a novel of sex, cults, and an interdimensional henge contraption
Chapter One: Nice Town
Control subject EE may be exhibiting the traits we hoped to see in Group Sigma. Work continues toward establishing a reliable set of tests and measures for subject EE, but several measures are already in place, including surveillance gear in the school and the house.
Project Lullaby archives, 1962
Strapped down on her back on a black slab, Ester Elizabeth Finch felt like the dead frog from last year’s biology class. At least this year she’d be taking chemistry. Plus she’d turn 18 in November and her dad could no longer drag her to this asinine research program.
At first today seemed like the same familiar nonsense. Friendly but vaguely creepy men in white coats wanting her to guess what playing cards they held, make the marble roll, tell them what color light was shining on her hand within a box. Hypnotizing her and interviewing her about weird stuff she didn’t know while a lie-detector ran off its record of the answers she made up.
But then they wanted to give her a physical. A complete physical.
They apologized that no female nurses had clearance to examine her. When the doctor left, she couldn’t find her clothes. She was still wearing the stupid hospital gown.
Next they told her they needed a scan. It was a very sensitive machine. Any little movement would mess it up, so they needed to strap her down. They attached electrodes to her temples and forehead. It had now been over 15 minutes since any of them said a word to her. About half a dozen very creepy men in white coats drifted around the chamber, looking at the consoles and conferring excitedly, green-faced in the glow of their data screens. Ester caught isolated fragments of their speech.
“…resolution is awful compared to x-rays, but it images soft tissue…”
“Did you calibrate this scope?”
“…dripping serotonin today?”
“No. The synthetic.”
“…got it on-scale now. Jesus.”
“Hold off on that drip. We’re not…”
“…that can’t be right…”
“But the instruments agree. It must be.”
“Dial back another couple pegs. The synth has quite a kick.”
One of the men pushed an IV stand over to Ester’s left, and dabbed her arm with a cold swab before inserting the needle. He twisted the valve to start the drip, tossed a heartless little grin down at her, and strode off.
All the chatter ceased abruptly as a line of tiny green spiders began streaming down the IV tube and into Ester’s veins. Her chest constricted. She couldn’t scream.
The arachnids scurried to her brain and started flipping switches, turning on all the lights, cranking the volume up to max.
Regaining partial control of her breathing, Ester told herself the spiders were a hallucination. She rolled her eyes to the clear bag at the top of the stand. No bugs inside it.
They kept coming anyway. Columns of them converged through the air, meeting at the IV stand and flowing into her. She traced them to their source, saw them emerging from the foreheads of the researchers and from the equipment. Everything in this place seethed with them.
The men sat motionless, unblinking eyes riveted to their monitors. Ester craned her head for a better view. She discovered she could sit up and lurched off the slab. No one said anything or glanced in her direction. Looking back, she saw herself strapped down with her mouth agape and green eyes bulging. Her pupils were pinholes.
She backed up a step. Spiders continued to swarm the body there on the slab, unaware she had left.
Had the drugs killed her? Ester doubted it. This must be an out-of-body experience. No need to worry about the hallucinatory army spiders until she went back.
She turned away. Smooth panels of brushed steel confronted her, and she spun around to find herself inside an elevator, albeit one with no controls or music. Facing the doors, she fidgeted until they slid apart.
In the room she entered, a small knot of Top Brass crowded around a television screen. She edged up behind them to see what they were watching, although the television itself was more intriguing than the program. Dark blond hair covered the top and sides, having been combed back to reveal the oval screen where missiles and tanks paraded through Red Square.
Ester tried to put her hands in her pockets, but the flimsy gown had none. She tugged on the hem of the barely adequate garment, holding it closed in the back. As she shifted her weight from foot to foot, the channel changed several times in pace to her swaying motion. Sometimes a map would come up, with toy submarines and planes bearing hammer-and-sickle pennants. Sometimes it was hallways, where uniformed people drifted in gray silence. Sometimes random explosions.
Ester watched for a few moments. She snuck around behind the weird television and looked into her own blank eyes again.
She gasped, choked, coughed, and couldn’t wipe her mouth with the back of her hand because she was strapped down. Blurry darkness brightened and cleared. The spiders were gone.
Two of the white-coats popped up, one peeling back her eyelid with his thumb to blind her with a penlight, the other squeezing her forearm and staring at his watch. The rest of them laughed and praised their experiment’s success.
They turned her loose and returned her clothing without asking how she felt. Her father asked, but she didn’t say anything. The drive home was silent. Ester wondered how much he knew.
*** *** ***
14 MONTHS LATER – AUGUST 1974
This is a nice town, Ester thought. If I stay here any length of time, I’ll have to get some shoes.
She looked at her grimy, grass-stained feet and blinked several times. When, exactly, had she ceased wearing shoes? Sometime east of Denver, but west of St. Louis. There’d been something about ‘no more shoes ’til we bathe in the cool, clean Atlantic.’ Who had she made that particular pact with? The three girls in the mint green VW Beetle certainly had an endless supply of drugs and a predilection for nudity. Ester almost thought she could remember the one with the long brown braids tossing sandals and tennis shoes one by one out the window as they sped across the prairies. A zen twist on Johnny Appleseed.
“As some of you know, Feather has left. She and baby Journey will join Drum in Nova Scotia. They welcome any of us who wish to visit or move in with them. This leaves an empty room at Beacon and Ember’s house…”
This guy talking was obviously in charge of the unusual tribe Ester now found herself in the middle of. Easily ten years older than anyone else, he had a gruff, commanding voice at odds with his appearance. He wore all black and looked like a misunderstood intellectual loner, not a hippie leader. Though he did have the hair. His dark beard and mustache were full and streaked with gray, blending into his shoulder-length hair. He continued talking about people Ester didn’t know, so she didn’t pay much attention. She plucked a strand of grass and wrapped it around her finger, watching as the skin went white. She picked three more strands and began to braid them as she surreptitiously glanced at the hippies around her.
They were all riveted on their leader.
It was more than a little paranoid to assume any of these people were working for the military, searching for her, acting as spies for Nixon, or now Ford. First of all, aside from their leader, they didn’t seem terribly bright. Second, they were all smoking dope. Right now. So even if they were spies, they weren’t very alert. Probably dropouts from the local university.
She felt uncomfortable when anyone paid too much attention to her. Ester noticed for the first time just how dirty her clothes were. The hem of her long, calico skirt was nearly black, her blouse the color of a coffee stain. Nothing in her pillowcase was any cleaner.
Trying to blend in with the counterculture could be taken too far. Using henna to make herself a redhead, calling herself Liz, and wearing Indian-print skirts and batik dresses gave her a new persona designed to make herself invisible to her father and his military cohorts. But that didn’t mean she had to be a slob. Time to clean up. It had been over a year since she’d run away from home and the unacceptable experimentation, and she’d not seen any signs of pursuit. Besides, she was 18 now. They couldn’t do anything to her without her consent, right?
Ester suddenly wanted a shower.
Maybe after dinner she’d find an unoccupied bathroom in the enormous old, green boarding house this commune was squatting in. It needed new paint, but the windows were all intact. Chances were good they had running water.
“I’ve heard from the landlord,” the leader said. Maybe they weren’t squatters after all. “He tells me he has decided to sell the property.”
The small, laid-back crowd around Ester moaned and the speaker raised his hands to calm them.
“He already has a buyer.” The speaker paused, and his electric blue eyes skittered over them. His gaze rested on Ester for several seconds before resuming its fitful travels. Brr. “That buyer is us.”
Excited buzzing erupted all around Ester while she reassessed her impressions of this crowd and their enigmatic leader. The man strode back and forth on the grass in front of the 20 or so hippies, and Ester noticed that he went barefoot like everyone else.
He continued, “After dinner we can discuss the details.”
Finally! Ester thought. To the food! It was the compelling factor in her decision to come to this place with her new acquaintance who called himself Beacon. Free food.
“But before we eat,” the man continued.
Oh, damn. A prayer right?
“Beacon has brought us a new friend this evening.”
All eyes turned expectantly to Beacon and Ester. Beacon grinned and stood, his ample belly blocking Ester from many inquiring eyes.
“Hey guys. This is Liz. She’s new in town and she looked hungry. You all know how good my vegetarian chili is,” he patted his stomach to appreciative chuckles, “so I brought her along tonight.”
He sat and motioned for Ester to stand, which she did reluctantly, after dropping a small handful of grass braids. What did they expect her to say?
Various murmured greetings came from the upturned, smiling faces.
She smoothed her hands over her hair, tucking the stray locks behind her ears.
“Like Beacon said, I’m Liz,” Ester said. “I just sort of blew into town. I’ve been traveling for a while and thought Webster might be a good place to take a break, do my laundry.”
Her audience found that humorous enough.
“Well, Liz-Who-Just-Blew-Into-Town,” said the leader, “I’m Severin Tenpenny. On behalf of the Threshold Elsewhere Following, I welcome you.”
*** *** ***
Alone under the slanting rafters of the attic, Severin turned his mind to the new friend Beacon brought along to dinner. A beautiful young lady, and far older than her years. Petite but not frail. Liz, she called herself. She said she just arrived in Webster, and it was easy to believe. The road clung to her, called to her.
Everything else about her was a mystery.
She must stay, that much Severin knew.
The attic was Severin’s domain. He spent much of his time up here, alone, seeking answers to the questions no one else thought to ask. Today those questions would be about Liz, and the answers would come to him from the Elsewhere.
The portal stood in one murky corner of the attic. It looked like an old door propped atop two sawhorses and draped with a dust sheet.
In actuality his table was so much more.
Severin regarded the immaculate white linen. Beneath it he could discover objects useful in unraveling whatever question he faced at the moment. He found them by touch, like a tangible form of automatic writing. These items came from deeper in the universe than matter and energy. From the Elsewhere, a place where thought and meaning were palpable.
The treasures were only his for a short time before they slipped away, returning to the Elsewhere, so as a gesture of respect he always placed them back under the sheet before they expired.
Thinking about Liz, he raised the edge of the sheet with his right hand and extended his left underneath. A mild tingle, a slight warmth always caressed his palm as he quested. Soon, on the rough surface of the old door, he encountered a smooth, flexible object. He closed his fingers around it and drew it out.
A length of plastic tubing trailed behind, the end slithering out to swing almost to the floor. It was an IV bag. Severin studied it and the military decorations and insignia it contained. Frowning, he memorized details about the tiny ribbons so he might look up their significance, which branch of the service would issue them, what rank they might indicate. Nodding to himself, he laid the bag back on the table and fed the tube under the sheet as well, taking care not to stick himself on the needle.
As he patted the empty spot under the sheet where he’d set the bag, he detected an unusual smoothness under his fingertips and slid out a playing card. One side was blank, while the other bore a red bull’s-eye. He smiled at this and replaced it. That he hadn’t managed to pull the whole set, including the star, the X, and the three wavy lines, disappointed him.
A picture of Liz’s past began to form in his mind.
Severin reached under the sheet again. This time he couldn’t make any guess as to what his hand brushed against, and even as he picked it up he didn’t understand it. Something unevenly shaped, wrapped in a poorly fitting cover.
He could readily identify the ladies’ leather glove once he pulled it out where he could see it, and inside was something round. It rattled. Severin dropped the sheet so he could manipulate his curious find with both hands. Coaxing the leather and the fur lining aside he revealed a silvery circle showing a pattern of small holes. He held its rim with thumb and forefinger, tugging the glove’s middle finger with the other hand to slip it off. A salt shaker. The glass body held one die. Severin shook it a few times to see what numbers would come up. Twos, fours, and sixes were all he could get. Make that one loaded die.
Severin chuckled humorlessly. Mockery from the Elsewhere? What could all this symbolize about Liz? Shaking his head, he wrapped the salt shaker in the glove and consigned the bundle back to his table. As he lowered the sheet, it fell smooth and flat across the door without a trace that any other object had ever been present under it.
After six years in the attic, Severin still didn’t know all the secrets of his table. It had been here before him, along with uncounted boxes of abandoned junk. It was in fact the thing that drew him to the house. Responding to its mysterious pull, he encountered a disordered rabble of hippies squatting in their dilapidated mansion and scratching a pitiful existence out of the dirt in the back yard. They made him welcome and he took up residence on the unfinished top floor in order to study the portal. He’d planned to stay just long enough to work out how to move it to a less squalid locale, but concluded the house sat at a mystical junction. Anyplace else the table would be merely two sawhorses, an old door, and a sheet.
Thus he found himself linked to the house and therefore its occupants. Soon they got in the habit of asking his opinion or approval for every insignificant thing, distractions he greatly resented. It turned out to be for the best, because they listened to him when, eight months into his tenure, the house was in danger of being condemned. To save his font of otherworldly knowledge, he had to help them save their home.
The episode cemented him as their leader, something he never wanted. But he’d quickly learned to find the small pleasures in having followers, how to be the type of inscrutable paternal force these poor nature-children yearned to obey.
Now another adept had been drawn to this house.
A glance out the window confirmed she was in the garden, helping with the weeding as he’d seen her do yesterday. Admirable that she lent her back to their work so willingly. She moved among the Following so comfortably it was hard to believe she’d only been at the bungalow with Beacon and Ember for two days. Unless you understood that she had no intention of staying, her ease that of a polite guest.
He watched her excuse herself from the agriculture detail and head toward the house. It was time for their appointment. Such punctuality didn’t fit the hippie persona she tried to project.
Severin walked over to his hammock and settled into it lotus-style, shut his eyes, and contemplated Liz. Such a mystery. Severin smiled, envisioning her progress toward their meeting. Liz would wash up and ask the way to the attic. Then ascend the main staircase, her footsteps like a cat’s, tentative and light. Severin could see her delicate frame poised for flight even as curiosity propelled her onward and upward toward his lair. At the third floor she would have to locate the smaller stairs leading to the attic, hidden behind one of several doors. Severin heard her open it. She was padding up his stairs in total silence. The fifth step, the eighth, the tenth, peering into the room…
“Hello,” Severin said, opening his eyes. Liz stood on the top step and regarded him sidelong, seemingly unsure what to do with her hands. She took in the attic’s contents, flicking her eyes toward the shadowy corners and never quite looking directly at Severin. He smiled slightly with the left side of his mouth at the thought of how he must appear to her, levitating cross-legged between the two naked bulbs that struggled to illuminate his domain — a dark, ragged Buddha casting two shadows.
“Come in, please.” He disengaged one foot from his meditative posture and exited the hammock with practiced grace. As Liz nodded and stepped fully into the room, Severin strolled to a nook in the exposed wooden framing where several bottles and a few clean glasses resided. “Some wine?”
Striking a more confident note, she made eye contact to say, “Sure, thanks.”
“You don’t have to worry. I’m not up to anything.”
“Who’s worried?” she smirked.
More leopard than house cat, perhaps, Severin mused.
“Have a seat.” He handed her a glass of red. “And tell me why you think it is I asked you here.”
Liz placed her drink on an ottoman, and dragged a beanbag nearer before settling into it sidesaddle. “You want me to join up,” she stated flatly, placing her right elbow on the ottoman and resting her chin on her knuckles. She hadn’t taken a sip of the wine.
Severin tipped his glass, took a healthy swallow. “Yes. Why?”
Liz’s brow furrowed. “You want everybody to join up, don’t you?”
“Not at all.”
She watched him take another sip, weighing her words. “Well, just the hippies then.” She glanced down, looked back up, and spoke more rapidly. “And I’m very grateful for the food and shelter. I don’t want you to think I’m a freeloader, I came—”
“I saw. Thank you. But we do not ask anything as payment for our kindness.”
“Just my brain, I suppose,” she muttered, looking toward the opposite end of the attic. Severin knew, without glancing away, what she was studying. His table was a deceptively uninteresting piece of furniture. He had expected Liz to be drawn to it.
Severin came over and sat on the floor next to her. He set down his drink and steepled his fingers, staring hard at her face. She didn’t back down, but tension showed in her neck and arms. He smiled with the corner of his mouth again, resuming their conversation. “Actually, your brain appeals to me quite a lot. More so because nobody controls it except you. Your eyes are open.”
She returned his stare more fiercely. “They have to be, you know?” Those bright green eyes darted down, and she began smoothing her skirt, examining its folds and the embroidered hem.
A subtle vertigo crept through Severin, emanating from Liz. When she looked back at Severin, her fingers kept plucking at the material and weaving it between themselves. Severin felt as if the room were suspended from an enormous rubber band.
“Sorry,” she continued, “I’m no good at taking compliments.”
Severin forced his breathing to stay controlled, glanced at his wine to see if it felt the motion. “On the contrary. I think you esteem them precisely their worth.”
The young lady wasn’t really shaking the house, she was shaking the Elsewhere. Severin could feel the fluctuations because of his own innate affinity. She had to be wedged in the Threshold, half in the ordinary world and half Elsewhere. How could such a thing happen? The implications swarmed Severin’s imagination. A living, breathing connection between worlds! The table was a parlor trick by comparison.
Liz’s fingers quieted as she took the tiniest sip of her wine, then spoke into the glass. “So why do you want me to join?” The room’s pulsations ceased at the same moment as her fidgeting.
She had no idea. Her power was mysterious to him, a complete secret from herself. If she didn’t stay, he’d never get the chance to learn how her link to the Elsewhere operated, but that was hardly what she needed to hear right now. Severin smiled with both sides of his mouth, but it dropped as he drew a breath to speak. “Your name isn’t Elizabeth.” He studied her response. Her eyes locked onto his over the rim of her glass, drilling into him while she tipped the wine back to flow over her lips.
She lowered the glass to her lap. A potential weapon, kept readily at hand. “Why do you say that?”
He sipped his wine before answering. “Because it’s true. I pride myself on my honesty.”
“What is my name, then?”
He tossed off the remainder of the drink and stood. “I can’t tell you today.” She was curious, good.
“And you can’t tell me why you want me to join your followers, either.”
Severin chuckled. “They aren’t my followers. We’re the Threshold Elsewhere Following. And I could tell you, but I want to hear you tell me instead, if you can.” The subtle challenge in his voice drew a raised eyebrow.
She placed her glass on the ottoman. “Because my name isn’t Elizabeth?”
“Because I have no place else to go?”
“That is why we took you in, and why you are free to stay on. But we want you to truly join the Following.”
Liz shut her eyes and drew her knees up to her chest. Her bare toes pattered on the ancient floorboards, running for their lives as she mulled something uncomfortable. Severin watched her nostrils flare, felt energy splashing over him with each tap of her feet. Her eyes snapped open and she planted her feet. Ripples faded rapidly as she announced, “I could tell you why you want me to join, but that’s what you want. Me telling you my story. That’s your game, isn’t it?”
It was Severin’s turn to weigh words. “Fair enough.” He replaced his glass on the improvised shelf before continuing. “You ran away, not realizing you were going toward anything, just running away, as far as possible.”
Liz drawled, “Help, I’m being held prisoner in a fortune cookie factory…”
“You changed your name so they wouldn’t find you — doctors, scientists,” he went on. She lowered her head. No sarcastic comeback.
Severin said urgently, “I want to help you, because you can help me.” Trembling, she stared at his feet. He crouched and touched her shoulder, and she turned her red face to him.
“It’ll start making sense. Isn’t that reason enough?”
She straightened, pulling away from his hand. “I don’t know how you know—”
“I’ll show you.”
“—but it’s one less reason to trust you. I’m leaving.”
Liz stood, glaring down at him. He rose, and despite the few inches height advantage he possessed it seemed she towered as she demanded, “Do you work for them? Or did my father send you?”
“You came to us.”
“Then how do you know this stuff?”
“You needed to be convinced, and now you’re freaking out. It’ll pass.”
“No it won’t!”
“Stay one more night. I’ll show you tomorrow.”
“Show me now.” She shook. Wine spilled from her half-empty glass.
“Tomorrow. Then I’ll be able to tell you your name and you’ll be able to see what I must show you. For that to happen, you must make a choice. You must choose to remain, at least for another day. You must choose to see.”
Severin knew she wanted to protest that she chose to see now, dammit. She wanted to threaten to leave. Running away was no big deal to her. Severin waited, while the equally powerful desires to say different things held her speechless long enough to realize nobody was making her stay. That it didn’t make sense to think Severin and the Following were part of a plot. That she was curious, house cat or leopard, and she wanted to stay long enough to see what he had in store for her tomorrow.
She tossed off the remainder of her wine, handed the glass roughly to Severin, and stormed down the stairs without a word.
*** *** ***
Ester suspected that Beacon’s vegetarian lasagna contained at least one herb not found in every kitchen. Beacon’s wife, Ember, poured cheap red wine from the second bottle of the evening into their glasses and sat at the tiny round table again.
“Severin wants to tie me up,” Ester said, looking from her hostess to her host and back again.
Beacon said, “He tied me up.”
“He ties everyone up,” added Ember. “It’s just ceremony.”
“To Severin!” shouted Beacon, raising his glass.
“To Severin,” Ember echoed.
Ester raised her glass and took a swallow, but wasn’t comfortable enough to invoke Severin’s name.
The hippies beamed at her. Ester tried to be somber, but giggled.
“Didn’t he explain about the energies?” asked Beacon.
Ester shook her head.
Beacon sat back in his rickety kitchen chair and took on a professorial air. He crossed his hands over the great expanse of his belly and stared pointedly at Ester. Then he cracked up.
“When Severin’s going to name someone, he calls upon energies and forces we can’t see,” he explained once his belly stopped jiggling. “You need to be tied to the chair so you don’t disturb them.”
“Why can’t he just tell you to sit still?”
“If you let him tie you down, it shows that you trust him,” said Ember. “It’s symbolic.”
“But also, there’s the drugs,” said Beacon. “When you’re tripping you don’t always know what’s going on.”
Beacon smiled sheepishly. “Whatever he’s got on hand, I’m afraid. Like Em said, it’s symbolic.”
Ester was trepidatious. “Needle drugs?”
Beacon looked horrified. “No, no. Pot. Sometimes it’s mushrooms. Sometimes acid. I think he used peyote once or twice, but that tends to get messy.” He mimed someone throwing up.
Both women laughed.
“So, he does this to everyone? Then gives you your Threshold name?”
Beacon nodded. Ester thought about that. Trusting Severin wasn’t something she felt ready to do yet, but she didn’t want to make a big deal about it with these two. They were warm, generous people who had opened their home to her. The way things usually worked, their bungalow served as an introduction to the Threshold Elsewhere way of life. People in need of refuge could crash here for a few days and either continue on their merry way, or make the move over to Threshold House. Ester had been a guest for a little over a week, about twice as long as the average person stayed.
If smoking a joint with Severin would appease everyone and buy her a little more time to rest and hide while deciding where to run to next, so be it. Even if she would be tied to a chair. Beacon’s cooking was worth a little inconvenience, and talking to Ember was comforting. The two of them together were like the mother she had never known.
Ember got up and pulled a deck of cards out of a kitchen drawer. Beacon cleared the table, except for the wine. Every night after dinner, the couple played cards for an hour or so. Ester usually left them alone and went out, or to her bedroom, but tonight it was raining and she still didn’t have any shoes. She had no place she wanted to go, and the cowboys and Indians on the wallpaper in her room were creeping her out.
Ember asked, “Liz, do you wanna play?”
“I don’t know any grown-up card games,” she admitted.
Her hosts chuckled.
“Well, what do you know?”
Beacon dealt the cards.
*** *** ***
Severin sat at the long table in the Threshold House dining hall and listened with great interest to Beacon.
“She got all the suits right. It was amazing!”
Bell, Cricket and Leviathan looked glassily amazed, but Severin knew it didn’t take much to stun them. The miracle of a lit match often held Bell’s attention.
Beacon continued, “Once Em noticed what Liz was doing, we stopped actually playing and had her guess them.”
“Groovy,” said Cricket, trying hard to concentrate.
“She seemed nervous at first, kept tapping her foot like a bunny and drumming her fingers, but we gave her more wine and she relaxed a little. After that, I suggested she predict the values of the cards. We went almost the whole way through the deck before she got too freaked out. Em even shuffled a couple times in the middle. Liz was right about three quarters of the time. But, man, the nervous energy just poured off her. She couldn’t sit still.”
Severin was impressed. Liz would be a valuable asset to the Following if she would ever let her guard down enough to join. He was eager to investigate her talents himself, and to see what his table would tell him if she assisted in the questing.
*** *** ***
Ester gazed across the small circular table at Severin. He looked like a poorly groomed wizard, with his long, aquiline nose, heavy brow over penetrating blue eyes, and the standard bushy hair and thick beard. The only source of light in the cavernous basement of Threshold House was a lava lamp. Its blood-and-amber illumination gave him a demonic aspect. His eyes were on her, his hands busy with a small knife dancing mushrooms into slivers. He chuckled.
“I realize,” he said airily, “custom dictates that the medium be the one who gets tied up. I prefer it this way.”
“Custom also recommends a crystal ball,” she replied, with a glance at the lamp.
When she’d first seen the basement, Ester was taken aback. The single wooden chair and table looked ominous in the center of the otherwise empty room. The spareness gave the room, though enormous, the feel of a jail cell.
Ester tugged on the cords fastening her wrists and ankles to the chair. She did not feel fear, just certainty that something unpleasant would happen soon.
Severin lit a tall candle. He loaded a tablespoon from the pile of fungus fragments and held the bowl over the candle flame. The bits of mushroom wilted quickly, bubbling out a thin brown ichor. Severin kept the spoon in the flame while he positioned the tip of a syringe needle in the liquid, steadying its barrel against his wrist while he drew back the plunger with thumb and forefinger.
When Severin stood up with the needle, Ester’s calm shriveled as quickly as the mushrooms. He moved beside her and rolled the hot glass of the loaded syringe across her bare forearm. She stopped breathing. She fought to remember why she needed to do this, but couldn’t. Her muscles contracted, the restraints cutting into her skin and her veins standing out.
“Ohh,” Severin sighed and fingered the prominent blood vessels. Ester’s vision darkened.
The needle’s entry was a white-hot jolt, the hit like lava pouring up her arm, flowing across her chest. Her heart gulped the fire in. The next beat sent a plume into her mind, a euphoric burst of insight that brought salamanders slithering out of every surface. She stared into the lava lamp, all fear forgotten.
“Now,” Severin intoned, “we both get a glimpse into the shadows.”
But there were no shadows. Ester had become a searing flare that saturated the deepest recesses of the room. Her gaze flowed over and around everything, seeing all sides at once. Severin raised his hand before his eyes, squinting. He was the exception, the only thing in the room casting a shadow. His mouth moved but his words were lost, drowned out by the light.
Ester raised her hands, the ropes and the wooden chair stretching and sagging like hot cheese. She stood and extended her right hand, smearing together her surroundings like finger paint. Turning her head, she watched the results as she traced an oval with her left index finger. The magic fire Severin injected made her finger white hot. With it she cut a loophole in reality.
Ester stepped through the flaming hoop, floating weightless on the other side. No horizon, no walls, just a warm ocean of green tie-dye fire. The aether swarmed with almost audible conversations, babble in a thousand languages she could understand but not identify.
Vague shapes floated through her peripheral vision, making her uneasy. Ester hugged herself and rubbed her bare arms, relishing the tactile sensation when everything around her was intangible. The motion agitated her surroundings, stirring up large thick bubbles. Ester peered inside them as they bobbed past.
The first one held cold dark water beneath a shroud of mist, home to teasing glimpses of a serpentine neck.
Three stars within the next bubble made a triangle of blue sea and sky. Airplanes and ships dissolved in its subtropical splendor, transformed into spinning disks that zipped heavenward.
Another held a forest of enormous fir trees, where soft pools of shadow loped elusively away leaving ponderous footprints.
Ester’s gaze followed the rising bubbles up to a great wheel of stars, with archetypes sketched dot-to-dot. Most prominent was a pair of human figures, between a bull and a crab. The wheel slowly turned, but not about its center. The two figures clutched at something immobile, and their struggle became the point of rotation.
Like a hellish Escher-esque metamorphosis, the stars transitioned into an irregular scattering of holes. From each one leered a nose cone, the pronged countenance of Mutual Assured Destruction. Sudden inferno, a forest of towering atomic mushrooms, shimmered at the periphery. A dream of self-incineration, held at bay by a veil so thin Ester was terrified some innocent gesture would rend it.
The gossamer partition between existence and nuclear oblivion undulated with a regular rhythm that Ester matched up to the nervous drumming of her own fingers on her crossed arms. Terrified, she froze. The screen settled.
She wanted to leave before anything got broken. Before she drew any direct notice. Something here was awakening, becoming aware of her intrusion.
A feeling of belonging squeezed Ester, a feeling of family. It made her uncomfortable, made her want to duck out of the embrace. She was swimming in overfamiliarity.
The fiery green waves rolling around her began to roil and the dome of an enormous bubble breached the surface, filled with a chaotic amalgam of lightning and cloud.
Like an iceberg, the bubble capsized. Rococo engraving took the place of lightning, a pulsating filigree shot through with Latin words. The sloping side of a pyramid came into view, slowly righting itself. Ester knew it would be topped with an all-seeing eye. It was the secret military echelon, her father’s cabal. If it saw her, she wouldn’t be safe in Webster, or anywhere.
Ester turned to escape through the portal. She stopped. Would she be leading the eye to her hiding place?
A memory of the Army’s spiders invading her sent a shudder through her body, awakening every nervous tic she worked so hard to suppress. Her hands fluttered at her sides, sending covert messages in the sign language of her subconscious. Her toes tapped restlessly as she shifted her weight from foot to foot and back again, her impulses torn between flight and fight. Neither fight nor flight would serve her this time. She needed a third option, and quickly. The blunted tip of the pyramid broke the surface and the evil eye of providence was imminent.
Lightning quick Ester’s fingers flew to her temples and drummed, hoping to jar loose a usable idea.
Along with that one word, a wave of energy pulsed from Ester’s terrified mind. Her hair bristled with it, and her hands dropped and grappled with each other at waist height. Each strand of her henna-red hair seemed suddenly alive, and at every tip swam a small many-legged creature.
Her hair was alive with thousands of spiders.
Whatever illicit chemical manipulation Severin had wrought on her today was mixing badly with the pharmaceuticals injected by the military doctors all those months ago to give her the mother of all bad trips.
Ester’s scream came out a wheeze.
Her mane floated in an ever-expanding halo, the spiders spinning out more and more of it. With dizzying speed they wove an iridescent screen before her that reflected the colors around it, concealing Ester and the portal back to her life of wary freedom.
The enormous pyramid righted itself fully, its radiant eye blazing.
Grateful for the cover, but repulsed by its agents, Ester shook her head. The ghostly green spiders and their filaments detached from her hair and drifted away, carried toward the wheel of constellations. Through their web she saw the pyramid in its entirety, the eye staring calmly and seeing nothing as it coasted past.
Ester took a shuddering breath and backed away, through the hoop and into consensus reality.
She saw the basement room, herself tied to the chair, and Severin pacing, looking vexed. Crimson, his mouth snarling, he stalked up to the chair and shook her.
Ester swept back into her body. She moaned and struggled to focus, tried to reach up to rub her temples before reencountering her bonds.
Severin stood up straight. The color of his face cooled and froze to a ghastly white. He took a deep breath and asked, “What did you see?”
Ester swallowed, then cleared her throat. Such a simple question, but how to answer? The details wouldn’t make any sense, and she lacked the strength for that much explaining. In a faint, hoarse voice she said, “Legends, myths, and nuclear annihilation.” Plus the bureau of supernatural affairs canvassing the area. “It was,” she cleared her throat again, “it was frightening. I didn’t belong there.”
Severin smiled and stood up. Turning away, he said, “I thought I’d overdone it. I’ll have to use a smaller serving next time.” He walked up the stairs to the kitchen, abandoning her in the shadows.
Ester worked her right hand free, squirming it around the arm of the chair into a position that gave her not quite enough slack and forcing it at the expense of some skin. She undid the other knots.
Severin came back with a mug, which he presented to Ester without commenting on her escape. Water. She drank deeply. It worked miracles on her throat.
“Next time, you can do that without me.”
Severin quirked a corner of his mouth. “That which doesn’t kill you makes you stronger.”
Ester stood. “What exactly made me stronger this time?”
“South American fungus. The natives chew it, but I wondered if the effects would come on faster, more intensely, by injecting it. I think so.” He looked wistful. “Apparently drop off a lot faster too. Didn’t expect that.”
Ester’s head was not entirely free of backwards messages. It was impossible to know if her perceptions of time were reliable, but she thought only five minutes had passed. She did feel pretty certain of the severity of her physical reaction to the mushrooms. Probably lucky to be breathing, let alone standing. She bypassed the stairs leading up to the kitchen and headed for the door to the outside, the dirt floor cool under her bare feet.
“Where do you think you’re going?” Severin had somehow gotten ahead of her. “You must collect yourself.” He reached for her.
“Yeah, put my zen back in place.” Ester dodged his offered hand and sank to the floor where she pressed her back against a sequoia-sized column for support while keeping her eyes on Severin. He studied her, not blinking.
“What?” Ester demanded.
“I’m just concerned, Willow. I want to be sure you’re all right.”
Ester blinked slowly. “What? What did you call me?”
Severin almost smiled, his face tightening a bit and his eyes glinting. “Willow: graceful and strong. I couldn’t let you dash off without your name. I said I would give it to you, and I’m a man of my word.”
“So you keep saying.” Standing unsteadily, she moved again toward the exterior door. She pulled it open and looked up the half-flight of cement stairs into the late-afternoon glare.
“You need to not be on your own.”
Ester turned back to him, but her pupils had overreacted to the waning daylight and Severin was a voice in the gloom. The only thing she could see clearly was the lava lamp. She moved instinctively toward its warm light.
Severin spoke as he climbed the creaking wooden stairs to the kitchen. “Tomorrow we’ll find your destiny.”
Ester squinted and could just make out his blurry shape. “Destiny?”
“Couldn’t look for it until we knew your name. You’ll find the experience fascinating.”
“I’m leaving. I’m leaving!” Ester shouted.
Severin’s calm voice said, “See you tomorrow,” and he exited into the kitchen and shut the door behind him, leaving her alone in the basement despite his alleged concern.
Ester looked down at her left hand which rested on the warm lava lamp. She unplugged it from its extension cord and went outside. Severin would need to make do in the future without his crystal ball.