The note itself simply read, “TUESDAY 7:13 PM”. Unsigned, undated, unadorned. Stuck into my door, just above the latch where I’d be sure to find the note immediately upon my return from my errands about the city…
The Tentacled Sky
by Jay Lake
The first note was scribbled on a piece of old cardstock, fountain pen ink splattered carelessly across the fuzzed textures as if it had been written in haste by someone’s elegant grandmother. The handwriting itself was hardly Palmer Method, instead being as sloppy as the inkwork. Again, signaling haste.
I turned the slightly irregular missive in my well-protected hands, looking at the back where a scrap of printing could just be made out to read “EALOU” in faded vermillion ink that reminded me of old blood. Jealous, I wondered? Or some portmanteau product name such as Sealout. The faint smell of roses emitted from the cardboard, though I was put more in mind of a funeral home than a florist.
Significantly, neither my name nor my address was on the reverse. Only the faded printing and some wear scars. The note itself simply read, “TUESDAY 7:13 PM”.
Unsigned, undated, unadorned. Stuck into my door, just above the latch where I’d be sure to find the note immediately upon my return from my errands about the city.
Note to gentle readers: I should not like to reveal more about my erstwhile whereabouts for fear of endangering you. Please forgive my lack of specificity concerning such an otherwise elementary matter.
Later on, the rain descended. The matter of climate had much been bruited in the newspapers of late, for so far in the course of this year barely halfway past we had challenged most prior records for annual precipitation. The weather-wise were declaiming that by the end of August this year of rain in the city should be one for the record books. The weather-foolish were proclaiming a need for honest citizens to provision themselves with boats for their porches, and flotation devices that the children might yet swim to school when the curriculum resumed in September.
This year’s rain had been in general possessed of a distinctly unaqueous elasticity. Instead of washing the streets and clearing the air, the water clung with a nigh gelid tenacity to buildings, gutter, trees, and even the unfortunate birds. I was put much in mind of studies recently published in several lower-tier journals of academics and science regarding the polymerization of water. Ordinarily such drastic pronunciations about novel states of matter are thinly-disguised pleas for funding or continued sponsorship, and as such I pay them little mind.
Our rain of this year in the city was revising my opinions on this particular matter.
I sat to watch the street through the cracked glazing of my front window. Naturally it was surgically clean on the inside, smelling faintly of surfactants and rubbing alcohol. However, on the outside the glass was somewhat obscured by the persistent sheet of water clinging like a drowning man to the last rope of his hopes. Though I had largely ignored the note of the previous weekend, it continued to perch on my mantle, ungainly harbinger of vague portent.
My grandfather’s railroad clock had struck the seventh hour of the afternoon not so long ago. Now I peered into the street, looking through the rain that fell like clear aspic to see what might be in store at the hour appointed by my anonymous correspondent.
A single figure shuffled along the thoroughfare, eschewing the sidewalks in favor of the cobbled expanses where the day’s traffic had so recently wound down to the usual evening trickle. I had to laugh, for the approaching entity was as something designed by children in pretense of threat – long leather car coat that flapped in the wind, the figure beneath shrouded in shadow and rainfall; a wide-brimmed hat pulled low over the face until nothing could be seen from my second-floor vantage except crown surmounting shoulders; and a shambling gait of which any bedtime story boogeyman would be proud.
Could this jack-o-the-streets be my mysterious correspondent? Or an agent of theirs?
No one else appeared – no autobus or taxicab, no private automobiles rushing for medical aid or cruising for the evening air. Just this creature who dropped below my line of sight. I heard my apartment building’s front door creak open, that bad hinge ever worsening in the endless rain. I heard a heavy tread upon the stairs. I heard the floorboard outside my door squeak as always it did when I had a visitor.
I tensed, waiting for the knock that would doubtless be a thunderous echo. My heart raced despite my airs of amusement, and my breath was harsh in my throat.
I counted to a hundred, but no knock came. Neither did the floorboard squeak again. Taking my courage in hand, I crept to the door and pressed my ear against the varnished wood, my nose reporting old oak, turpentine and mold. I expected stentorian breathing, or some harsh life-noise of rough trade waiting to spring upon me.
Noting that the clock now reported 7:15 of the evening, I rallied my intestinal fortitude and cracked open the portal, keeping the stout brass chain in place. I cannot say who or what I expected to find without, but no one stood in the hall.
Only the broad-brimmed hat lay there, upside down as if carelessly discarded before my door. Another piece of cardstock had been dropped into the inverted crown.
I listened a moment, for surely the visitor had not departed. I’d heard no footsteps, the floorboard had not squeaked, neither stairs nor front door had echoed in their invariable manners. Still, I heard no breathing, nor the rustling silence that usually shouts of a person holding themselves still and secret.
Either my visitor was a practitioner of one of those Asiatic arts of noiseless assault and stealthy concealment, or they had contrived to noiselessly vanish from the upstairs hall of my building. Into the apartment of one of my three immediate neighbors? I’d heard no knock, no click of latch, no usual murmur of polite social intercourse.
Once more summoning my courage, for by now I was deeply and obscurely disturbed, I pushed my door to, unsecured the chain, then opened it to step out into the fearful precincts that were my own front hallway transformed.
Only a hat threatened me. Damp, silent, inner band still warm from someone’s head, with a further bit of cardstock left carelessly therein. An afterthought, missive from an uncaring universe. I pulled on a latex glove from the supply I keep always in my pockets and carefully lifted the card.
Unadorned, unaddressed, this time smelling of pocket lint and damp wool, one side proclaimed “UTTON”, the other simply read “FRIDAY, 10:17 AM” in the same hasty hand and splattered fountain pen.
With a sigh, I took my prizes and retreated to the dubious safety of my apartment.
I washed my hands a good long while with three different soaps while contemplating my next move. Clearly some game was afoot, though I understood nothing of it yet. Just as clearly this was not a matter for the authorities. What complaint should I bring to the police? That someone had gifted me with a hat and a pair of odd notes? Unfair as it might be, I was already aware of my reputation in certain sections of the city. The compromise of my dignity through the mandatory psychiatric confinement of two years ago was unjust as any reasonable person could see, but neither the courts nor the medical authorities were overly concerned with reason, preferring instead their petty little rules and straitened expectations.
No, I could expect no help from those quarters. I was, as usual in this life, set upon my own devices once more.
Properly cleansed, I examined the hat with stainless steel tongs and a lacquered chopstick. Under my patient and persistent prodding, the headgear revealed no particular secrets. It was a fine-grained leather, lined with dark maroon silk. There was no maker’s label or stamp on the inner band, though the threading indicated high quality work, most likely a bespoke effort.
My children’s monster in the street had been a fashionable fellow, for all his or her air of menace.
After much thought, and no little steeling of my resolve, I tugged on a latex skullcap. My hair, auburn ringlets of which I allowed myself small vanity, fit well enough beneath. This was little different from those times when I dressed myself to be someone else in the world. After spraying the inside of the hat with disinfectants, I gingerly placed it upon my head.
Gloves and skullcap, I reminded myself. It would not touch the flesh of my body.
I stood and regarded myself in the mirror above the mantle. Adjusting the brim, I thought I could pass for the stranger in a view from above. Should that ever be necessary.
Passing was a skill of mine, carefully cultivated against necessities both dire and trivial. Binding or padding my breasts, lifts in my shoes, a change to the curve of my spine and shoulders, the proper wig – I could be anyone.
Except yourself, a voice whispered. After a moment’s startle, I recognized it for my own.
On Friday morning, the city was gloomy but no longer half-drowned. Not for the moment, at any rate. I sat by my window, the broad leather hat totemically perched upon my head. My street was busier than at the previous visitation; crowded with the usual mid-morning traffic of rag pickers, letter carriers, delivery men, and harried mothers with pre-school children.
I watched for the shambling visitor, and was not disappointed. Soon the mysterious figure appeared from behind a dark brown package truck disgorging some mercantilist sending into the home at 1406, near the beginning of my block. They shambled once more, this time bare-headed as any clown, curled hair moving in slight breeze outside. The car coat flapped, and their pace seemed more vigorous today. Of course, if my visitor cultivated anonymity, a slow, menacing gait would not be their best choice at such a busy hour.
Once again they disappeared from view just below me. Once again the front door swung open with the squeal of distressed hinges, the steps echoed, the floorboard outside my door squeaked. Once again there was no knock, only a psychic miasma of menace. Once again I stood, listening, waiting with the patience of snakes until the old railroad clock struck half past the hour.
I threw the door open in an outburst of showmanship to find a pair of tall leather boots in the hall, another cardstock note propped between them.
Elusive, once again.
Through the entire afternoon I scanned the sky for serpents. Sometimes I glimpsed the bladed and bloody future, another aspect of my life for which neither the civil authorities nor the medical establishment had any patience. The world to come leaves its tracks around us in the frost on hearses, railroad car graffiti, visible-but-secret patterns in park plantings and concert posters plastered to brick walls. One needs only attune oneself to read this.
I mostly keep my distance from these truths. They disrupt the flow of my life and introduce fears that can overwhelm. But the emergent structure of mysterious notes and visitations reminded me all too much of my prior visions.
So I watched, and waited, trying to catch sight of what might yet come.
Nothing emerged from the watercolor clouds but rain and more rain. No writhing tentacles, no bleary eye of God staring down in indifferent judgment. Haruspication is a lost art at the best of times, and my own small precognition has rarely served to provide more than trouble.
I was not sure this was trouble. Yet, something still moved.
“REED” was scheduled for “SUNDAY, 4:44 PM”. I spent the day scrubbing down the apartment. I was out of lye, but was able to compensate with some additional HCl at 32% concentration. I wanted to be ready, and the cleansing always aided my thinking. The idea of installing small cameras in the hall seemed logical enough, but was beyond my means both fiscally and technically. I was reluctant to wait outside and watch. My usual horror of the filth of the world was very much at issue, but also an inner sense on my part that if I broke the pattern, so would my visitor.
So I scrubbed and thought, thought and scrubbed, and focused on what would come next. Perhaps I should throw open the door as soon as I heard footfalls on the stairs? Or wait for the creaking of the floorboard?
Except this had already assumed the aspects of ritual. Breaking a ritual was a fearful thing. I could not even bring myself to vary the order in which I filled my small basket at the grocery store every Sunday afternoon. How could I violate this implied trust?
In the end, I waited in the window, boots upon my clingwrap-coated feet, hat upon my latex-capped head. Just about 4:40 my visitor appeared, walking more slowly due to the crowding of the street. Visibly female now, her car coat flapped behind her, her bare head flashing with auburn curls. From my vantage, she appeared to be barefooted.
I waited until she passed out of my sight into my building, then leapt to my door, a scrubbed and polished fireplace poker in my hand. The usual noises proceeded in the usual order, until I heard my neighbor’s door creak open. Mrs. Willets, in 2B, across the hall.
She must be even now encountering my mysterious visitor at the head of the stairs! I heard the murmur of voices, but could not make out what was said, even as I strained. The tones seemed to be those of guarded familiarity, not challenge.
I realized then with sick horror that everyone in my building was in on the conspiracy. My visitor left her gifts before my door, then slipped silently into Mrs. Willets’ apartment to outwait me.
No one was to be trusted. I’d learned that lesson practically in my cradle. But I’d let uncouth familiarity dull my wariness of those on whom most suspicion should naturally fall – the people around me every day. They were most in a position to deduce the patterns of my life, find my secret vulnerabilities, coöperate in a clandestine manner with the police and the doctors.
Angry now, I hurled open my door, poker at the ready.
Nothing was before me but a folded leather car coat and a piece of cardstock.
Frustrated, I stalked up and down the hall twice, but there was nowhere to hide and no one hiding there. Mrs. Willets was gone. The visitor was gone.
I used the tip of the poker to pick up the car coat – it took several tries – then kicked the cardstock through my open door. I retreated, shutting, chaining and double-locking myself into the now-dubious safety of my apartment.
I did not want to have to move.
When I dumped the car coat onto the floor, I saw that the tip of the poker was mucky with some foulness. On close inspection, it was a mix of blood and hair. I whirled around, weapon at the ready, to see a naked woman slumped in my flowered wingback chair. Her neck was bent at an odd angle, while blood caked the right side of her face. Oddly, she wore a latex skullcap just like mine, and latex gloves no different from my own. Her features were as familiar as my mirror.
No, I thought. Not again.
I hurled the incriminating poker away from me. It clattered against the steam heater, then wound up beneath, leaving a deep maroon smear on my hardwood floor. Heedless, I picked up the cardstock and looked at it.
“URDER”, it read. “TOO LATE NOW.”
I understood that message well enough. It could be translated as, “We are coming, beware.”
Stepping to the window, I checked the sky for signs. Serpents flew from the house of the sun. The first of many sirens wailed in the distance.
Bare-headed and bare-handed, I shrugged myself into my car coat, donned my leather hat, pocketed my stack of cut-up cardboard and my father’s fountain pen, and stepped out into the glittering barbs of the gimlet-eyed future.
The filth of my life I left behind me.
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