Sunday, June 4, 2017


Mother Would Not Have Been Pleased

Carmen glanced nervously at her reflection in the elevator’s mirrored walls. She looked tired but otherwise OK. It was late, and Billy was going to “give her something” as he put it if she didn’t beat him home. She wouldn’t have risked coming tonight, having worked two shifts already, but Mother always got restless around the anniversary of her death. Mother usually appeared to be shouting, and Carmen knew her mother was trying to tell her the name of her killer.
The upper floors of the library were usually deserted at this time of night, except of course for the shades, who floated translucent and silent within the old stacks. She no longer tried to speak to them. Perhaps it was true that the shades were images of those who inhabited the library at other times, and they were not truly present. Certainly they had never responded to her overtures. The elevator doors opened and she hurried towards the back stacks. It was nearly midnight. She pulled out the book she had been reading and turned to the page she’d marked last time she was here.

The gloom pervading certain regions of the castle could neither be dispelled by incantation nor thorough cleaning, both having been essayed as recently as the lifetime of the present owner’s great-grandsire. Legend told that the spiritual miasma infecting the Great Hall, the topmost floor of the North Tower, and the Winding Stair had its origin in events dating back six centuries or more; from the time, in fact, when the castle was the political hub of the former Empire. Rumor no more than suggested that certain experiments led both to the impregnation of the castle with the distasteful ethereal residue and to the collapse of the Empire itself, through the hideous wasting of the last, and unlamented, Emperor. However, where the so-called Happy Emperor was concerned, rumor was commonly accorded a rank of veracity just slightly less than that of pronouncements in the antediluvian inscriptions copied more than five millennia before from the fabled Stone Tablets (vanished under uncanny circumstances at the height of the Mind Plague of the 13th century, itself merely legendary). Indeed, some suggested, anonymously, that the cryptic fourth couplet reported to have been deliberately omitted from the official transcriptions of the Stone Tablets, referred obliquely to both the Happy Emperor’s nativity and the haunting itself. Accordingly, few expressed any surprise when, after word of his exploits reached the ears of the Baron, current lord of the castle, the Mage was sought in yet another attempt to rid the castle of its unwanted magical odor.

Carmen looked around. She felt like someone was watching her. Had she been followed? She saw no one. The presence she half-sensed behind her had actually passed through the hall many years before. The residue of its passage was like an ectoplasmic videotape of post-mortem somnambulism nearly obliterated by overuse, but Carmen had always been sensitive. She shivered slightly and drew her sweater tighter around her shoulders. This book had seemed to promise an avenue to the spirit world at last, but now it appeared to be simply another fanciful tale in an endless series of crumbling leather-bound volumes. Still, she had found useful clues in such places before. Billy had made fun of her when she began her search, but lately she had caught him with an expression that almost looked like fear as she told him what she had learned. She shook her head and stared at the book again. Now where was she…

When the Mage consented to make the attempt, the Baron ordered that the best guest room be prepared for his use. However, the Mage himself arrived before preparations could be completed. Indeed, his arrival followed so closely on the heels of word of his agreement to visit the castle, that many wondered by what means he had made the journey. He swirled through the front door of the castle, unaccompanied, and bearing on his azure garments no dust from the road. He surprised them again by insisting he spend the night in the Great Hall … alone. After a show of reluctance the Baron acquiesced. He asked if the Mage required any equipment, but was told that the seer already had everything he needed for the exorcism. The Mage planned to transfer the curse far from the castle, an operation considerably less risky than attempting to simply remove it.

This time Carmen smelled something -- what was it? Really there were two smells: one of something very old, like the inside of a full garbage can left out in the sun too long. The other scent reminded her of hot copper. She had smelled it the night her mother died. She looked behind her. The first thing she saw was the body, or the pieces of one. Blood was everywhere, and she wasn’t sure really how many bodies were represented. There appeared to be several. Surprisingly, there had been no sound. A few scraps of fabric, some a bright blue, surrounded the largest chunks. Were those bits of rope scattered with the fragments of the corpses? Then she saw movement in the corner. Something huge and crooked rose from a shapeless heap and stepped towards the light. It was gnawing on something, and held another piece of rope in its right hand. No, that wasn’t rope, it was slick and wet, and it dripped. The creature opened its mouth, dropped the femur it had been gnawing and reached for her. Carmen leaped out of the chair and ran for the door. She could hear the beast’s claws behind her scrabbling on the linoleum and she wet herself. Ahead of her stood a ghost; she ran right through it.
In the doorway she stumbled over the sill and hurtled face first into the hall. She felt something like a cold wind pass over her in an instant as she shut her eyes, curled in a ball, and screamed. After a time she realized that she ought to be already dead. She sat up, shaking, and looked back into the room. It was silent, empty, peaceful. She crawled to the door, pulled herself to her feet, and tottered back to the table. There was no sign of what must have been simply the latest apparition, and the horrible odor (had she imagined it?) was gone. She visited the bathroom and cleaned up as best she could, then cautiously made her way back to the reading room. She felt … peculiar, a little dizzy, and her balance was off. She sank into the chair and put her head down until she recovered her composure. She knew she shouldn’t stay much longer, but Billy probably wouldn’t be home for hours yet. The damnable thing was that she had this feeling that both she and her mother knew the killer. Sometimes it seemed that Billy knew something too, though he swore he didn’t. She opened the book impatiently and began to read. This account of haunting and exorcism didn’t really seem likely to help solve her problem, but she was caught up in the story and wanted to finish it.

The Baron never knew exactly what happened that night, but it was clear that something had gone terribly, terribly wrong. The stench in the Great Hall was unfamiliar – and overpowering – and there was no sign of the Mage. The Hall itself appeared to ripple, as if seen through unquiet water. Those brave enough to enter reached a point near the center of the hall, appeared to be attacked by some large and powerful creature that was utterly invisible, and were dismembered before the horrified gaze of the Baron and a few of his knights. About midday the appearance of the Hall returned to normal, and the next morning a knight entered the room. He was not attacked, and he found no trace of those who had entered the day before. The curse appeared to have been lifted at last.

Something made Carmen uncomfortable, and she paused in her reading. At first she couldn’t place the feeling, but the unpleasant sensation quickly developed into an itch. Centered between her shoulder blades, the itch intensified until she found herself writhing on the floor, eyes streaming, tearing at her back. As if that wasn’t bad enough, the itch spread quickly to her entire body, awakening nerves she’d never suspected existed. The itching became so intense she could think of nothing else. She staggered to her feet with some vague notion of seeking help. Stumbling around she found the doorway, squeezed through it, and ran down the hall, tripping on the tatters of her clothing. She reeled into the elevator and jabbed at the buttons, hoping to find the one for the ground floor. She leaned against the wall, hunching her shoulders to avoid bumping the ceiling. The intensity of the itching diminished somewhat and her mind cleared a bit. Incongruously she began to feel very hungry. Then another thought struck her. There might be people downstairs. How did she look? She vaguely remembered tearing off some of her clothes. She peered at her reflection. The monster she’d seen upstairs was in the elevator with her! She screamed and hurled herself backwards, scrambling as far away from the horror as she could get. She covered her face, waiting for death that once again did not come. ‘It’s another ghost,’ she thought in relief, though something didn’t seem quite right about that interpretation. Just then the bell chimed.
The doors opened and she squeezed out. Hunger pangs wrenched at her belly and her stomach growled. What had come over her? She’d never felt this way before. Her stomach was telling her she had to eat NOW! She started towards the candy machines, but the lobby began to whirl around her and she felt a wrench of nausea. She clutched her belly, moaning.
When her vision cleared the library was gone. She saw a huge stone chair, tapestries, and an angry man in a blue robe. He struck her in the shoulder with a wooden staff but she barely felt it. Reflexively, she slapped him and he fell to the floor. She glanced down. His head looked odd. Then the demands of hunger drove all other thoughts out of her head. When Carmen came to her senses she was kneeling on the floor. She stared at the moist fragments lying beneath her and screamed in revulsion. She looked up to see herself reflected in a large mirror on the wall and real screaming began….

From "Drowning Atlantis", draft version

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