fantasy fiction musicians mythology short-story


Wytch Cross

Tread lightly upon the crossroads..

Photo by Pedro Figueras from Pexels

It was now a month into our first album tour, and the collective will to go on was being stretched to its limits. We had experienced worse tours than this, but now the numbing fatigue that came from playing to empty rooms, night-after-night, had begun to turn into caustic resentment. Tonight was no exception.

As we loaded the last of the gear into the van, Foxy our engineer appeared from around the corner carrying a half-empty crate of beer, a consolation prize for tonights half-hearted performance. This evening had been yet another dead, tedious show for us in an equally dead, tedious part of England; playing to indifferent audiences in lifeless venues was becoming something of a theme.

Angie our drummer poked her head out from the dark recess of the van, wiping a bead of sweat off her forehead and onto her denim vest.

“Is that the last of it? ’Cause I’m not carrying any more shit into the van. Foxy better have got those drinks out the dressing room.”

Foxy, hearing this cry for succour, peeled a tepid beer can from the pack and tossed it up into the van. There was a cry of triumph inside from Angie, followed by the soft hiss of a beer can being pried open to surrender its nectar.

Angie hopped out of the back of the van, and leaned against the open doors. She shivered in the cool night air, her denim ensemble providing little protection against the cold. “If you need anything else shifted, ask Shithouse to do it. It’s what he’s here for.”

‘Shithouse’ was the semi-affectionate name for Ed, our temporary bassist/heavy lifter. We called him this…well, because he had the physical dimensions and fortitude of a brick-shithouse. Standing six foot eight and with arms like a stevedore, we had once seen him pick up a bouncer by the scruff of the neck and lift him a foot off the air. One-handed.

Ed didn’t seem to mind the nickname we had given him. Then again, his permanently stoned brain resembled scrambled eggs at this point, so he probably didn’t even register its existence.

Saffie and Rex, guitar and lead-singer respectively, were up in the front of the van bickering over the radio stations. As for me, I had packed my things away hours ago. my job in the band was relatively simple these days; I painted their music.

It had seemed like a great idea at the time. My musical skills were always pretty lax, but I got along well with everyone in the band. So one day they shunted me from rhythm guitarist to ‘artist in residence’.

I would bring my canvas to each show, applying liberal waves of oil paint to its blank surface in a vain attempt to reflect the sounds I heard onstage. I even started to enjoy it, eventually.

I was pretty pleased of my results so far, even though I hadn’t the faintest idea what I was doing. My brushstrokes were imprecise and crude, and the paint had become a sludge of clashing pigments, but it worked for me. My pseudo- ‘Pollock-by-way-of-Francis-Bacon’ artistic aesthetic, mostly born from my own incompetence, had begun to take on a life of its own.

Even the guys in the band seemed to like my work, although our unwilling audiences had been either bemused or outright hostile to my presence. I had experienced at least one pint of piss-weak lager poured over my head as I was working, and more than a few comments of ‘art-wanker’ slung in my general direction.

Hastily leaving the empty venue in our wake, the van carried us down a series of dark country lanes. As we drove, the radio played an eerie hiss of untuned frequencies, intercut with snatches of human voices. Finally, we found a signal that was relatively within range; a country-and-western station, of all things. So we sat in tired silence as Hank Marvin provided the soundtrack to our nocturnal ramblings.

The van was an old royal mail delivery vehicle, which we had bought from Angie’s dad on the cheap a few years ago. The engine was knackered, the suspension was a joke, and the back of the van contained all the creature-comforts of a tramp’s toilet. Still, it got us to where we needed to go, even if the inside did smell faintly of exhaust fumes when we turned the heater on.

As we trudged along the narrow roads, we passed a road sign that was wrapped in ivy, strangled in a net of green: ‘Wytch-Cross = 3 miles’. The dull light from the vans headlamps’ illuminated the faded sign for a brief moment, before it vanished into the night as we passed.

Saffie, who was driving the van, muttered to herself as we passed the signpost. “Wytch-Cross. That would make a good album name. Bit on-the-nose though.”

Rex, overhearing her, chimed in with a tired sigh. “It’s a bit too ‘Sabbath’ I think. We’re not that kind of band. Least, I think we’re not.”

The music we played (or rather, everyone besides me played) was the subject of such intense debate among us, that it had become the great philosophical question of the century: were we new-wave, post-punk, grim-core, blood-metal, anarcho-funk or disco-terrorism?

Most people outside the band agreed that whatever we played, it was loud, and at the very least enthusiastic.

The name ‘Wytch-cross’ was good, though. Bit of a pagan angle, but I could work with that. Perhaps that’s what I could call my finished piece, after we had completed the tour. Crossroads were meant to be magic, weren’t they?

A half remembered story about Robert Johnson crossed my tired mind, before I dozed off, uncomfortably, against the passenger window beside me.

An hour passed, and soon we could see the motorway beyond the trees. Across the empty dual-carriage we drifted, and down toward the cheap travel-motel we had booked into for the night. The building glowed like a ripe pustule on the side of the motorway, its flaccid neon sign winking un-welcomingly at us as we approached.

We checked in, the drowsy receptionist handing us three tawny-yellow keycards to access the rooms.Then carrying six suitcases full of unwashed clothes between us, we headed to our beds.

The corridors in hotels always look the same, don’t you think? Like in that Kubrick film. You could so easily get lost, the repeating mosaic of cheerless wallpaper and frayed carpet becoming the path of a labyrinth from which you may never return.

We assembled in the first room we found, which was Saffie and Rex’s. As they were a couple, it seemed only fitting they share together. Though this tour was perhaps the point-of-no-return for them; their relationship was already becoming strained by the constant, unrelenting proximity to one another over the past few months on the road. Twenty-four hours a day, seven days a week.

Angie pulled two half-drunk bottles of rancid scotch from her suitcase, and ‘Shithouse’ Ed rolled a joint the size of a chair leg on the dressing table. Foxy disappeared into the toilet to powder his nose, while Rex and Saffie collapsed onto the twin bed.

“I never want to see another fuckin’ empty fuckin’ venue as long as I fuckin’ live.” Said Rex, his head buried in a pillow.

“It’s like playing at a miser’s funeral every night. If I knew any better, I’d have told the label to stick this poxy tour up their fat, pimply arse.”

Saffie grunted in agreement, before rolling over to stare at the ceiling. “The merch sales from last month will cover the petrol to Coventry, but christ know’s how we’ll get to Glasgow at this rate. That twat at the venue almost didn’t pay us tonight. Thought he could sneak out through the fire-exit while we were playing.”

Foxy came out of the bathroom at this, his eyes now like black pin-pricks and his cheeks flushed. “Yeah, I managed to grab the little toe-rag before he scarpered off. Made him count the manky notes in front of me on the bar. It just about covered the rooms tonight, plus some money for a takeaway.”

During this exchange, Ed had finished crafting his monolithic smoke on the dressing table, and was headed toward the windows by the bed. I tugged on his immense arm as he made his way past.

“You can’t smoke that in here, Ed. Smoke alarms.” I pointed up to the white smoke detector on the ceiling.

Ed looked at me with utterly vacant eyes. “I’m gonna open a window, though.” He blinked at me then, as if I had said something thoroughly baffling. In a deadpan voice, he added: “It’s fine, mate. Don’t worry about it.”

Two half-bottles of cheap scotch and a crate of beer later, we were all soon experiencing the unique, trance-like state that comes from drunkenness and lack of sleep.

(And Ed had been partly right about the smoke alarm. It hadn’t gone off, and more than likely it was purely ornamental.)

Myself and Foxy headed off to our room, though we seemed to take the longest route conceivable getting there. We lurched from identical corridor to identical corridor, under blinking overhead lights and past buzzing ‘fire-exit’ signs. We found our room, which was just as nondescript as all the others, and Foxy practically swan-dived onto his bed. He began to snore like a buzz-saw almost immediately, and in that moment of drunken clarity, I realised I had left my ear-plugs in the van.

I took the plastic key-card from between Foxy’s tobacco stained fingers, and walked out the room, shutting the door behind me. I headed back down the corridor toward the reception desk, then through the main doors and out into the car park.

The air was still bitterly cold, and I shivered in my thin T-shirt as I crossed the car park. Fumbling with clammy, inebriated fingers I opened the van, quickly snatched my earplugs from the glove compartment, and then slammed the doors shut again. I weaved a pirouetting, inebriated path back across the car park, and returned to the hotel.

Later, as I made my way past hotel door after hotel door, I found myself to be completely without bearing. In my foggy, scotch-soaked mind, I could not for the life of me fathom how to return to my room.

I looked at the key card, and the numbers on it seemed to shift and scatter, like black insects scuttling from beneath a rock. I muttered in irritation to myself, as I rocked gently on uneven footing, the carpet at my feet looking like an inviting place to be in this moment.

Perhaps I could just find a corner somewhere, to rest my eyes for a moment? Then my memory would be sufficiently sobered with rest, and I could make my way back to bed again. Like all ideas when utterly knee-walking, cross-eyed drunk, it seemed to be perfectly sound in its premise.

I found a soft spot opposite a fire-door, and lay my head on the rough carpet. It smelled of disinfectant and cigarettes, but I didn’t care; the floor made for as perfect a bed as any. I let sleep take hold of me then, and drifted into a twisting, uneasy slumber.

In my dream, I awoke in the corridor of the hotel. It was just as miserable as it had been when I was awake, still brightly lit and utterly charmless.

I looked up at some of the numbers on the doors, but they were twitchy and indistinct, moving like epileptic hieroglyphs across the wooden frames. I scowled in frustration, then shook my head to try and rouse my senses.

I looked down one end of the corridor, and then another. As I did so, I saw a that I was not alone..

Walking toward me was a man, wearing dark blue overalls and carrying a tool-box. He seemed old, and his hair was a shock of white curls atop his head. On his hip he carried a vast ring of keys, that jingled merrily against his leg as he walked. He stopped right in front of me, and smiled broadly; he then knelt down, and offered me his weathered, wrinkled hand.

“You seem lost, old son. Can’t find the right door? Come with me, i’ll sort you out.”

His voice was a musical burr, full of the rich overtones that come with age, and a life well spent.

I stood up, reassured by the warmth of his words and the strength of his grip as I took his hand. Together, we walked down the long corridor, which seemed to expand then contract around us, almost as if the building was breathing. We passed door after door, the numbers on them still a swirl of unrecognisable shapes. The old man spoke to me as we walked:

“I’ve got keys to all the doors here, you see. I’m sort of the caretaker ‘round these parts, though I am getting on a bit. Not a lot of diesel left in the old engine, if you catch my drift.”

We came to a door that seemed different to all the others. It was made of a brittle, dark wood that was stained with time and dry-heat. A rusted handle was set in the middle, and a small glass aperture was embedded above it. Light seemed to be passing through the lens, a soft beam that looked like moon-light. The old man spoke:

“I think this is the one we’re after, don’t you? Just let me find the right key.”

The old man rattled through the ring of keys on his hip, before he seemed to find what he was looking for. It was a strange, thin looking opener he held in his hand; it was made of a black, tarnished metal, and the head of it was shaped into a cross. It reminded me a little of a road sign, one I had seen on a family holiday to America. A cross-walk, I think it had been called.

The old man pushed the key into the lock, which unlatched the door with a strange, mournful sigh. He put out his hand to usher me through, and together we crossed the threshold of the doorway.

It was dark this side of the door, and a yellow hunter’s moon hung in the air above us. We were on a road, out somewhere in a bleached, empty wasteland. A few lifeless trees could be seen by the light of the moon, and the soil beyond the road seemed almost black. As I looked around, I saw that the road we stood on was intersected through another, creating a stout ‘X’ carved into the earth, reaching toward the horizon.

“This is a very special place, you know.” I heard the old man say, as he walked past me and into the middle of the road, to the heart of the crossroads. “All sorts of thing happen here. Deals are made, souls are sold. You know back in the old days, they buried suicides in places like this? Staked them through the heart they did, so they wouldn’t rise on judgement day.”

The old man put down the toolbox he had been carrying, resting it onto the cracked surface of the road. “Shows how much people know, really. No, this is more than just a place to be buried, or a place to bargain with the devil. This is a threshold between worlds. Where one existence starts and another begins. The start of a journey, and the end of another.”

“Back in my glory years, I used to be the one that helped those who wished to pass here and through the veil. Not anymore, though. They just don’t worship like they did in the good old days.”

I stood numbly in the pale light of the hunters moon, fear and incomprehension rooting me to the spot. I spoke, but my voice sounded hollow and sluggish, as if it was not my own.

“I’m not supposed to be here, sir. I just got lost, I swear. I don’t want to go anywhere with you, I just want to find my friends.”

The Old Man scratched his head with a weathered hand, then shrugged. “Well, if you’re sure of that. You did ask for my assistance you know, in your own way. Not many do, these days. But I suppose I can perform this rather trivial act for you, if that is what you want.”

He flexed his fingers outward, and looked at me with eyes that would have stopped a clock. He seemed immense in that moment, his shadow huge and twisting, spitting like a black flame across the surface of the road. He began to murmur in a lilting tongue, and as he did the sky above seemed to split in two.

The Moon turned from yellow to blood red, and lights began to flash across the horizon in blinding eruptions of fire. I cowered in fear, and as I shut my eyes, I heard the old man speak to me with a voice that made my ears ring:

“Tread carefully upon the crossroads, stranger. This is where the old gods dream.”

I came to in a pool of my own warm bile, laid out on the carpet, surrounded by Rex, Foxy and Ed. They all looked significantly worse for wear, and the light that crept under the frame of the fire door behind them indicated that a new day had dawned outside. I tried in vain to sit upright, my head spinning and my guts lurching.

Foxy helped me to my feet, and wiped the drying vomit from my mouth with a wet towel that he held. “What did you sleep on the floor for, you daft bastard? The room’s only two doors down from here.”

I slurred a monosyllabic response, before evacuating more putrid vomit onto the carpet.

Carried by Foxy and Rex, I was lifted back to our shared room. Hosed down in the shower and lathered with pink, frothy soap, I had a coffee forced down my neck and a dry slab of toast pushed into my waiting hand. After Rex rummaged in my suitcase for any clothes that were not suffused with either stale beer or B.O, I was dressed in fresh attire, and then frog-marched out of the hotel.

We assembled back in the car park, the sound of the radio in the van blaring with a shrill fury. Ed stepped out from behind the van, and patted me on the back with a heavy hand, which caused the bitter coffee and stale toast to lurch in my stomach more violently than I perhaps wanted. Ed spoke to me in a soft, hushed voice that was sincere in its concern:

“You alright, mate? Feeling ok? We heard you got lost in the hallway. Took ages finding you.”

“Anyway, the painting you done last night is looking good. Might need to tidy it up a bit, though, not sure what it’s supposed to be.”

Teetering on sea-legs that felt like they weren’t my own, I staggered into the van, and placed my fevered brow on the cool glass of the window beside me. Letting thoughts of crossroads and lights in the sky lull me into sleep, my dry eyes began to close lazily. The warm confines of the van and the huddled bodies of my friends beside me helped sooth my soul, and quickly I fell into a dreamless slumber.

Wytch-Cross was originally published in ILLUMINATION on Medium, where people are continuing the conversation by highlighting and responding to this story.

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