How is it that although I have reached the end of my existence, I do not pass from this loathsome planet, but continue to live out my days, forced to bear witness to that mocking parade of civilians with their petty hopes and dreams, their unconscious delirium, who go stalking past my front door? And for the love of all that is holy, how do they not notice ME—a ghost, visible I tell you, staring out the battered frames of this ruinous old house—and that’s another thing: do they not notice that there is a two-story crumbling Gothic castle, replete with hammerbeam roofs, slender towers, and the largest hall, lined with curving trusses, to ever grace this side of suburbia? Does no one find it strange that I am here, haunting as I do my halls and dusty rooms?
No, indeed they pay me little attention and I think they do not even consider me. They pass by, whilst I gaze out from my filth-splatted foggy glass, hand pressed to the pane, and I wish they would look at me—OH GOD WON’T YOU LOOK!
Then when they do look, it is merely to check the weathervane swinging from the darkest, uppermost gable of my castle, as though they were interested in the direction of the wind. I wonder how they feel about my assemblage of old stone gargoyles?
None of the other houses on the block are like mine. The families who inhabit these banal abodes, the ones who refuse to look upon my castle and see it for what it really is (a cry for help) are just as innocuous and commonplace as their homes. If it weren’t for the unspeakable loneliness which keeps me bound to a place such as this, I would hate them forever and wish never to dwell amongst them. Yet I am dead, a ghost, and therefore cursed to haunt these halls, to peer from these dirty panes, whilst those around me go ahead with their silly existence.
And wouldn’t you know it? The universe humorously decided to answer my cries. The first time I saw that answer he was standing in the middle of the street, framed by American suburbia, like a black spot stuck where it had no business sticking. I thought I’d imagined it, for no one else acknowledged its presence, simply walked on by, the children ding-dinging past on their bicycles and the adults coasting along in their automobiles, arm halfway out the window. I stared at it a bit longer, doubting my ocular faculties because I wanted to be sure that, yes, a black figure stood in the street with a ropey appendage hanging down like a malformed tongue; and yes, that no one in the neighborhood had deigned to acknowledge its presence.
Strangely I felt a sudden camaraderie with the figure, an empathetic longing. The only time I ever experienced love during my life was with Sally Walker in the ninth grade until she broke my heart under the bleachers and said she never wanted to see me again. Alone after that, yet I never forgot the way I felt with Sally, and when I looked on the strange figure I felt an echo of that same emotion.
He did nothing but stand there staring at me—for days actually. I’d peer through the greasy outline of my windows and see him there, gazing toward the castle; and other times he’d be gone and the street would be empty. Not once did he approach the stone pathway leading to my front door. As time went on, I developed a sick fascination with him.
I began keeping a record of the times of the day he was most likely to appear, that way I’d have a better chance of glimpsing him. This became a frantic activity that consumed a great many hours. Being a ghost, I had little to do anyway. So this cycle continued, with me gazing through the glass at the proper time, and the figure glaring back, his protracted tentacled face dangling in those occasional summer winds.
Once, upon hearing the tinkling music of an ice-cream truck, I came to the window and found him standing in line with a group of children, waiting to make a purchase. These children seemed not to notice him, and yet they gave him space, stood several feet away, as if they sensed something sinister in the air.
My mysterious black-robed friend waited until he reached the vendor and then purchased an ice-cream cone with two vanilla scoops brimming over the cone edge. He paid for the treat by reaching into his robe with the tentacle and suctioned a bill fold, which he passed along elephant-like to the vendor, taking the ice-cream cone in the same fashion.
I watched, horrified and utterly disturbed, as he returned to his usual position in the middle of the street and stood staring toward my crumbling castle eating his ice-cream, bringing it via the proboscis to whatever horrible mouth lurked beneath his wilted cowl.
Days passed. At least, what I thought were days. We followed the same ritual. He’d arrive in the street at the according times, and I, then, would be drawn to my windows, peering out with longing (or was it dread?).
Then finally he began a gradual progression toward my front door. Each time he appeared now it would be a foot or two closer to the castle. I grew sick with anticipation. It’d been so long since anyone had even paid attention, let alone noticed me, and now someone was actually in the process of trying to reach me.
True, that someone was a slimy, enigmatic creature from some aquatic nether abyss, but at this point I’d take whatever I could get.
My excitement grew. I found myself drooling at times, like a ravenous fiend, my face all pressed against the glass. I still could not make out much of his features, even as he got closer, and I was left to delirious conjecture, hands sweating as I considered the myriad possibilities for what lay under that robe.
I was burned by my own twisted imagination, by the unwholesome fantasies of a lovesick child; although I had passed on to a spectral existence, I felt guilty and disturbed by these fantasies, thinking myself unhinged in some way—which, no matter how I reasoned, I could not disprove.
Eventually, as the figure made his slow ascent up the stone pathway leading to my castle, he passed out of sight of the windows. I then pined nervously and erratically for the moment when his knock would grace the door, when I would permit him entrée and finally after how many years I would cease to be alone here.
But patience is not a virtue to which I lay claim. So I worked myself into a frenzy about the visitor. My thoughts ran amuck. I drifted about the halls and up the stairwells of my castle, waiting, wondering, anticipating, making myself sick. I was going down, deeper and deeper, to where only the most depraved of souls go, to the dark jigsawed crags of a nether-abyss.
When the knock finally came I was huddled under one of the stairwells. I raced to the door, something like a heartbeat hammering in my chest. I threw it open at once, admitting the blazing sunlight of the outside world.
There he stood, everything I had imagined, that terrible robed figure who had wreaked so much havoc on my thoughts. I looked upon him with utter fascination. The black cloth robe that enclosed the figure, I now saw, bulged and swelled with lumpish queer angles, as if containing something vastly larger than human form. The frayed rope hung loosely about his midriff. I got the impression it was more like a drawstring on a sack than a clamp to keep the robe wrapped tightly.
My eyes moved feverishly upward, to the loathsome and mesmerizing proboscis, which dangled before me like a hypnotist’s pendulum. It was green and covered with a light coating of sea-slime, with crater-like suction cups blooming along its exterior. It was rubbery and seemed to move of its own accord, like a cat’s tail. I followed it up to the patch of darkness hanging beneath his cowl, that lumpish monstrosity passing for a head, but still I could not penetrate into the black depths, could not make out his face.
“Have you come for me?” I said. It had been so long since I’d used my voice that I feared I might’ve spit at him.
But the figure kept silent. Behind him the world seemed to pass in fluid motion, in a blur of automobiles, grass lawns, picket fences, and stuccoed houses. I felt my grip on reality (or whatever reality I had called mine) slipping away completely. I began to feel very lightheaded and nauseous.
Then it all came crashing down, everything about my loathsome existence and the world of self-aggrandizing fools from which I had departed—and suddenly my hand slipped away from the door handle and I bent over at the waist to vomit.
I expected at least a minimal reaction from the figure, but there was nothing. Only the cold, swinging gaze of his proboscis. I imagined him as another boy on the schoolyard, wiggling fingers at the sides of his head, sticking his tongue out at me, trying to provoke my anger.
I battled against this emotion.
“Do you want to come inside?” I said.
This time he replied with a shake of his head.
“What do you want?”
Then he spoke. Guttural and terrible, yes, but also something childlike and high-pitched about it—which gave me the absurd image of a talking chipmunk.
“I want to show you something,” he said.
I straightened, interest piqued, and moved away from my little bit of vomit.
“Out with it,” I said, trying to conceal my excitement. But my arms and legs were tingling, and a strange electro-sensation was wiggling its way up my spine. I’d not been shown something in years.
“But are you ready?” he said.
“Yes of course I’m ready, don’t be stupid. I’ve been stuck in this reality, looking at all the same things, never getting a taste of anything new. I’m dying for it, I tell you!”
“It shall be done,” he said, slowly reaching up to remove the cowl.
His weird gloved hands pushed back the hood, which settled into a pile around his neck. I was confused by what I saw, for my eyes were not met with the head of a man, nor even the head of a man sporting a tentacled proboscis, but something wholly other. Alien to me was this abject vista to which I had become privy. I stood there for some time, my mouth slowly opening into an oval of wonder.
What sprouted from the neck of that robe was not male, or even female, but fish. A set of glassy, unblinking eyes, positioned on either side of a flat scaly head that ended in a lipless snout. From this mouth protruded the foul greenish proboscis. I realized then it was the creature’s tongue, too big to fit inside the narrow cavity of its fish head, forced to hang out, like an elephant’s trunk.
I took a step back in horror, but the creature followed me, untying the frayed cord around his waist.
“No…keep away,” I said. “You’re not human!”
“Neither are you,” it replied, speaking in that high-pitched fish’s voice.
“What…do you mean?”
“Take a look at yourself. You died a long time ago, and now you’re one of us.”
I continued backing down the front hall of my castle. I tried to shut the door, but for some reason it wouldn’t budge, and so I just kept retreating into the house. The fish-thing entered after me.
“I know that I am dead,” I said. “I’m not that stupid. But I’m not some grotesque aquatic hell spawn, either. I’m just a spirit, a ghost, and I haunt the castle. I still resemble the human I was in life, only now I am less solid.”
The creature chuckled: a wet sound. “That is but a figment of your own imagination. The reason you still see yourself in the human form is because you are deluded. Look closer.”
At this moment I happened to be passing in front of the large, dust-covered mirror in the hallway. Reaching out, I cleared away the dust with my webbed fingers. Then I saw it, the truth, that which I had denied for so long, and I wanted to scream, to flee, to hide, but the shock of seeing myself in true form (that of a six foot fish, standing upright, with gills, fins, and glassy eyes, and fingers and toes connected by a squid-like webbing) was too great. All I could manage to do was recommence my erstwhile retreat into the castle, one pace at a time.
“No,” I said.
“Oh yes. So now you see. You must come away with me at once. We shall be married in the Halls of the Great Fish Order tomorrow at sunup. There’s much for us to prepare, come my love, come away from this blasted dimension of purgatory. Come back to your home!”
“No!” I shouted. “I won’t believe it!”
I searched for a weapon but found only a rusty candlestick. I went for it anyway, however my slippery webbed hands could not get a handle on it, and it went to the floor, rolling away and out of sight.
“Curse you, curse all the gods!” I shouted.
The floor beneath my feet suddenly became watery, opening and spreading outward like a giant puddle, and I slipped, tumbling end over end, to land on my back. I looked down the length of my sea-creature body, with its scales and fins, and broke into tears, while the puddle continued to spread around me.
“Don’t fight it,” the other said. “We’ll learn to love each other, can’t you see that? There’s no use resisting. This series of events was put into motion long before you were incarnated in your last human form. You’ll do good to make this easy on yourself. Lie back and accept it.”
“No, no!” I screamed, sobbing uncontrollably.
The creature, my supposed lover to be, had removed the black robe to reveal a splendorous fish-body of colorful scales and reptilian fins. The proboscis stood erect, pointing up to the ceiling, the suction cups and tentacles writhing along the shaft.
The puddle was now a veritable pond, unceasing, flooding the entire castle, turning it into a swampland. The fish creature dived in head first, proceeded by the long slimy proboscis—which stood as erect as clock hands at noon—and cruised through the water at an incredible rate. When it found me I felt its web-like appendages clasp onto me, rolling me, as the water level rose above my head.
I screamed, a desperate cry in a flurry of bubbles.
The world went dark.
I was finally getting what I wanted.
Aaron J. French, also writing/editing as A.J. French, is an affiliate member of the Horror Writers Association. His work has appeared in many publications, including D. Harlan Wilson’s The Dream People, issue #7of Black Ink Horror, the Potter’s Field 4 anthology from Sam’s Dot Publishing, Something Wicked magazine, and The Lovecraft eZine. He also has stories in the following anthologies: Ruthless: An Extreme Horror Anthology edited by Shane McKenzie, with introduction by Bentley Little; Pellucid Lunacy edited by Michael Bailey; M is for Monster compiled by John Prescott; Zippered Flesh: Tales of Body Enhancements Gone Wrong edited by Weldon Burge; and Dark Tales of Lost Civilizations edited by Eric J. Guignard. He recently edited Monk Punk, an anthology of monk-themed speculative fiction with introduction by D. Harlan Wilson, and The Shadow of the Unknown, an anthology of nü-Lovecraftian fiction with stories from Gary A. Braunbeck and Gene O’Neill.
Story illustration by Warren Layberry.
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