I haven’t tried this before, but since this blog is gathering dust I thought I may as well have a go at it. Here’s a story I wrote a few years back. If this works I may post more stuff. As always, thank you for reading!
The Secrets Of Astaroth
By Jeff Baker
He’d been having the nightmares for months before he realized they were real. He was carried through the dim hallway, the vaulted ceiling always the first thing he saw. The hall being in deep shadow but still clearly visible to him. Then he was able to look down and see other figures in darkness. He was unable to move, only able to somehow direct his gaze toward the others. They spoke in words he couldn’t understand, but the tone and intent were clear: Hatred. Anger. Retribution.
One name was repeated over and over like a curse: “Astaroth.”
He dimly saw limbs stretching towards him, rending him, strangely-colored light flaring out from him instead of blood and his gaze forced upward as he heard a guttural voice screaming words which, he realized, were coming from his own throat. Light struck the vaulted ceiling in greater intensity as the voice reached a crescendo, competing with low chants from the other figures. The light was now a brilliant glare, the voices were earsplitting.
With it all roaring in his ears he sat bolt upright into the quiet of his bedroom. Gasping and shaking he looked around. In the semi-darkness he could just make out his desk by his bedside, and the dim light from the streetlight a few doors down coming in his bedroom window, illuminating his track jersey from Junior High that he’d hung on the wall.
He leaned back in bed.
“This,” he said quietly to the darkness “has got to stop.”
In the bathroom he turned on the light, sloshed water on his face and analyzed himself in the mirror. Dave Easter, 16-year old High School Junior. A little pale, not that tall, dark hair, some zits, probably needs to work out a little more.
He struck a bodybuilder’s pose in the mirror for a moment.
“Yeah, right!” he thought as he switched off the light and headed back down the hall to his room. He peeked in on his Mom. Sound asleep. He couldn’t hear anything from downstairs so he hadn’t woken up his Grandparents either.
He looked out his bedroom window and savored the light breeze. A cool Kansas night. He could make out the stars and a couple of other lights on down the block.
He flopped down on his bed, checked the digital alarm clock on his nightstand which displayed 3:42 in softly glowing numbers. A moment later it changed to 3:43. Silently, but Dave always imagined he could hear a “click!” when the time changed. Dave laid back on the pillow for a few moments, shifted uncomfortably and then rolled over on one side, pulling the covers around him. He was dozing off and didn’t notice the clock silently change again. But instead of 3:44, it displayed the word “Astaroth.”
It was warm in Wichita for early April and Dave had walked to school, rehearsing the speech he was going to give to his Mom and Grandparents about how he needed a car. “Just a cheapie,” he said in his thoughts. “I’ll get a job on the weekends and pay you off for it!” He could see his Mom and Granddad agreeing to the whole thing, but not Grandma.
“Your job is going to school,” she’d say. “You need an education before anything else. And you need a scholarship to college.”
Dave wasn’t sure about all that, but this was the one subject his Grandma was inflexible on. Anything else and she became sentimental mush. Dave kept his grades up mainly because of her. And because school was pretty damn easy as far as he was concerned.
“Hey, Dave!” The voice behind him was accompanied by a lot of panting and fast footsteps.
Bill Gray was probably the closest thing to a best friend Dave had. Dave kept to himself by and large, but he’d been on the track team in Junior High School and Bill (then called “Billy,”) had been the only guy on the team who ran faster than him. The team came in last at the State Meet but Dave found that he could unload on Bill about anything. Bill was still the jock guy, but also sang in the School Chorale with Dave. Dave hadn’t made the High School Track team but was on the school newspaper, “The Mentor.” School was a welcome routine for Dave and he embraced it the way he wrapped the covers around him on a cold night.
Bill was wearing jogging shorts, sneakers and a tank top with his backpack slung
over his shoulder. How much did that weigh? Dave was doing okay to heft his on his back on the way to school.
“Dude,” Bill started, after crouching over, hands on his knees. “You up for lunch?”
“Uh, yeah.” Dave said vaguely.
“Hey, what’s wrong, bro’?” Bill asked.
“I didn’t get a lot of sleep last night. I’ve been having a bunch of nightmares.”
“About your Dad?” Bill asked after a moment.
Dave glared at him. This wasn’t something they usually talked about, not by mutual agreement, they just didn’t.
“Okay,” Bill said. “Then about what?”
“A bunch of stuff…”
They were in sight of the school now and could hear the bell ringing. The 7:55 bell. They were laughing as they started running full-tilt across the parking lot towards the front door.
“Beat ya!” Dave yelled, touching the glass and metal frame by the sign which warned visitors to check in at the office.
“Just barely!” Bill yelled, an instant behind him.
The rest of Dave’s morning went like most Thursdays. English at 8:00, then Math (which he loved!), then Chem. Lab which was his favorite subject, then his boring Photography class. He had to check in at the Newspaper/Yearbook room with Mrs.
Panero (They called her “Boss Panero” behind her back!) and by then it was fifteen minutes after twelve, and Dave ran out into the parking lot to meet Bill and Steve and Norman and get lunch.
“So, how come it took you so long, Davey-boy?” Steve said , cranking the car stereo.
“Gotta fill my mornings with something!” Dave laughed.
Norman opened the passenger door and sat down just as the music cut off and a frantic announcer started talking.
“Keeping you up to date on the latest developments on the standoff at the Hutchinson Nuclear Power Plant, police say that hostage negotiators are on the scene to talk with the armed man who…”
Steve switched to a station playing Nirvana as Bill hopped in the back seat.
“Hey, listen, guys,” Dave said. “I forgot I’d told Mr. Mason I’d help him out with, uh, stuff over Lunch Hour. Go on without me. I’ll get something to eat here.”
“Aw, come on, Dave! That’s no fun!”
Dave grinned, shrugged and said “See ya later,” as the car peeled out of the parking lot.
The school’s dumpster was in a small area enclosed partly by walls that extended from the school’s tan brick building. A curved asphalt drive ran from the main street to the dumpster. Standing near the dumpster someone could only see the Kansas prairie and not see the suburban houses or the taco place across from the school. They kept the area clean, there were no tracks from the trucks that backed up twice a week to pick up the trash. At the corner of the wall were a bunch of red milk crates stacked in front of a wooden set of shelves that somebody had probably wanted thrown away the first year the school was opened.
Dave ran down the drive, pulled off his backpack and, with a practiced motion, tossed it onto one of the shelves. He circled the small area, looking everywhere for security cameras. It was all routine. David Easter embraced routine, found it comforting. But Dave hated this part.
He looked to the sky and spoke one word.
The wind suddenly roared around him, every speck of dust, every bit of trash in the area swirled around him in a miniature cyclone. Dave found his voice frozen as he stared at the sun, which suddenly didn’t look like the sun of the world he knew. It seemed bedraggled somehow, and the wrong color, as Dave was able to glance through the swirling miasma of trash and growing power and realized that he was now something that didn’t see the world the same way anything human did as he rose into the air.
The Cafeteria was a standard high school lunchroom, but the school also had a snack bar just off the main entryway that was only open between noon and 1:30, mainly for the teachers and the kids who had classes at noon. It had built up a loyal following over the years and some people believed the microwaved sandwiches were better than the portioned meals the Cafeteria served. The curved semi-hallway ending in a too thin corner had been designed to be the box office for the school’s theater. The multicolored tiled walls matched the tiles on the floor and on the large column which inconveniently stood just to the side of the snack bar itself. Someone had said that you could fit a small car in that column.
It was about 12:45 and Dave was gulping down the ham and chicken burrito he’d just bought at the snack bar when Steve, Bill and Norman ran into the room and spotted Dave at the small table behind the column which seemed to keep the tiled floor and ceiling apart.
“Dave!” Steve called out. “Were you watching the news?”
“They’re gonna show it again, you won’t believe it!” Bill said.
“You have got to see this!” Steve grabbed Dave by the arm and pulled him up out of his chair to where he could see the t.v. mounted beside the snack bar.
“What do you think you’re doing?” Dave said convincingly.
“Look!” Norman said pointing, just as the local noon show switched to a special bulletin, with a reporter all but ready to eat the microphone he was holding. They could barely hear the off-screen anchor who was introducing the piece as well as plugging the station’s early-afternoon news show. Then the reporter got the cue in his headphones.
“I’m here just outside the Hutchinson Nuclear Power Plant where, just moments ago, police took the gunman who had been here since this morning into custody. Plant employees are saying the gunman, who has not been identified, was disarmed by what witnesses describe as a, ah, we have the video? Now?” The reporter was talking to someone on the other end of his headphone setup. “Okay, here is some unbelievable footage shot from inside the plant about an hour ago by the security cameras, an exclusive to Chan…”
The screen went black for an instant, cutting him off. Then there was a black and white, bad angle shot, grainy with the date and 12:25 P.M. superimposed in a lower corner. There was a man with ragged hair, black shirt, light jacket, jeans and a gun which he was waving while apparently yelling. There was no sound. There was a package strapped to his front, just under his partly open jacket.
“You wanna bet that’s not his book bag?” Steve said. That was when the figure dropped slowly from the top of the picture several feet behind the gunman. It was lean, proportioned like a man and wrapped in something that looked like gauze. It was somehow blurrier than the rest of the picture. Even its face was covered.
The figure’s head moved as if it was speaking. The gunman spun around and leveled his gun at the figure, visibly shaking, head bobbing, most likely screaming at the top of his lungs. The figure raised a hand and the gun seemed to spurt out of the man’s hand like liquid. The man, his back still to the camera, pulled his jacket open and was yelling something else when the figure walked towards him, hands raised. The man started to sway a little, dropped his hands to his sides and slowly sat down on the ground, then tipping over to one side, asleep.
“Woah!” Bill said.
Dave couldn’t say anything. He stood there, mouth open. It was the first time he’d seen himself in action before.
The gauzy figure looked down at the gunman for an instant, and then rose up out
of the picture the way he came.
The picture cut to the reporter again.
“Police say the man was unharmed and the package was harmless, but are hoping to question…”
“That’s the worst special effects I’ve ever seen!“ It was Baxter, who ran the snack bar. Staring at the t.v. as the reporter was reminding viewers to tune into the early 4:30 newscast for “complete coverage and up-to-the-minute weather.”
“Those weren’t special effects, that was real!” Norman said, a little stunned, his eyes still glued to the screen.
“C’mon! Don’t you listen to the radio? None of the news is real anymore!”
The four of them wandered over by the tiled column.
“I cannot believe that!” Bill kept saying shaking his head.
“Like, what was that, some kind of ninja?” Steve said to no one in particular.
“I don’t know.” Dave said, with a serious look. “Whatever it was it stopped that nut. We should be glad for that.”
“Yeah, but it was like it fell in through the ceiling, like a ghost.” Norman said. “That’s a little creepy!”
“Yeah,” Dave said nodding. “It is.”
The warning bell rang, Dave checked his watch, made his goodbyes and walked down the hall to his locker, letting the broad grin spread across his face. It was too bad no one on t.v. had given him a really cool superhero-type name. Like “Ghostman,” or “The Crawler.” Even though he didn’t crawl.
Dave managed somehow to keep his mind on his last two classes of the day. His last class was the Newspaper/Yearbook lab, and he faked his way through an article on the upcoming State Science Fair.
He was in the school Library minutes after the last bell rang, he’d been putting this off for months, since he’d first heard the word in his recurring nightmare and he’d said it aloud and the word had transformed him into, well whatever. He’d repelled an angry bear on a fall camping trip, neutralized a hazardous chemical spill and caused a private plane which had lost fuel and power to land safely. But no one had seen his other self, and now the people at the nuclear plant had not only seen him, he was caught on camera. No one had recognized him, thank God. Dave was flipping through the “A” sections of dictionaries and encyclopedias, and checking out indexes as well. Somehow that name sounded familiar.
Then he opened something called “The Lore Of Legend: Beliefs, Myths and Madness In Historic Culture,” and flipped to page three.
“Or, maybe not God,” Dave muttered aloud.
The picture at the top of the page was of a tall, horned devil. There were two moons in the sky behind it, flames lapping around him, its expression one of delight. The
picture was identified as “an Eighteenth-Century Woodcut.” The article below was
Dave read on silently, feeling a lot worse.
“Astaroth: Name associated with mysticism and early pagan practices. Sometimes depicted as servant of, or right-hand-man of the Devil, other times associated with nature-goddesses Ishtar, Isis and Astarte. Though associated with wizardry and sorcery little actual myth or worship involving the name exists, except for various wild-eyed cults with no credibility. Often invoked as part of the trappings of popular occultism.”
Below the article were several sources. Dave pulled out his notebook and wrote down a couple.
“Okay,” he said to himself as he walked home. “So I turn into some kind of assistant to the Devil. At least my face is clearing up.”
Dinner at Dave’s house was promptly at five-thirty. For once he didn’t have to be nagged to do his homework. As soon as dinner was over, he logged on to the computer in his room and looked up the sources he’d written down. He hit the jackpot with a website which had information on and a link to the full text of “Ancient Gods Of Time, Earth and Space,” by Prescott and Lewis.
Dave wished the book had an index. He was shaking a little, not as badly as the gunman he’d disarmed that noon, after he’d passed through the walls of the plant and instantly seen that the package strapped to the man’s chest was full of paper and that his blood pressure was high, pulse racing and that the gun was loaded, and that he’d fired one bullet already. He could also see the man’s desperation somehow.
The page came up and Dave read, realizing that he’d never made this much effort or worked this fast for a book report for any of his classes. The book wasn’t badly written but the author’s claims seemed crazy. Ancient astronaut stuff. The notion that powerful beings from beyond the stars were the inspiration for the legends of warring gods of mythology was totally old and total baloney as far as Dave was concerned. If the authors
knew all this stuff where’d they get their information?
Then he read page 97. It began with the description of a rebellion that ended the wars of the gods, a betrayal which lead to the banishing of the head of one faction and of his second, “more feared, more potent,” being overpowered by rebellious underlings. The book said they “carried him through the hall which was his maw of power and sat him in his throne and called down the Great Name which he had used against those who opposed him, and this bound him from using his power against them.” The book didn’t give a source for the information, but Dave kept reading, clicking on to each subsequent page. It was frame-by-frame a script of the movie of his recurring nightmare.
Astarot (that was the way the book spelled it) was quickly tried and sentenced to oblivion. His life would be torn from him and scattered to the winds of the Universe, as would his powers.
Dave jumped out of his chair and went to the window, he needed fresh air. The sun had set. None of what he’d read was real, except for the fact that it was. He had dreamed Astarot’s destruction from a first-person point of view. He’d been haunted somehow by the name “Astaroth,” for weeks afterwards. He’d seen it on movie marquees, in his own signature, in stuff written on school blackboards. Then he’d said the name and had become something else. The scattered powers from another world were now his. Not the Devil, but almost as bad.
Dave spent the next hour pacing his room, recalling the nightmare. The “hall which is the maw of power” was the dark, vaulted roof that opened the dream. Dave had seen it in his dreams enough to know.
It was almost 10:30. he turned off his computer and collapsed into bed. He barely remembered pulling the blankets over him before he dozed off.
And found himself in the vaulted hall. He was walking out of it this time, he recognized the things from the earlier dream walking with him as they turned a corner into a vast room, so high and big the light was cast by its own sun, shimmering there under the immense roof. He could hear himself, or Astarot, talking to his underlings. Dave couldn’t understand a word but he didn’t like the tone. There was a crowd along the front edge of the room, Dave couldn’t make out whether they were humanoid or not.
Astarot raised a hand, not shaped like any hand Dave had ever imagined. There was a scream of anguish from the crowd as one of their number rose into the air and hung there for an instant as Astarot pointed and the being hanging in the air burst apart in a flash of flame and lightning.
“Like fireworks,” thought Dave.
Astarot raised his hand again and again destroying most of the crowd one-by-one. Dave heard not only the laughter of Astarot’s underlings, he experienced Astarot’s emotion of delight at the merciless destruction he was able to invoke with a casual exercise of power.
The thick pressure in Dave’s ears was Astarot’s laughter.
David Easter woke up, drenched in sweat. He’d heard himself screaming in the dream. He lay there and listened. If he’d really screamed everyone in the house would be in here right now. Quiet. Everything was quiet. Dave stretched out his hand in the dark. Still a hand. He was human. But he knew those nightmares weren’t just nightmares. He hadn’t just inherited powers, he’d inherited memories that went along with them. He sat on the edge of the bed wiping the sweat off of his front with the shirt he’d worn the night before and tossed on his chair, he could still see and hear what happened in the dream, the cries, the sense of power and pleasure, the odor of burning that had drifted in the air. Dave hoped he wouldn’t be sick, he took deep breaths. All he needed now was to really wake everybody up.
Dave didn’t want to go back to sleep. He sat by his window for a long time, feeling the cool breeze, staring up at the stars.
At breakfast the next morning Dave was able to fake his usual enthusiasm for cereal and juice which he didn’t feel like eating. He’d gotten about another hour of sleep and hoped the walk to school would make him feel better. Somehow he’d forgotten all about how much he thought he needed a car.
“I’m driving up to see your Dad tomorrow.” Dave’s Mom said as he was stuffing his books into his backpack. “You want to come along?”
Dave’s stomach tightened. He shook his head, and tried to zip up the backpack.
“He’d like to see you, you know.”
“See you later, Mom,” Dave said as he brushed past her and headed outside. They
had that non-conversation about every month, thankfully not any more than that. “Friday,” he thought to himself, “officially sucked.”
Dave figured if he could stay awake through his morning classes he’d be able to make it to the end of the school day. He found that biting his tongue and occasionally pinching himself helped.
“And now,” Mr. Cameron said holding up a stack of papers. “Something to keep you busy for the next couple of weeks.” He passed them out to the class. “This is also a lesson in following directions, as well as everything you are supposed to have learned in the past few months, if you’ve been paying attention. I’ll mention that this is all due two weeks from today.”
Dave was pinching himself when his copy was set on his desk. He quickly scanned it: Formal essay. Something personal. Selected essays to be read aloud as part of your grade.
“Great!” Dave thought. “I-Was-A-Teenage-Superhero-With-Powers-Of-An-Evil-Alien. That’ll impress them.” Dave smiled for real for the first time since yesterday.
Dave only dozed off twice and over lunch, Bill kept nudging him in the ribs.
“I need more sleep,” he explained.
He was relieved to make it to 2:00 and the Journalism room . As usual the daily edition of the local paper was scattered around the room in various pages. Dave usually just pieced together the sports section and then checked the ads for used cars but the Local/State section was lying open at the table he was sitting at, and a small, one-column article jolted Dave totally awake with its headline: Power Plant Gunman Had Small
Dave read on, the article didn’t say anything about how he was captured or give his name but did reveal that he had a carload of explosives and “other high-powered arms” in his car in the Nuclear Plant’s parking lot. There was speculation that the man may have had a grudge against the company which had earlier fired him.
Dave leaned back in his chair and stared up at the lights. If he hadn’t stopped him, what then? If he hadn’t somehow acquired these powers which had been scattered, Hutchinson might just have become a nuclear nightmare that would have even made old Astaroth happy. Dave shook his head.
He took the long way home, walking several blocks around his house, thinking.
He sat at his computer for about an hour before he went to bed, staring at the blank screen.
If Dave had any dreams at all that night, he didn’t remember them.
Dave sat in front of his computer late into the night on Saturday and then late Sunday, which was when he began to write. He printed it out around 1:30 in the morning, went to bed, slept through his alarm, ran to school and spent the noon hour with a pen going through the essay he’d written. He’d sweated over homework before but not like this. He turned it in on the appointed Friday and forced himself to spend the weekend doing anything but worrying.
It was the next Wednesday when Mr. Cameron handed back the essays, and asked Dave to get up in front of the class and read his aloud. Dave felt a coolness in the air as
he walked up to the front of the room, he was starting to shiver, maybe to sweat, hopefully not to faint in front of everyone. He stood behind the old wooden podium which was covered with carved graffiti and was probably older than the school.
Dave looked down at his paper, glanced out at the crowd and began to read.
“Looking for what to write about myself and maybe about my life, I couldn’t think of what to say. I’m trying to pass all my classes, trying not to worry about my senior year next year. That ought to be it. But the last few weeks…” Dave glanced up at the class, realizing his right leg was shaking behind the podium. “These last few weeks a lot has happened to make me think about the relationship between good and evil. Good and Bad, that sounds old-fashioned, I know. But not to me, not anymore.”
Dave stole a glance at Mr. Cameron, leaning back in his chair at his desk
“A guy starts a fire in his fireplace. The fire burns down his house by accident. Another guy starts a fire, on purpose to burn down somebody’s house. Does that make fire bad? Something we should never use?” Above the podium, Dave was the picture of calm to his audience. Behind the podium, Dave’s leg was shaking almost convulsively.
Dave took a deep breath and went on with it.
“My Dad went to prison when I was 12 years old. He’d lost his job, had me and my Mom to support. He wound up being the driver for an armed robbery where a guy got killed. My Dad is serving 15 years to life. He should be out when I’m about 20. I have not spoken with my Dad in a long time. I have barely spoken about him. Only to my Mom and,” Dave swallowed and stared down at the paper, “my best friend. They know it’s a sore subject with me. I know my Dad doesn’t want to spend his life known as the-guy-who-screwed-it-all-up. My Mom moved us to Wichita to live with her parents, my grandparents, because Mom was embarrassed about what happened.
“I thought that was why I was staying away from my Dad, but no. It’s because I’m scared.” Dave looked out at the class, everyone was listening, including Mr. Cameron.
“I’m scared that I will be looked at differently because of what my Dad did and where he is now. And it’s more than that.” Dave took another deep breath, his leg was
still shaking, but not as much. “I’m scared that I might screw up as badly as he did. That it might somehow run in the family.” Dave flipped to the next page, grateful for the small puff of air from the page. He was starting to sweat.
“What do you inherit from someone who has done wrong? My Dad had a good job and then the company he worked for went bankrupt. And he made some very bad choices. Are we drawn by who we are to make those choices? Is it in you? Maybe, I think. But so is the potential to choose the good over the bad. Any one of us could go either way. And one word can change a guy. Make him see the world differently. And make him consider the,” Dave paused over the word, “parallels between his life and the father he’s chosen to ignore.”
Dave’s voice was now a hoarse whisper. He felt like he’d been gargling sand.
“Even though it’s the father who’s staring back at him from the mirror.”
Dave stepped out from the podium, tossed his essay onto Mr. Cameron’s desk
and walked back to his desk, trying not to notice anything. He’d just eviscerated himself in front of everybody. But he had a bunch of hands stretched out to him and a felt a few pats on his shoulder and on his back as he sat down and slowly let out a long breath.
“Okay,” said Mr. Cameron, standing up behind the podium. “The next essay is by…”
Dave walked home breathing deeply of the spring air. The world looked completely different to him, even more than when he’d soared over the school as his other self and could see the flaws in the concrete on the inside of the outside wall of the theater.
That next Saturday was partly cloudy, patches of blue and gray in the sky, the
green stretching to either side of the highway dotted with bright patches of sunlight. Dave sat in the passenger seat and concentrated on the scenery and almost didn’t hear the radio blaring and his Mom talking as she drove.
The room was paneled with fake wood and was smaller than any classroom Dave had ever been in. Blue plastic chairs stuck together lined the room in three rows. A small cage of thick steel bars separated Dave from the outer room where he’d placed his house key, his wallet and his spare change in a locker whose key was the only thing he had in his pocket right now.
He was wearing his best suit, his only suit, he realized. He kept eyeing the thick steel door to the left end of the room, painted light blue with a two-way mirror at eye level. He’d glanced at the thickly meshed and barred window which looked out on the visitor’s parking lot. He tried not to look at his Mom sitting next to him.
Dave sat there, hands under his chin, elbows on his knees, his right leg shaking. He was staring at everything in the prison’s visiting room, everything that was supposed to make the visitors feel more comfortable, but Dave concentrated on the prison things; the bulletin board with a list of warnings for inmates about contraband and contact with
girlfriends. He stared at his shoes.
“Hey, Dave.” The voice was soft, quiet. It, and his name, almost hadn’t registered for a second.
Dave looked up, the blue steel door was just closing. The pale man with the dark hair just like Dave’s own hair, and the big grin on his face was walking towards him. Dave stood up, shakily and stared at his Dad. Button up blue shirt, matching color jeans,
scuffed brown boots, no belt. A small tag clipped to his shirt with his photo and name. Dave felt the visitor’s tag he’d been handed and had clipped to his pants pocket.
For a moment, Dave didn’t know what to do. A hug? No, none of that mushy stuff, not when he didn’t know his Dad that well anymore. They fumbled for an instant and then shook hands. Dave was starting to smile. He sat down while his Mom and Dad embraced for a moment, and then they sat down in the chairs to each side of him, a family together for the first time in four years. This wouldn’t be easy, Dave realized. There would be a lot he would not like. But the risks and the results would be worth it. And for that, David Easter realized he owed just a little to the secrets of Astaroth.