears slowly on the far wall like a blurry landmark in the distance coming into focus as you get closer. The spirits leave. The door beckons to me. I feel it call. It pulls me forward, and I go. I place my hand on the spectral door. My chest is tight. My stomach aches. My heart beats hard and fast enough to burst.
Lilith appears beside me and whispers “It might be everything you are looking for…It might not… It might be much more. You’re standing at the edge of an abyss. Will you jump?”
I stare deeply into the abyss of the door. Different hues of black mix and swirl as if alive. Twinkling bursts of starlight appear and fizzle. I am transfixed by this scene of a universe in chaos. Lilith is gone. Everything is gone except for the door.
Slowly, I reach down for the knob and start to turn it. The door flies open blown by the screaming howl of a hurricane-force wind. I am swept inside. I fall for eternity. I scream and shriek louder and louder as I fall. A primal fear fills me and overwhelms me. My need for answers and understanding flee. The darkness presses harder and harder until it’s difficult to breathe. My vision dims and I pass out.
I wake in darkness. In the distance, there is a small arched bridge. Its lights glow in the darkness and I am drawn to it like a bug drawn to a porch light. A solitary spirit stands there. As I get closer, the bridge seems to stretch. I start to see the edges of the chasm that it spans. The apparition is a man. He beacons me forward and I meet him in the middle of the bridge at its apex. He wanders to the side and waves me over. We look over into the inky black river that flows below.
“This is the river Styx,” he says. “Few alive see it and fewer still choose to plunge into its icy depths. Your answers are there, but you won’t survive them.”
A desire to live that I hadn’t felt in ages grew in my heart. It grew bigger and stronger. I saw a vision of my parents and my brother and happier times when their love and life filled me with joy, but I had left them long ago. The tears start to drop and then stream down my cheeks and my body shakes with the sobs of a man who has lost everything. As my body and mind calm, I breathe deeply. I look at the spirit. He seems to understand but is unmoved.
I wipe my eyes and jump.