From the unedited manuscript, herein lies the first chapter from The Breaking of Worlds I: The Wedge in the Doorway, my first novel. (Reformatted for web presentation). This is posted as much for your review as it is for your comment—good or bad.
And—I admit—I’m now tempted to post the entire novel here on my blog. In pieces and parts or in totality, I’m quite tempted to share this work with you prior to its publication in any other medium.
Obviously I need to think about that …
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Seething darkness presses in at all the windows, malignant and threatening, an abyssal shadow too complete for senses to penetrate, too deep to comprehend, too vile to accept. Black moves atop raven and raven moves atop ebony and ebony moves atop obsidian, the whole refusing identification. Not even the blind see such lightless chasms.
Obviously I buried myself under heavy covers while sleeping. That would explain it. Yet I hastily dismiss that assumption. Texas summers hardly justify blankets or bedspreads; for that matter, they hardly justify clothing, whether sleeping or not. Nothing more substantial than a cotton sheet covered me before I lost consciousness in an alcohol- and cannabis-induced stupor.
I remember last night in the sunroom despite the clouding chemical haze. Working on Compassion in Annihilation’s Caress, my current novel, I felt rather gratified as the book neared completion right on schedule. Years of tradition meant I used more and more mind-altering accoutrements as the manuscript’s end approached.
Writing does not happen without investment. Most authors have their vices: a Cuban cigar for the parsimonious, a glass or two of expensive single-malt Scotch for the sober, a celebratory cigarette for the nonsmoker, a night of strange for the monogamous. Yes, writers have their vices. Mine happen to be drugs. Whether alcohol or marijuana—usually both—no one understands better than I the indulgences that fuel my success.
But drinking enough beer to sedate an elephant and smoking enough weed to leave all of New York City dazed and confused doesn’t explain this gloomy confusion. My mind seems awake and my body feels intact and responsive, yet endless and unpunctuated blackness smothers me. This does not resemble reality.
Of course! I’m still sleeping. Nothing more terrible than that.
Or so I clumsily try to convince myself. Memorable dreams are rare for me, bizarre dreams are next to unheard of, and confusingly empty visions are alien concepts best left to my literary characters. And I do not have nightmares. So this is sleep, drug and drink sleep.
Denial notwithstanding, this unfolding experience leaves me bewildered. The couch hunkers beneath me, the cotton sheet I dragged over my near-unconscious body drapes over me, and wandering breezes from ceiling fans caress exposed skin. As far as tactile and muscle senses can determine, I remain in the sunroom where unconsciousness found me. And yet I remain surrounded by an unearthly sable gulf that exudes malice. This doesn’t bode well for mental health.
But circumstances scarcely warrant playing possum, emulating marsupial trickery not ranking high on my list of personal tendencies, so I push against the sofa, lifting to a seated position, and I glance over my right shoulder. Lake Potisesse’s undulating evening gown should adorn the scene, even a moonless night revealing the water’s rippling surface draped from east to west and hemmed by verdant shores.
Only fuming blackness abounds.
So I look toward the hall seeking from one of the other rooms a dreg of light to confirm I haven’t slipped into a coma. Only more churning emptiness thrives. The kitchen at the other end of the house always provides a luminescent offering, overhead lights left on to keep the foyer navigable—not to mention keeping the stairs navigable lest I take an unsightly tumble in the night. Nothing except an unfathomable void froths with absence of color. It encompasses me wholly, unendingly, threateningly.
I think, I fell from my perch and banged my sleeping noggin against the table’s corner, probably smacked right in the temple. That would explain it. Am I bleeding? Am I unconscious? Am I even still alive?
Neck rotating side to side as I glance to and fro, my body claims it responds yet my eyes provide no supporting evidence. The lack of visual input makes fleshly feedback suspect at best.
But what about sound? Come on, Dave. Listen!
The whispering whoosh of ceiling fans does not reach my ears. More disturbing, not a single noise arises from a lake that proffers a respectable orchestra of nighttime wildlife music. A nocturnal symphony should perform, from the occasional basso profundo of a solo male alligator to the competing sonatas of tree frogs and tree crickets to the rhythmic woodwinds of nighthawks and chuck-will’s-widows. Here in this strange place, deafening silence prevails.
Maybe I’ve been decapitated. It certainly could explain some things. My body claims normal functionality; my senses claim no participation in the matter. I’ve heard of the phantom limb phenomenon for amputees, except I’m experiencing a phantom body. That can’t be normal.
Hell, Dave, this situation can’t be normal.
Far from the windows ephemeral movement in the raven world catches my attention. To the left, to the east in the realm of electric bills and deadlines and forgotten birthdays. But not here, for this world reacts to scrutiny by snatching away visual clues and tucking them into blackness.
The science of human eyesight in the dark clarifies the issue. Peripheral vision offers superior detection of details and movement in a featureless night. Foveal vision—staring directly at something—lacks sensitivity without illumination and thus robs us of our ability to see things that peripheral vision captures. So I look to the right, look obliquely toward the lake. Or where the lake should exist. Any movement or light will reveal itself to indirect observation. Staring ahead and ignoring the murk, I focus on the fringe scene and wait.
It’s always possible you’ve gone blind and deaf. Have you thought of that, Dave? Wouldn’t that be interesting?
No, Dave, it wouldn’t be interesting but it would be a pretty fucked up thing!
I silently agree with myself, Absolutely right, Dave! That would definitely be a fucked up thing.
Traces of activity drag me from my internal dialogue, this time to the southeast, toward the other end of the room where forest stretches away from the house along the lake’s southern border. And in other places the darkness now moves, three walls of glass insinuating a veritable parade of motion that disappears if I look at it.
Shudders pass through me when more than vision speaks of motive gloom. A new quality permeates the experience, some inherent knowledge that confirms what my senses can’t validate. It feels like the sudden perception of impending doom before a car crash, intuition declaring the shit is about to hit the fan. In this case it impresses upon me an inkling of ruby embers floating in the bottomless pit. They drift in blackness some distance from the house, momentary awareness of—
—momentary glimpses of eyes, eyes the color of flaming blood. Quickly transitioning from a fancy to a certainty, something lurks out there. Chills running down my spine tell me I saw something; and hair standing at attention reinforces the notion. Peril lives out there, out there in the dark.
No. Peril is not in the dark. The dark is the peril. I can feel it.
Obscurity clarifies further and a dynamic blackness manifests, animate and visible. My unease erupts. Shifting fire dashes in and out of my field of vision as the darkness ebbs and flows, black fog that stole away earthly colors and shapes yet left behind the telltale sign of its own presence: an unremitting change, an undying dance of shadows, a deeper gloom moving within the obsidian landscape.
A potent feeling steals over me, an awareness that frightens me in this disconcerting predicament. I am taunted prey. Every hidden movement, every hint of shadowy things skulking within shadows, every glimpse of crimson eyes aglow in the dark, everything represents predatory approach, the way that which stalks reveals itself slowly to that which is stalked.
The thought of Dave Crichton as quarry instantly cements the theme of this bizarre drama. The darkness hunts me. The darkness hunts me and the darkness toys with me, just as felines and dolphins sometimes toy with their prey. It scares the hell out of me. Predators watch and circle, and the game they pursue lies here in the sunroom.
Worry grows as more eyes appear, blood red eyes filled with visions of me surrounded by glass, crimson eyes afire and focused on the stack of ribs heaved into the butcher’s display cabinet. Focused on me. Prowling around me. Haunting me.
Without warning luminosity begins to form, soft hints of radiance like brighter shades of dark. Startled—relieved—I look at the ceiling. What a fruitless move. Nascent light illuminates the overhead recesses. They remain unlit. This growing brightness wells from every direction and no direction, flooding around me, falling on and flowing under and washing around everything. And it keeps intensifying.
Feeble whispers of glow catch the breath in my chest, the world brightening ever so slightly, ever so slowly. The room’s walls appear, and the couch where I had lain the night before, and minute interior reflections in the windows.
Confusion transforms to fear and fear gives rise to panic as a sound penetrates the quiet of this world. Its nature escapes me, too faint to hear clearly, an indistinct suggestion. Something metal perchance, something fleshy as well, more an intimation of action than identifiable noise.
So far as sleep hallucinations go, I’m having nothing short of a bizarre nightmare, a disjointed waterfall of tumbling illusions, an experience wholly disconnected from a Freudian explanation. That thought terrorizes me. Never—Never!—have I experienced so vivid and so confusing a dream. Or one with so powerful an impression of danger.
How baffling! From the allusion of sound to a combination of noises now audible, I hear it plainly yet recognize only more perplexity. It sounds like a coin flipped into the air. Yes, a coin flipped and caught. Then flipped again.
How in hell does that noise make sense in this eerie dream? Then again, how does any of this make sense? What’s happening?
“Time for the Untouched to rouse, Mr. Crichton.”
“No, Mr. Crichton, not Jesus. Dissimilar to that admirable yet fictitious fellow, I am in fact quite real. Allay your distress. You have naught to fear from me.”
Although far away and weak, a male voice speaks from the darkness. Directionless, a quiet echo filling the room—or more accurately, a murmur filling my head, scarcely a whisper though heard plainly as if shouting, it feels like hearing someone’s thoughts.
You’re definitely losing your mind, Dave.
Note to self: Time to reconsider mental health needs.
A thud reverberating windows at the sunroom’s far end elicits a rather undignified yelp. And a flinch. Thankfully nightmares don’t count for or against our tally of manly points. If they did, just now my score would have fallen by a considerable number.
Where the glass rattled, two glowing red eyes peer at me. Before, they floated in the ebony backdrop, but this pair attaches to something. The darkness has taken form, some hideous, grotesque structure, a genetic experiment gone awry. Although a dark shape in a world of dark, it appears insectan and reptilian and mammalian. Massive limbs ending in claws and wavering limbs like tentacles, a head with horns and snapping mouthparts and bulging eyes—one of them on a stalk, a segmented torso bending and twisting where a body should not do those things … As I try to classify what it represents—if anything—its protean essence shifts, loses cohesion and reforms, changing yet remaining the same—horrible and alien and fascinating. And terrifying.
My heart races and my lungs gasp for breath. Whatever leans against the glass never takes its eyes off me, never looks away, never blinks. I struggle to slow my hammering heart and clear my terror-stricken mind. That thing is made of darkness. The figure wavers in and out of the surrounding lightless world, a beast of raven mist that I both deny and accept without question.
Why not? It’s a dream monster, a nightmare creature. By definition it should be otherworldly, spooky, unnatural. So why not?
The coin-flipping voice speaks again. “Afford them no consequence, Mr. Crichton, for they aspire solely to discompose you.”
“They’re doing a fine job of that. What the hell is going on?”
Intellect assures me this represents a dream, this quirky world, thus I shouldn’t fear it; on the other hand, primal instinct trembles with sour panic, telling me this is more than a dream, more than a nightmare. Denial wants to make it unbelievable, fantastical goings on in my unconscious. But intelligence says this has teeth, it has fangs, long and sharp and vicious fangs.
More eyes stare in from the murky soup, more obsidian abominations fusing within it, coalescing, becoming. I shiver at the realization I already accepted. That thing at the window, those things out there, they have ravenous eyes, hunting eyes, crimson eyes of fire intent on consuming me. Ruby embers float in the dark, not floating free but floating as part of the dark, attached to it, part of it. The eyes of the darkness, the alive darkness, the seeing darkness. The consuming darkness …
“You are the appointed visionary, Mr. Crichton.”
If I can’t wake up, at least I can take control of this nightmare. Assuming it’s a nightmare.
“Who the hell are you? And what do you mean I’m the appointed visionary?”
My interrogatory shouts into the room—into my dream. Frustration grows atop the soil of fright, for I suffer no amusement at this befuddling nightmare. Too interactive, too full of malice, too real according to part of my brain.
“Incredulity will not adjudicate this state of affairs, Mr. Crichton, and you have insufficient time for irresolution. Your imbroglio is quite genuine and you must hearken unto my words.”
Grandiose language aside, that voice seems eerily familiar in some way, a haunting reminder of something formless, identified by some innate knowledge of that which has no name. Silent and sudden knowledge says with certainty that the voice belongs to an idea rather than a being, a thought made flesh, a power the universe hides from us lest it burn away the day and boil earth in sorrow. That voice … Somehow I know—I know indubitably—that voice belongs to an unspeakable thing.
Frightening increases in movement beyond the glass tempt my attention away from my own thoughts, yet I attend to the voice. Hidden deep in the primitive regions of my brain an instinctual dowry knows that which I can’t know, an untapped wealth of arcane knowledge that strikes me from time to time by declaring truths I cannot possibly contain, an intrinsic wisdom comparable to the hypothetical inherited memory of Jungian psychology. Except this is real, factual, oddly precise with a wealth of inexplicable information I never learned.
His voice belongs to something unimaginable, something we look away from because we can’t face it, something terrible and something beautiful. The voice is a symbol, a cloak thrown over a referent we dare not face.
Further still, overlapping timbres identify something else in the voice, a hidden sound beneath the not-a-man who speaks. Or rather, another voice he speaks to my ears. He uses a male voice, yes, but something else in it whispers of another, a familiar. He doesn’t just speak with his voice; he speaks with hers.
The dots finally connected I mumble, “No …”
Tears fill my eyes. It is a man’s voice and it somehow is Beth’s voice. Impossible though it seems, he—the formless he my primitive mind insists it cannot face or name—he speaks as this unknowable thing I somehow know and do not know, yet he simultaneously speaks as my dead wife.
Insanity never felt so insanely near before. Beth has never appeared in my dreams, not while she lived and not after her death. Her premiere in this nightmare does not bode well for emotional or mental stability. She never stopped being real to me, substantial and living and palpable. She has never vexed me; she has lived comfortably in thoughts and memories. Never in dreams. Never in nightmares.
The deepest part of me screams in refutation, It’s not her!
The coin flip sheds physical sensations, drumbeats against the heart and harp chords against the nerves, embodying great power and great peril. Each clink births shivers, each whoosh of a token arcing through the air births cringes, each slap of metal landing atop flesh births winces. A coin flipped and caught, then flipped and caught again, a formless fingernail sailing it skyward with expert precision, never missing, never pausing, the steady rhythm of craziness. Or the tempo of a power I dare not acknowledge.
This is too much. Nobody with a doctorate or a bag of talismanic bones could make sense of this mishmash. What kind of nightmare is this?
Another thud against the windows, this one nearer—too near—and a second shapeless thing made of darkness presses against the glass, much closer than the first still hovering at the other end of the room. The second monstrosity burns me with the heat of its fiery glower. This shadowy demon of unspeakable form terrifies more than the first, the impossible figure it has taken seething with billowing shadow, made of the writhing black cloud that defines this impalpable dream world. Too close.
“The hour grows late, Mr. Crichton,” the disembodied voice says, “for imminently they penetrate the barrier and their incursion commences.” More clearly I hear two people speaking, the spine-tingling depth of the male voice resonating with my dead wife’s voice.
“Who are you, damn it? Beth is dead and has been for four years, but I’m sure you already know that. Tell me what the hell is going on!”
I am petulant, an insolent child demanding answers from a room full of nobody, a crazy chap yelling at a bodiless voice in a dream. I am terrified. I am refuting the truth my mind insists. And I am crying.
“You are the appointed visionary, Mr. Crichton. You are the Untouched. I come to elucidate. I come to counsel and forewarn. I come to precondition. I come to help.”
“Help with what?”
“Prepare you for your confrontation with the Dreamdarkers, evoke that which is forgotten, quicken perspicacity, edify you apropos the forthcoming war. I come—”
A piercing beep attacks my ears. More precisely, it attacks mostly one of my ears—my right ear—though the other claims it hasn’t gone deaf since it too hurts from this shrill, monotonous chime. I bolt upright on the couch.
Glaring sunshine fills the room. I squint hoping to stem the flow of too much light. Still blinded, my eyelids slam shut to dam the dazzling flood.
Trying to cope with this abrupt change of realities, mental threads scramble around the sharp alarm blaring at me, for more sounds have become evident: light wind meandering through trees outside the sunroom, birds calling from all directions, air conditioner humming steadily, ceiling fans blending the room’s ether.
Visual and auditory senses appear functional. So not blind or deaf. Not comatose. Not even on the floor bleeding from a gaping head wound. Shit. What the hell was that other business about?
Opening my eyes a tiny bit, I fumble in empty space until blundering upon the source of the hideous electronic siren. My laptop rests partially open on the table, wailing its whining cries about a battery nearing electrical demise.
Left it on. Left it open. Left it to burn its charge. Oops. Or rather, thank god for the wake-up call.
Miniscule slits between eyelids increment to reveal reality’s glare. The sunroom swims into focus, glass walls on three sides rife with morning light as the sun rises and filters through woodlands blanketing half the east wall and the whole of the south wall. Everything seems in order and normal: the oversized couch on which I lie, the hall doors ahead and to my right, Lake Potisesse stretching out peacefully behind me at the north end of the room. I blink repeatedly to sharpen sight and find my bearings, denying the logy shroud my flesh still wears.
The world is back in place. What does that say about my sanity? I’m glad dreams are irrational rather than indicative of mental health. Otherwise …
I rub my eyes hoping to alleviate residual sleep, and more importantly to lessen the light’s stabbing pain. The gesture fails to achieve the desired results.
So I swing my legs off the couch and grab the laptop. Despite drowsy visual limitations, my hands work normally and open the portable computer enough to show the battery alarm did indeed rudely interrupt—No, it thankfully interrupted a nightmare worth expunging from memory.
I stretch legs and arms in a brief and unenthusiastic display of vitality, something aimed more at convincing me I yet live than at increasing blood flow. Then I stand, stretch more fully, pick up the laptop, and stumble into the hall and toward the office a few paces away.
A billion synaptic jackhammers pound inside my skull. Movement worsens the hangover, but I can’t dawdle until it goes away.
Shuffling into the office and bouncing against the doorjamb, a heavy dead load propped by the wall, I attempt to protect the laptop from the previous night’s residue. The computer wobbles precariously in my hands.
I can barely hold my body upright, but I’ll be damned if I’m going to drop an expensive piece of equipment that holds my work from last evening. Especially since I dropped the last one.
After resting a few seconds against the wall, I push forward, step around the end of the desk and fall limply into one of the chairs. Head spinning faster and faster in nonplused malaise, freakish dreams of alcohol and marijuana stupor combine in one massive explosion of a headache.
I take deep breaths while holding the notebook computer in front of me. It teeters a few inches above the desk where my elbows buoy my arms and my arms buoy my torso. Complaining as if they hold hundreds of pounds, I grant my hands permission to lower the computer slowly and carefully until it rests atop some unopened mail. With the burden out of my unstable paws and therefore out of danger, I grab the plug and push it into the appropriate slot on the back of the laptop, an action that silences the audible assault on my being. Then I lean forward and rest on the desk.
Relief washes over me. My body has no need to support any part of itself. Head on desk, hands crumpled on either side of my face, legs splayed beneath the chair, the position comforts enough to keep me in its clutches for a few minutes. Part of me wants to go back to sleep. Desperately. Another part of me demands that no such action take place considering what happened, for sleep means potentially facing a nightmare.
“She was there,” I mumble, “but obviously that can’t be. And what the hell was that business anyway, her voice mingling with the voice of the coin-flipping freak?”
I take a deep breath. “It felt real. I was touching some part of her. That’s worth the hell I experienced. Maybe sleep—dreaming—would be a good thing.”
Another deep breath. “No way, man. Kill that craziness right now. That was a full-blown mental break. Or one in the making.”
Another deep breath. “Stop arguing with yourself.”
There, that feels better. Debate ended on my full and rightful authority.
Nonetheless a silent imperative urges me to speak to the Beth-thing again, even if only in a dream. More pressing however, the time has come to get up and get moving. That influential suggestion comes from the pragmatist in me. I’m thankful for his counsel. He knows when to set aside foolish, idle thoughts and get the asshole with elbows moving. With ice picks stabbing my brain from the inside and aches overflowing my body, the last proposal wins approval and I push up from the chair.
Primarily to avoid falling over, I lean against the desk for a few moments. This short-lived respite achieves a state marginally less dysfunctional than the one in which I awoke. To say I feel better implies more improvement than has occurred. I simply feel less bad, and that’s good.
Mental and physical capabilities improve a smidgen as I wait, so I accept that as a sign of fitness to act. I amble to the adjoining bathroom. Lights brightening with the flip of a switch don’t cause my eyes to explode as anticipated. This pleases me. And it makes me feel somewhat less bad.
Things are looking up!
The sink appears miles away yet takes three steps to reach. Lean over counter. Turn on cold water. Splash handfuls onto face.
Now I’m waking up, albeit rudely in my humble opinion.
With water cascading from my face and the white basin and sorrel counter filling my vision, I lean to grab the towel and bend far enough to see something on the floor. It grabs my attention, visible over the edge of the cabinet.
Standing in this bathroom countless times and seeing that same thing on the floor hasn’t lessened its demand for notice. It’s an old brass scale, one of the analog kinds with a wheel at the top that spins to show weights. Tarnished with age and use, it remains a comely piece of antique workmanship even if it hasn’t seen buff or polish in years. The patinated platform still declares someone fat or skinny or just right though the machine already surpassed fifty years old. Beth loved it and brought it home shortly after we married, more than a decade before her death.
When she died after eleven sublime years of marriage and when I relocated to King’s Hope a year later, the scale moved with me as one of the few things filled with her spirit, one of the few things kept for nostalgia, a vestige of what I lost. But it never found a home in the master suite; I didn’t want to see it that often. So it lives in the downstairs office, a place used infrequently enough that the scale won’t constantly punch me in the emotional gut.
Leaning over the sink staring at it, I begin to weep. The faucet pours water into the washbowl where it whirlpools down the drain, but I can’t stop it for I can’t cease my crying.
The scale brutally reminds me of loss, of what my nightmare so savagely forced into the forefront of my thoughts. A simple antique imbued with so many memories of the most wonderful years, it represents her—Beth—the better part of life that I sometimes fear I can never regain.
Tears fall as I gape at the old contraption. My dream rushes back, an experience that provides not comfort. Grabbing the hand towel from the holder and shutting off the water, I press soft cloth to my face and let uncontrolled sorrow flood out of me.
I am incensed and selfish. Why should a peculiar dream and that scale impose such painful thoughts? Why should either dredge up the horrific feelings surrounding her death?
It was sudden. It was unexpected. But she’s gone. And you’re not a saccharine man. Dream be damned, David Allen Crichton. Get over it!
How silly this sniveling and sobbing because of a stupid dream, a scale, memories, poignant feelings from a life now gone. Her death weighed heavily upon me, sure, and it fractured me for a short time, but my headstrong sense of self and my innate strength of identity prevented crumbling. For I am not as fragile as a Llandró porcelain.
Beth and our relationship didn’t identify me regardless of how we complemented each other. Together we made a whole that neither could represent apart, a synergy greater than the individuals. Though she changed little of my personality, I consider her the gust of life that found the breath of fun within me.
Nevertheless she didn’t define me. Those who can’t find happiness in themselves will never find it in others, and the divine bliss we shared meant only that we were right for each other. But things change and people move on, or they die, or they drift apart. Time has that effect. It masks and cloaks, it modifies, it disguises, it stretches thin that which is thick, it pulls things apart, and it eventually breaks or swallows everything.
How disappointing and annoying to have such a maudlin beginning this day. A dream and a scale caught me off guard. How pathetic. I throw the towel on the vanity and leave the office. A hot shower can wash away the stink of self-pity and resentment.
And the fear I keep denying.