Originally published in Issue #1 of Chronoscope
The house is squatter than the bastard remembers. It’s not, of course, but he’s been gone five weeks, and tragedy has a tendency to transfigure things in ways our minds can’t quite reckon. Pain colors us. Looking now into its old cylinder glass windows he can’t see the house as anything else but a dilapidated tomb.
The lawn is the same, though. As battered and uneven as a graveyard’s, surrounded by that yellow hay that looks perpetually rained on—centipede grass they call it—not to mention the siding and the picket fence, both white once but now graying like teeth gray, both weak to the malice that’s seething up from the foundation like groundwater.
The inside is worse. Dirty black to almost burnt, the color of baker’s caramel and just as much a charnel. The last working lamplight in the den reveals the wooden surfaces polished into brown and jasmine and the yellow camelback with the jagged crumbs still sticking to its cushions. It was the ceiling here that always held the bastard’s attention, the limewashed planks whose grain appears to be racing sideways towards oblivion, littered by the day shadows. He thinks she must’ve seen the same when it happened. Looking up at them and saying nothing probably. That was her way, as quiet as darkwood.
He waits for a long while and far after the sun is gone he goes finally to his grubby reading attic. He finds the exposed wooden ceiling angles up the same, made of that exquisite Western red cedar he put there hisself. God were his hands sore after that, felt like they hurt right to the marrow. The slivers hanging down have grown numberless and they drape over the rafters like delicate Spanish moss sacralized by the passage of time. Dust has made it all holy. He’s sermonized here plenty, his little derelict church with not a pew nor a parishioner to its name. Aubrey never came up.
The stars come out and settle and the light on the table glows like a fire dying in the woods. He can’t help but remember where he was when she died. Two weeks ago, drunk and standing on that nameless street in Cremona and looking up at the indigo clockface of the Torrazzo and the immaculately painted zodiacs that marked each hour. One of the hands on Gemini. The others he can’t remember. Dripstones casting long shadows over the brick. Indulgent melody, an aria he thinks. Barely dressed women. Really the most euphoric thing ever, a mosaic of wet dreams all shivering and wondrous.
But it didn’t last. It couldn’t. Things changed as suddenly as things do. There were friends with faces as drawn as old peachstones and a phone waiting for him in the adjacent cafe. The police from back home, he learned. She was dead. His Aubrey was dead. Something they called locked-in syndrome, like a sudden coma, trapping the mind in its body like an animal in a rotting cage. Dehydration and then starvation. Took her three weeks to die and another two for the neighbors to notice. No one there to help her, to check in on her. Him in Italy, never calling.
The police’s words fell lifeless. They could’ve just slid out of the receiver in a tangled, lurching mesh for all he cared. Damn the words. The Torrazzo chimed like a lonely siren and there were voices everywhere with advice, with condolences, half-murmuring. He stood with the phone in his hand, clenched white, the sun charring the back of his neck. Come home, they said.
She’s dead. She’s been dead, but she calls from below and from inside him, wailing on, braying with every surge in his body be it blood or breath or whatever else.
The bastard can see the light of the sun filling the room. No terrors in the prior night, thankfully. At least none like what came in Italy. The memory of them lives on, though—an old, faded horror that stands in for their recurrence. The grotesques, the cyclopeans, the streaking oils that have no earthly counterpart save that of Francis Bacon. He once saw something very much like the Irishman’s Pope Innocent projected onto the white walls of the Ostello L’Archetto, a kind of shadow screaming with its eyes rent out and its pallium vaporizing into the cosmos. He’s grateful there’s now an ocean between himself and such things.
The sound of a car lurches up the driveway and as he goes to look out he can see the familiar bald head of Doc Dromen poking out of his Lincoln and then bobbing as he walks in his hunched, hurried way up to the door. Dromen’s always had the longest face the bastard’s ever seen and he’s seen it since he was five. To him the Doc’s always been a kind old man in a white jacket but the Doc has seen the bastard as many people—a scared, sleepwalking child, a petulant teenager with more pimples than conversation, a twentysomething fading in and out of his practice like a ghost, looking for a free condom or two whenever he happened by.
“You sleep alright since you’ve been back?” Dromen asks knowingly, taking the coffee the bastard hands him and blowing the aromatic fog off its surface. Still has that mustache that looks like an old basting mop and that musk, two parts Old Spice to one part shoe polish. Still with that wonderful voice, too, the thick, sonorous Dutch accent uttering its broken English.
“You can tell?”
“It’s a bit obvious, yes.”
He shrugs. “Well, I get it when I can, Doc. Last night was one of those where if I slept at all I can’t remember it. Maybe fifteen minutes tops.”
Dromen takes a seat on the camelback, crossing his legs like a gentleman and sipping from his cup gingerly. “What did the police say?”
“Nothing,” the bastard tells him, standing awkwardly. He called Dromen, yes, but he doesn’t necessarily want the company right now. Just for these damned nagging things to be prescribed away. “The medical examiner thinks it was locked-in syndrome. Some kind of sudden paralysis?”
“I know it,” he tells him. “It could’ve been a stroke. Many things, really.”
“I don’t want to rehash it, Doc,” the bastard says, hoping to cut off any further conversation. “Just, you know, if you can give me something to sleep…” Feeling rude suddenly he spreads his hands, a small act of submission. It’s a rare thing for him. “I appreciate the house call, of course.”
Dromen nods, waving the bastard’s fears away. “I could tell you all the usual things. Drink more water, get more exercise, don’t eat too close to bedtime.” He sets his coffee down on the couch arm, pursing his lips into a tight line and looking as if he’s about to give a grand soliloquy. “But you know these things. You know they don’t work. So I’ve come bearing gifts—and a word of warning to go with them.”
Here he produces a small rectangular envelope, the kind that usually hold prescriptions, sealed on the top and buckled over like some misshapen letter. He rips away the seal and turns it over and out tumbles a dozen or so jade-colored tablets, each the shape of a rounded-off diamond. They are marked with a shallow-cut intaglio that looks very much like the letter I. He splays his palm out to show them to the bastard like fossils he’s found buried in the earth.
“Am I supposed to know what these are?” the bastard asks.
“No,” he laughs, “few do. This is Incubo. It’s currently in trial for Alptraum, big pharmaceutical, so not even on the market yet. It’s safe. The worst you’ll end up with is a morning headache.” He smirks. “And the ubiquitous diarrhea, of course.”
The bastard picks them out of Dromen’s hand like clovers, inspecting each one’s pale green shell. “And how do they help, exactly?”
“They induce lucid dreaming,” he explains, standing, “which will greatly help your insomnia.” He gives a pointed look. “Do you know what lucid dreaming is?”
“More of a daydream, right?”
Dromen shakes his head gently. His eyes are like liquid as he comes forward, putting his livery, pallid hands on the bastard’s shoulders as some sort of comfort. “Think of this as a sleeping pill with some allowance for conscious input. I’m giving it to you now before it goes over-the-counter as some sort of fantasy drug because I know what you’re going through. It’s a long road. These will set you on your way.” He gives away the rest and folds the bastard’s hands over them. “When you’re under, you’ll have control. Awareness. It’s important then to dream of tranquil places, of happy memories, those sorts of things. You can be meditative and still mourn Aubrey in a healthy, constructive way. And you’ll get a full night’s rest, to boot.” He pats the hand. “I’ll start you on a two-week dose.”
They talk some more, negligible things mostly, but when Dromen finally hats up he stands in the open doorway, hesitating for just a moment, the gray outer world framing his dark figure. There is a look drawn onto him that cuts right through the eyes. “I can trust you on this?” he asks pointedly.
Of course he can’t. The bastard tells him the opposite but Dromen knows it’s not true right from the moment he asks, even as he walks away and hunches back into his Lincoln. There is no world in which he can give a man such power and then ask that man to be judicious with it, to hold it in his hand as these pills are now, goading him on towards a greater thing. A man as desperate as the bastard can never do otherwise.
Night again. The bastard drinks two beers and forces one of the Incubo gems down the hatch and in no time at all she’s calling to him again. Somewhere from downstairs, from her camelback. The noise comes like a cat braying in the night. He stares up at the apse of his church and listens. Even now she confounds him. Her voice is two opposing things working in tandem, two contentious parts that should not be as whole as they are, the sound of crucifixion and of birth, something he’s always heard out in the darkness amongst the wood as the trees quivered under the belly of starlight. It’s the same. Like the outside and all of its impenetration, all of its callousness, has come inside to dwell.
The light peeks in more boldly. He lays still, feeling the dark as it hangs desperately on the room. Faint prisms flatten themselves in a capricious dance and the shapes under his eyelids slide upwards against an invisible glass. Pretenses of sleep. The attic warbles and separates slowly and a sifting fog starts to tremble at its edges. There is red like the color of oxblood glowing in the striations and wood slats rattling dryly, splitting themselves open. What magic in these pills.
Out of the tempest comes a woman as naked as the ones in Cremona. Brazenly the bastard reaches out and cup her breasts, two large teardrops exceptionally white but with blue veins spidering underneath the flesh. He doesn’t care what any of it means nor where he is nor what’s to come.
But then it changes. As suddenly as things do. In a blackened flash the woman and the room go shapeless together, spilling out a bleak light. Something tall and thin stands at the other end of the attic as the shapes curve into oblivion. Black skin that’s sheer like a window into space and eyes that spray their fire through the flickering gale. The treeline frames its black body, the sun coming up behind. It stares out at him for a time until the dawn is complete and the dream is done.
The outside of the house and the land beyond is revealed now through the windows. The trees always so tall, so clear. The bastard can’t help but think that the bright, rolling land is just a cruel ruse, a cover for the poison coursing through the roots and grottos beneath it, heaving itself to life to mock him like a hateful phantom through time.
“You took it with food?” Dromen asks. His voice seems even more chiding over the phone.
“Of course,” the bastard lies.
“Were you drinking at all?”
He hesitates and swallows. “A little beer might’ve found its way in me, sure.”
The bastard can almost hear Dromen’s head as it shakes in reply. “No alcohol. Water or milk only.”
“Would it explain what happened at the end there?”
“What, the creature?” The sound of medical cabinets closing in the background, tinny as they escape the receiver. Busywork for a doctor. “It could, yes. It very well could. But remember we’re dealing with emotional responses here. Stress could’ve made you lose control, too. Maybe a combination. That’s why it’s important to eat and hydrate and then take it with a clear mind.”
The bastard peddles the capsules over his fingers, watching the light dance to their shape. “What if I were to conjure her up? Like, let’s just say it happens.”
“Absolutely not,” Dromen says. “Is that clear?”
“It’s clear, yes.”
“Listen. Listen to me. To the dreamer, lucidity is very much real. There’s no predicting what your subconscious will do when someone who’s passed is suddenly walking before you, alive again, speaking and touching and all that. There’s a power in it, something that can’t be quantified. You might want to stay in the dream or you might hurt yourself accidentally, waking up in a frenzy. Or something even more drastic, for all we know.” He clears his throat. “Like I said, the pills will only set you on the road. That’s it. You must walk the rest of the way.”
Night takes forever to return. This time it’s two pills tumbling down his throat, gouging it as they go, hard like little viridian diamonds. Then sleep again. The warmth that comes gurgles at his limbs but is a cold color, like the blue of a far-off mountaintop, throwing a puritanical cast out onto the darkness.
Is he awake now? No. No, he must still be asleep because the sounds of the room come through like worn echoes and everything is cast in a dusky ambergris. His eyes feel riveted shut and he can’t move, not even his lips, though somehow he can still see. There are figures like blotted slugs curling around the windowpanes and faceless men whose bodies seem blurred by sprays of white water. They step in from the door and watch him. Animals beside them, on their hind legs in pantomime, hopping, stumbling, dressed in velvet and terrycloth. He looks away desperately but can see them still from where his eyes taper into blackness.
Smaller figures are here too, children maybe. Their heads are draped in grubby hoods bound with rope and they lord over the proceedings like sick kings from a much older time. He’s reminded of being a child hisself and looking at the woodcuts of the Mandan suffering through an okipa, their bodies hanging mercilessly from skewers as sun-bleached buffalo skulls weigh the skin down in thin, distended lobes. The toil in their eyes. The silt of the Missouri coating their feet and dripping into the fire where the shape of the Lone Man bends and dances. Just as his visions are now it is all done in convulsion, invisible and displaced from its original realm and haunted by its own detachment.
Then the room blinks and he’s sitting on the yellow camelback again, alone, watching as the white glow of the outer world drifts into the den. One of Aubrey’s lost hairs still clings to the armrest, black, coiled, thin enough that the light has trouble marking it. The bastard rests his head back and dangles it in the crossing rays. Just a mere strand.
It summons her, though. She leaps up into undulant flesh, a bokeh of curls following her as she moves. She does not see him at first. It allows the bastard’s mind to perfect her, to alter her curves, to make her skinnier and lithesome, a version of her never born. Aubrey.
When she turns finally to acknowledge him her body blinks, readying its bright dust to scatter. He waits for her to come to him but she moves away instead, deeply shadowed, the mass of a leviathan just beneath sea. She’s resisting, oddly detached as she goes, her emotion strangled beneath that milkwashed calm. Eyes set like hard bezels. He stares back at her.
As she moves her bangles clink and her chiffon dress orbits around her legs. It’s a buttery color, rich, melting. She tosses her hair back to reveal a face fired with caustic eroticism, as playful and sarcastic as the kind that drew him to her once.
She slides down next to him on the couch. So close now that he can smell her. That grapefruit lotion with the touch of verbena and almond milk and the countless floral elements she swore were in it. Before the farmhouse. Hanging silent and sightless near the bathroom when he came home from work and their apartment was dark. The beige carpet rippling like damned silicone. Making dinner for her and still smelling it over the sizzling fat like a relic from a beautiful dead world.
But just as he reaches out to finally touch her there’s a presence behind him. He turns.
The thing stands there just beyond his shoulder, its angular black body flickering, its thin mouth divided by a deep line carved like the philtrum of a cat. The bastard hears his own gasp stuck in the air.
The thing’s black head revolves slowly on a supple appendage, a hurtling blade, but its eyes are constant, searing in lines of color that drink the bastard in, triumphant, desiccated, unspeakable. He remembers it now. From long ago, sleepwalking as a child through the upstairs hallway and pushing away the darkness to find it standing there. In the basement that once, too, juddering behind the old red furnace like it thought he didn’t see it. But he remembers. From out of the woods, living and watching before anything else did. Glaring at the cavemen from the shadows beyond their first fire. Following the bastard slowly as he charted across the world and back again.
He opens his eyes. The thing is gone. Dromen hunches before him, his elbows on a flat table that stretches longer than he can see and his hands clasped together in front of his face to obscure what is already obscured. They are in a Victorian sitting room with ornate dentil in its cornices and walls that had once been a pure white but now decay with ribbons of soil and rainwater. There is one open window on the far side and its gray curtain is torn and frozen in a wind that is forever blowing, a void of air stuck like a fossil. Some kind of wan, leaden light touches the edges of their faces, the light of a dead place.
Dromen leans forward some more and his hands drop away to reveal his face, rotting in blackened whorls. Beneath the frayed parts the bone is cracked and crumbling like dust. It’s as if he’s bled himself to become sacred and now suffers the last excruciating moments of his calcification.
The bastard tells him something but he cannot hear his own words either in his mind or on his lips. Dromen answers anyway. The voice isn’t his.
“You’re almost there. Almost. But torturing him won’t heal you. You must join as one, like they say with marriage. But beyond that even, better than before. A shared conscious. His lives here. It can be yours. There’s still time.”
He opens his eyes. Cremona again. The blushing brick of the Torrazzo. The bell tower toils stoically in the glare of the sun and the zodiacs stumbling round the clockface burn as they go, their forms catching into pastel fire. The square is empty but for the woman, pale as she was before. She attempts to grab hold of her hair as it whips around in the breeze and she’s naked again but this time she has a penis dangling down between her legs. It moves strangely, even pitifully, struggling as if it wants to be erect.
When she has her hair under control she looks at the bastard from across the square with eyes gleaming and the sky boiling behind her.
No. She is not looking at him, but beyond him. Behind him.
He wheels around and there it stands again, the thing, its very shadow a warm sickness. Its skin is galactic, coursing with milky contrails that revolve madly. The bastard is mesmerized for a time but he feels its eyes force his own to take their gaze. They bear in blank and black and their dark flesh blots up in fingers. Aching. A voice begins to moan, its strange little polyrhythms swelling up.
The bastard looks up forlornly at the Torrazzo, a dryness rising in his throat. The clockface is still burning away into sky-blue flames, clean and smokeless but with its shadows licking furiously over the square.
He turns and falls to knees to stare up at the beast. Its head does not move but it seems to look away anyhow, warbling towards some far pinnacle. The bastard crawls towards it, feeling the sweat on his face. It just keeps looking. For centuries, perhaps. Only after the bastard feels hisself age and wither does the thing turn to behold his groveling form, its eyes smearing across in that fiery line with the light from the line trilling over its skin to illuminate the greaseblack surface. The Terrazzo’s bells swing wildly but make no sound.
I’m awake for the final time, laying on my back and staring at the ceiling. White, clinical stucco, a far cry from the grain of the farmhouse. The noise in my ears is rhythmic and benign and born from plastic boxes and my entire body is stuck with wet gel electrodes, each one a different color, blue and yellow and green and red.
The electrodes are removed one at a time, plucked from me as if I’m some tranquilized porcupine getting dequilled. My bed angles up in a humming whir and I see them. Three, maybe four if I can trust my vision, all in labcoats, their faces half-obscured by tablets and monitors. Two embroidered words above their left breast, one their name, one the name of something else. Alptraum. The room is bright and clean and smells like disinfected linen.
“Aubrey,” the closest one says, “very good. Lots of activity in this session. Nothing like ending on a strong note, yes?” She leans in to stand me up by my shoulders. Her hands are clad in blue latex, reeking of that powdery smell. “You’re the last patient in the clinical trials, did Dr. Fischer tell you that? Four long years.” She fills my eyes with the glare of her penlight and looks straight into my soul. “With a little bit of hustle from the FDA we’ll have Incubo ready for prescriptions in another year or two. It feels like such a long time at the outset but let me tell you, it flies.” She smiles, making her small talk, words to distract from the inspection. “Of course, Tholey first did his work on lucidity at Frankfurt about, oh, thirty-five years ago? Maybe forty? Same time as LaBerge. So perhaps it hasn’t really flown. More like a glide.” She holds her arm out, presenting another white-clad figure. “We’ll check in with you in two weeks. Dr. Pisadeira here will be wrapping up with you today.”
Pisadeira is humorless and drawn, rifling through his questions as we both sit in the cramped, gray consulting room. I suddenly feel the chill of the hospital on my neck. The crust in my eyes has hardened to stone.
“Aubrey? Did you hear me?”
Pisadeira sucks in a frustrated breath and then shuttles it away. “I said, do you have someone picking you up? You’re prohibited from driving after a session. We can get you a shuttle, if you don’t.”
“No,” I rush to say, “no, that’s fine. My husband, Henry, he’s coming.”
“Yes. He’s back from Cremona this morning. He’ll be driving straight from the airport.”
Pisadeira nods. “Alright, then. That’s it for today. We’ll call you to schedule a follow-up.” But as he stands he lingers, his hands flickering at his sides. There is a riddle on his face, staid as it is. He looks down on me and finally whatever it is comes to the surface in a quick nerve.
“What is it?” I say.
“Mind if I ask what you dream about? It’s completely confidential, of course, but I’m curious. None of us have tried it ourselves. We’re simply observers.”
“So what is it, when you can control it?”
“My husband,” I say sweetly, and without hesitation.
It takes every node and muscle and vein in my body to utter it without contempt or misery. I don’t tell him about the rest of it. How when I close my eyes I slip into Henry’s form to observe his bastardry from the inside. Or how it pleases me to fantasize about him being trapped in his own squalid brain, haunted by the guilt of my imagined death. To be him as he is snared in a maze, to feel his sick and bilious doubt. How I take an almost sacred pleasure in turning him into a crude vessel.
But that’s not what I’m thinking as Pisadeira nods and smiles and shakes my hand, the disappointment filtering into his young face. I’m stuck on the parts I don’t control. Can’t control. The end—the same end every time:
The woman in the shadow of the Torrazzo. She moves oddly in the breaking light, her skin glistening and dulling as the clouds spread. Tears and sweat both are boiling in my eyes so as I strain to see her there her body becomes distended, as if trapped underwater, as if I’m staring down into a rayless pool to watch an object that is truly whole but made to look like it’s not. She is a flawless specimen of male and female anatomy, two bodies joined by their very sinew into one new form. Grossly perfect. There is some awareness in them, maybe even pleasure. They have known for a very long time what I finally realize, in my ecstasy and horror, kneeling below the glory of the darkling: that theirs is an immaculate fiction, content to exist nowhere else but in the facsimile to which it is held. I imagine their words. Such words. We shall live, they say. We’ll open our eyes and live.