The stench of salt was a daily sensation, a constant experience in these parts.
Helen awoke on Wednesday, blinking up at the peeling underside of the ceiling. Turning to her left, she observed the familiar, pale, freckled back of her best friend, and for a misty moment, forgot that she wasn’t twenty-five.
A twinge in her lower back informed her otherwise.
Pushing herself to sitting, she yawned and ran her fingers over her snarled curls, before rubbing at the nape of the neck. Outside the window of her tiny, rented abode, Innsmouth was still waking up. Midmorning traffic hummed through the narrow main street of the small town, while overhead, seagulls cried mournfully as they soared towards the docks.
“Morning,” a gravelly voice rasped behind her. Rough cotton sheets roiled around her, like waves upon the nearby shore.
“Good morning,” she greeted her lover politely, as though she hadn’t spent the night writhing under and over his willing, pliant body.
“Up already?” he asked, reaching out to caress her upper arm with the tips of his fingers.
Sliding her bare legs over the side of the bed, Helen drifted from Jason’s touch. Naked as the day she was born, she padded to the room’s sole window. Peeking out from behind stained curtains, through the dirty panes, she took in the familiar sight of a town which seemed to stand on its own island of time and space.
As she peered up at the cloudless sky, for a moment, she felt that familiar, sharp pang that came with missing her daughter. The blue stretching overhead was only a shade lighter than the blue of Kora’s eyes.
“This isn’t a holiday,” Helen reminded Jason, wrapping an arm around herself. Under her skin, she could feel the shape of her rib bones poking out from under a thin layer of flesh.
The first woman was created from the rib of a man, they taught in several nearby churches. She was created out of blood, bone and gristle by an indifferent god who tore open the chest of the first mortal man that had ever walked this earth, for the sole intention of calling her forth. With his gruesome prize in hand, he had moulded her softer form, before promising untold agonies upon her, for when it came time to birth his offspring.
“I’m not here to relax,” she concluded.
“No, I suppose you’re not,” he agreed as he sat up. “You’re here searching,”
She had been in a blurred and inebriated state when the man found her a mere week ago.
In the nicotine-stained middle of The Peculiar Room, she had stared at her best friend in shock. Blinking back her drunken stabbing rage, her first irrational instinct had been to blame Troy; she wondered if this was her ex-husband’s idea of a joke, some twisted game created with every intention of driving her back north, back into his unwanted embrace.
Instead of offering her any sort of a greeting, Jason had simply followed her back to her shabby hovel. Instead of asking her what she was trying to find at the bottom of a bottle of Bulleit, he remained silent, choosing instead to stay by her side even as she heaved up the bitter contents of her gut.
They didn’t talk about their children, their families, or anyone they had both left behind. There was no point in it, she knew, so why bother? She was here; her old life was not.
“What are you doing today?” he asked, coming up behind her. Familiar hands spanned her shoulders.
“I don’t know,” she admitted. “I thought about going down to the wharf, to see if anyone there is still willing to talk to me,”
The locals knew when she was coming now. They twisted their wide lips and their dark eyes into expressions of bland disinterest each time she wandered close.
Turning to look at her bedmate, Helen studied Jason’s sea-green eyes which were filled with inscrutable meaning. He was a familiar thing, in a strange place and a strange time; his was the face she had known since she was a child.
His was the face she had always loved, despite the ring she once wore on her finger, and which had bound her to another.
Frivolous things, rings.
Wrapping an arm around her waist, Jason leaned down and kissed her. There was something hungry in his embrace, something ravenous and covetous.
The first time he slanted his mouth over her own, without argument or reservation, Helen gave Jason all he demanded. She allowed him to palm open her thighs, to spread his kisses across her belly; she let him trail his lips across the softness of her cunt.
And after she had come against his mouth, she allowed him to press his lips against her own.
Jason tasted like salt, and sea. As he buried himself deep inside her, Helen wondered if this was what drowning felt like.
“I watched you as you grew, from a girl into a woman,” he had whispered against the hollow of her neck in the aftermath of that first time. “I watched you as you strolled the shores of a fertile lake, where you spent your days reading, and playing, and falling in love. I knew then, and I know now,”
In silence she wondered what he had known, or claimed to know, but she didn’t bother uttering her questions aloud.
In the present, as he shifted within the unmoving air of the murky room, Helen reflected with dark amusement that the man before her could be anyone at all. “Will you go down to the sea today?”
“What waits there for me?” she asked softly.
“I would like it if you wanted to go, that’s all,” he murmured, navigating their bodies so they fell back upon the lumpy mattress.
“You know what I want,” she told him as she swung a thigh over his narrow hips
“I do,” he nodded. “And I would give that to you,”
“Will you?” she breathed as she rocked against him, taking her pleasure from his body.
Possessive hands clutched tightly at her flesh as he thrust inside of her, driving her over the brink of sanity.
“Anything at all,” he promised. “After all, you are mine,”
Crying out her release, she slumped against him. Ash blonde curls washed over his bone-pale chest in uncontrollable waves.
“I will come down to the shore tonight. I will meet you there,” she told him.
“I will find you,” he promised, his voice as deep and as dark as the ocean. Long fingers combed through her tangled hair, parting the knots with infinite gentleness.
“I’ll always find you,”
Wandering hazily through the library at Miskatonic University, Helen approached the deserted stacks of Local History.
Not for the first time, it occurred to Helen that libraries and mausoleums had many things in common. Each page present was harvested from the carcasses of dead trees. Leather bindings were flayed from the bodies of screaming animals. The mites and the silverfish that squirmed between the pages, devouring words and knowledge – they might as well have been maggots, feeding on the cold, sunken flesh of buried corpses.
Drifting down a dusty aisle, a familiar voice asked, “Aren’t you tired of coming here day after day, seeking answers to questions you can’t find?”
“Sometimes I think I’ve been tired longer than I’ve been alive,” Helen answered absently, ignoring the speaker.
Slinking from the shadows, her companion peered disinterestedly over her shoulders. Dark eyes scanned the text she had in her hand.
“You won’t find the right questions in this one either,” he told her, his voice curling like smoke around her body.
“Go away,” she told him flatly.
“You are however, exceptionally close,” his voice was as smooth as black silk as he willfully ignored her command.
Helen retorted, “You’re already on the other side. You crossed that threshold a long time ago, when I was just a child and you were nothing more than a bitter madman,”
“Aye,” he nodded with a mockery of a smile.
His eyes were like pools of night, dark and filled with a glimmer that might have been the spark of distant comets.
“Seeing as you’re the one conversing with phantoms, you would be wise to consider the notion of madness, and how it afflicts those lost and low,”
Glancing away from him, she flipped onwards to another page.
In the quiet of the library, the sound of a young woman’s laughter drew her attention, causing her heart to plummet.
In her mind, she wondered if her Kora might have liked Miskatonic University, with its expansive library and vine covered walls. To the west, lonely birds called to each other in the bracken marsh; to the east, a forest loomed, filled with shadows and crawling things.
“Will you go down to the sea tonight?” the figure beside her asked curiously, running pale fingers over the spines of several heavy volumes.
“I might,” she told him. “Now leave me alone. Please,”
“You were always such a rude little girl,” her companion grunted.
Glancing up after a few minutes, she found herself with only her thoughts and her consuming emptiness for company.
The moon hung low over the horizon, gibbous and tinged in red. On a narrow strip of sand, Helen walked the lonely shore in bare feet as she gazed out at the endless expanse to her left. Where her shoes were, she had no idea. Neither did she much care.
Earlier, she spotted the glimmer of lamps in the distance, but as one hour seeped into the next, soon, it was only herself, the moon and the water. Seawater as cold as ice curled around her ankles like languid serpents, pulling her deeper in and further out.
Fascinating, to think that there were creatures which thrived in these frigid depths, to consider that life itself, crawled out of this wet darkness, screaming and howling for sustenance.
Arms slipped around her waist, holding her captive.
“You knew I would be,” she murmured, leaning back in his chest as cool lips found her jaw, her throat.
“Will you come home with me?” he asked, scraping his teeth against her shoulder.
“You’re not Jason,” she stated. “Not really. And I haven’t been speaking with my father either,”
“I am,” he chuckled against her skin. “And I am not. Things aren’t as binary as you imagine them to be,”
“Isn’t that just my mind convincing me that I haven’t actually gone mad?” she inquired as her pulse quickened under his knowing hands. Fingers crept under her shirt, stroking at her belly and under her breasts. “My father has been dead for decades, and Jason...Jason’s in the ground beside his own family, two plots away from my daughter,”
“Helen,” he laughed in that achingly familiar manner. Turning her so she had no choice but to meet his eyes, he told her, “I have loved you for most of my life. I loved you right up to the moment that car smashed into our frail, soft bodies, and plucked us from this side of the divide. If you come with me now, you’ll never be alone, not ever. Kora is waiting too. Your daughter stands alongside all you have ever lost,”
“This is a trick,” she told him. “A beautiful lie. Which is quite unnecessary. You already know why I came here – you know that I came searching,”
“Come with me, and I’ll show you the truth. There are worlds yet unconquered by your mortal eyes,” he whispered as he stripped her of her blouse, before pressing his mouth to her clavicle. He would devour her whole, she knew.
“Death will die, long before you will have even breached a fraction of all there is to want. I will tear apart the firmaments to grant you that which you desire,”
“You already know my answer,” she told him as she submitted to his unyielding grasp.
“I have always known you were mine,” he cupped her jaw fondly as saltwater rushed around them in a deafening roar.
In the engulfing darkness of the sea, held tight in her lover’s arms, Helen opened her mouth to laugh...to breathe at last, the air of those who were truly free.
Under the brilliant morning sun, nothing remained upon the sparkling, shifting surface of the soft sand.
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