Aphelion Issue 272, Volume 26
May 2022
 
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Creatures in the Cave

by David Smith



Vic Nichols slammed the shot glass back onto the counter.  This bar was a party place for him and all the other hicks and hillbillies.  That’s why coming here every Saturday was a treat for him.  It never occurred to him that the way of life he thought was best was terribly old--fashioned.  Vic was born, raised, and intended to die in Alabama. 

“I think you better get back home, Vic,” his friend, Johnny Wilson, cautioned, his own shot of whiskey splashing.

 

He put his hand on Johnny's shoulder.  “Don’t worry about me, Johnny--my--boy.  I know how much I can take before something screws up my head more than it already is.  Why don’t you just go on and enjoy the party, unless you want to go outside, buddy.”

 

Johnny threw his head back and laughed.  “Fella’, that’s always the first place you want to go when something doesn’t go your way, isn’t it?”  He laughed again and the bartender managed to grab the shot glass from Johnny’s hand before he splashed it.

 

“Boy, that’s the last place I want to go, after my talk with Penny this morning,” Vic said.  “‘I wish you wouldn’t smoke so much,’ she says.  ‘You should quit drinking,’ she says.  And finally, ‘Shape up…or ship out,’ she says.  Pen said that just this morning!”  He paused, and nearly whispered, “She sounded like she really meant it this time.”

 

This bar, here in Ridgeville, Alabama, was where Vic drowned his sorrows.  He spent most of his time driving his Ford F-150 truck back and forth to work to make his deliveries.  He felt he had earned a break from the hustle.  For better or worse, it helped him.  Vic wasn’t conscious of it, but he was not a man of the right time.  If he were born just a few decades before, he might’ve been okay, but he wasn’t.

 

Vic stumbled out to the sidewalk connected to the outdoor pub from which he had just come.  He was about to go back to the trailer where he had lived most of his adult life, listening to his wife badgering him about his self-destructive habits.  Overall, he was without anything to show for his forty-five years of life on earth.  This all weighed hard on his mind, whether it was conscious or not, as he staggered and took a dive head-first into the concrete curb.

 

He slowly got to his feet and thought he saw someone a few feet ahead, looking into his eyes.  With his liquor-soaked brain, he tried to think.  Nothing came up, and he couldn’t figure out why this guy was just staring at him.  He looked normal, bearing no distinguishing features, and wearing a t-shirt and jeans, like Vic. 

 

He belched. “Can I help you, friend?”

 

The black man was silent a moment.  “Well, buddy, you got it half-right, but backwards.  I am going to help you.”

 

The stranger seemed to be from around here.  He had a drawl Vic was familiar with and clothes to match, but the man was just so unsettling that Vic refused to take a step toward the friendly stranger.  It made no sense to Vic why he wouldn’t let himself come closer, as the man wasn’t coming closer either.  They were similar in pose to a scene of a showdown in an old Western. 

 

Then Vic realized there was something about the man that transfixed him.  Before he knew it, the man was moving toward him.  The stranger was somehow forcing his will onto him, and he couldn’t resist it.

 

******

 

Vic was twenty-five years old when he saw the “man of color” in the lane next to him as Vic drove his Dodge pick-up.  He couldn’t believe what he was seeing.  A black guy driving a Mercedes! 

 

“Penny!”

 

His wife, startled, looked at him.  “What is it?”

 

He pointed his thumb at the black man driving the Mercedes next to them at the light.

 

“What about ‘em?” Penny asked.

 

“Can you believe a man like that has a job that he can afford a car like that, Pen?  He probably peddles drugs, don’t ya’ think?”  Vic frowned as he looked back at the man next to him, who didn’t notice anything.  Vic chuckled both out of amusement and contempt.

 

“Oh, for God’s sake, Victor!”

 

He looked back at her without expression as he saw his wife’s look of disgust.

 

“Will you just take me the rest of the way, home, Vic?”

 

Vic looked forward and sighed.  “Hell.”

 

When the food was cooking on the stove of their kitchenette, she sat on the seat opposite her husband at the small square table facing a window looking out to the hills of Alabama. 

 

“I can’t believe you sometimes, Pen!” Vic exclaimed. 

 

“I’m sorry I’m not a scumbag, Victor!  Okay?” Penny retorted.  “You’ve always been like this with those people, always.” 

 

“Why shouldn’t I be, Pen?  They’re beneath us.”

 

“How the hell can you say that?”

 

“Goddammit!”  He was quiet as he took a few breaths.  “I don’t know, Pen.  It’s just…how I am.” 

 

******

 

What in the name of hell are you doing to me? he tried to shout. 

 

“I know what you waaaaant,” the stranger finally said as he put his hand out toward Vic’s shoulder, the stranger’s eyes, something about them, seeming to look straight through him.  

 

“Yes,” Vic said, under the complete will of the stranger. 

 

The stranger planted his hand on Vic’s shoulder.  “I can heeeeelp you, if you leeeeet me.”

 

“Please, anything,” Vic whispered. 

 

“The amulet.  The beautiful, the magical amulet.  The Gulf.  It’s theeeeere.”

 

Vic tried to speak again but couldn’t.

 

“Be calm, friend.”  The stranger slowly disappeared. 

 

******

 

Later that night, after having sobered up, Vic had beaten a path toward the Gulf, and he was chilly in the night’s breeze.  However, he was relieved when he saw a large cave lit up by a fire, to which several small people, if you could call them that, were sitting, some with their arms extended toward the fire.  Vic wouldn’t have known what to make of what he was seeing if you put a gun to his head and shouted at him to either make something out of what he was seeing or get a head full of lead.

 

They were small creatures, that much at least Vic could make out.  They had strange forms--short legs, short arms.  He got scared when one of the creatures whose line--of--sight Vic was in, caught him.  The creature’s eyes widened.  Vic took that as his cue to hightail it.

 

“Wait!”

 

Not only did they speak, but they spoke English.

 

Vic went back the way he had come and saw the creature whose attention he had gained, and it was gesturing for him to come over.  “Please, come!  We won’t harm you.”  It was a crackly voice.  He didn’t want to be around the likes of beings like this.  What diseases might these things carry?  Even worse, and more importantly, those faces.  These things were so ugly.  Despite himself, he was a little interested.  He wondered what kind of ridiculous things these guys did.  What were they like?  What the hell were they?

 

Vic was sitting in the dark, cold cave, lit by the blazes of torches hitched up on the walls, a few feet between each of them.  Around him, there were several creatures sitting cross--legged around a fire in the middle.  Several of them were looking at him, Vic not sitting in the circle.  They all took quick individual glances at the stranger near the cave’s entrance, and then looked back at the fire. 

 

He took one continuous, almost unblinking, moment to stare at the creatures in the cave.  They had yellow skin, even more yellow than his rotting teeth, what few of them were left.  They had long, spiky red hair, and big eyes for their small faces. 

 

“Who are you people?”  Some of them kept staring, but none made a sound. 

 

The one that had called Vic over--where was that little cretin?  He said he was going to talk to the “Medicine Man” or something.  Vic’s patience was deteriorating by the second.

 

He saw the creature come back, and it gestured for him to follow it. 

 

The old, greying Medicine Man, almost pure skin and bones, looked up at Vic intensely.  He looked similar to his brethren, just a lot older.

 

“Who are you guys?” Vic asked.

 

As if Vic was charging at the old man, he quickly put his palm out to him.  “No,” the old man said.  “No matter now.  No questions.”  The old man was quiet a moment and then put his arm down.  “How are you this night, Mr. Nichols?”

 

“How the hell--”

 

“Hush, Mr. Nichols!  How are you?”

 

“Wondering where I am, I’d say.”

 

The old man nodded.  “Fair enough.”  Another pause.  “You’re looking for something, Mr. Nichols.”

 

“An amulet.”

 

“Ah, an amulet.  You see, Mr. Nichols”--the old man gestured for Vic to bend down--“we are the amulet.”  He nodded as he said it.  “We are.”

 

Vic straightened up slowly.

 

“Sit down.” 

 

He did.

 

“You are quite the uninformed man.”

 

Vic only felt the slightest bit of resentment.

 

“You are a fool.  You know not the ways of the world.  At least, the way it is now.  Another time, but not now.”

 

“If you’re talkin’ about how I live, it’s not me who’s a fool.  The world went and done became fools.”

 

“It’s not your fault, Mr. Nichols.  You were so young and impressionable.  There was nothing you could do.”

 

******

 

The afternoon of July 15th, 1979, was hot.  Vic Nichols was five years old.  Troy Downer was a friend, though the boy’s dark skin infuriated Vic’s father.  Someone with the likeness of Troy Downer would only be a bad influence on little Vic, for all time and no matter what. 

 

Frank Nichols took a drag from his pipe and watched, with a red face, his son playing with that boy.  Vic wore a yellow t-shirt, shorts, and sandals as he chased Troy around, and vice--versa. 

 

How dare the Downer kid mingle with the likes of his son.  What was worse, his little boy was mingling with a boy like that.  Mr. Nichols adjusted his owl--rimmed glasses.

 

Victor!” Vic’s father shouted.  “How many times do I have to tell you?”

 

Both boys froze.

 

“Sorry, Troy,” Vic said with genuine solemnity.   

 

It wasn’t the whooping he would endure that day that hurt, it was the why.  He didn’t understand, as he kept flinching, tears steadily rolling down.  Every time he talked to a boy who “didn’t look like him,” he got it right on the behind.  He learned, though, to treat people the way his parents treated them.

 

******

 

Vic looked at the Medicine Man.  “What’s your point, mister?”

 

“You must change.”

 

“What are you talking about?  Change what?”

 

Everything.”

 

 “I’m proud of where I came from!”

 

“Your words betray you, Mr. Nichols.  You’re not proud, not of yourself nor anyone around you.  Deep down, way down, you know what I say to be true.”

 

Vic was silent.

 

“You had no control over where you came from, or what your past was.  All you can control is your future.”

 

Vic Nichols sobbed, his head in his hands.

 

“You must change your look at the world, Mr. Nichols,” the Medicine Man said.  “Change how you look at the people around you.  They will change the way they treat you.  If you change the way you look at your life, your life will change.”

 

Vic stared at the Medicine Man, not knowing what to say. 

 

“Do you really want to change?”

 

“Yes, but how can I know they’ll accept me--give me that chance?”

 

“I can tell you for certain, if they’re really your friends, they’ll give you that chance you seek.”  The Medicine Man was quiet.  “You’ll be quite surprised, I anticipate.”

 

“I really want to change, but I’ll believe it when I see it.”

 

The Medicine Man shook his head slowly.  “You have it backwards, Mr. Nichols.  You have to say that you’ll see it when you believe it.”

 

Vic hung his head and sighed, and said with tears, “I’ll change.”

 

******

 

As Vic made his way back to the trailer, he thought about his encounter with the Medicine Man.

 

He was glad to see a men’s clothing store open this time of night.  Vic went in and purchased a button-down white shirt, grey dress slacks, and a black tie.  As he looked in a mirror with this set of clothing on, he realized how much he resembled his father.  It angered him. 

 

Once he was home, Penny looked at her husband with wide eyes.  “Is…is that you, Vic?”

 

“Penny,” Vic Nichols said, “I can change my appearance, but I’ll need your help to really change me.”  He paused.  “I’ll quit drinking and be the man you married.  With my bad thoughts about others, I’ll need help.”

 

“We’ll do it, Vic.  Together.”

 

“Just one question.  Were you really going to kick me out?”

 

Penny chuckled.  “We’ll talk about that later.” 


THE END


2022 David Smith

Bio: David Smith is a 24-year-old graduate of Lindenwood University in Missouri, with a Master of Fine Arts. It’s been a while for him here, but his story “Too Many Thoughts” landed his name on the cover of Aphelion's Dec. 2019/Jan. 2020 issue.

E-mail: David Smith

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