Urban explorer and photographer Becca Philips was raised in the shadow of Miskatonic University, steeped in the mysteries of her late grandmother’s work in occult studies.
As urban warfare breaks out between eldritch monsters and an emerging police state, she must uncover the secrets of a family heirloom known as the Fire of Cairo to banish the rising tide of darkness before the balance tips irrevocably at the Red Equinox.
Read an excerpt from Douglas Wynne’s new book below, out on January 16, 2015 from JournalStone Books.
Death has a way of calling us home, and when it does we put on our best. Becca Philips hadn’t been to Arkham in years, hadn’t worn a dress in almost as long, and now here she was, stepping off the train and feeling out of place in both.
Water Street looked just the same as it had the last time she’d been here. The same shops struggling to net a few of the North Shore tourist dollars that tended to flow around Arkham before continuing up the coast to Newburyport and Portsmouth.
She took the Garrison Street Bridge on foot. It was a cool day and overcast. The updraft off the river chilled her through, and she pulled her coat tight around her chest, hair flailing in the wind and whipping across her eyes. Gulls wheeled high above, and the last boats of the season trolled the dark water below. Both avoided the stark little island of standing stones upriver from the bridge. Same as it ever was.
The dress was a simple black thing, knee-length with little red roses, and she wondered now why she’d bothered with it. Her usual mode of dress had mostly been inherited from the woman she was here to honor anyway. Catherine Philips, her late grandmother, had only ever worn dresses to university fundraisers, never in the classroom or the field. Thinking of her, Becca longed for her cargo pants and leather jacket—the sort of attire Catherine would have been wearing in some sepia-toned photo taken in front of a pyramid back when her hair had been as dark as Becca’s was now. From the bridge she could see the white steeple, her destination and another reminder of the dissonance between a life well lived and a proper burial. Catherine had set foot inside churches less often than dresses.
The service was already underway when Becca arrived. She settled quietly into one of the empty pews at the back of the nave and let the sonorous words of the minister wash over her as she searched the sparsely peopled rows for a mane of sun-bleached hair combined with an inherent restlessness of form. Finding him nowhere, she realized she’d dressed up the little bit she was capable of just to highlight his inevitable shabbiness, his disrespect for his own mother—he who would arrive on the back of a Harley in oil-stained jeans if he arrived at all. But of course he hadn’t. He’d blown them both off to the bitter end.
A man in a brown suit stepped out of the shadows of the narthex and sat down beside her. Her heart jumped into her throat for a second, but it wasn’t the grizzled hand of her hard- living father patting her knee, and she found herself looking into the empathetic eyes of her surrogate uncle, Neil Hafner.
She was surprised at how much he had aged since she’d last seen him: his doggish face now even more hound-like in its sagging, his fading freckles framed by thinning pale hair. Becca gave his hand a squeeze and let it go.
The rows in front of them appeared to be mostly occupied by Catherine’s colleagues and students, with the family underrepresented. She spotted her Uncle Alan with Michelle and the girls, but Becca had always been closer to Neil, who was neither family nor faculty and who had always been more of a friend to Catherine than either. They had met in the nineties when the folklore professor needed photographs of bas-reliefs for a book she was writing. Later, when Becca had shown an interest in photography, Catherine had enlisted Neil as a mentor.
He reached into his jacket pocket and produced a small wooden box, hinged and redolent of cedar, which he held above her lap until she took it. Now he was the one scanning the rows and aisles, but somehow she doubted he was looking for her father. He folded his hand over hers just as she was about to pop the lid on the little box, leaned in and whispered, “Not here. And don’t let anyone see. It belonged to Catherine.”
Becca slipped the box into her purse and glanced around the church, trying not to appear too furtive, but all eyes were on the altar. “Who are we keeping it from?”
“The university might make a claim on it if they knew it wasn’t lost, but she wanted you to have it.”
A birdlike man with dandruff on his black suit collar glanced over his shoulder at them from a few rows up and Neil settled back against the hard wood beside her. When the man faced forward again, he whispered, “Tell you later.”
The open coffin lid glowed in the dusty autumnal light, the white silk lining catching the lowering sun through the tall windows. She couldn’t see Catherine’s face from this distance but knew she would need to see it before leaving, before she could even begin to process the reality of her death. It seemed impossible that a personality as bold as her Gran’s could simply be extinguished without a struggle. The woman had been a force of nature: fearing nothing, seeking out the darkest corners of the globe and of the human psyche for her scrutiny.
Becca believed it was that intrepid spirit that had caused her students and children to fear her. But Catherine had softened with age and had never demanded as much of Becca as she had of her own children, all of whom had fled from her sphere as soon as they could. Becca had come to believe that given a second chance at parenting, Catherine had deliberately chosen a different approach. Or maybe the woman had felt to some degree responsible for the circumstances that had landed Becca in her care.
Despite the years they had spent together in the house on Crane Street, there were still sleeping tigers they had never dared disturb, and now Becca had to find a way to accept that they never would.
The service ended as she brooded and she felt a little jolt at the realization that the front rows were now rising and lining up to approach the casket. Becca numbly found her feet and wondered if she would cry when she saw the embalmed body. She hoped she would. She’d been ruminating on the loss in an effort to break down some intangible barrier in her own heart, but the tears remained stubbornly frozen by the dream-like distance the roomful of strangers, formal clothes, and ill-fitting religious trappings imposed upon the primal loss of the woman who had raised her.
Maybe the increased dosage of Zoloft that her therapist had put her on to gird her against the fading light and impending threat of winter was keeping grief at arm’s length. Maybe it was the past two years away, years in which she had finally left Arkham without looking back and had immersed herself in her art and the city and ill-chosen men. She should have called more often, should have visited, should have been less self-absorbed, knowing that she was the last in a long line to abandon Dr. Catherine Philips.
Her children don’t see it that way. You know the narrative. She drove her husband to the asylum, her daughter-in-law to suicide, and the rest of the family to mass exodus. She and the dark things she couldn’t stop poking and prodding.
When Becca’s turn came, she knelt and looked down at the body that somehow was and was not her grandmother, and wondered if the stroke had delivered that which a lifetime of inquiry had not: knowledge of the other side.
* * *
The tears finally came at the graveside. Something about the smell of wet grass from the morning rain and the mound of clodded earth beneath the tarp made it possible for her to feel in a way that had eluded her within the dark wood confines of the church.
They had given her a rose to place on the coffin, and she watched the petals fracture into red shards through the water in her eyes. Neil, beside her, handed her a handkerchief, and wiping her nose she found an odd comfort in this evidence that she could still feel what you were supposed to at a funeral, despite her efforts to protect herself from feeling too much. As Neil led her back to the car with a pair of ladies he had promised a ride to the campus, she let her eyes linger on the tree line, but her father still wasn’t there, wasn’t leaning on his bike and watching from a distance because no distance from his mother, not even in death, would ever be safe enough. She regretted dressing up; it felt weird to be carrying a purse instead of a camera bag, and now all she wanted to do was get home and out of the dress and the scratchy black hose.
Neil appeared beside her and patted her shoulder to draw her distant gaze back to him. “You’re not alone in this,” he said. “You might expect a death in the family to change people or bring them around, but…. If you’ll let me give you one last photo lesson: it’s the shadows that define things. Okay, two last lessons: sometimes you have to alter the focus to see what’s right in front of you. Right? Promise me you’ll call me if you need to talk.”
Becca said she would. It wasn’t until after he’d dropped her at the station on his way to the university and the train was pulling out that she remembered the cedar box.
She wondered if he’d set it up that way, offering the ladies a ride so that she couldn’t react to the contents of the box, couldn’t ask questions he didn’t have answers to, or questions he didn’t want to answer—like, is this a family heirloom or a stolen antiquity?
Becca hadn’t seen the object for many years, had forgotten all about it. But now, seeing it again, she remembered.
* * *
“What’s a myth, Gran?”
“It’s a kind of story. Like a fairy tale.”
“Why not just call it a story then?”
“Well…a myth is a special sort of story. A story that endures and explains the world.”
“Endures. It lasts a long time. So long that people eventually forget it was made up. They begin to believe it was first told by a god, when in fact it had probably been a shaman.”
Becca knew about shamans. She had seen pictures of them in Gran’s crazy books. Bones through the nose and death in their eyes. “Where does a shaman get the story from?”
“That’s a good question. One I’ve spilled a lot of ink on. Some of them climb trees to the stars.” Gran’s smile told Becca that she was being challenged to question this.
“Some go to the underworld. And some might find a myth hiding behind ordinary things, using them as masks: animals and insects, lightning and hail…. Anything in the world can be the seed of a story if you plant it deep enough.”
“Tell me one. Make me a myth, Gran.”
The bedroom was dark except for the muted gold glow of the nightlight. They had finished one book but hadn’t started another yet and didn’t need the bedside lamp to read by. Becca liked the spaces between bedtime books, the times when they just talked and mused while her eyes grew heavy. “Make me a myth about something in this room.”
Gran sighed and smiled. She searched the shadow-drenched corners for inspiration, ran her hand over the comforter, and then produced a golden scarab beetle pendant from the neckline of her cotton nightgown. The metal glowed in the dark as she turned it on its chain, and Becca felt almost hypnotized by its beauty.
“Once upon a time in Egypt, there came a black pharaoh on the wings of a sandstorm out of the desolate wastes.”
Something had moved in the room. The scarab beetle pendant swung from side to side like a pendulum from the chain draped over the mirror where Becca had hung it before falling asleep. Just the slightest motion, as if the tail of a cat leaping out of bed had struck it. But Becca didn’t live with a cat anymore, not since Josh had moved out taking Ftang with him. And yet, as her sleep- heavy eyes blinked and focused on the golden shine of the thing, it swung, and she thought of her grandmother swinging a pendulum once, a ring on a string, to answer a question yes or no, and she’d almost fallen asleep again when the explanation came to her: she must have brushed it with her arm while rolling over, or jostled the peach crate which served as a bookshelf and nightstand with her elbow. The recently dreaming part of her mind told her that the beetle had opened its shell for a second and fluttered its metallic wings; that it had stirred at first light. But that was nonsense.
She untangled her body from the sheets and touched the scarab. Her finger found the bezel where the gem was missing between the pinchers and probed the hole like a tongue exploring a cavity where a filling had come loose. She wondered what kind of stone it had been. Diamond? Ruby? Emerald? Her memory of the thing from the few times she’d seen it on Catherine was dim. The bezel looked a little too big to have held a diamond.
The shapes of her room were slowly coming into focus now, softly delineated by the watery gray light of an overcast September morning. There were still days in September when she would awaken to a blaze of stark light and shadow, but not this one. Even with all of the windows that came with a warehouse loft, and even as late as 9 AM, the effect on a gloomy day was of shapes emerging from murk, her furniture appearing like the mossy, barnacle-encrusted features of a shipwreck at five- hundred fathoms.
Becca stared at the high ceiling and pondered the meaning of the missing stone. Scarabs were dung beetles. They pushed balls of shit through the sand. But she remembered Gran taking her to the Boston MFA when she was a girl, remembered seeing paintings and carvings depicting the beetle pushing the solar disc. She wished a beetle would push the sun out of the clouds today so she could think right. It was hard enough getting out of bed on a good day, but without the vitamin D, without the light, without someone to push her out of bed anymore…everything was harder. And yet she knew she had to do it, had to get up and get dressed and push her own ball of shit through the day. Her army bag, leather jacket, and boots beckoned. Her urban uniform. Get up, soldier, you can do it. She swept the sheets aside and rolled out of bed.
Everything was harder this time of year when the light was dying, when the year was dying, when she was reminded of her mother dying, and now Gran had gone and laid a new painful association on the cycle by also dying in the fall. It was a season of death, even had a holiday to acknowledge the fact. Only rather than lighting fires against the shadows on All Hallows Eve, her culture warded off depression with sugar. Nowhere near as effective as the Lamictal and Zoloft she was now washing down with a warm glass of water from the tap, standing in her underwear and a black tank top and gazing out at the tin-type print of a day that lay stretched out wet below her through the warped glass.
Rent was cheap at the edges of the flood zones, and the view could be oddly beautiful in a semi-apocalyptic sort of way. On recent afternoons when the autumn sun slanted down and sliced the limpid surface of the shallow water at the base of the building, casting undulating lattices of light over the bricks, sine waves of amber fire, she could almost feel blessed to be alive in such a time. But today there was none of that. Only a stew of fallen leaves and plastic bottles floating on black water. Boston was a city built on marshland, raised up on fill less than three centuries ago. The Back Bay neighborhood had actually been a bay not that long ago, and now it was going that way again. The people on TV were finally admitting that this was no temporary state of affairs. Glacial melt and Hurricane Sonia had reminded Boston of her true level, her humble origins beneath the water line, and that dirty water was here to stay.
She picked her phone off of the kitchen counter, checked the time on it, then carried it back to bed, setting it down on the crate beside the paper square she’d fallen asleep pondering: the note from her grandmother which had lain underneath the beetle in the fragrant box.
Looking at the scarab, she let her hand fumble over the detritus atop the crate (a stack of paperbacks and dusty photo magazines partially obstructing an antique brass-framed mirror, a couple of prescription bottles, and a nest of worn-out hair elastics) and plucked up the paper square. It was a simple, yet elegant missive, only about the size of a Post-it note, but inked in Catherine’s handwriting on heavy cream-colored stock with a linen texture. Becca felt a desperate sadness claw unexpectedly at her heart as she noticed now on closer inspection how the carefully inscribed lines wavered ever so slightly, betraying a tremor in the woman’s hands. The note read: May Kephra, guardian and guide, light your way in dark places. Kephra. No idea. Typical Gran to be dropping obscure references even from the grave. But Becca had no doubt that a search for the name would lead her to some wiki of mythological figures. Her throat thickened as she thought of the countless fairy tales and legends they had read together. Gran had taught her that every object was a story, and Becca had applied the lesson to her own art: if every shard of pottery anyone had ever unearthed could tell a story, then so could every photograph.
So what was the story of the beetle that had for so long hung around Gran’s neck, and which now hung from her mirror? She tilted the mirror toward her. Her reflection betrayed trepidation in her ice-blue eyes, a furrow in her brow she wasn’t awake enough yet to be aware of. It was fear, she knew, now that she saw it written plainly in the glass.
Mirrors are windows, mirrors are doors.
Where had she heard that?
Catherine had been found dead on her bedroom carpet, spilled out of the chair in front of her vanity when the stroke hit.
Becca touched the metal scarab, lifted it in the crook of her finger for a moment, then let it swing back against the mirror with a sigh. She wasn’t sure if she was ready to wear it yet, knowing that it would always remind her of how she had failed the woman who had been more of a mother to her than her own. Failed to call when the darkness was upon her, and failed to get her ass on a train before it was too late because she’d been absorbed in the perspective-wrecking drama that came with being fucked up about a boy. Josh, who hadn’t even bothered to check and see how she was doing, never mind accompany her to the funeral. True colors, that’s what that was.
The scarab, released from her hand, rocked on its chain. She caught a glimpse of its reverse side in the mirror and remembered the markings. Yesterday she had done little more than glance at it and hang it where she could contemplate it while she drifted off to sleep. Now she turned it over and ran her thumb across the inscription: finely etched hieroglyphics she couldn’t read. Another mystery. Even the metal was a mystery. It looked too lustrous to be anything less than the purest gold, but there was no karat marking or jeweler’s hallmark to tell.
She picked up her phone. The thought of going to work at the gallery and falling back into the mundane rhythms of her life felt wrong. It felt like a betrayal of her Gran’s memory to let the world sweep her along without a moment’s contemplation. With a twinge of guilt, she called in sick and was relieved when Glen didn’t pick up. She left a voicemail, then called Rafael and asked him to spot her on a trip to the asylum. He was waiting with a hot tea in a Styrofoam cup from a donut shop when she stepped off the Green Line T at Harvard Ave and Commonwealth. She took the cup with a wince when he offered it. “You know this stuff takes like a billion years to break down in a landfill, right?”
Rafael stuffed his hands in the back pockets of his torn-at-the- knees, paint-encrusted jeans, hunched his shoulders so that the hood of his sweatshirt drooped over his eyes. Even in baggy clothes with shoulders slouched like a reprimanded dog, his toned and wiry physique showed through like titanium tent poles propping up shabby canvas. He’d spent his teens climbing building scaffoldings in San Paulo, emblazoning the city’s back alleys with street art before coming to Boston to attend the Museum school on a scholarship after a vacationing faculty member had seen his work. One city’s graffiti had been another’s entrance exam.
“Sorry,” she said. “I mean, thanks.” She gave him a peck on the cheek and regretted the gesture as soon as she saw the way it lit up his face, his full lips spreading into a heart-shaped smile that was equal parts surprise and delight.
He nodded toward the hill. “We goin’ somewhere new in there, or are you shooting stuff you’ve seen before?”
Becca shrugged, hiked the heavy camera bag higher onto her shoulder.
“Here, “ he said, “Let me. Looks heavy.”
“I got it. Maybe when we get to the top of the hill.”
Rafael swung his arms at his sides, then punched his left palm. He had no gear of his own to carry, didn’t need any for a site as familiar as this one. He claimed to have been over every square foot of Allston State Hospital and had proven himself a reliable guide to Becca, who was taking her time, exploring the place methodically, absorbing the site one room at a time.
Together they walked through a parking lot and onto Brainerd Road, passing the ramshackle three-story apartment houses of the college ghetto—houses that leaned at odd angles, veering off their foundations, cheaply painted by the students who inhabited them, cats slinking nonchalantly around the eaves, ghostly traces of stale beer and pot smoke clinging to the moldy fabric of porch furniture. The natty suburb had an almost feudal geography, the houses becoming steadily more upscale as one ascended the hill, the rundown Victorians giving way to red brick apartment buildings, then to handsome if modest Town Houses and bi-level homes with vinyl siding and flower boxes in the windows.
Rafael was in better shape, his breathing less labored than Becca’s when the incline grew steep. He shortened his stride to match her pace and took the army bag that held her camera and lenses from her shoulder to no protest this time. Relieved of the weight, and no longer feeling like she was hiking in the White Mountains, she turned and walked backwards for a few paces, taking in the view of the hazy blue buildings and treetops in the distance below. Cities had always looked friendlier to her from above than down in their dirty crevices. She figured that the illusion of cleanliness afforded by distance was a large part of the price tag up here. That, and the fact that higher ground was always the best flood insurance.
But if the Brainerd Road hill was a fiefdom, then the castle at its peak was that of a mad, syphilis-stricken despot: Allston State Hospital, one of the few insane asylums in the Bay State that hadn’t yet been demolished. The chain-link fence, barbed wire, and much of the plywood boarding up the doors had, however, been demolished long ago by vandals, kids on Halloween dares, and urban explorers like Becca and Rafael. The police patrolled the area frequently enough to keep junkies and vagrants from taking up permanent residence, but there was no sign of a cruiser on the tree-lined street today as they ducked through a gap in the twisted fence.
The long, dry grass was parted and worn to a bald dirt trail by the frequent trespassers who had for years been treading on parts of the grounds the long-ago inmates would never have been granted access to.
Becca shielded her eyes with her hand and assessed the sky. The mid-day sun, diffused by a cover of stratus clouds, cast a gentle silver glow over the abandoned institution. She took her camera from the bag and switched it on.
“I checked out your web page,” Rafael said.
“Yeah? What’d you think?”
“Yeah, you know: cool. Hey, how you get that effect? Is it Photoshop, how everything kind of glows?”
“Nope. It’s in the picture when I take it.”
She held up her Nikon. “This is modified. I removed the standard hot-mirror filter inside and replaced it with an IR filter.”
“Infrared. People used to use special infrared film in cameras to get the same effect, but it was tricky. Infrared film is so sensitive to light that you have to process it in total darkness.” She saw the glazed look in his eyes and remembered he wasn’t a photo geek. He just wanted to know why the shots looked ghostly. “Infrared light is just a different set of frequencies.”
“Regular photography is like listening to music through earplugs. All you hear is bass. When I took that filter out of my camera, it was like taking the plugs out of my ears so I can get the higher frequencies, you follow?”
He grinned. Now she was speaking his language.
“Did you notice that not everything has that white glow?”
Poor guy. Only wanted to compliment her work after glancing at her online portfolio and now he was being quizzed on it. She wished she knew how to talk to normal people. A cool girl would undoubtedly say something mysterious about capturing the spirit of things and leave it at that. “The plants were the things that glowed the most, right?” she prodded him.
“Yeah.” He looked relieved. “The weeds and shit.”
She laughed. “That’s because green things emit a lot of IR frequencies.”
“Hey…I should take you to the arboretum sometime where everything is green. You’ll get crazy shots!” Becca nodded and decided not to tell him that the beauty was all in the contrast, that the weeds and vines among the dead gray concrete and plaster were the music she listened for with those earplugs out, not just a lot of cymbals crashing from every tree in the forest. She wasn’t looking for a date, but it was good to have a friend, and if she was being honest, it was especially good to have a friend who wasn’t afraid to go tunnel hacking and rappelling down the walls of derelict factories and mental hospitals to get to the cool parts. “Maybe,” she said.
The asylum loomed over the hedge-bounded field, an imposing red-brick building topped with six gables and a domed copper cupola turned green from the weather. The windows were tall banks of small squares, and while most of those on the ground floor had been boarded up, there were some with rounded tops that were a poor fit for the straight edged boards hastily thrown up by a demolition crew that would someday return with a wrecking ball. Through these exposed panes, rocks had been thrown and vines had grown, creeping into the dank, moldy interior of the place. On her last visit, Becca had shot a series she was quite proud of in which spirals of rampant ivy wove around the metal frames of the rotting hospital beds like leather restraints. In the photos, the vines resembled radiant silver chains.
With a glance at the second-story windows of the nearest house, Rafael swept aside a tangle of dead brush to reveal their tried-and-true entrance. Becca pulled the elastic strap of a headlamp over her hair, switched it on, and climbed through.
Inside, a long corridor stretched out around them in two directions, dappled with weak sunlight, the floor littered with clods of fallen plaster and flakes of peeled paint the size of autumn leaves. The walls seemed to be molting, and the acidic scent of bat guano hung in the cloying air. To the right, at the end of the hall, a tiled spiral stairway led to the second floor. To the left, a high doorframe opened onto the wards where Becca had shot the vine-bound beds. Rafael had covered the walls of one of the better-lit rooms on this wing with floor-to-ceiling murals: surreal mash-ups of graffiti and fine art. Today Becca felt ready to begin exploring the second floor, and touching the scarab where it hung in her cleavage just below the neckline of her tank top, she nodded toward the stairs, her beam bouncing forward and back.
“You want to go up?” he asked.
Rafael took a high-powered LED flashlight from his pocket and twisted it on. He aimed the beam at his own face from below in a clichéd parody of a ghoul, and Becca laughed at the halo of dreadlock shadows blasted onto the wall behind him.
“What’s with the shit-eating grin?”
“Nothin’.” He swung the light onto the floor where water- stained papers lay splayed among crushed beer cans and dirty scraps of tin foil—the only garbage the rats and feral cats hadn’t eaten. “I just thought of something you’ll like.”
“On the second floor?”
“Yeah, you’ll like it.”
“Okay….” She drew out the word, infusing it with uncertain trust. Then, catching a whiff of the air, she remembered another way to explain light to him. “Wait a sec. Wanna see something cool?”
“Turn off your flashlight.”
He did, and Becca clicked a switch on her headlamp. The white LED spotlight vanished from her crown, replaced by a wide flood of purple ambiance. On the wall, neon splashes and drips appeared.
“It’s urine,” she said. “This is UV light. Ultraviolet, okay? Well, visible light—everything you can see with the naked eye—is sort of in the middle of the spectrum with infrared on one side, and ultraviolet on the other. Sort of like bookends.”
He was smiling, his teeth glowing an unnatural shade of violet. Probably because the big piss revelation was always a hit with the boys. She continued under the assumption that he was actually listening. “Biological things emit some interesting frequencies in those two ranges. So just like how the plants glow in IR, bodily fluids do sort of the same thing in UV. But to me, the really cool thing to ponder is how all of those frequencies are part of one great big wave spectrum. Everything from the subsonic sounds that elephants send through the ground to communicate over distances, up to the ultrasonic songs of dolphins and whales, and then beyond that into where the waves stop being sound and start being light, and then into light we can’t usually see, like UV, then microwaves, gamma rays…. Even matter is just energy vibrating in waves.”
He uttered a nervous laugh. “Sorry, you lost me again. You’re talking over my head.”
“Maybe I’m just not articulating it well. You’d get it with a little time to process it.”
“Process it. Photo joke?”
Now she laughed. “Not intentional.” She took a UV marker from her camera bag and wrote on the wall: RAF & BECCA WERE HERE. The letters blazed brighter than the piss stains.
She clicked her headlamp back to white and the message disappeared.
“Whoa, invisible ink.” Rafael’s eyes and teeth were wide, but no longer violet.
“Cool, huh? Okay, up we go. Lead the way,” she said with a wave of her hand, preferring him in front not just because he was strong and able to handle any squatters they might encounter, but because she knew that (gentleman or not) she could count on Rafael to stare at her ass on a staircase. She’d been told it was one of her finer features.
The twin light beams bobbed up the cavernous walls of the winding stairwell, their footsteps echoing back to them from the tiles. At the top they came to a large room, empty of all furniture except for a rotting upright piano in the corner, an abandoned wheelchair parked at the yellowing keyboard. The vast space reminded Becca of her warehouse apartment. Together, they crossed the room at a pace that felt slower than it was due to the sheer size of what could have been a ballroom but was probably a rec room for the vegetables. Passing under an arch at the far end, they found themselves in a corridor of rusted metal doors with sliding panels at eye height. Some of the doors hung open on their hinges; others were closed, possibly still locked. No light reached the hall from the open doors and peep slots, telling her that these were windowless cells. Shining her headlamp into the cells as they passed, she caught glimpses of stains and hash marks on the walls, clumps of stiff bed sheets and muddy rags.
On the cracked wall of one cell, a single line of graffiti stood out for its lack of style. Unlike the ubiquitous tags rendered in metallic spray paint, this one appeared to have been left by a patient rather than a vandal, scrawled in thick black crayon: DEAD BUT DREAMING.
Becca stared at it, chilled by the possibility that it might be the only remaining record of her grandfather’s residence here. Rafael, bemused, gave her a minute to stare, then prodded her on. “C’mon, it’s right up here in the next room.”
Prying her gaze from the graffiti, she noticed natural light spilling into the end of the hall as a cloud shifted outside.
The last room on the right was a green-tiled chamber with some oddities that Becca didn’t notice until the exhilaration of the main feature had subsided. The hospital staff wouldn’t have considered it a feature, but she felt a surge of affection for Rafael for knowing that she would. On the far wall, where a tall window overlooked the inner courtyard, a tree had crashed through the glass, scattering shards on the dusty floor. Branches still bearing leaves reached into the room like the fingers of a giant trying to seize a sleeper from the bed on the left wall.
Noticing the bed, Becca saw that it was bracketed to the floor. The mattress had been pulped by vandals and rats, but the leather restraints on the side rails were still in good shape. She reappraised the room, finding common purpose in the buckles and straps, the row of three-foot-high electrical outlets, barren shelves which would once have housed equipment, and—among paint flakes scattered on the floor like scales sloughed off of some reptile—a rubber mouth guard with a phallic handle, and a grimy, wrinkled tube of conductive gel.
“Whoa. They did ECT here,” she said, raising the camera to her eye and framing a shot.
Rafael put his knuckles to his temples and convulsed with a little jump, reminding her of the scarecrow in The Wizard of Oz. He accompanied the charade with a loud bzzt! Becca ignored him and moved around the bed, clicking away, capturing the juxtaposition of what might well have been a lightning-struck tree crashing into the electroshock treatment room, and knowing that in infrared the glow of the leaves would infuse all of this darkness and decay with an ethereal light.
Leaning in, kneeling, shooting, oblivious to the filth on the knees of her pants and the palms of her hands, she felt the sadness of the place getting under her skin. When at last she glanced up from the viewfinder, Rafael had left the room. She felt a flutter of fear at his absence.
Although most of the equipment had been removed from the room, there was an old-fashioned telephone handset mounted to the wall. It blazed at her in shocking red through the drab, dusty grays of the room. Had it been an emergency line? She snapped a few shots of it, becoming increasingly, irrationally certain that it would jump to life with a jarring jangle at any moment just to freak her the fuck out. And who would be on the other end if she answered? Her long-dead Grandpa who had lived out his last days in this place? Her recently deceased Gran, who had exposed her husband to certain facts about the nature of reality he had never recovered from?
Presently she realized that she was no longer photographing, but only staring at the phone in anticipation, and as her awareness shifted from sight to sound she became aware of a human voice murmuring in an unfamiliar language, what her Gran would have called a “barbarous tongue.” She drew her elbows across her midriff and bit her thumbnail before thinking about where it had lately been.
“Rafael?” she said. Her voice was too thin to be heard, but now that she knew she wasn’t alone, the prospect of shouting seemed reckless, a surefire way to broadcast her location.
Wait…could the voice be him, messing with her? Had he slipped down the stairs and into the courtyard just to try and spook her?
If he knew her at all, he knew she didn’t scare easy, but the boy did like a challenge. She went to the window where the chant drifted through the broken glass, muted only by the leaves clustered on the branches of the fallen tree. Taking care not to rustle those leaves or crunch the glass underfoot, she searched for a gap between the branches affording a clear downward angle. The voice gained detail and clarity, and she knew for sure that the timbre was not Rafael’s.
There. A man in a black trench coat with a beaded cap on his head was kneeling in prayer or meditation, his hands flat on his thighs as he rocked back and forth to the rhythm of his mantra at the base of an algae-slicked stone basin—a defunct fountain or neglected birdbath now brimming with muck and decaying leaves.
“Whatcha lookin’ at?”
Becca let out a short squeal and ducked away from the window like a cop taking cover. “Jesus, you scared the shit out of me,” she whispered fiercely. Rafael crept beside her and peered through the shattered window. “What do we have here? A loony rolled back to the bin?”
Becca elbowed him in the ribs.
The song or chant had a strange, alien beauty to it. She detected a profound longing in the lilting melody. The syllables themselves were fricative and harsh wherever they broke the long wavering vowels, but they were also vaguely familiar to her, a fact that in itself endowed the chant with benign associations—the smell of her grandmother’s chamomile tea, the bellowing foghorns of boats on the Miskatonic River—which emboldened her. She leaned out the window and trained her camera on the strange man, zooming the lens, which didn’t have quite enough focal length, to focus on his face. His features were broad and dark, marked by a constellation of tattooed symbols arching across his left temple. Checking the display to make sure she’d gotten the shot, she disentangled herself from the tree, and headed down the hall toward the decrepit emergency exit stairs that led to the courtyard.
Rafael was quick at her heels. “What are you doing? You’re not gonna go talk to that guy.”
“Why not?” She turned to face him in the fractured light of the stairwell, the chant permeating the building through the broken slats and crumbling mortar. “You’ve been down these stairs?” she asked. “They’re not going to collapse on me?”
He seemed to want to delay answering just to keep her from going down, but he clearly wasn’t worried about the stairs. She weighed less than he did and could see in his eyes that he’d used them. She started down, hurrying to reach the courtyard before the singer departed. “Wait,” Rafael said, “Stairs won’t hold us both, but…you should stay away from that guy.”
“You know him?”
“Not specifically, but did you see his hat? His tattoos?”
“He’s a brinehead.”
“He’s from the Starry Wisdom Church. They’re like…inbred squid worshippers.”
“Little prejudiced are we?”
“Don’t be stupid, Becca. There are reasons why people avoid them, believe me.”
She turned the camera in her hand, reminding him of why she was on this venture. “I want to know what his story is, why he’s here. He has to have a story, don’t you think?”
Rafael started down the stairs. They creaked and groaned and actually swayed away from the black mold-speckled wall where the gray sky showed through. Becca hurried to the bottom and strode into the overgrown courtyard in the shadow of the asylum, with Rafael’s sneakers hitting the dirt behind her and the tattooed man looking up in alarm, his mantra slipping out of rotation like a dislodged bicycle chain.
“Hey,” Becca said.
The man rose and brushed the dust from his black clothes. He cast a forlorn glance at the stagnant water in the basin, and turned to go. Becca couldn’t resist snapping a couple of shots of the birdbath (a concrete basin on a pedestal inlaid with a mosaic of colored glass) and the robed figure drifting out of focus in the background. At the sound of the shutter, the man spun around, the long, bony finger of his right hand outstretched in an accusatory stab, a gold ring with an onyx stone catching the light.
“Give me the memory card,” he demanded.
“You took my picture without permission. It belongs to me.”
“Uh-uh.” She shook her head, cradled the camera to her solar plexus, and stepped backward into the shelter of the building, feeling like a fool.
The old man glanced at her companion and must have seen something there to give him pause—one of those mirages of posture and facial expression that the good-natured Raf could summon in an instant if he found himself on the wrong side of the street. The man dropped his hand to his side.
“Why are you spying on me? Why do you take my picture?”
“I’m sorry, I should have asked. It’s not spying. It’s art.”
The man scoffed.
“Jesus, Bec, don’t.” Rafael interjected.
“My grandfather lived here for a while,” she said. “What’s your name?”
His anger seemed to have abated, but he still paused before answering. “John Proctor. And your last name, young lady?” “Philips.”
“I don’t know the name. Your grandfather was an inmate here?” he looked up at the clouds passing over the remaining windows as if he might see long-gone residents there, staring down at him.
“Peter Philips,” she said.
“I had family here as well, of a kind.”
“Did they die here?”
His eyes drifted down and locked on hers again. Not all of the fire was gone from them. “That’s why you pray here,” she said. “I’m sorry. For intruding, I mean…and invading your privacy.”
He looked at the camera and Becca deflated. “Look, I can’t afford to give you the card, but I’ll delete the pictures if you want. You can watch me do it.” The offer pained her. She had a gut feeling they were good.
“Is it a video; with my voice, my prayers?”
“No, just pictures.”
John Proctor waved his hand, shuffled his feet, and turned away. Something rattled as his hand dipped into his pocket and she saw a trail of black beads on a string vanishing into his frock, a rosary of the same stone set in his gold ring. She felt an impulse and acted on it while his back was turned, slipped a finger under the chain around her neck, and flipped the scarab from under the little bit of fabric that had concealed it. “You don’t care about the pictures?” she called after him, “Just your voice?”
He shrugged. “It doesn’t matter anyway. The prayers are broken.”
It seemed such an odd thing to say. “How can a prayer be broken?”
He looked back, still walking away, and said, “It would mean nothing to you, but a man named Jeremy Levenda was once imprisoned here. Not my blood, but a brother nonetheless. He had the gift of tongues, a gift long ago rinsed from my race by bad breeding. One day he stood in this courtyard and summoned something glorious from the waters of this bath. And that was the last time the world has ever known such a thing. Still…I try. But as I said, the prayers are broken. And so am I.”
The sun emerged and traced a wedge of light across the weedy ground. Becca leaned into it, still wondering why the chant had sounded familiar, and saw the reflection of the scarab heliographing across the man’s tattooed face. It had a transforming effect: his eyes dilated, he stumbled, his finger went up again. “Where did you get that?”
She touched the cold metal, and he flinched as if she’d drawn a weapon. This wasn’t the reaction she’d hoped for. She’d wanted his curiosity, not this fear written so plainly on his face. Any hope that he might tell her more about the scarab, help her understand what it meant to people, to her grandmother, was slipping away.
“Let him go,” Rafael said. She’d forgotten he was there.
When she turned back from a glance at Raf, John Proctor had fled through a gap in the collapsed bricks and beams, leaving only a rustle in the teeming weeds to testify that he had been there at all.
Becca went to the birdbath and stared at the slimy leaves through the rainwater.
“What was that about?” Rafael broke the silence. “Your grandfather was a patient here? How come you never told me?”
Becca didn’t reply. She tucked the scarab back under her shirt, and the sun tucked itself behind a cloud.
She approached one of the other doorless entrances to the hospital as if in a trance. It gave onto a common room, the bookshelves sagging and moldy, the other furnishings long since removed. Her boots, painted with Rafael’s silly characters, crunched on dislodged segments of tile grout, bringing small bones to mind. She could sense Rafael behind her, wanting to say something but knowing better.
For a moment she saw the room as it had been when she was eight years old. She had forgotten visiting her grandfather here, but now, looking at the courtyard from this angle, through the empty window frame, she could almost see him, scrawny and gaunt in his gown, barely aware of his granddaughter or wife; him staring at the bright light wavering on the water in the birdbath and shielding his eyes from the glare with a hand against his brow. It had looked like a salute offered to someone she couldn’t see, his hand not quite casual enough to merely be serving as a visor, his thumb pressing against the skin above and between his eyes, massaging the area where a crescent scab marked him. She remembered being afraid for him and thinking that he must have dug his thumbnail into that spot from repetition of the gesture.
It was all rushing back now, the ice cream Gran had bought her on the way home to cheer her up (black raspberry—a flavor she had unconsciously avoided since), and the vacant smile Grandpa had flashed her that made her wonder if he still knew her name. He had been semi-catatonic throughout the visit. No, that wasn’t entirely true. He had said one thing to Catherine as, with her hand on Becca’s shoulder, she turned to leave. The words had croaked out of him in a voice atrophied from infrequent use, through chapped lips stretched in an ironic and horrid grin.
“What I came here pretending to be…I am becoming.”
Catherine had almost pushed Becca to the car after that, and Becca had been relieved to go. Whoever that man had been, he wasn’t her grandfather anymore.
A scratching roused her from her reverie, and she turned to find Rafael down on one knee at the other side of the expansive room. He held a slim putty knife in one hand and was scraping dots of bright blue paint from the floor, as if it were still 2006 and he’d been hired for maintenance.
The wall behind him revealed his latest work, and her breath hitched in her chest as she took it in: a series of torrential waterfalls appeared to pour from ragged holes in the sheetrock while kaleidoscopes of blue and yellow butterflies streamed toward the ceiling from gashes in the sagging wallpaper.
“When?” she asked.
He shrugged. “While you were at the funeral. You like it?”
Red Equinox copyright © Douglas Wynne 2015