From the author: An investigator reconstructs an unspeakable event from the testimony of a truly unpleasant witness.
“No shit, there I was, just coming out of Wyckman’s. They close by noon in the off season, do most of their business with fishermen, I guess. So it was like nine-thirty, or some kind of fucked-up early morning time, anyway. Way too early, but they’re like the best donuts, you know?”
Deville tried not to show anything in his face. He was playing the stoic interrogator, but was this honestly the best witness the triage team could find him? Steven Anders, the idiot witness, ran a hand through his greasy hair and looking around confusedly. Imagining a police station, no doubt. The opaque plastic sheeting that divided this interview space from the rest of the barn they had commandeered for a command center had no answers for Steve. He wasn’t supposed to understand what was happening. Deville might have put most of the confusion down to shock, except for the overpowering scent of marijuana coming off the boy.
“So, like I was saying, I came out and there were some weird guys coming down the street, toward the harbor. It was like two groups, really. There were the weird guys, in like, all black, and they had a lot of jewelry, like big, heavy, silver stuff, and there were some regular people from Sullivan, inside a circle of the weird guys.”
“Was that the first indication you had of something unusual going on? Seeing this group of men?” Had there really been no warning until the cultists paraded to the water? Surely the triage team could have found him someone who had been at least suspicious of the buildup to the incursion. The perpetrators would have needed time to locate everyone they were taking, to round them up. How had they avoided local law enforcement?
“They weren’t just men, man. There were weird girls, and Old Lady Dolan and Mrs. Pierce were inside the circle.”
If he’d had another reliable witness, Deville would have slapped the little shit then. Did he really have so little idea of what had just happened that he thought that gender was the important thing here? Every minute was more time for the trail to go cold on the bastards that had slipped away. “Sorry for the misunderstanding, Mr. Anders. Was seeing the group of weird people surrounding the Sullivan residents the first sign of something strange?”
There was another long blank stare, hopefully indicating a struggle to remember as far back as the previous day. “Well, there was the music last night, but I’m not sure if it was the same as the thing, you know the thing at the harbor.”
“Tell me about the music.” Please, for the love of God, say something coherent and relevant and stop the pointless arguing. Even after containment, the search teams were limiting themselves to 20 minute shifts in contact with the water. It was that bad. Steve had to know how serious this was—the manifestation had distorted basic principles for miles, and he’d been nearly at the epicenter.
“It was kind of singing, but like singing while they were gargling, maybe? It was really deep, and there was a lot of reverb. The girl next door is a producer or something for some kind of synth/trance/ambient concept group. We just thought she was playing something from them, but some of the stuff from the thing, you know, sounded like that.” He looked like he was finally remembering enough to be worried. Maybe that would make him a little more focused on useful answers.
“About what time did you hear the music?”
“Not that late, maybe two, two-thirty.”
Deville checked his tablet. That would have been high tide. Just the time for an invocation. He would have to get into it with the coast-watch teams. They should have picked this up then. No excuse.
“And the sound seemed to be coming from your neighbor’s house?”
“We’re staying up in Hook Park, in my uncle’s trailer. When something loud hits those things, they just shake. Sound comes out of the walls everywhere.”
“All right, Mr. Anders, let’s get back to what you saw. Can you describe any of the people you saw in greater detail? Did you recognize any of them?”
The boy was definitely headed from spaced-out to paranoid now, squinting and fidgeting like a rat. “Can you stop calling me that, man? The last guy who called me Mr. Anders was the dude at the property desk when I got let out of juvie.”
“What would you prefer?” Please, anything to get him to focus and stop stalling. Deville needed something to work with.
“Steve, man, just Steve.”
“All right Steve, let’s get back to the question.” Please, God, something to distract him before he wrapped Steve’s juvenile delinquent rat face around his fist.
“Yeah, yeah, I can describe them. I can give you the names for most of the regular people they had, and I guess you can just, find their licenses or whatever.”
“What about the weird people? Can you describe them?”
“Yeah, sure. Uh… like I said, they were all in black, with weird jewelry, and they had, like, fat faces, even if they weren’t fat, and big eyes, all of them. There was one of them, at the front. He must have been in charge. He had this princess tiara on, but like real, you know? And a robe or something, and his face was weird. He had this messed up beard, that was black some places, and white some places, and really patchy, so there were bits just not there, and his eyes bugged out, like as far as his nose.”
“What happened then, after you came out of the donut shop?”
“Uh, they looked like bad news, so I just turned the other way along Dock and went up Sugar instead of Main, so I didn’t get in their way. I guess old man Wyckman saw them, though. He came out and started yelling something. I didn’t catch much of it, but I think he called one of them Marsh, and then I heard him get smacked. I did not realize how loud a guy getting hit was. I turned round and looked, and the head weird guy, the one with the tiara, grabbed him by the collar and just dragged him out along the pier, the one right by the shop. He must have been really strong, ‘cause Wyckman’s a big guy, and the weirdo just dragged him with one hand. He dragged him out to the end of the pier and then he pulled out a knife or something; I saw it flash, and he cut Wyckman across the throat and dropped him in the water.”
“What did you do then?”
“Fuck do you think man? I ran like hell.”
Of course he ran. Not an ounce of shame.
“I tried to call the cops while I was running. My uncle made me put the sheriff’s number in my phone when he gave the keys to the trailer, like I was gonna call the sheriff for something, but I was running, yeah, so I wasn’t really paying attention to the screen and I called someone and I think it was the sheriff.
“Service is really bad out here, and they won’t put up new towers. Something about the ground being too soft, but anyway, someone picked up, and I think it was the sheriff, but it was a really bad line, though. I just started yelling what I saw, and I think I got most of it out before the call dropped, but, you know, I wasn’t sure. ‘Cause it dropped before they said anything back.”
He’d seen a ritual murder by cultists, and the town worthies, the only people who might have known what was happening, who might have been able to tell Deville more than he could sift from the silt and ashes, being held prisoner by those same murderers. He’d shouted an incoherent account into a buzz of static that might have been the town sheriff. That confirmed a good deal of Deville’s suspicions about the beginning of the incursion, but they’d seen no evidence of law enforcement response. “Okay, Steve, what happened then? You were running away, but we found you back down at harbor. How’d that happen?”
Every time Deville asked a question, the boy looked around nervously. This time, he followed his nervous glances with a rueful shake of the head. “Laura, man, Laura. She dragged me back there.”
Thank God; maybe Laura would be a better witness. Why hadn’t the triage team given her to him? He scanned the preliminary casualty list: Laura Marling, 23, (identified from driver’s license) was still catatonic, with presumed level six exposure to the prime manifestation. Damn. “Tell me about Laura. She’s your girlfriend?”
“Uh… well, maybe not anymore. She was pretty pissed at me by the time, you know, it happened, but yeah, she was staying with me on her break.”
“She goes to school around here?”
“Not that close, really, but some of her friends were driving to Canada on the break and they dropped her off here. So, yeah, she was there when I got back, and she said we should go tell the police what happened, and she called nine-one-one right then, and told the dispatch lady what I said, and she told them my name even though I was like no, you know, signing no really clearly.”
He mimed crossing his hands to make an x, pressed a finger to his lips and drew it across like a zipper. “You know, I don’t really like to get on official radar.”
“Why not?” He shouldn’t ask. This was a diversion, nothing to do with the incident, but something about the idea of the girl intrigued him.
“Uh, you guys aren’t like, the regular police, are you? ‘Cause I don’t have a lawyer, and I don’t wanna, you know, incriminate myself.”
Deville stared at him for a long silence. He watched a bead of sweat roll from hairline to nose-tip before he relieved the tension. “No, Steve, we’re not regular police. No matter what you tell me, we won’t arrest you.” Did the complete lack of badges, Mirandizing, uniforms and casual brutality not make that clear?
“All right man, all right, I understand. You got bigger stuff to worry about, right?” He glanced nervously in the direction he thought was to the harbor. “I’ll level with you. I got like a half-acre of weed in the woods behind the Hook. My uncle doesn’t mind, and I can cover expenses back home that way.”
Deville sighed. Sweating this idiot was just wasting more time.
“All right, let’s get back to today. After Laura called the police, what happened?”
“Like I said, she said we had to go to the station and tell the sheriff what was going on, ‘cause I wasn’t sure they heard me on the phone.”
“She’d just talked to the police. Why would you need to go to the station?”
“Nah man, nine one one out here goes to a dispatcher somewhere, covers half the state, and they don’t have any better line to the sheriff than we do. Takes hours for someone to come. That’s why my uncle made me put the sheriff in my phone. Laura said we had to go and make sure they were doing something. I kind of think she was already planning what she did, but that’s what she said. I didn’t wanna, but you know how arguing with a girl goes.”
He flashed Deville a sheepish smile, hoping for some kind of misogynist solidarity, no doubt. Deville gave him nothing. “So you went straight to the Sheriff’s station?”
“Well, yeah, basically. It was weird though, as soon as we went outside. The sky was weird.”
“Weird how?” He saw the eye rolling, the unconscious widening of pupils that indicated they were coming to a trauma point. This was where Steve had started to actually perceive the manifestation.
“It was dark, like it was cloudy, but there weren’t clouds. Everything was just darker, like hazy, but not hazy ‘cause it was still clear. It just wasn’t light enough.”
That tracked. Level four and above manifestations often included a diffuse reduction in ambient light. The old scrolls referred to ‘the sun turning its face from the horror below’.
“It was windy, but not like regular wind, either. You know how wind is usually not exactly the same direction all the time? It moves around. This wasn’t like that. It was just steady, straight toward the harbor. Like there was giant vacuum down there, just sucking everything up. It got stronger the closer we got, too.”
“Did you see anyone else on the street while you were going to the station?”
He should have. They had half the town down with category six exposure or worse. He must have seen some of them heading down to the incursion point. Sensitives would have been drawn or repulsed powerfully, unless all the sensitives in town were already there, rounded up, or wearing the robes.
“Nah man. They must have been down there already. I didn’t see anyone until we got down to waterfront. Everything was messed up though: doors left open, cars just stopped in the street, man. Some stuff was smashed too, like there was riot, but there was no one there. Shit was fucked up man. Looked like a zombie movie or some shit.”
Better. The manifestation must have started almost as soon as Steve left the harbor. Everyone who could feel it had been caught in the ambient hypnosis. Deville’s coffee was cold, but he didn’t move to freshen it. That would just mean prolonging the interview. He wanted this done, wanted a better witness to the madness at the waterfront, wanted the violent intrusion of things far beyond human ability to understand or control into this sleepy vacation community to have never happened. This was what he had.
“What happened at the Sheriff’s station, Steve?”
“It was smashed open, like the doors were ripped off their hinges. Looked like a bomb went off outside. Sheriff Whitts was in there.” Steve’s pupils widened farther, and his eyes rolled dramatically. He’d seen something bad in there.
“Yeah, dead. Drowned. He was lying there, with his gun out, lying in pool of fucking sea water, all bloated and purple and shit. How fuck did that even happen, man?”
It hadn’t been sea water, exactly, of course. It had been brine from the other place. The place that was beneath the sea and infinitely distant at the same time, where the monsters came from. Killing the Sheriff like that meant at least one of the cultists had been skilled manipulator. He guessed there was an adept from the strength of the primary manifestation, but they could have gotten that with luck and blood. Steve didn’t need to know any of that.
Deville tapped out some quick instructions on his tablet. A team should sweep the police station. Landis might be able to feel some resonance from whoever called the brine, and the place needed cleansing in any case.
“Don’t worry about it. What happened after that?”
“Man, I wanted to get out of there, just go anywhere else, but Laura wouldn’t give it up. She said we had to find out what was going on down at the harbor, do whatever we could to help.”
Good for Laura. Deville wished he was interviewing her instead of her useless dropout of a boyfriend. Anyone resilient enough to walk toward an incursion this large, especially after witnessing such a severe secondary intrusion, would have a much more accurate memory than Steve could muster. She might even be able to describe the manifestation, if she had seen it. He pulled his attention back the boy’s rambling.
“She dragged me down toward the water, to where it was all happening. I could see right away that it was a bad fuckin’ idea, but she wouldn’t listen to a word I fuckin’ said. The sky was still messed up, dark and shit, and the wind was loud, like a fucking siren. Nearly knocked me over. There was lightning too, or something, flashing out over the water. I never heard thunder, though. Just the wind.
“So we headed down that way, but I made her stay off Main. I knew they’d be at the water there, by Wyckman’s, but looking down the other streets, I could still see something was messed up down there. You could see the water was down super low, lower than low-tide, but sometimes a big wave smashed up onto the street. That doesn’t happen. There’s a breakwater and shit to keep the harbor calm. You only get waves there when a big storm blows up, and there wasn’t one. The wind was going the other way. The light was wrong, too. It was green, maybe? Something weird.”
He was having trouble conjuring the memory, or rationalizing it to something communicable. If just the light from the breach was that much trouble, Deville couldn’t expect a clear enough account of the manifestation or the ritual to be useful. Still, best get to the end of it. “All right, what happened then?”
“Well, we were getting pretty close, and we started to hear that weird, underwater singing again. Louder this time, and you could tell it was coming from the pier. It sounded wrong man. Like, it was quiet, but you could hear it over the wind, and I felt it in my jaw, the way you do with really heavy bass.”
Deville could picture it. Steve didn’t have the vocabulary to explain, but he could hear over the wind because he wasn’t really hearing the wind with his ears. The pressure differential that created that suction wasn’t entirely physical. The chanting wasn’t just audible either. He would have been able to hear the wrongness of it with something Deville would have called a soul, ten years ago. Just shaping the syllables of that language required a third level manipulation. It wasn’t made for human tongues.
Deville still remembered each time he had heard it, from the first blasphemous strain twenty-five years ago, to the screams and curses of the little acolytes that had slipped through beside this morning’s horror. The echoes lingered, ready to flare to pain whenever they were brushed, like the hundred other scars of his long career; the chill from depths of un-space between places that never really left the bones, the dull stabbing knives behind his eyes that sparked to white hot pain again at each new blasphemy. None of it could be cured entirely, not without the sign, and that would be the end of his service. He was not useless yet, even if this interrogation nearly was.
“What did you do when you heard the chanting?”
Steve couldn’t look Deville in the eyes anymore, could barely focus on anything. Level three exposure, at least, maybe four. “I wanted to just run, man. I knew this shit was bad news, but Laura, she fuckin’ wouldn’t. She said we had to see what was going on. She dragged me, straight up dragged me. So, we just snuck down along Greene to where we could look down and see a little bit of the pier. The weird light was getting worse, so I couldn’t see much.”
He paused a long time, shuddering, staring through the plastic sheeting and the barn wall, back to the memory he was forcing himself to define, trying to bend a rational cage around the inconceivable horror.
“The weird guys were there. In the robes, all facing the harbor, but I recognized the head guy, the knife guy, from his tiara-thing. And there were…there were bodies lying on the pier. I could see their feet. I think their heads were hanging over the water.”
Steve sank back in his chair, exhausted. It had taken something out him. The cocky smirk that had made Deville want to rearrange his face the whole time had finally been scrubbed off. It didn’t impress. Even now, the boy hadn’t seen anything that would scar him forever, even without the sign. Maybe there was one more drop to be wrung out of him before the end.
“Did you recognize any of the cultists this time? Were any of them from town, or people you’d seen before?”
“Nah man, nah. Their backs were to us, and I didn’t even wanna look. Laura fuckin’ left me there, man. She said she was going to get a better look and she left me, went to climb up on top of the co-op, where they always leave the fire escape down. She went up there and left and then it happened. You know, you guys showed up.”
“You never saw the harbor, or the blast?” Of course he hadn’t. He wouldn’t be compos mentis to give this interview if he had seen the thing, not close. Deville wished there was someone strong enough to retain proximate detail he could interview.
“I didn’t see it, man. I heard you come in, your choppers, and I heard the bombs or whatever and saw the big flash, and then you guys came and got me. Why hell are you asking me? You know what happened. You were there.”
That was the smartest thing Steve had said today. Deville had been there, of course, hanging out of the leading helicopter as they came in low. He’d seen the thing breaching into the harbor, making the water hump and hiss and boil with its wrongness, the thing made for an ocean that never touched anything so ordinary as a shore or a seafloor. He hadn’t had time to notice the idiots who had opened the tear it was pressing through.
They had fired missiles, more as a distraction than anything else. Physical damage didn’t really matter to the intruder. It only wore a body because it was constrained to exist as matter in a single time and place when it entered their reality. They couldn’t stop it by damaging a physical shell that was no more than a convenience.
It had been Deville and Marks, Landis and Wilmot, and Collins. The had carried the rods of metal that was not metal, torn from the cities of the elder ones, beneath the polar ice, graven with their sign, to close the ways that were opened to other places. The five of them had slid down their ropes and stood at the edges of the water and defied it, chanted litanies of facts and figures and definitions that made its presence, its nature, its conception, impossible. They had driven their rods through wood and concrete into the earth and water below and asserted reality again, fenced it back into a smaller and smaller bubble of insanity until it was gone, back to the endless, formless, lawless ocean of deadly hunger and scaled nightmares that had born it.
Five of them, all experienced, all hardened to the terrors of unreality, and how much had it cost them? Collins’s legs were shattered, never to walk again, when a stray tendril had lashed out before they raised the walls of reality at the water’s edge. Marks was worse. He had looked too close or too long, or with the wrong eye. He was gagged now, in a little curtained-off alcove next to the space they’d cordoned off for medical, so that his constant recitation in the language that none knew and all understood would not disturb the ordinary people. He might recover, or his mind might wander whatever maze of transcendent madness the horror had trapped it in forever.
There had been no time to worry about the humans (or nearly humans) who had opened the way for the horror while they fought it, and the cultists had taken the opportunity to vanish. The few that remained for the second team to catch had charged into gunfire rather than surrender for interrogation. He needed to find them, somehow, and this miserable, cowardly delinquent was his best witness. The rest of the town had stayed inside, looked close enough to rip their minds apart, or had their blood drained into the harbor. That was probably the fate of the ones who could have told him something useful. So large an incursion, managed in a few hours, with nothing but a bit of chanting and a few blood-sacrifices, it suggested a pre-existing connection, one of the tainted bloodlines. The pillars of the community who had bled into the water this morning would have known stories about the shunned clan, a family of black sheep with a long, shadowed tie to the deepest sea.
Steve had spent more than an hour resisting his memories, and Deville still hadn’t gotten a lead.
“Steve, I need you to think for me. Did your uncle, or anyone else in Sullivan, ever talk about a family you should avoid, or a house where you shouldn’t go? Did they ever tell scary stories about anyone from town, or about their ancestors?”
“What the fuck are you talking about, man? Those guys weren’t from town. I would have fuckin’ said if I knew. What the hell are you asking about scary stories after… after what… man, is Laura okay? Just tell me she’s okay.”
“We’re taking care of her. She was closer to things than you, so she needs more medical attention. The best thing you can do for her is to help me find the people responsible for today.” The best thing he could do was walk out her life and never come back. They’d get to that.
“Man, I don’t know. I don’t know anything. You want some haunted mansion story or something? I don’t fuckin’ know it. Just let me see Laura.” Steve stood up; he was losing composure, head darting randomly, waving his arms wider and wider, half clenching his fists.
Time to be done with it. Deville pushed him back down into the folding chair, and before the boy could complain, he twisted his fingers through the pattern and invoked the sign.
“You will sleep now, Steven Anders, and when you wake, you will remember nothing of the past twelve hours.” The blackout wouldn’t even be difficult for him to rationalize. That was all that was required, but Deville could not resist a little more. “You will forget all you know of Laura Marling, and never seek to know her again.”
He left Steve drooling in the chair and stepped through the double curtain of plastic sheets into medical, performing the same healing forgetfulness on the rest of the afflicted, those left comatose or gibbering by their exposure. He came to Laura Marling. She was unconscious, but the chart suggested it was only physical trauma: she’d been struck by debris from the missile detonation. She looked well enough, apart from the bandage above her eye, naturally pale more than drained. From what Steve had said, she had been fully exposed to the incursion, and there was nothing to indicate that she was mad, no twitching eyes or gibbering. When he sketched the sign above her, he did not only speak forgetting.
“Laura Marling. When you wake, you will forget all you once knew of Steven Anders. You will remember what you saw today. You will go to Boston, and find the offices of the Bloch group, for answers. Ask for Mr. Deville.”
Someone might call it a press-ganging, but her mind was strong. She could shake off the compulsion, if she truly wanted to, and he needed a new partner, with Marks ruined. She would come. She had exactly as much choice as Deville had, as much as anyone strong enough to see and to remember: none at all.
This story originally appeared in No Shit, There I Was.