Pharaoh’s Star Excerpt


It was a beautiful night in early August; the sky was an ebony sheet that stretched across the horizon in somber silence. The moon was so full it appeared fat―as if it had swallowed every star in heaven and glowed purely from the pleasure of consumption. Nick Dowling gazed up at the sky through the windshield of his new Jeep Cherokee. His wife, Jenna, had just sent him out for a quart of milk. He was pleased to go, happy to be driving out under the stars on the back roads of New Kingston. Except on this particular night, there were no stars―just the moon, contently serene as it trailed his car like a wayward balloon.
Nick tapped his hands on the steering wheel and started singing along with the radio. "Goodbye Miss American Pie" he sang out. The old nostalgic lyrics filled the evening stillness, mingling with the crickets' song, and the hooting of the owls.
Nick was pleased: clear reception was not always a reliable luxury in the Catskill Mountains of Upstate New York. The road ahead was empty. His beams were high and his speed, slow. The last thing he needed was a startled deer to show up in his headlights. The time off was exhilarating: there were so many things he could get to, like fixing the lawn mower and painting the shed. This was the first of several long weekends he and Jenna were able to steal since they bought their second home in the mountains. He often had to work weekends to get his job done, a job he found boring and unsatisfying, not like doing something creative, but an executive's salary was nothing to scoff at. At least his saved-up vacation days provided a perfect opportunity to hit the highway, leaving Manhattan's sweltering concrete behind.
The music changed abruptly, the scratchy sound it made reminded him of an old phonograph needle skipping over a record. Billy Joel's "She's Got A Way About Her" came through the speakers with only a slight static sound, like cackle. This was the first song
Nick heard after waking up in a beat-up hotel room so many years ago, dead broke. All he owned back then was a pair of jeans and a rusty Gillette.
"I don't know what it is," he sang out, just as his headlights illuminated a barely visible road on his left―almost entirely hidden by trees.
"Looks familiar," he said aloud, smiling, as if someone sat beside him who might have agreed.
"I know that road," he whispered. He hunched over the steering wheel and slowed down for a better look. The road was mysteriously beautiful, framed as it was by pine trees that swayed ever so gently in the summer evening air. The impulse hit him like a spray of cold water, and he braked.
"Oh, what the hell," he said as he backed the jeep up. This impulsive action was very unusual for Nick who usually thought things through a thousand times before he did them. But on this particular evening, he barely gave it a thought before he took a sharp left onto the road. Perhaps there was something about the moon that night, close enough to touch, a flirtation he could not refuse.
"Have I lost my mind?" He laughed, looking around, seeing not much of anything that warranted fascination.
The road was narrow and dark, but he had just enough light from the moonlit sky to read the barely visible road sign: Fox Hollow.
Nick switched off the radio; he'd lost the clear station right after he made the turn, and the static was irritating. Slowly, he drove up the bumpy road. The night seemed wrapped in mesh, opaque and colorless. He accelerated his speed just a bit, attempting to see beyond his headlights, but there was nothing before him but the adumbration of trees: it seemed like hundreds of them were standing tall against the sky, bending and tipping their branches into the quiet swirl of the evening wind like visions between this world and the next.
The moon hovered at the end of his sightline like a big mysterious white ball, descending into the Earth, as if being swallowed. But the edges of the night were dull. Everything around him looked like a poorly developed print. Nick rubbed his eyes and watched as night's illusionary mist played havoc with his imagination and shadow monsters came out of the darkness, as tall as giants.
Something flashed through Nick's mind with a fervent intensity. Was there magic on this road? Suddenly, he had a childhood memory. It came out of nowhere: a boy fearing dragons in the night and dreaming of mythical sword fights in mystic forests with a moon as elusive as this one. Was he that boy? His memories of childhood didn't exist; his early life was a void. Yet there it was: a vision of sword fighting with a friend so small and light― Sir Lancelot in dungarees with his mother's pot for a shield.
Nick felt a sudden chill. Leaning in to switch off the air conditioning, a flash of light appeared on his hand, swiftly expanding, trapping his body in its glow, a blaze of cold and paralyzing illumination. His body froze. He held his breath. In moments, the light was everywhere, consuming the darkness as if from a hundred headlights.
"What the hell is going on?" Nick came out of his stupor and looked around frantically. It was getting increasingly colder, as cold as the dead of winter in Upstate New York can get. He started to shiver. But the night air had been warm. What the hell was happening? He could feel his heart pounding; it felt as if he were sitting inside a freezer.
His bones began to rattle as he looked through one eye. The light was still there, ubiquitous, the brightness: blinding. Fear settled on his chest as if he were in the line of unexpected gunfire. He closed his eyes again.
"I am victim to my own vivid imagination," he said, staring once again into the opaque night.
The lights suddenly disappeared, as if they'd been chewed and discarded by the darkness.
"Kids with flashlights, must be...what else?" But the cold? Strange weather condition? Well, maybe...in the mountains.
Nick sat quietly, even patiently, until his fear passed, until it flowed out of his body, until his heart beat normally once again. When he felt calm enough, he stared back into the shadows and surveyed the space around him. He realized he had bitten his lip: he tasted blood.
He lowered his window halfway to make sure the lights were really gone. He was relieved to see everything appeared normal in the evening's shadow. The air was warm on his skin. Once again, the moon bounced naturally in the sky, throwing a path of light before him, like a megalithic corridor inviting entry.
He accelerated slowly. The moonlight faded back behind the trees, and the night became as dark as black ink. He nervously listened to the rocks and branches crunching beneath the wheels of his jeep wondering if he'd lost the road and was driving further into the woods.
Nick couldn't see anything but his headlights. But then, sudden as lightning's flash, as if he'd willed it, the night was lit by the welcomed sudden reappearance of the moon.
"Where you been hiding?"
Needing a sense of direction, he stopped the jeep. The moon was fuller than he had ever seen it, but there were no stars out to guide him, just some shadowy image in the sky.
What the hell am I doing in the middle of nowhere playing tag with the goddamn moon?
There was a threatening hush, a silence too barren to trust. The owls had ceased to hoot, and the crickets were far too silent.
Without warning, the stillness shattered into a million pieces by a sound that shook his body from inside out. "Shit!" Nick cried, feeling his heart pounding against his chest. "What the hell was that?"
Like a drill in concrete, the sound was deafening. It was so intensely shrill it might have been heard on the other side of the globe. But then the intense sound vanished, disappeared as contiguously as a passing thought, back into the night. Had he imagined it? Nick brought his hands up to his face. They were still shaking badly. No, this was not imagination. The suddenness of that awful sound jostled him so badly his heart beats were on overtime, and his favorite t-shirt was soaked in sweat.
He'd been on this road before. He'd seen the road in his nightmares. He dreamed he was here.
Right after Nick and his wife, Jenna, closed on their weekend getaway in New Kingston, their retreat from Manhattan's urgent and colossal perplexities, Nick's nightmares accelerated. It was absurd to have them―monster nightmares belonged to children, not to men in their late forties. "I feel foolish to have so many of my dreams invaded by macabre caricatures," he told Jenna. "An odd thing for a grown man to have―nightmares," he'd said reluctantly.
"Not altogether unusual," Jenna responded as she listened to his tentative explanations. "Maybe something is triggering some old and unresolved issues you have with your mother...or father."
Nick scowled at that, wondering how he'd ever get out of seeing a shrink. It was absurd to think he needed one. Jenna insisted on blaming everything on his parents. But how could he blame anyone he didn't remember?
He accelerated over the stones and the broken branches of trees, hoping all the crap on the road wasn't scratching the paint off the jeep's body, or putting any frigging dents on his car. He felt too uneasy to slow down and check out the damage. Wanting to feel sane once more had become a prerogative. This introduction to Fox Hollow Road antagonized his sense of reality and left him surprisingly disentangled from his perspective on who the hell he was or believed himself to be.
He looked up toward the sky. He felt as if he'd just driven in a circle; the shadowy cloud was still above him and it appeared to cover the entire sky.
He drove forward, afraid that if he didn't he'd wind up in a ditch―lost forever in the goddamn woods. His heart was still getting a workout and his mouth felt like an old hot towel. He wanted nothing more at that moment than to reach civilization and grab a shot of whiskey.
"I've had enough of this nerve-wracking adventure," he said, his eyes riveted ahead.

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