Day 29 ¾
The Thing on the Doorstep* of Lily’s Garden... should really be replaced, Lily decided, even though her late, beloved Great-Aunt Mary had probably selected it personally.
On its face, it was just a doormat. Lily had been tasked with restoring an estate so sprawling and garden-intensive that it made Versailles look like a sooty window-box grafted onto a Soviet-inspired apartment building in an unacknowledged cranny of industrial Beijing. Her feet would likely be muddy several times a day. On its face, it was practical to keep around.
On its face, it even said “Welcome.”
Its face, however, was the problem. This was a face that never made itself visible on sunny mornings when Lily would peer suspiciously at the ordinary-looking doormat from several angles in the abundant California sunlight. This face was a haunter of the dark,* its expression unfathomable, its eyes tracking Lily’s every move even beyond the wall of sleep*. This was a face Lily never wanted to step on, whether she could see it or not… just in case its “Welcome” was the first word of an unwritten sentence that went on: “...to the digestive tract of an unspeakable monstrosity.”
So Lily now habitually stepped over the doormat after first making sure nobody was looking. Nobody human, anyway.
Despite a firm conviction that talking about things always improved them, she hadn’t shared these experiences with anyone. The last thing her mom, Holly, needed was a new excuse to guffaw about her “Lily-livered” daughter. Aunt Mary’s lawyer and last lover, Philip, might actually know something useful, but talking crazy-talk to the executor holding her inheritance over her head seemed like a bad idea. Even her sympathetic new friends Luke, Regina and Rachel would probably think she’d been huffing pesticide.
Luke and Rachel’s pre-teen skater-goth daughter Karen, on the other hand, might be able to see the blasphemous lurking fear* for herself. On the other hand, the kid had enough trauma from her parents’ divorce and ongoing custody hassles. What kind of person would dump a whole additional bale of straw on that poor camel’s back?
Besides, Lily was not at all sure that confirming a real source for her creepy vibes would make her feel any better…
Meanwhile, stepping over the doormat meant tracking a bucket of mud a day into Aunt Mary’s venerable Victorian foyer. What would her online friend Austin the retired butler say?
Maybe she could get her horrible ex-fiance Blaine to step on that doormat? At midnight? Under a full moon? On Halloween? Any eldritch atrocity Lily could imagine still seemed like less than Blaine deserved.
She’d tried examining the mat through a magnifying glass one afternoon. It had briefly caught on fire like an anthill targeted by a sadistic child. The smell was indescribable, worse than even burnt rubber. Was that doormat plant-based at all? Its texture wasn’t just rough, or bristly, or even ribbed for her pleasure. One morning she woke up with the word.
Since Those Dreams started, she’d been waking up with other unfamiliar words in her head. She’d lost her former life, probably forever, but she was slowly gaining a new vocabulary --- one that hardly seemed suited to the docile, cute-in-glasses accountant she’d been or the plucky plaid-clad garden rescuer she’d become:
What the Helen Hunt had Great-Aunt Mary gotten into?
Lily remembered Mary’s estate as a verdant, perfumed, bee-loud childhood sanctuary from the clutches of her “excitable” mother. Mary herself had been a cheerful, patient mentor with soft, gleaming silver hair, decorative-looking laugh lines, and a battered pair of thick leather garden gloves fit for steering a biplane, swinging a broadsword, or “B-slapping” a presumptuous dragon. “Gormenghastic!” little Lily had exclaimed at first sight of the kaleidoscopic house with its arabesques, cartouches, cupolas, crenellations, festoons, palmettes, and mascarons of all flavors. Helping in Mary’s gardens was like vacationing in one of the friendlier Fairylands. Compared to Holly’s company, the orchids had been easygoing. The bees had been cuddly. The brambles had been velvety-soft.
Lily’s return to the strange high house in the mist, though, had made her begin to question those treasured memories.
She did not remember the rats in the walls* at all. Or the whisperings in the darkness.* Or in which house (witch house*?) she’d been sleeping when Those Dreams started. And had the house always been that color --- like something out of space*?
A cheery voice broke into Lily’s attention, chasing her uneasy thoughts away like a broom shredding a spiderweb.
“Lils! What’s up with the mopey face? It’s party time, remember?”
Regina, best friend ever and carpenter extraordinaire, had a knack for yanking Lily back to the instant moment by the scruff of her pink collar.
Lily looked up and, with some effort, grinned broadly. “We’d better get over to the...”
“PARTY ZONE!!!” both women chorused gleefully, jumping up and down with excitement.
Several boxes of decorations, game-pieces, snacks, and wine later
SCENE: The estate’s beautifully restored Party Garden. Inviting lights twinkle from trees and railings, reflecting off an open-air dance floor and an ornamental pond. A log fire, kindled in the gargantuan outdoor oven, crackles and snaps and showers sparks. From a small raised stage, a gramophone plays Billie Holiday, LILY and REGINA sit at a table, sampling wine.
REGINA: Mmm! You know, these boxes of wine actually aren’t too bad.
LILY: Wait till my inheritance comes through. I’ll treat everybody to the best champagne.
REGINA (raising glass in a toast): Here’s to champagne for our real friends and real pain for our sham friends!
LILY (raising glass in response): You said it! Woob-ba-doo!
ROXY (trotting in, ears flapping): Beowoof!
REGINA (petting ROXY): Hey there, beyotch, and I mean that as a compliment.
LILY: If Roxy’s here, that must mean…
(Enter LUKE, RACHEL and KAREN)
LUKE: She brought the Whole! Party! Posse!
KAREN (rolling eyes): Da-ad! Nobody says that anymore.
RACHEL: This looks great! I brought extra wine; where should it go?
LILY (with mock-grandiose gesture): In my glass, please!
RACHEL: You earned it! Imagine, getting this huge estate looking so good in only 30 days! Philip has to release your inheritance tomorrow, he simply has to.
LILY: I could never have done it without all you guys’ help. And now I’ve finally got a few hours to just relax… (Collapses into chair, sips wine)
(Enter BLAINE, overconfident, maybe already drunk)
BLAINE: Somebody here order a life for this party?
LILY (involuntarily spitting out wine, going pale): “...”
REGINA (hands on hips, eyes slitted, Buzz-Overkill mode): Uh… NO?!
KAREN (Double Hostility): We’ve already got a veggie dish. We don’t need an extra salad-tosser.
(Enter PHILIP, cane-hobbling briskly and grinning)
PHILIP (cheerfully scratches ROXY’s ears): Now, now, don’t go all Hell-Hound On My Trail!
(looks up to address LILY and REGINA) I called Blaine for a ride over here. I have something urgent to tell you, so I needed to get here as fast as his expensive sports car could go.
REGINA (doubtful): And I don’t suppose that ride was any fun for you, Grandpa? (under her breath) Terrible old man*...
LILY (trying not to hyperventilate with foreboding): What… what’s so urgent, Mr. Jones?
PHILIP: Well, it’s kind of a funny story. The very last time I saw Mary, we were sitting out on the back porch drinking lemonade. And she made me a sandwich. But I wasn’t that hungry at the time, so she wrapped it in some wax paper for me to take home.
KAREN (sarcastic; muttering but still audible): Wow, that’s hilarious!
PHILIP (ignoring KAREN): And the next thing I heard, she’d passed away. I still had the sandwich in my fridge, but I didn’t have the heart to eat it. So I put it in the freezer. Then tonight I thawed it out. There was a note inside.
(PHILIP takes a folded paper from his waistcoat pocket and hands it to LILY. LILY unfolds it, revealing it to be soggy with a bite taken out of one corner).
LILY (pushing glasses up nervously and reading): “Dear Philip, there’s just one more thing that’s been bothering me…” (Her voice breaks and she hesitates apprehensively. REGINA springs into action to hand LILY a full glass of wine. LILY gulps gratefully, then gathers herself and continues:) “I forgot to put anything in my will about the Temple of the Old Ones* in the sub-sub-sub-basement. Please make sure Lily knows she must renew the seals on the Shrine of Cthulhu* before she takes possession of the property. Otherwise the fabric of space-time will tear asunder, the Old Ones will return with a ravenous appetite for all living flesh, and our world will be flossed from between their flagitious fangs.”
(All pause in horrified silence. LILY continues to hold the letter as her hands begin to shake uncontrollably).
KAREN (hushed, nearly inaudible): Necronomicalyptic!*
LILY: Guhhh… (then, continuing to read): “The estate is located on an interdimensional portal. My grandfather told us of numerous horrific events occurring here before he built the temple* on the advice of H.P. Lovecraft. In Poe-Paw’s words, ‘the man was nuttier than squirrel scat, but even a stopped clock is right twice a day.’ Preternaturally yours, Mary.”
BLAINE: ‘Temple of the Old Ones’? What --- with, like, bingo tables? A shuffleboard court? Golf carts?
LILY: Other than the wine cellar that Cousin Larry cleared out, I didn’t know there was another basement, much less a sub-sub-sub-basement.
KAREN: Then where’d’you do laundry? I keep catching Dad half-falling out his bedroom window trying to peek at your clothesline.
LILY: Oh, as soon as I got here, I piped the master bedroom and moved the washing machine in there.
REGINA (loading it with hidden meaning): Mmmm- hmm…
LILY (in nervously bright voice, blushing): I also replaced the engine with an old Harley V-Twin and padded the top with black tuck-and-roll leather…
RACHEL: Oh, wow, what a great idea! Can I try it out sometime?
REGINA: Me too, me too!
LUKE (puzzled): I can see how it’s convenient, having your washer only a few steps from your clothes closet… but how do the motorcycle engine and leather padding help get the clothes clean?
(RACHEL whispers inaudibly in LUKE’s ear. As LUKE listens, his eyes widen and his jaw drops)
BLAINE (jealous and anxious): What, Bro-Magnon? What?
(Luke sighs, as if he doesn’t really want to have this conversation with BLAINE but realizes BLAINE will pester him until he does. With a grimace of resignation, LUKE goes over to BLAINE and whispers inaudibly in his ear. BLAINE’s face takes on a look of dumbstruck amazement).
BLAINE: Wowww! I always wondered why laundromats were such a highly-recommended place to pick up women. I just thought it was for the sneak preview of what kind of underwear they wore.
(LILY, irritated, crosses her arms, furrows her brow, and looks diagonally downward)
KAREN: We gotta find the Shrine of Hulu!
LUKE: To the sub-sub-sub-basement!
Lots of dust, cobwebs, stuck doors, dead ends, dead flashlight batteries, and dried-out small animal carcasses later
LILY: Do you think this is the right door?
RACHEL (tired and unusually disheveled): Either that, or we’re so far underground it goes to the dressing rooms at the Sydney Opera House.
REGINA: What kind of numb-skull digs all these cellars in a seismic zone? Surprised one of the earthquakes didn’t drop the whole dang house down here.
KAREN (tired, bored, grumpy): Do we even know what the Shrine of Foo-Foo looks like?
BLAINE (parched): Cthulhu.
KAREN: Maybe we already passed it.
PHILIP: No… I’m pretty sure we’ll know it when we see it. Lily, how familiar are you with the work of H.P. Lovecraft?
LILY (involuntary shudder): Ugh! Mom read him to me every night when I was in kindergarten. Dagon.* Celephais.* Azathoth.* Nyarlathotep.* And then The Unnameable*? That was the worst. With all the things he did think of names for, how bad did that one have to be? I finally had to convince Mom I’d grown too big for bedtime stories.
REGINA: Think that might have been her plan all along? A way to stay out late and party?
LILY: Maybe... Anyway, didn’t they find out later that he was some kind of white supremacist?
PHILIP: Not exactly. He was a rabid racist all right, but he thought only the English were superior. Other whites were inferior too. What a shame he never got to tell Adolf Hitler how subhuman he thought the Germans were.
LILY: So every night, he had nightmares about horrible monsters waiting to bust into our dimension and enslave him. Or eat him... I wonder if he ever made the connection?
LUKE (unusually listless and cranky): Oh, good! Roxy found another dead thing.
BLAINE: Ew! Gross! What even is that?
KAREN: It looks like dried squid. Oba-chan used to snack on that stuff.
LUKE: Meanwhile, that door’s not getting any opener. Stand back, everyone! Sledgehammers awaaaay!
Various crashes, flying splinters, and rains of long-dead insects later
LUKE (coughing in a dust cloud): Got ‘er open!
PHILIP: Later we might wish there was a way to shut it again.
REGINA: Hand me the best light. I’ll go first and make sure the structure’s safe.
LILY: You do that. The rest of us will just… lurk on the threshold.
(Footsteps echo, become splashing sounds)
PHILIP: Sounds like it got a little damp. But you do get that, in sub-sub-sub-basements.
LILY: Regina, are you okay?
REGINA: Ecch! There’s all kinds of fungi* down here.
RACHEL: Luke, you like to do “fun guy” stuff. Why don’t you go help?
LUKE: McScuse me?
LILY: I’m going after her!
(Hesitant footsteps, followed by another splash)
LILY (from basement): Guhhh...
LUKE: What happened?
LILY: This water’s deeper than I thought… Regina! Are you walking on top of the water?
REGINA (unconcerned): It’s a carpenter thing. We can all do it. How do you think we build boats?
LILY: I’m not seeing a shrine down here! I’m not seeing anything but a bunch of scummy water! How can we get this pumped dry by tomorrow?
PHILIP: Sometimes in life, Lily, you gotta jump in with both feet!
One huge splash, lots of bubbles and some uncontrollable shivering later
“Nnnn,” Lily groaned, holding her nose and keeping her lips clenched resolutely shut against the floating yecch. The sudden shock of algid cold gave her vertigo; she could no longer tell which direction was up. She remembered the unheated kiddie pool at the Mountains of Madness* vacation lodge, Holly’s uncaring voice insisting, “If you stay in cold water, you get used to it!” She couldn’t ever imagine getting used to this .
Why was her neck starting to itch? Reaching to scratch it, she found to her consternation that the skin had gone... rugose! Was she allergic to something in here? Where was an epi-pen when she really needed one? She could feel ... flaps…
She inhaled abruptly, forgetting for the moment why she’d been holding her breath for so long. Then remembering made her thrash wildly until she realized… she wasn’t drowning. She could breathe underwater. She felt the sides of her neck again and found the skin flaps wafting rhythmically. She had gills!
“Argle bargle godle boo!” she yelled excitedly. But what was wrong with her voice?
(Come, Lily dear), said something in her mind. (Everyone’s waiting).
After all the surprises and terrors of the day, a hand kindly clasping hers out of the caliginous murk barely registered a startle. Now she could see lights down deeper in the moon-bog.
“Man May ---” she burbled, but the hand squeezed hers and she received, (Don’t try to talk, dear. You only need to think your words down here.)
Lily hesitated, nodded, and thought, (Aunt Mary?)
(Got it in one, dear. Now stop feeling bad about missing my funeral, will you? I’ve simply retired down here. I’ve got centuries to go. And so do you. We’re Deep Ones, Lily. Innsmouth* folk. Me, Arthur, all the De La Rosas.)
(Oh. I thought maybe we evolved from Sea Monkeys... Does Philip know?)
(Of course. He’s Puckish. And part Impish. They’re another kind of Very Old Folk We’ll all be together again when the stars are right and Great Chthulhu rises to reclaim the land).
Lily nodded, then had a sudden dreadful thought. Her hand flew to her mouth as she gasped... then choked, coughed, and tried to spit. (Note to self), she thought. (Learn how to gasp through gills).
(Good idea), Mary answered. (So many wonders await you in sunken R’lyeh where Great Cthulhu sleeps).
(It was just --- does this mean I have to live underwater forever?) Tears formed in her eyes, making the water saltier. (I just restored the estate --- and made new friends --- and fell in love ---)
(No, Lily. Deep Ones are amphibious. You can surface whenever you want. You’ll still have gills, though, so you might want to hide them. Why do you think your mother wears that knotted scarf all the time; just to cover her wrinkly turkey neck?)
Lily laughed. It tickled her gills. She was getting used to the cold water, and her eyes were adjusting to the light.
(Your hair), she told her still-vital great-aunt, (looks incredible. Like it’s alive. What do you use on it?).
(Nothing. It’s a perk of being subaqueous), Mary answered as the two swam deeper toward the dancing lights. (Your hair looks lovely too).
Then, after a pause, Mermaid Mary continued, (And you won’t appreciate this till you’re older, but our boobies never sag underwater either).
(Good to know), Lily answered.