his dreams are dank and smell like sickness, that sour tang of a room that hasn’t been opened for some time, left to fester as they stay cooped in. but they are . . . peaceful, even with that. no lightning. no hallways that strip the flesh from his bones. he’s willing to accept the rot, for that. and so he lets it come, as he sleeps, journal of a plague year tucked safely under his pillow, whispering words of stagnancy to lull him to sleep.
the waking world is more or less the same.
the light coming in through the grease-streaked window is barely there, the faint rays of the sun just starting to peek out over the horizon. mike switches on the torch by his bed, and begins reading once again - he’s read it over and over, but some parts. some parts just don’t seem quite right. he’d looked, and . . . as far as he could tell, they were passages that didn’t exist in the original. the book itself was worn and tattered, with a leather cover that would have been good quality, once. it . . . gave, under the press of his fingers, a little too much. like rotting flesh, a part of his mind supplies, and his nose wrinkles at the thought. he’s been caught in this book for too long, hasn’t he?
he turns to the page he dog-eared, murmuring under his breath.
so hypochondriac fancies represent
ships, armies, battles in the firmament;
till steady eyes the exhalations solve,
and all to its first matter, cloud, resolve.
it was the most obvious difference in the book. in the other copy he had picked up from the library, that was where the snippet of verse ended. in his copy, the one that smelled of fetid blood and seemed to curl up to his fingertips whenever he touched the page, it continued.
so habitation come, where it is blest
rage effluvia, the joiner’s work distressed
in shaking hands, steeped from the bone
wherein a burying ground, a hospice, a home.
for some reason, it was what kept catching his eye. his fingertips drift across the page again, over the words. the lettering is uneven, as though the printing press might not have been aligned properly while the book was being made. mike brushes his thumb over the word effluvia, frowning to himself, before tucking the book back under his pillow.
there’s a thin film of plaque on his teeth that he scrubs at idly with his tongue as he tugs on his undershirt and his shirt, the latter too big for him in a way that feels comforting, swamping him in cloth. he wrinkles his nose at the smell of it - vaguely like mildew, almost. as if they had gotten damp and been left like that. maybe he should start keeping some spare clothes at school, as well.
the stairs creak as he walks downstairs. there used to only be one stair that creaked - the second to last one. if he held onto the banister just right, he could hop over it while walking downstairs in the middle of the night without anyone hearing him - and now it’s almost all of them, a low groaning sound under each step. he wonders if that’s also because of the book under his pillow. the idea of a magic book is a little silly, of course, but - but. but it’s not far out of the realm of possibility, in his world.
( a door that shouldn’t have been there. his parents’ worried eyes, asking him why he would run away for four days. he didn’t know if it would be better or worse, to tell them about the infinite forest he had been lost in. a creature made of lightning laughing over his bed at night. why could he remember these things in such clarity, when everything else . . . slipped, sometimes? )
without looking, he reaches for an apple in the fruit bowl, and makes a brief noise of disgust as his fingers sink through it. fruit flies buzz in languid trails around a bowl of brown fruit, and now that he notices it, he can smell the sweet odor of rot in the air, fermentation and decay. he washes his hand off as thoroughly as he can, scrubbing diligently under his nails to make sure it doesn’t stay stuck to him, that he doesn’t . . . carry it with him, somehow. grabbing the bowl and a butter knife from one of the drawers, he does his best not to breathe in through his nose as he opens the bin and scrapes the offending fruit into the bin. he tries not to look too long into the half-empty bin as he does - he thinks he can see something moving, in there, and he really doesn’t want to think about that.
he wasn’t that hungry anyway, and he certainly isn’t now.
so hypochondriac fancies represent. words are easiest to remember, especially in verse or something like it. he mouths the word hypochondriac under his breath again and again, drawing out the sounds until they become meaningless as he picks up his folder from the kitchen table, crams it into his bag. he can’t remember if he finished the work last night or not. he can check at school.
he likes the early mornings. setting off when everything is still quiet and it’s cold enough to justify the scarf he wears, hitched up around his face, hiding the lichtenberg figure that curls across his skin. it’s early enough that the school’s main entrance is still locked when he gets there, but he knows the side door near the music room is always left unlocked, which lets him step into the building quietly. he doesn’t bother turning on the lights, walking through the empty halls. there’s something . . . nice, about being the only one here. especially when he doesn’t have to worry about that churning in his stomach, the fear that there will be a turn in the hallways that there shouldn’t be, the corridors branching on in sickening twists that he gets lost in for hours.
it hasn’t followed him for . . . two weeks now, almost.
he gets to his locker, tucking his bag in, and pulling out the small plastic bag he keeps in there, with a toothbrush and toothpaste. it just feels . . . he’d feel ridiculous saying it aloud, but it feels safer to keep them here. like they’d disappear, the same way the pump bottle of hand sanitizer under the sink had, the same way the bottle of rubbing alcohol had leaked out in the first aid kit and ruined half the band-aids, the same way mike’s dad couldn’t find any of the bug spray he usually kept in the garage.
he walks almost silently to the boy’s bathroom and brushes his teeth until the foam he spits out is tinged with pink from his bleeding gums, enjoying the absence of that filmy feeling. taking a paper towel from beside the sink, he wets it and scrubs at his face until that, too, is red and raw. he usually doesn’t ever break out, but about a week ago, it became a real problem, red bumps erupting at his hairline, at the sides of his nose. he flexes his hands, fingers twitching, and resists the urge to pick at them, looking at his face in the mirror.
without the scarf, the white curl of scar tissue is clear, and so is the outcropping of red bumps. he grimaces, grabs a fresh paper towel, and scrubs at his face once again, just to be safe. if nothing else, it gets rid of the vaguely greasy feeling he can’t seem to shake when he’s at home, no matter how often he showers. he hesitates, before resting his head in the sink, shuddering at the feeling of the freezing water trickling down the back of his neck, and rinses his hair, working his thin fingers through it and then wringing it out, the chill of the air felt all the more acutely with his damp skin.
he meant to do something. what was it?
it nags at him, a thought itching at the back of his head, like a word on the tip of his tongue, but he can’t remember. he winds his scarf back around his neck, letting it cover the lower half of his face, and does his best not to let it bother him, walking to the school library. it’s a good place. a familiar place. he already has a book, and he settles into one of the battered old armchairs, leg bouncing idly as he picks up where he had left off, the smell and feeling of old paper, the winding words that dance just out of his reach, out of what he knew already, quickly pulled him in, and he forgot about everything else.
driven by recursion, fractals are images of dynamic systems - the pictures of chaos. the infinite intricacy of fractals permits them a completely new type of symmetry that isn’t found in ordinary shapes. their most striking feature is that they are not one, two, or three-dimensional, but somewhere in-between. anything which is fractalled and finite can contain the infinite.
he can feel them, creeping under his skin. the idea of infinity seems to fit them. to fit the way they go so much further than his skin, than his body, can possibly show. maybe, if he can understand them, he can trap them.
he turns the page, thoughts lost in the infinite, the school still quiet around him, as though holding its breath.
‘ shit, ‘ gerard hisses through his teeth, bringing his thumb up to his mouth on instinct and sucking on the spot where blood wells up, the iron tang of it sharp for a moment. not, he thinks ruefully, as he reaches down with his other hand to pull the needle the rest of the way, as sharp as the jab itself had been. he should really try and get a thimble or something.
well. he’s had worse. shaking his hand out, as though that’ll get it to scab over more quickly, he takes the needle once again, continuing to pull it through the thick leather, until the motion becomes repetitive again. he didn’t have that much more to go, anyway. it’s crooked, but you can still tell what it is. finishing the final pull through, he cuts the thread off the needle, tying a knot to finish it, and shaking the sleeve out to inspect his work.
the lines are jagged, and the pupil is less of a circle and more of a weird egg-shape, but it’s recognizable as what he had intended it to be - an eye, stark against the black leather, in white and red thread. it slopes off the shoulder, a little bit too much to one side, and there are too many eyelashes on the bottom lid.
he’s proud of it.
( there’s something gratifying, about things that he could classify entirely as his own . the stick and poke tattoos that circled one of his wrists, the nail polish that seemed to always be in a state of chipped off, no matter how recently he had applied it, the three piercings he had given himself, safety pins through two of them. none of it was with his mother’s money, or done by her, because of her. the jacket he’d gotten from a secondhand store, two sizes too big for him and smelling vaguely of petrol. his hair, too - chopped unevenly just above his shoulders, dyed black. before his mother’s hair had gone white, hers had been the exact same color as his, she told him once. he didn’t dye it until two years later, but he won’t say that had nothing to do with it. there’s something . . . it feels like he stands a little bit more solidly in his body, like this. like he controls it, for once. )
he slides the jacket on, moving his arm back and forth. likes to imagine he can feel the eye through the sturdy fabric, as though it has a more substantial weight than it really holds. as though there’s some kind of protection there, in the uneven threads.
he looks briefly in the mirror, grimacing slightly - his ill-advised self-cut bangs are just at that stage where they’re long enough to get in his face, but too short to tie back. well. practicality first. he shoves a few bobby pins in his hair, making sure his vision is clear.
the newspaper article he pulls out of his pocket is a little bit wrinkled, in some places the ink bleeding from the letters. but he has committed all the important parts to memory - about a week ago, there had been the untimely death of a private collector, still in his early thirties, and who had had a completely clean bill of health prior to this.
there was no guarantee that he had a leitner, but given how he had died - gone missing for a day and a half before his body was found, in a state of decay as though it had been rotting for weeks - and the records gerard had managed to scrounge up that showed he’d gotten some of his antiques from mikaele salesa, the chances were pretty good. if not a leitner, there was at least going to be something. some reason for gerry to justify the trip.
stepping out of pinhole books feels like a physical weight sliding off of his shoulders, as he locks the door behind him. the day is already starting to warm up, but he’s willing to undergo a little discomfort, choosing not to take his jacket off anyway. one hand absently falls to his pocket, thumbing through the envelope full of money there, all crisp bills.
he never asked where they got it. a part of him really doesn’t want to know. easiest just to assume it’s inheritance or something like that. it’s definitely not what they get from bookbinding.
leaning against the sign for the bus stop, gerard considers his options. he’s headed to the house, first, even though the estate sale had been weeks ago - could see, at least, if there was anything suspicious left over in the place itself. would there be receipts of all the shit that had been sold off, or was it less formal than that? who would there be to talk to about a possible follow-up, after he left the house? it was a trail that could so easily go cold, but he was used to those by now.
( a small part of himself that he doesn’t want to dwell too hard on hopes that when the man had died, it had been painful. the worse whatever he found was . . . the more his mother lit up, smile splitting her face and contorting it into something that looked almost fond, for a moment. into something that looked like love. if he tries hard enough, he can pretend it’s for the good job he’s done, rather than for the book or vase or box under his arm. )
by the time the bus comes, there are another two people at the bus stop with him. gerard is used to the looks they’re giving him by now - their hand going to their wallet in their pocket as though to check that it’s still there, their eyes looking over him as though they’re trying to figure out whether or not he should be in school right now, keeping a good six feet away from him. it doesn’t really matter to him at this point. probably for the best, anyway, considering how much dangerous shit he ends up ferrying back and forth sometimes.
resting his forehead against the glass window of the bus means that he can feel every bump and pothole in the road, and he wryly imagines big bruises forming on his cheekbone, his forehead, by the time he reaches his destination.
not that they would. he knows by now, he doesn’t bruise easily.
g-d, why did he leave his cd player at home? it’s a regret that hits him hard as he begins the long, boring walk up to the isolated estate, nose scrunching at all the large houses and the scattering of shops, all of them looking like the kind of place that wouldn’t allow him over the threshold. he sticks out like a sore thumb, and his shoulders droop a little bit, as though trying to pull in on himself. ( his knees still ache, these days, from the growth spurt he’s been going through - all of a sudden, six foot something and his arms and legs feeling too long, too sharp. it makes him look more intimidating, and for the life of him, he can’t say whether that’s a good or a bad thing. )
he kicks a rock, watches it skitter down the sidewalk idly and hop off the curb. the warmth that had just been starting to emerge when he had been at the bus stop is beginning to beat through the back of his jacket in earnest, and he resolutely ignores it. take another right up here, walk for about five blocks, then down the private drive . . .
if nothing else, he feels vindicated the moment he begins walking down the drive up to the house. it looks like it would have been breathtaking once, with the sunlight beaming through elegant trees set up on either side of the road, but it doesn’t have that effect now. leaf rot, or something like it, has gotten to most of the trees, turning the leaves an ugly green-grey and shrivelled, and what might have once been a well-paved road is beset with cracks. the air is . . . quiet, in an uneasy way. gerard never liked that. quiet always felt like . . . like something was holding its breath.
like something is watching. the words rise to his mind, unbidden, and he’s suddenly a lot more aware of the unevenly sewn eye on his shoulder. he’s not sure if that should be a comfort or something to worry about.
let it, he decides, a little spitefully, and keeps his eyes on the road in front of him, hands stuffed into his pockets, and humming one of the songs that would’ve been in his cd player, had he remembered to bring it, letting the slightly off-tune melody cut through the eerie silence.
he makes sure to step on every crack through the road on the way up to the house.
‘ michael, can i talk to you for a moment? ‘
her hand brushes his shoulder, and he bristles immediately, an echo of white-hot light tingling across his skin. she’s quick to remove her hand, at least, and so he, a little grudgingly, takes up the seat across from her desk, leg bouncing idly. already, he can feel his thoughts starting to wander - outside the window, faint clouds trace across the sky. cirrus floccus. the isolation and the trails, between 1º and 30º, can distinguish it from altocumulus clouds, the former being at a much higher altitude. at least, he was pretty sure they were cirrus - they looked like it. if they were altocumulus, that meant that there could be a thunderstorm coming later in the day, because they could be found between the hot and cold fronts between -
‘ michael. are you listening? ‘
‘ yes. ‘ he hadn’t been. they both know that. but she’s going to pretend that he had actually heard what she had said, and he will watch the way that her brow furrows, her hands resting together on her desk. was it pity, then, or concern? they were hard to tell apart, sometimes, and he kept having one or the other turned on him. it’s alright, he doesn’t say, i think i have an answer now. it’s not a perfect one, but it’s an answer.
‘ i’ll give you an extension, if you want it, ‘ she says, gently pushing a piece of paper across her desk towards him. he blinks at it for a moment. his name, written in the top left corner. michael crew. the staple is tinged with rust, and he wonders for a moment if that was what she was talking about - that, or the way one of the corners had been torn off, used to get a beetle off of his ceiling.
or the fact that besides a few opening sentences, the lined paper he had meant to be writing an essay on is entirely blank. ( not entirely, a part of his brain that focuses too much on semantics argues. there are drawings of ants, crossing in a militant path, from one corner to the other, and an intricate spiral design that winds around the letters of his name. )
‘ i forgot, ‘ he says, and a bitter part of his mind chimes in that maybe this was what he had felt like he was forgetting, the other day. a little bit too late for that to register, though.
‘ i know you’re a smart kid, ‘ and already, mike has to almost physically restrain himself from rolling his eyes. he knows how this conversation goes. something about needing to apply himself, an offer of help or resources for special teenagers, said hesitantly - like they were unsure what to classify him as. whether he was odd or traumatized or stunted, he’d heard one of them say to another teacher. he’s half tuned out of the conversation as she says that, eyes tracing the clouds across the sky. what would it feel like, to be water vapor? drifting free and high, falling eventually. he . . . didn’t want to dislike the rain. but some part of his body hates it. says it can’t be trusted. he wonders - when it sprinkles or showers next, maybe he could go out in that. it wasn’t the kind of rain that came with thunderstorms, and now that it was no longer shaping his thoughts, maybe he could just enjoy the pale grey sky and soft precipitation.
‘ - was wondering if maybe a change in topics would help you? if that was what you were stuck on, i’d be happy to assign you a different topic. ‘ he sighs, shifting in the uncomfortable plastic seat restlessly. people didn’t believe him, when he said he didn’t remember things. always felt like there was some deeper truth to it. but some things just . . . slipped. ‘ is everything at home alright, michael? ‘
‘ mike, ‘ he corrects under his breath, more habit than anything. ‘ there’s nothing wrong. i’m sorry for worrying you. if you give me this weekend to finish it, i should probably be able to turn it in by monday. i just got - distracted, to be honest with you, mrs. baker. i got a new book recently, and i’ve been kind of wrapped up in it. i’ll be sure to do a good job, and i’ll accept whatever points you want to dock for my lateness. ‘ he smiles, and hopes it’s a polite smile. he’s trying to make it look like one, even though boredom crawls through his head, restlessness itching to get him out of the seat he’s in.
her expression breaks like a wave on the shore into a look of relief, lined still with that pity. it isn’t concern, any more, so that meant it was pity. he wonders if she’s relieved for him, or if she’s relieved that she doesn’t have to do anything about it. ‘ i don’t think i’ll dock any points, michael. ‘ ( ‘ mike, ‘ he sighs, under his breath ) ‘ you’ve done well in this class so far, and it seems like it would be unfair to punish this. ‘ pity, he supposes, has its advantages.
‘ thank you, mrs. baker, ‘ he says, giving her that polite smile again and standing to sling his bag over one shoulder again, thoughts already focused on getting out of the classroom. she is already busying herself with something at her desk.
‘ you’re welcome, michael. i’ll see you on monday, then. ‘ mike, he doesn’t say, but thinks anyway, walking out of his classroom. michael was the kind of name a seven year old thought sounded impressive and important. he sometimes imagines he’s outgrown it, like his old clothes - they can still fit, if he pulls hard enough and ignores the discomfort, but they don’t fit him.
the sun is too warm on the walk home, and he can feel sweat beginning to bead up in the crease of his spine, under the thick scarf he still wears. he swallows, sets his jaw, and does his best to ignore it, even though a part of him despairs at the fact that he won’t even be able to really feel clean when he gets home, given the nature of things - if he’s lucky, the water won’t have that weird off smell to it or come out rust-brown.
he’s not lucky.
the water he stands under is just lukewarm enough to not feel refreshing against his skin, and while it runs clear, at least, there’s a strange . . . it comes out sticky, almost. like a warm mucus. it’s disgusting, and he can only stand under the stream for a few minutes before turning off the water and towelling himself off until his skin is rubbed red and raw, the scar that curls across it standing out even more, now, as though it were a lightning bolt silhouetted against a red dawn.
how did that rhyme go, again? he tries to remember, tries to distract himself in that thought as he tugs on new clothes. red sky at night, sailor’s delight. red sky at morning, sailors take warning. he thinks that’s how it goes. remembers reading something once about how a rising sun at mid-latitudes would illuminate the higher clouds in advance of an approaching weather system, giving the sky a red appearance.
he knows the sky inside and out, these days. can name clouds by looking at them, can explain where lightning comes from, and could say exactly why, on a scientific level, he had been struck that day, and what it might have done to his body.
it doesn’t help. it never has. not against the . . . thing that defies all logic, that seems to grow on his fears, that can make storms appear from nowhere that no one else sees.
( he’s entertained the possibility that he’s just . . . traumatized, of course, but therapy never helped, and the antipsychotic medication they’d put him on for a few years had just made him feel . . . bleary. he’s stopped telling people about it, though. knows what they think of him, when he does, and he thinks if one more person looks at him like he’s crazy, he won’t be able to handle it. )
in a fresh set of clothes ( though they still smell slightly damp, just like the ones he had retrieved this morning ), he sits on his bed, legs crossed, and pulls out journal of a plague year.
there’s that ever-present twist of doubt, of course. that maybe he is just seeing things. or - maybe they’re happening, like the fruit had actually been rotting this morning, but there’s a logical explanation for them, and he’s just . . . getting lost in his own head. but there’s something about the book. the words aren’t even - it’s not something he thinks he’d want to read more than once, ordinarily, but with this - he begins to read, and he can’t stop, leaning over until the pages are inches away from his face, fingers turning the page every few minutes with an almost careless speed - like the words would run away, if he gave them too much time between the pages.
it’s in flipping one of the pages that the rough paper rasps against his skin, and it feels like sandpaper. his attention momentarily drawn away, he hisses, shaking his hand out for a moment. a paper cut, maybe? he looks at his fingers, to see if he can see where it is.
it’s not a paper cut. his fingertips look . . . raw, almost. the ones that had been turning the book’s pages, the place where the side of his hand had been resting on it - there’s red and scabby skin crawling over them. like a rash, or eczema or something. but they hadn’t been like this in class, had they? he would have noticed; it would’ve made holding a pencil a little harder.
he looks warily at the book in his lap.
for a moment, he thinks about closing it. donating it to the library, or even burning it or something. but . . .
he looks out the window at the clear sky. and then back down at the page.
ignoring the rough texture of the paper, the way it tears at his raw skin, comes surprisingly easy once he gets used to it. it’s a small price to pay for a clear sky. for a clear head.
‘ you seem a little bit young for this, ‘ the woman says, looking at him dubiously. ‘ shouldn’t you be in school? ‘
ah, there it was.
yeah, he almost says. yeah, i should be, shouldn’t i? that’s the normal thing for people my age to be doing.
he decides, maybe prudently, against it, and shrugs, a lopsided thing. ‘ i’m homeschooled, ‘ he says. not, technically, a lie. ‘ my mother’s teaching me the family trade. she just knows a lot about this stuff. ‘ he offers her one of the neat business cards his mother had printed once - really, just good as a front for whenever one of them needed to pretend pinhole books was a legitimate business. ‘ we were supposed to pick up and rebind some books from here, but that was an arrangement made before he died. i said i’d come check it out, see if i could figure it out. ‘ he shrugs, looking a little bored. ‘ he was kinda vague about which ones he wanted worked on, but it would’ve been old sh- older books. nineteenth century or before. ‘
the woman frowns at the card for a moment, but seems to think it’s legitimate enough, tucking it into her pocket. ‘ i see. well - most of his books were sold during the estate sale, i believe. ‘
gerard sighs, arms crossed, and tries not to let one foot tap impatiently. he thinks for a moment, and then looks back to her. ‘ was there an - inventory or trade record or anything, of the books that were sold? it’s not like we can work with him anymore, but it’d be good to know who they were passed on to, so we could maybe offer the same thing to, y’know, whoever bought them. if they were in crappy enough condition to need rebinding and so on that he noticed it, it might be appreciated for us to reach out. ‘
she doesn’t seem entirely convinced, and gerard can’t really blame her. he exhales, scuffs one of his heavy boots on the ground, glowering at the floor. ‘ this was gonna be a pretty big job for us. it’s kinda a dying business, or some bullshit like that. mom got really upset to find out he’d died, so i thought, y’know. ‘ he shrugs, and it’s a calculated thing - trying to make it look as though he’s badly pretending not to care. ‘ might try and figure it out for her. ‘
( his mother hadn’t been upset. she had been almost gleeful, at the possibility for them to tear into even more leitners. but that hardly seems like it would make for a convincing act. )
the woman’s face softens, if only a little bit. ‘ well, i can’t promise you you’ll find much usable information on the invoices - there’ll only be a name associated with them if they paid with a check. still, i suppose it can’t hurt, if you were meant to look them over anyway.
gerard thinks he might be overdoing it with the smile he gives her, a little too bright, too beaming. seems to do the trick properly enough, though. ‘ thanks. it, uh, it means a lot. ‘
half an hour later has him sitting in a public library, chewing the end of a stolen pen as he looks over the list. the upside is that each of the books has a brief description of it - year published, number of pages, author. the downsides, however, are that a) there’s not exactly a section for evil magic book from the library of jurgein leitner yes/no, b) it seems like at least half the people had paid with cash, so there’s no name listed alongside what it had sold for, and c) g-d, there were a lot of books. he has to go off of process of elimination and his own gut instinct, carefully reading through each page and crossing out the ones he was pretty sure weren’t related in any way to jurgein leitner.
some romance novel from the 1980s. probably not. a latin-english dictionary from the eighteenth century. probably not, but it was one that couldn’t be eliminated completely. might be some beholding nonsense, after all, even if that was pushing it a little bit. a complete collection of the aubrey-maturin series, with master and commander signed by the author. eh, maybe, but he didn’t think so. a heavy trio of books with a dull sounding name. hunting them down in the library he was working in found that they had one of them - it turned out to be denouncing the evils of communism. or something. definitely not.
g-d, so much of this was just . . . busywork. by the time he had managed to read through the full inventory, and hunt down the books that seemed possibly old enough to fit that he didn’t know by title in the library, to see if they might fit - the sun was beginning to set, his hands stained with blue pen ink from where he had been fiddling with it idly between his notes.
and even having crossed out most of the ones that didn’t seem like they could be relevant, he was still left with a list of nearly thirty books, neatly listed between the ones he had scribbled through. on a lined piece of paper, he wrote out each of their names, along with who had bought them ( if their name was listed, about half of them had just paid in cash, apparently ), and, for the hell of it, what entity he guessed they might be aligned with. )
groundwork of the metaphysics of morals, custom edition, approximately 1842. the end? the eye? the hunt, maybe. bought with cash.
the white bull, original binding, 1799. the spiral? sold to philip molyneux.
the panopticon writings, original binding, allegedly signed by author, 1801. definitely the eye. sold to edith kemp.
hunger, 1895. the spiral or the flesh. bought with cash.
journal of a plague year, custom edition, circa 1722. corruption for sure. sold to david crew.
the cruelty of mercy, possibly unique book/custom bound, circa 1789. slaughter. bought with cash.
and so on, and so on. for a moment, once he finishes the list, he tosses the pen listlessly onto the table and leans his head back, shutting his eyes, words swimming behind them, burning like an afterimage.
still, it’s hardly enough to justify coming home just yet. after a self-indulgent moment of leaning back in his chair and hating everyone on the list, he sits forwards and picks up the pen yet again, going back to the master list. it would be useful to see whether the people on the new list had bought any other books, if they had just been picking up a random selection and been unlucky enough to maybe draw the short straw, or if they had only bought a maybe-leitner. of course, it was a moot point anyway, if they had used cash, but for a first step, it worked out alright. and it meant he could search for names he knew, as well. if someone had come there with an intention to buy one specific book, it did make it a little more likely that they knew what they were after.
but then, that did raise the question - was it more important to go after the ones that might definitely be leitners, in the hands of people who at least thought they knew what they were doing, or to try and help people who almost definitely didn’t?
gerard chews on the end of his pen for a moment, considering the question.
but it’s . . . it isn’t his business to be a hero. he’s just trying to bring these back for his mom. he’s fifteen, for g-d’s sake, it’s not like it’s his responsibility to look out for people. the best way to go through the list would be by certainty first. ( ignore the brief pang of guilt in his chest. let a flush of anger overcome it instead. these things should just be common sense, shouldn’t they? he’s known since he was eight not to mess with leitners. they’re adults. it isn’t his responsibility to look after them. maybe, if he thinks about it in the right way, he can ascribe the ache in his chest to a hunger, to genuinely wanting the chase, rather than guilt. it makes it easier. )
okay. okay. where to start, then?
he’s pretty sure he recognizes one of these names from the peoples’ church. looking through the complete list of books purchased, they had only gotten the one, so that made it a likely thing. does he really want to approach them, though? his nose scrunches, remembering the smell of brackish water, the way he spent months refusing to duck into the shadowy parts of their home. still, there were worse things, weren’t there? and he did keep several flashlights on him, and his lighter . . .
the dark hated being seen. being known. there’s something oddly reassuring, about the eye resting on his shoulder. as though it might grant him some modicum of protection.
it’s a stupid thing to trust, of course. but it leaves him idly doodling eyes on his hand as he scans over the list again. his mother liked to try and use the powers against one another, after all. maybe if he could do the same, without her help, it would be a good thing. wouldn’t it? maybe she’d be proud of him.
you’d think after all this time he’d stop being hopeful.
‘ sorry, mike, ‘ his mom says apologetically, setting the pizza box down on the counter. ‘ your dad’s still feeling sick, so until the fridge starts working again, i think we’re gonna be stuck eating takeout for awhile. think you can tough it out for me? ‘
‘ what’s wrong with the fridge? ‘ mike asks, already picking up a piece, idly picking at the crust with his fingers ( as his mom swats at him, tells him to get a plate and sit down, like a civilized person, mike, we have a table for a reason - ). he has a feeling he already knows.
his mom sighs, slumping into the seat at the head of the table, just rubbing her eyes for a moment. ‘ we’re not sure, honestly. we had someone come in to take a look at it, but . . . they said nothing was wrong with it. it’s just - not cold, for some reason. but it means most of the food in it’s gone bad, and the things that might have or might not have, i was advised just to throw out anyway, because we wouldn’t want to risk it. ‘ for a moment, he can see how tired she is, in the way her shoulders slump, in the way she can’t hide the exhaustion from her face for a moment.
‘ i’m sure they’ll figure it out, mom, ‘ he says, and smiles a little, setting down his pizza half-eaten onto his plate. there’s just . . . something about being home, these days, that spoils his appetite. even though the fridge has been cleaned out, the kitchen just still smells of spoiled milk, a little, just a sour undertone that makes it unpleasant to breathe in through his nose. ‘ i just get lunch at school, so i’m never that hungry anyway. ‘
‘ what about the weekends, mike? you need to eat, you know. you look like we’re starving you. ‘
he grins, though it’s not really meant, his thoughts already somewhere else. ‘ i eat when i’m hungry, mom. ‘
she sighs, and walks around the table to rest a hand on his shoulder. ( his good one, at least. the one the fractals don’t curl their way around. she’s known for awhile not to push those boundaries. ) ‘ i just worry about you, sometimes. ‘
me too, he doesn’t say. i’m so afraid of what’s going to happen to me sometimes, mom, that it feels like it’s paralyzing me all over again. i’m desperate to stop worrying. to not have you or dad or i worry about me ever again. there’s something chasing me, even if i’m the only one who sees it.
i’m sorry, he doesn’t say. i worry about you, too. that it’s getting close enough that someone else is going to get caught in those endless, horrible corridors of light.
‘ i’m fine, ‘ he says, eyes soft as he goes to clear his plate, single piece of pizza half-eaten and sliding into the garbage. ‘ really. i’ve been doing well in school and everything. ‘
‘ i know, mike, but - you did run away just a couple of months ago. you have to understand how we feel about that. why that still worries us. ‘
his mouth fills with a sour taste, a sinking something like dread in his stomach, churning and turning over, and he regrets even eating that much. right. they thought he had run away.
( the door wasn’t supposed to be there. when he walked across the sliver of green that was their backyard, pressed his hand to the handle - could anyone blame him for his dazed curiosity, still half asleep? even as the handle shocked him. even as the door closed behind him. that forest full of ozone and branching, blackened trees, and the roiling, constant clouds. it had been so infinite, and he had been afraid, as the roll of thunder seemed to laugh around him, as he followed branching lichtenberg paths through fractalling black branches, one after the other, until there were lightning patterns burning into the back of his eyes. when he found another door back out, they had thought he had run away, and his scar burned, as if it had been branded into him all over again. he had been grounded, but he couldn’t find it in himself to care, staring at the garden’s back wall every night, to see if it would change again. )
they thought he had run away.
as always, there’s that slight, nagging fear in the back of his head - what if you did run away? what if none of it is real? the doors, the lichtenberg figure, the forest you were lost in? what if you’re just losing your mind?
it’s been there since he was eight. even if that - that thing hadn’t, the fear that the world as he saw it wasn’t right had been there ever since he’d heard the doctors speaking around him, over him, in hushed tones, about the neurological effects of the shock, of the potential trauma - it made him afraid, in some lingering part of him, that the world was not as he saw it.
but he couldn’t afford to think like that. he couldn’t.
it was real enough that it blew out four bulbs in their house, electricity pouring through them. real enough that he had tried - first with a knife, then with a dubiously qualified seventeen year old and their makeshift tattoo gun behind the school - to interrupt the fractals, and they had simply returned, growing over the broken or inked skin in those same awful lines. ( and that had been one hell of a talk with the school counselor, when someone saw his side where he had tried to cut through the fractals. but it proved it was real, didn’t it? even if they didn’t have an explanation for why the fractals would grow back. mike did. )
the fact of the matter is. the fact of the matter is.
he needs to answer his mother. he’s let his thoughts wander again, and she’s looking at him, and he needs to be better at this, better at not letting his silences stretch out. ‘ it was a bad choice. ‘ the words exit his mouth, even if it doesn’t feel like he’s the one saying them. ‘ i won’t do it again, mom, i promise. you don’t need to worry about me. ‘ he feels the sides of his cheeks pulling up, and he wonders if she can tell it’s just his muscles working without him. not a real smile. but she seems to relax, brushing a hand over his shoulder.
‘ alright, mike. look - go say goodnight to your dad before you go to your room for the night. he’s really not been feeling too good. ‘
mike’s mouth twists a little, and he thinks of the book underneath his pillow. imagines it reaching out, dripping out from underneath his pillow, soaking into their floors and ceiling and walls, slowly contaminating each of them in turn, and everything in the house. for some reason, he is very, very sure he doesn’t want to walk into his parents’ room right now. ‘ he’s probably sleeping, mom. i don’t want to wake him up. ‘ he slips past her and up the stairs before she can reply, and stands over his bed for a long moment before climbing into it, suddenly tired in a way he doesn’t have words for. he can feel the book under his pillow, in a way more than its shape would explain.
he lets his thoughts wander again.
the fact of the matter is. alright. what are the facts of the matter?
one. there is something chasing me. two. it knows where i live. three. it can do things to me, but it mostly just wants me to be . . . afraid. four. ever since i got the book, it hasn’t been in my dreams. five. the house is rotting.
the last thought rises to his mind almost unbidden, and he swallows, slides his hand under the pillow to reach for the book, with the hand it had . . . burned? rubbed raw? earlier.
what he makes contact with isn’t . . . it isn’t paper, or the leather cover of the book.
it’s organic, and when he touches where the book should be, there’s - something gives, and he can feel - he can feel something viscous and awful coat his fingertips, draws them back immediately in horror to see them covered in a - a red-white something, recognizes it from - it looks like when he had popped an awful zit, when he had watched a horror movie and their skin had bubbled, heating to the point of boils - what had leaked out of the worst of them.
he manages to make it to the bathroom before he vomits.
he scrubs at his hand. and scrubs. until his fingertips are bleeding with how hard he’s washed them. in a moment, he scrambles out of his clothes and stands under the shower water, shuddering at the thought of the - pus, whatever it had been. feeling as though he can’t cleanse the itch that creeps through him from his skin, as though the pus had sunk through his pores, to his very bones, curdling something inside of him.
he sleeps in the bathroom that night, head leaning back against the faint blue paint of the wall, lulled to sleep by the sound of creaking wood, and his dreams are filled with the slow crawl of infection.
he makes certain his mother is asleep when he lets himself back into pinhole books. ( he doesn’t - he doesn’t know how, but he’s always been good at just guessing when she’s in their flat or not, whether she’s asleep or not. he’d like to think his instincts are just good, but he knows too much by now to just credit it to that. ) he doesn’t turn the lights on, doesn’t want to interrupt the fragile peace he has in here at night.
sleep hangs heavily under his eyes as he steps around each creaky board and drawn up ward for unwelcome intruders, his feet going through the motions seemingly independent of him, finding their places even in the dark. he thinks - he thinks he should be able to come back with something tomorrow. the name he had recognized had been from the people’s church, after all. he’s going to need a few more flashlights than he has on him at the moment if he plans on trying to buy or steal something from them. and he’s almost certain about two of the other books on his list - journal of a plague year and the panopticon writings .
it’s a start. there’s something burning quietly in his blood as he opens the door, fingers gently pressed to the hinges so they don’t creak, his boots held in one hand from when he had taken them off at the base of the stairs, their footfall just a little bit too heavy for him to feel comfortable walking around their flat in them when his mother was home.
he lets out a long exhale as the door of his room closes behind him, discarding his boots carelessly on the carpet and shrugging off his jacket, fingers tracing over the eye he had embroidered in the shoulder about two days ago. he rests it over the back of his chair, and as he does, feels a tidal wave of tiredness hit him. it’s hardly the first time he’s pulled all-nighters away from home, trying to pull loose ends together, but, g-d, he hadn’t realized how tired he really was until now, feet and shoulders stiff. he should shower. he . . . will, but later, when he has the energy to walk over to the bathroom and there isn’t anyone to hear the water running.
he doesn’t even bother getting changed, just kicking his jeans off and sliding into bed, realizing he’s still wearing eyeliner. well, if it smudges in the morning, he can just pretend that it’s intentional. tiredly, as he shifts to his side, he wonders about the possible virtues of using sharpie, instead.
he doesn’t dream often. tonight is no different - there are no specifics, no burning nightmares that send him clawing at his sheets when he wakes up. but something . . . something from his dreams lingers, when he wakes. no images, no words, just . . . a feeling that sends the hair on the back of his neck prickling up, as though something is watching him. suspiciously, he eyes the patch he’d sewn onto his jacket, standing up and rolling the stiffness out of his neck as he walks over to trace a thumb over the unevenly embroidered eye.
if something is . . . taking an interest in him, it’s probably something he should try and discourage. or at the very least, it’s - he grimaces at the thought - it’s something he should let his mother know about. if she doesn’t already. if she wasn’t the cause of it.
beholding, huh? he supposes it makes some kind of sense. though he would’ve thought he’d end up aligning with the hunt or the lightless flame before that.
his mother wouldn’t want him to be aligned with one over any of the others. does that mean . . . if it is something, is she going to expect him to actively take the plunge with one of the other powers, to balance it out? to be something more?
he shakes off the question, setting his jacket back over his chair. it was just a feeling, after all. didn’t mean anything.
( of course, he knew by now that there weren’t ever really things that were just feelings. his mother had . . . well, she’d made sure he knew by now to trust his paranoia. he should talk to her about it. he should. but . . . a different kind of unease shifts in his stomach at the idea of that. )
he keeps a copy of their schedule by his bed, which he checks now as he grabs clothes without thinking about them ( it’s all black, anyway, they’ll at least kind of match ), seeing with relief that there aren’t any appointments today. that means pinhole books, at least, will be quiet for the most part - and it is entirely likely his mother will just be out of the house altogether.
g-d, he looks like a disaster. one decent night’s sleep isn’t enough to get rid of the dark bags that have been steadily gouged out under his eyes since he was eight. his dye is starting to wear thin again, too, turning what had been black into a strange kind of purple-blue and showing his light roots. mentally, he jots that down on his agenda for the day.
eat breakfast. find new batteries for all the flashlights. talk to a darkness-worshipping cult about magic books. pick up new black hair dye on the way home.
fuck, he’s tired. add get something caffeinated down to the list, then. wonders if the pack of migraine medication, caffeine and aspirin, under the sink has expired yet, and if it’d be quicker than coffee or an energy drink.
there’s not much in the kitchen in the means of a proper breakfast, but that’s not something he’s unused to, either. leftover pasta from . . . who knows how many nights ago, eaten cold with a lukewarm can of lemonade from the box he keeps under the sink. it’ll do, even if the slimy taste of the cold pasta turns his stomach over a little, thinking of having to deal with the peoples’ church.
( remembers - who knows how old he had been when his mother had met maxwell rayner, but he remembers a cold hand resting on his shoulder and milky white eyes that seemed to stare straight through him nonetheless. remembers being frozen there in fear. there had been some words exchanged, between maxwell and his mother. something about transference. something about - what had he said? his memory is a little faint. something strange. you’ve raised him too close to the light. it sounded . . . regretful, almost. )
which elements were directly counter to the dark? that could be . . . used against them? the eye, maybe. the stranger? if you didn’t know what the dark or what the light were, it would be hard to be afraid of the dark. maybe the desolation, but - they were the lightless flame. nothing to do with the light and protective nature of fire.
he’s got a lighter he never sets down. even if he can’t burn every bad book out there, it provides a modicum of comfort.
the hunt? he could see it being used against or for the dark. the cover of darkness could help so many predators, after all. ( the hunt . . . he could imagine falling to it, sometimes. when his blood rushed in his ears, when he felt so unrepentant about the normal people surrounding him as long as he got the pages he was looking for - they should know better, after all, it hadn’t been his fault that - no, he can’t think about that. )
he wonders what it would be like to just give up to one entity or the other. it had to be much less of a headache than this, at any rate.
his eyes fall idly to the crumpled list he had left by his bedside. the panopticon writings, journal of a plague year. maybe he should look into those a little more thoroughly before going all in for this one. but was it worth it more to have one sure shot and possibly miss the other two? or be prepared for all three, but maybe too late? he couldn’t be indecisive. he couldn’t. but . . .
he sighs, pulling out his notebook again. might as well look into where the buyers lived and what the books would probably do. better to be ready for anything. even well laid plans can go to shit so easily, after all.
mike crew was sitting on the roof.
this is not, for him, an unusual activity. their backyard is not anything more than a tiny sliver of grass, the city throbbing with a dull light against the night sky, so when he feels as though he needs to breathe, he sits up here, free for a brief moment from the claustrophobia. he’s surefooted now, but there had been a few broken bones before that became consistent.
never let it be said he wasn’t persistent.
the house, the inside of the house, still felt somehow . . . unclean. like the air was stifling. and so it just felt easier to breathe, looking up at the sky, even if it seemed like there was now a fetid kind of smell permeating through the walls, clouded around the house itself. ( of course, it might just be his imagination, he says to himself, not without some bitterness. just like the lichtenberg figure and the smell of ozone that had followed him - such an active imagination , people had said, until he got just a little bit too old, a little bit too strange for that, and then they were calling it trauma-induced psychosis, despite mike’s protests that it was neither. )
idly, he picks at the shingles with one of his nails, looking at the few stars that are visible through the light pollution. at what point did the cons here outweigh the pros? the sickness that was sinking into the house, the way his father was restricted to his bed - was this all really worth it?
he considers the alternative. considers voluntarily going back to the creature made of fractals, and though the night is still warm, a shudder wracks his body. the sickness might be . . . well, it might be disgusting, but it’s not something that casts terror into him. he has been able to sleep these past nights. he can trust his own vision for the most part. there is no phantom white hot pain, no fractals creeping up on the corners of everything he knows, patterns swirling themselves out of words and wallpaper that only he could see, those infinite jagged patterns. there are no doors he might never be able to come back out of. no storms no one else can see.
he keeps picking at the shingles. no, it’s for the best that he stick to the book. this was - at least . . . no, he couldn’t stay he understood it. but there was some sickness. some kind of rot. and it was tied to that book. and whatever it was, that force of rot and sickness and decay - while it was in his house, while it wrapped around him, infected him - the lightning could not reach him.
he wondered if there were more out there. like the lightning thing. like the book. inside the cover of journal of a plague year, there had been one of those cards denoting a library, though there weren’t any lines to write names and dates to check it out. the text had almost been eaten away by age and other things, but it said something like: from the library of jurgen lightner? jorgenlitner? jürgein? jorgien? it had been hard to tell whether the two dots over the one letter were intentional accents, or just specks of dirt.
pick. pick. pick. part of the shingle came away under his fingernails, and some part of his brain flooded with a sudden and jarring disgust. it took him a moment, to figure out why that could possibly be. it’s hardly the first time he’s indulged in the idle action. his thumb brushes over the offending shingle, and in a moment, it strikes him.
it hadn’t felt like an innocuous piece of the roof, when he tugged it off with his nail.
it had felt - in a way he couldn’t quite put words to, it felt exactly like pulling off a scab, like digging your nails under the hardened blood clot and picking until it lifted off your skin. that same pull for a moment, as the last piece of skin tried to cling to the edge of the scab.
carefully, slowly, he brushes his fingertips over the spot on the roof where he’d been picking. it takes him a moment, fumbling in the dark, to find where he had been doing something without thinking about it, but he knows when he has.
under the careful press of his thin fingertips, it . . . didn’t feel like roofing tile, where he’d pulled a chunk off. or even whatever was under it, some kind of human construction. no, it felt . . . smooth. slick, almost, like - well. like fresh skin. wet.
the air smells like copper and salt.
his reaction is quick and visceral, wiping his hands frantically on his shorts, picking out whatever of it might linger under his fingernails, flicking it as far away from him as was possible, and pushing himself to a wobbling stand, walking up and across the roof to sit at the peak where it sloped off in both directions, hands hugged tightly to his chest, legs pulled close to his chest so his bare legs would be touching as little of the roof as possible.
he rocks slightly, just a swaying motion of his chest, back and forth. it might not be real. but just because it logically shouldn’t didn’t mean anything. his stomach swims with nausea, a deep disgust as he tries once again to clean out underneath his fingernails, trying to get rid of anything that might linger on his skin. even the smell of blood was wrong. like it had been . . . like it had somehow gone sour. was starting to rot. the longer he sits there, rocking ever so slightly back and forth, the stronger it gets, battering him like a crashing wave, making his vision swim.
he pinches his nose with the hand he hadn’t been using to pick at the shingles, and half walks, half slides down the slope of the roof, hopping off into the tiny patch of ground below, finding some comfort in the swooping feeling of his stomach dropping as he hops over the rain gutter, in the way his knees ache as he lands and pop a little as he stands, straightens. his head has cleared, some, as he brushes his hands down the front of his shirt, looking back up at the muddled sky.
there’s a deep kind of melancholy , in that even his space was taken, bloodied, but - the sky is still clear, despite the air pollution. free of clouds that are not there.
he can find a new place.
still. he walks about halfway down the block in his sleep shorts, to where he knows there’s a water fountain, choosing to wash his hands off there, rather than at home. just . . . just to be safe. he knows, somehow, that he won’t be able to clean it off there. ( he doesn’t have soap or anything, so he just wets his shirt and rubs at his hands until the skin is reddened. it’s all he can do, for now. )
he should . . . work on that essay, probably. he wants to take the wet and fetid shirt off, but . . . he’s still on the street, so. so he walks home in it, sloughing it off like - why did he think like skin, first? gangrenous and rotting - no. the book was getting to him. he pulls on another shirt, and looks blankly at the essay prompt again.
the words stare accusingly back at him, the paper curling with mildew. mike’s eyes scans them, but finds himself unable to focus on any one of them, thoughts still bouncing back and forth. he crumples it back into his bag, flopping on his back on his bed with a sigh.
he couldn’t control this. it was . . . it was more control than he had over the lightning thing, and he could escape it when he wasn’t at home, but he couldn’t decide what the decay did. it couldn’t last, and he . . . in some part of him, he knows that. what is he meant to do, in the long term? could he really live like this forever? the rot, the sickness, the insects that had started creeping across the floorboards since he began reading - he wasn’t afraid of them, but they made his stomach churn with disgust.
he turns onto his stomach, thoughts stormy, kneading the pillow under his chin idly, feeling the vague shape of the book underneath it where the corners jab his thin ribs. think logically about this. if there were lightning creatures bound to doors and fractals, and there were . . . there was something that was made up of decay and disease, and the presence of one negated the other. logically, that probably meant there were more things like this out there. gods or magic or powers. maybe there was something out there that wasn’t storms or rot, that could save him. he could cling to the sickness until he found something else, something that he could . . . something that he could control. that felt better than this.
but where would he look? the lichtenberg figure was attached to his scar, he was sure of that. but that wasn’t something he could replicate. were there more books out there that could be helpful? that could have this kind of power behind them?
he sits up, tired of tossing and turning, and pulls the book out from under his pillow again, carefully opening the cover, thumb rubbing over the faded stamp inside of it. from the library of jurgein leitner.
it was a name that meant nothing to him. but it was someplace to start, wasn’t it? maybe if he could talk to leitner if he was still alive, or find more of those books . . . maybe that would be a good place to start. journal of a plague year was from the eighteenth century, so maybe it would be good to look for more old books, a thought that in and of itself makes him wince in a way that has nothing to do with magic. old books would be expensive if he couldn’t find them in the library, and he only had so much money from allowance and working odd summer jobs.
whatever. he’d manage it. if he had to steal, he thinks . . . he thinks he could manage that, as well. so that would be something else to learn. not just about who leitner was, but - where you had to go, to find old books. how to find books like this. what they meant. how to steal.
it’s a place to start. but for now, he supposes the rot protects him, like a festering kind of cocoon.
he carefully places the book on the floor beside his bed, smoothing his scabbed fingertips over the age-worn cover before lying back. as he settles into a fetid and restless sleep, he is almost lulled by the sound of the house creaking, settling. it would be comforting, if it wasn’t creaking so much more than usual.
still, he’s asleep long before he has to think about it.
the day is too fucking hot. it’s not that much out of the average, and might’ve even been considered a pleasant day by some. but for gerry, who had had to walk almost three miles thus far from the nearest bus stop, and who was wearing all black, the sun beaming down gently was an annoyance at best. irritably, he tugs on the long strands of his hair and all its split ends, fingers pulling it together and tying it in a bun off his neck with a rubber band. yeah, he’d regret that later, but he hadn’t thought enough ahead to remember to grab a fucking hairband, had he? no, he had been thinking about normal things to bring, like whether or not it’d be good to tear a page out of another cursed book for protection while he looked for this one.
at least his hair being off his neck brings some relief.
he slides the jacket off his shoulders, tying it around his waist. it’s a little clumsy, the leather not really wanting the sleeves to knot, but he’s no longer worried he’s going to die of heatstroke, the sun much more bearable when the faint breeze brushed past the fine sheen of sweat on his now-bare shoulders.
thank g-d he remembered to bring his cd player this time. he’s got it turned up high enough that, from the looks of people he passes on the sidewalk, they can hear it through his headphones. makes it a little bit easier not to care about the way people look at him, or how little they know. and makes the walking that much more bearable, something to focus on other than the way heat clings to black clothing, black hair, metal jewelry.
he really kind of picked a cool-weather aesthetic to go for, hadn’t he?
the woman who had bought the panopticon writings clearly didn’t want to talk to him. something she tries to make clear in every way except for saying it outright; her comments curt and biting, her eyes constantly shifting over her shoulder, her shoulders tense. for his piece, he tries not to let his own impatience show, but it slips, his arms crossed, finger tapping on his upper arm.
you brought home one of the books, he says, and really, that should be easy enough to know even for people who were more ignorant of this world than him and his mother. but for all the good it does, he might as well be speaking the language of the spiral, with how confused she looks. there’s a flash of recognition in her eyes when he says the panopticon writings, so at least he’s not just in the wrong place altogether.
struck by a sudden inspiration, he tucks his hands into his pockets, and does his best to look apologetic. ‘ leitner was my mum’s brother. i never met him, but she always . . . she gets really excited about finding any of his books. that’s all this is about, i swear. i brought money and everything, to see if i could get it from you, i just . . . heard some of his books got scattered out again. can i just see if it’s from his collection? ‘
that, at least, she allows him, with one more wary look over her shoulder, setting the book down on the center island in her kitchen, cover faintly reflected in the brightly polished the marble. gerry reaches for it, but hesitates, and tugs his jacket off his waist, shrugging it on again as though just an idle motion, before opening the book, fingers running over the inscription some part of him had known was going to be there. from the library of jurgein leitner.
he bites the inside of his cheek to keep from grinning outright, keeping it down to a polite smile, and flips through the first few pages of the book, only briefly scanning through the words - he wants to test something.
finding the place where the first chapter ends, he lets his fingers pause there for a moment, and his eyes dart to the sewn one on his jacket shoulder. and a moment later, like ice beginning to thaw, the hairs on the back of his neck stand up, one by one, as though very slowly being subjected to something’s gaze. definitely the eye, then. and it looked like he might . . . definitely have accidentally invocated it.
hopefully that proves more of a good thing than bad.
he flips back to the inscription bearing leitner’s name and offers a polite smile. ‘ how much did you pay for it? i can give more than that, i’m pretty sure. ‘ the number she lists is - modest, really, for a leitner. whoever had been leading that estate sale definitely didn’t know what they had, then. he fishes around the inside of his jacket, pulling out a small stack of bills that’s almost triple the number she listed, and setting them on the table, quickly picking up the book and half-running to the door before she has a chance to reply. he’s pretty sure she says something on his way out, but the door is shutting behind him and she’s dismissed quickly from his mind.
it’s instinct that makes him break into a run as soon as he turns a corner, no longer visible from her house. she had never agreed outright, but the transaction should still be valid. hopefully, given the amount of money he’d left with her, it’d keep her from contacting the police. or something like that. still, he stays in a run, book clutched firmly to his chest, until the bus stop is in view again. his back is drenched in sweat, and he regrets not taking the jacket back off, the leather sticking to his skin when he shifts his head. still. it’s . . .
he sits down on the bus stop’s bench, crossing one leg over the other. still, it’s something. he can feel a burning curiosity emanating from the book he holds, almost searing - in his chest, in his throat, against his shoulder, whispering at him to just open the book. to know. knowledge was power, after all, and there certainly couldn’t be any harm in just reading a few pages. he did draw on the eye, didn’t he? why not feed what fed him? there couldn’t be anything to lose from -
he stuffed the book somewhat gracelessly into his bag, zipping it up with a grim kind of resolve.
‘ no thanks, ‘ he mutters, pulling his cd player back out and looking up the road, waiting for the bus to come.
( sure, it was tempting. but not enough for him to risk it. he wasn’t stupid enough to ever actually use one of these books on his own, especially without knowing exactly what it did. )
not everyone, however, is at the liberty of making that choice.
there’s a slight rainfall today, waking mike up with a jerk at the sound of the drops hitting the roof, the heavy smell of damp leaking through his walls, mixing with the rotten aura that surrounds the house, giving his room the smell and climate of a bog, air heavy on his skin, making his shirt cling to his back. he wrinkles his nose in distaste at the humidity, stifling a yawn as he looks out the window. it doesn’t look like it’s morning yet, the sky dark with more than just the cloud cover.
still, he doesn’t think he’ll be able to go back to sleep.
it’s a pretty old house. he pays no mind to the sound of it settling, creaking against the rain and the wind, as he steps out of bed, padding barefoot across the floor of his room, rubbing his eyes with the back of his hand. he attributes the damp feeling, at first, to the humidity, to the sweat still lingering on his body, to the window that had been left open just a crack. nothing really out of the ordinary.
he’s thinking about whether it would be a good idea to have breakfast now or wait until later, when it was a reasonable time of the morning, when he steps forwards and his foot breaks through the wooden floorboards of his room, the wood giving way. like a log long since downed, half-rotted. there’s a split of pain running through him, splinters digging into his ankles, into the bottoms of his feet, where his leg breaks through. the house is - it’s quiet, now, even the gentle creaking of it stopped as mike’s heart rises in his throat, trying to slip his leg back out of the hole it punched in the floor, wiggling it slightly, this way and that, to no avail.
he digs his nails into his palms hard, hard, swallowing down a sudden panic, and rather than trying to maneuver his leg out of the hole, just yanks hard, feeling the rotten planks drag against his skin.
for a moment, it seems like it might work, foot almost jerking up out of the hole.
and then mike stumbles forwards, and his leg falls back through, up to the thigh.
the last thing mike remembers before the sharp pain in the back of his head is a low, rotten groan, and the sudden, lurching feeling of falling.
‘ oh, ‘ mary says, with a gleam like tempered steel to her eyes - muted, but all the more deadly for it. he had long since learned to read the tells of her excitement, learned how to separate genuine passion from mania - the way her eyes light up, how they turn in the corners, the way her hands shook when she was frustrated but not when she was in joy, the turn to the crow’s feet around her eyes that made her look so deceptively harmless when she was riding some manic, furious kind of energy. ‘ oh, this is wonderful. well done, gerard. ‘
the words are for the books, not for him. she doesn’t even deign to let her eyes flick over to him, leathery fingers already pressing to the inked words as though she could tear them off the page and make them dance for her. ( given what gerard had seen some of these books do, that wouldn’t even be too outlandish. )
she’s already half-gone into a stream of words muttered to herself, but she does . . . she pauses for a moment, and smooths a hand over his head, over his hair. ( he knows he needs to dye it again, and this only cements the thought in his mind. the bright ginger of his roots is showing under the fading black, and though his mother’s hair has mostly gone grey or white, the few streaks of color that remain in her own would be perfectly matched, if you checked on a palette. yes, it’s definitely time to dye again. ) ‘ i’m proud of you. ‘
was she? or was it . . . was her pride in him a kind of hubris, too? was she proud of herself, for turning gerard into something she could use?
he shakes off the thought and the queasy feeling it brings with it, swallowing once.
it’s only then that the thought occurs to him that his mother had had to reach up to reach the top of his head.
that he’s getting to be taller than her is such a tiny victory, but it does set something alight in his chest for just a second as he rocks back and forth on the thick soles of his boots, still standing in their central room even as his mother is bustling about the room. he could help her. she might even be glad for his presence.
but, he could also . . . if she was wrapped up in this, she would be far too focused on it to think about him for a while now. that wasn’t just time he could waste.
when he stops rocking on the balls of his feet, the direction he’s turned, the direction he begins walking in, is with his back to his mothers’ workshop.
be at home in the rot and the filth and the sickness. let the disease find its way into your skin, into your tissue, into your bones into your flesh into your heart. feel yourself swell with pus and feel your skin fester and peel off your body feel your blood curdling in your veins feel your skin sweat with fever and your vision go blurry and feel the way your throat itches and your stomach churns.
so hypochondriac fancies represent
ships, armies, battles in the firmament;
till steady eyes the exhalations solve,
and all to its first matter, cloud, resolve.
so habitation come, where it is blest
rage effluvia, the joiner’s work distressed
in shaking hands, steeped from the bone
wherein a burying ground, a hospice, a home.
the home is consumed the father is consumed the mother is consumed. they all know how to bow out gracefully. their bodies will be the homes for a hundred thousand thousand crawling things, a fermenting breeding ground for diseases that have never and will never have a name. you will be a pioneer of decay. just. give. in. give in to the sickness. stop fighting. stop fighting. give up your resolve.
the first thing mike crew is aware of upon stirring is the pain. the second is the smell.
like sour food and vomit and rotting roadkill and sickness, fetid and crawling up his nose as though it had a mission to settle into his brain, as though the smell itself were some sentient, malicious thing. he tries to take in a deep breath through his mouth, not wanting to smell it any longer than he needs to, and pain lances through his chest. his ribs - are they broken? how is he supposed to check?
his hand reaches out blindly, scrabbles to find some kind of purchase, and sinks into - sinks through - something, a stagnant sort of mud that adheres to his arm as though swallowing it whole and stinks of disease and septic foundations, and mike tries to hold back the thick wave of nausea that climbs up his chest, but it takes on a life of its own. like jonah and the whale, like his sick is clawing its way out of him.
he throws up down the front of his shirt. it’s not as though there’s room to do it anywhere else.
the coffee shop is across the street from pinhole books, and gerard’s something of a regular there now - enough so that most of the baristas don’t look at him like he’s going to steal something, that kind of glance out of the side of their eyes. normally - he doesn’t really like paying for personal things with the money mary gives him to hunt books down. he doesn’t know where it comes from, and it makes him feel . . . skeezy. but he can’t really find it in himself to care, buying a hot chocolate and pointing at one of the pastries in the glass casing without really looking, mumbling a thanks as he goes to sit down in one of the booths, hands warm around his drink.
as soon as he’s sitting in the booth, the tension he holds in his body whenever he’s in pinhole books drops out of him, his bones almost sag out under him, eyes fluttering shut. the cafe is warm, and smells like coffee, a chatter of quiet background conversation and the faint drone of the one tv playing the news almost lulling him off, head drooping some before shaking himself out of it, blinking repeatedly.
g-d, he hadn’t realized how tired he was. probably should have gotten something caffeinated. maybe - maybe next time. a yawn rips out of him, and he grinds the heel of his palm into his eyes. they feel sandy, almost, grit collecting in their corners like the way flowing water picks up sediment. he takes a gulp of his drink and feels it burn his mouth, running the tip of his tongue idly over his gums, behind his front teeth, the way the skin peels there a little bit with the heat of the liquid. even if it is too hot, it’s relaxing by association. he only ever comes here when he has the time to relax, which is . . . it’s sparse, to say the least.
gerard keay has never been to a proper school, but he can’t imagine any of the teenagers who do ever feeling this tired. not in the same way - insomnia haunts everyone, he knows full well, but not this existential kind. a fear of sitting down for too long, in case his legs gave out underneath him like worn chair legs and his momentum stops entirely. a kind of tired from knowing too much.
his elbows prop up on the table, chin resting on the top of the cup, feeling the steam heat his face.
he’s not sure when his eyelids drift shut initially, but he’s woken up when he turns his head at something in his drowsy half-sleep, and the weight of the cup tilts just a little too much, spilling the now-cold liquid all down his front. it brings him back to reality with a start, looking forlornly at his jeans, at the place where the hot chocolate continues to trickle off the corner of the table for a long moment, to just mire in his bad luck. he gives himself a whole two seconds of self-pity and focus lost to the void before standing up to get two giant handfuls of napkins.
and a new drink. this one caffeinated.
disgruntled and damp, he idly wrings out his shirt, patting at it with the napkins. hopes it doesn’t stain. picks at the barely-there chips of his nail polish and gulps down the espresso-heavy drink, nose wrinkling at the bitter taste. the pastry he’d bought earlier is a little soggy in the corners, some of his drink having spilled over it, but he’s never been picky.
something - something itches, at the back of his mind. not quite the feeling of being watched - that he’d gotten used to, to an extent. but something like . . . like a word on the tip of his tongue, like he was forgetting something. irritated, he begins to shred the wax paper the pastry had been wrapped in, digging at the mental block as he chews the inside of his cheek.
‘ fat load of help you are, ‘ he mutters to the eye shaped patch on his jacket, and immediately feels a little bit foolish for it. he plucks at the threads idly. he’s been . . . trying to pick at the eye recently. but he thinks if he could be inclined to anything, it’d just as easily be the hunt or the desolation. maybe that can be his next project, if he’s not stuck hunting for stupid books again. finding some way to use those without being used. he’s pretty sure his mother has vampire teeth, somewhere in the store . . .
his leg bounces, and it isn’t quite up to him. agitated with a live-wire energy. logicially, it could be chalked up to the caffeine. but he’s got a better grip on his own senses by this point ( at least, he fervently hopes so. the fact that he’s still alive is a good sign for that. )
he stands in a sudden, jolting motion. to hell with it. he’s not going back home. because he’s still restless, because he feels like he’s not done yet. there’s no other reason. of course there’s no other reason. if he shoves the crumpled cup into the bin with a little bit more force than is necessary, that’s neither here nor there.
the other one on the list, now he’d found the panopticon writings. might as well finish the job.
for a moment, he considers returning to pinhole books to get his bag, his cd player, but his legs seem to have a mind of their own, wandering half-aimlessly towards the bus station. at least he remembers the address. how to get there. he’s always had a good memory. not much of a choice in the matter. wryly, he supposes he should thank her for that when he gets back home.
and so it’s in a half-asleep haze, legs fueled by impulse and half-carried on the night air, that gerry ambles down one street and then the next, to where the crews live. he thinks he remembers which house is theirs - the real problem is going to be how the hell to start a conversation with the sun setting fast, with him looking even more of a delinquent than usual. whatever. he’d work it out. if nothing else, he could . . .
somehow, he thinks he might be overthinking things.
the sun is setting, the light dimming by the minute, and the street lamps here are pretty few and far between. but gerry doesn’t need them to see by, with the crowd gathered - all flashing sirens and industrial strength torches.
curious, gerard ambles across the street, hands tucked into the pockets of his jacket, trying to look like he belongs there. not an easy thing to do, of course, but with this amount of chaos, no one was paying attention to some lanky teenager. carefully, he edges his way around the clustered handfuls of people to get an eyeful.
at first, he isn’t sure what he’s looking at. just that it reeks. a garbage dump, maybe? a demolition gone sour? and then his eyes dart to either side of . . . whatever this is, whatever must have used to be a home, and gerard mutters out a string of curse words, apparently loudly enough that he gets a scathing look from one of the gathered neighbors. he assumes they’re neighbors, at least. he gives her a defiant stare right in return, before chewing on his lip, looking over the fucking mess he supposes he might actually have to get involved in now.
because, judging by the numbers of the adjacent houses, this used to be where the crews lived.
he’s been fading in and out of consciousness for the past . . . hm. he doesn’t know how long it’s been. there’s no way of telling, barely able to keep his head above the muck, let alone try and see a patch of light that might indicate what time it was. there’s . . . alright. alright. what can he move, right now?
he goes through a quick checklist - his head, he can lift a little bit, turn it to one side, though turning it to the other sends pain rippling through his shoulder, his upper arm. his right arm he still has control over, though there’s nothing he can use for any traction, nothing he could use to pull himself out from under the rubble, or an easy path out. his left leg - he can’t feel, which . . . probably isn’t good. from the sharp pain lancing across his hip, he thinks it might be stuck under something. it’s probably just fallen asleep. g-d, he hopes it’s only fallen asleep.
he can feel parts of himself . . . he doesn’t have the words for it. it’s not something that can be described in words. but he’s acutely, viscerally aware of the way that there are things crawling over his left arm, that some of them stung him while he faded back out, and his head fills with images of eggs laid inside his body, with the mental image of swelling bites that leak with a green-sick pus, the size of ten-pence coins. something in his head that does not belong to him whispers about the way his shirt is a little ridden up, leaving a stripe across his stomach, bare skin pressing into the diseased foundations of his house. he can’t see it, obviously, but somehow - somehow he knows, his skin is rotting. swelling against the infection, turning reddened and flaking off of him, the moisture and the rot accelerated, and he thinks of what it would feel like, to have a stripe of gangrene across him. to feel his body die, piece by agonizing piece.
don’t worry, the words in his head that do not belong to him whisper. you can still hold life.
and he becomes deeply aware of the sounds surrounding him. the pulsing, buzzing, beating noise of a hundred thousand insects chewing through rotten foundations, through wooden beams, through bodies, through him. hundreds and hundreds of lives working and moving around him. his stomach twists, and it’s not all disgust. chewing through bodies. through bodies.
where are his parents?
he is aware of the sounds that fill this place that was once a home. aware of the creaking of every splinter and the sound of his own heart beating and the sound of a hundred things slithering, crawling, biting, and the sound, he could swear, of his own skin peeling -
there is not the sound of anyone else breathing.
there is not - he doesn’t think - he can’t have - and his nails scrabble for purchase in the diseased wood, good leg kicking out wildly, thrashing in the fetid muck as he tries to push himself out, feeling something tear at his skin, rusted to a sharp point, feels his leg cry out in pain and feels the foundations shake as he squirms, as though he were one of the insects surrounding him, foot trying to brace on something. anything.
it’s not working. all he’s doing is shifting the rubble above him, and when a heavy section of piping drops on his shoulder blade as he tries to pull himself out, he’s forced to try and stop moving, teeth gritting so hard he wonders if there are cracks in the enamel, breaths ragged and shallow. he can’t see, he can’t - he can’t move, he can’t . . .
he forces himself to breathe. to not think about what he’s done, what he’s done, his parents are somewhere under here and he knows it was his fault, even if he didn’t know what it was he was doing, they’d be alive if he hadn’t brought that book home, and he knows, just like he knows there’s some thing burrowing into the soft skin of his calf, just like he knows the house is still rotting around him - he knows they can’t be saved.
he wonders whether it’s better or worse if they died when the house collapsed. the alternative is . . . drowning in this dank mud? being completely eaten alive by the insects that at least seem to be mostly ambivalent to mike? limbs swelling with rapid and indescribable disease, choking on their own blood? no. no! he can’t think about this. he can’t, he can’t, he can’t.
he closes his eyes and focuses once again on what he can hear. it’s the one sense he can trust, right now - everything is dark, the air smells like sewage and rot, pain lances through his body from a hundred different points that ache and jab and sting whenever he twists or a muscle twists or he so much as moves, and he doesn’t even want to think about what taste would be like, in this situation.
okay. buzzing, clicking, crawling, shifting. the sounds of rot and decay. the steady drip of broken septic systems. no heartbeats save his own, irregular and adrenaline-fast and terrified, fluttering in his aching ribs. a slow tearing sound that - it has to be in his own head, right? as one of the pieces of debris over him shifts, almost lazily. mike hopes, possibly futilely, that the sound isn’t the tearing of his own skin. everything is such a haze of infection-ridden pain that he can’t tell.
and, something else.
far away, as though listening to something miles away, he can hear - motion. voices. machinery, maybe?
the sound of something moving, above him.
something like hope rises in his fevered chest, and he scrabbles to get his head as far out of the muck as possible, swallowing past his dry and swollen throat. ‘ help! i’m still down here! i’m alive! help! help! ‘ it becomes wordless very quickly, just whatever noises he can get through his chest, his throat, an incoherent yelling for someone to know where he is. the house creaks around him, as though displeased, something dripping down his back, a trickle from . . . something above him. he refuses to think about what it might be. doesn’t want to know how much of the blood-smell hanging in the air belongs to the house itself, or himself, or his . . . or. he swallows. casts it aside, shifts his tongue in his mouth, trying to work up enough saliva to swallow it, ease the swollenness of his throat, before yelling out again, writhing his shoulders back, forth, back, against the way the disintegrating foundations seem to want to swallow him.
is this not your home? why not let it act as a home? it could be your home. the voice in his head croons, and the bugs skittering over him dig a little deeper into his arms, crawling with some effort into his shoes, making his feet blister and swell. it could be your home, the voice says again, pounding in his ears loud enough to drown out the sound of his own heart’s erratic beating, loud enough to drown out the noise of the people digging through the rubble, coming to help him.
‘ this isn’t my home, ‘ he chokes out through grit teeth. and somehow - somehow he knows it. his stomach flips, repulsion crawling through his blood even more quickly than the rot, but it doesn’t - it doesn’t awaken anything in him. there’s nothing but that disgust. ‘ i’m not yours. ‘
he can feel himself twitching, muscles spasming with some impulse that doesn’t belong to him, every nerve ending twanging like a violin’s strings. his skin crawls, and he can’t - he can’t separate what is just his skin crawling, his body twitching, shivering, convulsing, the sickness flooding his thin body, and how much of it is things crawling on or under his skin.
it doesn’t hurt as much as being struck by lightning. or maybe it does, but - not in the same way. not in the same burning, paralyzing way. the thought makes him laugh, a shaky and breathless thing, somewhere on the edge of hyperventilation. it doesn’t hurt as much as being struck by lightning.
which means he can survive this. which means he will survive this.
it’s then, with that conviction in mind, that michael crew manages to wiggle himself enough to tip his head to the side, one cheek pressed to the fetid bog that still wants to consume him. that won’t be able to. and through the shifting rubble, there is the first peek of the sky.
cloudless. the stars are out. the sliver he can see it through is barely bigger than his pinkie finger.
but it means something like freedom.
the crowd swells and dissipates in turn as the hours tick by, the rescue team making slow progress, especially when it had seemingly been called in as a biohazard. people drift away or go back home, or come out of their houses to ogle the workers. for his part, gerard just - sits on the sidewalk curb and does his best to appear nonchalant, eyes locked on the slowly shifting pile of rubble.
he wonders if they know there’s a pretty low chance anyone actually made it out of this mess. entertains the thought, for a moment, of telling them that outright. he doesn’t know a lot about this book in particular, but it looks ( and smells, he hasn’t breathed in through his nose in what must have been hours ) like a real nasty one. he can’t say he envies david crew.
so it’s to his surprise - almost more than anyone’s - when a voice, choked and weak though it may be, comes out from beneath the rubble, something that makes him hop to his feet, irritated at the poor view he’s able to get from here. a few well-placed elbows gets him close enough to see the hubbub of activity from the rescue team. he’s glad for his too-gangly height. if he cranes his neck enough, he can see through the rubble, though it’s being picked through excruciatingly slowly, brick by diseased brick, so as not to send the rotten foundations crumbling down even further.
‘ look - ‘ he finds himself hissing, pointing - they’re dragging someone out, two people in hazmat suits, pulling them up to the rubble, and gerry can hear the murmur of the crowd tick up as they carefully climb out. he tries to look, but only gets a glimpse of the person - slight form, dark hair - before -
well, it’s not the first time he’s seen a corpse.
but from the reactions of everyone here, when the hazmat team zippers the person they had dragged out from the ruins into a body bag, that’s not a common experience. mass panic rises like a beating pulse, and gerard rolls his eyes. how sheltered did you have to be? ( it’s not the first time he’s ever seen a body. he doubts it’ll be the last. he remembers the first time, remembers his mother telling him to never assume that this is the last body he’ll ever see, because if it is, it means, logically speaking, his own death will be next. and it’s that sentiment that drifts in the back of his mind, watching them load the body bag into the stretcher with a vague sort of half-interest. not like there’s anything he can learn from them. )
and for a moment, there’s quiet, save for the sounds of the rescue team continuing to slowly work through the rubble. the quiet of tens of breaths held, eyes all fixated intently on the scene even as the cops continued to try and push back the crowd. absently, gerry scratches his arm.
the sound that breaks through it isn’t quite the word ‘help’, but it could be mistaken for it, if you were generous enough. like someone was trying to gargle with a mouthful of gravel.
the rescue team enters the wreckage, pulls back to clear some of the debris, enters again, looking like ants, if they were dismantling their anthill rather than building it up. gerry wrinkles his nose, looking at the corruption-marked land. maybe not with the insect metaphors, then.
it’s painfully slow going, with nothing to show for their work but more armfuls of rubble. every so often, there will be a lull in activity, stepping out of the wreckage altogether, and that voice pipes up again. there’s coughing, a horrible sounding thing, for two minutes, before it falls silent, and the next time, the words are clear. ‘ i’m here! help me! ‘
the rescuers offer platitudes as they continue to dig through to the voice, like we’re here, and we’re coming and other similarly useless sentiments. gerry just wonders if the corruption is going to take this last person before they get to him.
somehow, it doesn’t seem like it.
he’s in the ambulance almost the second they get him out, so gerry doesn’t get a good look at him. only a few things stand out - how small he is. the fact that he’s absolutely filthy, dirt and rot and blood soaking through his clothes. the hair, dark and matted to his head with blood. and - before they put him in the ambulance, there’s one more thing that catches gerard’s attention.
he shifts his head, on the stretcher, and before the doors close, gerard sees a web of silver scar tissue climbing up the side of his face like the thin branches of a dead tree.
and then the ambulance is wailing down the street, carrying him away. the rescue team still works through the wreckage, but gerard turns away, hands in his pockets, walking to go find some fresh air. he has a feeling that even if the body they find under there is moving, it’ll only be the skin writhing from the insects that fill it.
g-d, he hates the corruption.
his hospital room doesn’t have a window.
he’s not sure why that’s the first thing he notices, upon waking, but it irks him, the claustrophobia swelling his throat in a way things seldom do - except for. except for the smell of ozone. that does it, sometimes. but this - he starts coughing, fingers digging into his sheets. like he can’t breathe. why can’t he breathe?
the house. it had - g-d, it had been so dark. the space he had been stuck in crushing him. he - it feels like that now. the space too small. too small, even if it’s a whole room, even if he can breathe now, it feels like his chest is collapsing, like the walls are closing in on him. it’s a room now, but his own had been, too, hadn’t it? all it had taken was that one moment of a little bit too much weight in the wrong place, and - and -
he’s relieved for it, when something cold trickles through his iv, and slowly, things fade again.
g-d, he wishes it were easier to measure the time, here. he doesn’t know what day it is. he didn’t when he was trapped, and he doesn’t now, and he keeps fading in and out. there are. he hears people speaking over him, but he tunes them out. the room they’re keeping him in now has a window, and he keeps it open, soothed by the breeze. though. the moment a fly buzzes in, lands on his nose, he shuts it again rapidly.
the buzzing. he could swear he still hears it sometimes, in his bad ear. like an echo of a thing, like it’s digging through to his core.
the smell of the hospital starts to be less and less one of lemon-scented floor cleaner and sterility, and more and more just of sickness, that sweet stench that pervades the air.
his parents are dead. they tell him that, the first time he’s conscious for longer than two hours at a time, and he looks at them blankly. he knew that already, of course, but it’s - somehow, this is worse. people in suits and artificial sympathy calling him son, like i’m sorry, son, or son, i know this has to be hard on you, and so on is - it’s worse. it’s worse.
it’s worse because of their sympathy. it’s his fault. he tries to mumble that once, his mouth fuzzy with painkillers, but the words don’t come out right. a nurse runs a hand over his head, the drops of sweat there, and tells him of course it’s not your fault, don’t be silly, and that’s worse than anything. because it is, it is, it is.
guilt feels like an iron weight in his chest. like someone wrapped a hook around his ribcage and tied it off to an anchor, and he’s being pulled in the other direction. like it could tear him apart from the inside.
even with the window, the room feels too cramped, now. like it just reminds him of how - like it makes it even harder to breathe. they’ve said something about his ribs, that they are bruised or broken, but he doesn’t - it doesn’t matter to him. it doesn’t feel as bad as the utter truth of it all; that he’s alone now.
where is he supposed to go, after this? what is he meant to do?
that was his home, and his family, and - honestly, he was already doing pretty badly at school even before this, and who knows how long he’s missed, now, or what the plan is for him, and it was his fault.
he doesn’t - he doesn’t know which feels worse.
the guilt, the solid and present burning ache of it, or the relief, sick in its presence, settles in his throat and makes him gag. relief that even now, there are no more lichtenberg figures. it still - it’s still helping him. and that relief, paired with the bile in his throat, makes him gag, blinking at the ceiling wordlessly. he thinks he would vomit, if he’d had the appetite to eat anything at all.
the book is still helping him. the book is still helping him, and it killed his parents, and he feels relieved that the lightning hasn’t come back to haunt him.
he knows what he’s going to do. as soon as he can walk, he knows in which direction he’s headed.
the house is quiet, now.
there is a kind of life, to decay. to rot and the things that crawl in it. but even that has quieted, the faint buzz only audible if you came close to the heap of rubble and congealed, unidentifiable fluids. a soft hum of moving wings, of hundreds of legs, like the faintest beat of a pulse.
gerard can just about hear it from where he’s standing, across the way, nose wrinkled as he tries to consider the best means of approaching the house. his hands stink of petrol, and his thumb keeps brushing over the lighter in his pocket - burning, at least, if it comes to it, is usually antithetical to the corruption. might help him, if this is going to be a long search. the idea of having to dig for a book in the collapsed mess of a house would be impossible, if it weren’t for the nature inherent to these books.
they wanted to be found. to be read.
it won’t be so far buried in the rot and in the diseased foundations of the place that it could never be retrieved - to do so would be to negate its own power. to render itself useless. so it will be retrievable.
that doesn’t mean, however, that it’ll be a fun job.
gerry’s wearing clothes he doesn’t mind burning afterwards, high rainboots that come up to his knees and that he sprayed with every kind of disinfectant and bug killer imaginable. still, they can only do so much when confronted with . . . this. he shudders a little bit, skin crawling just at the thought of having to get down into that buzzing, stinking mess.
g-d, he hates the corruption.
he’s just about to approach the warning tape that surrounds the place, gratingly yellow and warning about the potential hazmat dangers, when something tells him to wait. logically, he’s pretty sure he must have heard the change in the level of noise - the faint background buzz of insects, the far-off noise of the city, broken by something else, the uneven footsteps of someone walking as quickly as they could while favoring one leg. carefully, gerry slides back to the shadow cover of the tree he had been leaning against, watching curiously as someone - what, his age? looks over each shoulder, setting a backpack down on the curb adjacent to the house, untying a dark red scarf from around his neck and shoving it into the pack.
gerard’s eyes narrow slightly, taking in the slight form, the dark curly hair - and when the boy turns his head and the dull streetlight-glow catches it just right, the rigid silver band of scar tissue, reflecting the light in fractal patterns. like a lightning bolt set in skin.
huh. so he hadn’t died after all. gerard has to admit, he hadn’t been expecting that. this looked to be a particularly nasty case of the corruption, and it had seemed like he’d been caught right in the middle of it. not to mention - the book hadn’t been destroyed yet, or anything. gerard had expected him to go the same way as his parents.
what was his name, again? it had been mentioned on the few news channels that covered the events. michael crew, if he remembers right. the one person to have survived the house’s initial collapse. so. what was he doing here?
the methodical way michael crew empties out his bag, and the things inside don’t really clear up anything. two towels. a container of . . . bleach? bandages. a pair of pants. two pairs of medical gloves. a bottle of something - antiseptic, maybe? rubbing alcohol? from where he stands, gerry can’t really tell.
he realizes what, exactly, michael crew planned to do about two minutes before he actually does it. the answer is a simple one, after all.
he is going to do the exact same thing gerard had come here to do.
he considers stopping him for a moment. but something - something told him to wait, instead. after all, there might be a chance michael knows where the book is, and it might be easier to take it from him than the depths of the corruption. he is a solid foot shorter than gerard, and a skinny little bastard to boot. ( he reminds himself not to underestimate michael; he had survived the corruption so far, after all, and plenty of people made the mistake of overlooking gerard himself, but . . . really, michael had just had a house fall on him a couple days back. gerard can’t imagine he’s really in fighting shape. )
michael ducks under the strung-up police tape, and for a second, gerard considers the idea of warning him.
he doesn’t, of course, but for a second he imagines how that conversation might go. imagines helping someone, for once. ( it’s not what they do. his mother has said as much. helping people, especially people who couldn’t be trusted to make good choices, could just drag you down with them. )
and so he watches as mike crew takes the first few steps into the fetid wreck of his home, beginning by walking carefully along a haphazard support beam strewn over the wreckage.
imagine walking a balance beam. not exceptionally hard, unless you’re particularly uncoordinated.
now imagine walking one with an uphill slope, even a slight one, and so covered in rot that your feet could slip at any moment, the wood crumbling away under each step you take.
this is the position mike finds himself in now, carefully placing one foot in front of the other as he edges, sidelong, across the support beam, using it to get across the first part of the muck, over the crumbled rubble that had once been his front door, the hallway behind it. even with the noseplugs he has in, and the medical mask he hid in his bag from the hospital, the place reeks, the protective measures he’s taken only making it all the harder to breathe in the stagnant air.
he wants to block out the sound of the insects, of the creaking wood, but he suspects even if he plugs his ears, it would be more . . . in his head than anything else. just being here makes the feeling of something crawling under his skin come back tenfold, imagining layers of mold like the ones that clung to the pieces of wall or ceiling here building up under his skin. he frowns, kicking a stray piece of debris into the rest of the house.
he remembers taking the book out from under his pillow, resting it on the floor. had that been - was that what made this happen? the final straw? had he let it spread to the rest of the house, like - like a contagion? like the way germs clung to door handles, were transmitted through skin - had he allowed it to spread to the house?
this is . . . dangerous. he’s reached the splintering end of his balance beam, feeling the weight of himself make it creak. he thinks he can see - it looks like where they’d pulled him from, the inch or two of wastewater and the grease that clung to the top of it like a film, the corpses of bugs and chips of plaster floating atop it.
it can’t be more than six feet beneath him. grimly readjusting his now-empty bag over his shoulders, he sits down carefully, slowly, on the rotten foundation, hands in their thick gloves gripping onto each other, before swinging himself off the end of the beam, dangling off of it.
he’d really been hoping that his feet would be able to reach the ground, but the tips of his boots don’t even touch the greasy skin on top of the water, when he kicks out a little to test it.
he’s never really minded falling. it’s not that far a drop. he thinks.
one way to find out.
and so he drops, letting go of the beam, bracing himself to land unevenly. the wind rushing against the back of his neck, the thin band of bare skin there, feels refreshing, cutting for a second through the stifling air, through the beads of sweat.
the landing itself, however, is much less so. the ground he lands on is uneven, the rubble tilted and hidden by the murky water, and his feet catch, sending him falling back, arms windmilling, to splash on his back in the muck. he does his best not to think about what he is lying in as he pushes himself back to a sitting position, carefully nudging outwards with his toes, his hands, fumbling through the water, before taking a step, leaning his weight on it carefully to be sure whatever he was moving to step on would hold his weight.
slowly. slowly. gloved hands patting through the brackish sludge to see if there was anything book shaped. ( this used to be his room. he had felt - he had felt safe here. ) the rotten floorboards creak when he leans his weight on one spot. he readjust, crawls around it, still blindly feeling about for something.
something - book shaped. he grabs it, holds it up, but can already tell it’s not it. it was ruined completely, but it had been a paperback, and too thin to be journal of a plague year. a little regretfully, he drops it again. wonders which of his books it had been. nothing more than pulpy paper and worm food, now.
an agonizing slow pace around what had once been his room. his arm almost goes through the hole in the floor that he had first made seconds before the house collapsed. the bright, flaring, stinging pain of something managing to crawl up his pant leg, biting at the exposed skin. the squelch of his hand sinking into something damp, that squishes, like soggy bread or a rotten corpse.
it doesn’t stop him. he continues forward, fishing out everything his hands come across that floats along the top of the water or can be pulled off the uneven surface below. bits of piping. a fragment of a wooden board that he would’ve gotten splinters from, had he not been wearing so many gloves. more waterlogged books that aren’t the ones he needs. something that seems like a pillow. the edge of a lampshade.
carefully, he scoots back a little bit.
a pillow. the book had been by his bed. he pulls it out of the water to make sure it is one of his pillows - though it’s too filthy now to look like much of one unless you knew what it had been - and then drops it again, laser-focused now as he slides around, feeling out with his hands, even his feet, for anything book shaped.
he knows when he’s hit it even before he pulls it out of the water. can feel the moment his gloved hand touches it, the way his skin breaks with a fever he didn’t have before. can feel how thick the grease is on the water here, so much so that it almost clings to his arm like a congealed second skin when he lifts it out of the water. can hear it, almost, like a wheezing, rattling breath of someone with irreparable lungs, or like the squirming of a million bloated, vile things. he doesn’t want to know what he would smell if he breathes in through his nose, right now. he opens his backpack and shoves the book in, firmly zippering it and casting his gaze around him.
luckily, it doesn’t seem like it will be too hard to make his way out. while the house had continued to crumble after he’d been pulled out, something of his rescuer’s path remains, though it is far more cyclical and careful than the way he’d gotten down here in the first place. he doesn’t stand up, still, careful to fumble his way forwards until he can get something a little closer to steady footing.
he shoulders his bag, and pulls himself up.
gerard watches as, with some difficulty, michael makes his way out of the ruins, stumbling across what little patch of lawn there was in filthy, sodden clothes, over to where he’d emptied his bag out on the curb, dropping the backpack and shedding layers of clothes, gloves, mask, as he went, leaving a trail of dropped items behind him. when it seems like he’s just stripping out of his clothes completely, gerry looks away for a few moments, toe tapping impatiently. ( just because he was trying to see what michael was doing doesn’t mean he couldn’t give him a few seconds of privacy. though that didn’t mean he wasn’t irritated about it. )
when he thinks mike’s changed, he glances back across the street, just to blink in confusion. michael seems to have rinsed and towelled himself off as much as is possible, but now he’s . . . sitting on the curb again, picking up his clean scarf and twisting it before . . . biting down on it? yes, he’s got it - resting like a gag between his teeth.
gerard frowns, leaning out of the shadows a little bit to peer out in his confusion as michael grimaces and reaches for - the bleach? oh. oh. there was no way that could be healthy, or -
and michael poured it over his hands, his shins, his bare feet, anywhere there might have been strips of skin exposed to the fetid mess of bacteria and greedy rot that curled in his house like a living thing. gerard watches in a sort of horrified fascination as michael’s eyes squeeze shut, jaw digging into the scarf, painfully rigid, like the taut surface of a balloon.
he thinks, even from where he’s standing, that he can hear a muffled noise - the strangled-back runt of a shout, shut in to die in michael crew’s throat with the scarf blocking his mouth. for a long moment, it seems like he just sits there and shakes, head tipping back, before pulling out bandages and working to cover up his arms, his legs, again, not pulling the scarf out of his mouth until he finishes with that.
gerard watches him wrinkle his nose and stick out his tongue, plucking a piece of lint off of it that must have come from the scarf. for some reason, he can’t help but grin at that. it’s such a stupid thing, even with the corruption-ruined house behind them, the smell of death lingering in the air.
mike picks up the scarf again, and with something of a grimace, uses it like you might use a dish towel to pull something out of a hot oven, reaching into his backpack. and gerard’s eyes immediately sharpen, anything like a smile clearing off his face like it had never been there.
because, though mike does it like the thing might burn him ( which, gerard has learned from experience, is a possibility with these things ), he’s pulling a book out of his bag. even though he must have retrieved it from the murky depths he had walked into, the pages are dry, and open easily when mike rests it on the sidewalk and clumsily paws the cover open with his hand wrapped in the scarf.
like it wants to be opened.
he pages through it seemingly at random, brow furrowed, before opening it to the front cover. gerard can’t see what it is he tears out of the book, from where he stands across the street, but mike tears it from the inside of the front cover, and so gerard can guess.
from the library of jurgein leitner. a library card like so many, but with much worse connotations. why tear it out, though? why pocket it, like michael was doing now?
when michael stands and begins walking in his direction, book in scarf-wrapped hand, gerry thinks he’s seen him, and ducks behind the tree for a moment, eyes almost boring holes into the shorter boy as much as they can from his vantage point.
but mike’s eyes aren’t focused on him. they’re looking forwards and down, to the sidewalk curb. he sets the book down on the street, and with one fluid motion, gerard realizes it isn’t the curb he’s looking at - but the storm drain beneath it.
there’s a splash, as he kicks the book through the sewer, with no small amount of viciousness to the movement, his hands curled by his sides, still shaking. there’s a second of rest. a heartbeat, two, three.
and then he’s slowly aware of the fever fading, the background noise of all those hundreds of bugs slowly fading out of his ears, until there is a moment of blessed relief, the only noise the far-away sounds of the city, the faint hum of the wind idly brushing through the treetops, the beating of his own frantic heart.
slowly, he walks back over to the curb where his things rest. for good measure, he shoves the towel, the old clothes, the used mask, the scarf, into the filthy backpack and pushes it into the sewer as well.
and then he sits again, suddenly exhausted, legs aching from the effort, from the bleach, from the wounds. for a moment, he looks up, and then swallows.
there are storm clouds rolling in overhead.
fervently, against all hope, he prays that he’s not the only one who can see them.
the sound of the thunder breaking is like a triumphant laugh.
michael crew sags his weight to the sidewalk like a puppet with its strings cut, that silver-white scar rippling in what little light there is, from the moon and the streetlights. the way he sits now, with his arms and neck bare, it seems to arch across his entire side. for a moment - for a moment, when gerry blinks, looks at him again, it seems like . . . well. it’s just an afterimage, probably. a faint burn of the light off those scars digging into the back of his eyelids.
because for a moment, gerard would swear the branches of the scar were moving, that there was some echo of them curling past the other boy’s body and into the night air, reaching towards the clear sky.
just an afterimage. they’re gone once he blinks.
he wants to try and grab the book, but he can’t move from his cover while michael’s still sitting there, looking up at the sky, his expression blank. bleak, almost, and gerry squats, knees cracking as he sits on one of the trees’ lumpy roots. he winces at the sound, but mike doesn’t seem to notice.
why does he look so bleak? he survived, didn’t he? even got out the book that had got him into this mess in the first place. people older than them got killed by leitners all the time. but michael crew stares into the horizon like he’s worse off for not getting to keep it.
well, that’s just stupid, gerry decides, shifting his weight impatiently. clearly he hadn’t known how to use it, or what was left of his house wouldn’t be looking like this. he shouldn’t have bought it in the first place. hadn’t he known what he was signing up for?
( it’s why gerard’s always come back. to pinhole books, to this world. his mother never questions it when he’s gone for days, for a week. even when he used to be younger, and ran away, as though that’d make it any better, she barely looked up when he got back home. as though it was just simple fact, like the idea he would come back was beyond obvious. he knows how to take care of himself. not like so many of the people out here. the crumbled house, the teenager sitting with his legs strewn in front of him, was just another example of this. )
he does have to give the other boy credit, though. he’s stupid, he has to be, for fucking with the book in the first place and then going back into the wreck of his house for it, but there’s a kind of bravery in stupidity, isn’t there?
or it might kill him. or it was sheer dumb luck. whatever. it wasn’t gerard’s problem.
finally, michael’s getting up, his steps wobbling, excruciatingly slow as he begins to walk back the way he came. still, there’s something . . . something in the set of his face, dark eyes harsh and determined, brow furrowed into a scowl of concentration. absently, gerry’s hand raises to his own forehead, thumb brushing over the way his own skin molds into that expression. the same intensity. the same focus.
it’s a thought he shakes off, watching michael continue down the street. he stands up the moment he turns the corner, knees popping as he does, and pokes his flashlight into the storm drain, wriggling forwards to see down into it as much as he can. luckily, it doesn’t seem to be too far out of reach, if he just -
he wiggles back out, pulls on a glove, and walks back to the tree, chewing his lip for a moment before he picks a branch to snap off. he takes a moment to snap off the twigs that branch off it, before ducking back over to the storm drain and pushing himself as far as he can through the opening, shirt scraping against the gravel. fuck, this shirt is going to be ruined. he liked it, too.
oh well, maybe he can pass the holes off as intentional.
it takes a few tries to reach his arm out far enough, stick in hand, but he’s slowly and painstakingly pushing it towards himself, closer to where he can reach it. it’s a stretch, trying to get his fingers to so much as brush the spine of the book, and he has to edge back out to pick up his stick again, nudge it just a little bit closer to the drain. there are small holes through the fabric of his shirt, torn by the gravel. he sticks his torch in his mouth and scoots back under the curb, shifting himself side to side, head tilted awkwardly to the side to fit through the gap.
his fingers brush the cover, and he scrabbles for it, nails digging under the back cover to try and pick it up out of the inch or so of dirty water it was floating in.
the hard cover gives way under his fingers, sinking into them, through them, and the grimace gerard gives at that almost makes his flashlight fall out from his mouth. its a texture somewhere between wet paper and rotten fruit. still, his hold on it doesn’t falter as he squirms back into the light of the few streetlamps, where he finally gets a better chance to take a look at the book he’s holding.
book would be generous.
it’s not like how michael had pulled it out of his house only moments ago - the cover a little dirty but the pages still legible and clean. it looks like it had been soaking in septic waste for a week. smells like it, too. the pages were swollen from the water they had absorbed, completely waterlogged, the ink having bled off the pages. pieces of the cover were falling off, in gerry’s hand, littering the street with rotten paper. he sets it down on the sidewalk for a second, and when he pulls back his gloved hand, half of the back cover peels off, stuck to the fabric.
for a long moment, he stares at the now-useless mess of paper. he knows, somehow, that it’s functionally useless. the corruption bled dry of it. it’s just a wet lump of paper, congealed together with sewer water. but he thinks about coming home with his hands empty, and his heart crawls into his throat like it, too, is a dying facet of the corruption, many-legged and queasy.
he stands there for a long moment, looking down at it. trying to make a decision.
if he is going to come back with nothing, he might as well bring back the proof it wasn’t his fault. it’s the best answer he can come up with, at the moment. ( the thought these books could be destroyed was a new one, for him. his mother had mentioned it as a vague possibility, but only in her lessons, to state that some would be all too happy to be burned, or of how some of them were the only things to survive entire villages being bombed. how they might have been born from that destruction in and of itself. he’s never seen it before. )
he pulls a ziploc bag out of his backpack, opening it with his good hand and his teeth, and drops the book and his glove into it, sealing it off. he wonders, for a moment, if his mother had ever seen one of them destroyed before. if she would be so eager to take leitner’s place, if she had.
no, she must have. he dismisses the thought, sticking the bag and the remnants of the book back in the depths of his pack. for a moment he just sits on the curb, idly picking tiny shards of gravel out of his t-shirt, out of the holes they had torn in it.
he can’t quite help the way his eyes turn down the street, rest where michael crew’s back had been before he turned the corner. can’t help but wonder - had he meant to destroy it, or was it sheer dumb luck?
he’s standing without thinking, taking a few steps on legs that move without his conscious decision, and startles a little bit when he realizes he’s heading in the wrong direction - the one mike had come from and left by. he wants to ask, he realizes.
why? why should he care?
( because he wants to know. because the closest person in him to age in this world is probably one of those creepy pale-eyed lukases, and they’re even worse at conversation than he is. because he hasn’t seen one of these destroyed before. because he wants to procrastinate the time until he makes his way back home. because he is curious about that scar and the afterimages that came with it, and what the story was behind the book ending up here in the first place, and whether it was an accident. )
he decides he doesn’t.
his bag slung over one shoulder, he turns and makes his way down the road in the opposite direction, and tries to keep his thoughts about how his mother was going to react, and what their plans were for the next month. the lessons she thought he still had to learn. as far as his hunts had gone, this one was pretty low-profile. ( for him, at least. not for the crews. but that’s never been his business. ) he’ll forget this soon enough. the book is gone, so it won’t be one he has to worry about listening out on the grapevine for or trying to read about to figure out what made it tick. he doesn’t live anywhere near enough to this part of the city for it to affect him at all in the long term.
and, frankly, he doubts he’ll ever see michael crew again.