So it begins - a story of haunts from other dimensions and a love that should never be inflicted on anyone. Part one of eight.
“I've allowed creatures from the true deep to feed on the edges of my soul. I've pledged allegiance to kings whose kingdoms will not exist for a thousand years. I have trod upon the corpses of deities. Anything you could offer me, I have gained and lost a hundred times before.”
For as long as she had known the difference between fantasy and reality, he had watched her wish on fairies. Clasping her hands beneath the brightest of stars or surrounded by the thickest of flowering bushes, as though by praying with enough fervency she could bring those mystical creatures into her world. Her lips would move, most often in silence, but there were times when his heart tugged to hear her whisper the name of her deceased mother instead.
He had given her everything a girl of that age could want, all of the sweets, stories, and freedom to roam in the gardens. Still she seemed to linger on the periphery of that spoiled life, always trying to bring some unpredictable magic into its fold.
Perhaps what happened that night was a terrible coincidence. Or perhaps, at last, her voice had succeeded in reaching some power from beyond the pale. Either way, he found himself standing stricken as she knelt by her bedside in prayer.
The window which stood over it should have shown the infinity of the heavens, but in that moment, its glass was rendered opaque. Its frame had been nothing more than carved wood, yet it was glowing keen and white, as though lit by the unmitigated brilliance of the sun.
The shadows of her beautiful room were burned away, and a hand was forced over his eyes to shield them from the sight. Still he stood transfixed, without the will to turn or the breath to call out to her. Where his fear pounded in the same suffocating rhythm as his heart, hers seemed to be absent, serenity stilling her youthful features. Rising in the plentiful ruffles of her nightgown, reaching out an experimental hand to something that he could not see.
And then he could. Like a skeleton of silver filigree, electricity playing in some restless mockery of the human form. The light of the stars was brought to rest in its edges, and every shift of its frame provoked a tremendous moan from the air.
A nightmare in motion, and she did not flinch from it. Its abstract suggestion of a hand was extended to hers, meeting, passing into one another as easily as air and light. The same light which expanded a hundredfold in the moment's wake, dazzling him beyond all sense and observation for what felt like endless minutes. Calling her name as he stumbled blind, blinking at the halos and fog which continued to obscure his vision.
The world came back to him moment by moment, outlines and restored shadows. Her room was as it had been, but some instinctual part of him knew the change before he could glimpse it with his own eyes.
She was standing before him, but that posture did not belong to her. None of the tentative deference or childish glee with which she had regarded him in her different moods. Arms were crossed against her chest, but not in the thwarted sulkiness that had often accompanied his denial of her requests.
Judging, impassive. Regarding him as an equal despite her scant height, despite all that their relationship dictated. And her eyes no longer carried the murky grey of the mother on whom she'd often called.
Dark as a night robbed of its stars, brooding purple somewhere in those eternal depths. Those hands were slow to fall to her sides, and though faint, that movement was accompanied by the same groan of air and space.
He was a man of ironclad dictates and social graces, but what was to guide his reaction in that moment? All that he had been taught, all that he had puzzled out from the unrelenting world, abandoned him there. Matching his posture to hers, hands loose, staring in a silence that he could not begin to break. Her name hung on his parted lips, but he could not draw a breath deep enough to speak it.
Her eyes were the first to fall away, but the absence of their scrutiny was no relief. If anything, that darkness seemed to deepen when they were pointed elsewhere, scanning back and forth along the floorboards as though to find some answer there.
When they lifted back to him, he was frozen anew, as though standing on the edge of some impossible cavern. Every muscle tensed and unmoving in fear of the drop, pulse whining in his ears until the moment when it was interrupted by her voice.
The voice that had called him 'papa' so many times before, but was it really? A resonant undertone, a new depth, as though something intoned those same words in perfect time with her. Simple words, speaking his name and title as she would never have done on her own initiative.
“Doctor Silas Addison,” it- she announced. She, damn it, it was his little girl who faced him in that alien way. Even if he could not push past the unprecedented fear to scoop her into his arms. “I do not knock on your door – I welcome myself across your threshold. I trust that the impropriety of this action will not harm any accord we may share in the future.”
Each word of that assumption seemed to beat against his ears, to settle on him with greater weight. Crushing his chest, closing his fists as he consulted every shred of scientific knowledge and failed.
It was the stuff of tattered, shameful stories. Of tales told between children in the dark, or drunkards with more superstition and whiskey than good sense.
It was not a part of his world. In his world, everything was known by scale and measurement, scribed on clean pages and stored in shelves. Everything recorded and governed, or avoided if it could not be so. Nothing in that world which could invite itself through windows in the night and steal the voices of praying children.
“I-” How did he address the nonexistent? The dream from which he was still certain he would wake? Perhaps the way he would address any other stranger. “Who are you?”
She was raising a hand to her chest in indication, fingers splayed across the ruffled white. A simple movement, but in observation of it, all of his willpower was required to refrain from screaming. To refrain from reproaching, demanding that it loose its grip and flee through the window from whence it had come.
It could not have her. It couldn't, but...but it was only a dream, wasn't it? Something that couldn't happen in the world he knew so well. Dawn would return him to consciousness, to clarity, and she would be there to ask for strawberries with her breakfast.
The nightmare which spoke could not hold sway for long. “In a majority of worlds,” it announced through her lips, “I am known as Gwyn. It is simple – it will do.” A momentary frown crossed her face, that same hand lifted to wipe at the shadows beneath her eyes. “She has been crying.”
His heart was crushing itself again, a puzzle assembled in his mind. The additional minutes she had taken in the washroom, the quavering voice in which she had insisted that she was fine. No doubt weeping for the lost mother again, and he had been elsewhere. Outside, wood and locks between them so that he could not put his arms around her.
He would be there in the morning, he promised himself. The vision which played out before him was only to remind him of how he had neglected her, and once it passed, its advice would be taken to heart.
“We buried her mother at the beginning of the year,” he answered, hating his own frailty of tone. “She cries often.”
Those hellish eyes, that nod of understanding. Again he was biting down on the urge to cry out in protest, reeling with each word that fell from his child's lips.
“Her understanding of death was partial,” the vision mused, letting that hand fall loose again. “To her, it was nonexistence, a soul shredded into less than dust. She pillages my memories to discover the truth – it is a doorway, and in a place only one cosmic step away, her mother lives a different life. She will cry no more.”
He would never have thought to be torn that way by simple words. Desperate to denounce it as a lie, to protect the sweet memories he had of the same buried woman. Still another part of him warmed to the concept, the idea that some aspect of her did not moulder and disintegrate in the earth. She could be elsewhere, and could know him still, even there.
“I don't understand,” he answered at last, choking the words through an uncooperative throat. He had thought his grief emptied, exhausted in private, but the stranger's simple words had already teased it from hiding. “What are you? How have you come to be here?”
As though his daughter was no more than a puppet on strings, moving by impulses not her own. Turned toward the window, its view restored, the stars sparkling in their vastness beyond.
“I am a concept that ran free,” it offered in cryptic response, “An idea brought forth by the universe itself. I came to be here through one of those cosmic steps, and your Andrea has agreed to house me during my visit. She is pleased with the knowledge that I have offered in return – through my recollections, she skips across the curve of dimensions. What of you, Doctor? Do you intend to protest our arrangement?”
He intended to wake, he intended to forget. In that moment, however, he found himself seized by the least welcome of thoughts.
What if it wasn't so? What if he was facing something that science had failed to name and quantify, a drastic misfortune that had stepped through his window from some unimaginable place?
The thought could not be entertained. His mind shrieked to conceive of it, and only when his hands began to ache did he realize how he had pressed his nails into his palms. It was a dream. It had to be, because he could not bear the alternative. He had scattered the first handful of dirt into his wife's grave not six months before, and he would break to see something else looking out from behind the eyes of his daughter.
He had intended to entertain the creature, to let it have its time for speaking and being. No harm in letting it have that brief reign, somewhere in the depths of his unconscious mind.
But its words were beating against his heart like hot hammers, and he would not abide its presence there any longer. “Of course I do,” he confirmed, with greater fervency than any dream deserved. “She is my daughter. I would have her here with me, whole and healthy.” He had intended to follow those words with a commanding shout, the insistence that the nightmare depart and brighten their windows no more. On the verge, however, pragmatism demanded that he reconsider.
His daughter could be harmed by its actions, and there was no telling what might provoke its offence. Though his objections could not be held inside, they could be voiced in a civil manner. “What,” he questioned the unwelcome presence, “Would convince you to leave her be?”
He would never have thought to see such disapproval in her face, such dark conviction. Turned toward him again, punishing his heart with its intensity.
“If her well-being is your concern,” the nightmare advised him, “You will allow me to reside in her for as long as we are both satisfied with the arrangement. In me, she is glimpsing the secrets for which your science will strive over the coming centuries. If that opportunity is torn from her, do you expect that her mind will ever recover? Or will you doom her to a life of discontent, wondering what else she may have learned from our association? You are the scientist – could you abide such a missed chance?”
No. No, if someone else had offered him such an opportunity, there was so much that he would have sacrificed to achieve it. But that was different, different in so many ways. He could not reach out to her when her eyes shone back at him in such a way. He could not confirm that she was as awed as the visitor said, could not be sure of her happiness until he heard its melody in her voice alone.
“She is no scientist,” he argued against the adamant stranger, words choked from a chest that would hardly allow them. “She is a child. She needs her- her toys and sweets, her studies, her tales of fairies. She needs her home and father, not- not free reign in the memories of some passing demon.” In speaking so, he could almost convince himself of the fact, enough so to voice his next words with conviction. “Give her back to me.”
That disapproval only deepened, harboured in the dizzying void that had become of her eyes. Again the nightmare was silent for a span of seconds, as though consulting with the child it had taken from him.
“She is not yours to take or have,” it informed him in the end. “She is satisfied with our arrangement, and understands its ramifications. I will not rescind that agreement at your request.”
His body was crushing him from the inside, returning that anguished whine to his ears as he recovered his voice. “Then- then why did you ask whether I approved?”
“I never did,” the visitor countered without a moment missed. “I asked whether you intended to protest. I did not promise any action according to your answer.”
It was true, wasn't it? Playing the conversation through his mind, suffocating despite the abundance of air.
He had to take hold of himself. It could still be a dream, and he would feel foolish for giving it such sway over his emotions. Everything would be sensible once the sun rose. Only by clinging to that fact could he find the breath and composure to reply.
“At the very least,” he sought to placate the stranger, “She must still have the proper care – the sort that she receives here. She was about to go to bed.” Had to silence the creature. Had to keep it in one place until dawn could shed some sensibility on the situation.
Relief poured over him in waves when it ducked her head in curt concession. “She is tired,” it agreed, with the detachment that made him feel most like dying inside. “Though before retiring, she would benefit from another glass of water.”
He was going to pieces inside. The request was too simple, too much like hers, though delivered in all of the wrong words. He was stepping back toward the room's open door like a machine set to perform a single task, and those dark eyes remained on his face until the angle of the hallway separated them from sight.
Only then did he press his back to the wall, hands to its cold solidity, shaking with the need to feel something real and known. The tears that he'd failed to exhaust were spilling down his cheeks, and his lips worked over the same feverish prayers that had occupied her for hours in the garden.
Though they were brought to a far different conclusion. Let it end – let sunlight bring normalcy to his home. It was the only outcome that he could abide.