You’re going to buy a ticket. You just won’t admit it yet. Paying for gas takes five minutes but you’ve already been here for fifteen — browsing the magazine rack, picking out a Coke (diet? cherry? decaf?) for the road. The mom with her whining toddlers is long gone. Likewise the road tripping spring breakers, the two Texan sales geeks, the trio of gals talking nonstop about some spa in Sonora.
It’s just us, now. And the Mystery is waiting.
The sign by the cash register makes it easy. Tickets are only a buck, though I’ll push it to two-fifty come snowbird season. When I put one down by your Coke and the gas receipt, you shrug . . . then nod. What’s to lose? Curiosity happens.
Not often enough, lately. The dreams are getting bad.
I ring up the sale while you go make sure your car’s locked. There’s nobody else in that car. Or in the parking lot. Nobody headed down from the highway, either, despite those signs strung out between here and Tucson. The keys jangle in my hand as we head over to the Mystery’s building.
I like the new paint I gave it this winter. Lime and turquoise: striking without being an eyesore. Black question marks on all four sides, but the stencil looks professional. Don’t want folks thinking this is some roadside rip-off, another Black Hills snake ranch. I’ve got the real thing here.
I’ve got it.
Must remember that, though your questions aren’t helping. Losing focus isn’t good right now.
At the threshold, a lizard scuttles across my foot and I flinch. You laugh. It’s an uneasy sound: the sleazy sideshow vibe is finally sinking in, and I catch you glancing over your shoulder as I unlock the door.
Still no witnesses. I’ve already checked.
The air inside could be fresher, but ventilation’s a problem and the smell’s not bad this early in the year. No windows. One dim light with red bulbs blood-litten Yoth, gateway to lightless N’Kai and the rites of the Unspeakable aimed toward the back display.
Waking dreams now? Dear God. Not that I believe any more.
Pretty hard to, once you know what’s coming.
I let you see me shut the door carefully, but I don’t relock it. Never from inside. Most folks don’t notice, that big case is so flashy. Just a museum discard I picked up at an auction, but upholstery velvet and paint do wonders.
That and a little sandpaper on the glass. Can’t risk showing too much.
You might try leaving, and then where’d I be?
The answer to that is already seeping through the floorboards, burdening the air with a near-visible taint. There’s no smell quite like it – fetor would be close, if anyone still had a vocabulary – and your eyes go wide as you start coughing.
What the hell is it? Nothing so mundane as hell . . . but it’s time to get things moving. I touch the control in my pocket, and those red bulbs flicker like a Hammer Film effect. Like my dreams. You’re already hanging all over that case, staring down.
Depths beyond understanding, where the leavings of a race far older than humanity – but no wiser – wax sentient and cunning, vengeful with the slow turning of stars.
Dreaming now? Waking?
Your snort of disgust relieves my mind. We are still in this waking world, you and I. We both know a sand mummified coyote when we see one.
But you bought your ticket for a Mystery.
And I need the dreams to stop.
Turning away from the case’s false promise, I jangle my keys again and smile. This marks you out as one of the elect, immune to childish illusions and therefore deserving of truth. Here before you stands your guide to that truth –
Works every time.
I touch my pocket control again, and the red flickering stops. A single spotlight at the back of the room picks out one corner of the planking. The inset door is welded metal, equipped with a hasp and padlock. A very good padlock.
The fetor is even worse here, but you’ve stopped asking questions. You even edge away as I kneel to open that padlock and throw back the door.
Everyone expects stairs at this point. Maybe a ladder. But the way down into Mystery is a simple ramp, cut from the bedrock though unmarked by tools. There are no lights aside from the heavy flashlight I’ve just unclipped from my belt.
I’m almost missing your questions now, though their time is over. Better that we descend in silence, past fragments of the cairn which covered this shaft when I found it. Wish to hell I’d left it alone! But the stones with their jagged, incomprehensible glyphs intrigued me, and it was deep winter — too cold for rattlers to be active.
Can’t believe I used to worry about rattlers.
Of course, the shaft wasn’t this wide when I found it. More like a very deep prairie dog burrow, but it didn’t look dug: more like melted out, or maybe burned.
Then my flashlight beam caught flashes of eyes looking back.
Clusters of eyes.
I can hear you slowing behind me, dragging your feet. Struggling not to breathe. The smell is lightless gulfs of lost oceans roiling through time unmistakable, though we are thousands of miles from serious salt water. Millions of years too late to imagine what spawned in it.
There’s a distinctive sound, too. A thick sticky forward momentum like a slug and a freight train combined, but so far away – so deep in the ravaged rock – that it’s more vibration than noise.
Not picking that up yet? Better move ahead of me, then.
No need to put your hands up like that. I’m not likely to get twitchy at this point. Not the way I got when the dreams first started, all stark white wilderness and dead stone cities glittering with ice. Ice, slime, and . . . corpses, I guess. Headless ones, though damned if I know what those heads must have looked like.
I only knew how they came off. And why prairie dogs or rabbits or the odd coyote weren’t going to cut it any more.
Size is strength. Time is strength. Time and size and strength against the slaving ones with their star-wings, their ceaseless wars and senseless cities. Tormented into being, reformed endlessly to serve. Mind-lashed, mind-leashed — until the great cold drove Them back and freed us.
Black dust upon the wind. Dust of life within retreating ice. Deep rivers lost to upthrust and fold, sediment and pressure and erosion. Starved centuries of darkness before –
The sound’s stopped now.
And you’ve stopped dead in your tracks, even though that’s just what might happen. I can see it in your eyes. You’re not going one more step into this Mystery.
But you don’t have to. I can feel the darkness gathering itself ahead, cresting like a wave just beyond my flashlight beam. A wave of sentient shadows. Unending hunger. And a multitude of shifting, flickering eyelids, slitting open one by one as I bite down hard on a shriek.
It isn’t until much later – after I’ve dropped the flashlight, nearly dropped the .38, scrambled and slipped and crawled up that damned ramp and groped for the door and locked it down good – that I realize it’s not my shriek.
I am alone once more in my mind’s fragile silence. Tonight holds no dreams. No icebound citadels with strange echoes in their depths. Only coyotes will sing their mysteries to the moon, and the dead star-gulfs beyond this ball of dirt and ignorance will go right on being dead.
For a while.
Ann K. Schwader lives, writes, and volunteers at her local branch library in suburban Colorado. “Lost Stars,” her tale of dark Egyptology, was recently reprinted in The Book of Cthulhu. Twisted in Dream: the Collected Weird Poetry of Ann K. Schwader (edited by S.T. Joshi) is forthcoming in October from Hippocampus Press. Her previous collection of dark SF poetry, Wild Hunt of the Stars (Sam’s Dot 2010), was a 2010 Bram Stoker Award finalist.
Credits: Active member of HWA and SFWA. Bram Stoker Award finalist (poetry collection) 2010. Fiction published in The Book of Cthulhu, Rehearsals For Oblivion, Horrors Beyond, Tales Out of Innsmouth, The Darker Side, and elsewhere.
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Illustration by Leslie H.