Authors: Justine Sebastian
Strange is the Night
Copyright 2015 Justine Sebastian
Cover art and design Amanda Watts 2015
Cover photograph Cathleen Tarawhiti
This story may not be shared for non-commercial purposes. No piece of this story may be sold for profit or adapted to other media without the permission of the author.
This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places and incidents are either a product of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously. Any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead; events or locales is entirely coincidental.
Strange is the night where black stars rise,
And strange moons circle through the skies
But stranger still is
— Robert W. Chambers
The King in Yellow, Act 1, Scene 2
The world had been there for as long as Robert Gwinnett could recall. One of his clearest memories of childhood was of standing at the end of his family’s driveway staring into a puddle. There was a deep rut where the pave met with the sandy red clay driveway. The asphalt was higher than the dirt and a rub-board washout ran the first one hundred feet or so of the drive. It was so long that had it been located anywhere less rural they might have stuck a sign at the end of it and called it a lane. The biggest dip was the first turn—the first step is a doozy—and anyone going too fast off the pave onto the driveway was bounced halfway to heaven if they weren’t careful. Robert always thought it was funny when his older brother would forget and brain himself on the roof of his rattletrap pickup truck.
The sun was a white-hot ball that day, throwing back damp heat in simmering waves. Sweat dripped from the ends of Robert’s hair, it stung his eyes and crept into the corners of his mouth with a taste saltier than tears. Cool droplets of rainwater left over from a mid-afternoon soaking plummeted from the big old pecan trees overhanging the long driveway. He was wet from the top of his head to the shoulders of his old green shirt, his bare toes digging into the sticky clay, sweat tickle-dripping down the backs of his knees. It was uncomfortable, but that day all that mattered to him was the way the spires of the magnificent city rose up. It was in a mud puddle, the water rusty orange because of the clay, but the surface was still and calm. There was too much sunlight on half of the puddle and the city faded to nothing but a glare of dirty orange. Where it fell in shadows though, the city flourished and filled out the wavery shapes of the pecan leaves overhead.
Robert’s blueberry-stained mouth formed the word
as he knelt to get a closer look. He looked around, half-convinced that the city would be rising up all around him because there was no other way it could be in the puddle. Yet he knew better and sure enough, all he saw was the rusted barbed wire fence and pecan trees; the slick red clay of the rain-washed drive and the stinking blacktop road in front of him. The city was there, but it was so far away that even the closest buildings were hazy and distant.
He was close enough to the puddle that his breath made the surface of the water ripple and disturbed his view of the city. Robert lit upon a plan though: he held his breath so he could move even closer. Even as his head swam with the need for breath he leaned closer still. At the new angle he could see a cobbled lane paved with stones that gleamed a deep black-green, as though they had been polished, and they seemed to faintly undulate. The road’s beginning was cut off by the edge of the puddle and in Robert’s view it climbed its way up a steep hill that disappeared around a sharp bend. It seemed to glow in the light of a setting sun that left everything covered with spilled paint colors of red, orange and salmon; deep, rosy pink and the most delicate kiss of lavender, leaving the grass along the high road looking as though it had been asphyxiated.
Water squelched up around his already dirty little boy fingers as he dug them into the gritty mud. The nail of his index finger scraped against a rock in such a way he felt it like a shiver in his teeth. Robert’s lip twitched and his chest had started to heave and jerk as he fought to keep his breath held so he could get a better look. Then he overbalanced, his lips touched the glassy surface, and with one kiss, he broke the spell he had cast on himself. A feeling like cold electricity ran into his mouth and across his tongue. Robert gasped, sucking in water that was sweet and clean as the rain that had left it there, but when the second layer of flavor registered there was a metallic, mineral tang to it like Robert had bitten into a piece of the old barbed wire fence.
Robert reared back from the puddle then, water dripping off his chin as he spluttered and gasped and scrubbed at his face. He only managed to get mud in his mouth but even the red clay soil did not taste as bad as the puddled water did. When he’d spit until his mouth was dry, his tongue like a piece of cotton padded copper, only then did Robert look in the puddle again.
His grubby, moon-pale face stared back at him.
The sun that he had temporarily forgotten beat his shoulders like a merciless disciplinarian, but Robert barely noticed because his face was not what he had expected to see in the puddle. The city—his city—was supposed to be there and he wanted it back because he had found the most extraordinary place in the whole wide world. He was between the age when it was deemed okay for boys to cry and when boys needed to start “manning up” and when Robert felt his bottom lip quiver there was a touch of shame met with a child’s fierce insistence that a great wrong had been done. Robert squared his pudgy shoulders and blinked back the tears anyway. He’d been sent up to the end of the drive to check the mail, but he didn’t care one whit about that; he wanted his city back. He was certain if he only had another chance then he’d do it right.
Robert slipped his hands beneath the surface of the water, over the wet slime of the muddy bottom of the puddle and deep into it until his hands were lost in mucky mire. He hoped that if he reached down into the puddle he would grab at least a blade of the long, strangulation colored grass or prick his finger on the needle-sharp spire of one of the buildings. All he got was filthier hands and as his search became more frenzied, the entire front of his shirt got soaked and clung to his skin. His knees ached from being ground into the filth and the rocks beneath it and his head hurt from all the sunshine beating down on it. He knew if he touched the back of his head it would feel like his hair was on burning from the inside.
At last, Robert gave up with a frustrated little cry and shoved himself to his feet. He started to turn away and trudge back home, but he remembered that he was supposed to get the mail and whirled around with an angry huff. All he wanted to do was storm home in a fit of grade schooler histrionics and sit in his room for the rest of the day quietly hating everything that had ever wronged him. He snatched the mail from the box, though he left the flap open, then he was finally able to begin his stomp back down the drive, his mother’s ladies magazines smeared with clay mud that was sure to get the seat of his jean shorts swatted.
By the time he made it back to the house most of his childish anger had sweated right out of him and his head was well and truly pounding. He tried to clean the magazine that had caught the worst of it and felt he did a job satisfactory enough that his life would at least be spared.
Sure enough, when he handed his mama the mail, she looked at him with one eyebrow raised and dusted the seat of his shorts lightly before she shook her head and told him to go wash up. It didn’t even hurt, but as he walked away, he rubbed his bottom for show and pretended he didn’t hear her disbelieving snort. When he came back, she gave him a glass of iced tea and made him sit in front of the fan while she wiped him down with a nice, cool rag until he didn’t feel headachy or sick to his stomach anymore.
That night Robert woke to the sound of rain pounding down on the tin roof with such ferocity he almost expected the drops of water to punch right through it. His curtains snapped and twisted in the wind; bewitched girls dancing with tornados, sure to be torn apart but helpless to stop it. Rain spattered his bedroom floor and the whole world smelled of cleanness and ozone. The air had been cooled by the rain and was fresh against Robert’s skin as he got out of bed to close his windows.
When he was done, he went down the hall to the bathroom to dry off. He did so by the light coming from nightlights that rested in each of the four outlets along the hallway. They pushed soft, warm light like candles into the bathroom and though the light didn’t reach too far past the door, it licked across the mirror hanging over the sink. As he walked by it, Robert saw his city again and it was clearer, more beautiful and his heart leaped with joy. He immediately stopped and turned. He stared into the deep velvet blue night of the alien city and watched strange, winged silhouettes—
, he thought,
—soar through the sky. Dark flecks against the velvet sky shined like mica, winking and glittering despite their darkness and Robert yearned to go to that fantastic place.
The rain stopped falling and dripped from the roof of the house into the puddles gathered around the eaves. The wind still blew, but inside it was still, quiet and softly warm like the air itself was melting. Robert pressed his sweating palms to the mirror and pushed, but nothing happened. The first slap against the glass was light, a soft thwack and not much else and Robert was hardly aware he’d moved. The second slap was a little harder. The third, a little harder than that. If he could go there he could be king or at least well-liked, and he’d have happily settled for that. So when on the sixth try, the mirror broke, Robert didn’t realize it at first; he didn’t feel the pain in his cut hands or the blood running down his arms. He wasn’t aware of anything more than the fact his city was scattered all over the bathroom tile in pieces both big and small like a maddening puzzle that needed putting back together.
He was not even all that aware of the bathroom light coming on and hitting the shards to throw silver light into his eyes. Then his mother screamed and his father grabbed him and Robert bellowed for them to put him down because he had to go. They took him to the hospital, they had his arms stitched up and everyone—including Robert because then he believed in going along to get along—said he’d had a nightmare and sleepwalked into the bathroom where he must have flailed around and broken the mirror in his somnambulant agitation. With the passage of the days his wounds healed and his mind cleared and even Robert began to half believe it was the truth.
But it wasn’t true and that night was only the first broken mirror, the first batch of scars, the first bunch of stitches to bristle from his hands because, no matter how many times he would promise himself he’d be smart about it, he usually wasn’t. It was hard to be smart about things when he couldn’t see anything past the looming walls of the city as it beckoned him closer and closer, but would not let him in.
Despite his setbacks, Robert survived his childhood and early adolescence, though he did so begrudgingly at times. He made it through four stays at various mental hospitals where he was awarded a grab-bag of diagnoses: schizoaffective disorder and later schizoid personality disorder; then cyclothymia and after that clinical depression accompanied by comorbid OCD with schizo-like delusions.
Robert didn’t stay fat, but he was fat long enough for the teasing to go beyond badly rhymed name-calling to being pantsed at school assemblies and having Skittles thrown at him in homeroom. Because of the scars on his arms that tallied up like poorly placed bets people called him “that cutter kid”. Robert spent a lot of his school career wishing his classmates would all simultaneously choke on their tongues and white-knuckled his way through school until at last came the day of his high school graduation.
At his high school graduation, his parents both looked far older than he remembered them being and he knew that had something to do with him. But he couldn’t think too much about it because the city was there in the windshield of the car behind them. He could see the trunk of a tree, furry with lichen that moved up the trunk with the slow, weaving crawl of a drunken caterpillar.
The view changed with his location and Robert had quickly learned there was an entire world on the other side of the glass. Over the years Robert had walked through parks and looked through windows of empty homes in another world—and sometimes the windows of occupied homes in his own world. Lured to them by tantalizing glimpses of fantastic things, his digressions got him yelled at by rightly annoyed strangers. On one novel occasion, he had been menaced by an angry woman with her hair in rollers and a machete in her hand.
Through trial and error and a nicked radial artery at fifteen thanks to him putting his arm through a mirror with no wooden backing, Robert finally learned to hide his preoccupation—his obsession—and to keep the wonders he saw to himself. He learned to fight the pull of his world and it got so he could look away or simply not look at all. He would no longer spend hours in front of a darkened shop window watching the sunrise melt over the landscape on the other side of the glass. It was a world he could never be in anyway because he supposed that world didn’t want him anymore than the one he was stuck with.
He said nothing the bright and momentous day of his graduation either and tore his gaze away from the reflection. He smiled at his parents and dutifully answered
when his grandmother squeezed his arm, now tight with new muscle where it had once been doughy, and asked him if he was looking forward to college. He hugged his grandmother and happily took the hundred dollar bill she pressed into his hand with a grin that showed her lipstick-smeared dentures.
He was anticipating the education, but the rest of it he could have gladly left on the cutting room floor of adult life and lived in a cave because sometimes even the sound of other peoples’ voices was enough to make him want to scream.
When his mother pulled him for a hug, Robert looked into her eyes and smiled when he stepped back. In the lenses of her glasses a lake shimmered. Shaggy grey clouds hung in the sky like sheets of smoke and deepened the color of the water to a sinister shade of bitter green turquoise the color of eternity.
He was aware that in he was indeed off his rocker and he did have occasion to wonder: Did seeing his world make him that way? Or did he see his mirror world because he was insane even as a young boy?
Robert thought that it didn’t matter, not when he got right down to it. Either way, madness was his destiny, he was sure of that much.
That summer he spent a lot of time alone in his room staring into a chunk of mirror left over from the one that used to hang at the foot of his bed. It was a piece of the same mirror he’d nicked his artery on. He found it under his bed after he was released from the hospital after his “suicide attempt”, after his confused and sad mother had cleaned up the mess and his father had burned the mirror’s wooden frame like it was to blame. The shard of glass was pointed and wicked at one end and smoothly curved at the other; the tapering sides sharp as razors. To Robert it looked like the fang of some dreadful pre-human beast.
He thought of looking into the mirror glass as scrying because he didn’t know what else to call it. The glass wasn’t showing him his future though; it was more like it showed him
future because wherever the mirror world was, it was not on the same plane as Robert. No one lived in the reflected world that Robert peered into; the streets were paved, the buildings were grand, the architecture elaborate and graceful, swooping lines and flowing curves that twisted up into severe angles so that it made him dizzy to look at any one building for too long.
Once, Robert had tried to take a picture of the world inside his shard of mirror and everyone who saw it asked why he kept a picture of flash glare on his desk. He didn’t tell them it was because he could see a shadow; the arch of what he thought was a massive wing thrown up along the wall in the piece of glass the flare hadn’t obliterated.
Robert would walk all over with the shard on him; as he traveled in his world so he traveled in the other world. The day before he left for college he wandered into an overgrown field on his family’s property. In the surface of a disused cow pond, Robert saw the ruins of what he could only assume was a village; thatched pieces of rotting roofs peeked from the tall grass that grew up around them. There were trees there as well, but they were blasted, blighted things and the grass itself was a strange and unsavory shade of pus yellow; creamy and wrong. The wind blew lightly and made the whole scene ripple, but it wasn’t strong enough to tear it apart.
Robert stood on the shore looking on as the grass in the other world also moved. At first he thought it was windy there as well, but then he realized that the malformed limbs of the trees were not moving, their trident shaped leaves did not shiver on the branches. Whatever it was came through the grass like a snake, pushing it into a constantly repeating S-wave as it zipped toward Robert.
He had the sick feeling he had been seen. Whatever it was, it did not want Robert there and it was coming to get him and if he didn’t do something then he was going to regret it. He didn’t want to see whatever it was winding through the grass toward him. He couldn’t run away though, he was
there, staring with his heart climbing into his mouth and his whole body shaking. If he could disrupt the reflection on the surface of the water then he could break the hold the world had on him. Ripples in a pond would destroy the image, not simply break into smaller pieces like when he broke a mirror. He had nothing to throw into the water though except his shard of mirror and he would not part with that.
On the verge of panicking, Robert dug through his pockets and found a handful of change. He threw the money into the water with a strangled cry just as something began to rise up from the grass; a thing as twisted and blighted as the trees, but made strong by whatever sickness fed on that place. Two dollars and seventy four cents hit the water like heavy rain, broke the image into ripple after ripple and took the horrid thing in the grass away from his sight; the lumpy, tumorous back, the lifting of the heavy head and the dull pink of a gimlet eye. He thought he heard a phlegmy growl rattle from the water.
Robert fell back in the grass, panting and shivering, making soft whimpering sounds. For the longest time his mind was an empty corridor, nothing but fear buzzing inside of his head like fluorescent lights. When he got up again, he rolled onto his stomach and pushed himself up and away so his back was to the pond. All the way through the field it felt like there were two heavy hands on his shoulders trying to pull him up and turn him back—trying to make him look at the thing in the grass.
Robert bit his bottom lip and kept walking, sliding into the tree line. He vowed to himself that he would never go back to the field and the pond there because he knew that forever after the thing would be waiting for him just out of frame. It was the first time his special reality had ever frightened him. Sure, it was strange and empty, but it wasn’t scary; the emptiness of it made it better to Robert, made it more mysterious. More beautiful.
He made it home early in the evening and smiled at his mother when she asked if he was okay. He lied and said sure, said he was fine then he went upstairs and popped two of the anti-anxiety pills his doctor had prescribed that he almost never took. Then he stood under the spray of a cold shower until the first tendrils of drowsiness crept across his mind.
Robert barely roused himself to have cake and supper with the family at his farewell party. He was still so doped that he no choice but to tell his parents he’d taken a pill then lied and told them it was because he was nervous about starting school. He promised them he would be okay by morning then he lurched back to bed and forgot for a little while that any world existed.