By J.M. Faulkner
From the August 2021 edition of Cosmic Horror Monthly
“Have you looked at the records from Miskatonic University,” General McGuiness yelled over the helicopter’s roaring blades. His jowls trembled whenever the aircraft banked to one side, soaring over New England’s rolling hills and emerald grass. “You can discredit it, I think. Several of the professors and investors were found to be cultists. State of Massachusetts shut it down… right about the first time the Beatles rolled into New York.”
Ellenton said nothing.
“This, on the other hand, might be of interest.” He produced a stack of papers from a briefcase and pressed the headset’s microphone closer to his mouth. His voice came rich with static over the comms system. “A woman found these letters cooped up in her Pa’s attic in Boston, six years after his death. Held onto them for forty years—until the quarantine became worldwide news—before she coughed ‘em up. Writer was one Arthur Matheson, surveyor of the now defunct New England Waterpoint Inc. By ‘attic’ I mean ‘loft’, in Brit talk.”
Ellenton accepted the letters without comment (when threatened, men in uniform often took stabs at his Britishness) and began browsing. The pertinent sections were highlighted a neon yellow, and he got the crux of it without poring over the towersome paragraphs.
Matheson had been responsible for surveying an area the locals called Blasted Heath, which was to serve as the location for the West Arkham Reservoir. Ammi Pierce related to Matheson the story of Nahum Gardner, his family and the misfortune that had befallen them in spring 1882.
The letters read, Ellenton folded them and exhaled. Heathland flashed by the cabin window.
“So,” McGuiness said, “maybe we can’t discount what the eggheads at Miskatonic reported, there being two written accounts of the meteorite’s impact. Do you believe in the supernatural, Mr. Ellenton?”
Discount the professors, don’t discount the professors; what type of push-pull game was the general playing?
“I once investigated a man who claimed to have picked up the ability to smell Death after serving in Iraq. He abducted his dying sister from a hospital. Leukaemia. From a psychiatric unit, some months later, he told me Death reeked of a pumpkin, bloated and rotting in the sun. What do you think of that?”
McGuiness’ brow furrowed. Not to be outsmarted, he said, “Psychiatric unit? My guess is he was a few cards short of a full deck.”
“PTSD, General McGuiness, nothing more.”
“I’ll make you a believer,” McGuiness said, shaking his forefinger. “As Matheson documented in the ‘20s, something evil blighted Gardner’s farm. And once you’ve seen what I have, you’ll credit the third-party accounts.”
“It’s not the supernatural you’re asking me to believe in.”
A grin spread the length of McGuiness’s mouth. “It came from out of space, that’s all I know. Purple, magenta, burgundy—none of these things? Yes. It’s not of this world.”
Ellenton ignored this grandiosity. “Matheson’s daughter, did she give you other clues?”
“ ‘fraid not. Suffered a stroke three weeks after the military erected fences. She was ninety-one. Anyone who knew anything about this, after that thingflew out of Gardener’s drinking well, fled the area and never spoke of it again.” McGuiness sucked his lip and added, “Like holocaust survivors, they buried it. They thought it was buried, literally, under the West Arkham Reservoir.”
That’s what Matheson planned, Ellenton thought, praying everyone might sleep a little easier knowing it was entombed beneath the depths, but the colour survived—thrived, if McGuiness was to be believed.
Ellenton sniffed. No, it couldn’t be real; had to be yank hysteria.
“We’re coming up on the checkpoints.” McGuiness tapped the window. “When the colour expanded, we moved the barricades. Now, though, the colour’s outpacing us.”
The helicopter climbed over a ridge. From there, the hillside sloped away and fences appeared on the new horizon. Tanks and soldiers dotted the road like action figures. The rifles propped on their shoulders looked like toothpicks.
Ellenton opened his mouth to comment when his tongue knotted. He gasped, and McGuiness chuckled.
Beyond the fences and barbwire, beyond a stark ring of greenery the width of two tennis courts, a luminous colour rippled and tumbled. A storm without anger, a cloud without darkness, but with all of the vibrance and colour. It reminded Ellenton of the aurora borealis, yet the comparison struck him as wholly inadequate, like comparing the spark of a matchstick to a nuclear explosion.
“That’s the beautiful part,” McGuiness said, an edge coming to his voice. No, something closer to a growl. “President thinks you’re important, so you get to see the back half. The bad half. Hope you’re as important as she thinks.”
The glow went on and on, and Ellenton found himself grinning. Grinning! The colour, he thought, was like looking upon the face of—
He wanted to say God but settled on divinity.
“It’s wonderful,” he stammered.
And then the colour—like his euphoria—turned to ash. Beyond the light, the world blanched into a decaying and a lifeless grey, flaking away like old paint. A despair, he thought, as the chop of the helicopter blades fell away, that stretched as far as the eye could see.
When Ellenton turned from the window, he found McGuiness hadn’t been growling at all. A blubber rattled the military’s man’s body. His visible eye, beneath it flooded a sheet of tears.
The general said, “Take a look, Ringo.”
The reservoir came into view. Its water churned and great peels of the landscape drifted within. Bricks, stretches of road and tainted earth. It reminded Ellenton of whiskey spilt in an ashtray.
Above, a haze muddied the sky. Looking out the helicopter’s window, it gave the impression of peering through curtains yellowed by a smoker’s cigarettes.
“For over a hundred years, that reservoir soaked up the meteor’s colour, slowing the spread. It’s taken Arkham and a number of other towns already. At this new rate of acceleration, it’ll span the whole of Massachusetts in a month.”
“The residents?” Ellenton cleared his throat. “The ones inside… the ones who didn’t make it out?”
“Insane to the last one,” McGuiness said, snorting back another blubber, a hitch of breath. “They wither first. Attack people second. Then flake away on the wind, like vampires at sunrise. Do I have to convince you of that, too?”
“No,” Ellenton said, but he little more than mouthed it.
If the colour was heaven, then Hades pervaded in its wake. Ellenton shook his head and found himself suppressing a giddy, morose laugh.
None of this was real. It couldn’t be.
“So,” McGuiness said, “do you have a solution the US hasn’t put on the table? Clock’s ticking.”
A stench permeated the cabin. Ellenton thought, Like a bloated and rotting pumpkin in the sun.
“Tell the pilot to go back. We can, can’t we?” A bead of sweat—or tear—wet his lips. He stood, palmed the window with one hand and loosened his collar with the other. He yanked out his tie and threw it on the seat beside General McGuiness. “Please, I can’t breathe. Please, before I snap.”
“You best sit down, son. Here—”
McGuiness stood, but Ellenton shoved him back into his seat.
“Don’t touch me.”
The general stared up at him, every drop of colour drained from his face. He no longer looked sad. Something had replaced it. Something, Ellenton thought, like fear.
“Mr Ellenton, are you feeling yourself?”
His throat was chaffed, the walls of the helicopter suffocatingly close, and something boiled inside of him. A scream pounded his sternum, clawing to escape. If he opened his mouth, he was certain he would whistle like a witch put to fire.
McGuiness squinted, seemingly at Ellenton’s chin. “No. No, no, no.” His jowls trembled. “It’s impossible.”
Ellenton swiped at his face, checking, and something crusted his fingers. He flicked his wrist and a crumb-like patter sprinkled the floor.
He sank back into his seat, holding his fist at arm’s length. A grated substance clung to his skin. “Wh-what’s happening to me?”
McGuiness grabbed the briefcase and shielded his body. He leapt into his seat, squatted, and pressed himself into the wall, repelled by the contaminated hand. “Can’t be. No. We’re not even touching the ground.”
“I’m… What did you say? Withering?”
McGuiness banged on the door that separated them from the cockpit. “Open up. Quick.”
The door banged open and the pilot filled the frame. Above a line of drool hanging from a puckered lip, his eyes shone vivid magenta.
McGuiness squashed himself into the corner, covering his body with the briefcase that protected little more than his chest. “It’s impossible,” he repeated. “Get a grip of yourselves!”
Just then, Ellenton realised he had been seeing everything through a purple filter—or a close approximation of purple. If God painted, it would have been this colour. Or God did paint, and this was his colour.
And McGuiness wanted to destroy the colour. McGuiness had called him Ringo. McGuiness had taken him away from…
The pumpkins cooking in the sun.
No, the pumpkin king cooding pumpthings.
“At least,” he said to no one in particular, “I think there werdid. Did? Where pumpthings.”
“Losing altitude,” the pilot said flatly.
Mr Ellenton, Death is coming. Big this time. I can smell it, and you’ve got to get me out of here so I can help. I can find it before it finds you!
“No,” Ellenton shouted, and stamped to his feet. “It’s PTSD.”
Triggered, the pilot launched himself at McGuiness, who swung the briefcase with all his might and connected with the pilot’s face.
The briefcase burst open and Arthur Matheson’s letters exploded in the cabin, decorating every surface in A4.
The pilot crashed into the far wall, his helmet flipping off his head and skating across the floor. He kneeled there, disorientated as if the victim of an unprovoked assault.
His left cheek had caved in. The hollow—underneath the yellowed trickle of blood from a broken orbital bone and the bulging eyeball within—skin had a threaded, parchmentlike texture. His mouth twisted into a grimace, then he threw himself at McGuiness.
Ellenton turned to the window, deaf to the general’s screams, watching as the sky rushed past them and into the heavens. The pumpkin man had been wrong. Here there was no stench of Death.
Eyes shut, he inhaled deep through his nostrils, deep into the back of his skull. It smelled like growth.
When finally he opened his eyes, the crashing waters of the West Arkham Reservoir welcomed him with an iridescent embrace.
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