By DJ Tyrer

(From Issue #3 September 2020)

“There’s something wrong with him.” Mum gave a nod back towards the house, to Dad’s library; we were standing in the back garden. It was lightly drizzling and my heels were slowly sinking into the damp earth.

She sighed, then went on: “He’s out here every night, staring up at the stars through that old telescope of his. And, each morning, I come out here and find these…”

I followed the twitch of Mum’s hand. A number of large white stones from the driveway had been scattered about on the lawn. One of them was smeared red, the drizzle spotting it white again. As I examined them, it was almost as if they’d been laid in a pattern, but I couldn’t say for sure.

“That,” Mum said, pointing at the stones by the reddened one, “is Taurus, I’m sure of it.”

“Constellations.” Yes, I could see it now. “Why?”

Mum shook her head. “Goodness knows what he’s up to! I really don’t know. He’s acting very strangely. And, he hardly sleeps: he spends his days holed up in that library of his, amongst all those mouldy old books—it can’t be good for him.”

She paused and fixed me with a glare. “You know he has a weak chest.” As if it were my fault! “All those spores—I don’t like to think about it.”

Not that she minded talking about it, going on at length about an article she’d read on the topic.

“I don’t think he sleeps at all,” she concluded, “not more than odd snatches, anyway.”

She fell silent and looked at me.

“What do you want me to do about it?”

“Come home. You can write here as easily as in London. We’ve got perfectly good broadband here.”

“But, what do you want me to do?”

“Talk to him. You’re his special girl; he might open up to you. He won’t speak to me.”

According to Mum, the most she’d had out of him in weeks was the occasional grunt when she banged on his door to announce she was leaving a tray for him. Mostly, the pots of tea and plates of sandwiches and snacks went untouched. She was right to be worried, but I doubted my presence would change anything. Dad had always been obsessive, a workaholic, and if he were working on some project, it would run its course soon enough. If not, then he needed professional help.

“Okay, Mum.”

A smile of relief brightened her wan features and she gave me a hug.

“I’ll see if he’ll pay attention to me.” Turning, I headed inside. I didn’t relish the task before me but was glad to get out of the damp.

I went straight to the door of his library and knocked.

“Dad? Dad, it’s me, Chrissie.”

There was no answer. I tried the door: It was locked. I knocked again, louder, but there was still only silence in reply.

I went into the kitchen where Mum was making two pots of tea. She looked at me, questioningly.

I hated to dash the hope I saw in her eyes, but told her I’d gotten no response.

She shook her head, as if she couldn’t quite believe it.

“Here, let me take him his elevenses; that might get his attention.”

She placed a few of his favourite chocolate digestives on a saucer and handed me the tray.

“Thank you, dear.”

I knocked again at my father’s door and announced what I’d brought. This time, there was, at least, a grunt in reply, indicating he was still alive.

Mum seemed satisfied, as if I’d achieved something, and I carried our tray of tea and biscuits into the living room. It looked just as it had in my childhood, too full of lace and chintz for my current tastes. Nothing much about the house had changed and, in an odd way, that made my father’s peculiar behavior all the more strange, as if someone were playing games with my memories.

We chatted for a while, about my writing career, the distressing (to Mum) fact I was still single, the recent referendum, everything except Dad. Then, having finished our tea and giving him a generous extra allowance of time, we stumbled to a halt.

With a sigh, I said, “I’ll go check.”

The tray was where I’d left it, the biscuits untouched and the pot full of cold tea. I took it back to the kitchen, then returned to Mum and shook my head.

I saw her blink away tears and gave her a hug.

“It’ll be okay. It’ll be okay.”

I wished I believed my words.

After a couple of minutes, I stood and said, “Well, I don’t think he’s coming out anytime soon and, if I’m going to stay a while, I’d better go get my laptop and some changes of clothes. I’ll grab something for lunch, then be back for supper. I’ll see you then.”

The drive gave me time to think, to process what was going on, but it didn’t help much.

The return journey caught the start of rush hour and took longer. I was feeling tired and frazzled by the time I arrived.

“I don’t know why you live in the city,” Mum said as she ushered me into the dining room for a proper roast dinner. She liked to spoil me when I visited, even if she knew I’d only eat about half of what she doled out onto my plate.

I sighed. I didn’t want a debate, let alone an argument. “It’s where everything and everyone I want access to are located. I can’t live my entire life online.”

I yawned.

“You’re worn out.” The realisation seemed to kill her need to argue. “An early night for you, madam.”

I wasn’t going to argue, especially if pinning Dad down meant tackling him the next night. I pushed my food around my plate, hardly eating anything, eliciting queries as to my health. I told Mum to reheat it tomorrow, then staggered up to bed.

Normally, when I returned home on a visit, I slept well. But, tonight, I tossed and turned and slipped in and out of a fitful sleep. I could hear sounds outside and, at one point, rose to look out the window.

A shadowy figure was in the garden, gazing heavenward through a telescope mounted on a tripod, occasionally stepping away from it to rearrange the white stones. Dad, of course, but, for a moment, my mind befuddled by tiredness, I thought it was a stranger: He seemed to move in a manner that wasn’t quite how I remembered Dad moving. He seemed more languid in his movements, his stride a little longer.

I didn’t watch him for long: The task was boring for a voyeur and I was just too tired to care much right then. It was odd, but merely one more element of strangeness.

I must have fallen asleep, as my eyes flickered open at the sound of Mum’s voice telling me it was lunchtime.

“Wake up, sleepyhead. Cheese-and-cucumber sandwiches are waiting for you.”

I stumbled downstairs, still feeling tired. Indeed, I was listless all afternoon. But, after an early-evening doze and devouring the previous-night’s reheated supper, I felt a lot better.

“I’ll catch Dad in the garden,” I said over dessert, “talk to him there.”

Mum nodded. She retired to bed a little later, leaving me to wait for him.

I was nodding slightly in front of the television when I heard the sound of the library door. A few soft footsteps followed and, then, I caught the click of the kitchen door being unlocked.

I pulled on a pair of flat shoes, better suited to the garden, and headed outside.

There was barely a sliver of moon, but the sky was clear and the stars were shining brightly. I could see Dad setting up his telescope.

I called out to him and he turned as I approached.

“Do I know you?”

“It’s Chrissie, Dad.” Was it just the darkness or was dementia setting in? Alzheimer’s could explain such a remark.

“Chrissie? The daughter? Pictures of a little girl in pigtails. You aren’t a little girl.”

“I guess I’ve grown up.” I tried to laugh.

He gave a curt nod and turned to finish putting the telescope together.

“What’re you doing?”

He didn’t turn, but said, “I must study the stars. The conjunction I seek is coming soon: then, the dark stars shall reveal themselves and…”

He trailed off and I asked, “And, what, Dad?”

He pressed his eye to the telescope and didn’t answer, ignoring my further attempts to get him talking.

I gave up an hour and went back inside, wondering if I ought to bring him with me. I didn’t want him catching a chill, but doubted he’d cooperate.

I went to bed and slept badly again. I remembered dreaming but couldn’t recall what about when Mum woke me.

“Did you speak to him?” Mum demanded before I’d even sat up in bed.

I acknowledged that I had and that nothing had come of it.

“It could be dementia.”

Mum shrugged. “Maybe. But, don’t people regress with that? What’s he doing with those stones?”

She paused to hand me a late-morning cup of tea, then said, “He’s added black ones to them, now. Lumps of coal. Goodness knows where he found lumps of coal.”

“Black ones?”

“Uh-huh.”

“Dark stars,” I said.

“Sorry?” For a moment, I think Mum wondered if I were going mad, too. Maybe I was.

“The white stones represent stars, constellations, right?”

“Right.”

“Well, last night, Dad said something about looking for dark stars.”

“So, you think… this is coming to an end?”

I shrugged. “No idea. But, you’re right, it doesn’t sound like dementia.” I yawned. “I’ll do some research after lunch.”

While I couldn’t quite rule out Alzheimer’s or a similar condition, I wasn’t convinced. Something was nagging at me—something Mum had said, perhaps? Something I’d read? I couldn’t quite place it.

Then, I remembered: Email. Mum never emailed me, she still stuck tenaciously to the pen and to phone calls, but Dad sometimes did. I went into my Hotmail account. He hadn’t written since he’d started acting strangely, and his messages had been irregular before that.

I found the one I was looking for. He’d written it just after the death of my great-uncle Henry.

Dad had been pleased to receive a number of books from his uncle, ones he’d coveted for years. ‘I’m looking forward to studying the dusty old things,’ he’d written. ‘Shame Uncle Henry didn’t take better care of them. The old fool just bunged them in a shed and let them get mouldy.’

Mould! It didn’t take long to confirm what had been nagging at me. Some moulds can cause hallucinations and, locked in there with the windows shut tight, Dad was probably breathing in lungfuls of spores. It made perfect sense.

I told Mum.

“What do we do?” she asked.

It was the obvious question and I didn’t have an answer. I suppose, if mould was making someone hallucinate, you could have them locked up in a mental hospital for treatment, but that still seemed a bit drastic.

“I’ll try talking to him again. I’ll explain what’s wrong, see if I can persuade him to stay away from the books and get some help.”

Mum nodded, relieved.

I couldn’t settle that evening as I waited for Dad to exit his library. I tried watching an episode of Scandal, then gave up and flicked through a book, then tried to work on an article, but my mind was focused on my father and what I’d say to him.

It was almost a relief when the time grew near and I planted myself in the hallway outside his door.

Shifting uneasily from foot to foot, I fell still when I heard the lock turn.

The door opened and Dad stepped out. I hadn’t gotten a good look at him the night before and, while I knew he’d barely been eating or sleeping, it was still a shock to get a look at just how ill he was.

Dad’s skin was dry and cracked, papery with a sickly yellowish hue to it. His appearance was almost corpse-like. I tasted bile in the back of my throat.

But it was his eyes that made me step back: They were so wide and intense, quite unlike his used to be.

“Dad?” All thoughts of what I’d planned to say vanished from my mind. Something was very wrong.

“Yes, my dear?” His words were clearly intended to be soothing, but there was a rasp to his voice that made them sound almost menacing.

I shook my head. “Uh, nothing.”

He gave a smile and turned and headed outside.

I stared after him, then turned and headed up to my room, locking the door behind me.

I was trembling as I climbed into bed. The man in the hallway was Dad, yet I was utterly convinced it wasn’t him. Yes, the face was the same, but it was more like a parody of the face I knew so well. The eyes—the eyes were not my father’s; and that ‘reassuring smile’? It had been more a grotesque grin than a sign of parental affection. And, he never called me ‘dear’. Then, there was his gait and everything about the way he moved. It wasn’t my father, no matter what commonsense told me.

I didn’t sleep until the sun began to rise, as if its rays somehow offered me protection, and when I did slip down into dreams, they were full of his leering face, like a horrible mask with dark eyes like two dead stars.

When Mum woke me, all I was willing to admit was that he hadn’t stopped to listen.

In daylight, such thoughts as I’d had seemed ridiculous. I was certain I hadn’t dreamt the encounter, but I wondered if exhaustion had caused me to read more into his odd behaviour. After all, I was very anxious, and he’d looked so ill… Or, was it possible that a cloud of spores had escaped from the room as he stepped out, causing me to have a funny turn?

By lunchtime, I’d just about convinced myself I’d had a failure of nerve and that anything more was due to the effects of the same mould I was certain was to blame for Dad’s peculiar behaviour.

Still, that night I went straight to bed, too shaken to confront him again.

I couldn’t put it off past that as Mum was ready to call in the doctor to have him committed. I felt I owed Dad one last go at helping him to help himself.

Again, I waited for him to step out of the library, nervously pacing back and forth and wondering if I should just tell Mum to go ahead and call a doctor.

Then, the door opened and Dad stepped out. I was certain at that moment, despite an element in the back of my brain yelling that this wasn’t him, that it was my Dad and that he was quite insane and that, surely, the inhalation of mould spores was to blame.

Dad was wearing some sort of papier-mâché mask, a pale ivory in colour, while his body was covered in what must have been hundreds of yellowing, mould-flecked pages torn out of his uncle’s old books which he’d glued together into a sort of ridiculous robe that rustled as he stepped out into the hall.

“Dad?” For a moment, I couldn’t think of what to say. The sight was so outlandish and ridiculous—and a little intimidating. I was bemused, but also confident that madness was to blame.

“Beyond Aldebaran,” he said in a soft dry voice that sounded like the rustling of the old leaves he wore, “dead stars hang in darkness frozen, lighting the way for the chosen.”

“Dad, it’s me, Chrissie. Listen to me: You’ve been breathing the mould spores from those books and they’re making you hallucinate. Dammit, you’re wearing them now, breathing it in.”

“The time is here. Duncan has opened himself to the possibilities inherent in the Shroud of Yhtill. He dared to dream. And now, the dark stars shine their black light upon us, show us the way back to the City. He and I are one and soon we all shall be one as the shadows lengthen in dim—”

“Dad!” I interrupted. “Shut up! Listen to me! Take all that off: You’re hallucinating and you need help.”

Ignoring me, he started to turn, rustling.

“Dad, take that damn mask off.”

“I wear no mask.”

I should have listened to the churning in my tummy, to that part of my mind that was screaming at me to stop, to run. I should have accepted what my eyes had told me and his words had confirmed. But, I didn’t. I’d convinced myself. I was angry.

I reached out and grabbed the mask and pulled it free.

With barely the sound of a soft sigh and the shush of pages brushing against one another, the old leaves torn from mouldy books fell into a heap on the floor.

I clutched the papier-mâché mask and stared down in confusion at the pile, my mind reeling in a riot of bewilderment and horror. I dropped to my knees and sifted through the scattered pages as if I would locate my father hidden beneath them.

It was impossible, yet I’d seen it.

I looked in the library, hoping he would step out laughing, having played some conjurer’s trick, but it was empty. Dad was gone. Although, I suspected, he’d been gone for some time.

There were only two possibilities: Either what I’d just seen, as bizarre as it was, truly happened, or I too was infected by the mould spores and had gone just as mad as he. I’m not sure which of those two possibilities was the worse…

Regardless, I couldn’t face Mum. What could I say?

So, I gathered up the pages and the mask and laid them upon Dad’s desk and locked myself in his library.

Mum knocks occasionally and calls out to ask what’s wrong, but I never answer as I don’t know what to say and I’m too busy to think.

I’ve rearranged the pages in order and am reading them to understand where my father went and how. Already, I find myself thinking thoughts that aren’t my own. Am I mad? Or has He come for me, too? Will I be one with them in that dimly-lit city beyond Aldebaran?

Soon, I shall put on the mask and don my robes. It is nearly time. The conjunction is already here, so I need not wait as long as he did.

If you find this, you’ll know. If the library is empty, if Dad and I are missing, we’re far from this world, somewhere past Aldebaran where dead stars burn icily. If not, if you find our bodies, then it was the mould all along.

The time is here. Chrissie has opened herself to the possibilities inherent in the Shroud of Yhtill. She dared to dream. And, now, the dark stars shine their black light upon us, show us the way back to the City. She and I are one and soon we all shall be one as the shadows lengthen in dim Carcosa.

End.

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