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Panic, Jay decided. Panicking a little was maybe the best bet.
But not here. Breathing shallowly, he pushed himself to his feet, stumbling back down the drive, breaking into a staggering run as he headed back to his own house, his bastion of dubious safety.
Once inside, he leaned against the door and sank down, trying to catch his breath as it tried to outrace him. Okay, he thought, with a bit of hysteria, Everything is terrifying. But I wasn’t poisoned or murdered, I got a good breakfast, and I have a bit more of an idea of what’s going on. It’s just that what’s going on is local cults to elder gods.
Was that really such a big deal? He picked up one of Aunt Grace’s shoes and turned it around in his hands over and over, just to have something solid and tactile to keep him grounded. It being a local religion didn’t necessarily mean it was, like, something eldritch and awful. Just because Louis had talked about His Coming and shit like that didn’t mean it was real. Hell, Catholics also planned for His Coming, that was just, you know, mainstream.
God, the stories that Grace had told, the dream he’d had, were those tied into this too? When that woman in his dream had told him to find a sign, had there really been an actual person telling him to do so? Had he really been in a library? Had he traveled in his dreams, like Grace had always said she did?
He threw the shoe against the stairway banister post with a loud thunk, and closed his eyes, drawing a deep breath.
“Okay,” he said aloud. “Let’s say this is all real. Louis seemed like he was being honest, and he said nobody wanted to hurt me. There are way worse horror cult scenarios to be involved in. He was a relatively friendly connection. Nothing terrible happened. I’m fine.”
Because people who talked aloud to themselves about horror cult scenarios were fine, of course.
“Fuck,” he muttered. He pushed himself to his feet and headed to the basement door.
If there was no door in the house’s basement, then all that had been a story Aunt Grace had made up. If there was—well, it still didn’t necessarily mean anything, but it was a thing he could confirm, at least. Something solid to go off of one way or the other.
He gripped the banister firmly as he headed down the stairs, aware of how unsteady he was right now.
It wasn’t so bad, he reminded himself again. He hadn’t totally screwed up things with Louis, so if the man turned out to have been honest with him, he might have an ally in his corner—if not something more. Louis had been awkward and strange, but seemed to genuinely be hurting for human connection and eager to meet someone new. Perhaps he’d wanted to recruit Jay into his cult, but that might just be something he saw as a thing they could have in common.
He reached the bottom of the stairs, found the light switch, and threw it.
Most of the basement looked pretty normal. There was a long couch here, with a pillow and blanket set up, as if Grace used to sleep down here sometimes. A table was in front of the couch, and further ahead of it, a large wall-mounted TV with bookshelves on either side that held a mix of DVDs, VHSes, and paperback novels. Boxes full of the usual knickknacks of Aunt Grace’s house were stacked against the walls, but there was still plenty of room to move around down here. One door sat open, showing the laundry room. Another..
Another was an old oak door that sat freestanding, a few feet out from the far wall. It didn’t seem to be leaning against anything, as if the frame had been bolted to the floor itself. Slowly, Jay approached it.
Strange symbols had been carved into the door. One was a circle with three twisted lines emerging from it to mark out to what would be the points of a triangle; two of the lines were bent enough to look like question marks, but the third was incomplete. Another symbol looked like a branch, or perhaps seaweed, equally twisted. A third one looked like an inverted ankh. The fourth and final one was a warped, five-pointed star with a flaming eye at its center. The symbols surrounded the knob, which had a keyhole beneath it.
Jay peeked behind the door. Nothing but the space between it and the wall; this side didn’t have a handle, let alone a latch or keyhole. Facing the front of the door again, and drawing a deep breath, he jiggled the handle.
It didn’t open.
It figured that it was locked. He let out a breath and, suddenly finding himself remarkably calm—itself the aftermath of panic, maybe, as if he’d worn his anxiety out—he sat down on the couch.
It was probably best to go ahead assuming this was real, he decided. If it wasn’t, he could laugh at himself later. But if it was real, and he ignored it, he might get himself into some real trouble.
So. Maybe the dream had meant something. Maybe there were signs he could find—if just to better understand what was happening. Or, at least, if he learned what the signs were, he might be able to avoid them. Louis might be able to help him with either option, though he wasn’t sure he wanted to throw his hat in with the first person he met—second, if he were to count Camden—just because the man was attractive and had talked openly to him about all these things.
What he needed was information.
He squeezed his knees with his hands, reluctant to move, then forced himself to his feet. He could try to talk to his other neighbor, he decided. It was late morning, but there was a chance someone would still be home, and the more he learned about the other factions, the more context and information he would get. Somehow, he didn’t feel like ignoring things would make them go away.
As he headed back upstairs and out the door, he tried to remember more about what Aunt Grace had told him, since her position sounded like a good one—getting along with everyone, while rising above the mess. But everything she’d said felt so far away right now, a jumble of dreams and adventures, nothing about local cults. This world, that world, some kind of dream witch. And always the piping music.
Jay hadn’t heard any music. The library had been so silent.
He tried to get his thoughts in order as he headed to the house on the left, trying to figure out what to say. Should he go right ahead and say he’d heard about different cults? Should he ask about the door, about signs? Or play it subtle? He just couldn’t be sure, couldn’t decide.
This house, too, was in a similar architectural style, though a bit larger, as if it had been developed further over time. He drew a breath and tried to focus on at least not looking quite as sickly and horrified as he felt as he knocked at the door. He reminded himself that nobody had been anything but kind to him. He was a stranger in their midst and he’d still been welcomed and greeted just fine. It was natural to be wary, even without all this, but he didn’t necessarily need to assume that anyone was out to get him.
There was enough of a delay after his knock that he almost turned and left again—but then the door opened.
The person on the other side was dubiously thirty and absolutely gorgeous. He had long black hair, slightly curled, and warm, olive-brown skin. His eyes were dark, but seemed to catch the light as they crinkled in a smile, along with a soft-looking mouth. Tall and slim, he was wearing black shoes, fitted black trousers, and a T-shirt that read ‘Technology is bad fire is scary and Thomas Edison was a witch‘.
“Hello there,” the neighbor said, offering a hand along with a bewitching smile. “You must be my new neighbor. Jae-Hyun, right? Grace used to talk about you all the time.” He seemed cheerful, as if this meeting itself was enough to bring him joy.
Jay took the hand, shaking it. “Call me Jay,” he said, stomach giving a little flop, only partly from the firm grip and warmth of that hand. “And you are?”
“Call me Ashesh.” He said it like it was a joke that he didn’t expect Jay to get, and that strange feeling grew.
Ashesh felt wrong somehow—not even in a bad way, not exactly, but there was an intensity to him that took up all of Jay’s attention. It was sort of like it had been with the woman in the library dream, where they were both beautiful and charming but something about them made every hair on his body stand up in alert. They seemed very different from each other in their presentation, even in their personality, but his reaction to them was the same.
As the handshake broke, Ashesh smiled at him again, brightly. “What can I do for you? Everything good?”
[Please suggest an action in the Comments.]
[P.S. Enjoying this so far and interested in other halloweeny stories I’ve written? I made a post today highlighting a couple of stories of mine for halloween; check it out over here!]