Jonathan Thomas is the author of numerous short stories that have appeared in Fantasy and Terror, Studies in the Fantastic, and other magazines. His first short story collection, Stories from the Big Black House (Radio Funk, 1992), is a rare collector's item; a second collection, Midnight Call and Other Stories, appeared in 2008 from Hippocampus Press.
ustin, till a month ago, had never expected to be here again, but three decades and several dead-end career later, he was back as an "honored alumnus," no less. The room, true to memory, was on the scale of a hospital ward, and the walls were a dull aseptic white, typical of countless other gallery spaces. His photos were of "The Beautiful and the Condemned: Parting Shots," and were on a two-week sojourn in Providence between exhibits in Boston and Philly.
From humble beginnings as snapshots of lopsided red barns, his work had evolved into highly polarized, finely etched silver nitrates of charming landscapes, buildings, or neighborhoods about to be bulldozed for development. Their pathos had touched a mainstream nerve somehow, earning him grants, and articles in the New York Times, and NPR interviews, and calendar contracts. Meanwhile, the irony of displaying these images someplace that stood atop a former charming site was evidently lost on the faculty, homecoming alum, and students at the opening, bless their uncritical hearts. If his alma mater wanted to show him off as a successful graduate, he guessed he could live with that much boosterism. No, nothing much had changed about the List Art Building since grad school, except he strongly doubted he'd run into the ghost of H. P. Lovecraft tonight.
Justin, in fact, had never set foot in the building after that incident. He'd been offsetting his tuition as a night watchman for Campus Security, and had refused any further assignments there, and what's more, he'd admitted why. And why not? He saw what he saw, and youthful principles dictated he "tell it like it is," in the parlance of the day. True, he'd been reading up on Lovecraft for his Comparative Literature thesis about local-color fantasists, so he knew that Lovecraft's Early American home had been uprooted and towed over the hill to make way for the List Building. Untrue, however, were rumors he'd been on acid, as fabricated by those intent on a "common sense" rationale for any brush with the supernatural. Luckily, suspicions of drug use rendered nobody a pariah at the time, or the entire university population would have been on the outs with itself. Vexing enough that LSD and "some space cadet" figured in every recap overheard at parties, or worse, thrown back in his face by unknowing raconteurs.
In any case, the unvarnished facts had remained in Justin's drug-free head, and one of the more remarkable was that the ghost had behaved exactly as he'd have anticipated. Justin, in baggy blue uniform, had been on midnight rounds in the building and had entered the room where his work would someday surround him. Track lighting with dimmers set extremely low barely alleviated the darkness; there were no windows.
From out of the murk burst someone pacing rapidly, who nearly collided head-on with Justin before performing a lastsecond about-face and pacing away. Justin had time only to gasp and stumble to a halt, heart thumping, while the trespasser paced toward him and away once more. At second glance, Justin took note of short hair parted on the left above a high forehead, a thin lipped mouth that seemed small because of a substantial chin, and a gaunt physique in a 1930s suit replete with white shirt and black tie. The similarity to Lovecraft in off-register photos on yellowing newsprint was unmistakable.
In keeping with his fitful stride, the revenant's expression was of confusion and distress, readily understandable in anyone who found himself in a bleak hall where his snug parlor should be, and in someone so skeptical of the spirit world who was suddenly one of its denizens. Trembling Justin drew flashlight from belt holster and asked meekly, and sympathetically he hoped, "Can I help you?"
The ectoplasm must have been too delicate to withstand spoken vibrations. The agitated Lovecraft failed to re-emerge from the shadows. Darting flashlight beam detected no one anywhere in the gallery. Justin hightailed it out of there, pausing only to lock up behind him with unsteady hands. Thus began and ended his sole occult adventure.
None of his instructors or classmates were at the opening. Good! Chances were minimal of having to endure urban legends about himself. By the grace of free wine, though, numerous alum, whether staid and middle-aged or impossibly young, saw fit to buttonhole him on ever more familiar terms. He extended cordial thanks for generic compliments, even when some cranelike dowager pumped his hand and actually exclaimed, "Nice captures!" And what harm in disclosing that he lived in the Catskills, and that he wasn't going to the "big game" tomorrow against Princeton because he hated football? Or that he was staying on Benefit Street at a Victorian bed-and-breakfast, yes, every bit as quaint and genteel as it sounded, maybe a little rich for his blood in fact. Did he travel with his family? He'd been twice married in haste and divorced at leisure, thanks for asking. "Irreconcilable differences of standards and values," he explained, "but everyone's amicable. The exes are too humane to try squeezing alimony from a stone. Anyway, no children, thank God!" Was Justin coming off as brusque? No matter, if it kept tipsy parents from bragging about their overachiever kids. He'd been hitting the wine himself, after all, and was at the point of wishing Lovecraft's ghost would reappear, if only to light a fire under this whitebread crowd.
Aha, someone with whom Justin needed a word was crossing his line of vision. Dr. Palazzo, head of the Pictorial Arts division and a darling of ARTnews and its slick-paper ilk, was homing in on a few equally overdressed attendees. Sturdy Dr. Palazzo exuded brash corporate airs in powder-blue three-piece suit, yellow tie, and wavy silver hair too majestic to be real. Had he ever in his life so much as handled a crayon? He came across as governor of a military occupation, but Justin steeled himself and essayed an engaging smile. Reimbursement for lodgings had been a condition before Justin agreed to wedge this fortnight into his itinerary at the last minute. The exhibit would otherwise have gone into storage at his Boston or Philadelphia venues, and he'd have been home resting up days ago. Typo-laden e-mails from the gallery director promised that only the formality of Palazzo's signature stood between Justin and repayment, but he had yet to hear a straight answer about that after a full day in town.
Justin flagged Palazzo down and introduced himself. Palazzo congratulated him on the show without acting especially impressed. He was clearly en route to more important conversations. Justin presented his case with all due tact, while ruminating that the sum in question wouldn't have bought one of Palazzo's shoes. Palazzo's curt advice was to discuss petty cash with the gallery director.
"She referred me to you," claimed Justin, a shade archly.
"I can't do anything right now." Oh? That much "petty cash," and then some, was probably wadded up in Palazzo's back pocket.
"Why don't I drop by your office Monday morning? What time is convenient for you?" Justin swallowed a belch an instant before it was too late.
"You'll have to call my secretary." Palazzo rushed off before Justin could say anything else.
The gallery director had been across the room all along, but Justin didn't want to make her evening any worse. She looked like hell. Curly brunette strands were stuck to her clammy brow, her eyes were bulging, and she was dividing frazzled attention between a cell phone and the micromanagement of slowpoke undergrads in catering uniforms. Dr. Palazzo, meanwhile, was hobnobbing with the impeccable few, as if nobody else were around. Justin downed one more plastic goblet of Chablis and slunk out and down the hill to Benefit Street.
He awoke in a sweat under fleece comforter. Between the cushy down-filled mattress and the hiss of a radiator going full blast before Columbus Day, he felt decadent as much as overheated. He also felt he might have been a bit uncharitable toward last night's attendees, and even Dr. Palazzo. He couldn't, in fairness, object if the lives of others led them to perspectives different from his own.
According to bedside digital clock, it was earlier than he thought. He could still catch the tail-end of breakfast. He rolled out of bed and into the bedraggled, off-balance aftermath of more plastic goblets than he cared to tally. In the dining room downstairs, the other guests had come and gone, and the staff had yet to clear the self-serve table. Justin grabbed three cups of coffee to be sure they'd be there when he wanted them, along with croissants and orange juice. The second cup was lukewarm, but did the trick. His frilly surroundings became sunnier, and he gamely conceded that even if they were overly precious, they attracted the clientele without whom this address might devolve into one of his silver nitrates. Justin had been pleased to find the East Side pretty much as he'd left it, thus far at least, including Geoff's Sandwiches, still in business across the street. Or did it use to be Joe's?
Justin had wisely packed an okay digital camera, to make the best of imposed leisure. The B&B counted homecoming as a "special weekend" and obliged him to book three nights, which was just as well, in view of Monday morning business. At a whim, he headed south on gloriously unchanging Benefit Street, and at the first major intersection spotted a white cardboard rectangle taped below a "No Left Turn" sign. Big black letters proclaimed "Alumni Tent," with an arrow pointing up the curve of Waterman Street. The phrase put Justin in mind of a circus, and despite the low odds of reality bearing him out, he opted to go see what was what.
The street skirted the drab, postwar School of Design campus and the List Building again and the venerable Main Green of the university, and at the corner of shopping-strip Thayer Street another white placard directed him one block farther, where an arrow sent him north. He winced at vinyl siding on historic walls in a neighborhood that should have known better, and then smiled. A circus tent indeed dominated the little urban meadow of Pembroke Field. Clusters of red, white, and brown balloons bobbed at the tent entrance and along the chain-link fence around the field.
The illusion of a Big Top dissolved as soon as Justin trudged amidst a gaggle of merry old graduates through the gate. Demographically, he was back at the gallery opening, only with a much stronger turnout here, and the addition of many babies in strollers. A guy in a cartoonish bear costume was posing for photos with happy couples. Justin was mildly amused at his inability to look upon the jaunty mascot without thinking "narc." Name tags adhered to the majority of sweaters and jackets, and sociable babel emanated from a dining area where a pregame box brunch was underway. The "Alumni Pub" was doing a lively business, and Justin vetoed the passing thought of a beer to wash down breakfast.
These people were having fun, and more power to them, but black loneliness latched onto him and gnawed deeper, the longer he steeped himself in the festivities. He had a master's degree from this school, and every right to be here, and had come at departmental behest, hadn't he? But he wasn't feeling particularly "honored," and suspected that the Gallery Director's invitation to him had somehow fueled bad politics between her and Palazzo. He also suspected that somebody sooner or later would notice him languishing in solitary discomfort and ask him to leave. He needed no outside confirmation that he didn't belong. Out on the sidewalk, he breathed easier.
He retreated to Thayer Street, and his eyes widened in immediate dismay. Damn his vivid recollections! A dorm complex with red and green brick façade, like a dull-witted kid's Lego project, had replaced a row of classic Victorian mansions, mansard roofs and gingerbread eaves and all. He continued down Thayer and wished he could stop himself. He remembered a second-hand bookshop notorious for buying stolen collections, and a locksmith whose illegal dupes of dorm keys abetted countless student flings, and a hole-in-the-wall deli where a grouchy octogenarian sold expired yogurt and treated the customer like a sissy for not eating it, gray fuzz and all. These and other upwellings of robust personality had no latter-day counterparts. Clothing and restaurant chains were in ascendancy, some chichi, some tacky, but all with deep pockets to absorb the likely sky-high rents. Something he didn't recall was the excessive number of trust fund babies out making fashion statements. He had meager faith in the survival of a record store, a pizza joint, and a few other mom-and-pop operations beyond their next lease renewals. To discover a new generation of panhandlers in front of Store 24 was heartening, though he wasn't about to waste any cash on them. A little scruffiness, a little waywardness remained of the Runyonesque street of his less uptight era. That was the kindest spin he could manage.
Thayer outside the commercial strip was even more appalling. His mental map contained a neighborhood with attractive houses, a popular breakfast place, a clothier who specialized in dated formalwear, and a corner grocer's—Boar's Head Market, wasn't it? Progress, or science, or capitalism, if any distinction applied in this context, had rolled over all of it, and on its dust the university had installed gigantic barracks of lab facilities and gussied-up bunkers of congested dorms. Regrets about hanging his work anywhere on this overreaching campus were weighing more heavily on him. He was glad Lovecraft couldn't see any of this pox of oppressive architecture. Or could he? What was a ghost, and what was the extent of its awareness, its powers of observation? Justin's mind wandered aimlessly in and out of these meditations, while his feet led him back to the solace of Benefit Street. He was sure now only of what he had been sure of all along: he had not been on hallucinogens, that night in List.
He ordered lunch at Geoff's, where sandwiches bore the names of local celebs, none of whom rang a bell. He took his Antoinette Downing a few blocks north, into the secluded old graveyard behind the stately Episcopal cathedral. Poe had courted Sarah Helen Whitman here, and Justin thought he'd read somewhere that Lovecraft had done likewise with his fiancée Sonia. He tried reviving the tradition one night while dating his first wife-to-be, till a humorless geezer cradling a yappy pug appeared at a window overlooking the churchyard and threatened to call the cops on them for "scaring everyone half to death." Today Justin sat on a tabletop sarcophagus off to one remote side and ate in peace. For all he knew, the humorless geezer was buried somewhere in here.
At the B&B again, he slept all afternoon under the fleece comforter, without breaking a sweat. His eyes opened to the waning hour when the outlines of things softened, though he could still navigate by natural light. He retained no contents of any dreams, yet was firmly convinced he'd been dreaming. Or more precisely, he had the sensation of something external impinging on his sleeping self, which, according to received wisdom, had altered the course of those dreams he'd otherwise forgotten. Room service? Intruders? He gave the bedroom a wary once-over and switched on bedside lamp. Neither his duffel nor the items on top of his bureau showed signs of disturbance. He was picking up none of the eerie vibes he imagined would accompany a haunting. If he couldn't shake the feeling of having been watched, then he'd sensibly ascribe it to pigeons on the windowsill.
What he needed now was to get out and walk, preferably in the direction of supper. He had done nothing to work up an appetite, but hunger pangs and a nervous energy were prodding him toward the door. The East Side had depressed him enough for one day. Grabbing the camera, he headed west, confident of eating well on Federal Hill.
A Holiday Inn on the far side of downtown doubled as a gigantic, informal welcome sign to the Hill, luckily for Justin. Traversing the business district, he felt like a rat in a water-maze. His most substantial old landmarks were proving ephemeral. A puny three decades had obliterated railroad trestles, Civil War monument, a huge department store, the bus station, and a sprawling annex of the state university. He peevishly navigated around the multiple sore thumbs of upstart high-rises and was never happier to be making steady headway toward a shamelessly boxlike hotel. He hadn't planned on going in, but there he was at the desk, asking an aloof clerk about the availability of rooms on Monday. Not a problem, allegedly. All the college types in town for girls' hockey or whatever were checking out tomorrow. Justin said he might be back, and the clerk grunted and re-entrenched himself in a sudoku book.
Like a great X marking the spot, a four-membered arch now spanned the beginning of Atwells Avenue. By way of keystone it featured an outsize bronze pinecone, or maybe a pineapple. He rejoiced at recognizing the Old Canteen and Blue Grotto, evocative fixtures from yesteryear, and still prosperous. But on his budget, he was more delighted about the warm light from the windows at Angelo's. Inside, the tin ceiling and white enamel tables and the menus nailed like eye charts to big square support posts conceivably looked the same as in 1971 or 1931. And at 5:30, he had his pick of the seats. A chipper waitress called him "sweetie" as she placed his order for sausage, peppers, and French fries, with a glass of the house red. No knots of fat or gristle were hiding in the sausage, the clear outer skin sloughed right off the peppers, and the fries had entered the kitchen as fresh potatoes. The burgundy wasn't bad, either. Justin tapped the bottom of the glass to coax the last drops into his mouth, and pushed away from the table, contented, and thought, This is the good life for me. Should that be so hard? Plus, Justin had beaten the dinner crunch! He left a nice tip and continued up Atwells.
Bewilderment made his steps drag at times. What had happened to the solidly Italian enclave of yesteryear? Chinese and Caribbean takeouts, a nouveau hippie coffee house, an Indian eatery felt incongruous, as if plunked down by some cosmic joker. And where to go from here? The night was in its infancy. If he wasn't mistaken, one of the Lovecraft sites mentioned in his thesis was a few blocks away. Maybe the Historical Society had bolted a commemorative plaque to its door by now.
Justin gradually sped up from minute to minute, till he identified the silhouette of a church across a tiny courtyard. He peered more closely and harrumphed. No, this wasn't it. Too recent, and too wholesome for a horror yarn. And he had gone too far. He was well over the hilltop and halfway down to Olneyville, if memory served. This, unlike the locale in the story, wouldn't be visible from Lovecraft's address on College Hill.
He backtracked. How had he missed an entire church? He had a bad feeling about an open space at the corner of Sutton Street. The sidewalk widened into a modest plaza, with an ash-gray disk embedded at its center. He glossed its incised text by streetlight, and by the third line was too incensed to follow the rest. Since its founding in 1875, the Catholic church of St. John had been important to "many ethnic groups" and in local working-class history. Then in 1994 it was demolished. Just like that. Persons unknown to him had designated the resultant vacant lot a park and relinquished it as a "gift to the city."
Disgusted, Justin glared past the plaza and the remnant church steps toward a curb-bound circle of dirt with sparse patches of defeated-looking grass. On the outer perimeter was one park bench, paintless, with a number of broken slats. To its left, springing mushroomlike from the soil, was a pair of cement tables with inlaid checkerboards, flanked by three and four cement chairs, respectively. These furnishings wore a thick coat of rustorange paint, which reinforced an appearance of being salvaged from a fast-food chain. So even in 1990s Providence, a repository of clear-cut neighborhood and literary value could come to this. What good would it do, though, to burst a blood vessel over other people's disordered priorities?
A wire fence behind the bench denoted one edge of the property. Beyond were three tenements: beige, with flat roof; blue, with pitched roof; and green, with hipped roof. A powerful security light between the uppermost windows in the blue house cast a surprising level of brightness on the park grounds. From stark shadow in back of the checker tables, somebody was careering straight at him. Getting mugged would be the perfect finish for a day like today!
Justin was too stunned to utter a sound and grew faint at a face-to-face glimpse of his assailant, who suddenly U-turned away into the darkness. He stood motionless as the restive ghost of H. P. Lovecraft strode out of the shadows again and beckoned earnestly at arm's-length perigee before withdrawing once more. On Lovecraft's third approach, Justin's professional reflexes nudged him into raising his camera, popping the lens cap, and shooting a rapidfire sequence. His hands were trembling, but at least the automatic flash didn't scare off Lovecraft the way his voice had. In fact, the apparition paused longer and beckoned more demandingly. Maybe verbal communication would work this time. His hands became steadier as he continued to shoot. He gazed through the viewfinder upon Lovecraft's forlorn expression and felt sorry for him, and was at a loss for words. Nonetheless, he wasn't about to follow anyone's ghost into blind obscurity. Lovecraft, a little sadder it seemed, turned on his heel and did not return a fourth time.
Justin lowered the camera and self-consciously checked hither and yon. No other pedestrians were around, and the occasional motorist had tooled by as if nothing unusual was going on. Moreover, the inner-city scene was getting to him now more than when a ghost was flitting through it, because the security light, which must have had some finicky sort of motion sensor, had gone out, to swamp everything beyond the church steps in uneasy mystery.
Justin was shaken, of course, and perplexed, but as he stooped to grope against the paving stones and miraculously find his discarded lens cap, he realized he was also famished as if he'd never had supper, and more antsy than ever, as if some longawaited desire were near fulfillment. But what did he have in the offing that wouldn't pale beside the sight of a spirit? He had no conscious inkling, and concluded he was too hungry and overwrought for his mind to be doing right by him.
The dinner crunch was just ending as he re-entered Angelo's. His previous table was available, and the chipper waitress remarked that he must really like the food here. He chose the gnocchi because nothing else would be as filling, with sides of rabe and eggplant parm and a half-carafe of the red. The waitress beamed as if gluttony were admirable and called him "sugar." If he looked like he'd seen a ghost, she didn't make anything of it.
And what about the ghost? Justin was in the hapless middle of an emotional pileup, dazed, indignant, intrigued, anxious, excited. Still, his thoughts kept looping back to certain vagaries of what he'd witnessed. He attacked his food and pondered how the ectoplasmic Lovecraft had successfully crossed town but upon arrival was confined, with a single variation in gesture, to performing exactly the same motions as in the List Building. Ghosts might be prone to stereotypy, but that seemed too glib an answer.
Nor was Sutton Street where Justin would have staged a rendezvous if he were in Lovecraft's position. True, the church of St. John had some importance as a story setting, but to Justin's knowledge Lovecraft had only seen it from a few miles' distance. Any number of places closer to home must have been more meaningful to him. Why not materialize at one of those? And why Justin? Twice? Whatever the unquiet spirit wanted, countless others had to be better qualified to help. Yet he'd never heard of Lovecraft haunting anyone else.
He regarded his three clean plates and empty decanter. Everything had been tasty, he'd swear to that, but he couldn't remember consuming any of it. He'd eaten like one possessed. Fortunately, none of the other customers were staring as if he'd been boorish about it.
He got a cannoli to sweeten the return trek through downtown. The ricotta filling burst through cracks in the pastry casing, so his hands were a mess when it finally hit him that he could review all his occult images in-camera this very second, while walking down the street. Going digital was about to pay off already! He stopped himself an inch away from smearing expensive technology with sticky fingerprints. Back in the B&B, he fastidiously washed and dried his hands, but afterward scarcely had the energy to undress before toppling into bed, as if someone somewhere had thrown a lever and cut off his jitters of the last few hours. The pictures would wait.
The heat in his room next morning bordered on stifling, and an unpleasant hint of scorched mold laced the air, a byproduct of antique steam pipes, Justin reckoned. He also awoke with a heightened perception of being an outsider, of not belonging, an echo of what he'd felt at Pembroke Field yesterday, but he connected it now in some dreamtime logic with the excessive heat. Was the management trying to drive him off with too much of a good thing? He opened the window some and discovered that the radiator beneath it was cold. So was the one in the bathroom. Had the warmth wafted up through the floor? These old buildings usually had their anomalies. On the positive side, he was up in plenty of time for breakfast. How fortuitous, seeing as last night's insistent hunger was homing in on him again. And the sooner he was out of the room, the better. Camera in hand, he noted that the corridor was downright chilly. Happily, he'd left the fungal scent behind.
On the last flight of stairs before the foyer, the distinctive rumble of an oil truck reached his ears. A mature woman with bobbed reddish hair and bulky green sweater turned to him from the partly open front door. Justin guessed her to be one of the owners, because she apologized for the furnace running out of fuel in the night. "Not a problem. Please don't give it a thought," he replied without slowing down.
He staked out the table nearest the breakfast bar and pounced at the eggs and sausage and bacon that rewarded early risers. He may have cut off rival guests when going for extra platefuls; he could only vouch for moving faster than whoever else was en route at the same time. To discourage any challenges over his right to multiple helpings, he scowled needlessly at the goateed kid on inattentive duty.
Between every course, he re-examined his new series of shots, as if enough squinting would flush out what he wanted to see. According to his feckless camera, Lovecraft was purely a hallucination, invisible in blurry and sharp exposures alike. The security light upon the blue wall, however, exerted an inordinate presence. It consisted of three bulbs in an upside-down triangle, and though he'd gazed into its glow last night with impunity, in pinpoint reproductions it was burning bright, painfully so within seconds. More inexplicably, it remained in tripartite clarity even when the rest of the frame was smudgy. And toward the end of the sequence, the bulbs were plainly larger, or perhaps in the process of sneaking closer. They weren't playing by the rules of optics in any case, but there his patience for analysis ended. His eyes roved dully over the dwindling contents of chafing dishes. He could always consign more servings to the bottomless pit, but had felt no more satisfied after the last couple. He was becoming too fidgety to stay any longer.
Today's morning walk differed markedly from yesterday's. It proceeded north along Benefit Street and wasn't recreational. Justin wasn't sure yet what it was, but he was averse to letting nostalgia or disappointment enter into it again. Four cups of coffee did not in themselves account for the high-strung nerves that required he range across the landscape, and half a mile of Georgian and Federal elegance was behind him before he understood he was in pursuit of something. Where Benefit merged with North Main, and only dreary new shopping centers and prefab apartments and "professional buildings" lay ahead, he swerved right, up Olney Street. He wasn't out to take stock of his surroundings, but the wrong ones, he sensed, would ill suit his purposes, whatever they were. At the hectic intersection with Hope Street, he marveled that Tortilla Flats, the one Mexican bistro in town way back when, had survived a third of a century. For other than old time's sake, he tried the door. He was now willing to have another go at breakfast, but they weren't open yet.
He forged on, into neighborhoods of Colonial Revival mansions and wedding-cake Victoriana and prim bungalows and rundown triple-deckers that still had more character than anything constructed in Justin's lifetime. Not till he was deep in a terra incognita of broad avenues and manorial pretenses did he grasp that Lovecraft, or his unbodily likeness, had some bearing on this obscure mission. Much keener was his awareness that it must have been lunchtime, and he in a gilded wasteland as far as restaurants were concerned.
Subjective, hungry ages elapsed before he chanced upon a busy artery, with the brackish Seekonk River to the east, and westward, a cluster of businesses. It was dimly familiar, and on its outskirts the words Wayland Square popped into his head after thirty-five years of disuse. Historically it had been an "exclusive" retail hub for the old money, but Justin at present had eyes only for the black and yellow sign that read Minerva's Pizza.
At the cash register, a gray, spindly gent with a gravelly voice told Justin to sit where he liked. A table up front afforded him a view of the sunny street through an expanse of plate glass. Apparently churchgoers didn't come here for Sunday dinner, and none of the homecoming set were in evidence either. Some kids from a prep-school track meet, to judge by the uniforms, were lunching with their families, and that was about it.
He scanned the menu for whatever promised to contain the most meat, and under Subs he gravitated to Steak and Cheese. His cravings and his restlessness were no more subject to free will than were his eyes, drawn irresistibly to the movement on the screen above the mirrored bar. The sound was muted, and the kitchen crew had forgotten the TV was on. How else to explain why nobody changed the channel? Outdoorsmen were fishing in some Deep South cypress swamp, and Justin couldn't imagine a more tedious contest of man against nature. Nonetheless, he had to watch until there was a sandwich to devour. He didn't notice who brought it. But while he bit off and chewed mouthfuls, his mind's eye kept harking back to close-ups of the bait in taunting play, back and forth, back and forth, just below the leaf-strewn surface. He knew he'd seen the like somewhere lately, and it nagged at him and eluded him and made him put down his sandwich and think.
Then the revelation pitched him into momentary vertigo. His putative Lovecraft had shared in the abridged range of motion, the repetition, the agitated beckoning. If ghost he really was, he was under some duress, but of what nature and to what end? Lovecraft, or his puppeteer, had coaxed Justin to follow. That same hidden agency was implicated, coincidentally or not, in firing up Justin's feral appetite and joyless wanderlust. He dared not conjecture further without more to go on. He was in too vulnerable a mood.
His hands had raised the Steak and Cheese halfway to his mouth. He forced himself to put it down again and stared out the window to take his mind off food while he tried to concentrate. Justin's one conceivable source of information to tie together Lovecraft, the two places where he'd seen Lovecraft, and some background on those places was the novelette by Lovecraft himself. But how to get hold of it on short notice, and what was it called, anyway? His eyes were scrutinizing storefronts across the street, as if that would help. Then he laughed out loud and wolfed the rest of his sandwich and a handful of chips with a rush of new determination. In what was once a branch post office, a fanlightspanned masonry façade. Fanciful lower-case letters in each of its trapezoidal panes spelled out "Myopic Books." He strode to the cash register without waiting for anyone to bring the check, and was almost out the door before he reversed course and stuck $20 in singles under his water glass. If this manic energy refused to let him alone, maybe he could at least channel it for his own good.
He reined himself in after sprinting up Myopic's front steps. No point in alarming people with a dramatic entrance! The layout was uncommonly airy for a used bookshop. A fetching girl with long black hair and disarming eyes was online at the desk, presumably filling mail orders. She escorted him to the horror section, a free-standing bookcase in a far corner. What jaw-dropping luck! A Lovecraft omnibus stood on top of the case, beside a slipcovered set of Tolkien. "Looks like you found what you wanted," she said.
He had her ring it up and asked if she'd mind him reading it on the premises. She shook her head. "We're open till six." At second glance, she was simply rendering realpolitik its due. A couple of bearded duffers were ensconced in comfy chairs by a coffee table, noses deep between covers. They gave off a vibe of barnacles. Toward the rear wall, he settled into a barber's chair, upholstered in chiffon green. He strove for a semblance of composure, though inwardly he was on a breathless hunt.
His hunch to skim through last stories first proved correct. An allusion to Federal Hill guided him to the title "The Haunter of the Dark," and he resolved to peruse carefully, to stay on track from word to word, despite his jumpiness. In barest outline, a Midwestern visitor to the East Side blunders into mental linkage with a hostile alien while inspecting vestiges of a grisly cult in a deserted Atwells Avenue church. Justin had read the tale before, but so long ago that this amounted to the first time all over again. His reactions, too, were bound to be different now from when his interests were merely academic.
He had to stop sometimes and bathe his eyes in the calming brightness around him, to divert his racing thoughts from premature conclusions. The protagonist's dread of "something which would ceaselessly follow him with a cognition that was not physical sight" reminded Justin of those hypothetical unseen trespassers during yesterday's nap. And concerning the "unholy rapport he felt to exist between his mind and that lurking horror," why wouldn't that express itself as the insatiable hunger and compulsive restlessness which even now tried to unseat him, and in which he was no willing participant?
He pushed on through the text. More stubborn efforts led only to graver intimations. The victim's despair at "a strengthening of the unholy rapport in his sleep" reminded Justin of how displaced and, yes, alienated he'd felt first thing that morning, and when the hero later stirs from a mesmeric daze in the church and inhales a "stench where a hot, searing blast beat down against him," Justin recalled the heat in his room, and the stink of burnt mold, after a night without oil in the furnace. He felt hemmed in by the pages and looked out the narrow window in front of him, but it was half blocked off by foreign-language dictionaries, and beyond the glass was an antitheft steel latticework, with a claustrophobically nearby brick wall filling the view. Justin dove back into the book on his lap.
The narration laid increasing emphasis on the malign entity's intolerance of light, and Justin had to nod in tentative agreement, since both his Lovecraftian experiences had occurred after dark. Finally he reached the diary excerpts recording the hero's semicoherent desperation as his nemesis closed in. The climactic image of "the three-lobed burning eye" turned Justin's stricken musings to the camera hanging from his neck, and its documentation of the church site's security light with its three glaring bulbs and disregard for the way objects should take shape in photographs. And in retrospect, how disquieting that the lights had gone out after Justin activated his flash! He twisted his head away from the book, toward a wider window to his left. The shop had a flagstone patio out back, where the blooms on a hydrangea and the leaves of a virginicus were already brown. Must have been nice here in summer! He wondered if he'd live to see it, then grimaced at himself for turning morbid on such a flimsy basis.
The sunshine happened to fade before his eyes. How long had he been in that chair? Had the overhead fluorescent been humming like that all along? He stood too fast and everything spun for several heartbeats. Stiff and creaky legs carried him to the desk, and he started framing an apology for loitering till the last minute. The barnacles had vacated their comfy furniture! A bad sign, but the wall clock above the desk was a tad shy of 5:15. He relaxed a bit and thanked the fetching girl for being very helpful, and hoped his long-term occupancy hadn't been a problem. "As long as nobody heard you snoring," she assured him.
Out on the sidewalk, he slid his purchase into a big inside pocket of his denim jacket. Desires to eat and roam plagued him again. Minerva's was right there, and a large meatball calzone stood out as the shortest wait for the most protein, with the added virtue of portability.
He headed down Angell Street and wondered how far he'd get before tearing the wrapper off dinner. Past the first bend in the road, the green and white sign for a Newport Creamery loomed over him. One more youthful hangout he'd forgotten for decades! Too bad he hadn't scouted ahead; a burger plate and sundae sounded good. Then he saw that nothing was left but the sign. Streetlight penetrated sheet glass sufficiently to indicate an interior gutted of booths, counter, stools, freezer cases and all.
But in the distant recesses, people were moving around, unhindered by gloom, animated, at arm's length from each other. The more he studied them, the less shadowy they became, as if Justin must have been wrong about the dearth of illumination back there, and they seemed closer than at first. Momentarily in lambent glow he beheld a frail, gaunt oldster presiding over a table of deferential young men. He wore a dark suit of '30s vintage that seemed on the verge of falling apart at the seams, and he retained enough thin white hair to part on the left. His chin projected well ahead of his delicate mouth, into which he was spooning a banana split with laudable gusto when he wasn't offering an opinion. His audience had shoulder-length hair and turtleneck shirts and flared jeans, and were patently not the youth of today.
Back when researching his thesis, he'd woven trivia about Lovecraft and this stretch of Angell into wistful daydreams centering on this restaurant. At seeing them converted into three dimensions, he fought a lump in his throat. Opposite the Creamery hulked a typically boring apartment complex of the '50s, and adding injury to insult, for its sake the beautiful birthplace of H. P. Lovecraft had been destroyed. In the young Justin's reveries of a better Providence, Lovecraft had not been struck down in middle age, overdue royalties had let him regain his ancestral home in the nick of time, and his legendary taste for ice cream frequently enticed him, in his fragile but genial 80s, to cross the street and hold court in the Creamery with Justin's horror-fan contemporaries. Justin still cherished that daydream, and to gaze into its world, not only parallel but long defunct, made him weak with yearning, and his lower lip trembled.
He blinked away tears. The kids at the table were regarding him with anticipation, as if he had agreed to come palaver with them, and the ancient Lovecraft was graciously waving him in. Justin gulped. Who, me? But the door ought to be locked. He stepped over and tugged at the handle. He saw and felt it start to heave open, yet could see through it, at the same time, to a door that wasn't budging, as expected.
Justin let go and shuddered, and his melancholy reddened into anger. What would have happened if he'd set foot across that phantom portal? Lovecraft and the boys were still hopeful of his company. Justin grabbed his camera, stowed the lens cap, and turned on the flash. Not now, not ever had he seen Lovecraft's ghost, but only this soulless effigy. Absurd to suppose a spirit would age posthumously! And what about this coterie of ghost hippies? Whatever was pulling the strings here either thought little of Justin's intellect or had major limitations in its own.
Justin raised the camera. The tableau most likely wouldn't leave a record, but why not see what would? And if something sinister, and photophobic, were trailing him, this was the least he could do. He aimed and shot a sequence. When he lowered the camera, the interior was dim and empty again.
His appetite, however, was unabated. The calzone was reduced to grease on his fingertips, for all the restraint he could summon, blocks away from Benefit Street. Furthermore, knowing that his surplus energy derived from some ominous, furtive source was of no help in suppressing it. He could, at best, shut himself in his room and ride the frazzling current toward a better understanding of whatever was hounding him.
He washed his beefy-smelling hands, flopped into bed, plucked the remote off the nightstand, and turned on the TV. He used whatever began yacking at him as a subliminal anchor to normality, while he examined his series from the Creamery.
Naturally, his was the only human form throughout, camera masking his face, as reflected in the brilliance of the flash upon plate glass. Inside, trackless dust between bare walls showed faintly. All the way back, a rear door opened onto the Deco brick row of Medway Street. That he had to take on faith, because a substantial area within vague doorway contained three scorching orange discs in triangular arrangement. The security light had followed him to Wayland Square!
After a bout of hot sweat and nausea, Justin noted with perverse satisfaction that a meager five minutes in bed were yielding valuable insights. Lovecraft and anyone with him were figments planted in his mind. The "three-lobed burning eye" was not. And the sentience behind that eye and those figments had even more invasive access to the mind of man, or to Justin's at least, than it had in the story.
As he spooled through the sequence, the "lobes" hovered unwavering, as if in wait. On finer inspection, though, they weren't exactly framed by the door but overlapped it, so that they seemed to shine from vastly farther away than the door, yet were inside the building at the same time.
In the last image, all that changed. The eye, in predictable reaction to the flash, had departed, but in its place was not the formerly hidden portion of doorway. A circular hole was floating there, and not a vacant one. A pattern informed the murky grayness, as of braided strands of dirty smoke or striations in muscle tissue. The printed page had implied a winged and cloudlike entity skulking in the church. Here was a glimpse of detail, intriguing, disturbing, but equally uninformative in practical terms. It was, in fact, petrifying to linger over that fingerprint-sized window onto inexpressibly remote and strange conditions. Justin started feeling dizzy, as if on the brink of physically tumbling into that tiny gateway.
Look away! On television, a silver-whiskered park ranger was calf-deep in reedy wetland, lecturing on the ecology of the Blackstone Valley. A local cable production, Justin surmised. The visuals switched to fishermen flycasting from a grassy riverbank. They jogged his thoughts back to the TV in the pizzeria, and to the bait wiggling on the hook.
Different bait for different fish, he thought, then thought further, Depending on the neural circuitry and genetics and much else of which the fish had no clue. And yes, depending also on the mood of the fish. Was his predicament the upshot of being the right person in the right mood, in his case of withdrawal and loneliness, broadcasting a signal from the right place at the right time, perhaps "when the stars were right," as Lovecraft put it? Was there a species of angler, a predator whose range was of dimensions rather than miles, receptive to that signal? In that angler's continuum, had that first incident in List happened scant moments ago? If only he could recapture what his mood had been before he'd first sighted Lovecraft. Had he been troubled, depressed, tense? He drew a total blank. In respect to emotions, it may as well have been a stranger in that baggy uniform.
But in common with his younger self, and with Lovecraft too, there was Providence. Justin had never encountered ghosts and aliens elsewhere. And perhaps he could also share with Lovecraft the distinction of being the same kind of fish, in a manner of speaking. Minutiae cluttering his brain for half a lifetime were paying their rent at last! In letter or essay, Lovecraft had reported seeing nymphs and satyrs under the oaks in his backyard during his childhood, and at this time of year. If he'd tried to join them, would he have met the fate Justin had narrowly escaped tonight? Plenty of people disappeared forever, without motive or signs of foul play, from their home streets or front porches. Wasn't there an author, Charles Fort, who based his whole career on compiling hundreds of such cases?
The angler had most definitely made an impression on Lovecraft, subconsciously or not, and a line or two in his mountain of correspondence might testify to that. In one aspect, Lovecraft had been among the lucky ones, insofar as timing and placement and mental state had never combined to block his path with irresistible temptations and a hole in space. How much longer would that luck have held out if Lovecraft hadn't died at forty-six? Had a "Damned Thing" of sorts eventually ambushed the elderly Ambrose Bierce in Mexico? Would even Charles Fort have gone out on that limb to explain Bierce's disappearance?
Justin had to blame the driven presence in his head for the ideas bubbling up so furiously. He'd generally be nodding off by this stage of the evening. His skin, meanwhile, crawled at visions of what had fastened on him. He felt violated, unclean, as at louse or ringworm infestation. Not that he was in immediate danger, for what consolation that offered! As if the barrier between his world and the angler's were a surface of ice on which it impatiently trod, the angler could only lower bait and lure its prey through openings at fixed earthly locations, and at fixed earthly times. As for the sleepwalking toward doom that afflicted the story's character, the entity had needed weeks, and not paltry days, to impose that much influence, if those episodes were ever more than Lovecraft's dramatic invention.
Justin would be leaving town by Tuesday, one way or another. Though his worries had ballooned to a grander order of magnitude over the weekend, he did have business tomorrow with Palazzo. It had seemed so pressing Friday night, without entering into his considerations since. Better late than never, he tried mapping out a plan of attack, how he'd parry attempts by Palazzo or his secretary at the runaround. But the aggressive current was rapidly ebbing from his body, and before he could exploit its sputtering last, he was asleep, fully clothed on top of the blankets, TV nattering through the night.
His eyes opened at the customary 7 a.m. The room temperature was normal for once. However, he needed a minute to remember his age, and what year it was. The public access channel was airing a community bulletin board to the accompaniment of jazz fusion. The remote control still rested on his stomach. He flipped to a so-called morning news program, for the short while he could stand the medley of fluff and atrocities. He gave up during reportage of one more missing pregnant wife and of unfaithful husband under suspicion, when he couldn't tell in which category it belonged. Nagging hunger and raw nerves were in remission, as if they'd been a weekend-long dream. The entity had relented, or the stars had ceased to be right. Either way, Justin could tackle his last B&B breakfast strictly for the sake of returning well nourished and caffeinated to the List Building.
He ate, packed, checked out, and hastened to the parking lot behind the inn. The management probably wasn't sorry to see him go. His dingy '85 Dodge van could only detract from any ambience they intended to cultivate. Yet for all the patches of gray undercoat where cobalt blue paint had flecked off, and rust damage like a row of ragged buttonholes between the front and back wheels, and other cosmetic shortcomings, the old Ram refused to die, and it wasn't in him to junk it. But at his first eyeful of it in days, he winced with the shock of seeing it as others did. Blessedly, that passed as soon as he was in the driver's seat. He was out the gate at a commendable 8:45.
Some forethought before confronting Palazzo would have been preferable, but last night he was too exhausted, and now he was busy navigating. Resigned to winging it, he parked alongside the List Building. So where in all this cement did the division head hole up? The gallery attendant dislodged her designer-punk self from a semiotics primer and answered him audibly the second time. There was an elevator, but climbing the fire stairs to Palazzo's floor possibly delivered more oxygen to Justin's brain.
The door beside the room number was open. Into the breach! This could have been the anteroom of any dentist or accountant, save for the pricier art on ivory-white walls. The trophies included Lichtenstein, Ben Shahn, David Hockney. Justin stopped there. Conspicuous enough consumption for his blood. The receptionist wore tortoiseshell glasses and her brown hair in a bun, and would have looked bookish apart from an ingrained pout. He requested an appointment sometime that day with Palazzo. She didn't know if he'd be in or not and didn't bother asking what his business was, which made him suspect that Palazzo had warned her about him. Through the closed door behind her, he could hear someone tromping around and the scrape of a wastebasket across tiles. Neither of these people seemed to have a very high opinion of him.
He smiled broadly and said he'd wait, that he had all day. He took one of several squeaky leather seats along the wall, and she began typing with unnecessary force at her computer. She sighed a lot. Justin zoned out, to conserve energy. He owed all he had to his refusal to go away, and today was shaping up as no exception.
Half an hour crawled by. He approached the desk, cleared his throat, and asked the frowning secretary for a blank reimbursement form, in case Palazzo had misplaced the one from the gallery director. She claimed not to have any. The door behind her opened silently a hair's breadth, and Justin's eyes chanced to meet the eye that peeked out. The door closed swiftly but silently.
The receptionist's phone chirped several seconds later, while Justin was still watching the door. She swiveled away from him and whispered. She hung up, and the inner door swung wide as if proclaiming Hail fellow, well met. The ever-impeccable Palazzo briskly invited Justin in, but didn't proffer a handshake.
Justin hadn't finished taking the liberty of sitting down when Palazzo launched into preemptive strike. "You've come back at a very exciting time! Great things are underway all over campus. And we're a part of that too, you and I."
Justin greeted this with the polite reflex of a weak nod. Misgivings were already fluttering in his stomach.
"This university is gearing up for the biggest phase of growth in its history, thanks to a hugely successful capital drive. And we're going to be enlarging this department too."
"Enlarge it how? Where is there room? What are you going to do, declare war on the library next door?" The prospect of even more demolition of his beloved old Providence made Justin queasy, and outraged, and remorseful at displaying his work here.
"Oh, we leave that to the professionals." Had Palazzo actually chortled? "So you see, we have tremendous amounts of funding tied up in all this. I don't find any record of contributions from you, though."
That smelled much more like guesswork than the results of research, and not terribly astute guesswork either. Justin's misgivings were fluttering harder.
"If I remember what you're up here for," Palazzo ventured, "I'd consider it a personal favor, and an appropriate gesture, if you'd regard the money in question as a donation to the future of our department." Justin was amazed at how ghastly an ingratiating smile could look.
Easy, now! "Listen, I had an understanding with the gallery director. A deal. There are e-mails to that effect. I put a lot of time and effort into installing the exhibit here on short notice, and I'm getting nothing out of it myself. I really need what you owe me."
"I don't owe you anything." How quickly the worm turned! "She didn't consult with me first. She went over my head, and not for the first time. You made your deal with her, not me. There's plenty I could have done with that wall space for two weeks."
Justin shrugged and spread his hands. "That's not my problem. I came to town in good faith."
"Well, you invested your faith badly. And yes, it is your problem." With the tiniest adjustment of facial muscles, Palazzo would be gloating.
"You can't be serious. Where is the gallery director, anyway? I'd like to hear her side of this."
"She's called in sick."
Justin wouldn't put it past Palazzo to lie, but he conceded the point. "And I suppose you're going to fire her as soon as she gets well? If you haven't already?"
"Oh no, that would be crude. Her contract is nearly up. We won't renew her, that's all." God forbid that any whiff of discord emanate from Pictorial Arts!
Palazzo had inadvertently helped Justin plot his next move. Si le geste est beau, as the French said. But in good conscience, he had to brave the direct route as last resort. "So are you going to pay my hotel bill or not?"
"How simple do I have to make it for you? No!" Justin had pushed the decorous Dr. Palazzo into quaking like an aspen. Maybe that short fuse had propelled Palazzo's rise to the bureaucratic top, Justin speculated.
"Fine, then." Justin stood up unhurriedly. It behooved him to take the high road, though he'd have been more satisfied, and eminently within his rights, to vent a resounding Fuck you. When Justin began to speak, Palazzo lost his cool altogether and shouted at him to get out and stay out, but Justin doggedly followed through on the grounds that he'd always hoped for the occasion to say what he was saying, whether Palazzo was listening or not. "You know, Doc, for some people, the present represents an accumulation of everything past, like it's all there to some degree as a source of inspiration. For others, the present only represents as clean a break from the past as possible, and the less history there is to get in the way of business, the better. It's just too bad a city like this has you, or anyone like you, in the position you're in."
Palazzo, red, heaving, goggle-eyes hurling malice, was temporarily out of steam.
"Did a word of that sink in?" Justin asked.
Palazzo gathered breath for another tirade, but this time Justin had the drop on him. "Anyway, fuck you," he summed up, ambled out, and closed the door with overweening deliberation till it clicked, amidst new barrage about how vulgar and unimportant he was. The receptionist was gaping at Justin as if he'd blown up the dam. "Boy, he's going to be fun for the rest of the day," Justin forecast. Only when he was on the fire stairs did he realize how much he was shaking.
He paused outside the gallery. A cursory mental survey located reasonably clean blankets and towels in the van, for art-swaddling purposes. He'd removed and stacked three 18" by 24" frames from the wall before the attendant was at his elbow.
"It's all right, I'm the artist," he told her.
"Are you sure it's okay? Isn't this show up for a week or two?" A good do-bee in spite of spiky pink hair!
"If you're worried, call Palazzo. In fact, I wish you would."
She said no more, and was nowhere in sight when Justin set another frame on the pile and debated carrying four at once. He was out to the van and back, and had voted against more loads that size, when Palazzo and the attendant arrived at the doorway. He barked at her to come back in an hour. He stormed in, but halted judiciously out of swinging range while bellowing, "What do you think you're doing? This is unacceptable! What are people going to say when there's nothing on the walls?"
Justin begrudged him a morose glance. "Call it a matter of trust. I don't feel safe leaving my artwork with you. You've already expressed a rather dismissive attitude toward it." He was also, admittedly, loath to stay or return where a grotesque death was in store, were the stars ever "right" again.
"Have you any idea how unprofessional this is?"
Justin shook his head impassively. "Maybe some token on your part would help. Something tangible. Otherwise, I don't know."
"You want money? This is childish! This is blackmail!"
"Well, that's not how I'd describe it." Justin reached for another picture, but stopped as Palazzo charged from the room. Would he enlist campus security? And make a scene strong-arming an exhibiting artist and "honored alum"? Justin doubted it.
Then the gallery lights went out. Brightness from the doorway made negligible impact in the mineshaft blackness. He anticipated Palazzo would let him stew a while and was reconciled to waiting in the dark. If the stalemate dragged on long enough, how would Palazzo respond to inquiries about the gallery blackout and Justin alone inside? Justin was conversant with feeling ridiculous, but he'd wager Palazzo was not. A drawback in these circumstances!
The dark was coming to seem less absolute. Were his eyes adjusting? No, not exactly, because he still couldn't see his pictures on the walls. Just the same, a glow was spreading through the room, as if someone were almost imperceptibly upping a dimmer switch, to reveal surfaces at right and acute angles to each other, which dwindled to a vanishing point miles beyond the rear gallery wall. And as if it had never been absent but only lurking below a subliminal threshold, ravenous appetite welled up in him again. Nor would it scruple to take a bite out of Palazzo at the least provocation.
He also hungered for what had attained depth and sharp outlines in soothing twilight. He was standing on a mossy slate terrace, facing west. No List Building surrounded him, no highrises rudely interrupted the scarlet horizon of western hills, and even the massive Colonial Revival courthouse on Benefit Street had reverted to rows of antique gables and gambrels. The tallest structure by five stories or so was the bracket-shaped Hospital Trust bank across the canal. A few electric signs lent primary colors to the bricks and masonry of downtown, but only the one for the Old Colony Hotel was within reading distance. Sunset made the gold dome of the Congregational church on Weybosset Street gleam softly. The streetlamps ought to be on in a minute.
Here was the unmodern Providence of his dreams, and of heightened poignancy after a weekend in the brave new Providence. Lovecraft had not emerged beckoning, but that would have been impossible really. This was the Providence of Lovecraft's schooldays, and since Justin couldn't imagine Lovecraft as a child, that version of him couldn't materialize. In any event, it was very beautiful over there, and Justin could have it for the rest of his life, if he simply walked into it.
He was aware at the same time of how short such a life would be, and that the cosmic angler's hidden eye had to be glowering down at him. He also belatedly recognized how cunning the angler had been, to give the fish all the line it wanted, and an illusion of freedom, while that fish spent its strength and the hook stayed embedded in unfeeling lip.
None of this stopped Justin from shuffling his feet eagerly. His hankering for that place was inseparable from the hankering of something that regarded him as food, and he had no means to pull out psychic hook, any more than a fish could sprout hands to save itself. How covertly active had the entity been after the line had gone slack? What kind of orchestrations had been involved for Justin to end up back at List, in the dark?
A phrase from Lovecraft's story echoed at Justin, even as left foot rose in defiance of better judgment: "I am it and it is I." Did the "it" in question feel or understand any of Justin's yearning for the mirage it created for him, the way he suffered its hunger pangs, its anxiety, because Justin wasn't in the net yet, and meals were few and far between? Did Justin want to help assuage that cruel hunger? All he had to do was be eaten!
"Now will you please come out and behave reasonably?" Palazzo's outburst confused Justin and threw him off-balance. It sounded so clear and immediate, but how could that be? Justin was virtually a world away. "What are you doing in there?"
Palazzo was too worked up to be observant, or else from outside the gallery was still in darkness. But Justin soon learned that it wasn't necessary to be him to see what he was seeing. Palazzo was beside him, directing eyes wide with horror north and south, east and west. "Where are we? What the hell is going on?"
Justin, despite everything, smiled wryly. "It's Providence."
Palazzo became even more distraught. "Where's our building? Where's everything that's happened in the last hundred years? All that progress gone! Everything we've achieved! This is terrible! Why are you smiling, you little son of a bitch?"
Justin had been about to tell Palazzo it was all in his head, but stopped himself. Not after that abusive tone!
Palazzo wasn't doing especially well at coping with the situation. He began babbling about what they could do to fix all this. Justin could have suggested leaving the room or taking some flash photography, but why put himself out? And would Palazzo listen to someone as unimportant as him? Remarkable, in any case, that Palazzo was so susceptible to psychic influence, taking the reality of their vista at face value. Maybe he had too much else on his mind to think critically about this. Dotted lines of streetlamps were beginning to incandesce hither and yon.
Justin understood what happened next, because it was also happening to him by dint of celestial meeting of minds. Traveling across any surface obviously entailed the risk of slipping on that surface, particularly at stressful moments. Those who fished through a hole in the ice were always one misstep away from an unfriendly medium. And now Justin's idyllic Providence descended instantaneously from mellow dusk to heavy gloom. Big and low in the gray northern sky floated the denser black of what first seemed the moon in eclipse. But pale stars, and not craters, were scattered across its surface, in a range of sizes from pinpoint to grapeshot. Here was the angler's native sky, as glimpsed through the hole in space where three-lobed eye had glared down and dispensed visions till brief clumsiness dislocated it. If Justin had blinked, he'd have missed it, for there followed a thud that shook the unseen gallery floor and rattled the unseen pictures on the walls, and the hole in space was jammed with frantic, ciliated tissue that bulged like a bubble into the room. On contact with the atmosphere it shone pink, then hot red.
In that span of seconds, a mounting stench of scorching mold and incinerated carcasses made Justin choke, and he reeled at a protracted, inhuman wail that was as much between his ears as in them, and that also spewed from his own mouth. It distorted as if channeled through cheap microphone. The surroundings, mean while, kept flickering between darkness and dim simulation of bygone Providence.
Then further sound impinged on him. Palazzo was still babbling in the same rhythm, at the same tempo, but the syllables had devolved into baby talk, and their volume had drastically risen. Callously or not, Justin felt a burden melt from his shoulders, and a release of tension in his chest. Palazzo going mad had saved Justin from doing the same. This chaos wasn't simply an expression of Justin's lone delusion. He needn't doubt, or abandon, his own sanity!
The entity broke free of vacuum seal between dimensions, and in its wake left unmediated the passage between here and there. A sonic boom knocked Justin off his feet, and the walls in the dark room rumbled, and all his artwork plummeted with a crash of shattering glass. The sour air began to whistle by his face. He lay as flat as possible, and his lunging hands bumped and clung to the cold steel siding of the attendant's desk. Praise the Lord, it was bolted down!
A hole in space, left on its own, couldn't be stable. It had to collapse soon. But the leakage between dimensions was still accelerating, lifting Justin off the concrete floor, when Palazzo flopped onto his belly and grabbed Justin's ankles. Justin's sweaty handhold on the sharp edge of slick metal panel began to loosen. He couldn't hang on much longer in this wind tunnel with patrician dead weight doubling his own. He kicked out as if swimming the Australian crawl, once, twice, and screaming Palazzo lost his grip. Had Justin done what was needful to save himself, or had he outright killed a man? The keening airflow was already beginning to tug less fitfully at him, and with a moral issue assailing him on top of everything else, his overtaxed consciousness gave way, though his fingers knew better than to let go.
Justin opened his eyes to bright gallery illumination. The attendant was standing beside him, studying him fretfully. She evidently knew where to find the circuit-breakers, or at least the janitor. Justin was lying on his right side and had unhanded the desk. He and the girl gawked at each other a minute. He didn't feel impelled to say anything yet.
"You okay? You want me to call the infirmary?"
Infirmary? The word dredged up long-lost campus lore of subpar doctors burning warts off the wrong hand. Last thing he needed now. "Oh no, not those butchers."
She shrugged. "A friend came and got me from upstairs when she heard a noise and saw the lights were out. Was there an earthquake in here or something?"
"Something, yeah." He raised himself on bruised and achy elbow. By the grace of whatever laws governed pressure or gravitation or aerodynamics between worlds in tangent, little had been scooped up from the edges of the room. Most of his photos lay face-up on the floor, though a lot of busted glass had crossed over. "I'm a lucky bastard," he mumbled.
"What?" The girl wasn't going to freak out, was she? "Where's Dr. Palazzo?"
"I don't know." Not the lie it sounded like! "Pretty sure the earth didn't swallow him up."
She assessed the damage with a few birdlike turns of her head. "There's not much glass." She crinkled her nose. "Do you know what that smell is?"
Pleasantly for her, most of the stink had been funneled into the void. Justin started to get up, but one foot skidded out from under him when he put his weight on it. He sat awkwardly with leg outstretched. The attendant had skipped back several prudent steps, and waved toward his less trustworthy foot. "What's that?"
He shifted the foot aside, drew his leg in, and huddled forward for a closer squint. The item on the floor had the circumference of a pancake, and was related to humanity somehow, but was hard to define because it was so out of context. Aha! Palazzo's majestic head of wavy silver hair really had been a toupee. "It's Palazzo's," he told the girl, who persisted in her puzzled stare. "Looks like he flipped his wig," Justin hinted. Comprehension dawned. Understandably, she made no move to pick it up.
He managed to stand. He might be in shock, but theorized that if he chose not to think about it, he could function indefinitely. "Look, if you're not busy, help me load the rest of my stuff in the van, will you?"
"Are you sure it's all right? I thought Dr. Palazzo wanted everything to stay."
"He left it up to me." Was that less than a half-truth? Did it matter? "Now come on. I want to be in the Catskills by nightfall."
She wavered as if tossing a figurative penny, then with a fraction of a nod capitulated. What the hell, why not? A bigger relief than Justin dared let on! Sooner or later, Palazzo's disappearance would be police business, and they might well talk to the girl and go from there. Justin gave her two frames to carry at a time, and dawdled so that she always went out by herself. The more trips she made, the more chances she had to snoop around the van, fore and aft, and ascertain that it contained no corpus delicti.
He thanked her afterward, but she only made a noncommittal sound and scurried for the shelter of the List Building. Was he really such an unnerving presence? Just as well she was gone, anyhow. A bothersome soreness and itch below his left ribs called for investigation. He untucked his shirt. Thank God the psychic link was compromised when careless alien faltered onto the hole! Otherwise, instead of a puffy, flaming red welt, wide and round as a CD, he'd have an empathic third-degree burn to explain at the emergency room. He was a lucky bastard all right. Even if he was stuck with the bed-and-breakfast bill.
He hit the road. Minutes later, according to a sign on the median strip, Massachusetts welcomed him. He'd made a scotfree getaway, or had he? Ten days went by, in which the angry red welt faded; he e-mailed the gallery director an unacknowledged apology for yanking the show, and he reframed his photos, and then the phone rang. The Providence police wanted to have their inevitable talk, and he obliged them on the way home from his Philly opening. They recorded the diffident, submissive Justin for posterity. His account contained no untruths and hoisted no red flags. He did omit any nonsense about nostalgic hallucination, hostile alien, hole in space, and kicking Palazzo into that hole. In the official version, he fell unconscious during a local tremor that interrupted an argument with Palazzo, and when he came to, Palazzo was gone. The police didn't ask about Palazzo's toupee. It must have landed in the trash before anyone realized what it was, before Palazzo was numbered among the missing. And the gallery attendant had forgotten or hadn't troubled to mention it. Justin owed her for that!
The police let him go. He was undeniably the last man on earth to see Palazzo alive, but only he knew that for a fact, and Palazzo must have had longer-standing, uglier imbroglios with others. Hopefully Justin was shut of Providence forever. Foolhardy to second-guess when next the stars above town would be "right" again!
Behind the wheel, it gave him pause to consider how blithely he was sidestepping any remorse about his role in Palazzo's demise. Technically, he'd killed the guy, unavoidably or not, willfully or not. But what about the hundreds of more cold-blooded, premeditated murders on the books that went unsolved? Plainly a crowded field of killers had learned to live with themselves, and go to work every day, and get married, and raise kids, and collect a pension. Justin wasn't even asking as much of life as all that. He too would learn to live with himself, just as he had learned the ropes of so many careers in his checkered adulthood. That malaise seeping up from the bedrock of his conscience would settle down if he ignored it, and stay down for months or years like any of his other wellsprings of guilt. What good would confession do himself or anybody? He was under no illusion that a jail cell or padded cell would "cleanse" him. To be honest, wasn't the world better off minus one arrogant yuppie?
Next afternoon, he was in his sunny, cluttered parlor, with its rugged mountain view that had seemed so breathtaking, prior to his glimpse of interstellar gulf. He was finally unpacking the duffel bag in which dirty clothes had accumulated since homecoming weekend. He should have emptied it before stuffing in more to wear in Philly, but if he'd arrived at a greater appreciation of anything lately, it would be that he wasn't perfect.
From the bottom of upended sack, his digital camera plopped onto a cushion of stale shirts. He couldn't figure out what it was for a second. He started picking it up, then slung it across the table as if it were electrified. In it was documentation, unique in human history, immensely valuable, of alien life, of alien interaction with this unwitting planet. Personally, on the other hand, it was a reminder of near-death experience, a preamble to homicide. If his eyes lingered on the camera for any time, that dizziness from back in the B&B, when he thought he would topple into that viewfinder miniature of a cosmic gateway, overtook him again. Would he always be a fish with immaterial hook in his lip to draw him into that hole?
He went on with life, as he trusted he would, crisscrossing the world on photo shoots, exhibiting his work, making enough money, and he let the digital camera gather cobwebs where it lay, religiously averting his eyes from it. He never felt or acted particularly crazy, to the best of his knowledge, not even when visitors were apparently looking at his dusty camera on the table, and he startled them by roaring, "There's your murderer, right in there!" Nobody ever dared inquire what he meant, and he always seemed fine after a minute of probing lower lip with upper incisors, as if for a foreign object.