There is in certain ancient things a trace
Of some dim essence–more than form or weight;
A tenuous aether, indeterminate,
Yet linked with all the laws of time and space.
– From “Continuity,” by H.P. Lovecraft
Howard… Howard… Someone called to him.
The stars were quite amazing–the sky vast and dark as it could only be from the vantage point of space. He floated in that darkness and stared at unfamiliar constellations. He would need to modify his charts to account for them, maybe write something for the next edition of the Rhode Island Journal.
He opened his eyes, and there was a woman–his mother–holding something out toward him. A glass? He waived her away. “I’m a grown man now, Mother. I don’t want any milk.”
“Mr. Lovecraft, it’s time for your medicine.”
He forced his eyes to open wider, and the woman’s face resolved itself from an obscuring haze. Not his mother. Of course it wasn’t. His mother was dead. She’d died in a room like this… A hospital; that’s where he was. Like where they took father all those years ago. A place to go when there is nothing left to do but die. Like the solitude little Sam Perkins had sought out as all cats do when it’s their time to expire. A shrub had been Sam’s dying room–his death bower. Much better, that. Better than this cold, antiseptic place. He shivered.
“This’ll make you feel better, Mr. Lovecraft.” They kept telling him that, but it was an untruth. Even the damnable morphine did little to ease his pain and only seemed to addle his mind so that everything was just a bit confusing.
The sharp pain of an injected needle woke him fully; or rather, as fully as was possible in recent days. The kind young doctor was there with the nurse.
“What day is it, Dr. Dziob? I have to make a printing deadline.”
“Thursday, March the eleventh, Mr. Lovecraft.”
The nurse laughed. “I should say not, sir. 1937.”
It was too late then. He had stopped printing the Rhode Island Journal long ago. No it wasn’t his astronomy journal he needed. What was it?
He reached for the diary on his bedside table and propped it up on his abdomen, which was distended to startling proportions so that it worked well as a sort of lap desk while he reclined against the raised hospital bed. The nurse and the doctor left, and he removed the pencil from where it marked the place for his next entry.
It took him several minutes to write the date, as the pencil kept slipping from his tired grip. Then he added: PAIN–DR. JONES TAKE BLOOD. So many different doctors were involved. He stopped for a moment to rest his hand, trying to remember what else he’d done earlier in the day, before continuing: BATH–PAIN–ELEC. PAD–AEPG CALL. Yes, Annie E. Phillips Gamwell, his aunt, had left just before the nurse came in. He looked back at what he’d written and could barely read it, but he was unsure if that was because his handwriting had become so poor or because his eyesight seemed to be failing him.
“I don’t think I shall manage any further writing,” he murmured. The pencil marks blurred into whorls of black on white, like an inverse of the condensed milk he took with his coffee dissolving into the hot liquid. He adjusted the electric heating pad around his abdomen, the book fell onto his chest, and he slept. The sound of the pencil rattling as it rolled off the bed and onto the tile floor followed him into the dream realms of Morpheus.
Darkness surrounded him–a murky, half-darkness in which his eyes could sense motion but very little of shape. These were living entities, though, of that he was certain. Entities that would have been too large for his eyes to encompass in their entirety even if the light had been sufficient to the task. Sounds of leathery flapping–a great cacophony of fleshy ripples–filled the air. He discerned the occasional glimpse of a tentacle undulating into and out of view. There must have been many of these great appendages, for they appeared and disappeared everywhere he looked.
Then, for a time, one of these tentacles hovered quite visibly above him. He stared at it, fascinated by the texture, mottled scales covering minutely beaded muscle mass beneath, like snakeskin stretched over a bag of marbles. The quivering limb was covered in a viscous brown sluice, and he watched–horrified but unable to move–as some fell on him, clinging to his shoulder, his arm. It contained little brown capsules, and he reached out and grabbed one between his fingers. It was soft–slippery–familiar. And then it came to him. Beans!
He popped the bean hungrily into his mouth but found to his dismay that it tasted like poison. He tried swallowing, simply to remove the vile flavor from his taste buds, and pain shot down his throat and into his stomach like liquid fire…
He lurched awake, crying out, and sat up. The rapid motion caused even further pain to erupt in his spine, and he doubled over his distended belly, gasping for breath.
And this time his mother was there, soothing him, putting her arms around him.
“Howard, dearest.” But no, not his mother’s voice…
He extricated himself from her arms, sat back panting, and stared until recognition settled in. Aunt Annie. He tried a feeble hello but found himself gagging instead. She held a little metal basin out for him as he retched bile. When his body ceased its spasms, he slumped back, exhausted, sweat beading on his high forehead. His chin trembled slightly, and he clenched his jaw to stop it.
“I brought your pillow like you asked yesterday, Howard. The one from when you were a child…the very one you’ve slept on every night except for when you were at Ms. Greene’s home in New York.” Annie lifted his upper body from the bed, and either she’d grown stronger or he had become light as a dandelion puff, for she seemed to exert almost no effort. Then she slid the stiff hospital pillow out from under him and replaced it with his own.
“The pest zone,” he breathed, and he wondered who was living now in the little room he’d found for himself at 169 Clinton after Sonia had gone off to Cincinnati and he’d moved out of her apartment. He’d had his pillow sent to him then in Brooklyn. And thankfully those burglars hadn’t stolen it when they took his suits. It was just what he needed now.
He settled back into its familiar plushness, the goose down within releasing the accumulated aromas of his lifetime. Even after all these years he fancied he could smell 454 Angell Street in it–a mix of furniture polish, pipe smoke, and fresh country air–and it called memories into his mind of dear sweet Grandpa Whipple and of countless childhood hours spent immersed in the Arabian Nights and Grimm’s Fairy Tales and the stories of Poe. He could smell too the faint, mingled aromas of kerosene and candle wax, remnants of the two sources of light he had taken with him time and again into the dark, windowless attic to hunt for treasures from the past.
He had his pillow with him again, and it was all he needed. His past. A thing of his past to guide him into the future that awaited. Past, present, future–all are one, he thought. Was it all not the same?
“No more of the pest zone, Howard; let’s not speak of New York. I snuck the pillow in under my coat, you know. I wasn’t sure the doctors would let me bring it in…” Annie’s voice trailed off, echoing like dozens of tiny bells that became…
…Lapping water. Party lanterns had been strung along the esplanade.
“Why do you want to go to that awful place?” Sonia asked, pointing toward the river. “Let’s walk back into Magnolia–to the square.” She held his hand, and she tried now to pull him away from the water.
“No, no, Sonia. Let’s just stay for a bit, shall we. Look how beautiful the starlight is on the water.” And it was beautiful, the surface sparkling like diamonds against black velvet, the entire scene softened by a pearl-gray mist that settled lazily onto the water.
A group of men–rough-and-tumble sailor types–stood below them and off to the right on the river bank, pulling together on a rope that was attached to a piling some distance out in the water. The rope was taut. The creaking sounds it made as its fibers stretched were audible in the still night.
And the men kept pulling. Something was not right.
He looked down at them and furrowed his brow. “I don’t think they should do that.”
Sonia laughed. “Oh, Howard! I’m sure every thing will work out just fine.”
He wasn’t convinced. He stared intently at the rope and at the piling, and perhaps the piling was moving–but away from the sailors rather than toward. “No, I don’t think it will work out fine at all.”
As if his words were the final lines of an invocation, the waters around the piling began to churn. A great froth erupted, splashing as high as the esplanade, and a beast emerged. It was a long, cylindrical thing, snakelike but huge and with no discernable head or mouth. Nothing in nature could resemble that long, wriggling cylinder! But there it was, writhing in the water, which now did not appear to be water at all but looked more like a bubbling, brown, soupy mix. The sharp, acrid scent of baked beans assailed his nostrils, and he stared in puzzled awe at the beans bubbling as far as could be seen, off into the horizon like a vast pool of primordial tar.
Without warning, the beast lunged toward them.
It wrapped itself around him, over and over again, quick as thought, before Howard could do anything to try to ward it off. It pressed tighter against his torso while pushing Sonia further away with its increasing bulk as it coiled about him. He tried slipping an arm between its coils to reach for Sonia’s hand, but she was simply too far away. The beast was crushing him now. His abdomen felt like it must surely burst, and he cried out in agony.
“Hush now, Howard.” His aunt’s voice intruded upon his consciousness, and the river faded. She was still fluffing his pillow beneath his head, but it was difficult to tell if mere moments had passed or if it was already the next day. Perhaps it had been two days. His stomach and back hurt horribly, as did his swollen ankles, with a persistent throb. He thought he had a fever.
Annie placed a damp cloth to his forehead, and the cool water felt about as soothing as anything he had ever experienced in his life. He sighed as little rivulets of water dripped down his temple and onto his pillow, which absorbed the water and the salts of his skin, leaching his essence into the cloth. And it was only right. The pillow was a part of him, and now he was a part of the pillow.
“I sent a letter to Mr. Barlow,” Annie said as she sat down in a chair at his bedside.
He pulled distractedly at the tape holding a line of tubing in place where a needle was inserted into his arm. “Bobby?” he croaked. “Will he be here?” He smiled, but his face felt stiff, the muscles unwilling to cooperate fully. I’ll have to take him to Maxfield’s, he thought. The kid missed out on going the last time. But we did it–Mortonius and Wandrei and I…all twenty-eight flavors of ice cream…our framed certificate still hangs there! He laughed quietly, his body trembling with the exertion. A tear escaped the corner of his eye and trickled down his face, pooling in his ear for a moment before joining the water that had already soaked into the pillow.
Once again it was dark. And this time he was frightened almost immediately, because he was careening through space at a very great speed, propelled by a force that was all too familiar. They used to come to him often in his childhood but only very rarely any longer. Black, lean things with rubbery bodies and no faces. They swirled about him with their bat wings and barbed tails, goading him forward with detestable tridents.
He closed his eyes and felt like crying. The fear built up inside of him, threatening to erupt. The darkness behind his eyelids terrified him, but what he would see if he opened them terrified him even more!
Just as he felt sure he would lose his mind, a comforting voice sounded in his head. “Come now, Howard. That’s no way for a bright young man to conduct himself.” It was grandpa. Grandpa Whipple! “That’s right, Howard. Now it’s only a bit of darkness. Nothing, really. Just walk through the dark room, and you’ll see nothing bad will happen. Go ahead. I dare you.”
And he did. He opened his eyes, ignoring the darkness and the shapes swirling about within it. In an instant, the shapes vanished, and all that remained was the darkness. He took a tentative step forward. Then another. And then he strode into the blackness until it too disappeared.
As the light grew, he was able to discern his friend Harry Brobst and Brobst’s wife sitting alongside the bed where it seemed Aunt Annie had been only a moment before. But no, that had been yesterday. He nodded his head once in greeting.
“How are you feeling today, Howard?” Harry’s voice sounded far away.
“Sometimes…sometimes the pain is unbearable.” He said it quietly, matter-of-factly–not complaining, simply answering the question.
Harry’s wife excused herself rather abruptly and walked out of the room. Harry reached out and took Howard’s hand in his own. They sat like that for quite some time, although with sleep and wakefulness ever competing for his consciousness, it was again difficult to measure the passing of time with certainty.
At some point, Brobst gave his hand a firm squeeze and rose to his feet to take his leave. “Remember the ancient philosophers, Howard.” Howard smiled back as stoically as he could manage and watched his friend walk from the room. He paused for a moment in the doorway to turn and wave goodbye, but Howard lacked the strength to raise his arm and wave back.
Brobst departed then, leaving Howard to stare at the number on the hospital room door–232. The number was the same backward or forward. Just like 454 Angell. The same from either end.
Past to future. Future to past…
He slept again.
And he was in a dark, subterranean chamber, the pressure of miles of earth above him palpable like another presence. But he was quite alone. A solitary torch glittered in the distance, and he made his way toward it, slowly coming to discern an oblong object within the circle of the torchlight’s reach. It was a sarcophagus of some sort–intricately carved with symbols and pictographs wholly alien to anything he’d ever seen. He tried to get closer to make out some of the smaller details, but something was in the way. It was his stomach–huge and swollen as if he were with child.
He pried the torch out of the ground and used its long shaft as a lever, working it under the sarcophagus’s lid, shifting it inch by inch to reveal what lay within. But as the lid cleared a certain critical point, a gust of foetid air burst forth followed by a wriggling mass of delicate, green tubes. Several of these tubes latched themselves onto his belly and began to feed, their bodies undulating rhythmically as they drank from him. Howard stared down at them, mouth agape, until his vision was engulfed by expanding blackness.
When next he woke, he was all alone, and his room was exceedingly quiet. It was dark. He had vague recollections of experiencing some of the worst pain yet, but now the pressure on his abdomen felt diminished. The swelling actually seemed to have gone down significantly. He lay still, listening to the sounds of his own labored breathing, until he became aware of a faint glow spreading across the ceiling. His eyes followed it to its source. It was the first light of dawn making itself known through the single large window.
The sky was not truly light yet, but dawn had painted it a purplish hue, brighter closer to the horizon and darker further away where a scattering of stars was still visible. The colors were alive, and he struggled to prop himself up on his elbows to get a better view. He stared at the ever brightening firmament, and for an instant it seemed his vision escaped the Earth’s atmosphere, penetrated the cosmos, an infinitely swirling vortex of light and dark and color. He fancied he heard the sawing notes of a viol, as though carried to him on the wind from a great distance. The fleeting melody caused his heartbeat to quicken, his breathing to come in short, exultant gasps.
The effort was soon too much for him. He settled back into the comforting embrace of his pillow and felt as though he were dissolving into it. His body was being reduced to a fine powder that could permeate the cloth and disperse itself among the downy shafts within. He’d leave the pillow. Maybe someone else would find it as comfortable as it had always been for him. He wouldn’t need it any more. He understood that fully now.
In his mind’s eye he envisioned the rooftops of Providence all around him, coalescing from the night’s gloom to stand magnificent and awash with sunlight in the rising dawn. Providence would remain. And when the world itself ceased to be, something else would remain…somewhere in the vast universe.
He looked once more toward the window–at the light now streaming through its arched upper panes. Finding the last whisper of his voice, he breathed, “In that strange light I feel I am not far, from the fixt mass whose sides the ages are…”
A final breath escaped his lips.
And it was over.
Author Christopher M. Cevasco’s short fiction has appeared in Black Static, Allen K’s Inhuman, and A Field Guide to Surreal Botany, among many other venues, and is forthcoming in the Prime Books anthologies, Zombies: Shambling Through The Ages and Shades of Blue and Gray: Ghosts of the Civil War. Chris is a 2006 Clarion workshop graduate and a 2007 Taos Toolbox graduate. He was also the editor/publisher of the award-winning Paradox: The Magazine of Historical and Speculative Fiction from 2003 through 2009. Chris writes in Myrtle Beach, South Carolina, where he lives with his wife and their two young children. For more about Chris, visit: www.christophermcevasco.com
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Story illustration by Mike Dominic.