They oozed through the door of the Shade Inn, degenerate hordes with their coral shirts and adumbrations of learning. The patrons of a village bar might not drink more than a dram and could walk home. These students, given the chance, would drink themselves into states of madness, and in those states repeat the darkest patterns of half-ape savagery, shouting and singing along the lanes and thoroughfares.
On the bus into town the girl with the red cap and black jacket and stressed shorts captured a pair of men who sat outside the post office, dour, elongated-faced men of Aseneith. She turned her cell to Lachlan Whatley and Jacob Wu and asked for commentary. “Do you think they’re brothers?”
Whatley said. “The locals have that look of too few families living too long in one place.”
She laughed. “That’s great.” Her smile sunk when she tried to post the video.
Her bewilderment rippled through the chartered bus as students checked texts and tried to post photos. They could imagine losing connectivity here and there along their rustic route. In a town the experience challenged comprehension.
Most of the buildings on Main Street were front-gabled, with flat façades suggesting second storeys that could only have consisted of the attics. The result was that Aseneith recalled an old west movie town made from brick. On the far side of the crossroads stood the hip-roofed, buff-bricked building which housed the Shade Inn. The upper floors seemed closed, the windows covered with faded curtains and, in some instances, boards. The heavy timber door, either the original or an antique added for historic character, had been painted sea-green and featured decorative iron straps like abstracted representations of tentacled invertebrates that stretched across each door. Black hurricane-style lanterns hung on either side; above the windows was carved a weathered, stylized face with tendrils that might have been whiskers and hair.
Cater-cornered stood a church lacking clear markers of denomination. The bus parked and disgorged its riders, who with smug infectious smiles passed through the viridescent doorway.
The few regulars within were the same type as they’d seen out the bus windows, heads like Easter Island statuary and ratfish eyes. Jacob Wu shuddered.
At one time, the Wild Pig Tour had taken place the eve of Superbowl Sunday, always targeting some small town with a single licensed establishment. It created some ill will but, since the students drank the bar dry, the owner could hardly complain of lost revenue. A disastrous foray to a small town some years earlier engendered a fight with local boys and brought the campus unseemly publicity. People unaware of the tradition, benefactors and parents and quite a few students, could now disapprove. Nearby towns grew apprehensive about falling prey to this particular prank. Organizers had to look further afield for communities that remained unwary or, alternatively, gave a damn. Some places even welcomed them, so long as fisticuffs and public urination were kept to a minimum. And the indecorous tradition increasingly did not raise sufficient crowds, students willing to trudge through January snow or risk becoming blizzard-bound in some obscure town. Gradually, the Tour became untethered from a fixed date. Organizers would find some backwater hosting a wedding the next day or running a homespun parade. The Wild Pig would descend upon that place, drain the local watering hole, and depart.
Inquisitive Jacob Wu had unearthed an obscure online reference to a one-day Harvest Festival held the final Saturday of September, two hours away. He showed it to Lachlan Whatley, a Wild Pig organizer.
A Google search revealed the required single licensed establishment, a former inn that had become a restaurant and pub, owned by one Mustapha Al-Aziz.
“Syrian refugee, maybe?” asked Whatley.
“Like how back in the day every small town had this one Chinese restaurant. Because--”
“Obligatory Token Minority.”
“Careful, dude. I’ll kick your ass with, like, Ancient Chinese Martial Arts.”
“Your mad Ninja skillz?”
“Ninjas are Japanese,” Wu said, affecting a comic pedant’s voice, but sounding unoffended.
“Excellent find, bro. We gotta move on this.”
Two weeks later they encountered Mustapha, who stood behind the bar, a swarthy man with a black mustache and a polo shirt. He spoke with a discernable accent. Mustapha’s waitress had a curvaceous body topped by a variation of the regulars’ curious, elongated features. Her skin, seen close, had an unnatural jaundiced shade.
Whatley turned to the girl who’d recorded them, taking a closer look at her cap. “Cincinnati Reds.”
“You thought it was some other red hat? Well, I could see wearing a MAGA hat around campus to trigger all the Snowflake Majors.” Whatley moved closer and they tipped glasses. “I know he’s a clown, but by God I love the boy.” Her roommate, a redhaired girl named Haisley, rolled blue-green eyes and took the vacated seat near Jacob Wu.
Time passed for him in a haze of intoxicants and Haisley. At some hour, while she was using the washroom, he grew aware of a pair of stout students arguing with the proprietor.
“You got more in the back. Bring it out.” They were square-jawed and block-built, and loomed over Mustapha.
“No rough stuff. Or I call the cops.” The local men stirred.
“Call. There are, what, two cops covering this part of the county? C’mon. How much would you serve at your harvest festival?”
Mustapha smiled enigmatically. “You should leave now,” he said.
Wu blinked and looked about. He recalled their drive down Main Street. The inn, like the rest of the town, lacked any signs of an imminent Harvest Festival. He became aware of local men crowding in, and looked back to see shadowy figures lurking in the windows. Frat brothers and drunk intellectuals stood off against ochre-skinned men. Mustapha again urged the students to leave peacefully.
Above the din of conflict Wu heard a knocking.
He turned his face upward to the ceiling. He could hear the stepping and creaking like multifarious feet in the vacant upper rooms, accompanied by a dragging noise.
A line of dark fluid, visible by the bar’s light, dripped through the boards.
More men and some women entered through the great doorway. Some teenage boys he saw, too, mudcat-faced with bulbous eyes and mouths distorted in a way he could not clearly discern. Haisley, returning from the washroom, nearly walked into one of these and gape-eyed, she gasped.
The fire exit, he knew, was near the washroom. He moved on unsteady legs past inhuman faces and took her hand and they exited, setting off the scream of an alarm. Behind the parking lot a diseased tree twisted against the barley moon. He looked up and she followed his gaze. Lights flickered in the upper level and something moved in the dark small hours of the Harvest morning.
The nighttime spun around them and people gathered on the street, the Aseneith adults and children with catfish faces. She bolted and he lost her as he tried to follow through shadows and down rural roads and into mad corners of his mind.
Jacob Wu awoke from tenebrous dreams into lingering inebriation and found himself on the floor of a rustic backroom, covered in old blankets. He saw the little girl watching him and bolted upright. She ran from the room. He’d seen her face clearly. Her mouth sported silurid barbels.
Mustapha Aziz and a woman of the Aseneith type entered as Wu searched for his clothing and cell.
“Are you all right?” Mustapha sat on the solitary chair. “You had much to drink.”
“My house. We’ve taken in those of you we could find. Most made the bus. The driver returned late.” The furnishings were weathered, but the clock on the desk looked parcel-new. It read 8:57. “Your friends grew discourteous, just as our harvest was to begin. Some panicked.”
“We… There were so many of you.”
He shrugged. “Your friends come to us and see faces they do not recognize and they act violated. Surely our anger is not something I need to explain to you. Any other time, we would have no big deal. We thought you’d leave. Harvest is very important to her people. They make a sacrifice each year.”
“Haisley? Whatley? My friends--”
He shrugged. “As I said, we’re looking after those few who did not find the bus when it returned.”
Wu tensed. “Sacrifice?”
“What?” Mustapha laughed, outrageously. “No, they slay some sheep, some chickens. My wife’s people found refuge here. So you saw… In the upper windows?”
“It sleeps there. Awakes at harvest. We require you say nothing.”
“It’s possible some of the others saw….”
“Possible. But they were drunk. Her god is now in its temple. Locals only.”
His wife brought in a glass of water. “I’m cooking oatmeal, if you think you can keep it down.” The barbel-faced child, peaking from behind, giggled softly.
Mustapha stroked his moustache. “Your friends, yes.” He arose. “One imagines they see many monsters.”
JD DeLuzio lives midway between Detroit and Toronto with his wife. He has written several short stories, numerous reviews and articles, and one collection of fiction. He has also workshopped original theatrical productions with youth. He frequently runs panels at SF, pop culture, and literary events. His short story, "The Rapture of Baatoon Hayes" appeared in the recent Brain Lag anthology, The Light Between Stars, and his novel, The Con, will be released in November of 2020.