By David Farnell, (c) 2000
“Oh Rose thou art sick
The invisible worm
That flies in the night
In the howling storm
Has found out thy bed
Of crimson joy
And his dark secret love
Does thy life destroy”
–Blake, “The Sick Rose”
“So, Gracie, tell me why they sent you here.”
She felt tired all the time. She’d gained twelve pounds and moved more slowly on the range. She’d stopped her physical training. Her evening companions were cheap books and a bottle of Wild Turkey. The books kept her mind off things, and the whisky helped her sleep.
“I don’t know. Mother-henning me, I guess.”
She felt fat, feeble, and full of unwanted memories.
“So you’ve got no problems?”
Since joining the conspiracy, she’d been on four “psychotic operas.” Nothing like the first one, and very different to what had happened to her fifteen years before. Her horizons had broadened. Drastically.
“Little things, of course. I mean, who doesn’t? You deal with it–you suck it up and tough it out. I’ll be fine.”
The Ozarks–that had been a bad one. Fourteen months ago they had gone in, she and Jerry, just to scout around, check up on some hinky reports. They’d both gotten out alive, but at least two dozen other people had died.
“Take a step back–look at yourself. Do you really think you’ll be fine?”
Civilians had died–most of them kids. Not crazies, not quislings. Bystanders who’d just been following the ways of their ancestors.
She and Jerry had thought they were dealing with a small cult. They’d thought they could just disrupt the ritual and stop the summoning. A little dynamite–boom. Problem solved. But it hadn’t been a summoning. Those people hadn’t been worshipping the things in that wood.
“Maybe what? Come on, Gracie.”
They’d been keeping the things asleep.
“Who are you anyway? Some kind of goddam shrink?”
She’d played with some of those kids. She remembered one little boy, his smile like an angel’s….
Doc chuckled. “Something like that. Only I know enough that when you tell me you’ve seen aliens, or monsters, or whatever, I believe you.”
God, what they did to him….
She woke up on a couch, a light blanket covering her. She was wearing all of her clothes, even her shoes. From the light, she thought it was only a short time after she’d sat down. The man, the one Jerry called Doc, was coming back into the room, carrying two mugs of coffee and a wet towel. One of his dogs followed him; she noticed another at the foot of the couch, watching her. Both dogs had intelligent, alert faces. Wolf-like, but smaller, with curly tails and fox-colored fur.
Blacked out again. There were things–a boy’s face, the smell of burning meat–that triggered a shutdown these days. This was the fourth time. Oh, God….
“Good. Welcome back.” Doc put the coffee on the end table and handed her the towel. It was warm. She wiped her face with it, surprised to find the salt trails of dried tears.
“What happened?” She pushed her long hair back automatically, only it wasn’t long anymore. Habit. She’d cut it short after the divorce six months ago.
“We were talking, but then you went away for a few minutes.” He sat down in his chair. He had long, gray hair, loose around his shoulders, and a scruffy beard. His clothes were comfortable, chinos and a blue work shirt, bare feet. He was missing two toes on his left foot. In fact, now that she looked at them, his feet were all gnarled and callused, and several toes looked like they’d been broken and healed a bit off-true.
“Gracie? You’re fading again. Have some coffee.”
She pushed away the blanket and sat up. Gracie–another pseudonym, because Delta Green couldn’t afford to let even Doc know its agents’ real names. And he didn’t want to know. She took the mug but just held it, looking into its black surface, feeling the heat in her hands. She mumbled, “I don’t want to be here.”
“You’re a big, tough monster hunter. Of course you don’t want to be here, talking to a head shrinker. You want to be out there, making the world a safer place, right?”
“What do you know about it?” Annoyed, tired.
He smiled. “I know about it. I was you, once, sucking it up, toughing it out. Oh, yeah, I had clanging balls of steel. One day I woke up in a straight jacket.”
She looked at him, thinking, then sipped at her coffee. “Not bad,” glancing down at the coffee. “So, what broke you?”
He chuckled. “Interesting word. Calculated to piss me off, from the sound of it. Still, it’s accurate.” He settled deeper into the chair. “You know, we’re supposed to be talking about you. But okay, I’ll play along for now. Let’s show each other our scars.” He drank some coffee, thinking. “Let’s see. I was in the CIA, overseas. I saw some of what your partner Ned”–that was the name Jerry used with Doc–“calls the Outside. No need to go into details. I got recruited by DG and really dug it. I mean, it was scary, but the whole reason I drifted into the Company was that I loved secrets. I loved knowing them and I loved keeping them, and here were the biggest secrets of all.”
“But you held it together.”
“For a few years. Some secrets are poisonous. They can take over your mind, eating away at your sleep, your peace. I started doing little rituals, things like buttoning every odd button on my shirt, and then every even button, eating food in certain patterns according to what day it was. I mean everyone does something like that, especially people in dangerous professions–lucky socks, rub the rabbit’s foot, whatever. But I was getting weird. I had notebooks filled with charts that told me how to eat my corn-on-the-cob on even-numbered Tuesdays. I was saving my piss in jars, and I can’t really remember why.”
“But, what did it? What sent you over?”
“It was gradual, no one thing. I read some bad books, killed things, killed people, almost got killed. Mainly it was just thinking about it, the abyss. The rituals helped me avoid thinking about it, and they gave me some vague feeling of control. Like, maybe I thought if I saved my urine, that would put off the end of the world. Hey, I was crazy. Anyway, then I got some notion about my toes–too many of them.” He held up his mangled foot and wiggled his remaining toes. “Used the gardening shears to take off the even-numbered ones. Luckily I only got to one foot before I started thinking this was a bit bizarre. Sometimes pain clears the mind. I called the hospital myself and passed out.”
Maria almost laughed. “Ouch.”
He shrugged. “I don’t wear shoes much, anymore. It’s a great conversation starter. So I spent almost eight years inside, and let me tell you, there’s folks in there who know a lot more about what’s really going on than you’d think. After I got out, I went to school and got certified to practice.” He leaned forward. “So you’re in good, state-approved hands. I’m talking too much. Your turn.”
She talked, slowly at first, then faster. Unburdening felt good, she knew, but it didn’t really help much overall. She could unburden herself on Jerry anytime, and he did the same to her. It didn’t stop the need to shut down her brain.
On her second visit, she said as much to Doc.
“Oh, yeah, sure. Just talking about it won’t solve anything, but you gotta start somewhere. And it does help relieve the stress of living the secret life. I mean, you can’t tell all this to your mom. So, tell me, what do you do to shut it out?”
“What do you mean?”
“The Outside. Everybody’s got a wall to block it out, but for people like us, we’ve got a few bricks knocked out of ours. Holes that the black shines through. You can hear it sometimes, can’t you?”
She hesitated. “Yes.”
“When do you hear it?”
“When, um, when I’m lying in bed. In the early summer, sometimes I hear a sort of, a kind of vibration. A hum, I guess, but sometimes I think it’s a moan, or a song. I can’t–there’s no word that describes it, really.” She pressed her hand to her breastbone.
“When did it start?”
“Um…when I was thirteen.”
“After your friend died?”
Very quietly, she said, “Yes.”
“Gracie, what happened?”
She had never told anyone, even Jerry. She closed her eyes. It was all there, encysted, pearlized, just above her heart: the beauty, the horror, the fantastic strangeness of it all. It was hers and hers alone. She could never tell which she wanted more: to escape it forever, or to dive into the heart of it once again.
“I’m sorry. I can’t…I just can’t.”
Doc shrugged. “Okay. Maybe later. Back to the earlier question: What do you do to block it? Obviously not hitting the gym.”
She glared at him, her color rising. He met her anger impassively.
“Touched a nerve? So what?” he said. “I mean, I’ve come across all sorts of ways. Nothing embarrasses me. Your pal Ned tells me you know his method. I’m pretty sure yours is more prosaic. More dangerous, too, though, isn’t it?”
“Don’t preach to me.”
“Come on, Gracie! I’m the guy who cut his toes off. Overdoing the Jack Daniels isn’t going to shock anyone.”
She stared at the ceiling in disgust. “Is it that obvious?”
“Just by looking at you? Mmm, not quite yet. Getting there. But your mystery man, the guy who never shows his face, he sent me copies of your file at the Bureau. They’re already noticing, these last few weeks. You’re a step away from being recommended for a psych eval.”
“Shit. No wonder I got sent here.”
They were quiet for a while. They drank coffee. A dog jumped up in the sofa and lay its head in Maria’s lap; she petted it, scratched its ears. Doc watched her. As if she were speaking to the dog, she said quite clearly, “I want to break out of it. Part of me sees the spiral I’m in. It’s going down. But I just don’t see any way out. After all, we’re all in the same downward spiral, the whole human race, right? Just, you and me and, uh, Ned, we know it. We can see it, so we just try to forget about it. Don’t worry–be happy. But…I can’t. So I guess I just want to…anaesthetize myself. I have bad dreams.”
Doc grunted. “You sound pretty well resigned to your fate.”
“What fucking choice do we have?”
“Oh, there’s false bravado, defiance, denial, ignoring the problem. The usual human reactions.”
“Great. Well, I prefer to be a whisky-swilling realist.”
“How about hope?”
She thought of a long-ago birthday card. “When you know as much as we do, false hope is worse than no hope at all.”
“I don’t mean the longing for hope. I mean the real thing, something you can latch onto–a thing that gives you hope. How about that?”
She shook her head. “I don’t know. There’s nothing I can think of. Even if it was all out in the open, even if we had nukes at our disposal, we’re just little ants–“
“Yeah, yeah, we’re just fleas on a dead dog in a ditch, I know all that. You’re still locked in the war paradigm. ‘We can’t blow up the Outsiders, so let’s just go out fighting.’ Sure, the fighting’s necessary, sometimes, but that’s not the way we’re going to come through this. You’re letting yourself be overawed by the differences in scale, and it’s blinding you to other possibilities.”
“Like what? What can we possibly do?”
He thought, combing his beard with his fingers, looking inward. “I’m not sure, yet. My…theories sound a little half-baked, you might say. But, I want to try something with you. You say you have bad dreams. Well, I can do something about that, maybe even put you on a new path, take you off boozehound road. Take away any need for it, anyway.”
“It starts with a little magic.”
He explained the ritual in terms more psychological than magical, but admitted that the line was very fuzzy, perhaps even completely false. “With what we’ve been learning, the hoary old ‘Any sufficiently advanced technology’ line can be rephrased to include ‘Any sufficiently advanced psychology.’ Think of this as an advanced kind of hypnosis, except, of course, that it’s actually quite old.” He messed with the light levels, started a tape of atonal pipings, and lit some odd-smelling incense that made her sneeze. She felt silly and said so. He said, “This isn’t new age juvenilia. This is the real deal. Stop being embarrassed, and get into it. It won’t work if you’re playing the more-scientific-than-thou disinterested observer. You’ve got to get over your fear of the subjective.”
“I’ve seen what playing with ‘magic’ does to people,” she said, doubtfully.
“There’s magic we learned from the Outside, and magic we developed ourselves. Most of it is like handling plutonium, sure, but this is something that simply helps get your mind into an altered state. Well, no, it’s more than that, but I’m not sure exactly what. Anyway, I think you’ll find a lot of questions answered on the other side.”
“Where are we going?” She felt chills, and an increase in the pressure in her chest. The environment was beginning to have an effect on her. The incense was triggering reactions deep in her lizard-brain, the music playing in her bloodstream.
“Maybe it’s Oz, maybe Narnia. Maybe it’s a deep-rooted virtual reality that connects to the collective unconscious, or the Aboriginal Dreamtime. The guy I learned about it from called it the Dreamlands. Now, stop asking questions and repeat after me….”
Of the days she spent in the basalt-towered city of Dylath-Leen, she could not remember clearly, but when she returned to the waking world she felt a sense of the peace she had lost long before. Under Doc’s tutelage (in Dylath-Leen he was known by another name, as was she), she had quickly learned, or rather remembered, to control minor aspects of her surroundings, and had proven to have a greater ability than many who had been travelling the Dreamlands for decades. She had met friends there, and enemies, who remembered her from decades past, and she had memories there that she could not find when awake. She had some kind of fame as one who had once been a powerful Shaper, but after a journey to a cursed land, had returned shorn of her powers.
In the next few months, with Doc’s help at first and later on her own as she quickly surpassed him, she entered the ‘lands again and again, soon learning to dispense with the props and most of the ritual. And when nightmares of dying children threatened to devour her, she had at her disposal techniques to take command and change the nightmare to pleasure, and no longer feared the night, nor needed any soma to help her sleep. And although there were terrors stronger than herself, she knew now that there were ways to fight them, and learn about them, and subtler ways than the gun to defeat them.
For the first time in fifteen years, she danced.