Book: Black Wings IV: New Tales of Lovecraftian Horror

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THE RASPING ABSENCE

 

Richard Gavin

 

Richard Gavin is regarded as a master of numinous horror fiction in the tradition of Machen, Blackwood, and Lovecraft. “The Rasping Absence” marks his third appearance in the Black Wings series. Richard has written four collections, including The Darkly Splendid Realm (Dark Regions Press, 2009) and At Fear’s Altar (Hippocampus Press, 2012), along with essays on the macabre and the esoteric. He lives in Ontario, Canada.

 

 

TRENT FENNER COULDN’T GAUGE HIS SUPERVISOR’S reaction to the re-edited news segment. Upon the wall-mounted television, animated galaxies spun like tops within simulated space.

“Astonishing as it sounds” (Trent never liked the way his voice sounded on television, even after two years of reporting), “some physicists suspect that the longstanding model of reality, which suggests that our universe is made up of atoms, is wrong. This mysterious substance we call Dark Matter, along with a repulsive force dubbed Dark Energy, make up ninety-six percent of our universe. It seems that the universe is much darker than we suspected.

“Dark Matter cannot be seen. It neither reflects nor deflects light, and it seems to be part of a reality completely distinct from our own. And yet, billions of Dark Matter particles surround us. As Dr. Douglas Newman of Newfoundland’s EXCEL physics laboratory put it, ‘Dark Matter represents the distinct possibility that our universe is a vast haunted house, where billions of these mysterious particles of pass through the walls, and even our bodies, every day without our knowing or feeling it.’”

Lester shifted in his seat as the image on the screen changed: Trent and Dr. Newman were entering the orange-painted cage of a mine elevator. The conveyor cables emitted a low hum as it lowered the cage into the bowels of the mine. Trent’s face filled the screen. The sight of him in a hardhat made Lester chuckle.

“Some of you might be wondering why physicists like Dr. Newman would go looking for Dark Matter some five hundred metres underground in this abandoned iron-ore mine here on Bell Island, Newfoundland, instead of looking up at the heavens. In order to obtain a particle of Dark Matter that is untainted by cosmic rays and other contaminants, scientists have to go deep underground. It’s eerily appropriate that we’re going looking for the Dark within the dark…”

“This is where Newman describes trying to catch Dark Matter particles, yes?” Lester asked, his finger held on the remote control’s Advance button.

“Using frozen germanium plates, right,” replied Trent.

Lester nodded. He paused the video on a simulacrum of Dark Matter, which the show’s animators designed as swarms of bluish-purple specks that swaddled our galaxy.

“I like it,” Lester confessed. Perspiration caused his bare, pinkish scalp to glisten like a glazed ham.

“The script I gave you for my new epilogue, was it okay? I tried to sound more reassuring in this version.”

Lester dismissed Trent’s concerns with a sweep of his hand. “The closing speech works. I wouldn’t worry about viewers getting upset. This Dark Matter stuff might rattle their nerves until the next commercial break, but in the end Canadians are more concerned about brass tacks; government spending, gas prices, the usual.”

“You’re probably right,” Trent said. He wrestled with whether or not to vent some of the pressure that had been mounting within him. “I have to admit, this story kind of got to me.” He felt himself blushing.

Lester offered a wry smile. “Kid, what have I always said about you? You’ve got a reporter’s nose but not his skin. Yours is too thin. This field will chew you up if you take every story inside you. Reporters have to be objective for more than just ethical reasons. If you make every story personal, you’ll crack.”

Trent bit his lip.

Perhaps sensing his tensions, Lester slapped his hand on his desk as a purging gesture; bleakness be gone. “You know what I think you need right about now? A vacation.”

“Well, as luck would have it…”

“The break will be good for you and the family. But isn’t it going to be kind of a whirlwind for you, just getting back from Newfoundland yesterday and heading up north tomorrow?”

“We’re actually leaving tonight. Melissa’s packing as we speak.”

“I bet the little one’s excited.”

The very mention of Jasmine summoned within Trent a warm, calming wave.

“You have no idea. Melissa told me Jasmine’s been talking nonstop about the holiday since I left for the east coast.”

“You’ll all love Pine Bluffs,” Lester assured him.

“I’m sure we will, Les. Thanks again for the use of your cottage.”

“See you in two weeks?”

Trent shook Lester’s offered hand. “In two weeks.”

 

Evening air gusting through the open car windows rejuvenated Trent as he followed the bias in the two-lane roadway. Toronto long behind him now, he strained to untangle the stress knots in his psyche.

“Hello? Earth to Trent?”

He glanced over. Melissa dangled a bottle of water between her fingers. Trent uttered an apology. Melissa uncapped the bottle and handed it to him.

“You’ve been a million miles away all evening. Did something happen at the meeting today?”

“No, Lester liked the recut footage. Well, as much as Lester likes anything.”

“So what is it then? Your episode’s been approved and now you’re on a country holiday with your charming wife and beautiful daughter.”

He glanced at her. Melissa winked.

“Oh, I know,” Trent began, “believe me, I know. This is just what I need. Stupid as it sounds, this story got under my skin.”

“That’s not stupid at all,” Melissa returned. “It’s a freaky subject. But it’s just a theory, isn’t it?”

“Well, they do have evidence that Dark Matter is all over the universe, but it’s so alien they can’t figure out its purpose. It just blows me away that there is scientific evidence, proof, that everything we know about reality makes up only four percent of the universe. Four percent! For all our talk of colonizing Mars or beating cancer, we’re like one tiny candle guttering inside a massive cave. And the cave wasn’t designed by us. Or even for us…”

“You know what I think? Even if everything we know is only a little candle that’s going to be snuffed out a billion years from now, so be it. We’re here now, and that’s good enough for me. ”

Trent brought her hand to his lips. “Me too,” he said through a kiss. How he wished that it was the truth.

The last mottles of daylight appeared as coins, freshly burnished and carelessly tossed from above, as the hatchback approached the tiny hamlet, like some mechanized scarab racing to inter the ailing sun.

 

They were gobsmacked to discover that their holiday accommodations were nearer to a beachfront bungalow than a humble cottage. The cold supper they ate on the back deck seemed to nourish not only Trent’s body but also his spirit. At bedtime the three of them were lulled by the susurrus of the distant surf. All was right.

Still the shadows managed to puncture this airtight calm.

Dream spirited Trent back into the bowels of Bell Island. But now the laboratory was submerged in brackish water.

Trent tried to swim but couldn’t. He felt shoed in weighted boots, which made all movement taxing. The liquid was thicker than mere H2O and seemed unwilling to part for him. Instead, it resisted with a pressure that threatened to fracture his bones. The fluid crowded his nostrils, sprang between his clenched teeth to seal his throat like caulking. He knew his only hope was to surface.

He pushed off with a titanic effort. Bits of sediment rushed past him as he swam, yet he saw only black.

As he wriggled upward, the texture of the liquid began to thicken. And this brought an epiphany: Trent was not swimming at all, nor was he about to break the surface of a quarry-like pool. He was being dragged up through the earth, punching through soil, sediment, and concrete, until at last the bed of all ages sought fit to birth him into a realm of unbearable light and warmth.

Twitching, helpless, Trent could do little more than stare up at the men and women encircling him. Their hands gripped the lemon-yellow guard rails, their lab coats glowed like chalk lanterns. Strangers to a one, their expressions varied from utter disbelief to primal horror.

Trent tried to speak, but the sound that emerged was a coarse rasping, like a hacksaw dragging into wire. It echoed through the emptiness above him.

He shot up in bed with a strangled cry. His terror had not disrupted the shallow tide of Melissa’s breathing.

The ashen glow through the windows and the ache behind his eyelids established that it was too early to be awake. Not wishing to risk being dropped back into that nightmare lab, Trent slipped out from beneath the sheet and prepared for a run.

Only the geriatric residents of Pine Bluffs seemed to be up and about at this hour. Their congenial waves or bids of good morning as Trent jogged past their storybook cottages brought a pleasant feeling.

It was chillier along the shore, but Trent used this as motivation to run harder. The lake was the colour of caramel. Gulls alternated between circling the overcast sky and swooping down to peck at the vivid carrion of yesterday’s French fry cups and hamburger wrappers from The Snack Hut.

He turned his attention to the impressive bluffs after which the village had been named. They formed an ambit at the shore, arcing into the water like a great bookend of sun-baked clay. Birches and pines spiked the incline’s face, lent teeth to its summit. It was evocative of a moon crater’s rim—a resemblance that made Trent uneasy.

Movement in his periphery evidenced that Trent was not alone. He turned his head enough to see the beach’s only other sunrise visitor: a whip-thin man whose overtanned skin was the cast of shoe leather. He was dressed only in a gaudy pair of swimming trunks (Trent didn’t enjoy the way the Tiki mask pattern seemed to study his approach) and a dull metal medallion, which looked to be the Star of David, hanging from his spindly neck.

The man was too absorbed in his task to give Trent even a nod. He appeared to gathering sand from the hem where the bluffs melded with the shore. The man’s own slender hands were his only tools. He clawed up handful after handful of the wet granules, stockpiling them into a variety of plastic shopping bags.

“Floodwall?” Trent asked with a smile. When the man did not react, Trent repeated himself, assuming that his own lack of breath had made the question inaudible.

A great mantis in both posture and movement, the old man collected his bagged sand. Several of the bags had already begun to split under their own cargo; clumps and granules hemorrhaging back onto the ground as the man tied them to an almost comical-looking bicycle half-digested by rust. Trent was now near enough to observe that the medallion, which seemed to weigh the man like a ship anchor, was not a Star of David, but a symbol far more cryptic. The bauble was obviously handmade, and crudely at that. Trident spokes and leaf-like curlicues jutted out every which way. And at their point of convergence, was that a rudimentary face?

The stranger straddled his bicycle and began to pedal. He nearly toppled, the sight of which caused Trent to gasp and reach feebly. Velocity righted the cycle, and soon the pack mule of a man reached the dirt road and was gone.

A sneaker wave crashed down, its reach broad enough to wash Trent’s feet. He looked over as the foamy wake ebbed, revealing the pit dug by the old man. The hole was now filled with frothy swirling water, which gave it the appearance of an inhumed cauldron.

…toil and trouble…

He reversed his course and began back to the cottage, walking at first, then, inexplicably, breaking into a wild run.

Seeing Melissa carrying a breakfast tray out onto the back deck brought not relief, but greater panic, for Trent now saw what he stood to lose if he didn’t reach safety in time.

His imaginary pursuit ended with his rambling up the wooden steps and all but collapsing into one of the Adirondack chairs.

“Hi, Daddy!”

Trent hadn’t even noticed Jasmine seated in one of the great chairs until he heard her birdsong voice. Her tiny hand was patting the sanded plank of the chair arm. She leaned forward, her heart-shaped plastic sunglasses darkening her eyes, a smile brightening her already cherubic face.

“Good morning, sweet-pea,” Trent huffed. “Did you sleep well?”

“Yep!”

“Me too.”

Melissa gave him a peck and a mug of coffee-with-cream. “How was your run?”

Trent nodded. “This is a nice place.”

“Beautiful,” Melissa corrected.

“When can we go swimming?” Jasmine asked.

“We’ll see,” Trent replied. His gaze snagged on a brooding cloud in the east. “We may be in for a storm.”

 

The storm didn’t come that day. By noon the sun had burnt through the steely padding of clouds.

Trent returned to the beach, this time with his family, and this time it was now a hive of activity: voices, plashing, a cacophony of radio music; the air fragrant with birch wood and grilling meat.

Trent, Melissa, and Jasmine staked their claim by laying out beach towels on a little patch of sand.

“C’mon, you guys!” Jasmine cried, her chubby feet stomping divots into the sand. Trent took her hand and she tugged him toward the water. The bluffs darkened the edge of his field of vision, but Trent refused to acknowledge them.

The sight of Jasmine so enraptured by the rustic pleasures of sun and surf soothed him. After a while Melissa took over watching Jasmine to allow Trent some swimming time.

Trent submerged himself beneath the waves. The cool dimness, the isolation, the air held tight in his lungs: he felt he had somehow slipped back into his dream.

His surfacing was dramatic, or so he believed. For one awful instant he wondered whether he had indeed become the shrieking thing. But none of the other bathers seemed aware of his existence.

The undertow must have been stronger than Trent realized, for it had whisked him several metres nearer to the bluffs. He was facing them full-on now.

They were the antithesis of the beach, with its all its life and noise and ceaseless motion. The bluffs were austere and silent and staid. Even its trees appeared unwavering. Such stillness made it very easy for Trent to spot the tiny figure traipsing along the top of the bluffs.

Trent cupped his hands and splashed some water on his face in the thin hope this would cleanse the apparition. When it didn’t, he made his way back to shore.

Melissa and Jasmine were huddled under the meagre shade of a staked umbrella.

“Jasmine’s shoulders were getting a little pink,” Melissa explained.

“Why don’t we head back now? I’ll drive into town for more groceries.”

“Aw, I don’t wanna go!” Jasmine cried.

“We’ll come back tomorrow, sweet-pea. Besides, I need you to pick out the ice cream for dessert.”

It was all the incentive Jasmine required. They returned to the cottage just long enough for Trent to fetch his car keys, and then they piled into the hatchback and drove to the barn-like grocery outlet they’d spotted on their way in.

Cornucopia was its name; a co-op that looked to be run by survivors of the Age of Aquarius. The cashier was congenial, chatting up Trent while she tallied their bill. Melissa and Jasmine took the bags to the car while Trent finished the transaction.

“Oh,” the cashier blurted, her eyes locked on something beyond their large show window, “here comes old Isaac. Have you seen him pedalling around the village yet?”

Trent heard the copper pipe chimes above the entrance begin to clang. He shook his head but could not bring himself to turn around.

The cashier spoke sotto voce: “Comes in here every afternoon without fail. And he always buys the same stuff. Canned goods mostly; soup, lentils, that sort of thing. I kid him about stockpiling for Doomsday, but I don’t think Isaac gets the joke.”

Trent heard the methodical scuffling of feet passing across the oiled wood floor. He grabbed his receipt and hastened for the door.

 

Trent spent more energy trying to keep his anxieties in check than he did cooking dinner. The food was delicious, but Melissa wasn’t swallowing his forced joviality. Over dessert Jasmine began to show signs of too much sun and surf, so Melissa tucked her in early. When she returned to the deck she was armed with two glasses of white wine.

“So?” she asked.

Trent shrugged.

“You’ve not been yourself since you got back from that damned assignment. What’s troubling you? Still this Dark Matter business?”

He sighed with authentic resignation. “I honestly don’t know. I just have this heavy feeling. I’ve had it since I went down into that damned lab. I don’t seem able to shake it.”

“But you’ve covered stories far more disturbing than this, hon. Teen shootings, sweatshops, terrorist cells…”

“I know, but I was able to wrap my head around those. I’d almost always uncover at least some of the causes behind the problem: poverty, loopholes in corporate law, whatever. Those cases would always offer at least some promise of a solution. But this…”

His words trailed off. Melissa reached over and entangled her fingers with his. They sat and looked skyward; Melissa at the gleaming stars, Trent at the cold hollow between them.

Trent did not dream of Dark Matter that night. He did not dream at all. Dreams require sleep, and Trent knew none. Even his reliable trick of monitoring his breathing failed to lull him.

He shut his eyes and fought to shut off his brain.

But Night was lodged within his head. Constellations shimmered and blinked. They were smeared across the seemingly endless curve of his calvaria, like his very own planetarium. Between and beyond the nuggets of silver light stretched the vacuum of dead space; still and lightless and seemingly silent.

Seemingly, for there was a grating, grinding sound; underlying and ever-present, like the gears of some unfathomable machine turning, slowly turning…

He was being drawn into the black gaps. Trent felt himself being pulled like a hooked fish into that abyss where even the flesh is forbidden. He struggled to pull back, but was lost in a magnetic field. Black grit whisked about him like granules in a sandstorm. It stung and froze his flesh. In a mere heartbeat Trent felt himself encased in scales of this light-eating armor.

There was purpose in their assault.

The specks of nothingness dug into Trent’s flesh until every pore became a socket embedded with a minute onyx eye. At once, these billion eyes sprung open. Trent Fenner became Sight itself; omniscience, the chariot that bore all the Dark Matter whose reality was not ours. In this new unlighted form, Trent tasted the colours of sounds, he seized the great cold knowledge that secrets itself within the rasping of the stars.

He understood, knew. No, more: Trent was Radiant.

He bolted up in bed, his sight instantly, mercifully dwindled down to a pair of a mortal eyes that witnessed the bedroom in pre-dawn gloom. Although he was not an emotional man, even in times of duress, Trent began to cry. The fount of his sorrow was so deep it was incomprehensible to him. He pulled his aching body out of bed and crossed the cottage to the room where Jasmine slept soundly. He meditated on how dear she was to him.

How miraculous to be able to love, he thought.

Almost mindlessly, Trent donned his sweats and his runners.

He took to the dirt road, allowing blind instinct to guide him.

 

The footpath that fed off the shore and up onto the bluffs was thoroughly unremarkable; an almost unnoticeable strip of dirt that was only nominally less stony and weed-entangled than the untamed areas on either side of it.

Trent found the incline almost insurmountable. The sheerness of it caused his thighs to tighten and, seemingly, to ignite. His breathing was ludicrously laboured, as though he had reached some impossible altitude, when in fact he was scarcely above the tree-line. His fatigue baffled him. He had run much harder, over much more arduous terrain, and for much longer spans of time.

By now the sun was layering the lake with a netting of glints. Magpie-like, Trent fell under the spell of the distant shimmer until an obstacle on the path tripped him up. The object entangled around Trent’s ankles, acting as a tripwire. He smashed down on the path, the breath instantly banished from his lungs. Pain speared through his ankle. His hands, bearing the bloody stigmata of tiny stones, reached down to remove whatever had ensnared him.

It was a plastic shopping bag. Dregs of wet sand lined its inner creases.

He was tearing it from his feet when he noticed the shadow staining the path.

Trent twisted his head to a painful degree, but all he could discern was a figure made coal-smudge-anonymous by the rising sun behind it.

Righting himself put on more weight than his ankle could bear.

Trent stumbled to one side and came to rest upon the bluffs.

Isaac (Trent could clearly see him now) had turned away from his intruder and resumed working. The same swimming trunk Tiki masks watched Trent even when the old man couldn’t be bothered.

Trent found himself oddly entranced by Isaac’s labours. The crouching old man reached blindly for handful after handful of wet sand, culling it from the pile of bulging shopping bags beside him.

Isaac made a sudden sense to Trent: his eccentric attire, his aloofness, his peculiar reputation among the locals. He was an artist. Trent had interviewed enough of them last year for a story on homeless people who elaborately decorated alley walls and sidewalks with chalk drawings, many of which were astonishingly beautiful.

His journalistic instincts stoked, Trent pulled himself up and hobbled over to peek at Isaac’s work-in-progress.

What he found was a hole bored deep into the bluff. Isaac was crouched at the lip of it, pouring handful after handful of clumpy sand into the aperture. Unless this was some Zen practice, Isaac was engaged in a fool’s chore. Trent eyed the pit, then that morning’s stockpile of beach sand. It was like a reverse version of the old fable about bailing out the ocean with a teaspoon.

Reposing next to Isaac was a chunk of dark matter.

Of course this black rock (likely volcanic glass) wasn’t true Dark Matter, but its similarity to the computer-generated models used in his news story was strong enough to frighten Trent.

“I let it out.” The creaking voice reminded Trent of an old gate swinging on rusty hinges. “Don’t tell nobody. I let it out, but it wasn’t nothing but an accident. Righting wrongs takes time, but I’m trying. See? I’m trying.”

Another fistful of sand was ground between Isaac’s palms like baker’s flour. Into the hole it fell. Another reach, more sand. Trent could actually see Isaac’s joints bucking and twitching within his scrawny frame like pistons of bone.

“Is there anything I can do? Why don’t I get you some breakfast? You look like you could use it.”

Isaac shook his longish head. “Too late for that now. All the eggs are broken anyway. You think you’re smart enough to put them back together? I’d like to see you try!” There was a flare of indignation in his voice. He clasped the wiry medallion and brought it to his lips.

“Can you tell me what happened here, Isaac?” He had slipped into reporter-mode; a state of mind that brought Trent both comfort and confidence, if for no other reason than that it afforded him a sense of detachment from his surroundings.

“I’m trying to fix this!”

“Fix what?”

Isaac fed a few more grains to the shadow.

Trent tried to swallow but found his throat a sandy tunnel. “What’s down there, Isaac?”

“Hardly anything now,” Isaac replied. “I told you, I let it out. Every night I’d hear it scraping and scratching inside the earth here. Every morning I’d pray that the noises would stop. Finally I came up here and did what I thought it wanted; I dug it out.

“I know it was a mistake. I know that now. So all I can do is try to right the wrong and try to fill the whole thing up so it’ll stop leaking out.”

“So what will stop leaking out?”

“It’s spoiling everything, everything it touches. And that big empty is getting into everything. I found this black rock here to plug the hole. I thought it would be fooled by the black colour, that it’d think this was still an open hole. It didn’t work.” Isaac held up his crude pendant. “I’m pretty safe though. I built myself a seal for protection. I’m airtight. But you? I don’t see a seal. You’re a fool coming up here without one. You’re a damned fool.” An eel of nausea began to wriggle in Trent’s stomach, swimming up with such velocity it seemed to set the whole Earth spinning. He shut his eyes and saw dark amoebas splattering and splashing against his eyelids; tassels of midnight lustre that shrivelled as quickly as they thrived.

He was absorbing them now, eating this Dark Matter, his eyelids chewing the particles, his brain digesting them. Whether they were invading him from the open bluffs or whether he’d been contaminated in the old iron-ore mine was irrelevant. These seeds were beginning to hatch. They sprouted teeth and they were eating him, gutting him. Trent could feel them chewing up his muscles and bones, rendering him hollow. They passed through him like a rapid, ravenous cancer. And once he’d been voided of organ and bone, sinew and breath, Trent experienced the awful rasping sound as the Dark Matter grated and spun and revelled in the great absence within him.

He touched his chest. The lack of a protective talisman drained all the strength from his body.

Now intoxicated, Trent staggered helplessly back along the path.

Despite this drama and din, Isaac remained riveted by his task.

 

Trent hid among the pines until he felt he had his contagion under control.

He eventually returned to the cottage, telling Melissa that he’d gone for an especially long run this morning. She informed him that they were going to the beach after lunch. Trent layered himself in clothing to keep anything from radiating outward.

“You’re going to roast!” she declared as Trent exited the patio door.

He stood dumb, dazed.

“Beach, mommy!” Jasmine cried.

They walked.

The beach was even busier than yesterday. Youth was everywhere. The only people Trent spotted who appeared older than him were the shore-bound fishermen stationed in their lawn chairs in the shallows.

They staked out their spot. At Jasmine’s bouncing insistence, Melissa helped her wriggle into her water wings. Trent, overdressed in long trousers and a jacket, refused to lower himself down onto the granules. Nor would he heed the voiceless beckon of the bluffs. He looked out across the water and wondered how many more days of sunlight were left.

“Trent!”

He turned to see Melissa hunched before Jasmine. “For the fourth time, where is her lifejacket?”

Trent looked about foolishly. “I…I must have left it at the cottage.”

“I wanna swim, mommy!”

Melissa sighed. “Can you go back and get it?”

“Hmm?”

“Never mind,” she huffed, pushing herself to her feet. “I’ll go. Watch her, please. She’s got her water wings, so she can go in, just not too far.”

“Right.”

“Trent?”

He looked at her.

“Watch her.”

He pushed his mouth into what he hoped was a reassuring grin. Judging by Melissa’s reaction, it was not.

Trent took Jasmine’s hand. Her palm was like a tiny silk pillow. They parted the water.

Jasmine slid her fingers free and began to stomp the shallows. Her steps caused water to bounce up like miniature fountains in the air. The tide flowed and ebbed. Overhead, gulls spun out precise spiral patterns.

A slow and silent tide also touched Trent from within. In no time it subsumed him. Trent saw the sky as a great murky ocean, pouring its Dark Matter down like sand through a sieve.

The scope of it, the indifference it exuded as it went through its bewildering machinations—these stifled Trent.

All was silent and dim; human activity was dimming, like candles guttering out one by one.

But then the candles began to brighten, raging against this meta-darkness. There was a flaring.

There was a crescendo of ugly sounds.

Trent snapped his head, and the Dark Universe was once more hidden behind a bright and busy mask. A stark image filled his eyes: a tiny figure in a shell of many colours, twitching just below the water’s surface.

“Mister!” yelled a male voice.

The fishermen had sprung from their lawn chairs as quickly as their aged bones would allow. Their poles were jerking about as though they had live wires in their spinners.

The men were waist-deep in the water now. One had scooped a bulky shape from the waves while the other ever-so-gently manoeuvred the fishing line.

The sight of Jasmine’s head hanging limp and heavy from the crook of the fisherman’s arm summoned in Trent a feeling that was far worse than being emptied. It mangled his heart. The alpha and omega of all life blazed from the crushed and dripping form that was drooped over the old man’s arms like a boned fish.

With trembling hands the second fisherman removed the last loop of the nylon line that had wound itself around Jasmine’s neck. They laid on her on the sand. Trent scuttled over to her, howling, his movements as alien-looking as a crab’s crawl. He positioned Jasmine’s head and attempted the Kiss of Life.

Even in the cold, thick mire of his dread, Trent was somehow still aware of his contagion. The grinding voice in his head assured him that he would not be saving Jasmine, he would be poisoning her; breathing into her the tainted black particles of the mine shaft and of the gutted bluffs.

He sat up to draw in a fresh breath. Jasmine was still.

An eagle-like scream pierced through the murmurs that were swirling above Trent. All heads turned to see Melissa standing near The Snack Shack, the lifejacket hanging needlessly from her fist. She dropped it and ran forward.

Trent arched down to exhale again. He was abruptly shoved aside.

He remained slumped in the shallows, his clothing growing cold and heavy with the tide, and watched as Melissa did what his toxic self could not.

Jasmine convulsed. Melissa began to weep as she turned her child onto her side and saw water and saliva trickle out of the tiny mouth. Jasmine began to cough, and then to cry. She sounded like a mewling cat. Melissa kissed her sand-encrusted hair and sobbingly urged her to breathe, breathe…

“Thank God,” one of the fishermen said. “Thank God. I’m terribly sorry, ma’am. Your little one, she was starting to stray over to where our lines were cast. We tried to warn your husband. We didn’t see her go under. We didn’t know she’d gotten tangled up right away. I’m just…Thank God, ma’am.” He patted Jasmine’s head delicately, as though she might shatter at his touch.

 

Melissa carried her back to the cottage, cooing to her, telling her how brave she was and how none of this was her fault. By the time they reached the back deck Jasmine was no longer crying.

Trent lagged behind, a pack mule burdened with all the cargo that was infinitely less precious than Jasmine.

He was not yet at their yard when Melissa flung open the sliding glass door to announce that she was driving Jasmine to the hospital to be examined. She did not ask Trent to join them.

Their vehicle roared out of the driveway and down the country lane. Trent dropped the beach items on the lawn and shuffled to the cottage’s living room, where he fell into one of the wicker bucket chairs.

It was dusk before Melissa returned. She entered the cottage with a bag from a fast-food chain. She uttered only two words to Trent: “She’s fine.”

She and Jasmine dined in the kitchen. Trent did not join them, but instead went to lie down.

The night deepened. Melissa had obviously opted to sleep next to Jasmine in her bedroom.

When Trent had at long last managed to shake the pieces into a pattern, he understood what had to be done. Still dressed in yesterday’s clothing, he crept to the doorway where he lingered to watch the two most beloved things in the world to him sleeping peacefully.

Melissa had intervened in time. Jasmine hadn’t been poisoned by him. But Trent could not run the risk of such a thing happening again. The indifference of the universe, which had somehow come to house itself in his heart, had to remain his alone. He could not let it leak out to spoil his loved ones.

He slipped outside and began to walk. He tried to jog but found that his black lungs were strained even by the mildest activity. It was coming to a head much quicker than Trent had suspected.

It was still dark when he reached the empty bluffs. Isaac was likely enjoying a well-earned rest somewhere.

He found the chunk of blood-black glass that doubled as both marker and plug. He rolled it free, allowing fresh Darkness to geyser up and out, but only momentarily.

Trent climbed down into the pit and began to rake the cold earth down onto himself. The grains wedged themselves beneath his fingernails and they gloved his palms. He pulled down enough sand to keep him snug. Then he reclined his head and waited.

Pent with folded limbs and arched neck, Trent shut his eyes and tempered his breathing. The sand seemed to be grinding in his ears, chirping in the mad language of birds, or in the secret tongue of the Conqueror Worm.

The longer Trent lingered, the more acute his aerial sense became. In time he was able to see clearly, despite the narrow womb that would not spore him, despite his tightly shut eyes. He had been right. Melissa would never know it, nor, thankfully, would Jasmine, but he was right. Science had delivered Trent into this heart of darkness, but Nature had provided him with the means to save his family from this fate.

Trent’s eyelashes were dewy. He could feel the Dark Matter gathering on his skin like some type of cosmic pollen. It was vacuum-cold, but Trent had already reached the point of acceptance.

Above, Isaac arrived and resumed his labours. A fresh quantity of beach sand was flung. As was his custom, Isaac did not look down into the pit as he worked. He knew well enough what was down there; something primordially impure, something that needed to be sealed in for good and all. He had lugged up fewer bags than usual, sensing perhaps that his chore was not as endless as he’d long believed. Intermittently he fingered the sigil around his neck.

Though neither man was aware of the other’s presence, somehow, at that liminality where all thought dovetails, both men intuited that today, at long last, it would be accomplished. Today would be the end.

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