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Lovecraft

by

Karen Best

 

 

 
     
   

 

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THE FLORIDA NIGHT GLOWED, PURPLE BLEACHED TO ORANGE AS THE SUN SLIPPED BELOW THE HORIZON OF SRIP MALLS AND CAR DEALERSHIPS. The air tasted of cold nights that had not yet come. This time of year, a cool draft whispered a promise that soon the long, flattening nights of heat torpor would lift. The drive to the restaurant was as clear and full of possibilities as a car ad. Lights burned with electric lucidity in vaporous yellows and blues. Little sparkling bits in the road shone like shoals of tiny fish under her headlights. Nadia pulled into a space behind the restaurant and checked her lipstick again in her rear-view mirror. She took a deep breath and practiced her smile in the mirror.
______Inside, the restaurant lay underneath cobalt-blue lights, reflected as indigo puddles on each black-lacquered table.  Smooth electronic music rolled like fog over the space. A thin hostess with fake green eyes asked Nadia how many would be in her party.
______“Just two,” she said. Then from the space to her left, a figure in black touched her elbow.
______“Nadia?”
______She’d found him through her computer. Calvin McLachlan, the boy she dated in high school. It had been more than ten years since she’d seen him, her last memory of him as a chubby boy who had shaved his head to play “Anarchy in The U.K.” with a very amateur metal band for the school talent show. She’d imagined the same boy, older now, but with an extra sharpness to him. His grey eyes would have been refined, like muddy water turned to ice. He would tell her how the thought of her had sustained him through grim nights, how he’d never been able to shake the aura of her perfume, how he’d always hoped they would be together again. And she would betray nothing, lifting a cool cocktail to her impassive lips. 
______She’d dated most of the eligible men at work –men who still had a ghost of pale skin on their ring fingers. She wanted something different. Calvin used to write poems for her. Usually, they were poems about blood falling from the sky, barbed-wire growing like wheat in fields –teen angst inspired by the death metal music he adored. Still, they weren’t greeting cards with glitter on them.
______He was shorter than she remembered, dressed in a black suit with a black t-shirt underneath. His profile said he’d been in the Army, and he still had the haircut. Once he’d had long, dark hair. Now it was shot through with strands as grey as soapy water. He wore those technocratic eyeglasses that automatically shade the wearer from UV rays. The entire effect was blandly satanic, as though he was playing the role of an evil accountant. She smiled and he reached his arm out for a hug, which ended in a fumbled handshake. She was momentarily relieved that close contact had been averted. The girl with the fake eyes led them to a table so small, Nadia stepped on Calvin’s foot a few times before she got settled.
______He told her about his job, something involving computers and defense contractors. She weighed the pros and cons of the plum sake. On the one hand, it might move her into a more interesting portion of the evening; on the other, the possibility of a DUI. She ordered the sake and vegetable tempura. Sushi for him. And Kirin in the bottle. The  waitress’ distant smile, and then they were alone again. Nadia searched her mind for something to talk about. The sound system pumped what sounded like a hip-hop tune with breathless Japanese lyrics, a little-girl-voice floating over bass drums Nadia felt in her chest.
______“So, what have you been up to? Tell me everything.”
______“Well, you know. English teacher. I’m working on a book in my free time.”
______“What about?”
______The waitress appeared with a diminutive pitcher, rough-textured gunmetal grey like tarmac. She set the beer down on a glass coaster, poured the first elfin cup for Nadia, and went away. Nadia gulped down the drink, the bite in the bottom of the cup igniting a slow burn down her throat. 
______“It’s about H.P. Lovecraft. Remember those books I used to let you borrow?”
______“I don’t read much,” he said.
______“No, when we were in school.” The music seemed to have swelled in volume until the air around them vibrated. Lovecraft would have written about the phantasmagoric thudding or something like that, Nadia thought.
______He used to wear a black t-shirt that said “Yog-Sothoth” in calculus class. That was why Nadia had noticed the boy who sat in the back corner, nearest the door. The summer before sophomore year, she’d read everything the library had by Edgar Allen Poe. In the card catalog, she found the name H.P. Lovecraft. Nadia had been reading Lovecraft’s stories while she was supposed to be graphing equations. In a quickly scribbled note, she asked the new boy if he was a fan, too. Later, she found out that Yog-Sothoth was one of the dreary, aimlessly aggressive metal bands he listened to.
______“Yeah, okay,” he said.
______“I’m writing a compendium of critical responses.” She spoke in the tone she used when delivering a lecture on Charles Dickens or Emily Bronte: a little louder and more forceful than was natural. He seemed to be looking over her shoulder.
______“Sounds cool,” he said, as though to snip off this thread of conversation. She’d imagined a more attentive reception. She would feign reluctance while he tried to press the details of her book out of her. She imagined leaning back in her chair while he moved forward, her posture relaxed, sure of his adoration. “So, how’s your job?”
______“I’ve given up on making a difference.” She laughed. He seemed confused. “You know, because they’re texting in class and they couldn’t give a fuck about Beowulf.”
______“Hey, what ever happened to Mrs. Gorewitz? You remember that time she threw me out of History class because I had headache powder in my pocket and she thought it was coke?”
______“And they insisted on testing the powder?”
______The waitress reappeared with their food. The sushi rolls on his plate contained a bluish, gelatinous substance that could have only been squid. In the cursed inhabitants of Innsmouth we see again Lovecraft’s preoccupation with the alien appearance of marine life, she mentally added to her book.
______Nadia attempted to lift the rice to her mouth with her chopsticks, but the grains kept tumbling away from each other.
______“I heard that they tore down the old theatre,” he said, dredging a roll of sushi through a puddle of soy sauce.
______She chewed for a moment. The theatre was between the mall and the library; condemned for as long as she could remember. On weekends, kids with cars converged in the parking lot to play loud music and drink beer or whatever they could lift from their parents. Nadia would get one of her parents to drive her to the library so she could meet Calvin at the theatre. On school nights, they knew they only had a few hours to be together before their respective parents would be back to pick them up at the library. They’d go into the mall, leaf through all the magazines in the bookstore and buy a Mountain Dew or some Nerds to share on their walk back. Calvin tried to hold her hand the entire time, a lonely adolescent ritual. By the time she got home, Nadia’s hand would smell like a penny clenched in a hot fist for too long, with a wisp of Dial soap, or whatever Calvin showered with, under the tang of metal.
______“What’s there now?”
______“I don’t know. My sister didn’t say.”
______“That place was probably full of rats. It’s amazing every kid in town didn’t come down with the plague.”
______He laughed, perhaps a bit too loudly. The hostess with the fake eyes looked over her shoulder at them.
______The local urban legend had it that the burnouts would break into the theatre to hold Black Masses and do drugs. The few times she’d been inside, all she saw was a mass of spray-painted slogans, so many layers thick that it was impossible to tell what any of them said. Most of the seats had been torn out, and the ones that remained were slashed down to the rusting metal frames.
______Calvin squeezed a squid sushi roll tightly. It bulged around the black chopsticks, poised just above the soy-sauce dish. She couldn’t take her eyes off the blue squid flesh hovering over the brackish sauce. She could see the slimy tentacle transposed on the mildewed tiles of the bathroom in the theatre. There was the lingering odor of dirty water, the empty space hidden from the townspeople, the possibility of entering a private world. The abandoned town and the great ruined house are not just set pieces invoking a gothic sense of romance. In such places, the hero enters a sacred space containing the awe-inspiring horror of the chaos upon which mundane life is built.
______“Are you okay?” He made a face as though she had trailed off in mid-sentence.
______“I’m fine,” she said.
______“Do you remember that day when we were walking past the theatre and it started to hail? It was so weird because it was August, and there weren’t any clouds or anything.”
______She could picture the theatre, the glass over the movie posters all smashed, a scrap of faded blue paper inside, artifact of a movie that had run its course long ago. The fading yellow paint on the asphalt, veined with tough grass. She tried to imagine the hail coming down on them from a clear blue sky. Orange sun burning their black clothes to their skins with nuclear intensity.
______“When was this?”
______“It was in August. It must have been the summer before we started senior year. Yeah, because you were saying something about how I shouldn’t cut my hair when it started coming down. I grabbed your hand and we ran under the overhang thing. It lasted a long time, too. Then you said that it wasn’t hail. I picked up a piece and I was going to eat it to prove that it was ice.”
______Nadia drained two miniscule cups of sake in succession.  The color in the restaurant wasn’t blue anymore, but a tint of deep violet that made the shadows on the wall melt into the paintings of Tokyo cityscapes and black-eyed geisha on the walls. The color was like something Lovecraft would have written about; deep, indefinite and cold. She’d spent the summer before senior year on her uncle’s horse ranch in New Mexico.
______He put down his chopsticks and laid his hands on the table: fingernails clipped so close to the skin, she thought she could see a ridge of dried blood under one of them.
______“But when I picked it up, it cut my fingers, because it wasn’t ice. It was weird little chunks of glass.”
______“Glass?” She wondered then if she’d been mistaken. If this person just looked like Calvin, but wasn’t actually him. But then, how did he know so much about her past? 
______“You said you knew it wasn’t ice, then you put my finger in your mouth to clean the blood off.”
______“Calvin, I was away the whole summer.”
______“You must have come back early. Maybe you just forgot.”
______Nadia reached for the memory. She could smell the sunburnt skin, feel the heat pressing down, the scrabbling lizards darting away from their feet, but when she tried to imagine the ping of the glass ricocheting off the pavement, the feeling of his bloodied finger in her mouth, there was a neat blank space in her mind, as though cored by a hole-puncher.  If she had been in a Lovecraft story, this would have been the first sign that some unknowable, alien entity was devouring her mind.
______“No, it couldn’t have been me.” She set her cup down too hard.
______“I’m positive you were there. I didn’t cut my hair until after we broke up or whatever. And that day we were arguing about me wanting to cut my hair. You said right afterward that it was a sign that you were right, so I didn’t cut it.” He finished his beer and raised the empty bottle so the waitress would bring him another.
______She’d taken The Thing on the Doorstep with her to New Mexico. Every night she’d looked at the sky, stars unblurred by suburban ambient glow, wondering how deep it went. The smells of hay and horse shit leaked in through the windows as she read, and now that scent came to her whenever she went back to that book. She was nowhere near the condemned theatre, she couldn’t have been. It was as clear to her as the scrapes around the deadbolt on her apartment’s front door, the pile of rejected outfits in the middle of her bed, the black straightening iron balanced on the edge of her sink.
______“You must be thinking of someone else.”
______“No. I swear, it was you. You had on that damn patchouli oil that made my clothes smell like a head shop.”
______She would remember. If glass fell from the sky she would remember something like that. In The Thing on the Doorstep, Edward Derby serves as a double of the staid narrator. Derby’s own descent into madness and debauchery prefigures the narrator’s fate. Was Calvin there with someone else? She replayed the scene, and she could see her hand fitting into his, only it wasn’t her hand. Her black hair plastered to a face that looked just like hers, but it wasn’t hers, it was impossible that it would be hers. It is Derby’s curiosity that leaves his body open to possession by occult forces.
______“Anyway,” he went on.
______The bass was riding up her body from the soles of her feet, vibrating through her bones and fighting the push and pull of her veins. His mouth moved, but his words weren’t reaching her. Under the deep violet color that seemed to come from cracks in the ceiling, her white rice glowed, a phosphorescent mass of tiny sea creatures. She laid the chopsticks on the table and drained the last of the sake into the cup. It was colorless and went down into her stomach like space, utterly frozen. The questions multiplied until they outnumbered the grains of rice on her rectangular plate. It seemed that in the darkness beyond their table, the waitresses and the hostess with the fake eyes were scrutinizing her.
______“You were with someone else. It must have been a different person, not me.”
______“No. It had to be you,” he said.
______“Impossible.” She couldn’t recall him being this stubborn before. 
______“Look, whatever. I know what I saw. What difference does it make?”
______Again, she tried to see the chunk of glass shattering on the pavement, shards scattering across the parking lot. Maybe someone else was out there, cropping up during storms of glass, living a life she was meant to have. Perhaps had she been there and lost that afternoon, the memory scraped clean out of her mind. The uncertainty loomed like the night outside, the suggestion of darkness staining the walls and ceilings of the restaurant with ink.
______“It doesn’t matter,” he said, ending the conversation by pushing another squid roll into his mouth.
______He went on talking. He even laughed at his own jokes, bits of seaweed stuck in his teeth. Army. Office politics. The waitress took away the plates and Nadia forgot to fight over the bill. Then it-was-great-seeing-you-agains and lets-do-this-again-soons. She let herself receive a hug. He smelled like beer and sea salt.
______Nadia walked back to her car. The asphalt exhaled humidity. She felt the pulsing bodies of lizards concealed in the dark. In a Lovecraft story she would have needed an antique book to meet the darkness.  Instead, she’d stumbled over it in a Japanese restaurant. The abyss had been inside her all along.
______A waxing moon hung over the palms like an enormous eye, blind and crouched in clouds. She tried to see past the clouds, to the pinpoints of light. She could almost see them, and she envisioned rough chunks of translucent glass pummeling the sidewalk. The few stars that shone diagrammed a sullen knowledge, their slow revolving flicker a message she had no key to decode.

 

 

     

Karen Best

Karen Best is an MFA candidate at the University of Central Florida. Her work has appeared in ETC and on the Weird Tales website. When not writing, she enjoys watching kitties frolic and listening to pounding German industrial music.

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