Dr. Michael Wallace took his coat, hat, and scarf off their pegs by the door and put them on. The weather had taken a turn for the worse the previous day, and he had lost too much weight to spend time outside in the chill autumn air without some insulation. He had been feeling melancholy, watching the leaves turn and fall from the trees; melancholy made him want to take a walk.
He shut the door behind him as he stepped out onto the front step, held up the key briefly, but put it back in his pocket. Old habits. The wind coming down the street stirred up the gathering leaves and pine needles. Michael turned up the collar of his coat against the wind and stuffed his hands into his pockets. Bellview Asylum, he supposed, looking back and forth. It was time he paid it another visit.
The climb up Seventh Avenue took his breath away, his legs burned. He still felt weak, feverish, and wondered absently whether it was a good idea to make the long trip across town. What else was there to do while he waited? Frequent stops, he supposed. That should see him through. Maybe stop by one of the grocery stores on the way if the trip took too long. Find some food inside. Did he still need to eat? It seemed like he did.
The streets were empty. No dogs barked as he passed through his suburban neighborhood. Coming out of the suburbs and entering the edge of downtown, Michael turned onto University Street and walked up the block until he found the bench across the way from Overland University’s entrance. He could see the campus square, and after resting for a few minutes, he stood and wandered towards the student center. It was a little out of his way, but there was no hurry.
Spray-painted across the doors, which had been chained shut, was the Sign of Batab. He remembered standing in the square the night the campus had burned. He could still smell the smoke. He walked slowly, gingerly, to one of the broken windows, stepping carefully over the broken wood and glass. Inside the darkened student center–boards were still nailed over most of the windows–he could see the smears of blood, the broken furniture. But there were no bodies. He’d never found out what had happened to them.
Michael sighed, his breath coming out in a heavy stream. He walked towards the middle of the square and sat down on the base of the statue of Rice Atkins, one of the founders of Overland University. His shattered arm, hand holding a lantern, lay broken on the ground. Michael remembered the commencement speeches he had been forced to sit through, President Shockley droning on year after year after year about the tired metaphor of knowledge as a light in the darkness, illuminating and enlightening the minds of men, as if he had known knowledge or cared for its application. Michael surveyed the ruins of the campus.
The satisfaction tasted bitter, but it still tasted good.
After a short rest, he stood and walked towards the English department and his old office. A brick walkway wound between the burnt, stately buildings, their Greek architecture and noble statues blackened and crumbled into ruin. The green trees that had shaded him for so many years, too, were scarred, leaves and branches burned in the fires. The fountain in front of the English department had been shattered by a fallen tree, the names of the contributors who had financed its construction–writ in stone–lay broken, scattered, and forgotten. He stood before the double doors of the massive building, surveying for the first time the damage done.
“We all live in a house on fire,” he muttered. “No fire department to call; no way out, just the upstairs window to look out of while the fire burns the house down with us trapped, locked in it.” He wondered if his volume of Tennessee Williams had survived. The end of the building housing his office was still standing, the other a skeleton of burnt beams and collapsed rubble. Slowly, he made his way up the steps and through the double doors into the dimly lit interior.
His office smelled of smoke, but all of his things were still there, laid out as they had been before the school had had him committed to Bellview. He could be teaching American literature tomorrow. He ran his hands over the ends of his books, feeling the old leather and canvas covers. He leaned into the shelf and took a deep breath. You could still smell them, beneath the smoke, the old books. He hoped he would be able to take them with him when he left. Would he still care for them, days and months and years from now? Would he even recognize his old desires, his old habits? His experiences would make for a great book were anyone left to read one. Perhaps he would write one anyway. What dark vistas, what new avenues of thought? What would become of this man called Michael Wallace?
Personality, it seemed to him, was not as inflexible as it had appeared. Shockley, if nothing else, had taught him that. Wallace walked around his desk and sat in his old office chair facing the high-backed leather seats on the other side. He could remember things with greater clarity than he had before the…he supposed he still didn’t have a word for it. Before the end of the world. The phrase amused him. As if the world would notice the snuffing of humanity’s candle.
Wallace let his mind wander as he slouched down in his chair, eyes drifting over his possessions. He could see the nights he’d spent in the office like they were being played back on a film reel, self-induced hallucinations. Nights spent tutoring students, reviewing papers. Long conversations with fellow teachers on Yeats, Kelly, Shakespeare, shared over cups of coffee and tea. The volume of Tolkien he had hollowed out to hold an engagement ring for his wife, Sara.
Those pleasant memories lay in shadow, darkened by the specter of his final years at Overland. His increasing isolation, the friends and students hurried from the office or refused entrance all together. The late nights and early mornings, desk lamp burning, occult texts, ancient scrolls, and forbidden scriptures littering his desk, growing, crowding out the literature and scholarly journals like fungus over a rotting tree stump. The day he had left on sabbatical to Tibet and Nepal.
He could no longer remember what it was that led him down that particular rabbit hole. Some men became fishermen or stamp collectors in their spare time. Baseball fans, joggers, or gear-heads. It was a research project, he recalled. He had been re-reading Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, and had gotten to wondering about the strange texts that Shelley had described. An online forum led him to the New Age section of his local bookstore, just some light reading to satisfy an amusing curiosity. It really had been fascinating stuff, not because there was anything with any real significance to be found in the New Age section, but because of the insight it gave into the minds of its readers, their desires, hopes, and dreams. One day, after a year of absorbing one New Age text or another on the occasional weekend, he had decided to try something more esoteric. The rare books section at a local antiquities shop.
Did he regret discovering one of the fragments of Regardie’s Occult Philosophy? He supposed that it was immaterial now.
Wallace drew his pipe and tobacco pouch from the pocket of his trousers. Absently, he cleaned the remnants of his last smoke from the bowl with his knife and refilled it, eyes unfocused, distant, his movements mechanical. He drew out his lighter and lit the pipe. He inhaled deeply, and let out a lazy stream of smoke that swam down over his desk and floated into the office air.
What was it that made some men recoil in fear of the occult, while others were drawn inexplicably towards it, heedless of the danger of knowledge from the great outer dark? It was fundamentally human to shun such knowledge; something, he supposed, that may have been hardwired into the psyche on an evolutionary level. What then of those who perused or even pursued the dark arts? Were they a genetic aberration? Evidence that the human gene pool was not as pure as it had been believed? What inhuman influence might lay in his own genetic past, waiting for the right moment to be awakened? Perhaps that is why they had locked him up. Even though they couldn’t explain it consciously, that ingrained genetic instinct, lingering on from some past ancestor steeped in a world before the modern day, surrounded by long shadows it didn’t understand, recognized him for some forgotten threat, not knowing that it was his human side that drove him into the occult.
How he had longed to save them.
He pushed himself back from the desk and walked to the office door, puffing gently at his pipe. He took one last look at his books before opening the door and heading back outside, and across the campus towards Bellview.
Much like his own neighborhood, the streets and buildings between the northwest part of campus and Bellview Asylum were strangely intact, as if the people living and working there had all gone away on holiday together. He supposed that, in a way, they had. Wallace stopped at a corner convenience store and went inside for a couple of bottles of water.
He hadn’t believed at first, hadn’t been able to stomach the idea that there really was something out there, beyond the world, scratching at the door to get in. The key and the gate. It came up in one obscure text after another. How many mystics and dreamers had heard that phrase whispered in their dreams?
Despite the ominous front gate and brick wall that surrounded the institution, the Bellview property was prosaic; a clean-cut, weedless lawn; well trimmed hedges; tall, stately trees; garden paths; a dock and a view of a lake. The exterior of the buildings reminded him of an old Southern plantation. Inside was another matter. Bellview had taught him to hate the color white, among other things.
The double doors leading into the foyer were ajar–he must not have gotten them all the way closed the last time he had visited. It had been difficult to confront the narrow hallways and padded rooms that had made up his life for almost five years, but doing so had gotten easier each time he came back. It made it easier to accept things.
He brushed past the doors and into the foyer, spotting the wheelchair on the other side of the room. It had been overturned the first time he had come, and some part of him still couldn’t accept how it was laying there. He had righted it and moved it next to one of the large, puffy chairs situated in the middle of the room. Then he had reached behind the counter and retrieved the key cards necessary to navigate the facility. They were still there, laying on the counter where he had left them. He stuffed the green and yellow cards into his pocket and used the blue one on the door nearby. No electricity. He had forgotten. Michael closed his eyes for a moment, tilting his head to one side. There was a loud pop; the lights flickered on in the room. The card indicator blinked on. Michael swiped the card and the indicator flashed green. There was a buzz, then a click. Michael stepped to one side and pulled the door open.
He passed down the halls, through the common room where patients were allowed to mingle together. On the far side was a window where patients picked up their daily medication; the bitter taste of the pills they had fed him, the numb half-daze they had induced, every day a living nightmare, his waking hours a feverish delusion. He had tried everything to avoid taking them, but the orderlies always found out, held him down if they had to, and rammed the pills down his throat. All the while Michael had screamed with rage, anguish, and despair, by turns threatening them and begging them to leave him alone. One by one, the lights overhead burst. He jumped as each of the light fixtures popped, scuttling away from the shower of glass and sparks. He took a few calming breaths.
It won’t be long now, he thought. I’m almost ready.
Down the hall, Michael found Dr. Moorecock’s office, where he had had his bi-weekly therapy sessions. There never seemed to be a right answer for Dr. Moorecock. After being committed, Michael had tried lying first, denying the things he had told his friends at the university.
“You can’t be too far gone,” Moorecock had told him. “You at least understand that the things you were saying might strike others as odd.”
“We don’t use that word here, Mr. Wallace.”
“Why not? That’s what you think I am.”
“I think you’ve been under a lot of stress, lately. I just want to help you work through it.”
Sometimes Wallace wished he hadn’t shared what he had found in Tibet. The ancient scriptures he had translated had led him deep into the mountains, through crevices of ice and snow and rock, to the frozen temple of the nameless god, sealed beneath an enormous obsidian disk. What blasphemies lurked there, Wallace barely knew, for he had fled the place and sealed it back up, leaving the insane murals and the hideous altar behind him. The horrible piping he had heard coming from the depths, echoing strangely in the high vaulted chambers, he could hear as clearly as he had there in the darkness beneath the mountains. His memories of his conversations with the doctor were bleeding in, mixing with the empty room and the shrill piping from the roots of the mountains. He could see the doctor sitting there, behind his desk in the cavernous dark, smiling his comforting, infuriating smile.
When lies had failed him, Wallace told the truth. He had tried to warn them, first his friends, and then Dr. Moorecock. Tried to warn them about the gate and the key, tried to explain to them the danger of the nameless god, how the celestial bodies had aligned and an ancient comet had returned to the solar system, portending the nameless god’s return. How he would whisper into the minds of men, sending them dreams and visions. They gave him electroshock therapy. More pills. Endless delirium.
Michael found himself standing in his old room. White walls. A hard, narrow bed covered by a thin sheet and flat pillow. He remembered the moment, shivering there beneath his flimsy sheet, the cold night air chilling him to the bone, sweating from the drugs and the strain. He remembered biting the back of his forearm, teeth sinking into his skin as he tore out a chunk. As the blood began running down his arm, he dipped his finger into it and began to draw, first on the floor and then on the walls and ceiling. The ancient sigils of the nameless god. The key to the gate. For the world there would be an endless orgy of madness and violence, but in some shattered corner of his mind he knew that, for the servant of the nameless god, there would be respite from suffering. His insane laughter had drawn the orderlies as he danced, hands on the bars of his window. They barged into his room and tried to restrain him, but by then it was too late. The great lidless eye had already appeared in the sky.
It wasn’t like in the stories. Humanity did not band together in its darkest hour and find some way to drive the nameless god and his children back to the stars. They had gone mad, tearing, grasping, clawing, and murdering one another, desperate only to live. The ideals of courage and brotherhood blasted by the one stark truth of the cosmos: man’s existence is meaningless next to the dark sea of infinity that stretches into the deeps of space and time. Like an onion, the layers of mankind’s self-serving ideology had been stripped away, one at a time, until only the animal was left to cower and mewl as the darkness descended.
In all the madness that had followed, it was a snatch of scripture that had come to Michael as humanity tore itself apart. Abraham had gone unto the Lord, saying, Lord wouldst thou save this city if there were but fifty righteous in it, and the Lord replying that yea, He would. The two negotiated down to a single righteous man, Abraham asking the Lord if he would spare the city if but one righteous man lived within it. In the end, the city had been burnt to the ground by the Lord’s righteous wrath, for as the Good Book sayeth, there is not one righteous man, no, not even one.
Michael left his old room and went outside to sit on a bench next to the lake that resided behind the asylum. A flock of geese descended, splashing down, skimming across the surface of the lake until they came to rest in a cove surrounded by trees. Michael breathed in deeply. The earth was a beautiful place. His new studies, dictated by the nameless god, had chronicled many of the worlds beyond earth, and each was more a bastion of ugliness and insanity than the last. It was strange, when one came to think of it. Intellect was what each of these hells had in common. Some races had started down the road to knowledge sane, but sooner or later the truth drove each of them to decadence and madness. So, too, it would have driven humanity. The surface of the lake was clear, pristine, the water so pure that Michael could see to the bottom, the fish swimming in the depths through the beds of algae and reeds.
He had done the right thing in the end, he told himself. They would have become like the other races the nameless god had shown him, in time. This world was one of the few places of beauty in all the universe. He had preserved it. An Eden he could return to when his duties as the herald were fulfilled. He didn’t hate them anymore. Not really.
He chalked the whole thing up to being necessary.
It wouldn’t be long now. He glanced up into the sky, but the great lidless eye was gone, departed for parts unknown. It spoke with him from time to time. Whispering to him of other worlds they would visit, other dimensions. Other Earths. The thought did not disturb him now so much as it had at first. To think that a being so mighty needed one as small as him. The thought made him shake his head. He stood from the bench, picking up his empty water bottles. With a thought, they evaporated in his hand. It was time to go home. As the leaves fell from the trees, blown lose by the shifting winds, it occurred to Michael that he was likely the last human left to appreciate the changing of the seasons. The thought made him sad, but this was the last autumn he might see for some time. As he began walking home, he decided that he might as well enjoy it.
Derek Wentz works as a power technician by day. By night, he writes yarns of terror and suspense. When he isn’t busy with work, Derek keeps in crime fighting shape at a nearby gym and plays guitar. His chief delights are quiet afternoons, good books, and trips to the middle of nowhere. He can be found @DerekLWentz on twitter.
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Story illustration by Patrick Ijima Washburn.