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Grand Central Station stretched beyond human scale, and the crowd within matched it. Amid the swift current of travelers Neko held tight to my hand, even as she craned to glimpse columns and golden statues. Trumbull and Audrey and Deedee took the lead, a confident vee to navigate the turbulence. I trailed in their narrow wake, overwhelmed by the stench of a thousand perfumes, a thousand joys and worries and attractions, a thousand bodies flavoring New York’s overpowered air.
“This way,” Audrey called back. She led us toward an archway.
“How can you tell?” Caleb muttered.
“Let’s hope she knows,” said Charlie. “We can’t very well stop to check.” His cane thumped the marble floor as he worked to keep up. He was right—Audrey’s speed merely kept us in pace with the crowd.
“You have to know,” she called back cheerfully. “Otherwise, you get lost.”
After the first shock, the crowd began to resolve into people, variety too great to seem truly monolithic. There were pale-skinned women in well-fitted dresses and neatly jacketed men like those who dominated Arkham; others whose features reminded me of Morecambe County’s Polish communities. Such immigrants, I’d been told as a child, would make signs against the curse they saw in our faces, but it was the long-settled descendants of Puritans whose superstitions were most dangerous.
Beyond these familiar types, I saw every kind of face and dress I’d encountered in San Francisco and a few I hadn’t. Scandalously short skirts and faces hidden by scarves, eyes heavy-browed or framed as neatly as my Nikkei family’s, fabulous beards and unlikely hats. A woman who barely came up to my shoulder carved a determined path with a pram, cooing at her child and glaring at all who brushed too close. Two clean-shaven negro men in brown robes backed against a pillar, bent over maps they protected with jutting elbows. A rotund white man carried a trombone under one arm and hoisted a bag of papers with the other. He checked his watch, and hastened his step.
In Arkham and Boston, we’d drawn stares—for my face or Audrey’s magnetizing effect on men, or for the variation within our group. Here we received only the scant attention needed to avoid collisions. I began to believe that we might really, after so many false leads, discover some distant cousins overlooked by the government during Innsmouth’s destruction. Our expatriates could easily have settled here unremarked.
And so they might remain, if the press of the station gave any taste of what awaited us outside.
“There it is!” Audrey pointed above the sea of heads, and when I stood on tiptoe I could see the pillar of the station clock where Spector had promised to meet us.
In the grand hall surrounding our landmark, I pulled even closer to the others. Trumbull glanced back. “Look up.”
I drew breath: above, across the vast ceiling, stretched a painted sky. It was stylized, constellations imposed on line drawings of Pegasus and ram and skittering crab. These stars were trod by the comprehensible, human-image gods to which the station was a temple, not the distant suns that birthed mine. And still, it was holy.
Caleb glanced at Professor Trumbull. “Are their cities like this?”
She smiled. “This is as close as humans come to the Yith’s capitol.” I wondered how close the comparison came, what remembered glories she now excavated from her mind’s sojourn among that ancient, inhuman race.
The clock topped a ring of counters. Behind them, harried clerks dispensed guidance to equally harried travelers. Charlie tensed; through our confluence I felt him shiver with fear or joy, or both. I followed his gaze to where a thin, black-clad figure waited, a branch parting the current. That perfection of stillness melted as we approached, and quick strides brought Ron Spector easily through the press of bodies. Spector’s decisive movements and energy, startling in San Francisco or Arkham, seemed born of the station’s rhythm. He clasped Charlie’s hand and Caleb’s with equal apparent pleasure, offered to take Trumbull’s suitcase and slung my shoulder bag across his chest as well. The rest of us fell into step behind him, save for Deedee, who kept pace by her old colleague’s side.
“You find us a place near this doctor, the one who thinks he’s found Caleb’s wayward cousin?” she asked.
He shook his head. “There’s a boardinghouse that I trust near my family in St. Mary’s Park. Clean, and good food, and willing to put up with people coming and going at odd hours. And cheap enough not to scare Miss Marsh.” He glanced back only briefly, but his voice was teasing. “It’s a quick enough ride to Brooklyn on the IRT Lexington Avenue line, and who knows where you’ll have to go once you talk with your doctor.”
“That’s fine,” I said, though I wondered at the way Deedee pulled herself straighter, the hint of shortened breath that passed sudden and vivid through the confluence. It might be better not to ask; for all the intimacy of our connection, Deedee preferred to keep her distress private.
A newsstand halted Spector’s momentum; he swung aside to examine the headlines. I wasn’t surprised: they were full of the Hiss trial, Soviet spies infiltrating the American government through mundane stealth. Spector likely knew the agents who’d tracked the man down. He must be immersed in both the rational fear of further collaborators and the hysteria that President Truman warned against at the bottom of the page.
There was an edge to the headlines that I didn’t like. Even knowing a fraction of what Spector’s masters feared, I could guess at the tensions swelling. Frightened people would look for enemies, and find them.
Spector straightened, shook his head, and led us down to the subway station. Tiled walls created an echoing cave of footsteps and muddled conversation, but the crowd was sparser. I was relieved to see signs forbidding cigarettes and pipes; my throat still stung after the ride from Boston. Even so, the platform air was a stew: half-spoiled food, urine, sweat, faded perfumes and musks. It cloyed and teased, wavering curtains of rot blowing aside for a moment to reveal hints of lust and roses.
“We’d better move farther down the platform—more room for your luggage near the front of the train.” Spector’s voice recalled me to practicalities. I followed, watching his confident stride. This was why, despite all my doubts, we’d asked for his help finding our way around New York: on his native soil, he offered the best chance of finding what we sought. That, and the pleasure his company brought Charlie, were sufficient arguments for his presence.
Still it rankled. I’d come to like Spector the last time we worked together. But until now I’d never gone to him for help—he’d always approached me first. And while he’d proven himself largely trustworthy, he was an agent of the state, and some of his colleagues were far less honorable. He was here with us now on his own time, but he could not be counted on to offer help alone, even if he wanted to.
The state had destroyed Innsmouth. Asking for Spector’s help as we tried to rebuild came perilously close to suggesting they could make up for that crime.
The train cried its arrival: a long piercing scream like a monster in mourning. Inside, bodies pressed close. The smell was worse than anything in the station. It was nothing like the ticketed train up the coast, one passenger per seat, nor like the open cable cars in San Francisco. I held my breath and clutched my valise. Far better to think of the train from the camp to San Francisco, full of familiar sweat and freely mixed Japanese and English chatter—and not of an earlier trip in boxcars smelling of rotted fish. I closed my eyes, listened: around me voices rose in a dozen accents of English, some Eastern European tongue, the unmistakable weaving rhythm of Chinese. My ears rang painfully, but my breathing slowed: it sounded more like San Francisco than like anywhere else I’d lived. Eventually, I opened my eyes.
The train shook and rattled. Spector shifted easily with the movement, rocking slightly as if on a boat. Deedee kept a hand lightly on the back of a nearby seat; she too adapted easily to the ragged sway. A pale young man gave up his seat to Charlie, who settled in with a nod and pulled his cane close to avoid others’ legs and ankles. The rest of us gripped poles and handbars, trying our best not to trip into the sea of strangers. Neko caught my eye and nodded, wan smile betraying her own nerves.
The press eased as we left Manhattan. The remaining riders wore darker clothes, more mended, with scarves or strange small hats pulled tight against their skulls. Finally Spector led us out onto a smaller platform, then up to the street. For the first time I tasted the city’s open air.
“Welcome to the Bronx.” Spector sounded uncharacteristically shy.
San Francisco, the city I knew best, stretched over ancient hills and endless fog. It was easy to imagine its topography stripped of human habitation, grown wild with the strange plants and stranger animals that would cover it through aeons without witness—and to imagine it reborn long after humanity was dust, hills only a little eroded, as a new city for another species.
Not so, New York. I knew we stood on an upthrust of bedrock, scarcely five miles from the open water of the Atlantic. But the honking cars, the grocers and delis and hardware stores and veterinarians squeezed together with no apparent pattern, the sidewalk crammed with food carts and families—all seemed crafted on a foundation of human whim alone. Newsstands blared civilized horror: bloodshed in China, Soviet spies in America, magazines speculating about “push-button warfare.” Exhaust mingled with tobacco smoke and the scent of hot dogs and pickles, sweat and aged dirt and oil and disinfectant. No hint of salt water could wind through that tapestry.
And yet, Spector relaxed into this rhythm. The street hummed. Its shifting vibration made me want to pull off my shoes and let the energy course through me. I wanted to ride and gentle it as I might a thunderstorm, or drink from it like the ocean. It made its own topography, seductive as it was terrifying.
“Thank you,” I said to Spector.
Neko stretched her fingers to catch the air. “Does your family live around here?” she asked.
“Five blocks north,” he said. “But Tante Leah’s boardinghouse is closer.”
“Are you going to introduce us?” asked Charlie. His voice had grown tight. Caleb too looked nervous; his neck twisted, owl-like, at every surge of sound.
Spector ducked his head. “I’m sure you’d get along with them, but Mama and my sisters … they aren’t the most discreet people in the world. Downright nosy, really. Leah’s more likely to let people keep to themselves.”
Caleb humphed, and Deedee brushed his elbow. People hurried around us, seeming too caught up in their own worlds to care about anyone else’s business. Then again, each pause to buy a hot dog or read a flyer must rub against five others doing the same; only gossip would make the friction bearable.
My throat stung. If I let myself start coughing, the fit would bring me to my knees. I swallowed, forcing saliva, and focused on the tantalizing hum. It seemed blasphemous to treat it like anything natural, but when I pushed past my reluctance I found it easier to navigate the breaks in the crowd, and to catch miserly breezes that eased the tightness in my lungs.
We turned onto a side street. The mosaic of signs and awnings gave way to simple row houses of worn brown stone, each narrow facade flush with those on either side. Tinny music wafted through open windows. Trees stood isolate in sidewalk grates; herds of dandelion and grass pushed tendrils through every crack.
Spector led us to a house fronted by steep concrete stairs. Inside, I blinked against suddenly dim light. The lobby reminded me, painfully, of the old Gilman House hotel: the tiled floor and cool shadows, and folk looking up curiously from card tables to examine the newcomers. Gilman House had always been as much local gathering place as residence for Innsmouth’s occasional out-of-town visitors. The people here—bearded men in dark hats, women in shawls and scarves—seemed thoroughly settled, and I wondered if they lived at Tante Leah’s or simply accreted from apartments nearby. Stale cooking oil and old smoke permeated the air with a peculiar, almost plastic smell, bearable largely by comparison with the miasma outside.
An elderly woman rose from her chair. “Ron, zenen di deyn gest?”
“Ya, zey … zenen.” Spector spoke more slowly, hesitating over his words. “But they only speak English.”
She looked us over. She was short—barely past my shoulder—but she had an air of hospitable authority. “Well, I figure that. Shvartse girl, a couple of shiksa … doesn’t matter. You have strange friends, I have rooms, I have food. Just tell me, your mama asks, you have a Jewish girl somewhere?”
He grimaced. “I don’t have a girl anywhere, Jewish or otherwise. She knows that.”
“She worries about you.”
He sighed. “I have two brothers and two sisters, all married but Sadie, and Ira and Rivka have kids. She should relax.”
“Oh, Sadie. She’s a mashugina. You should be grateful, you give everyone less worry than her. Well. You need, looks like one room for the boys, maybe two for the girls?”
We moved swiftly—and to Spector’s clear relief—from familial imprecation to the process of getting settled. Tante Leah bustled us upstairs, distributed stacks of fresh-pressed towels, and divided us among our rooms.
I could stretch my arms and touch both bunk and opposing wall; we couldn’t stand at all without stacking our two valises. A slit window admitted a warm, fetid breeze and the view of nearby bricks.
“It has a lock,” said Neko, and I allowed that this hadn’t been a virtue of all the rooms we’d shared. The sheets and mattresses seemed clean, and burying my nose in the pillows offered a respite from the city’s scent rather than a magnification.
When we came back downstairs we found Spector talking with a newcomer. Spector shifted, seeming dissatisfied with every attempt to fit in his chair, while the other man leaned forward intently. The newcomer shared his long broad nose, the slender frame that folded to encompass available space. Spector saw us and gave a little embarrassed shrug. He rose.
“Miss Aphra Marsh, Miss Neko Koto, this is my brother Mark. Mark, these are some of my friends from Massachusetts. And here are the rest.” This last as Caleb and Charlie, Professor Trumbull and Audrey, appeared on the stairs.
If Spector had truly wanted to keep us from his family, as he claimed, he wouldn’t have brought us here. I hung back, uncertain what was expected.
“Always good to meet Ron’s friends,” said Mark. “He doesn’t bring them home very often.”
“And have Mom fuss over everyone?” said Spector.
“She has been, anyway. Someone”—he waved a hand at the common room—“told her you’d been here to set up a room, and you hadn’t said you’d be bringing anyone by, so of course she sent me to invite whoever it was for dinner.”
Mark’s eyes lingered on each of us—no. On the women, with a little frown completing his assessment of each.
Spector let out a breath. “If their plans permit, I’m sure they’d be glad to … they didn’t come here to visit me. I’m just helping. A mitzvah.”
“Mm. It’s the first time you’ve been here for years, outside of holidays.”
Spector shrugged. “She’s always asking me to visit more often. And my friends needed a tour guide.”
Another glance. “You make interesting friends.”
Caleb put his arm around Deedee and frowned in return. Mark’s eyes darted between me, Neko, and Audrey.
Trumbull took Mark’s hand and smiled, all Arkham upper-crust confidence. “Thank you for your kind invitation. We’ll be glad to come by for dinner, of course—just as soon as our business allows.”
* * *
Caleb Marsh—May 1949:
Deedee takes another leather-bound volume from the pile. Mottled calfskin has worn thin, ink fading over embossed runes. She squints at the ornately lettered title. “The Meeting of … Words?” A few months’ study, and our languages already come more easily to her than to me. But I’m not envious. I enjoy watching her learn, the way concentration interrupts her usual performance and lets her thoughts show on her face.
She surrenders the book to Charlie, and he traces the line with his finger. “Zhng’ru Gka Lng’rylu … but ‘words’ is ‘lghryl,’ right?”
Aphra nods. “Lng’rylu is what you feel with, in your mind or on your skin. Especially pain or discomfort. I’ve seen an English version translated as The Parliament of Nerves. It’s about healing; we had a copy at home.” But not this copy, I think. Parliament’s not the kind of book where families used the inner cover as a record of births and metamorphoses, but there would have been a name plate. I remember going with Father to pick up a new stack from the printer—trying to follow the labyrinth coils of the sea serpent on the family seal without losing my place.
“Healing,” I say. “That sounds safe enough for the open collection.”
Audrey’s already shaking her head. “If it can be used for healing, it can be used as a weapon. Ask a surgeon how many uses he can think of for a scalpel.”
Aphra sighs, and Charlie puts the book on the “restricted” pile. “You’re probably more imaginative than most surgeons,” I tell her.
“That’s what I’m here for.”
I hate this work, and I know Aphra does too. We’re sorting sacred texts into scalpels and swords: the tools that might help people accept us, and the weapons that air-born men would misuse for their petty wars and political ambitions.
At least sorting books gives me a chance to practice my still-pitiful Enochian and R’lyehn. And it’s a distraction from my failure at what I should be doing to rebuild Innsmouth—reclaiming our land from the developers who want to crowd our beaches with G.I.s and their pretty wives and children. Strangers have already paid well for the new clapboard cottages on the outskirts—and for a few large houses boasting seaside views. They have that—and easy access to the beach where we ought to meet freely with our elders.
Even the homes we’ve successfully bought stand empty.
Audrey takes the next book from the library cart. “Tald’k—that’s ‘song,’ right? Tald’k Ka R’drik Gak-Shelah—” She stops and leans back, narrowing her eyes. “You blush on a dime, Aphra. What’s a R’drik Gak-Shelah to make you go all red in the face?”
“Who,” I say, grinning. It’s a thorough distraction, at least. “Who are R’drik and Gak-Shelah?”
“How the void do you know?” Aphra demands. “You were six.” I flinch. It feels like a strange moment, her amused indignation a flash of the snotty older sister I knew before the camp.
Deedee touches my arm. “Six is old enough to wonder what the fuss was about.”
“So is thirty-five,” says Charlie.
“I’ll bet I can figure it out,” says Audrey. She pages through the book. “There are pictures.”
Aphra sighs. “It’s an old romantic epic. It’s a common sort of story, but more … detailed than most. It has a reputation.”
“I’ll say. This is the kind of book you find locked in your mom’s bedside table.” Audrey peruses the illustrations with a thoughtful look. “What’s the story about? Aside from the obvious.”
Watching Audrey tease Aphra awakens my boyhood self as well, smirking at my sister’s discomfort. I don’t think Aphra even notices the flirtation behind the teasing, but she gives in first. “I know you think we’re more permissive than men of the air—and we are, in some ways. But our duties can be as rigid as any Christian marriage. On land, when we’re fertile, we must find good mates, produce children, raise them and support them, regardless of whether that’s the work—or the mate—that touches our hearts. And most people accept those strictures, because once we go into the water we have aeons to love whomever we please, or turn inward and write poetry without stopping to feed a family…”
I try not to flinch again. Our parents didn’t get those chances, nor our neighbors. And yet Aphra still believes in duty first, always.
She goes on: “But we’re human, and we enjoy stories about people who break through even the most vital boundaries. R’drik and Gak-Shelah are lovers who can’t breed together, and so their duty is to keep apart until their metamorphosis. Instead they take ship, traveling a trade route and trying to hide their relationship, and putting off the families who’d have them marry others. And then R’drik goes through metamorphosis young, which makes it even harder to hide.” She’s blushing now; it’s not a book she ought to have read at eleven.
“It would be hard for them to enjoy each other’s company, under those circumstances,” says Charlie. He makes it sound like a casual literary observation, but I know he speaks from experience.
“It’s not that realistic,” Aphra says. “When it’s not, um, explicit, it’s full of long poetic passages about how their love engulfs them in the glories of the deep water, and their joy is only to drown in each other.”
“It’s not a book of magic, anyway,” I say, considering the slender “unrestricted” pile.
While we hesitate, our table is graced by the unwelcome arrival of Irving Pickman—against our objections, the head librarian for the Kezia and Silas Marsh Memorial Reading Room. He beckons Aphra to his desk; I follow close behind. Something’s pleased him, adding a smug edge to his usual placatory smile.
“Have you found something?” I ask reluctantly. I still don’t think Aphra should have asked for his help. Bad enough that Miskatonic forced the smirking bastard on us. Worse to admit to him that all our attempts to track down Innsmouth’s lost children—mistblooded who carry a hint of our strength from generations back—have failed. But he is an expert in genealogy. And Aphra is eldest-on-land; it’s her right to admit our shame.
“I found something,” Pickman confirms. “Though not what I originally expected. The names you gave me—I haven’t tracked down anything on those yet, other than the false leads you mentioned yourself. Old trails and poor record-keeping.” Amusement creeps into his voice. I grit my teeth at the implication that the record-keeping is our fault, with some of those records still likely buried in his storerooms. “But I had a thought.” His eyes slide to me. “I’ve a friend who moved to New York a few years ago, a doctor with an interest in anthropometry. You’ll excuse my saying so, but what they say about … that is, Innsmouth families do have a distinctive skull shape. I thought that if someone had passed his way, he’d be likely to recall it—to recall them. And any family that moves frequently enough almost has to end up in New York eventually. Sheldon loves it—a wonderful place to study mankind’s full range. Everything from the most advanced academic minds to the coarsest specimens, all crowded in a few square miles.”
He pauses, gives a deferential chuckle. “My apologies. Sheldon does go on in his letters, and I suppose I’m passing on the favor. In any case, I described the type as well as I could, and he told me that a few years back a woman came to him, one of the coarser types, worried that her son might be sickening. He’d been born perfectly normal. But by five he showed deviant growth patterns, especially around the eyes. Sheldon wasn’t familiar with the type, but he’s continued to track the family in the hopes of learning more and improving his records. The family—Laverne was the name, and I’ve no idea which of your list they’re descended from—lives in an apartment in Red Hook. The boy’s about seventeen.”
I swallow, aware that I should be grateful. But for the most part I’m annoyed that we didn’t think of this first, that we had to depend on someone who thinks we’re “deviant” to think of asking around for others with the so-called Innsmouth Look. And I imagine what it must have been like for this boy, raised to think our looks a disease. At least I knew, growing up, that it was something to be proud of.
“Thank you,” says Aphra. Sounding perfectly calm.
“Sheldon says he’ll happily direct you, but he hopes he might be able to take casts of the original type, perhaps run some tests…”
“The hell—” I start. But Aphra catches my eyes, the faintest shake of her head cutting off my suggestion of what Sheldon can do with his casts.
“No experiments,” she says. “But we’ll talk with him.”
I ask, voice neutral as I can make it: “What recommendations did he make? About the boy?”
The pale angles of Pickman’s face redden. “As I said, he didn’t have many similar cases to draw from. I told him that Miss Marsh and you both seemed somewhat intellectually minded. And certainly the town seems to have produced an extensive body of scholarship.”
“Thank you for your estimate of our mental capacity,” says Aphra. “I do appreciate your looking into this. It’s not an avenue we would have thought of.”
We make our excuses, and leave before either of us can say something more pointed.
* * *
That night, Neko drooped her head from the top bunk. “He thinks Mister Spector is dating one of us. He’s trying to decide which one he’d hate least.”
“I saw. I don’t know whether to be offended. Spector needs to have kids to preserve his people, the same as I do. I’ve seen it in the papers: the Germans killed a full half of them during the war. But his brother should have just asked. I don’t like anyone looking at me that way—at any of us.” The idea had been echoing in my mind since before we arrived. Rebuilding Innsmouth must, ultimately, mean children. Children who might show a hint of my long fingers and protuberant eyes, who with luck would carry out that promise in aeons to come. Children, perhaps some of them with the man we’d come here seeking.
She grunted. “I suppose. You know what Mama said to me before I came out east?”
“A lot of things, I assume. She was full of advice for me, most of it good.” I found reassurance in Mama Rei’s fussing, and heard the lullaby in its rhythm. But I’d come to her as a lonely adult, exhausted by endless waves of mourning.
“She said, ‘It’s all very well for Caleb, he hasn’t any choice in the matter. But you come back here when you’re ready and marry a Nikkei boy.’”
“Parents want to see their blood carried on. It’s only natural. It just isn’t right to hold it against people of different bloodlines. We used to do that, and look where it got us.” I’d made the same mistake: I’d dismissed Sally’s air-born ambition as less than my own, and she’d died because of my shortsightedness.
“You think I should marry a Nikkei boy too.” Her inverted face disappeared; her mattress springs sagged with a chord of creaks.
“Neko.” I pulled myself up over the rim of her bunk, but she turned toward the wall. “I’m sorry. I’m worried about how I’m going to find a mate; I didn’t mean to say anything about yours.”
“You’ve got the excuse to travel with me—”
“And I need it. Because when it ends, I go back in my cage.”
“Neko—” I wanted to tell her she could have both, children and freedom, that she didn’t need my protection to choose her own life. “I love you. I’m sorry for fussing.”
“Love you too. Go to sleep.”
I patted her shoulder awkwardly, swung back down to the ragged choir of my own mattress.
I lay there for an hour or more, unable to set aside Neko’s resentment. When she followed me back to Massachusetts and my confluence, we’d both expected her to serve as an emissary to newly located mistblooded. Our findings had justified a few day trips—far less than I’d meant to offer her. Far less than she seemed to need, as assurance that she was forever beyond the barbed wire and equally barbed rules of the camp. I balmed my own scars with ocean air and long walks, proof that my body was whole and free, but Neko found Morecambe County as restrictive as San Francisco. Even so, she wouldn’t take the bus to Boston or Providence for her own sake. She needed a practical excuse. Whatever track my own fears followed, I shouldn’t have let them overwhelm her delight in this rare opportunity.
My worries blurred at sleep’s edge: from Neko’s anger to Spector’s family, Spector’s hazardous romance with Charlie, Deedee’s brooding on the train—and behind everything else, the question of the lost family we came here for, and what they’d do when we found them. If we found them.
Every time I began to drift, a car horn or a shout or a muffled snore pierced the cushion of fatigue. Less identifiable noises insinuated themselves from every direction. The city stretched above me and below, and far around, and I felt suspended in some alien dimension. It was tempting to ignore the disorienting sensation, and return to the familiar turmoils that had kept me awake to begin with. An ordinary tourist might lock a door and hold the city at bay. But the confluence had been studying dreamwalking. I’d earned just enough skill to make myself vulnerable: I could stretch my mind into the worlds that lay sideways from our own, and explore for a few precious minutes, but I hadn’t the finesse to avoid wandering in accidentally.
I would have preferred to set aside my studies until we returned home—but I couldn’t count on staying tightly tethered to my own thoughts while I slept. I needed to deliberately inspect the shallows of the local dreamlands before I faced them unwitting. Charlie, whose skill was close to my own, would need to do the same.
Dreamwalking was a matter of tightrope-slender balance—much, Charlie had said wryly, like the physical world. The balance was written into the spells: symbols of rest set against those to ensure eventual wakefulness, and symbols of the mind untethered measured against those to strengthen life’s most necessary bonds. It was there in the mindset: drifting out into Earth’s neighboring dimensions, we had to imagine our bodies well enough to hold selfhood coherent, yet still take advantage of our minds’ newfound freedom. And it was there in the space itself, and the knowledge that if you forgot yourself in wonder at the vision before you, you could forget yourself forever.
I didn’t intend to reach that far tonight—only to know my surroundings well enough to ensure a modicum of safety. And so my symbols were simple, a bare reminder of the world-piercing lullabies that marked the full rite. I sketched them in my notebook by the city’s luminous glow, and whispered the words of an old song. Comfort and magic twined, and I remembered my mother singing the same evening blessing.
I breathed, cautiously letting myself drift. Neko’s familiar dreams lay open above me. Twists of color, scattered images: buildings, imagined cities, the people on the subway. She twitched among incomplete ideas. They spilled over the edges of everyday reality, coloring directions that she wasn’t able to travel. Other sleeping minds lay close, and beyond them I could vaguely sense the depth upon depth of near-earth dreamland, realms half-shaped by sapient imagination and half by physics increasingly distant to the laws that made life possible.
Here, so close to waking, I’d expected an extension of the street’s chaos of scent and sound. Instead, after a vertiginous moment, I found the humming vibration that had tempted me earlier. It pulsed in quavering harmony—then resolved with alarming abruptness. It was a heartbeat. It was a million heartbeats, rising and falling steadily. It swept me up with the others and made no distinction between native and visitor, air and water.
The vibration was a wakeful thing, and yet my own pulse slowed in response. My breathing evened and my nostrils, clogged with smoke and soot, cleared. I began to withdraw into my body, pulling a thread of that dreaming rhythm, ready at last to relax into ordinary and comfortable sleep. Then the thread snagged on something.
I stilled, mind suspended between states, while I tried to work out what had so disturbed me—without attracting its attention. An off-note had entered the shared human rhythm, a dissonance that threatened the whole pattern. Further into the dreamland, I might have been able to sense it more clearly. Here, shivering between states, I could tell only that it wasn’t any of the predators I knew. When the full moon rose above Innsmouth in our native dimension, nightgaunts wheeled the dreaming skies like starlings, and shantaks cried in the distance. Their songs could freeze prey from a thousand miles away, but the wards against them were sketched in elementary textbooks. They were familiar, dangerous but natural. This asynchrony, whatever it was, didn’t belong to any of the realms I could touch.
It seemed to come closer. I concentrated, unmoving, hoping to catch a glimpse but hoping more to remain unseen. There, amid the city’s oscillating pulse: a discordant buzzing hum that refused to resolve. It grew louder until it drowned out thought, until it overflowed the bounds of hearing and filled scent and sight and touch with its droning power. Then, at last, it began to fade.
While I strained my senses to understand, the thing vanished. Its whole passage could not have taken ten seconds. New York’s native rhythm rushed in to fill the vacuum, covering the trail as if it had never been.
Disquieted, I pulled back into my body and my own private dreams. I slept fitfully, waking with leaping heart whenever I felt my mind slip. And between these moments of fear, I dreamed of Trumbull standing at a chalkboard, sketching ever-wilder shapes of tooth and tentacle to explain what I’d encountered.
Copyright © 2018 by Ruthanna Emrys