by Gene Twaronite
To say that a horrible change had taken place in my best friend, “Crawdad” Billinghast, is putting it mildly. The truth is, he never did look all that well to begin with. A once hefty fellow, he had lost so much weight that his now baggy skin trailed on the ground behind him, while his clothes looked like they had just come out of a dumpster.
His sunken eyes glowed redder than the bottom of a Bloody Mary. And there was something oddly repellent about his head, which might explain his nickname. But now he looked positively beastly.
The last time I had seen him was at the yogurt shop, two months and three days ago. I had just walked in and found him sitting at a table chanting something in Latin, or maybe some Pakistani language, while stroking a large, curvaceous heap of chocolate swirl yogurt in a most disturbing manner.
“Hi ya, Crawdad. What’s happening?” I tried to sound nonchalant, though the yogurt thing was a new twist. He looked up at me in panic, as if I had intruded upon some secret ritual. Then he hurriedly splattered the yogurt with his hands.
“Don’t worry, your secret’s safe with me. Chocolate swirl? Who knew?”
But he just kept staring at me while his yogurt melted. Then, easing up a bit, he invited me to sit down. “Sorry, I get carried away with my research sometimes. You must think me rude.”
“No, just a little crazy. Aren’t we all?” I was lying. The man was one step away from a straightjacket, but then who am I to judge? I like people on the edge, but sometimes I think I encourage them too much by listening to their stories with feigned seriousness while suppressing hysterical laughter.
I knew Crawdad was into some sort of mystical pseudo-science, something that had to do with the pineal gland — or maybe the thyroid, I forget — and the existence of unseen, cosmic creatures from some other dimension or wherever. He insisted that the pituitary — or thyroid? — gland was the key to seeing these creatures, and that he would unlock their secrets.
“You see this yogurt? To you, perhaps, it looks just like yogurt.” Actually, by now it looked like a gooey finger painting done by a gibbon. “But if we could see beyond the fringes of its outward physicality, we’d see that it teems with billions upon billions of strange creatures totally unknown to us.”
“Oh, you mean those acidophilus bacteria, right? Yup, that’s why I’m here — getting my dose of good bugs. Think I’ll go order some.”
“Not bacteria, you moron! And not just in yogurt. They’re everywhere! Even as we sit, they’re passing right through you. It’s just that you can’t see them in this light. But I’ve discovered a way to make them visible.” Then he gave me one of his stares, like Vincent Price on acid.
Patting myself down, I tried to play along without totally losing it. “Wow, what do they look like? Do they look like yogurt? For some reason I couldn’t get the yogurt thing out of my head. “Or do they come in different shapes?”
“You’re mocking me. Fool! You don’t believe me.”
Now there are some people who should never take up science, and my friend was one of them. He just didn’t have the right temperament for it. He was so passionate about everything, always jumping to conclusions, thinking that he had finally made his big discovery. But his nutty hypotheses were, if nothing, always entertaining.
“I’m sorry, Crawdad, but you’ve got to admit, it sounds pretty crazy, even for you. You’ve been working awfully hard lately. Maybe you need to take a break.”
“Crazy, am I? I thought you were my friend. I never want to see you again!” And with that he stomped out of the yogurt shop.
* * *
Now here I was, standing at the front door of his little fleabag shack on Benefit Street. Why the City hadn’t torn it down long ago is beyond me. Frankly, I was surprised he’d called me, after the little yogurt-shop blowup. He was so hysterical I could hardly understand him. But then I was probably the only person crazy enough to listen to him. He had to show his proof to someone. A rat scurried past my shoe as I stepped inside. What am I doing here?
Crawdad was holding a candle in his shaking hands. Following him upstairs, I wondered why he didn’t turn on the lights. “Hey guy, too cheap to pay your electric bill?” I tried to lighten things up, for the flickering shadows on the walls were beginning to creep me out.
“No, that’s not it, he whispered. I just don’t want to take a chance. Not after what happened to those foolish women from the Tidy Digs Maid Service.”
“Uh, what happened to them?” Not sure if I really wanted to know, but I had to ask.
“They were poking around where they shouldn’t have been. They were up in the attic, even though I told them never to go in there. They must have turned on the lights, and it got them. I heard their terrible screams but, when I got there, all I found on the floor was a pile of cleaning cloths and a feather duster.”
At last we came to the attic. Fortunately, there were no more rats. Crawdad ushered me in and, in the light of the candle, I could just make out the assorted jumble of glassware and gizmos that he called a laboratory.
“It’s over there,” he pointed. In the far corner was some sort of contraption that looked like it had been assembled out of parts from a junkyard. It was adorned with a cluster of light bulbs projecting out from it at odd angles. He motioned from me to sit down, then turned on the machine.
From it there came at first a soft whir, followed by a loud rhythmic beat that sort of reminded me of a Michael Jackson concert I had once attended. The multi-colored strobe lights pulsated on and off in unison, causing rays to shine in the far corners of the room where weird shadows seemed to dance and play.
“You see that?” Crawdad shouted. “It’s called ultra-light — the colors of the spectrum magnified a thousandfold in intensity. The rays from that machine tickle the pineal, allowing you to see the invisible worlds and things that float around us. Stay still! For in this light we can both see and be seen.”
I had to admit, it was a damned good light show, and the music wasn’t half bad either. Crawdad blew out the candle, and suddenly we were surrounded by giant colored spheres that rushed toward us out of nowhere like pulsing supernova, then blinked out of existence.
I felt like a kid again watching a show at the Hayden Planetarium. The walls of the attic seemed to vanish and dissolve into distant mountain ranges of some alien landscape, while unknown constellations of sinister outline appeared across the sky. Meanwhile, the background music had taken a more ominous tone, now sounding more like a Black Sabbath concert.
Big flabby, comet-like things floated above us, while unnamable shapes began to writhe obscenely in every corner of space. Their myriad forms resembled no living thing of this world, though one of the more common ones did call to mind a giant sea cucumber with wings.
I felt something brush past me — another rat! But then I found myself wishing it was a rat, for whatever it was felt more like something oozing right through me as if it were probing or tasting my flesh. I could feel strange things moving all around and through me, filling me with utter nausea and helplessness, like the time I caught that nasty bug going around.
I watched in disgust as some of the things seemed to devour each other. Could this be what had happened to those poor women from Tidy Digs? Instinctively I drew from my pocket the small pistol I always carried with me after being mugged one night in downtown Arkham.
As if reading my thoughts, Crawdad’s voice roared in my ear. “Do you see my little lovelies? Do you see the things that flap and frisk about you each second of your existence? You think these pathetic little monsters did away with the maids? Idiot, they are no more dangerous than the bacteria in your yogurt.
“But there are other things here — things that your pitiful brain can’t imagine. From the interstices of space and time, I have brought down demonic hobgoblins that consume and digest. They are after me, for I know their secret. But they’ll never catch me. It is you they will catch, my dear friend, just as they consumed the maids.”
He sneered at the gun I was grasping. “That won’t help you here. But don’t worry. It won’t hurt a bit. Digestion is quite painless. But seeing them is another matter. You’ll probably scream a lot. I’m told they’re uglier than Medusa and just as deadly. Once you see them, it’s curtains.
“So far I’ve been able to resist, though I rather fancy it would be nice to have just one peek. Aren’t you curious, my friend? I thought you were the scientist. Why, I think one’s coming right now. Take a good look. It’s over there in the corner...”
* * *
There’s little left to be told that hasn’t already appeared in the lurid reports of the local rags. Here are the facts, not that anyone probably cares. The story has taken on a life of its own.
The police responded to a shot heard coming from the old Billingshast place. They found the two of us there in the dark attic along with a blown-out machine. Billinghast, his face frozen in a maniacal grin, was dead. I was unconscious, still gripping my pistol.
After a brief arrest, I was released, when it was discovered that my gun was actually a starter’s pistol. I had fired it in vain at the infernal machine, which apparently suffered from a power surge. According to the autopsy report, my friend had died of an acute case of credulity, exacerbated by a profound lack of sexual stimulation. Either that or gout.
I wish I could believe the coroner. It would help me forget about those things I saw, and shake this awful feeling that there’s something around the corner waiting to consume me. What still keeps me awake at night is this: the maids’ bodies were never found. All the police found was this note left by one of the maids: “Dear Mr. Billinghast. Your attic is beyond dirty. It’s out of this world. We quit.”
Copyright © 2015 by Gene Twaronite