That Old Problem, by T.E. Grau

(Download the audio version of this story here — read by Bruce L. Priddy.  Story illustration by Galen Dara.)

THE EASTERN CALIFORNIA DESERT spread out like a dingy, discarded quilt, moth eaten by scrub brush and creosote and pocked with blackened cigarette burns of jutting rock.  Nothing lived here willingly, and those denizens who called it home were waiting out a probation of blood and paranoia.

A single stretch of gray slashed through the endless sweep of biscuit beige.  More of an access road than the highway it promised, it connected the arid hinterlands and those who called it home with the rest of civilized society huddled on the coast who chose to forget about places like this.

Few cars ventured here, especially during daylight hours, when the local meth cooks laid low, glaring at tiny trailer windows and praying for night, and all the upstanding citizens were already sitting down where they needed to be.  It was a static, empty line of concrete, populated by a single crow feeding on a squashed lizard stupid enough to cross the road when a minivan full of lost vacationers happened to careen down this uncharted bit of hidden America, on their way to Walt’s Dream just a few more hours to the west.  The bird, so shiny and black it looked like it was covered in crude, pecked viciously in between imperious posturing, digging deep into the guts of its fallen ancestor.

That Old Problem – illustration by Galen Dara

Up on the rise, through the shimmering ribbons of heat, a lone traveler strode up the center of the highway, his blue snakeskin cowboy boots balancing on the broken yellow line.  He was young and strangely handsome, with long flowing black hair, like Hollywood’s version of a hippie rock star, wearing a white linen shirt open to the waist, hanging over snugly fitted jeans.  An iPod peeked out from his pocket, cranking Bluegrass at the end of electronic tendrils buried in his ears.  This was a man who strolled with the fluid, loose-limbed swagger of someone firmly on a path gilded by his own design.  As he walked, he raised his designer sunglasses and stared affectionately at the sun without a squint of his large, dark eyes, not noticing as he stepped on the squashed lizard, squirting putrid fluids onto the dirty sand.  The crow squawked and fluttered in protest.  The man just winked up at the burning orb in the sky, replaced his shades and sauntered on, leaving tight, greasy footprints on the pavement behind him.

Up ahead, a desert diner promised “Good Eats” on a rusted tin sign shot through by bullet holes.  A muddy pickup truck with out of state plates was parked in front.  A mangy dog sniffed the tires, raised a leg, and pissed a few sad, short bursts onto the scarred rubber.

A shadow loomed over the dog.  The mutt looked up, just as a rusted crowbar crushed its narrow skull, braining the canine before it could drop to the dust.  A blue boot kicked the dead dog aside, and it came to rest under a halo of blood, bone, and sticky gray sprayed on the sidewalls of the truck tires.  Fur wafted in the air like a puff of splintered spider webs as the dripping crowbar clanged to the ground.

The front door opened with the off-key tinkling of a dented bell, sounding more somber than inviting.  The long haired man stood just inside the doorway, sizing up the mostly deserted establishment.  A few dead eyed locals sat over their black coffee and stained plates, munching on toast as they watched the sputtering television fizzing through the local news.  The newly arrived man nodded.  “Ambiance,” he said with a smile.

A thick framed waitress, sporting a cheap beehive wig sprayed an odd shade of purple, was smacking the side of the TV as she turned to the new arrival.  “What can I do you for?” she asked in that tired, put-upon way of all rural diner waitresses.

The long haired man ignored her, and settled his gaze at the back of the diner, where a man with a shaved head, clad in a simple, cream colored suit, sat upright in his booth, facing the back wall.

The long haired man grinned, and dramatically snuck up behind the sitting man, holding out his hands and raising his knees like he was a masked spook in a Scooby Doo cartoon.

“Stop being stupid,” the bald man said.  The long haired man stopped his stealthy approach.  “You always ruin everything,” he sighed.

The long haired man collapsed into the booth like a glum teenager while the bald man fiddled with a handful of Sweet ‘n Low packets, constructing an intricate, perfectly geometric structure of the pliant pink squares that towered several feet above the table.  The bald man’s face was smooth and hairless, without a shadow of whiskers, or even eyebrows, making his age hard to determine.  But his large eyes were infinitely wise and measureless, like two marbles carved from the black, starless void between galaxies.

“Always early,” the long haired man said, watching the bald man closely, unable to hide a glint of poorly repressed adoration.  His foot tapped anxiously under the table.

“Always late,” the bald man said, neither perturbed nor surprised, without looking at his companion across the table, too absorbed in his delicate task.  The long haired man frowned, then banged the table with his hand.  The pink spire crumbled into a heap.

The bald man paid this no mind as he held up a packet, looking at it with a sense of horrified wonder.   “Why do they keep CREATING things?”  The man ripped open the Sweet ‘n Low and poured out the contents onto the pitted table top, next to the word “Sluts!” carved into the formica.  He stared at the white, unnatural powder.  “Isn’t sugar enough?”

The long haired man chuckled ruefully.  “What’s that saying about creating a monster?”  He picked up a menu and glanced over it, noting the ‘Special of the Day!’ – a large, unrecognizable slab of meat, drowning in something called “American gravy”.  “You’re paying, right?” the long haired man inquired, casually scratching the side of his face.

“When haven’t I?”

“You’ve got yourself a point there, pops.”

They both scanned the menus sightlessly, neither man seeming hungry, using the laminated paper more as a prop.

“So, what now?” the long haired man asked.

“So what now indeed,” the bald man repeated rhetorically, his mind elsewhere.

The harsh florescent lights buzzed above them.

“Motherfucker!” the long haired man snarled, tossing the menu across the room, where it landed at the foot of the approaching waitress carrying a pot of coffee.  She stopped and turned back around.  “I’ll give you two a little more time.”

The long haired man fumed.  “Why did you call me here? I was busy.”

The bald man raised what would have been an eyebrow, but said nothing.  The long haired man sat back and sighed in resignation.  “What’s this all about?” he said, almost whining.

“It’s about that old problem.”

The long haired man took a second to process the proclamation, then sat bolt upright, taking a drink of water with a shaky hand.  “The… old problem?” he wheezed, trying to find his voice.

“Yes,” the bald man said, looking up at a centipede as it scuttled across the ceiling.  The man smiled, remembering.

The long haired man’s eyes bugged out of his head, a thousand thoughts and possibilities rushing through his brain.

The waitress again approached, and poured them each a cup of coffee.  “You two ready?”  The long haired man ignored her, lost in his internal meltdown.  The bald man looked at her warmly and patted her on the hand.  “Not quite yet, child.”  The woman tensed up at his touch, but his tone and gaze put her instantly at ease.  She smiled.  He smiled back at her.  “Not quite yet,” he repeated, a bit sadly.  Her eyes dilated.  “Okay,” she said simply, as if awakening from a dream.  She turned and walked away, her ruined arches stepping lighter, humming a child’s song to herself.

The long haired man leaned forward, his voice a low hiss.  “What are we going to do about it, then?  How are we going to…”  He closed his eyes and rubbed his forehead with his fist.

The bald man looked at the man across from him.  “How are things with you?  With all of you?”

The long haired man threw up his arms in frustration, struggling to control himself.  “Fine… The same… You know… The same.  It’s always the same.”

“Yes, it is.  It’s how I wanted it…  I miss you.  All of you.”

The long haired man looked down at his hands, clenching and unclenching.  “We—“ he began, before stopping himself.  “Don’t DO this!” he yelled, drawing eyes from the front.  “Don’t act so causal about this.  You always do this, and it drives me fucking nuts.”

“How should I act?  I knew this was coming.  You knew this was coming.”

The man seemed on the verge of tears that didn’t come.  That never would.  Not anymore.  “Why did you even make me?  Why would you bring me into this kind of world?”

“There was a void, just like before I arrived.  They left it empty, you know.  Wasted, hollow… And when I came here, when I found it, I wanted to fill it back up.  It’s the way of things.”

“It’s YOUR way of things.”

The bald man shrugged.

“You do so abhor a vacuum,” the long haired man said with grim bemusement.

“I was lonely.”

“And so you filled it with… this?”  He gestured around him.  “With us?  With THEM?”  The long haired man looked over at a blobby local stitched into a sweat stained t-shirt, fixing him with a seething glare.  The local got up abruptly and waddled out the diner, the battered bell tinkling sadly.

“You made your choice,” the bald man said.  “It didn’t need to be like this.”

“I’m a product of my environment,” the long haired man sneered.  “I can’t say the same for you.”

“Every yin needs a yang,” the bald man said.

“You’re a sadist.  You’re worse than a sadist.”

“I’m the best and the worst of all my children.  And thanks to you, we have a measuring point on one end.”

“I just did what I was born to do.  You knew what was going to happen.”

“Did I?” the bald man asked, mostly of himself.  He genuinely didn’t seem to know the answer.  “I don’t think that I did.  Not back then, anyway.  You were always so full of surprises.”

The long haired man clenched his jaw, grinding molars.  “Can we NOT go over this again?  Can we talk about what’s coming?  Please!”

“Yes, we can.”  The bald man said, but didn’t continue.

“So, do you have a plan?”

“Of course I do,” the bald man snapped indignantly, showing rare emotion.  “Don’t I always?  Why else would you be here?”

“Well, that’s some positive news,” the long haired man sighed, relaxing a little.  He looked around and took a sip of coffee, instantly grimacing.  “At least we’re meeting above water this time.”

The bald man leaned forward, arranging the pink packets into shapes.  “My plan is that we do nothing.”

The long haired man choked on his coffee.  “Nothing?  What are you talking about?  You know what ‘doing nothing’ means, yes?”

The bald man just looked out the grimy diner window, at the clouds that seemed to be moving too quickly above the spent brown earth.

“It means oblivion,” the long haired man said quietly, his voice haunted.  “Nothingness.”

“I know,” the bald man said dreamily.  “Doesn’t that sound wonderful?”

“NO!” the long haired man cried, as the dented bell marked the exit of the last of the patrons.  Even the waitress had disappeared.  The place was empty, save for the two men sitting across from each other.  There wasn’t room for anyone else inside.  “It sounds horrifying!” the long haired man continued, worked up.  “It sounds like the end.  I don’t want the end.  I want to keep going.  I’ve fought too hard to get where I am to whimper away to nothing.  I won’t let it end.”

“You can’t do it alone.  I can’t either.  So why try?”

The long haired man sat back, stunned.  “Wow, look who’s a quitter.”

“It’s not about quitting.  It’s about ending.  Everything must end.”

“Not everything.  THEY don’t end.”

“We’re not supposed to either, but… They have other plans for that.”

“Then let’s not!  Let’s stand together and fight!  We have power.  You know we do.  We can do great and terrible things.  We can do these things to THEM.”

“I’m tired,” the bald man said, absently swirling the white sweetener into a spiral pattern on the table with his fingertips.  “No, that’s not the right word…” He looked up at the ceiling, looking for the centipede, but only found cracked tiles and water damage.  “I’m bored.  Yes, that’s it… I’m bored.”

“Death isn’t the cure for boredom.”

“It’s the cure for many things.”

“It’s not fair to us.  To them.  To everything here.”

“What is fair, really?”

The long haired man sat back, narrowing his eyes, as if trying to see something very far away.  “I think you’re scared.”

Everything inside and outside the diner seemed to freeze, holding its breath.  The bald man looked up from the table, his eyes suddenly refocused and veined with streaks of glowing gold.  “Scared?” his voice crackled through the thick silence.  There was a faint humming, as if the atoms in the air were quivering.  “SCARED?!”  The bald man’s voice boomed, his face contorting with rage as it began to grow, with the rest of him, filling the seat and expanding to the ceiling.   “I, WHO ROSE FROM THE ABYSS ON MY OWN, WHO BROUGHT LIGHT INTO THE VOID…” The man’s voice sounded like a chorus of millions in a thousand languages, compressed into one hammering articulation.  The form of his body blurred and burst into a white-hot presence that blotted out the reality around them, and sucked the long haired man into a twisting helix of blinding white.  “I, WHO CREATED ALL THAT IS NOW FROM THE CHEWED UP REMAINS OF ULTIMATE NOTHINGNESS…”  The long haired man was a fly speck on an achromatic plain, swirling with violent visions of the birth of the universe and the death of stars.  Supernovas and nebulae and the forming planets, the never-ending scream and claw of space carving into the frayed edges of the Dimensional Zero, where matter and light and time are eaten in a gulping maw a billion light years wide at the center of reality.  Through all of this, the terrible voice echoed, dwarfing all.  “I FEAR NOTHING!!”  A flash of white erased everything, leaving only a grey smudge, which then quickly retreated, bringing everything back.  Back to the diner, and the table covered in pink packets.  Back to the bald man sitting in his booth, his face once again calm, but his eyes still roiling.

The long haired man seemed unimpressed.  “If you’re not scared, then fight.  Fight for us.  We can’t do this without you.  We need you, father.”

The bald man stared, his vision drawn inside as he deliberated.  The long haired man picked up several sweetener packets and built a basic foundation of a structure.  The bald man looked down at it, then added a few more packets.  It was surprisingly sound, holding up a tiny seashell that the long haired man placed on top of it.  “Don’t give up on us,” the long haired man said.  “You’re all we’ve got.”

The bell above the door chimed, but this time it sounded light and sweet, the way a bell is supposed to sound.  It sounded fixed.

Both men stood outside the diner, as dusk began its quick decent over the desert.  The bald man looked at the dead dog that was already swarming with flies.  “You just can’t help yourself, can you?”

The long haired man put on his sunglasses and smiled his megawatt, movie star smile.  “Some things you can always count on.”

The bald man nodded, looking at the quiet land growing dark around him.  “If we do this, nothing will be the same again.”

“If we don’t, nothing will be anything again.”

There was a long pause.  “Agreed,” the bald man said.

“Are we?”

They shook hands, firm and slow.

“We are,” the bald man said.  He held up a Sweet ‘n Low in one hand, the sea shell in the other.  “Better to tear down all I’ve made, then let something else move in.”  He slipped the pink packet into his jacket pocket, then crushed the sea shell in his palm, letting the flaky shards fall to mix with the dust.

“I love this new attitude.”

“It’s an old attitude.  I just had to find it again.”

The long haired man nodded.  “They aren’t the only old things out there.  We’ve been around the block a few times ourselves.”

“Yes we have,” the bald man said slowly, remembering untold cycles.  He turned and looked at the long haired man.  “See you soon, little one.  All of you.”

“Sooner than you think.”

The bald man followed the long haired man’s gaze up into the dusk darkened sky, to the new constellations that had positioned themselves in the cosmos.

“Weird,” the bald man said.

Ives’ husband – and, he’s a writer

T.E. Grau is a writer of cosmic horror, dark fantasy, and Weird fiction.  His work is currently available in Dead But Dreaming 2Horror for the Holidays, and Eschatology Journal, as well as the upcoming anthologies Aklonomicon, Urban Cthulhu: Nightmare Cities, and Dark Fusions: Where Monsters Lurk.  He was recently named the Fiction Editor for Strange Aeons magazine, thanks to generous bribes.  His debut collection of short stories will be released into the wild in late 2012.  He often scratches and bleeds at The Cosmicomicon.  Aside from his insidious writing pursuits, T.E. Grau lives and dies every blessed day in Los Angeles, California with his wife, collaborator, and Eternal Muse Ives Hovanessian, his Bunny of Destruction Cthulhu “Lulu’ Grau, and his little buttercup Angel Fish, who will outdo us all.

Story illustration by Galen Dara.

If you enjoyed this story, let Ted know by commenting — and please use the Facebook, Twitter, and Google Plus buttons below to spread the word.

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12 responses to “That Old Problem, by T.E. Grau

  1. Nicely evocative, cringe-worthy without being too specific. i liked the dialog, and the 2 characters. Although not directly told, we know what the long-hair and the bald man are discussing. Well, any Lovecraftian would know.

  2. Characterization and atmosphere are well done . The contrasting nothingness of the desert plain building up to the eternal cosmic universe is great, as is the life and death(oblivion) contrast. Fantastic dialogue.

  3. Great description of the desert milieu. I could almost feel the heat and sense the desolation. I especially liked the line “Nothing lived here willingly.” Those four words say a lot.

  4. The narrative voice — my gawd, it’s outstanding. You have never written a finer piece, this is enthralling. So beautiful and potent that I need to read it again and soak it in. Bravo, my brother!

    • Thank YOU, my Sibling-in-Arms (and tentacles and bold sashes)!

      Your words honor me deeply, as a compliment from the Queen of Lovecraftiana is never taken casually.

  5. I really enjoyed this, although I’m not sure how Lovecraft would have felt about the Christian aspect. The idea of a benevolent god (watching over us or not) just doesn’t sit with my personal vision of the Mythos, I’m afraid…

    Great imagery though :)

    • Thanks, Peter.

      I’m sure Lovecraft would hate it, but I didn’t write it for him. I wrote it for me, and all my deeply seated religious issues. :)

      I like the idea of what we see as our Judeo-Christian Mythos coming eons after another Mythos that was in our corner of space time, and then moved on. Something filled the void.

      I do appreciate your thoughts, and thank you muchly for giving it a read.

  6. Ted: this was a different take and feel than I expected. I really enjoyed reading this story. Very, very cool. Great job. I can’t wait to read more from you soon.

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