(Story illustration by Galen Dara.)
I don’t expect you to believe this story. I don’t want to believe this story. I wish that I didn’t.
All of this happened earlier tonight — just another night at the bar.
Most of my co-workers stop in for a drink or two every evening, but not me. I’m always happy to go right home to my family… except for Fridays. That’s my night out, and I always spend an hour or two at Pickman’s, the pub on the ground floor of our office building. My colleagues and I were in our usual booth at the back, drinking beer and talking about work, about our plans for the weekend… about normal things.
God. Normal things? Nothing will ever be normal again.
But I’m getting ahead of myself.
It was one of those huge circular booths, and there were seven of us crowded in it; five men, two women. And we’re all what you would call social drinkers, except for Ray. He can sometimes get out of hand when he drinks too much. Sometimes he hits on someone he shouldn’t. Sometimes he’s simply an ass.
Tonight, he picked a fight.
Pickman’s Bar and Grille is a busy place on the weekend. II had a good view of the front door, and whenever someone would come in, my eye would be drawn to them. Mostly it was couples out for a drink or dinner. But after a while, a guy came in by himself. He had on a brown jacket zipped all the way up to his neck, and he was wearing jeans and gloves. I thought it odd, because although it was the beginning of October and there was a slight chill in the air, it wasn’t all that cold out. Certainly not cold enough to warrant that kind of covering up.
I remember mentally shrugging, figuring that he was just cold natured, and I turned my attention back to the conversation.
Ray was getting more and more obnoxious. At one point, he whispered something in the ear of Marie, one of the women at our table. It must have been a typical Ray comment, because she slapped him, paid for her beer, and left.
I guess that’s what really got him into a mood. Ray doesn’t take rejection well.
A few minutes after Marie went home, I noticed the guy in the brown jacket again. He still had his gloves and jacket on, though the jacket was no longer zipped up. He was walking our way, heading for the restroom. To do that, he had to pass right by our booth… and Ray was sitting on the end. At the same time, another guy was coming out of the restroom, and brown jacket guy had to lean towards us a bit to let him pass. When he did that, he accidentally clipped Ray on the head with his hand.
Now, it couldn’t have hurt at all, especially with the soft gloves the guy was wearing. But it was just the excuse Ray needed. He jumped up and shoved the guy in the back. Hard.
“Watch where the hell you’re going, pal!” Ray snarled.
Brown jacket guy turned around. I think if he’d have kept going, or even yelled back, Ray would have backed off. Instead, the guy just turned around and looked at Ray, flipped him off, and instead of entering the restroom, he went out the back door into the night.
That did it. With a roar, Ray followed him, and the rest of us followed Ray. By the time I got out there, Ray had pulled the guy’s jacket up around his arms and was hitting him in the stomach over and over. And of course brown jacket guy couldn’t fight back with his arms caught in his jacket.
Now, I should mention that Ray is a pretty big man. I’m average, and the guy in the brown jacket was average size as well. Everyone else was just staring, so I ran to Ray and tried to pull him away from the guy. That’s when Ray turned around and clipped me, too, right in the side of the head.
“Mind your own business, Oliver!” Ray yelled at me. “You’re out of your league!”
Ever hit your head, or been hit in the head? Other places take it out of you, but somehow, when my head gets hit, my reaction is always one of anger. I saw red and in the heat of the moment, I stopped playing peacemaker and instead — now that I was near brown jacket guy — in one swift movement I pulled his jacket off of him so he could fight back. Maybe the two of us together could stop Ray, I thought — if I thought about it at all.
But the guy didn’t want to fight. He kept trying to get away. Funny thing, though… I saw his face right then, and I remember thinking: He’s not afraid. He just wants to go.
Ray wasn’t going to let him go, though. This time, he aimed his massive fist right at the guy’s face. With a pained yell, the guy went down. Now, all this time my co-workers had been frozen in shock or fear of Ray, but at this point they finally decided to pitch in and help. Three of them grabbed Ray’s arms and pinned them behind his back. Ray was yelling to beat the band for them to let him go, but they didn’t.
While they held on to Ray, I went and checked on brown jacket guy. He was lying on his side, and his nose was starting to bleed a little.
“Are you all right?” I asked. “I’m sorry. Ray’s an asshole when he’s had too much to drink.” I picked his jacket off the ground and brushed a few autumn leaves from it. “Here’s your coat, bud.”
Very slowly, he sat up and took the jacket. “Thanks.”
“No problem,” I said. “I’m just sorry we didn’t stop him before he laid into you.” I helped him onto his feet. “I’m Oliver. Can I buy you a drink?”
The guy seemed surprised. “Frank. What about your friends?” he asked, glancing over at the others.
“They’re taking Ray home. Here you go,” I said, handing him a handkerchief. He took it with a quizzical look. “Your nose is bleeding a little.”
And that’s when, for the first time, I saw fear in his eyes.
“NO!” he shouted. He put the handkerchief to his nose. On his face was a look of utter panic and despair. Then he got down on his hands and knees and said the strangest thing: “Did any of my blood fall on the ground?”
“Uh…” I didn’t know what to say. “I don’t think so.”
At this point, my friends were gone. I’m alone with a psycho, I thought. I was about to make an excuse and head for my car, when I saw it.
I saw it.
In the asphalt, a crack was spreading. But it wasn’t a crack in the parking lot… it started from the ground, and slowly spread up into the air several feet. That’s the best way I can describe it: A crack in the air.
And it started to widen.
The guy in the brown jacket — Frank — made a choking sound. He froze for only a moment, but in that moment, I saw… I thought I saw… eyes peering out at me from the “rip” in the air. Malicious, vindictive eyes that scrutinized me. I screamed and fell backwards onto my butt, and it’s a good thing I did, for at that moment something reached from the opening in the air, grasping at the space where I had just been.
I saw it for less than a second, and even that was too long. It was so utterly horrific, so… other. I literally can’t describe what I saw. There are no words for it. But it filled me with terror.
Have you ever seen a really big spider up close? Remember the revulsion you felt at its form, its multiple hairy legs, its differentness from you? Now imagine that feeling multiplied a thousandfold. That’s how seeing this thing for less than a second made me feel. I don’t mean to imply in any way that it was spider-shaped — my mind refuses to remember. But that feeling is the closest I can come to describing the horror, the absolute repugnance of it.
I heard someone weeping, and realized it was me.
My scream had snapped Frank out of his stupor, and he stood up, over the widening crack, but on the other side of it. He made some strange sign with his hand, and then started muttering something that I couldn’t hear. And when he did, the rip in the air started to shrink.
I could only watch as the tear in reality slowly reversed itself. Frank was sweating, and muttering all the while in some weird language. Once, the crack started to expand again, and Frank made another strange gesture with one of his hands, and it slowly started to narrow again.
It doesn’t want to close, I thought.
Finally, though, after what seemed like forever, it did. Frank looked at me. “Are you okay?” he asked, reaching out his hand to help me up.
I don’t remember what I said, but I most certainly was not okay. “Come on,” Frank said. “How about I buy you a drink.”
Sitting at the bar, we didn’t talk for the first few minutes while I ordered a shot — something I don’t usually do. I’m mostly a beer drinker. I downed the shot, ordered a beer, and then looked at Frank. “Okay,” I said. “You want to tell me what the hell is going on? Did I really see that?”
“It would be better for you if you hadn’t,” Frank said. “Now you have to live with it.”
“Live with what?” I croaked. “Please, tell me what’s going on.”
Frank sipped his beer. He seemed to be trying to decide something. Finally he said, “Alright. I’ve never told anyone this — but I want to. I need to talk about it.”
And this is the story he told me.
I don’t remember my parents (Frank said). My earliest memories are of the Place — I don’t know what else to call it. It was out in the middle of nowhere in Montana, and I grew up there with around a dozen other kids my age. The place was a combination of a school, a church, and home.
Now, I say school and church, but you have to understand that this was nothing like regular schools, regular churches. From the beginning, we were brought up to believe that we were… chosen. Special. I guess maybe a lot of people want to believe that, but we didn’t just believe it — we knew it. The way you only know something because it’s been hammered in your head since birth.
And what we “knew” was that the world was going to end, and we would be the only ones to survive it. By “we” I mean us kids, and the adults who had charge of us. The adults taught us that sometime in the next ten years, dark gods that once ruled the earth would return. We kids used to guess how old we would be. Sixteen? Eighteen?
We were taught to read and write, math, science, all the things you learn in a regular school, but it was all through the lens of what was going to happen, through the lens of our uniqueness. Imagine it. Imagine since birth being taught something so ridiculous… but no matter how ridiculous something is, if you know no other viewpoint, if you’ve been indoctrinated since before you could talk, you will believe it. It will be a part of you.
The way it was a part of me.
Until I was ten, I knew absolutely nothing about the outside world. Oh, I knew it existed, but we were so brainwashed that we actually felt sorry for anyone outside of our group. Outside of the Place.
We were still curious, though, and the teachers, seeing that curiosity, decided to quell it by giving us books to read. I still remember that day — they brought in dozens, maybe hundreds of books, both fiction and non fiction.
That was their undoing, at least as far as I was concerned. Because I was hooked. There were lots of young adult books about how regular kids lived, and while I think the teachers’ intent was to show us how “good” we had it, it had the opposite effect on me. I couldn’t get enough. I read and read and read. And as I read, I slowly started to wonder: Why not me? Why couldn’t I have regular parents, go to a regular school, play sports? Why?
It became an obsession, but one I knew to keep to myself, because if I didn’t, the books would be taken away.
This went on for a long time. I even began to formulate half-baked plans to escape, but I was a kid, and I was afraid. So I stayed.
One book I remember reading — a science book — taught me about logic and things like “burden of proof”, and the scientific method. That was an eye-opener for me, because unlike the other kids, I started to realize that the Place and the people in it were just fooling themselves, just looking for a way to be special. None of it was true and the world wasn’t going to end. I remember how free I felt the first time I realized that.
The problem with that was that soon after, I got my proof.
The teachers at the Place had not, up until then, been very specific about how the world would end (I was now sixteen), but gradually I could sense an excitement growing in the adults. And one day, they called us into what they called the Sanctuary, where we only went on special occasions. They said that they had an important announcement.
The dark gods would be coming soon, they said. But they need help from their servants; we had to open the gate between their reality and ours. But it was the way it was to happen that was the most horrific: One of us children would be sacrificed.
It is a testament to just how brainwashed we were that we accepted this without question, though with a great deal of fear. At least, the other kids accepted it. I was horrified.
The teachers told us that tonight we would perform a ceremony, to ask the dark gods which one of us could open the gate. They told us that out of all the children in the world, it had been narrowed down to us before we were even born. They told us that it was a great honor, and when the sacrifice was made and the dark gods came, everyone in the world would be killed — or worse. But not us. Because we had opened the gate, we would rule under them. We would rule over all of the other humans on earth.
But for this to happen, they had to know which child was to be the sacrifice. One by one, we children walked up to the stone altar in the Sanctuary, where a teacher held an ancient knife. One by one, we offered our left hands, palms up, and the teacher made a small cut and blood trickled into separate stone bowls.
When we were all back in our seats, the ceremony began. The adults stood around the stone altar with a dozen bowls of blood. Over each, they muttered incantations in the language of the dark ones.
Now you have to remember that I had dismissed all of this in my mind. It wasn’t real… just a bunch of people fooling themselves. And I knew that the time for planning was over — I had to get away, that night. And I made up my mind right then and there that I would try to convince whoever was chosen to come with me.
Turns out I didn’t have to, though. Because they chose me.
Or, I should say, the ritual chose me, because when they spoke their incantations over my little bowl of blood, for the first time, I saw a tear in reality like the one you saw tonight.
I was shocked. I was utterly and completely stupefied. it was true! It was all true! I couldn’t take my eyes off the rip in the air, which was a lot smaller than the one you witnessed tonight. After about thirty seconds, it closed.
Well, the teachers were overjoyed, and told us what a great honor it was that Frank had been chosen, won’t you congratulate him, everyone? And by the way, they continued, when the sacrifice was made, the gate would be huge and it would stay open permanently!
All of my friends crowded around me, telling me goodbye and what a great honor it was to have been chosen. I could see the truth on their faces, however; they were secretly relieved that it wasn’t them. Then, the teachers quieted us down, and explained the rest of the ceremony: It was to be in two parts. First, they would carve symbols into my flesh — on my chest, on my arms, on my back. They told me it would be very painful.
The second step was to kill me — “sacrifice” was the word they used. They would spill my blood onto the altar, and as the blood left my body, the gate would open and the old ones would return.
They were going to tie me down to keep me still. I knew if they did that, I’d be dead before that night was over. So I told them that it was an honor to be chosen, that I welcomed the pain and the ritual.
The teachers smiled proudly, and asked me to lie down on the altar. I won’t bore you with the next hour or so… suffice it to say that they drew strange symbols on my body with a ceremonial dagger, and that it hurt. A lot.
Finally, it was over. It was time.
Still acting the part of the proud lamb, I made a final request: Could I go to the kitchen and eat a piece of pie? That probably sounds silly, but I was desperate and it was the only thing I could think of. They knew that custard pie was my favorite, so they saw nothing strange about my request. Eyes shining proudly, the teachers gladly acquiesced.
You may wonder that they allowed me to go to the kitchen alone, but they were so arrogant and sure of their place in the order of things, so sure that I was still one of them, that I don’t believe the thought ever entered their mind that I might try to escape.
Needless to say, I never entered the kitchen. When I left the Sanctuary my only thought was to get to an exit fast. I ran from the complex as if my life depended on it — which I knew it did. After a few minutes I was in the woods.
It was so, so dark. There was no moon, and the stars glared down at me accusingly as I fled. I ran and ran. After a long time I stopped, panting as quietly as I could. Had I lost them? Was one of them, even now, just a few steps behind me?
All was quiet.
When I realized that I had escaped, a sob broke from my lips. I couldn’t help it… I was just so relieved. And then I heard a voice from somewhere nearby.
“Frank? Frank, come back. I know you’re scared, but this is your destiny!”
It was one of the teachers. He couldn’t see me, and I couldn’t see him, but I knew he was trying to draw me out — to make me speak so that he could follow the sound of my voice.
“Frank! Talk to me, son. Don’t be afraid! You were born for this, boy. Born to be the one who opens the gate. You are the key!”
“NO!” I screamed. “No! You will never open the gate! Never!” I sprinted away from his voice. And as I fled, the teacher screamed at me, screamed something that I have never forgotten.
“And,” Frank said, “I’ve been running ever since.”
I was drinking whisky now, and I downed the glass. “And the thing with your blood?”
“If my blood touches the earth, it rips a tear in reality. It’s been that way ever since that night, since the ceremony. It’s only happened once before, and just like tonight I was able to close the gate while it was, you might say, open only a crack. One of the tricks I picked up at the Place.”
I swallowed, hard. “And what happens if you don’t say the right things, the right… whatever it was?”
“Then,” Frank said softly, “The gate opens. The dark gods come through. And there will be hell on earth.”
“What does that mean, though? What do they want? Why do they want to come here?”
“I’ve thought about that a lot over the years,” Frank answered, sipping his beer. “And I’m not sure there is an answer, or if there is, that we can understand it.”
I shook my head. “What do you mean?”
He paused for a minute, apparently trying to put it into words. “When you were a kid, did you ever destroy an anthill?”
I looked away. “Well, yeah. Once. Just being a stupid kid, you know?”
“Sure. But did you do it because you hated the ants? Or just because you could? Or, look at it another way: Imagine being one of those ants, seeing your huge foot come out of nowhere to destroy their home, killing most of them… would you even understand why? Would the ants understand what was destroying them?”
“No,” I answered. “Of course not.”
“Exactly,” Frank said. “It would be something simply beyond their comprehension. From their point of view, you would be evil.”
“Well, destroying life for no reason is wrong, wouldn’t you say?” I argued. “Even from my point of view, it wasn’t a good thing to do.”
“Sure, but not every human would feel that way. Look at it another way: Experimenting on animals has helped the human race to develop vaccines and medicines that save lives. Right?”
“Sure,” I answered.
“Okay,” Frank continued. “So from our point of view it’s a good thing to do, or at least a necessary thing to do. But try to imagine it from the animals’ perspective. All they know is that they were captured. Their freedom was taken away. They are caged all the time, and when they are not, they are subjected to tests and painful procedures. They wouldn’t understand — or care — that it was for a ‘good’ cause. From their point of view, the humans doing this to them are evil.”
“So you’re saying it’s like that with us and… these old ones? These dark gods?” I asked, light dawning.
Frank finished his beer. “No,” he said, standing up. “Or, maybe. I’m saying that they are alien. They are… other. We can never understand what they want or what their motivations are. But one thing I have learned is that they think less of us than we do of ants. If they get through the gate, then they will treat humans much like we treat any species inferior to us: Best case, we capture them. Worst case, we slaughter them for food.”
I couldn’t argue with that.
Frank donned his jacket. “I’d better go. It was good to meet you, Oliver. Thanks. It felt good to… tell someone. To talk to someone.”
I stood too, and offered my hand. “Where will you go?”
He took my hand and shook it, just once. “Where I always go. Nowhere. Everywhere. I have to keep going, stay on the run. I can never let them catch me. I can never let the gate open.”
He turned to leave, but I put a hand on his shoulder. “And… will it? Will it open someday?”
He looked straight into my eyes… and answered my question.
That was earlier tonight. Now it’s long after midnight, and I wrote all of this down, hoping that as I did, I could convince myself that it didn’t really happen, that I imagined it. That I didn’t really see that rip in the universe, that… thing reaching for me.
But it’s no use.
For a few minutes after Frank left the bar, I just sat there… too stunned to move. Then I walked home. It had started raining, and it was getting colder. Tonight, I had found out what the universe was really like. It wasn’t friendly. It wasn’t wonderful. It was just like this rain: Dark and cold. And there was no one looking out for us.
Inside my home, I walked up the stairs to my son’s bedroom. I stood in his doorway and watched him sleep.
I stood there for a long time.
After a while, I sat on the side of his bed and touched his face. I ran my hand softly through his hair, and as I did, I remember my question to Frank: Will the gate open someday? And I remembered his reply:
As I ran through the woods that night, the teacher screamed, “We will find you! We will find you! But know this, boy… even if we don’t, the ritual was begun! Even if you escape us forever, one day you will die, and when you die… the gate will open! It will open all the way. You can’t stop it! You can only delay it! It will open! Sooner or later it WILL open!
I kissed my son on the forehead, then came in here and wrote all of this down. I keep looking out of the window, watching the rain. Looking for… holes in the air, maybe. Tears in reality. And now… I am going to go lie in bed, next to my wife. I’m going to hold her tight, all night long.
It’s all I can do.
“The ignorant and the deluded are, I think, in a strange way to be envied. That which is not known of does not trouble us, while an imagined but insubstantial peril does not harm us. To know the truths behind reality is a far greater burden.” – H.P. Lovecraft
Mike Davis is the creator and publisher of The Lovecraft eZine. He lives in a small town in Texas with the best wife and son on the planet, two cats, one dog, and a lot of books. He leaves it to you to guess which parts of I Am the Key are autobiographical. He occasionally submits stories and poems to his co-editor anonymously, and sometimes they are even accepted. Friend him on Facebook, or follow him on Twitter if you wish.
Illustration by Galen Dara.
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