When it came to grimoires, Eric reminded Peter of a jeweler digging through a bag of dirty rocks that had cost him dearly, examining each under his monocle, breath held in anticipation of an elusive refraction of the light combined with just the right weight in his hand. But some stones were simply out of reach, even with their authenticity untested, and Eric could usually let these go. Until he found the Necronomicon. That was different, and for the first time in their long friendship, Eric asked Peter for money.
The year was 2003 and the seller, a Mr. Qassim, claimed to have been a clerk at the Iraq National Library and Archives in Baghdad. In a series of emails, Qassim relayed the story of how he had discovered the book in a moldering stack while conspiring to sell rare manuscripts on the antiquities black market ahead of the American invasion. The UN was still wringing its hands over sanctions and inspections amid rumors of war, but in those days one didn’t need magic to divine the future, and Qassim had fled with his plunder to Cairo where he put out feelers on the Internet. Two weeks later, Eric broached the subject with his old conjuring partner.
“I know you wouldn’t ask if you didn’t have good reason to take it seriously, but we both know forgeries are a cottage industry. And five grand is… significant.” Peter bit his thumbnail and stared at the laptop Eric had placed on the coffee table in front of him.
“This is different,” Eric said. “You don’t know what it took for me to even find this.”
“And that might be coloring your judgment a little.”
Eric raised an eyebrow, “When has it ever?”
“You’ve had your guy translate parts of it?”
“I wouldn’t be asking you if I hadn’t.”
“So, apart from the seller’s story, what do you make of the contents?”
“The syntax of the conjurations is dead on. Those scans you’re looking at? There are a lot of them. I’ve barely slept this week going through them with a fine-tooth comb.”
“Are there any diagrams? Glyphs?”
“Yeah. Click on that. I’ve never seen anything like them. In fact, I’m starting to worry about some of them blooming in my dreams the next time I do sleep.”
Peter sat back, dragged his thumb and forefinger across his closed eyelids to the bridge of his nose and said, “Okay, how sick are we? I have the kid’s college fund to think about and I’m considering spending five k on a book that at worst is a forgery and at best will give us nightmares.”
“C’mon, Pete, you know nightmares aren’t the worst it can do,” Eric said with a tone that suggested he wanted Peter to challenge the idea.
Peter sighed. They had spent more hours on the nature of the fabled Necronomicon over the span of their friendship than on any other topic. Considering how elusive it was, there was an absurd proliferation of rumor in occult circles about the hazards of even possessing the book. The original Arabic text was nothing but a wisp of smoke drifting through the footnotes of history. And yet, whenever the title was mentioned to a practitioner, it provoked dire warnings that the book was cursed.
Peter slouched into the couch and shot a glance at his watch. Lily was at the supermarket with Robbie, but they would be home soon. “Are you referring to the curse, or to actually using it to conjure?”
“The curse is probably bullshit. I mean nobody can ever back that up since nobody credible has ever seen an original.”
“My thoughts exactly.”
“I’d be more concerned about what we might encounter if we use it.”
“Okay. Now we come to it. Just what do you have in mind, anyway? Because what we’re looking at here is basically an artifact that belongs in a museum. It’s worth a hell of a lot more than the asking price, if it’s legit―and why is that, anyway? But all that aside, you’re thinking of vibrating the incantations and spilling candle wax on it, aren’t you? You want to work some mojo with it, I can see it in your impish grin, you crazy little fuck. So tell me, to what end?”
Eric leaned forward, hands clasped between his knees. “To find out first hand if it works. Same as ever.”
“But this is on a different scale. If it does work, what then?”
Eric stared at a blank spot on the wall for a moment, then met Peter’s eyes and said, “Then we’ll know. Unequivocally. We will have answered the central question of our friendship: Is this shit for real?”
“I wonder at what cost.” Peter replied.
“We’re not dabblers, Pete. We’ve been doing this a long time. We’ll be okay.”
Peter took a swig of iced tea from a can and shuffled the sheaf of email printouts against the coffee table. Eric was looking at him for a verdict.
“Why so cheap, if it’s real? Not like Lily won’t kill me if she finds out, but considering what it appears to be…”
“He’s scared. I think it’s that simple. Let me show you his last email.”
Eric rifled through the papers, and withdrew a page that was warped from frequent sweaty handling.
Dear Mr. Marley,
I must have your decision presently. This object has become a burden to me and I need to be rid of it. Perhaps I risk frightening you away, but it seems that someone of your proclivities may be assured of the authenticity by what I will tell you.
Yesterday I carried the book with me when I went to meet with a scholar at the Boulak museum. On the way there, I was attacked by dogs. And in my hotel room at night, insects have gathered around the box I keep it in, beetles and even a scorpion. The book seems to hum in their language, and they want to be near it. There have also been accidents when I walk the streets, and I fear that soon Allah will cease to protect me.
Our haggling is over. You may have it for the $5000 US dollars. And do not think that I will give you a cursed book for free. I will burn it first. You must tell me within 24 hours if we have a deal, or it will burn. You can wire the money Western Union. Forgive my rude haste.
Peter set the page down and shook his head.
“I think he’ll do it,” Eric said, “I think he’ll burn it.”
For a moment neither of them spoke. A gentle breeze lifted the yellow curtains in the living room of Peter’s house on Hubble Street, and the scent of lavender drifted in from Lily’s flowerbox. Before the curtains settled again, sparkling silver light could be seen playing on the surface of the Merrimack River through the trees. It was a beautiful day after all of the spring rain they had endured, such an incongruous day to be discussing what might stir in the shadows at the bottom of the well of eternity. Peter laid his fingertips on the printout as if it were a Bible he was about to take an oath on, and said, “Even considering Qassim’s experiences, you don’t think it’s cursed?”
“He’s a devout Muslim. It’s spooking him out.”
“Okay. I have some stocks Lily doesn’t know much about. They’ve done all right and it’s an account she won’t be looking at. If we find a way to make money on this with… I dunno, a limited edition English translation or something, then maybe we’ll tell her the whole story. Maybe. For now, this looks like a once in a lifetime chance. I’m in. We need to be careful, though.”
“We will be. We’ll take every precaution.”
“Alright.” Peter sighed. “So now that you’ve finally found it, how do you feel?”
“Nervous as hell.”
On Monday morning Peter cashed out the stocks, and Eric had completed the wire transfer by noon. “Would have been a lot easier if the Mad Arab took Paypal,” Peter joked. At home that night he checked his email before going to read bedtime stories to Robbie, and found a FedEx tracking number in his inbox.
Ship date: June 9, 2003
Estimated delivery: June 11, 2003
Destination: Haverhill, MA
Status: Package data transmitted to FedEx
Activity: Package data transmitted
Location: Heliopolis, EG
The package was estimated to arrive on Wednesday, just two days hence. That seemed fast, but it was airplanes pretty much all the way. He closed the laptop lid and announced that it was story time.
Sophie, their aging German shepherd, woke him in the night to go out. While he awaited her return, he ambled over to the little roll-top desk where he paid the bills, blinking sleep from his eyes. He flipped the laptop open and hit refresh on the web page he’d left up. The status was now: In transit. He didn’t know whether to feel relieved or threatened.
In the morning, while trying to feed Robbie some oatmeal without getting it on his shirt, he reached for the laptop again. Setting it down inside the Flying Oatmeal Zone was not a chance he would ordinarily take, and of course he could check the tracking from his office computer as soon as he got there, but he didn’t want to wait that long. The status now said: Redirected. Strange. He had tracked his share of packages, but didn’t recall ever seeing that particular status.
“What’s so urgent?” Lily asked from the hallway where she stood wrapped in a towel, brushing tangles out of her hair, fresh from the shower.
“Nothing. Just checking on some stocks.”
In the car, he turned on the radio. With the war in its opening phase he seldom strayed from NPR these days. As he backed the Camry out of the driveway, a segment about some baseball player testing positive for performance enhancing drugs was wrapping up. This was followed by a summary of top stories delivered by a female reporter with a British accent. One item caught his attention.
“A Federal Express cargo plane made an emergency landing in Cypress today. A spokesman for the corporation praised the pilot’s skill under duress, but declined to identify the source of the problem with the Boeing 727. No one aboard was injured.”
A horn blared and Peter slammed on his breaks. A car flashed by in his mirrors as coffee sloshed out of the hole in his travel cup. Jesus. He’d almost backed right into it. He shut off the radio with an irritated stab at the button, and eased the car out onto the road.
He was distracted all day, thinking of insects crawling out of the walls in a Cairo hotel room, of dogs chasing Mr. Qassim down trash strewn alleys, of a pilot diving his plane to avoid a flock of leather-winged, potbellied predators pouring forth from a fissure in the clouds like maggots erupting from the torn flesh of a gas-bloated corpse on the shore of some nameless ocean.
Stop it. He had to stop this train of thought. It was just an old book, the downed plane, just a coincidence. The dread tome had slept on the dusty shelf of a library in Baghdad for how many years?
And then something stirred and war came to Baghdad. And what will come to you when you have the cursed thing?
Just stop it.
The tracking results didn’t change all day. He drove home in a heavy rain, then surfaced from his fugue by force of will at the dinner table. Before going to bed, he lifted the laptop lid one last time. The machine whirred to life, clicking and breathing. The tracking page was already up; it was always up now, wherever he had a computer. He clicked and waited.
The page now showed an arrival scan for Paris. They were a mightily efficient carrier, he had to admit that, even with a worm of dread coiling in his stomach. Redirected. He went to bed, but sleep was slow to claim him.
Morning brought heavier rain. Pools had formed in the backyard where some of Robbie’s toys now floated, and a dirty towel had taken up residence on the sliding door handle in the kitchen for wiping the mud off Sophie.
In the car he almost put on a CD to keep from brooding, but habit won out, and he left the news on. And then it came, as he knew it would, a little story, glossed over in a few seconds. A dreadful story. Charles DeGaulle airport in Paris was mired in delays after a partial runway collapse due to a ruptured water main.
Rain lashed the windshield in white sheets that his wipers couldn’t clear on their fastest setting. He turned off the radio and craned his neck toward the glass, as if that would help him to better see the road ahead.
He called Eric on his lunch break.
“Have you been following the tracking number?” He asked without a hello.
Eric laughed, “Of course. You too, huh? I still can’t believe it’s actually going to be in our hands tomorrow.”
“I’m starting to worry about that.”
“Eric, listen to me. I think Qassim was right. I think the book is cursed.”
“I’m not kidding. You don’t follow the news. I do. There have been accidents that I would bet anything are related to the package as it moves.”
“I don’t see how you could be sure of that.”
“It’s not hard to see a pattern when you compare the tracking data to the stories. Trust me.”
“Pete, trust me. You’re having prom night jitters, that’s all. You’re out of practice, and now we’ve found the real thing. You’re nervous; it’s understandable.”
“You’re not hearing me!” Peter barked and immediately sensed the conversational mute button that had been engaged among his coworkers in the cubicles surrounding his own. He continued in a hushed tone, “There will be no experiments with this thing. It’s not safe. We made a mistake Eric, but now it’s coming. It’s coming to my house where my child is. We need to divert the package. We have to do a Return to Sender or something.”
“How much coffee have you had this morning?”
“I’m not paranoid.”
“Yeah. That’s what you said after nine-eleven when you were on the computer all the time. And there’s no getting your money back from this guy. You know that, right?”
“I don’t care about the money.”
“Has anyone been hurt or killed by any of these accidents you’re talking about?”
“I… I don’t know. I don’t think so.”
“Then chill out. Right now the book is loose, it isn’t bound by any of the defensive wards I’m going to put on it as soon as it gets here. Just let me take care of it. It’ll be okay.”
“I have to get back to work.”
Wednesday morning arrived without a dawn, just a lightening of the grey water-world outside. Lily had the little TV on in the kitchen when Peter came in. Looking up from the toast she was cutting into strips she said, “They’re predicting flooding. If it’s anything like last time, we’re screwed. Would you check the basement before you go to work? Get the pump set up if you have time?”
“Sure.” He kissed her temple, and poured a coffee.
He was less than halfway down the basement steps when he realized he would be calling in to work. It was an idea he had entertained anyway so that he could be home when the package arrived. Now he had a legitimate excuse. The basement was already flooded with what looked liked six inches of water. As he stood there surveying it, the lights dimmed for a second, then returned to full brightness. He trotted up the stairs, plucked his cell phone from the charger, and called his boss.
After setting up the pump and digging out flashlights, candles and batteries, he sat down at the computer. In theory he could work a little from home as long as the power held out, but the first thing he did was log onto the tracking page.
The Necronomicon had reached the shores of America. There was an arrival scan in Boston and a departure scan immediately following. He was once again grimly impressed with the company’s ability to keep things moving. Their fucking tenacity. He was definitely getting his seventy-five bucks worth of International Priority. Still, maybe now that it was on the ground, the weather would keep it away for one more day. It certainly couldn’t be delivered if the local roads were closed.
He turned the TV on and caught a news brief in progress. A reporter holding an umbrella was standing in front of an animal shelter in Lawrence according to the text bar. She said that four dogs were dead and several others were in veterinary care after a fight erupted in an outdoor kennel that morning. They cut to a clip of a woman at a reception desk responding to an interview question. The text identified her as Denise Norton, Manager. “I’ve never seen anything like it, and I’ve worked here for twelve years,” she said, still visibly shaken. “They were out in the run to do their business this morning and they just turned on each other. I didn’t see it myself, I was signing for a package at the time. But the handler who was with them said it came out of nowhere. They just went berserk. He’s in the hospital over to Beverly now.”
I was signing for a package at the time. Peter turned off the TV and looked at docile old Sophie curled up on the couch. He didn’t need anyone to tell him which carrier was delivering the package Denise Norton had signed for. He was pretty sure there was another box on the same truck with his name on it.
The doorbell rang and set his heart hammering at double its resting rate in less than a second. Sophie barked her territorial alarm, but Peter found it hard to get up. The chime came again, and it was the sight of Robbie toddling toward the door that got him moving. He scooped Robbie up and deposited him in the pack-and-play in the corner of the room.
He peered through the curtain, looking for a white truck with the familiar logo, but couldn’t see it. His hands felt wet as he gripped the knob, took a breath, and swung the door open with the hurried determination of a man jumping into a cold pool before he has time to think about it.
Eric stood on the porch in a charcoal grey hoodie with a shoulder bag slung across his body. He smiled his wolfish, bearded grin and said, “Took you long enough. It’s raining, if you haven’t noticed.”
“What are you doing here?”
“Saw your car and figured you took the day off.”
“Yeah, the basement’s flooding.”
“The whole road will probably go under in the next couple of hours, depending on the tide and the moon and all that shit.”
“Come on in. What’s in the bag, dare I ask?”
“You know, equipment.”
Peter lifted Robbie under the arms and set him down on the carpet. The boy beamed up and said, “Ehwik!”
“Hey little man.” Eric tousled Robbie’s shaggy hair. His smile faded when he looked at Peter and said, “We should have sent it to my place. I don’t know what I was thinking. I guess I thought you’d feel better about getting it directly, since you… fronted the funds. Lily home?”
“Yeah, she’s in the bathroom doing the laundry.”
“Well, I thought I should be here when it arrives, since you’re kind of, you know, worried about it. But in this weather it might not get here at all today.” Eric sounded disappointed.
“Yeah. We’ll see. You want some coffee?”
“Love a cup.”
In the kitchen Peter took a Bic lighter from the junk drawer and tucked it into the front pocket of his jeans before returning to the living room. He set the mugs down and asked Eric what he meant by ‘equipment,’ nodding at the black bag.
“A banishing dagger. I wasn’t sure if you still had one. And a lead box that I hope is big enough.”
“A lead box?”
“I made it at friend’s metal shop a few years ago when I was experimenting with the Lesser Key spirits. Remember King Solomon was said to have kept them imprisoned in a brass vessel with a lead seal? I thought, why just a seal? Why not make the whole damned thing out of lead?”
“Too bad you didn’t have the book shipped in it. Then we might know if it helps or not.”
Eric chuckled, “This bitch is heavy. Would have cost a fortune to send it back and forth, and we’d have the FBI up our asses right now for trying to move a box that can’t be x-rayed in and out of the Middle East.”
Peter watched Robbie playing with his trucks on the floor under the coffee table and considered these precautions. It was tempting to think that Eric had it all worked out. It was a temptation he didn’t trust.
Peter checked the basement again. The water level had climbed higher in spite of his electric pump, and the bottom step was now submerged. He wondered if it could possibly reach the electrical outlets if it kept up. Maybe he should get the hip waders on and slosh through it to the breaker box, turn everything off down there. The thought was interrupted by an explosive outburst of barking from Sophie, followed by the clacking of her claws across the floor above. Peter bounded up the stairs, taking them in twos before the doorbell even rang. When he got to the living room and saw Eric stepping away from the curtained window, reaching for the doorknob, Peter yelled, “Wait!”
Eric turned to look at him.
“The dog,” Peter said, “Get her out of here while I sign for it. Put her in the mudroom.”
“She always barks at strangers. She’s fine,” Eric said, squeezing the knob in his hand.
Peter scooped Robbie up and set him in the playpen, all the while keeping his eyes locked on Eric’s. “Do it,” he said, “It’s not a suggestion, Eric, I’m telling you, get her out of here. Now.”
“Alright,” Eric said with a raised eyebrow. He gently plucked a handful of fur at the scruff of the dog’s neck and nudged her side with his knee, “Come on girl, come.” She went with him, but maintained a low growl and a sidelong stare at the door.
Peter waited until they were out of the room, and then opened the door on a scruffy young man dressed in a navy blue shirt and matching shorts with a white box in one hand, and an electronic signature pad in the other. The guy looked okay, not like someone who had seen nameless horrors. So that was good.
Standing in the shelter of his covered porch, Peter scribbled something that didn’t render anything like his name in the little gray LCD bar, then felt the box thrust into his sternum. He watched the driver sprint through the pelting rain and wondered if his was the first electronic signature in history to bind a covenant with chthonic forces.
Moving fast, he found the cardboard tab and ripped the box open along the seam, thrust his hand inside and withdrew the bubble-wrapped book. He unwound the plastic shroud and let it blow away on the wind. Now he held the book in his hands: sand blasted leather bulging with vellum leaves tied in by a rough hemp cord. There was no title on the cover, which seemed to thrum with magnetic resonance in the bones of his hands. He opened it. On the first page was a complex sigil in cracked and tarnished gold leaf. On the second page dense and beautiful Arabic script began to flow.
Peter took the lighter from his jeans pocket and flicked it. The wheel was slow and stubborn after lying inert for so long in the kitchen drawer. He tried again. On the third strike a flame bloomed and wavered in the wind. Cupping the flame in his hand for shelter, he held it to the edge of a stiff vellum sheet that protruded a little farther out from the edge than its brethren. The page caught, drawing up the flame and curling inward. He bent over the book, like a pilgrim doing prostrations, acutely aware of Eric’s imminent return. He blew on the orange line of consumption to help it along. When it reached the writing the ink appeared to be far more flammable than the paper. It sucked up the scintillating terminus from the vanishing edge of the page and drew it along into a living blue flame that traveled to infuse every detail of the flowing script, as if the ancient ink were made of some black fuel.
Peter watched with dread as the edge of the page ceased to burn and the line of flame jumped from page to page across the entire book until cold blue light spilled from the spaces between the leaves.
“What did you do?” Eric’s voice came from over his shoulder, calm and close.
“I tried to burn it,” Peter said looking up at him.
“It looks hungry for the fire.” Eric said.
“What’s happening to it?”
“I think setting the words alight might have the same effect as chanting them. Jesus, maybe that’s how it survived the inquisition. A black book that can’t be burned.” Eric whispered with awe.
A wild fit of snarling and barking that didn’t sound at all like Sophie echoed through the house as they watched the book not burn but illuminate, neither of them moving, neither knowing what to do, when a shadow moved into the doorway behind them eclipsing the warm yellow light from the house. It was a strange double-headed figure, but Peter quickly fit it into its place in the mundane world: Lily holding Robbie.
When she spoke, she sounded frightened, a tone that didn’t suit her at all. She didn’t ask what they were doing kneeling huddled over something on the porch in a storm, or why Sophie was locked in the mudroom, she just said, “Peter, there’s something in the basement, like a… I don’t know, a big animal or something.”
“Don’t go down there,” Peter and Eric said in near unison.
“Like hell I would. What is it? Is that what Sophie’s going psycho about? You know about it, don’t you?”
“No,” Peter said, standing up beside Eric, trying to hide the book from view with his body. “We’ll check it out. Listen, Lil, we might have to go to your parents’ house if this flooding keeps up. You should pack some things, maybe get Robbie in the car before the roads go under, okay?”
She nodded agreement but kept her eyes fixed on his lower body as if she were looking through him at whatever they were hiding. When she raised her eyes to meet his, she said, “What did you two do? Did you make this weather? I know you’re into some weird shit together, I hear things when you’ve had a few drinks between you.”
Peter smiled weakly and said, “We had nothing to do with the storm. That’s crazy.”
The dog’s maniac barking filled the space that hung between them. Then a sound of thrashing water erupted from below, followed by the crash of a shelving rack being knocked over. Lily stared at her husband.
“We’ll check it out,” Peter said. “Pack some things.”
She shook her head in disgust and turned without another word. When she was gone, Peter closed the book, surprised to find it cool to the touch. Shutting the cover reduced the strange fire to a dim blue glow along the edges.
At the top of the basement stairs, Eric lifted the flap of his shoulder bag and withdrew a ceremonial dagger with double crescent moons on the hand-guard. The light in the stairwell flickered as they descended. Little waves of dark water splashed over the bottom steps, sent forth by whatever was stirring down there. Eric went first with the point of the dagger held out before him. Peter followed, holding the book in both hands, feeling it vibrate the bones in his fingers.
Peter said, “We didn’t even call anything up. How did something come through?”
Eric cocked his head to be heard over his shoulder and said, “You should have waited for me. When you put fire to the words… it’s the same as if you chanted them, somehow.”
On high shelves that spanned the room, family-sized boxes of crackers, jumbo bags of cheese curls and cases of soda flashed their garish colors as the light swelled and faded. The boxes and cans on the shelves that lined the bottom of the stairwell were now wet with filmy floodwater where the creature had splashed them. The air was infused with a fetid stench that thickened the mucous membranes in Peter’s throat, leaving him with a sense of physical violation.
He scanned the sloshing surface of the dark water but could find no physical thing to account for its disturbance. What if it was lurking around the corner behind the stairs? The thought chilled him and he glanced down at his shoes expecting some blasphemous sinewy anatomy to seize his ankle through the gap between the planks.
Something stirred in the water, sending out a wake, and Peter had the distinct impression that this sort of cleaving of the water’s surface could not be caused from below.
“Is it invisible?” he asked.
“Yes,” Eric whispered. “Look at the droplets falling. They’re not dripping from the ceiling.”
The roiling wake sped toward the stairs. Peter retreated two steps and almost tripped. Eric raised the dagger, slashing the air in geometric forms and bellowing the solar invocation he had prepared against whatever native of the darkness this was.
“A ka dua tuf ur biu! Bi a’a chefu! Dudu nur af an nuteru!” His voice crackled into a high, panic fraught register at the end of the phrase.
The thing responded with a sound that arose first from the depths of Peter’s own mind, unfurling into physical manifestation until the pressure of the sound pressed his skull from both within and without. It would have been impossible to know if the sound was in the air at all if not for the visible vibration of the water and the resonant buzz among the cans on the shelves. He wondered if those cans of beans and soup would explode like grenades as the syllables hummed and snapped like whipping power lines, droned and gurgled like the rotting plumbing in some hive of hell, punctuated by the clacking of mandibles and the slimy sibilance of an alien tongue. Amid the wreckage of primordial language he could hear the foreshadows of words forming in his brain stem, “YOG! FTHNAGGA! CTHUN… ZAZAZ CTHUN!”
Peter’s knees gave out. He collapsed in a tangle on the stairs, one foot caught between the planks. Eric stabbed the dagger thrice at a space in front of him where a shimmering haze like a heat mirage, stirred the air. With each thrust of the blade, he roared a syllable, “Yah! Ra! Shammash!”
There was an almost ultrasonic squeal in return, rising and merging into quivering harmonic union with a high howl of pain from the dog upstairs as it passed out of human range. Peter put the Necronomicon down on a step to try to free his foot from the stairs. The blue light playing along the brittle page edges appeared to be burning out. He dislodged his foot, almost losing his balance in the act, and shouted at Eric over the din of psychic interference ricocheting around in his skull, “THE BOX! GIVE ME THE BOX!”
Eric shrugged his shoulder to free the strap of his bag, catching it when it slid down his arm and handing it back to Peter without ever taking his eyes from the boiling air in front of him. Peter opened the bag’s flap and removed the lead box. Eric drew the dagger and the flat palm of his other hand up beside his ears, then shot both hands forward with a roar, “HEKAS, HEKAS, ESTE BEBELOI!”
The cacophony that rebounded upon them from this attack sounded more like fury than pain. Peter was lashed across the face with stinging droplets of water. He couldn’t see the limb that had just whipped past him, but he could see Eric’s shirt wrinkling and twisting where something was wrapping around his back and constricting.
Eric screamed and dropped the dagger. It tumbled through the stairs and plunked into the water. Eyes watering, jaw agape in horror and pain, he strained to turn his face away from something neither of them could see.
From the top of the stairs there came a rapping on the door and a cry of distress, “Daddy, Daddy!”
Peter scrambled upward, knocking items off the stairwell shelves with his elbow. “Get away, Robbie,” he yelled in his sternest voice. “Go find Mommy. Go.”
He grabbed at the railing and spilled a little row of baby powder bottles from the nearest shelf. Watching them tumble around his feet, he remembered something he had once read about shamans blowing corn flour into the faces of demons to see them. Without thinking he seized a canister, cranked off the cap and tossed the white powder over Eric’s shoulder at the invisible predator.
In the days and years that followed Peter would experiment with all varieties of sleeping aids and anti-anxiety drugs to erase the image that formed in that white cloud from his dreams. Partly arachnid—perhaps from a dimension in which great spiders made their nests in ocean caverns, catching some mutant species of shark in their nets—it also resembled an octopus in the way that pulses of light flowed along its oddly jointed limbs toward a nexus where concentric rings of teeth chattered with mechanical speed. And the elephantine eye, roaming and blinking through a putrid membrane… there was no correlation to the geometry of Earth in the corona of that eye.
Eric was being pulled toward the chattering teeth by the tentacles that embraced him, but it was the eye he was screaming at.
The cloud of powder only hung in the air with enough density to reveal the thing for a moment and then it was gone again. Eric vanished with it, entwined in the writhing anatomy, shrieking to burst blood vessels all the way down.
Peter did the only thing left to him in this uncharted nightmare. He opened the lead box, shoved the book inside and shut the lid. The roaring cyclone of alien language in his mind was muted instantly as a presence was sucked from the air with the force of a vacuum. There was a pattering of droplets striking the dingy water, then silence.
The river washed over the streets of Haverhill. National Guard trucks arrived to set up detours, and the local police went door to door to help people evacuate. Peter, still in shock, stood on his doorstep watching the flashing blue strobes of the police van, oblivious to the rain on his face. He felt a crazy urge to tell them that his friend had just died in his basement but there was no body because it had been devoured whole by an invisible monster. He would be required to see a psychiatrist, and maybe lose Robbie. So he said nothing. Lily threw hastily gathered essentials into the car and they pulled onto the road mere minutes before it became impassable. They drove to her parents’ house, Sophie licking Robbie’s face in the back of the car, Peter shooting agitated glances at the rear-view mirror.
Lily didn’t ask Peter what had happened to Eric. She wasn’t a closed minded or incurious person, and while Peter knew she didn’t particularly like Eric, she had always been kind to him. There had been a time when she would have been all questions, would have made him pull the car over until he explained what had happened. But now they had a child, and she didn’t want to know.
They spent a week with the in-laws. When the roads reopened, Peter took a few days off from work, rented a dumpster, and got busy fixing the damage to the basement. Then he did the thing he’d been putting off; he reported Eric as a missing person. The river was dredged, divers went down, and in the end Eric Marley was presumed dead, washed down the Merrimack and into the Atlantic past Plum Island.
The book, secured in its lead encasement, went into a safe deposit box at the bank. Peter didn’t want it in the house. When he had stopped by Eric’s apartment before calling the cops, he let himself in with a key that was still on his ring from times when he’d watered the plants. Walking through Eric’s rooms had broken the chains on the gates of grief, and he was thankful for the privacy to let it out, sitting on the couch they had so often shared, weeping.
When the wave passed, he put Eric’s laptop in a shoulder bag and left with it. The scans would save him from ever needing to open that box again. He didn’t know what the auction would do to his ebay feedback rating, but there would be a heavy shipping fee and no returns.
Douglas Wynne is the author of the rock n roll horror novel, THE DEVIL OF ECHO LAKE, which was a first place winner of JournalStone’s 2012 Horror Fiction contest. His second book, STEEL BREEZE, is a serial killer thriller set for release in July of 2013. He lives in Massachusetts with his wife and son, and spends most of his time hanging out with a pack of dogs when he isn’t writing, playing guitar, or swinging a sword. You can find him at the following links:
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Story illustration by Peter Szmer.