By A.G. Hilton
The secret came with a name: Francis Ashford. The name meant nothing to Stephen Hayes who was confident that, until two weeks ago, he had never heard it much less known its connection to him and his family. But that was before the letters came.
At first, he thought they were a scam: each claimed that a deceased relative — one Francis G. Ashford — had recently passed and being the closest remaining kin, he was the inheritor of the man’s estate etc., etc.
Too good to be true, too contrived. Yet his pulse quickened while reading them. The notices looked official enough. And an inheritance of any kind would be a welcome thing, a kind of answered prayer, really. He’d been letting things slip since his folks passed unexpectedly, and especially after Clarice left him for that hotshot lawyer in Orlando. The past months had crawled by raw and empty as Stephen realized that he was now middle-aged and utterly alone. It was a hope of escape from dwelling on this stomach state that led him to answer the phone when the unrecognized number rang him shortly after the arrival of the second letter.
The fateful call dispelled any doubts concerning the inheritance’s authenticity, and so it was that Stephen found himself traveling from the warm climes of Florida to the brisk air of the Appalachians on the cusp of winter.
The intrigue of the thing enticed him more than anything else. He had done some digging into his family history and found that, yes, this Francis Ashford was in fact of the same Ashfords as his late mother.
His mother had never talked much about her past, but Stephen knew that she had been orphaned by a house fire while living in some rural dump up north; a back water called Dunnich or some such place. From there she had trickled through the System, ending up ultimately in the care of a family living in New Smyrna Beach, Florida where she would remain until meeting Stephen’s father. Per her story, she had no remaining relatives of consequence and her immediate family had all died in the fire.
It was exciting to learn news to the contrary, if somewhat troubling. He couldn’t help but wonder why this Uncle had been excised from his mother’s accounts of her childhood. But he tried not to let the suspicions bother him. Families often had falling outs resulting in the ostracization of one party or the other. Still, he couldn’t shake the shroud of anxiety which had begun to cloud his thoughts the further he drove along I-74 toward the Blue Ridge Mountains.
Having himself been born and raised in the flatlands of Florida, the sight of the rolling hills and deep hollows fascinated him. They suggested a grandeur of the natural world that made him feel small. They also reminded him of those Hillbilly movies, Deliverance and the like.
If there are any places where secrets are kept, he mused, this is one of them.
Nestled in the westernmost limit of North Carolina, Murphy was remote, small, and quaint. The main street looked to belong in an episode of The Andy Griffith Show replete with a friendly looking town hall and green awning fringed shop fronts. Several signs advertised ongoing art shows, but all was placid and calm on this Friday afternoon save a small group of people standing on one corner holding Bibles and hailing each passerby as they went. It was just past three in the afternoon. He wasn’t scheduled to meet the attorney until closer to four thirty and decided to swing into an empty spot in front of the visitor’s center, thinking the folks here might be able to point him to the right spot for a quick meal.
The bell above the door tinkled lightly. Inside, the place was a microcosm of the main street, neat and quiet. Stephen tapped the service bell with no effect and drummed his fingers on the countertop. His eye drifted to a map on the wall before him. It depicted the state of North Carolina alone, as if it had been a large slice of pie removed from the rest of the country. At the point where the state began to taper off to a point on its western side was a bright red star nearly flush with the map’s edge labeled: MURPHY! You’ve found the Edge of the Map!
This brought a nervous chuckle and thoughts about what might happen if one fell off such a map’s edge.
Stephen tapped the bell again and made to leave when he heard a fain flushing sound from the back rooms followed by the quick patter of footsteps. A portly woman in a blue blouse with long panted nails bustled out to the counter looking flustered as she adjusted her glasses.
“So sorry. I didn’t realize anyone was in.” She laughed; a sound that twanged as did her accent. “Now, what can I help you with? Looking for some good restaurants, some hiking spots maybe? We have some great places to rent kayaks, but I reckon the season for that’s passed. Real beautiful views on the rivers around here.”
“That sounds fun, but I think I’ll only have time to check out some of those restaurants. Just passing through on a bit of business.”
The woman struck Stephen as a busy body, hardly someone worth sharing his business with. But he had questions of his own, and a busy body might be able to give him some insight into this mysterious Mr. Ashford.
“It’s kinda crazy,” he said. “But I found out about a long-lost uncle who lived around here. Maybe you’ve heard of him?”
“Oh, I do know right many folks up this way. What’s his name?”
“Actually, he passed recently. A man by the name of Francis Ashford. I’ll be heading up to his place — think it’s up the mountain, somewhere called Overlook Way — after going over some things with the attorney.”
The woman froze midway through adjusting the glasses on the bridge of her nose and frowned at the countertop. She seemed to be thinking up a response when she realized he had finished and said, “No, sorry, that one doesn’t ring a bell. Now, if you’ll excuse me, I have to finish up with some things in the back.”
“Oh… well, would you mind pointing me to a restaurant?”
“Just stick to the stuff on main street.”
And then she was gone, bustling back from whence she had come. Stephen stood for a moment running back over the conversation in his mind, not understanding what he had said to offend the woman.
He left his car in front of the visitor’s center and walked down a block to a café on the corner. When he finished his chili cheeseburger and fries, he ambled back to the rental, seeing that it would soon be time to meet the lawyer. As he sat behind the steering wheel, he happened to glance up the street and saw the woman from the visitor’s center talking with a portly gentleman who clasped a thick Bible under one arm. The pair of them seemed to sense his gaze and both looked back, regarding him with eyes that wished him gone.
Mr. Stafford proved to be as pleasant in person as he had sounded over the phone. A thin man with thinner hair, he fussed about with paperwork and walked Stephen through more indisputable proof of his mother’s relationship to the mysterious Mr. Ashford as well as the legal side of the property transfer.
“Will you be going up to the property this evening, Mr. Hayes? You could stay there, if you don’t have other lodging. As I understand it, the utilities are still connected owing to the sudden nature of Mr. Ashford’s passing. Courtesy of the estate account.”
“About that, Mr. Stafford—”
“Call me Brent, please.”
“Right, Brent. About Mr. Ashford’s — Uncle Ashford’s — sudden passing. Was there anything strange about it or about him?”
“Maybe I’m reading things wrong. It’s just, when I stopped in at the visitor’s center, I told the lady why I was here, and she got all weird. Like, once I said I was related to him she didn’t want anything to do with me. Just got me wondering.”
“Well, now.” Mr. Stafford ran a hand through his thinning hair. “Forgive me saying so, but I wouldn’t say anything is strange about having a heart attack, would you?”
“Why your connection to the late Mr. Ashford would make people treat you strange, I personally haven’t a clue, and I’m very sorry to hear it. I can’t claim to have any intimate knowledge of your uncle myself, our relationship being purely a business one. But as I understand it, he did tend to keep to himself. And you know how small towns can whisper about those they deem outsiders.”
He did. But despite Mr. Stafford’s reassurance, this news did nothing to make him feel any less anxious.
Overlook Way was nesteld in the mountains north of the town proper. A gravel trail, winded its way precipitously back and forth along the mountain side, and several times Stephen wondered how he would be able to safely navigate his way down assuming he managed to make the top. He saw no other houses save one near the foot of the mountain, and he had begun to doubt that his GPS had pointed him in the right way when he finally topped a rise and came upon his Uncle’s house.
A little lodge with wood paneling and a large bay window which looked off the mountain and into rolling hills beyond sat quietly amid the pines. The view was breathtaking, and Stephen understood the reason for the road’s namesake. With the way the ridge was situated, the view was aligned between bordering hills so that one did not see any signs of civilization, as if one was looking through a window into a past of uncharted lands.
As for the house, its interior was sparsely decorated and showed obvious signs of neglect. The kitchen was the worst, stacked with dirty dishes and the remains of various cans which looked to have been Ashford’s diet in his last days. Most rooms displayed little indication that they had been inhabited or used recently. The exception was the living room with its vast bay window. Here, it seemed, the man had lived most of his life as indicated by a cot situated in the corner. Bookshelves had been crammed into the space giving it the look of a place of study rather than of relaxation. More books sat in haphazard piles against the walls, some topped with notebooks and loose pages. The coffee table in front of the ragged couch had become little more than a receptacle for various papers covered with strange designs and patterns. By the bay window, seemingly the focal point of the chaos, sat an old rocking chair of darkened wood.
Stephen stood assessing the oddness of the living arrangements when a knock sent him to the front door.
The visitor stepped back as the door opened and nodded his head with its greying hair about the temples. “Hope I’m not bothering you. I reckon you’re one of Mr. Ashford’s kinfolk.”
“Yeah, well my Mom, she was his sister. She passed recently as well.”
“Very sorry about your losses.”
“Thank you. But if I’m being honest, it’s only one loss; I never knew Mr. Ashford myself.”
The man nodded again. “Don’t surprise me. If not for some off-hand comments over the years, I would’ve thought he didn’t have any relatives. Kept to himself.”
“You knew him?”
The man shrugged and looked away. “Better than most, I reckon. I used to do some work for him. We’d have a drink every now and again. That was my place what you passed on your way up here.”
“Well, it’s good to meet you Mr.—”
“Burke.” The man offered his hand. “George Burke, at your service.”
“Stephen.” They shook, and Stephen paused for a moment. “Would you like to come in? I picked up a few things in town before heading this way. It’s not much, but I sure would like to talk to you seeing how you knew my Uncle.”
Burke hesitated, looking for the briefest moment as if he’d been invited to sit on a chair of knives, then nodded and followed Stephen into the house.
“I was the one who found him, you know?”
“Oh? I’m sorry to hear it.”
Burke shrugged and sipped from his cup of instant coffee. He paced, refusing Stephen’s invitation to take a seat and regarded the bookshelves as if they harbored something which might jump out at him. “He was sat up in that rocking chair over there. Looked paler ‘n one of them cave fish you might happen to catch every now and again downstream in them rivers what run out of the hills. Eyes bulged out like one of them too. Wouldn’t have been surprised if he’d have jumped up and screamed what with the expression on his face.”
“He looked… scared. Don’t know. I reckoned he’d had a heart attack. I know that’s what they said in the police report. Maybe it was some reaction to all them pills he was taking there at the end. I reckon he could’ve taken too many.”
“He was on some kind of medication, then?”
Another shrug. “Said it was to help him sleep. Can’t say for sure. But he did on occasion complain about not sleeping right.”
Stephen chewed the man’s words over and circled around to the rocker by the great bay window. He tried to imagine the scene, the pale death mask with its silent scream, and shivered. Upon closer inspection, something else on the chair caught his eye: carvings, which he first thought were letters and then found to be strange symbols, ran along the edge of the rocker’s seat.
“And what about all of this?” Stephen indicated the thrown together living arrangements and piles of books around them. “Looks like a mad professor made a nest in here.”
“Wasn’t always like this. Happened in the last few years. No explanation. I figured it was on account of Mr. Ashford getting on in years. Wanted to make everything more accessible.”
Stephen ran a hand along the spines of the books shelved nearest to him. He plucked one off at random. The volume was old, and when he opened it, he found the words indecipherable. After a moment, he realized the book was written in Latin: De Vermis Mysteriis, the title read.
“Seems like he was quite the brain,” Stephen said as he shelved the volume. “Makes me curious. Don’t know why Mom never spoke about him.”
Again, Burke only shrugged. “By the time I met Mr. Ashford he was already settled in at this place, retired, and in his studies.”
“Studies?” Stephen eyed the strange volumes. “Any idea what about?”
“Not really. Figured it was his business, unlike the busy bodies ‘round here. Tell you the truth—and it sounds ridiculous—but folks ‘round here thought that your uncle was some kind of… well, some kind of wizard or something.”
Stephen stared at the man on the verge of laughter, but the look in Burke’s eyes said that he was not joking.
“Well, you gotta remember that I didn’t know Mr. Ashford for most of his life. I didn’t even live in the area until the ‘90’s, so I can’t say what kinda reputation he’d built over the years. I reckon it mostly had to do with his keeping to himself so much. That and sometimes he’d have some visitors that tended to catch the eye. Foreigners mainly, kinda professor types to hear tell of them. I only ever saw a few myself, couple of strange looking boys from some port town up in New England. Way I saw it, your Uncle was smart as a whip and interested in things that went over folks’ heads.”
Silence fell as Stephen again took stock of the room.
“Any idea what you’ll do with the place, if you don’t mind my asking?” said Burke.
“I don’t know. Guess I’ll try to sell the property, but I’m curious to look everything over.” His eye returned to the shelves of books. “Maybe the old guy squirrelled away some money in these old things. I had a great grandmother who did that. Mostly, I want to look through the stuff while I have the chance, see what I can find out about him. Then, it’s back to Florida as soon as I’m able.”
“That’ll be good,” Burke said with a nod. He looked around the room once more. “Where will you be staying while on business hereabouts?”
“I hadn’t thought about it, but they said I could stay here. Beats paying for a bed.”
“My door’s open if you’d rather not bed down in this old place.”
“Thanks, but I think I can manage.”
Burke chewed his lip. “Well, I reckon you know best. But if you need anything, and I mean anything at all, you give me a call. Hear?”
With that Stephen was left alone in the empty mountain house with its piles of books and its silence.
The old house was not comfortable living, but Stephen found himself distracted, wiling hours of light away nosing through various books from the shelves. He was surprised to find that most of them were written in other languages, some he did not recognize. A few volumes were completely bizarre including another Latin translation entitled Necronomicon, the bizarre illustrations of which left him reconsidering his choice to stay in the isolated house. If he had been a genius, Francis Ashford had been an eccentric one.
Before turning in, Stephen gave the house a second inspection. It remained as barren as he recalled, but one thing caught his attention which had been missed upon his first investigation: A door beneath the stairwell from which hung the busted remains of a padlock. It appeared to lead to a cellar, but Stephen did not investigate further. Upon opening the door, he was struck by a stench of rot and decay which sent him heaving toward the bathroom. Dead rats, most likely. He would have to have it cleaned and maybe get an exterminator, just to be safe.
Unwilling to sleep on the dead man’s cot, Stephen found a bare bed upstairs which he curled upon and slept only thinly. He dreamed in brief plunges into deep unconsciousness, always awakened by images of misshapen things slouching down a darkened hall and a feeling of being watched from afar.
Stephen didn’t look up from the row of tomatoes in the supermarket’s produce section. It seemed an oppressive, leaden blanket of exhaustion wrapped his mind. But the call was repeated. He turned, finding a portly man in a gray suit and silk shirt approaching. He was older, perhaps in his 60’s if his grey, yet full head of hair, was anything to go by. The man stopped several yards from Stephen as he turned.
“You moved in up at that Ashford’s place, didn’t you?”
Stephen blinked at him and tried to grasp what the man was asking. His head pounded like he’d been drinking the night before. If only he could have gotten some real sleep. At last he managed, “I’m his nephew. Just up to settle some affairs.”
The man nodded solemnly. “I see. And what do you plan on doing with the property?”
Stephen shrugged. “I haven’t figured it out yet. Sell it, I guess.”
The man reached fat fingers into his jacket pocket and snapped out a check book. “Boy, if you name your price, I will take it from you right this instant.”
Stephen blinked in confusion. Then, it struck him; he recognized the jowly face. The man had been with the others on the street corner proclaiming the Good Word at the top of their lungs when Stephen arrived in town. He had also been the one talking to the lady from the visitor’s center.
“I appreciate the offer,” Stephen said. “But I’m going to get a realtor involved. It’s a nice place and the property—”
“That property is the Devil’s playground.”
Stephen recoiled. “Pardon me?”
“That Ashford was constructing a hive of devils, and that’s no secret at all. The place needs to be burned and forgotten, cleansed by righteous fire now that Ashford’s been taken back to his own.”
Feeling a sudden flush in his cheeks, Stephen stepped closer to the man whose face was now reddened and in whose temple a vein throbbed. “Look, I don’t know what the hell is wrong with you or any of the other inbred hicks in this town, but I think you all need to take a goddamn step back and show some respect for the dead.”
Stephen brushed past the man, intentionally shoving him with his shoulder, and made for the registers.
“Don’t tell me you haven’t felt it, boy.”
Stephen stopped and wheeled on the man. “What are you talking about?”
“You tell me. Word is you stayed there last night.”
Stephen shook his head, clenching his jaw as he did so, and turned away.
“I’ll pray for you, boy. Pray that you make the right decision and burn that place to the ground before anything else happens. Before the Eye falls on you too.”
It had grown dusky when Stephen finally returned to the house on Overlook Way. Upon entering, he found the place cold. When the stench hit him, he realized the basement door was open. He stood in the doorway, finding himself unwilling to go further, and caught himself listening for furtive movements in darkness. Don’t be a chicken, he thought and had to chuckle at himself then for letting that crackpot in town get his imagination all worked up. The basement door had a bad latch which explained why the now busted lock had been installed in the first place. He would have that seen to as well, perhaps after he had whatever was stinking down there cleaned out.
Later, Stephen caught himself dozing in the old rocking chair as stars filled the sky beyond the bay window. A thick book lay open on his lap. He must have fallen asleep reading it, though he could not remember ever picking it up. Strangest of all, the volume, like many other was written in some foreign language. A sheaf of paper scrawled with various notes in a thin script fell from the book as he hefted it from his lap. At its top he read the heading: “The Gateway and the Key.”
Stephen stretched and yawned, finally feeling some vitality come back into him, and let his hand drop to the edge of the rocker where it absently rubbed at the strange carvings there. The view outside was beautiful. The last of the blood red sunset drained fully from view and the stars shined brighter than Stephen had ever seen them. They were innumerable here, the sky seemed to burst in a vast and limitless expanse, and he couldn’t help but stare in wonder and feel small beneath it. How often had Uncle Ashford sat in this very spot thinking his mysterious thoughts?
Stephen went to stand and turn on a light, but something in the scene outside caught his eye.
No moon beamed down its nocturnal light, but something, perhaps the numerous stars, gave the hills and ridges a soft glow that made him think he was looking at something (somewhere) other than the wooded mountainsides. Beneath this glow, all lay still and silent save two pale things on the closest ridge. Stephen settled back into the chair, squinted, and was shocked to see that the shapes were those of two human figures. Neither wore clothes despite the coldness of this pre-winter night and both stared at him. The sheer distance should have made it impossible to discern other details, but as Stephen squinted, he found that he could see each figure’s features as if they stood but a few yards away. Their flesh lay waxy beneath the pale glow of the scene, powdered by mortician’s make-up.
He bolted up, nearly overturning the rocker. “Mom! Dad!”
They were gone. The view outside, though still holding a small amount of the preternatural light faded to near total obscurity. Stephen rubbed his eyes and blinked to clear them. A dream; he must have dozed off again. He thought maybe his brain was telling him he had never taken the time to mourn his parents like he should have, that he had never really accepted everything that had happened in the past year amid doldrums of everyday life. Whatever the case, one thing was clear: he needed to sleep worse than he thought.
Flicking on a light, he made for the kitchen suddenly craving a glass of milk. On the way, he paused. Again, the basement door stood ever so slightly ajar. He closed it, smelling that strange odor of decay and imagining that he heard something larger than rodents down there. That damn zealot from the supermarket must have done a number on his subconscious with that haunted house bullshit. Yet this time when he returned, he put a chair from the kitchen against the door to quiet his imagination.
He was debating where to sleep when he noticed something in the study area. A thin, leather volume lay in the center of the coffee table amid piles of papers. It stood out against the white sheets, and Stephen was surprised he had not noticed it before. He sat on the ragged couch and leafed through the book, remembering that the top shelf of one of the bookcases contained an entire row of similar looking volumes. As he scanned the pages and the thin script, Stephen suddenly knew exactly how he might find out more about his mysterious uncle, for the volume in his hand was not a book at all; it was a journal.
He would have spent the rest of that night studying the journals, but no sooner had he endeavored to begin reading he fell asleep. Once or twice he awoke to noises like something shuffling about which could only be the settling of the house. Otherwise, he slept deeply and dreamed equally deep dreams. The dreams were alien to him, bearing no semblance to his waking life almost as if they weren’t his dreams at all. In them, he floated freely like the stars wheeling about above Overlook Way, seeing across great expanses of void and light.
Stephen woke with a start in the old rocker, a blanket draped across him, another large tome tumbled on the floor before him. Sunlight beamed, and he no idea how late into the day he’d slept. He only remembered lying down on the couch. What’s more, the chair he seemed to remember foolishly putting in front of the basement door was now in its proper place in the kitchen. But he dismissed these things. He’d been tired last night and probably not in his right mind what with all the stress lately. Hell, he remembered thinking he’d seen his parents out there on the ridge. It pleased him, however, to see that at least one part of the prior evening had been undoubtedly real: the journals.
Stephen knew he needed to see a realtor about putting the house on the market and find out how he could arrange to have the clutter removed and the basement cleaned. What with the state of things, he may need to hire a damn contractor to make sure everything was up to code. But the mystery of the journals called to him and despite feeling that he had finally slept well, he felt no less exhausted. He picked up the one on the coffee table and glanced at several of the dates. The oldest only went back as far as the past year meaning this was the last Uncle Ashford had written before his death.
But before he could begin reading, there was a knock at the door
George Burke had come calling — smelling Stephen thought, ever so slightly of whiskey — and despite the overwhelming curiosity which begged Stephen to look through the journals, another part of him was strangely relieved to be interrupted. As much as it fascinated him, the atmosphere of the house, a heaviness of which he had only recently become fully aware, was beginning to wear on him. At Burke’s suggestion they went into town for a sandwich. By the time they finished eating in their secluded corner booth, Burke had already put back several beers and was cultivating an even more pronounced slur.
“Hope you don’t mind me taking you away like this. I just figured you might need to get out for a bit. Might wanna… talk some more. You been sleeping up there?”
Stephen knew the reason for the man’s question. He’d seen the bags under his eyes in the bathroom mirror before they had left. “Not well, I guess. Got a lot on my mind. I guess it’s just overwhelming.”
Burke nodded and swigged his beer. “I heard you had a run in with the Reverend in the supermarket.”
“Yeah, you can say that. Got a little defensive, I guess. I don’t understand what people around here had against Ashford. I didn’t even know him, but it makes me pissed off the way people act.” Stephen leaned across the table and fixed Burke’s eyes firmly in his own. “Be straight with me. Was my uncle on the up and up or was something bad happening up at that house? The whole mess is starting to get to me.”
“Son, your uncle was a… dear friend of mine.” Burke’s reddened eyes brimmed with sudden tears. “And even if I didn’t know all his business or about his books and secrets, I know that he would never want to hurt anyone. He was haunted, see? Haunted ‘cause he hurt someone else.”
“Who did he hurt?”
Burke had regained control of himself and his voice steadied. “They was poor back then, your uncle’s family. Still had a woodstove for heat. He wanted to help his daddy out, stoke the flame, feed the fire some, what with the nights being cold as they were. He never said what happened, but he said it was an accident and I believe him.”
“Oh my god.” Stephen drank the man’s words in with dawning revelation. “He started the fire.”
“You don’t know how much that tormented him. He’d talk about it when he was in his cups, how it drove him to do what he’d been planning.”
“I don’t know. Damn him, he’d never let me know, said he never wanted me involved. But now he’s gone. And I tell you, I don’t really believe what they say about the heart attack.” All at once, Burke gripped Stephen forearm and leaned across the table. “He saw something up there. Something what killed him to look at it. There was a big storm that night when he died, and I swear something was in the swirling clouds over them hills. I’ve tried to tell myself that I imagined it, but, dammit, I can’t anymore!”
Stephen jerked his hand back and succeeded in freeing himself. He wondered what had come over the man, if it was just the alcohol, or if the alcohol was only a means by which the otherwise stoic man could bring himself to speak of these things. Stephen glanced around the room. The commotion was beginning to draw stares.
Stephen pulled money out of his wallet and stood. “C’mon let’s get you out of here.”
Burke grabbed his wrist anew. Startled, Stephen was pulled forward so that he was nose to nose with the man. “Listen, son. I been thinking on it since you come up this way, and I done you wrong by trying to make things seem like they was all fine. It was selfish, pure denial. He was up to something up there, that much is true. I don’t rightly know what, but I know one thing: It was something serious.”
Stephen threw himself back with more force than he meant to and scattered empty beer bottles. He fled the bar then, leaving an alcohol addled George Burke alone in the corner booth.
The day passed in a blink. He went straight back, shaken by Burke’s sudden and shocking behavior, and began at once to read the journals to try to make some sense of the mysteries presented. As he read, the sun dwindled away and the story which unspooled before him filled his guts with a squirming anxiety. For the pages raised more questions than answers, and the answers provided were hardly sane.
Stephen’s hands shook as he sorted once more though the stacks of journals on the coffee table. Already dark was falling, and ever since returning he had not once risen from the old couch save to do one thing: wedge another chair against the basement door. He watched the door steadily now, wondering what may be crouched on the other side.
But what was in those pages, the hints regarding Ashford’s demise… it could only be madness. The man had a heart attack. The records said so. And if he had been medicated in some way, could it have been for a condition that would make one prone to delusions like the ones in the journals? Stephen wanted to believe these things, almost could, but the writings seemed so sane, clinically detached, and the narrative painted so consistent, so damn… logical in its way.
He turned once more to the final pages of the last journal Uncle Ashford had kept, passing the graphs, diagrams, and symbols which filled the other pages; all of which, he had come to realize, matched the inscriptions on the old rocker. The penultimate entry was dated October 26, 2019.
I have finally attempted it. I am old now and weak. I fear now that the thing cannot be completed, but I could not have attempted it any sooner. All my life I have tried to prepare, to gather all understanding and the texts required, yet still it is not enough.
I have not pursued this selfishly. I know that Sherry will never forgive me for what happened to our family. Nor should she. I will never pretend for a moment that the fire — even if it was an accident — was not my fault. But I thought I could make it right. Even as a child I was keen enough to know there was power unseen which might accomplish such a task. I knew the old whispers about the Whateleys back in Dunwich for what they were: truth.
Yet, after all the years of work to find such a unique place as this, to build this house, to fashion the Chair, and to consult with every Shaman, Medium, Witchdoctor, Medicine Man, and Hexenmeister who know the truth of the Old Things I have failed.
Sherry, I am sorry. Even though you will never know, I am sorry. I hoped to give them back to you. I wanted to restore, even if only in a small part, what had been stolen from you. But it is beyond me. I sought them; for if our afterlife myths have anything to them, perhaps they still existed somewhere in one form or another. Perhaps a power with access to those other places, to other times even, could provide the key. I thought I found them. But, having at last pierced the veil, the things I retrieved from the ridge disgust me in their incompleteness. Perhaps the Old Science is as worthless as the new when it comes to matters of death.
But what to do with them now? Perhaps they can be restored fully. Perhaps they need to be destroyed. In truth, I fear them, their shuddering breath —
Stephen’s eyes snapped up to the basement door. Something seemed to press against it now, as if testing the obstruction. But this could not be. Nothing was in the basement except rats. He thought of standing then and ripping the chair away, throwing the door wide just to prove it. But he could not bring himself to act. Defeated, he looked back to the journal’s last pages:
…they will not die. Too strong is their connection to the well of power on the other side.
For this place is special. I have known this, and yet I have underestimated it completely. Like the high places in old Dunwich, these hills with their curves and slopes create the perfect geometry, geometry used in sigils and other supposed “magic” symbology by humans in ignorance for as long as man has wondered about the nature of reality. That is why the Veil is thin. That is why I could commune with that which could provide the access beyond which I required.
The Natives of old knew the nature of this place and avoided it. It is too late for me. I feel It ever watching and waiting to collect Its due. I am so tired. I know how it must end. Its will swallows my own indifferently. The chair is so inviting, but I dare not sit and face It. Not yet.
Every gate has a gatekeeper: It is preeminent of those Outer Gods and stands astride time and space. Aion, Chronos, so many names, all one and the same and none close to the truth or The Name, Yog-Sothoth, which I dare not speak. It crouches ever at the doorway eternal.
And though the Door be opened, who can shut it?
Stephen stood, the journal falling from his hands. Slowly he looked around and wondered. Wondered about the books and the man, his own uncle, who— if a fraction of what he had written was true — had done something which Stephen could not comprehend much less believe.
Stephen walked to the rocker, the movement unconscious and mechanical. He needed to sit and think, to make some sense of things before he went as crazy as Uncle Ashford had been. His mind was exhausted. All at once, the chaos of his life came to a boiling point, and with no relations and no friends in these mountains he no longer felt properly moored to anything in a sane reality.
As he sat in the chair, absently rubbing the grooves of the mysterious carvings, the nighttime world once again became illuminated by the pale glow. The stars whirled overhead, and Stephen could only marvel at all of this as a weight of exhaustion almost willful in its intensity pressed him into the seat. It seemed that the symbols carved into the wood had begun to glow. Slowly, he began to rock, and in rocking he felt suddenly that he teetered on some vast precipice.
A noise of splintering wood came then, but it seemed only a whisper beneath a torrential roaring which now filled his ears as of a great wind whipping the mountains outside. Then the smell wafted from the basement. Not, he realized, the stench simply of rotting tissues, but that of burned and charred flesh. His head was locked in place by a will not his own. He could not see them as they approached, but he knew them from the journals, and sensed them as the stench grew stronger, as he heard their ragged breathing described in those pages. Charred hands pressed down on his shoulders, and if it weren’t for the state of their flesh, perhaps the scene could have been a family portrait. He may have even recognized his mother’s features in their own. For he knew that they too were his flesh and blood.
Stephen realized he could see far now, farther than the view from Overlook Way suggested. For the view was not into the world but beyond into someplace deeper which pulsed and throbbed with chaos beyond the ridges and hills, and he knew with certainty that the Door had remained open. And like the broken basement door, it could not contain the what lay beyond.
On the horizon it rose from that chaos, the rounded, dull-yellow shape of the fullest moon Stephen had ever seen. But the scene was wrong. For the orb was joined by others which rolled, pulsed, and revealed slit pupils deeper than the oceans. Stephen screamed as the shroud lifted and he saw the heart of the secret, shared for the briefest instant the same sight his uncle had known. And as secret became truth, his sense of self withered away before a gaze from across gulfs unknown and unimagined. Laid bare were his most insignificant thoughts, leaving him in those final moments exposed and utterly alone in this world and worlds beyond.