The Vessels, by Nancy O. Greene

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It was just a colour out of space—a frightful messenger from unformed realms of infinity beyond all Nature as we know it … – H. P. Lovecraft, “The Colour Out of Space”

June 21, 1893

The walls of the old stone house are crumbling, their shells ripped apart by the tentacles of an ivy that reaches in to claim the support beams, the floors, the ceiling. It will all be gone soon.

Since I am the youngest—seventeen—it’s my job to prepare the vessels that will take us away from here. Four coffin-like shapes sitting amongst the debris, their glistening chrome-and-glass exteriors a stark contrast to the house in which they lay. I tentatively stretch out my gloved hand, afraid that the inanimate object might shrink away from my touch, aware of what’s to come. My fingers land on the body of the first container and the chill of it stings even through the material. Fabric glides unencumbered across the surface, save for the few bumps and ruts of the bolts and seams that keep the vessel together. I lie my head down on it, inhale the waxy fragrance. The mechanisms inside churn, whoosh, and click. Everything in working order.

We each will be in one, all except for her.

“Are they ready?” Uncle Damien startles me as he walks into the room, his pale, lithe figure hidden in a bulky black and white suit, frills peeking out from the blouse collar, every strand of his hair in place.

“Yes,” I say. He carefully finds a path through the debris to where I stand.

“And they’re fit to take us to our destination?” I nod and he returns the gesture with a curt movement of his neck. His stern eyes evaluate my traveling attire, taking in the long traditional dress, the off-white collar up to my neck, the sleeves to my wrists. My clothes are the same color as the splintered walls. Something to remember them by.

Before he gives his opinion, I’m struck to my knees by the sensation of a sharp pressure in the back of my head. I bite my lip to keep from shouting. Damien feels the pain too, I can tell by the way his hand flies to his neck. He resists toppling, a look of disdain etched into his smooth features. Soon it passes and I stand. But still we hear her, feel her.

Colleen, my sister, stuck downstairs, her frustration reaching thinly into our minds in waves of nauseating heat. She doesn’t want us to go. She can’t leave and she doesn’t want to be left alone. But they are all alone in the end, whether it takes them in groups or on a lonely stretch of road turning dark even as the light still shines.

The streets are empty outside of our decaying walls. The sky is as clear as it is after a violent storm, the purity of the sun shining down on what remains. Light comes through broken windows, creating a pattern on fallen stones. We don’t know where the others have gone, if they are gone, or if they have been taken. All manner of human and animal noise has ceased. The only sounds now are the distant moans of the earth as it collapses under the weight of the thing that consumes on land, in water, and through tainted air. I think we may be among the last to leave, but it doesn’t matter. It’s hard to imagine that we may be the only ones remaining, the four—or rather, three—of us.

We don’t know for certain where they’ve all gone, but we do know where to go. I stand on tip-toes and try to see more out of the highest windows, try to pinpoint the exact location. It’s so far away, at night only a star that’s barely a glimmer. As I search, I shut my mind off to Colleen’s amplified cries. Though her body is dissolving, becoming nothing, her mind still works. She makes sure we know that.

I’m still trying to focus on the destination when Aunt Annabelle comes into the room, silent, moving like a tiny ghost in black. Her gray hair is pulled into a taunt bun and she wears funeral attire. Dark brown skin barely shows through the mourning veil and I wonder if she can see. Of course, she can. She always can, one way or the other.

I abandon the temporary quest and meet her eyes with my own. She doesn’t smile, her mouth pursed in defiant resignation. This is hardest for her; she has lived so long, survived so much, only to see this now. I take her arm and lead her to the first vessel. Her small feet, dainty and slippered, make scratching noises as she shuffles across the rubble. The stones are blotted out, one after another, as her skirts move over each. She jerks out of my grip as she reaches the transport and moves her hand across its exterior, as I previously did.

Eyes closed, she says, “We will make it, do not worry.”

Annabelle’s husky voice is low, grim. She’s not talking to me in particular, but her words calm me nonetheless. It’ll be a long journey and we haven’t much time to prepare.

Damien echoes my thoughts. “Get our belongings. We don’t have much time.”

Before I can run to what remains of the stairs, the ground trembles. Annabelle grabs my arm and I fight to keep from wincing, to keep my balance as well as the contents of my stomach. Damien falls to the floor and is tangled up in the ivy that has taken possession of the house. He tries to loosen himself from it to no avail; we can’t help him as plaster falls down all around us, covering our clothing in a fine, white dust. But he’ll be okay. A desperate plant is the least of our concerns. It will arrive soon.

A section of the roof caves in, not too far from us, and further reveals the sun at its highest point. But even its heat can not stop the destruction. We try to balance ourselves as the home continues to succumb to the will of the thing that is not far off, making its way through the last vestiges of Earth in hunger and fury.

After what seems to be an eternity, the ground ceases to rock and I rush downstairs, anxious that we may have cut our departure too close despite Annabelle’s words. While she may always see, she’s not always right. And she does not see all.

The last of our supplies are in the furthest room down the long hall on the first floor, the only section of the house not yet crumbling. I carefully pick my way along the stairs, bits and pieces of them jutting up in the wrong places, seemingly ready to give at the slightest touch. I reach the bottom of the landing and that’s when it begins again. Colleen. The whimpering—only this time I know she is targeting me and me alone. There is only one rule now. Do not go in that room. Damien’s past words ring in my thoughts in opposition to hers.

The floor creaks underneath my feet. I pause. I’m going in the wrong direction. Damn her! Soon she creates a vacuum and my thoughts and hers are the only ones that exist in this space. My heart thuds, my mind is a whirl. Did she breathe anymore? Did any part of her natural body work, aside from her mind?

Please! The thought comes as a shout, no longer a haunting whisper meant to draw me closer at my own pace. She’s demanding, pleading for a companion. I am too close—my ear pressed against the door—and I jump involuntarily. The tenuous threads of her aura reach out to me—her energy all wrong, corrupted. And yet she is still in there, somewhere. I grip the door handle.

I need to see her again. She will be gone soon, nothing more than a memory, a pretty face in a painting with other faces that no longer exist.

There’s no smell in the room. Whatever it is in them, whatever the abomination does, has that effect. The stench of their eventual passing should be overwhelming; instead it’s as if there’s nothing at all. No body, no organs, no skeleton. Just an illusion, a non-existence. I close the door behind me.

Colleen is on the bed, where she has been for so long. Her skin has expanded, grayish tentacle-like gobs moving independently. Parts of her fade into the rest of the room, into the carpet and the bedposts, steadily taking on the likeness of each object touched, leaving behind a slimy residue. I wonder if this makes them easier to consume. She still has eyes and part of her facial features, but no neck of which to speak. Odd, tiny mounds form on her body.

You’re here . . .

In my mind she’s smiling. A piece of her flesh crawls toward me and I can’t move. It slides itself onto my shoulder and slowly begins to take on the tone and texture of my dress. I gasp, sucking in air and holding it as I feel my eyes and my mind glaze over. She has me. I am transported. And it is beautiful.

Beautiful. The air so clean. We’re in a meadow and there are no carriages here. No houses, no people, no vile substance or creature swallowing the world whole. This is the closest to peace I have ever felt.

“Stay.” There’s a hand on my shoulder and I follow it to the source. It’s Colleen—whole, alive!

“Sister?” Is it really her? She mouths the word “yes,” no longer needing to communicate through mind only, or so it seems. It all feels so real, so crisp. We embrace and strands of hair brush against my forehead. We’re wearing matching outfits and hairstyles, like we used to when we were little.

“You’re still taller than me,” she says and laughs, pulling back from the hug and casually smoothing down the front folds of her dress.

“Is this real?” I ask. She stares past me to the field.

“You don’t have to leave, if that’s what you mean. We can stay here.”

“What about . . .” There is something wrong. But I’m so happy that it hardly seems to matter. Then I feel the ground shake ever so slightly. The Earth. I remember. It’s dissolving. All of it, dissolving. I narrow my eyes.

“Let me go. I have to go.”

She ignores me, walks away. I grab hold of her, shake her.

“Let me go!” This time I shout and suddenly am back in the room. There is a hand on my shoulder. Aunt Annabelle. At my feet a gob of gray skin. Tears rolls down my face as I see what remains of Colleen’s, contorted into a furious, silent howl.

Annabelle turns me around and forces me out of the room. The muscles of her mouth strain as she fights back Colleen’s attempts to get inside of our heads. But something—one thing—gets through. A shriek shot full of hatred and agony: Yuggoth!The force of it nearly knocks me down but I recover, enough at least to continue towards our exit.

“I have gathered our belongings,” Annabelle says through clenched teeth. We race up the stairs, fighting against the beginning tremors of another quake. Damien is already inside his vessel and Annabelle hurries to hers as more debris falls.

Once I lay down and settle inside the last, I hear Uncle Damien’s voice activating the sequence to shield our carriers as they lift into the sky. The tears come again and I try not to imagine my sister all alone, try not to imagine myself in her place. It has to be done.

The interior of the vessel is lined with flat controls, buttons, touch screens. I reach up and press a green one. A click, and the newly transparent window allows me to see out as the vessel lifts off the ground. Damien’s and Annabelle’s hover too, waiting. With the controls we guide them, one after the other, through the hole in the ceiling.

As we break out of what remains of the atmosphere, I can see the Earth. It is like a quarter moon and a burning ember, bits of it floating off into the blackness of the void. We know it came from space. A meteorite, an insatiable virus, that hit our planet and steadily ate and contaminated most everything in its path.

Autopilot activates; sleep begins to overtake me and I think of Colleen’s last word. Yuggoth. What did it mean? Was she trying to tell us something, or was it another of her tricks to get us to stay? I do not know. Regardless, we will find a new home, a new life, on that distant star.

We have no other choice.

Nancy O. Greene started writing at the age of nine. Her works include Portraits in the Dark: A Collection of Short Stories, which received a brief mention in The Year’s Best Fantasy and Horror 2007; and fiction, non-fiction, and poetry in ChiZine; Smile, Hon, You’re in Baltimore; edifice WRECKED; RESPECT International; All Things Girl; Freshly Squeezed: An Anthology; and poetry in a forthcoming anthology from Shroud Publishing. She was an editor for Pen in Hand (the newsletter of the Maryland Writers’ Association), is currently the fiction editor for Tales of Blood and Roses, and is a contributor to Dark Recesses Magazine and Flames Rising. Nancy has a BA in Cinema and a minor in Creative Writing from the University of Southern California and has attended the Borderlands Press Writers Boot Camp.

Illustrations by Steve Santiago.

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