By Jamie Lackey
Danny and I sat across from each other in the corner booth of the Innsmouth Diner. The fluorescent light flickered and hummed overhead as I poked at the remains of my Dreamlands Mud Pie. “Everyone said that I was really good tonight,” Danny said.
I nodded. “They did say that.”
“Hamlet is a difficult role. And the changes that our advisors made didn’t make it any easier, let me tell you.”
I’d thought that changing the ghost to a scion of the Elder Gods made the play more relatable, and that changing Rosencrantz and Guildenstern into mad cultists had added a bit of reality. But maybe that was just me.
Danny stole the last bite of my pie. “Anyway, I think that this proves that I’ll be able to make it as an actor. I’m going to Hollywood as soon as we graduate.”
I blinked at him. “The fact that you played the lead in our school play makes you think that you’ll automatically succeed in Hollywood?”
“Yes,” Danny said, lifting his chin and staring down his nose at me.
“I don’t think it’s quite that simple.”
Danny glared. “You sound just like my parents.”
“I’m not saying that you can’t succeed, Danny. I’m just saying that no matter how good you were in Hamlet, it’s not going to impress anyone.”
“Like it didn’t impress you.”
I sighed. “I didn’t say that.”
“And now you think I’m being unreasonable,” he snapped. “Let me show you just how unreasonable I can be.”
He stormed out, and I heard his truck’s engine roar to life. The jerk had left me with the check.
By the time I’d settled it all up, he was gone.
So there I was, five minutes away from breaking curfew. Breaking curfew is a big deal in Innsmouth. My friend Jackie broke curfew once. From then on, everything she said came out of her mouth backwards. I had to get an app on my phone to record her and play it back so I could understand her.
A huge van painted with a dizzying space mural drove up, and the driver rolled her window down. “Cthulhu Fhtagn, Kimberly. It’s awfully late for you to be out alone. Do you need a ride?”
“You’re a lifesaver, Miss Emberly.”
Miss Emberly taught freshman history at the local high school, and she’d always been my favorite teacher. I’d especially liked her way of explaining our place in the cosmos: As tiny specks undeserving of any attention from the greater powers that existed outside of our understanding. It’d helped me worry less about the weight of my life choices, anyway.
I climbed in and buckled up.
“Why are you out so late?” she asked.
“Danny and I were out on a date, but then we had a fight and he left me.”
“This close to curfew?” Miss Emberly sounded aghast.
I knew just how crappy it had been for him to leave me, but I still felt a little guilty for snitching on him. “I told him that I didn’t think his acting would pan out.”
“That’s no excuse. I’ll have to have a talk with his parents.”
“Why are you out this late?” I asked, hoping she’d forget about Danny if I got her talking about something else.
“Oh, I have an important meeting.”
She nodded. “There are some things that can only happen after curfew.”
We sat in silence for a minute. The radio was turned to the local NPR station, which had switched over to its late-night music program. It was Wednesday, so the ritual chant was playing. It’s not bad, but my favorite was the wailing and sobbing set to classical guitar.
“You’ve always been a good student,” she said. “If you’re interested, I’d be happy to let you tag along.”
There are two paths for kids in Innsmouth: Escape and immersion. Danny was firmly on the “escape” path, and he’d always said he was going to take me with him. I’d never really been able to decide what I wanted.
There were a lot of great things about Innsmouth, really. The sunset over the black ocean. The Solstice Festival, when we danced to try to keep the days from lengthening again. The way that the blood-red vines that grew over abandoned houses consumed them, leaving lots where sound was dampened and a chill hung in the air, no matter how bright the sun shone.
I’d seen other places on TV. All brightness and no shadows.
Sitting next to Miss Emberly, listening to the chanting, I knew that I’d never belong in any of those sunny places. We drove through the shadow between two streetlamps, and Miss Emberly’s shape expanded, until her whole half of the car was filled with impenetrable darkness.
“Let me check with my parents,” I said.
My parents were delighted to hear that Miss Emberly had invited me along, and they told me sternly to be on my best behavior.
We drove down the winding road to the bay. It was just wide enough for Miss Emberly’s van.
My favorite chant came on, and I started singing along without thinking. A beat later, Miss Emberly joined in.
It’s a great chant, one that makes the edges of reality wobble like a top at the end of its spin. Miss Emberly drummed on the steering wheel and I swayed back and forth. The inside of the van felt massive, and I knew that if I looked up, it would be into an endless darkness unspoiled by stars.
The chant ended, and the feeling passed. Miss Emberly and I grinned at each other, then a few moments later she pulled into a parking space by the rocky beach.
Gravel crunched beneath our feet as we climbed out of the van. She opened up the back, handed me two heavy canvas bags, and then gathered a picnic basket and a bundle of firewood.
“So many of our young people just don’t understand,” Miss Emberly said. “They see our home as a trap and they rush to escape it. They embrace the comforting lie that distance and ignorance equal safety. But there is no safety. There is no escape. This town is not the trap—this existence is. And there is only one way to escape it.”
“Do you think Danny has a chance of being a successful actor?”
Miss Emberly shrugged. “His success or failure is meaningless. If he leaves, his whole existence will be meaningless. Maybe he’ll be an actor with money and fame enough to try to fill the bottomless void in his soul. Or maybe he’ll fail and wait tables. Or maybe he’ll be hit by a bus. In the end, this life is nothing but suffering and pain, and acceptance is the only path.” She turned to me. “Are you ready to accept that truth, Kimberly?”
I knew that if I wasn’t ready, she would protect me. I could still go home, apologize to Danny, and eventually leave with him.
But I also knew that she was right. Everything about that life would be hollow.
School on Monday wasn’t any different than normal. Danny apologized, but when I looked at him all I saw were potential futures all in a whirling kaleidoscope. I wasn’t in any of them, and I was glad of it.
“They’re going to let us do The Book of Mormon for the play next semester,” he said. “Though the faculty wants to make a few changes, as usual.”
“I’m sure you’ll be able to do whatever they require,” I said. I knew Miss Emberly would be suggesting some major revisions to better appeal to our town’s sensibilities.
He smiled at me. “Thanks, Kimmy. Your support means a lot.”
I let him kiss my cheek, but he pulled away quickly. “You’re so cold!”
I had gone into the ocean, and a part of me would now live there forever. But I didn’t want to brag. “Maybe you’re just hot,” I said, winking.
He chuckled uncomfortably and hurried to his first class.
I sat in Miss Emberly’s class during lunch, marveling at how ketchup was both like and unlike blood. “If life is pointless, why do we all go through these normal actions?”
Miss Emberly pulled the wings off a cockroach and ate them. “There is no reason to do them, but also no reason not to. While we wait for our Lords to destroy the world, our bodies still need sustenance. Our minds still seek distraction. Our souls seek companionship. Some noble souls do choose to give up those things and devote themselves solely to calling out to the void. But not everyone has their strength and conviction.” She ate the rest of the cockroach in two bites.
“We act out normal lives while we wait, because what else is there for us to do?” She grinned at me. “It also seems to confuse anyone who would try to fight against us.”
Sometimes, strangers would come into town and speak of love and friendship and sunlight. One tried to burn down the library, once, raving about things man should not know.
Miss Emberly was right—their looks of confusion when they couldn’t see through our veneer of normalcy were always hilarious.
Still, it all seemed so pointless.
I thought I’d made my choice when I stepped into the ocean. It thought it was one decision: Go or stay. But even now that I’d chosen a path, it forked beneath my feet. I could follow Miss Emberly’s example and pass for normal, or I could step away and devote a madness-fueled push to the Great Old Ones, edging their return closer as I burned out like a shooting star.
I sighed. Why can’t anything ever just be easy?
At least I knew that my parents would be proud of me either way.
“Hey, Jackie,” I said, sitting next to her under the bleachers. She was smoking, and the cigarette glowed green in the shadows. The smoke itself writhed like a living thing. It patted my cheek with a long, thin tentacle. I appreciated the gesture.
“Hey, yourself,” Jackie said. I’d pulled my phone out to translate, but I found that I could understand her just fine, now.
“Have you ever thought about leaving town?” I asked.
She shrugged. “Before I broke curfew, sure. Not now, though. People outside wouldn’t be able to handle . . .” She waved toward herself and the smoke and the omnipresent green glow, “All this.” She took a long drag on her cigarette. “Hells, most people here can’t even handle it.”
“Do you think about going full cultist?”
Jackie laughed. “It’s always the quiet ones, isn’t it?”
“That wasn’t a ‘no.’”
Jackie’s laughter faded. “No, I suppose it wasn’t.” We sat in silence for a long moment. “I mean, who hasn’t thought about it?” she said. “It’s easy to daydream about, but actually going out and doing it is a whole other thing.”
The smoke tentacles pulled back and wrapped around her in a comforting hug. “I don’t know if I’m brave enough,” she said. “There’s no coming back, you know?”
I nodded. “Thanks, Jackie.”
“Are you going?” she asked.
“Yeah, I think so.”
She hugged me, and a tendril of smoke broke off and wrapped around my wrist like a bracelet.
My parents cried proud tears and bought me a black robe. Miss Emberly traced symbols all over my body that burned and throbbed on my skin. There was just one more person that I had to tell.
Danny met me at the Innsmouth Diner and I bought him a piece of pie.
He averted his gaze from the symbols on my face and stared at the chipped Formica tabletop. “I shouldn’t have left you here,” he said. His voice wavered, like he was about to cry. “This is all my fault.”
I patted his hand, and he shivered at my touch. “I made a choice,” I said. “You can’t make this about you.”
He didn’t meet my eyes. “It’s not too late, we could run away right now. I don’t need a diploma to act.”
“That was never what I wanted,” I said. I stood up. “I just wanted to say goodbye. And good luck with The Book of Fhtagn.” Miss Emberly had told me that they’d updated the title. She’d been proud of how catchy it sounded.
I left my wallet on the table and walked out into the night.
About the Author:
Jamie Lackey lives in Pittsburgh with her husband and their cats. She has over 160 short fiction credits, and has appeared in Daily Science Fiction, Beneath Ceaseless Skies, and Escape Pod. She has a novella and two short story collections available from Air and Nothingness Press. In addition to writing, she spends her time reading, playing tabletop RPGs, baking, and hiking. You can find her online at www.jamielackey.com.