Through owlrain and mothlight she walked, collar pulled up against the cruelest cuts of wind. Smudged by clouds, a partly-eaten pumpkin slice hung overhead, the man in the half-moon winking maliciously at her. “If you won’t help me, don’t hinder me,” she murmured to him.
The rich stink of mould and rot rose from the leaf-littered ground. The sere trees scraped the sky with their wind-filled branches, scattering leaves over her as she went.
The moonlight illuminated the path ahead dimly. Just a single lamp still shone in the park, but that was on the far side, nowhere near where she needed to go.
Although her eyes couldn’t penetrate the darkness very far, she sensed there was something even darker out there moving through the night, something huge, treading slowly. In answer, something small inside her whined pitifully, afraid that even her suddenly quickened pace would not be enough to protect her.
Twice she stopped and looked behind her. There was nothing except the occasional car passing on the nearby road. She’d felt certain she’d heard footsteps following her, always keeping pace with her but never passing. Your own shadow, said her small voice, hopefully. Not in this light, whispered her sensible self.
Three stunted figures appeared, dragging their feet. Then two more came into view not far behind them, all illuminated by candles in moth-haunted glass jars. From their size and shrill voices, she realised they were children from the nearby houses, dragging their way along the moon-dappled path, all dressed in desultory costumes, on their way to a party of sorts.
She stepped aside to let them through as a taller figure, also costumed and masked, brushed past her, muttering “Hurry! Hurry!” to encourage her small charges.
As she watched them go, she gathered her courage to take the short cut through the woods. A gap in the fence beckoned her.
Her meeting was 25 minutes’ walk from her house. She was reluctant to be dragged into this, but her sister had managed to persuade her after several phone calls. Uncertain of what she could do to help, the one thing she was sure of was that she didn’t want this rendezvous taking place too close to home. However, she was now beginning to regret her choice of time and place.
Pushing aside an unruly branch, she soon managed to find the well-trodden path among the trees. It was drier under here where some of the branches still clung jealously to their leaves. In the park they had been like sodden breakfast cereal, squelching beneath her footsteps, but here they still crunched satisfyingly underfoot. From time to time, having saved up the rain, the black branches dripped on her. She started when the first drop hit the top of her hat like a soft explosion.
She stopped for a moment to get her bearings. Not too far now, she decided.
A bloated fungus clinging to the base of a tree exploded with a wet sound, spraying its spores into the damp air. She hurried away, brushing at her coat sleeve and collar, just in case. “The damn thing had to wait until I was passing by, didn’t it?”
She made sure of her footing before descending a short slope, then relied on her ears to tell her where the shallow brook was. She leapt the gurgling waters and found her way out from under the trees, greeted by a spray of light rain.
In front of her lay the huge car park, almost empty. All the big shops were in darkness, asleep beneath huge signs in shades of sludgy yellow and grey. Most of the overhead lights were dead, too. The owners were obviously too miserly to either repair or replace them. Maybe they were right to save their money—the place was always deserted after dark anyway. Or almost deserted. The empty parking spaces were bathed in heavy pools of darkness. A gritty wind picked up as she started across the vast space.
At the far side of the small sea of tarmac lay her destination. To either side of it, lights were flicking off in shops as their owners closed up for the night. Even the big chain stores closed early in this part of the world, so there was nothing to draw customers to the retail park. No point staying open…unless you’re the last coffee shop in the world.
The Coffee Pot was always open late. It stayed alive, she’d heard, on trade from late night lorry drivers doing overnight hauls. It was popular with insomniacs, too. And she’d also heard that insomnia was very popular these days. Personally she’d prefer to be tucked up in bed, snoring happily to herself (she’d been told she snored by her unkind ex)…if she could manage it.
As she got closer to the single box of light in the encroaching darkness, she imagined it as a small submarine cell sunk at the bottom of a crushing ocean of black. At least this deep it would be safe from the depth charges of bad dreams, she thought.
She looked about herself uneasily, the wind forcing her to turn her face aside to avoid getting grit in her eyes. She picked up her pace. Even if her task turned out to be onerous, at least it would be warmer inside.
Standing outside for a moment, she looked up at the unimaginative name above the door before stepping forward and pushing open the glass door.
The amber and light brown decor was at least 30 years out of date. She found that slightly comforting, as if she’d stepped back into a time before… Her thoughts were snapped off sharply by the sound of the door slamming shut in the wind behind her. She felt sure she’d closed it tightly behind her. Catching the gaze of the woman behind the counter, she mouthed an apologetic ‘Sorry.’
To one side lay a row of four booths; the tables in the rest of the place were empty. At first she thought he hadn’t kept their appointment, but then she heard a snuffling sound from one of the booths and noticed an elbow jutting out from behind the partition.
Walking slowly over to the booth, she took in every detail of the man that she could. ‘OK, Holmes, what can we deduce?’ she asked herself. As it turned out, not much from her present angle, so she took the plunge and decided to join him.
The seats were the colour of rotting leaves, or dirty brown seaweed. Her hat made a damp plop as it landed at her side. She peeled a few wet strands of hair from her forehead and re-positioned them as she sat down.
The man stared at her intently. He seemed so nervous that she was afraid he might fly apart at any moment—a bone bomb scattering deadly fragments in all directions. For a second she felt like ducking under the table in a futile attempt to escape the worst of the blast.
“Y-you’re…” he began. She raised her hand to cut him off. “No names. Please. It’s just…easier,” she told him, firmly. “Nothing personal.”
He lowered his gaze and stared into the darkness gathered at the bottom of his large cup. She noticed that he wore nice clothes. Or rather they had once been nice clothes. His shirt cuffs were dirty and beginning to fray, while his coat had gathered various splashes and stains which he hadn’t bothered to get rid of. Leaning back in her chair she could see his shoes were scuffed and dirty, unpolished for weeks.
He sat there slurping coffee nervously, almost chain drinking, the cup an extension of his hand. She looked at his red-rimmed eyes, the slight tremble in his hands as he raised the cup to his lips again and again.
“Trouble sleeping?” she asked him, as if she needed to.
For once he put the cup down, clinking it heavily, loudly, into its saucer. The owner glared at him from behind the counter, fearing for her crockery. “I daren’t sleep,” he said. “I daren’t! That’s when…”
She nodded, glancing down at the poisonously black liquid sloshing around in the bottom of his cup. “Yes, I know.”
And things were always worse at this time of year, she’d noticed. It was when the sky changed, the constellations wheeling around to a different place. The new pattern they formed disturbed the mind, turning dreams against their dreamers. Some survived, but far too many dreamers lost their struggle beneath autumn skies, turning to dust and becoming mere grit in the eyes of the gods.
Perhaps bright Vega, gazing down from the West, had some sort of malign influence on the dreamers. Though she’d once considered the idea of stars somehow influencing people’s lives to be nonsense, now…
The cafe’s owner appeared at the table, doubling as the waitress. “You ready to order?” It was a croaky creak of a voice with something metallic in it. And it was too old for her face. The woman scuttled away as soon as coffee—‘Just coffee?!’—was ordered.
Once the waitress had gone, his imploring eyes settled on her. “Y-your sister said you could help me.”
“I might have been able to…once.” Amanda was four years her junior and was into Ouija, tarot, Crowley—all that fake stuff. That wouldn’t help anyone. She wished the clever little bitch would stop pointing hopeless cases in her direction. Amanda knew nothing!
She daren’t tell him how many of those she’d tried to help were now dead. Several were hopeless derelicts, wandering the streets and sleeping rough. Occasionally she’d see one of them—the empty-faced children of her failure—and it would gnaw at her, sending her scurrying for her sleeping pills for several nights afterwards.
She had no way of knowing if the nameless man sitting across from her would be alive in a year’s time. A month’s time. Maybe he would be dead within a week.
The coffee arrived and she clutched it gratefully, willing the caffeine to make her feel less tired. These encounters seemed to take more and more out of her each time. And she was sure she’d been noticed. Followed. She was now far too conspicuous to ignore.
The silent TV at the end of the counter seemed to show a man demonstrating how to fit an unprotesting small dog into a jam jar, while enormous grey-green ropes were hauled across the background. Every time there was a gust of wind outside, the image juddered before exploding into a snowstorm of static for a few moments. She didn’t have her glasses in any case, so she looked away, unwilling to see any more. Some bizarre sort of game show? Television seemed to get stranger every time she watched it.
“Listen, I can’t guarantee anything. Nobody can,” she warned him. He shifted in his seat, eyes roving over the detritus on the table-top as if he’d lost the answer to his question there and such diligent searching would unearth it. This guy was obviously in no shape to hear the truth, she thought.
“But we’ll see what we can do, eh?” She made a great effort to make sure her tone sounded more positive this time. He nodded, gratefully.
From time to time, the owner looked across at them as if she imagined they might be on some sort of sleazy first date, meeting in a lonely spot to cover up the shame of their unhealthy desires. The woman was clearly suspicious of this peculiar couple who were uninterested in any of the food on offer but simply guzzled cup after cup of coffee. Even her ‘delicious’ home-made cakes were being spurned.
“You’ve had the dreams, too. You’ve heard the words. I’m not wrong, am I?” The pathetic, whipped-dog look in his eyes told her she couldn’t disagree with him even if she wanted to. Which she didn’t.
She sat patiently. Best to let him get it off his chest, she thought. There was a lot of apocryphal ‘dreamer’ literature out there; the internet was crawling with it. Most of it was fiction masquerading as the truth—no harm there, in her opinion—but some of the self-help stuff was dangerous. It was obvious from what he said that he’d read some of it and swallowed it whole.
Some of it revolved around self-harm and she was sure she’d caught a glimpse of some scarring poking out from his shirt cuffs. Maybe it wasn’t related but maybe it was. Maybe if she let him talk, he’d let something slip.
“Sometimes there’s something glistening in the darkness. But not in a good way. More like something you wouldn’t want to touch…or want touching you. I always dream of huge places. Enormous. Places I’ve never seen in real life…not even in photos.
“And the things I dream of…well, I feel that they’re old…so very old. It just terrifies me…” he said. Well at least he’s got that right, she thought.
“They’re just dreams. They can’t hurt you,” she lied, as if reassuring a frightened five-year-old. “Everyone has nightmares from time to time, after all. It’s just a normal part of life…”
For a moment she considered talking about the interpretation of dreams, of Jung, of a dozen other reassuring things. But she felt too weary of it all. After the events of the last decade, her energy reserves were almost gone.
Waiting until he’d come to a natural pause, she excused herself and headed off to the bathroom. ‘Buying yourself a little time?’ she chided herself.
She looked at her tired eyes in the mirror. She’d seen enough horror films to know that this was the part where she glances in the mirror and sees something horrible standing behind her. She did as convention dictated but the only horror waiting there was the reflection of an earnest Victorian print of a shipwreck, hung there years ago and forgotten about. There seemed to be an awful commotion behind the small ship in the picture. She sympathised with the tiny sailors, fighting for their etched lives, forever frozen in their moment of greatest pictorial tragedy.
She turned her attention instead to the tingling tremors in her hands. They refused to be still, the chipped red nails like small tongues tasting the air for clues. One step closer, she thought.
She splashed some cold water on her face. After drying herself, she leaned her back against the wall and took three deep, slow breaths. The panacea that she handed out to others had long ago begun to fail her, like an over-used medicine gradually losing its potency.
He was still there when she returned, sipping and shaking. God knows what the cafe’s owner thought of him. Probably assumed drugs were involved, and would be delighted when he finally left.
“You probably think I’m mad or something, don’t you?” He threw it at her as soon as she sat down, then obviously felt he should justify his aggressive words. “But I’m not. No. I just want to be like everyone else…to be able to sleep without being…persecuted. That’s all. Just that. My family…” He stopped suddenly, his voice catching.
She nodded. “It’s OK. I do understand.” Now was the right time, she decided.
She fished in her handbag and pulled out a white card with a black brush-drawn symbol on it. She’d prepared it earlier that evening. If you tipped the card at a certain angle, the lines seemed to come together to make up a star. Covering it with her hand, she navigated it around a small heap of spilled sugar and slid it across the table towards him. “When I take my hand away, pick up the card.”
He looked at her for a moment, dumbfounded, before nodding. In the back of his sleep-starved brain some small spark of sanity realised this might be the means of his deliverance. He was obviously ready to try anything. “Uuuh…OK. OK!”
She withdrew her hand and he fumbled his fingers around its edge for a few moments before managing to pick it up. It trembled in his hand like a falling leaf, only slightly larger than a playing card. He gazed at it intently, obviously skeptical that salvation could be delivered by something so small and simple. “Will this help?”
“Yes.” Lying came too easily to her now, she decided. But what good would it do to tell him that she couldn’t even help herself any longer? If he was still strong enough, it would work. At least this way he had some hope.
She’d heard of dreamers who’d sold everything, including their families, to set up bizarre cults based around their half-glimpsed dream images, the poisoned icons of a merciless Morpheus. One Russian billionaire—a minor celebrity in the Moscow press, thanks to his mutterings about dreams and recovered alien technology—was rumoured to have disappeared during a mission to the bottom of the Pacific in his newly-built mini submarine, searching for God knows what.
“Make copies of it and place it on every wall in the room where you sleep,” she instructed. “But it has to be right. Follow the design exactly.”
She glanced at his shaking hands. “Maybe you’d best get it photocopied,” she suggested. “It won’t affect the potency.” “But what is it?”
She gazed into his bloodshot eyes, unsure of whether to trust him or not. She’d found it when still quite young, after months of research in the strangest of books, hidden in the strangest of places. “It’s best that you don’t know, OK? Just trust me.”
She started as a large black shape, illuminated in the brightness spilling out from the interior, almost flew into the window. The thing fluttered there for a few seconds, confused antennae twitching. It was the largest and darkest moth she’d ever seen. Then the creature, obviously growing tired of the cruel trick played on it by the unyielding glass, wheeled in mid-air, its wings working furiously to take it back out into the darkness.
She couldn’t stop staring at the window, expecting an armada of moths attracted by the brightness behind the glass to strike the window at any second. She strained her eyes to peer out into the darkness. Beyond the reflections of the cafe interior she was sure she saw a fluttering in the darkness, movement that was about to shape itself into something more visible, more tangible. It was like peering into a dark dream.
During her first dreams she’d seen nothing but felt everything. It was like watching without eyes as an enormous black flower began to bloom in the depths of the darkest night she’d ever known. Eyes straining until they were sore, she still couldn’t really see it. But she knew it was happening. Once, she was certain, there had even been a suggestion of a face.
She’d always awoken sweating, the air crushed out of her lungs by the clinging demersal depths of her dreamworld. She’d told herself that dread imagined within a dream couldn’t possibly be real. Because they were just dreams, after all. Weren’t they? It was the pain in her mother’s eyes that first made her doubt that.
She’d even resorted to trying experimental drugs proffered by various doctors, all peddling their own pet theory. But killing your dreams is like killing yourself, she’d found—the time has to be right. And she simply didn’t have the courage back then.
The slap of the rain on the window grew louder, streaks and rivulets running down the glass, the occasional russet or yellow leaf blown against it to cling for a second before continuing its twisting journey. Night, older and deeper than any ocean, waited outside. She felt its eyes upon her.
Her companion’s nervousness seemed to be infectious. She felt itchy. No matter where it was to, she just wanted to get out of this drained fish tank; but her legs refused to listen when she tried to stand. Fatigue was getting the better of her. Her watch told her it was far too late.
Sitting there, she pressed herself back into the vinyl seat, as if the pressure of a wave had pushed her against her will. It felt as if the night had suddenly flooded silently into the small cafe, touching everything with its inky intrusion and draining all life and colour. Maybe it was angered at the impertinent brightness of this place in a world of darkness, and determined to put an end to it. She became aware that her breathing had become more laboured.
She forced herself to nod when the man suddenly stopped his jittery monologue to ask if she was all right.
Every time she helped someone like this, she felt as if she was writing another line in the final chapter of an invisible autobiography. One that nobody would ever read. You can fight this intangible oppression if you are strong enough, she would have written if it had been a real book…but there is a price to pay.
She’d asked too much. For some time, she’d known she would have to pay the highest of all prices. Payment was overdue.
He was now telling her something about his children that she simply didn’t want to hear; about the sacrifices he’d been forced to make. Suddenly he stopped speaking. Or he stopped making any sound, at least. His lips still moved but there was only silence.
She was surprised by the fact that this came as no surprise to her. She knew it was a sign, a signal that now the time had finally come. She stood, as if in a mild trance, and walked out into the night, beyond the halo of light cast by the lights inside. Free of rain at last, the October wind sighed once, contentedly. And whatever was waiting in the darkness welcomed her in.
Mark Howard Jones was born in South Wales on the 26th anniversary of H P Lovecraft’s death. He is the editor of the anthology Cthulhu Cymraeg: Lovecraftian Tales From Wales (SD Publishing) and the upcoming Cthulhu Cymraeg II. His latest Lovecraftian fiction appears in the anthologies Black Wings III (PS publishing), The Madness Of Cthulhu II (Titan Books)–both edited by S T Joshi–and Gothic Lovecraft (Cycatrix Press). He lives in Cardiff, the capital of Wales.
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Story illustration by Nikos Alteri.