Sometimes Cully Frayne heard music inside his head, beautiful songs from his childhood days in Tennessee. The songs might be just about anything from top-forty radio that made him remember specific days of his youth to the sweet lullabies his grandmother sang to ease him off to sleep when he was just a babe.
Lately, the music had fallen silent, and all he heard was the voice.
On this cold night in Boston, Cully wanted nothing more than to hear the music again, to remember the warm summer days of his past.
"Runaround Sue" would be nice, he thought, as he shuffled down Boylston Street, zipping the stained windbreaker he'd been given at the shelter up to protect his neck from the chill. He tried to remember the words to the song, muttering to himself, attempting to ignore the sharp bite of the cold, November wind.
"Here's my story, sad but true. It's about a girl that I once knew. She took my love, then ran around, with every single guy in . . ."
The voice made his brain bleed - at least that's what it felt like. Needles, hundreds of needles sticking into the soft, gray matter.
Cully stopped, gasping. Leaning against the cold metal of a light post, he promised he'd be good, if only the voice would make his brain stop bleeding.
The voice agreed, reminding Cully that it didn't care much for Dion and the Belmonts. It preferred the Four Seasons.
Cully pushed off from the pole as the pain inside his skull began to subside. He was tempted to tell the voice that Dion had recorded "Runaround Sue" solo, but why take a chance of pissing it off again. No, he decided. He'd keep the musical trivia to himself.
At one time or another, everyone in Cully's family had heard the voice, but he was one of the lucky ones. The voice hadn't bothered him like it had his grandfather or his cousin Jacob down in Georgia, who had killed himself by parking his truck on the train tracks. No, Cully was lucky. The voice hadn't bothered him much at all. Its only effect had been the sweet music in his head and the tender memories that happily dangled behind the tunes like the tail on a kite - until recently.
The voice intruded again. It must be a fat one tonight. No explanation, only the order, a fat one.
The shelter on Pine Street was up ahead, and by the looks of the crowd gathering in front, it was going to be a busy night inside. Cully usually didn't go to the shelters, preferring to rough it on his own. He didn't want to depend on anyone.
Brief, hurtful images of a woman he'd known as wife flashed before his mind's eye, a shrieking harpy tossing a bottle of little blue pills at him and demanding that he take one. The medications were to help him, but all they'd done was dull his thoughts and take away the music. Cully couldn't live without the music, didn't want to live without the music. Knowing that they wouldn't understand, he had pushed away the people in his life that supposedly cared so much for him. Now, thinking about it, he almost laughed out loud. Yeah, they loved him so much they wanted to take away the only thing that made him happy.
No, Cully Frayne didn't need anybody but himself. Not as long as he had the sweet, sweet tunes inside his head. At the moment they were gone, but they would be back soon. All he had to do was finish this errand for the voice.
He stood across the street from the shelter, looking over the crowd with their stuff-filled shopping carts. With the heavy blankets draped over their shoulders they looked like desert nomads. He could feel the voice peering out through his eyes, searching. Then he felt it focus near the head of the line on a guy known as Little Tommy. The name was supposed to be ironic, because Little Tommy was pretty damn big, both tall and fat. He'd been on the streets since he was just a kid, and nobody could figure out how he stayed so fat. The story going around was that anyone who went missing had been eaten by Little Tommy, and that was how he stayed so big.
Cully didn't want any part of this guy; he was wild, unpredictable, and he was also at the front of the line to get into the shelter for a warm bed and a hot meal. Wild horses couldn't drag the son of a bitch from the front of the line on a night like this.
But of course, that was exactly what the voice demanded. The voice wanted Little Tommy, and it wanted him now. By way of incentive, it let the music out for a bit - a show tune, from Oklahoma - and then violently yanked it away. Cully knew he would do anything for that music.
Slowly, he crossed the street and made his way through the line, racking his brain for a way to get Little Tommy to leave his spot in line. He knew many of the guys. Some called out to him, others acknowledged him with a barely perceptible nod. Little Tommy was sitting on his big, blue duffel bag, talking with some old guy that Cully didn't recognize. He stopped near the big man and waited, thoughts racing. He still hadn't come up with a plan.
Must I think of everything? the voice growled, and then an idea was there, almost as if Cully had created it himself.
He motioned to the big guy, but Tommy wasn't budging.
"What do you want?" the big guy growled, an unmistakable expression of annoyance on his round, dirty face. He looked like an angry baby - a giant, angry baby.
"I . . . I need your help with something," Cully stammered. "C'mere."
"Forget it." Tommy waved him away. "They're serving meatloaf tonight."
"I got a chance to make some money," Cully continued, glancing at the others standing there in line. They weren't paying attention, probably dreaming about meatloaf. "But I need some muscle."
Cully could tell he had grabbed the large man's attention by the way his fleshy brows scrunched together.
"'Course if you're not interested, I'll . . ."
"How much?" Tommy asked, lifting his massive bulk off his duffel bag.
"Twenty bucks, maybe more," Cully replied and watched the fat man's eyes twinkle.
Tommy told the old guy to hold his place and lumbered closer to Cully.
They certainly do grow them big on the streets these days, the voice commented, and Cully had to agree as he tilted his head back to look up at Tommy's face.
"You better not be fuckin' with me, man," the big baby growled.
"No." Cully shook his head. "I wouldn't do that."
"What do we gotta do?"
Cully's lips moved, anxious to wrap themselves around an explanation, but nothing came. The voice was silent.
"I told you not to fuck with me," Tommy bellowed, grabbing Cully by the front of his windbreaker and giving him a violent shake.
That's it, the voice cooed. He's perfect, so full of violence. I wonder how many lives he's taken since living on the streets?
"Some rich kids from Brighton," Cully said as the words came unbidden to his lips. "They want us to buy them booze - for a party. Said they'd pay me forty bucks."
"Pay you forty," Tommy said, pushing him away, causing him to stumble backward. "What the fuck you need me for?"
Cully smoothed out the front of his coat, glancing down to make sure the zipper hadn't broken. "There's five of them, and only one of me. I don't want 'em to think they can screw me over. They'd think twice before screwing with somebody like you."
Tommy started to smile. "They'd have to be fucking crazy to screw with me."
"Where are these rich kids?" the big man asked, looking up and down the street.
"They're waiting up on Shawmut. They want to drive to a packy down on Mass. Ave. You in?"
"Thirty for me, ten for you," Tommy said, his smile getting crueler.
Tell him yes, the voice demanded.
"Ten's better than getting my ass kicked," Cully agreed. "You better bring your shit, though." He pointed to the duffel bag on the ground behind the man. "I don't know how long this is gonna take."
Tommy gave him one last look then retrieved his belongings, and the two of them headed toward Shawmut Avenue through the biting wind. Tommy talked on and on about what he was going to do with the thirty dollars, something about Kentucky Fried Chicken and a big bottle of Jack. But Cully was finding it difficult listening to the big guy while the voice was whispering directions inside his head.
He's good, the voice purred excitedly. An absolute perfect choice; couldn't have picked better myself.
"Where the hell are these guys?" Tommy finally asked, starting to sound a bit winded.
Cully hesitated, and then the voice ordered him to turn onto Tremont Street. "Down here," he told his companion.
He was just about to pass the mouth of an alley when he felt the tug. It was as if somebody had put a rope around his waist and pulled it taut, halting his progress. He stopped, gazing into the dark alley.
"They down here?" Tommy asked, shambling up beside him.
"Yeah." He didn't need the voice's confirmation this time.
"What the fuck we waitin' for then?" The big man headed down the alley past two large dumpsters. "Let's get our forty dollars."
Up ahead there, the voice whispered. Just past the manhole cover.
For a moment, Cully Frayne saw through the eyes of his passenger. Through the perspective of the presence in his mind, the area just beyond the manhole looked to be surrounded by writhing black clouds, like the ink injected under water by a frightened octopus. The effect disoriented him and then passed a moment later. In his gut, Cully knew that something had happened on that spot, something so bad that it had seeped into the very substance of the street, and not even the heavy spring rains or the grueling New England winters could wash it away. It was a bad spot, and if what he suspected was true, it was about to get a whole lot worse.
Stop him, the voice commanded. Don't let him get too far.
"Hold up," Cully called after the big man.
Tommy stopped and turned to face Cully. "Well?" he asked, looking around the alley. "Where the fuck are they?"
Cully could hear the spark of anger in his voice.
That's it, make him good and mad. Get that heart pumping.
Cully always knew that something like this would happen, but still had hoped that he was different. Nobody else in his family had ever heard the music before; just the voices that made them do things.
"They're not coming," he said sadly. "They never were - I made it up."
Tommy's eyes began to bulge, his fat face seeming to swell up to twice its size.
The voice had tried to tell Cully that his family was blessed - that they were some of the last of their kind, sensitive to those who lived on the other side. Cully gathered that at one time, long ago, there were many more people with the gift, but as the years wore on, fewer and fewer were born with the ability to hear. And for the first time he could remember, Cully Frayne actually envied the deaf.
Tommy dropped his bag to the alley floor, reaching out with gigantic hands to grab hold of Cully again. Cully did nothing, letting himself be pulled toward the monster of a man, watching with a cold detachment as Tommy hauled back his ham-sized fist.
Cully saw an explosion of color as the blow landed, and pain exploded in his face. His legs went out from beneath him, and he sat down hard on the street.
Excellent, crooned the voice.
"I warned you not to fuck with me," Little Tommy screamed, lumbering toward him.
Cully made no effort to stop the man from taking hold of him by the front of his jacket. Little Tommy hauled him to his feet. He stuck his tongue out from the corner of his mouth, tasting the warm saltiness of his own blood, and he prepared to be punched again.
He has to be brought to the brink of madness - to the brink of murder - before the time is right.
Little Tommy hit him again. One of Cully's front teeth broke off, sending a spike of excruciating pain up into his brain. Cully rocketed backward, his momentum stopped only when he collided with the metal surface of one of the dumpsters.
"I'm gonna take thirty dollars out of your ass," the man growled, any semblance of humanity leaking away. His face was a blistering shade of red, glowing in the dim light cast by the distant streetlamps.
Cully was drifting away on a wave of pain, pulled beneath the black, cold waters of unconsciousness, when the voice violently dragged him to the surface.
The behemoth that was Little Tommy stood over him, fists pounding down upon the dumpster lid, making sounds like the crashing of thunder. "Why'd you fucking do it?" he screamed, the words blending together to create more of a primal scream than spoken language.
It was time.
Cully stared up at Little Tommy, hot blood running from his nose and mouth. His tongue flicked over the jagged break where one of his front teeth used to be, and he gestured with a curling finger for the big man to come closer.
"Do you want to know why?" Cully slurred through bloody, swollen lips.
Tommy bent down, bringing his face close, the filthy stink of the man filling Cully's nostrils.
"Tell me!" he screamed. "Tell me before I rip your fucking head off and shit down your . . ."
The voice was like a starter's pistol, compelling Cully's hand to pull the homemade knife from inside his windbreaker pocket. The knife felt warm, like it was somehow filled with life, but that was crazy - wasn't it?
It had come from the wreck of a car in which an entire family had died: mother, father, little girl no older than six, and a newborn baby boy. They had been killed by the miscalculations of a drunk driver coming home from a company picnic. The lush had been trying to change the station on the radio, completely unaware that he had crossed over into oncoming traffic.
The blade had been cut from a piece of the car floor where the family had died - where the greatest amount of blood had pooled - and filed to a nasty point. Its grip was made from strips of material from the dead baby's pajamas.
The knife glided through the air with wicked precision, plunging into the soft tissue of Little Tommy's throat, severing the carotid artery with its first strike. It was like holding on to a deadly snake, the blade seeming to strike out on its own, stabbing the man's throat three more times before the big man had time to react. Cully could see that he wanted to scream, but was too busy trying to keep the blood from squirting from his neck.
He wasn't doing a very good job.
Don't waste it, the voice commanded, urging Cully to his feet. He had to get Little Tommy over to the designated space. With a nervous tremor Cully recalled what had he had seen there earlier, the swirling black mist that somehow signified that that particular patch of alley was tainted.
His head swam as he stood, lunging toward Tommy, driving the monstrosity of a man across the alley with his attack. He plunged the still-hungry blade into Tommy's girth over and over again, stealing away his strength and driving him to his knees.
The dying man fell forward onto his stomach, flopping around on the floor of the alley like some gigantic fish hauled gasping from the sea. But Cully saw that Tommy was at least two feet away from where the voice needed him to be. Furious, face spattered with the huge man's blood, he got a grip beneath Little Tommy's arms and pulled him to the special spot, muscles shrieking with the effort.
Yes, that's it, the voice urged. Almost there.
The man weighed a ton, but the blood leaking from the stab wounds acted like a lubricant, helping Cully slide his massive bulk across the ground. When he reached that black, tainted spot on the alley floor, Cully let go of the man and stepped back to catch his breath. His face ached, and one of his eyes was nearly swollen shut from the beating.
"Serves you right," he spat, staring down at the barely twitching body of the man who had beaten him so badly. For a brief moment Cully thought the music had been returned to him, but realized that it was still the voice he was hearing, only now it was humming.
Little Tommy's blood drained out in multiple crimson. It was strangely mesmerizing, watching the pool of blood around him expand in size, the flickering streetlights at the far end of the alley causing a strobe that made the gore shift in color from fire engine red to nearly black.
Dragging his gaze from the pool, Cully realized that Tommy wasn't moving anymore and that the blood had pretty much stopped flowing from his body. The humming had stopped as well, and he began to grow anxious. He listened intently, waiting for a sign that he wasn't alone.
It wasn't long before the pooling blood began to bubble. Cully stepped back. Every instinct screamed at him to run, but he couldn't bring himself to act. Not yet. The voice had yet to do what it had promised - Cully was still not hearing the music.
"Where are you?" he asked, watching as the blood bubbled and frothed. "I did what you wanted - give me back my music," he said, his voice growing louder, tinged with panic. "Do you hear me?"
The roiling pool of gore exploded upward in a roaring fountain, covering him in a fine, gory mist that filled his nostrils and mouth, stinking and tasting of metal.
Cully stumbled back, temporarily blinded by the blood in his eyes. As he frantically wiped at his eyes, trying to clear his vision, he sensed that he was no longer alone.
"I can hear you just fine," said a voice that made Cully remember every bad thing that had ever happened to him.
As his vision cleared, he saw its body glistening wetly in the flickering fluorescent lights from the mouth of the alley. Its long, spindly arms moved as if conducting the Boston Symphony. It was far more, now, than just a voice.
Far, far more.