Hi. I’m Tonia Ransom, creator and executive producer of NIGHTLIGHT, a horror podcast featuring creepy tales written and performed by Black creatives from all over the world.
This week, we have the final half of a tale of a man who’s haunted by the malevolent ghosts of his family.
But before we get to evil that just won’t die, I want to take a moment to say thanks to our newest patrons, Jamie and Dione, for joining the NIGHTLIGHT Legion. NIGHTLIGHT will be produced year-round thanks to our patrons, and now, we’d love to bring you new episodes every single week. Just go to patreon.com/nightlightpod to join the NIGHTLIGHT Legion and get a shoutout on the podcast. And don’t forget, you can also support us by sporting NIGHTLIGHT-branded gear. Just go to merch.nightlightpod.com to get your t-shirts, hoodies, notebooks and more!
We’re also still raising money for our newest audio drama, Afflicted, until mid-July. If you haven’t yet listened to the trailer or supported us, please head over to bit.ly/supportafflicted so we can bring you all-new nightmares this Halloween. We can’t do it without you and every single dollar counts, both to help us pay marginalized people a fair wage, and to help convince folks who are on the fence about contributing that they can trust in us to scare them. Head on over to bit.ly/supportafflicted now to help us bring this new Black and queer-led show to your ears. And make sure you listen until the very end for a preview of the queer-led podcast “Someone Dies in This Elevator”.
Now sit back, turn out the lights, and enjoy “Wet Pain”, part two, written by Terence Taylor, and narrated by Matt Peters.
I woke with my worst hangover since high school.
There’d been some major epiphany the night before, but the details escaped me, scraped away with the rest of my memories of the night by pain. I cleaned up as well as I could, put dishes and glasses in the sink before I made coffee. There were scribbles on a pad on the desk, a map or diagram like a family tree with roots in Jerusalem ending in New Orleans, branches through Europe and North America, “Knights Templar” and “Ku Klux Klan” scrawled at either end. I remembered something about evil as organic or viral, that the photo had seemed significant; all that really remained was a churning in my stomach, a sense of foreboding, that there was something very wrong with Dean and not just a drinking problem.
I decided to call Lynn later and ask her how she felt. It was possible I was only overreacting to Dean blowing off more steam than usual. It was a tense time for them; I had to remember that when I brought up the subject with her.
In the living room I turned on the TV. After 9/11, the biggest change in my life was that I turned on local news as soon as I woke up, to see what had happened overnight. It looked like a quiet morning until they got to the weather.
While I sipped coffee and washed down a handful of aspirin for my head, the forecast went from New York’s heat wave to a hurricane off the coast of Florida called Katrina. I didn’t pay attention at first, but when they started talking evacuation and New Orleans I turned it up, heard enough to make me swallow my pride and call Dean.
The phone rang for a while. No machine or voicemail picked up. I imagined the sound ringing through the worn yellow house, echoing off bare cracked walls. I got ready to hang up. Maybe they’d left already. The ringing stopped. There was silence, then Dean’s voice, rough, as if he’d been sleeping. Or drinking. “Yeah?”
“It’s me. I’ve been hearing bad weather reports...”
“Bruh, wassup...” He dropped the phone. I heard it rustle as he picked it up and put it back in his ear. “I’m busy here.”
“Yeah, look, there’s a class-four hurricane coming in, they’re talking about evacuating New Orleans...”
“S’what damn bitch downstairs says. Not leavin’ my home, boy. Don’t need damn niggers tellin’ me what to do. Niggers and illegals why I ain’t got no work, why decent god-fearin’ white men can’t find jobs no more...” His breathing was heavy, labored. I knew Dean had a temper; I’d seen him reduce teamsters to near tears, but he’d never lashed out at me.
“Slow down. Stop.” I held it together, kept myself from launching into a speech. “This isn’t like you.”
“Maybe you don’t know me good as you thought.”
“No. I know you. Something’s wrong. It’s like something down there...”
Dean laughed it off.
“What, boy? Go ahead and say it.”
A flash went off in my head and I saw the photograph. I remembered everything I’d thought sitting in front of it the night before, as insane as it all seemed now. The infectious pack nature of ancient evil accidentally unleashed by the Knights Templar and carried to the new world like a plague. Dean taunted me as if he knew exactly what was in my head, dared me to say the words and hear how ridiculous they sounded out loud. “Say what’s on your mind, boy.”
It was as impossible for me to believe Dean was possessed by evil spirits that fed on racism and fear, as it was to believe he’d always been like this, that his easy smile and our long hours of conversation had been a mask, a pretense. That was more terrifying than believing in monsters.
“What is it, boy? You think I been bit by a hungry ghost? Superstitious enough to believe in nigger crap like that?” He started humming, some old rock relic I couldn’t quite make out. I heard things move in the background, like he was pushing boxes around, or digging through them like he’d lost something.
“You have to get out of there. Forget this fight. Go downstairs, pack some bags, lock up and get the family out of town for a few days. Just go to the airport, I’ll charge tickets, you can fly up here...”
“Can’t leave. Got work to do, boy. Maybe your kind don’t get that, but down here we take care of business...”
“Let me talk to Lynn.”
I heard dial tone and got a busy signal every time I called back. After a few tries, I got the message and left for a drink to slow the creeping dread in my gut.
* * *
Excelsior was having another quiet night.
There were still enough people for me to blend in and be alone in the crowd. I ordered a beer and before I’d half finished it, saw a blonde white guy in his late twenties notice me from the end of the bar. I wasn’t in the mood for company, but before I could break eye contact he smiled and wandered my way. He wasn’t my usual type: small, wiry and a little too friendly, like a terrier, but cute.
“Hey,” he said when he reached my side, and signaled the bartender as if he was just there to order.
“I don’t usually see many black guys here. Too bad.”
“Yeah, well, at these prices, you won’t see many more.”
He pulled out a twenty and slapped it down on the bar. “Next one’s on me, then. Gotta keep you coming back.”
“I’m kidding,” I said. “It’s an old joke, about a bartender and a horse.” I let him buy my next beer anyway.
“Yeah? Comparing yourself to a horse?” He swayed a little, rested his hand on my thigh as his smile broadened. I could tell he was more than a few beers ahead of me. “What’s funny about that?”
“What? No...” I laughed and started to explain, realized we were past any pretense of intelligent conversation. He leaned closer and I let him kiss me as his fingers explored the front of my pants, found what he was looking for and squeezed. His mouth tasted of beer and cigarettes, but his tongue was warm and wet in my mouth, and his hand was doing a good job of convincing me to let him go further.
I didn’t bring guys home from bars often, the few nights I did were like this one, when all I needed was someone warm beside me to pull my mind from whatever bothered me back to my body and its needs. We left our beers unfinished and walked the few blocks to my place.
Outside, back in the real world, we looked like a couple of straight buddies barhopping down Fifth Avenue, while he whispered dirty comments under his breath about what he’d do to me once I got him home.
We raced up the stairs and into my hot apartment, tumbled onto my bed, moist shadows in the dark, undressed each other and twisted on the sheets like snakes tying each other into knots until I heard the words hiss out of his wet lips...“Yeah, that’s it. That’s my sweet nigger...”
I shoved him away, rolled out of bed and turned on the light, stared at him like I’d just walked in on a naked stranger.
“Okay,” I said. “I don’t need that right now.”
“What’s wrong?” He looked sincerely baffled as he stood, his pale boner poked up like a raised eyebrow. “Shit, what I said? Everybody says it. No big deal anymore, right? Hip hop made it okay, they say it on MTV and BET all the time, know what I mean, mah niggah?” He said the last with a broad urban accent, laughed as if it was funny, then saw I hadn’t joined him.
“Do you know how many black parents and grandparents died to keep me from being called that? I don’t care how you spell it. You gots to go. Now. Get the fuck out of my house, faggot.” I shook my head, pulled on my pants.
“Damn, bro,” he started, but stopped when he caught the new look I gave him and put on his clothes.
“Yeah. Not so funny now, is it, queer? Didn’t we make those words okay, too?” I walked him out, silent, as furious at myself as with him for playing his hot black stud long enough for him to think he could say those words and have them excite me. After he left, I double-locked the door behind him, as if that could keep out what I was trying to escape.
Whatever it was.
* * *
The storm was coming.
They were past warning; it was on its way, tore along the Florida coast. I flipped channels to follow the coverage, stayed whenever I saw long lines of cars leaving New Orleans, the mayor and governor of Louisiana urging citizens to abandon their homes and get to safety.
The hurricane was hyped so hard by the media it was hard to believe they were serious, that it could really be that bad. What they predicted sounded epic, the kind of biblical disaster we were used to seeing in other countries on TV. The idea that New Orleans could be washed out of existence seemed insane despite digital simulations that showed us how and why; how could anyone in power leave levees that unprotected in a city built below sea level? I stopped only to make dinner, watched coverage until I fell asleep on the couch as the sun went down. The phone rang. I woke in the dark.
“Hey, boy...” It was Dean. A bad connection or my imagination made his voice sound distorted, off-pitch, like a horror movie sound effect. “Can you hear it, boy?”
I reached over and turned on the light next to the couch. The room looked the same as always, intact, the clutter I never keep cleared for long still strewn, but it all felt alien. There was an odd air of exploration, like I was in a new world where anything could happen, finding my footing for the first time. “It’ll be here soon.”
“What’s that? The storm?”
He laughed, the same choked chortle I’d heard before, like he was dying of consumption.
“Ain’t no storm. It’s the dark that’s comin’. Not dark like you, nigger, but real dark, deep dark, deeper than night, blacker than black, so deep nothing gets out. It’s calling me, boy, like God called to Abraham. It’s awake and hungry and ain’t going back to sleep until it’s been fed.”
I froze; his words echoed the fantasy that haunted me since the night I’d fallen asleep in front of the panorama. I’d never admitted it to him, never spoken the words aloud. There was no way for him to know.
“What are you talking about, buddy? Doesn’t sound like you.”
“You sure right there, boy...”
“What’s that supposed to mean?”
“You’re so bright. What do you think?”
I looked up at the sepia-toned Klansmen over my desk. Some looked directly into the camera like they could see me, made me half afraid Dean could see what they saw, that they were all connected across time and space.
“Cut it out.”
“Why? Not so sure there’s not somethin’ out there can push people past the limit? Put icin’ on the cake; turn a simple muggin’ into vicious murder, date rape into a weeklong torture session? Not so sure you’re always in control?” His voice was soft, seductive, an old-time movie country lawyer selling his case to the jury, Daniel Webster defending the Devil for a change.
“You’re talking crazy.” I was frozen, unable, unwilling to believe what I feared the most.
“You want to hear crazy? Listen to this, nigger.” He was on his feet, walked downstairs to the tiled kitchen wearing the headset phone.
“Hey,” I started, but he cut me off.
“What?” Dean laughed and coughed at the same time; one rolled into the other, almost a death rattle, dry, but filled with mucous. “You ain’t a nigger? Any more’n that nigger bitch asleep in the bedroom?”
“Stop what, cocksucker? I’m just getting started.” He laughed again and I knew this wasn’t some kind of game or sick practical joke. Money stress, the move, something had pushed him too far to come back, over some edge I hadn’t seen coming––that or something else. I heard kitchen drawers open and close, silverware rattle.
A butcher knife clanged as it hit a cutting board. I recognized the sound because I knew the knife, had used it to help make dinner in their Jersey home, sharpened it myself the last time I was there and chastised Dean for not keeping a better edge on the blade. I wondered if he’d taken my advice, wondered how sharp the knife was now as I listened to his footsteps leave the tiled kitchen and walk into silence on the carpeted hall.
“Hey, what’s up?” I asked, tried to sound casual.
“Just cleaning house, boy. Got work to do. Some folks don’t seem to know their place. But I’ll be taking care of business every day, and every way...”
He started singing the old Bachman Turner Overdrive song aloud. I recognized it when I heard the lyrics; it was what he’d been humming for weeks upstairs while he talked to me on the phone. The way he chanted the words broke the spell that held me frozen. The only place he could be going was to the bedroom. With a butcher knife.
I stood up with no idea where to go. To the police? The airport? Even the fastest flight would get me there hours too late. I couldn’t hang up as long as I could use the phone to hear what Dean was doing, and I couldn’t call his local precinct on my cell without him hearing me.
I started to panic, then stopped. There was still one thing I could do. I went to my computer and searched for the police station nearest the house in Marigny, found the precinct closest to them and an e-mail address, sent a short but explicit note that explained what was happening, where, and that I was on the phone with him now. Then I sent it again a hundred times. “Dean? What’s going on, there, buddy?”
“Gonna put her down, bruh, put the black bitch down like a rabid dog, and take care of her little black bastards. Then we’re comin’ fer you, boy, every last one of you, until every nigger knows their place...”
He kept humming the song, moved to the back of the house a step at a time with a little laugh every now and then. To be sure the police got my message, I found their fax number and computer-faxed fifty copies of the note in large type so someone would be sure to notice it pouring out of the machine. For once I was glad to be a geek.
“Listen to me, Dean...”
“Shhh... Bitch is still asleep...”
In my earpiece I heard the bedroom door creak open, Lynn’s sleepy voice in the background, too slurred to make out what she said.
“Hey, baby,” whispered Dean. I heard Lynn gasp and try to scream; instead there was the sound of struggle, a punch, and I heard the breath go out of her with a dull thump. I remembered how much bigger Dean was, imagined him throwing Lynn to the bed like a rag doll.
“Damn it! What the fuck are you doing?” I shouted into the phone, helpless to stop him any other way.
“Quiet, boy, got my hands full right now...” His voice was strained, breathless. Lynn screamed for the children to run, until he gagged her. I heard sheets rip; Dean’s breath came in short bursts as they struggled.
“Don’t you take the name of our Lord in vain, motherfucker,” he snarled. “God don’t care what happens to this nigger bitch any more’n he cares about your black ass...” I listened to him hum that damned song as he went about his work. “Still there? What do you think, bruh? Is Dean at work here? Or somethin’ else?”
He headed down the hall to the kids’ room. I heard them weep as he entered, pictured Dean shoving seven-year-old Milton back down the hall to the master bedroom by the neck, two-year old Shana tucked under his other arm like a football. Dean wouldn’t need the knife to handle the kids. I heard him throw them to the floor, slap them to shut them up while he bound them.
A new e-mail came in from the police that my messages had been received. “Is this for real? We’re in the middle of a citywide evacuation...”
I typed a fast reply, “I swear to God, I have him on the phone now trying to slow him down, you have my permission to tap into my line if you have to verify,” and hit send, waited until they confirmed to relax. I just had to keep him talking until they got there. I tried to keep the excitement out of my voice. “Dean? You still there?”
The children’s panicked howls had subsided to sobs; all I could hear from Lynn were moans and muffled cries through her gag as Dean snickered.
“They say beauty’s skin deep, don’t they, bruh? That true, nigger? Let’s take a look...”
There was a wet rip and new shrieks from Lynn, then she must have passed out from the pain; when I didn’t hear her anymore I couldn’t hold back tears. I felt helpless, even knowing help was on the way. The only question was if it would be in time.
“In the name of God,” I said. “If there’s anything of you left in there. Stop this before it’s too late.”
“You started this, boy. You needed proof. Satisfied? Believe in us now, nigger?”
I must have screamed, and it all poured out, the rage, the fear and pain and I denied him at the top of my lungs, I didn’t believe, it wasn’t anything but Dean at work and he was going to burn in Hell if there was one, and if there wasn’t I would build one to hold him... I don’t know what else I said, it was drowned out by the sound of sirens in the background as the police finally came, close enough that he knew he could either finish his task or flee. I prayed Dean was still sane enough to run. He hissed into the phone.
“You did this, boy. Don’t know how, but it was you, you nigger bastard. We comin’ fer you, boy. Comin’ fer you...” And the line went dead.
* * *
Someone from the precinct had the mercy to call an hour later to let me know Lynn and the kids were safe, the longest hour of my life. They found Lynn tied spread-eagle, tortured, bleeding, the kids hogtied on the floor, forced to face the bed. They couldn’t find Dean. He got away before they could get inside. I lost contact with Lynn and the kids until friends told me they’d been safely evacuated after the rescue to her mother’s house in the Bronx.
“The kids are fine as they can be,” she said when I reached her. “The house sounds like it’s still in one piece. Our street wasn’t hit bad, no flooding, just lost a few windows and shingles. Neighbors next door rode out the storm, they’re keeping me posted when they can.” There was a brief almost unnoticeable pause. “Still no word about Dean,” she added, as if he’d wandered off at the mall.
“How are you?”
“Oh, well. Everything works. Thank you for that. If he’d had more time...” She sighed, tried to laugh it off. “I won’t be wearing shorts or sleeveless tops for a while, but didn’t much anyway.”
I never asked what Dean did to her in the bedroom that night, what the children were forced to watch. All I knew was what I heard; that was bad enough. I was afraid to know any more. Facing what Dean was capable of either meant admitting I hadn’t known him at all, or that something else wore my friend like a Halloween costume and tried to destroy everything he loved.
I watched CNN news coverage of the hurricane aftermath with the same mute disbelief I felt witnessing the fall of the Twin Towers. It was hard to believe it was real, happening to us as we’d seen it happen to so many others in the last few years of earthquakes and tsunamis.
As days went by I couldn’t tell if the crisis was under control as the government claimed or if the city had descended into the surreal Hell described on the news. Official reports tried to play down the crime, TV showed waterlogged devastation and hinted at unspeakable acts committed in the stadium, while online blogs painted a worse picture of the troops’ behavior. Poor black residents were made to look like animals, patrolling soldiers portrayed as storm troopers; if Dean was host to something that fed on fear, it was feasting now.
I went to a party planned before the hurricane that became a benefit for Katrina victims. I’d planned to skip it, but Winston talked me into it.
“It’s a healing thing, baby. Not just for you, but all of us, so you’re going. Meet you at your place at seven.” It was at a loft in Dumbo, high under the Brooklyn Bridge, with a view of Manhattan outside factory-sized windows. I saw faces I hadn’t seen in ages, heard stories about friends and family in affected areas who were struggling to recover or helping others. The events of the last week started to blur with more drinks, passed joints, and mellow music, lulled by human voices exchanging soft consolation.
My cell phone rang, and I opened it. The signal was weak, so I stepped out onto the fire escape to get better reception. The number was blocked; the screen said Unknown Caller. I slipped the earpiece on and pushed the talk button. “Yeah?”
“Dean.” It wasn’t a question, I had no doubt it was Dean’s voice, weak as the signal was, even if I knew it couldn’t be him.
“O, my nigger,” the thing that spoke like Dean breathed into my ear, from a place no calls could come from, would not come for days. “O, nigger, the things we have seen. You would tear your eyes from their sockets to forget them.” Then it laughed, a thick sound still filled with phlegm. “But not us, bruh. Not us. We like to watch.”
I shivered, though the air outside was warm, as I listened to the impossible voice, looked back through the window to watch the party still going on. Music played, flickering couples swayed on the dance floor; it looked like a distant world light years away, one I could see but never reach again in my lifetime.
“Where are you?”
“Like to know that, wouldn’t you, nigger? Like to know we’re not waitin’ downstairs for you, in your closet or under your bed. Never know for sure, will yuh, bruh?”
I didn’t want to hear the answer but had to ask.
“Who are you?”
“Call us Legion, for we are many.”
“You lie,” I said. “There are no demons. Just excuses.”
“Excuses? Come on, boy,” it said, “All people want is a way to blame the bad on someone else, God or the Devil. An easy explanation for why y’all take an eye for an eye instead of turnin’ the other cheek, why niggers get dragged to death behind trucks and fags tied up to freeze to death, even now...So we let you tell yerselves it ain’t your fault. It’s ours. Don’t say we never give yuh nuthin’...” I could hear the sounds of female shrieks and deep male laughter in the background. It chuckled again, just like Dean. “Gotta run. Got a date with an angel...”
The screams grew louder as the phone approached them and disconnected, after one last laugh from my dead good buddy.
* * *
They found me asleep on the fire escape, phone still in my ear, said I told them I dreamed I was on the phone with a long lost friend, and then was in New Orleans looking for him.
I said I stood on dry land under a full moon at night, looked east at a flooded road ahead, water as far as the eye could see. The flood whispered to me like sirens of old; I felt a pull, looked down and saw water rise over my feet and up my shins before I could back out.
Hushed voices rose with the waters as they covered my waist, my shoulders and head. Fully submerged, I could hear them clearly as I watched my last breath bubble up out of my mouth to the surface, now yards away. My ears filled with an infernal chorus of “Dixie” as I struggled to ascend...
I looked down and saw the singers drift up from the depths in tattered Confederate gray, white hooded robes, sheriff uniforms, army fatigues, anonymous black suits, faceless men bound only by hate and fear. They sang as one, swung swords, sticks, billy clubs, pistols, rifles from muskets to AK47s in rhythm to the steady beat of an unseen drum, like the inhuman sound of a giant heart.
Dean rose to the head of the hellish choir, a noose in one hand; his other gripped my ankle and pulled me back down as I fought my way up towards the light...
* * *
They found Dean a few weeks later—what was left—wedged between a Dumpster and the side of a truck someone had loaded with the last of their worldly goods or loot, too late to get out of town. Dean’s death went unnoticed in the torrent of news from Katrina, the far greater losses and atrocities; it was a small story worthy of note to only a few, but it was our story and we took it hard. Life quieted down after that; Dean’s recovery led to our own.
I went to New Orleans a few months after the waters receded to help Lynn sell the house. The city was like an invalid who’d nearly died, still unsure of its chances for full recovery. It was stronger, saner, had regained some of its old fire, but there was a haunted look behind the eyes, the look of one who’d seen how close the end could be and would never be the same again. It was the same look I saw in Lynn’s eyes when she thought no one was looking.
Except for missing roof tiles and broken windows, Dean’s old family home was intact and ironically worth even more as survivors who’d lost homes looked for replacements. It sold for more than enough to move Lynn and the kids back north near her family. I flew back to Brooklyn where I felt at ease, if not entirely safe; it would be hard to feel safe anywhere for a long time.
When I got home, I took down the panorama of the Klan. I was tempted to burn it, but that would mean I believed it was part of something supernatural, that it held contaminating magic of its own that could somehow influence others or even me. I was too civilized for that. Then I remembered what Dean had said; it doesn’t matter whether you believe in ghosts if they believe in you. The rational part of me wrapped the photograph and donated it to the Museum of Intolerance in Dean’s name. No one could tell me if Dean was dead or alive the night of the party. Water and weather conditions made it impossible. He was dead, case closed; they told Lynn she was lucky to get a body, much less an autopsy. She was still in shock over losing him, too distraught to remember or discuss changes in Dean before the end. I was left to find my own answers. There were none.
I don’t know what’s harder to live with, that Dean went off the deep end and fell back on the only solid ground he could find or that he’d confessed to being consumed by an ancient hunger. I’ll never know which was true, whether he needed a shrink or an exorcist, and I’m not sure I want to know.
I once saw a sign on a pillar in a New York City subway station, “WET PAIN,” written in bright red block letters on glossy white card stock. Back then I thought it was a joke or mistake, meant to read “WET PAINT,” but I could be wrong; as much as I don’t want to believe it, maybe sometimes signs say exactly what they mean.
Thanks again to our patrons for supporting this podcast. Because of your support, listeners around the world get creepy tales in their ears every other week. If you want new stories every week, the only way for that to happen is to join the NIGHTLIGHT Legion by going to patreon.com/nightlightpod and supporting this podcast. You can also make a one-time donation via PayPal at PayPal.me/NightlightPodcast. If you’re unable to support us financially, word of mouth is the next best way to help. Give us a shoutout online on Twitter or Instagram @nightlightpod, or like us on Facebook @nightlightpod. Reviews are also a huge help, so be sure to leave a few kind words on your podcast platform of choice.
Audio production for this episode by Tonia Ransom.
And to thank you for listening until the very end, we’d like to introduce you to an amazing queer-led podcast called Someone Dies In This Elevator. It’s an anthology series where…you guessed it…someone dies in an elevator, but every death happens in entirely different circumstances.