[Please read the instructions before jumping in!]
Jay took a deep breath and felt himself relax a little. A wave of relief rushed over him as he reached out to take the vase. “Thanks, Camden,” he said, and heard his voice come out a little shaky. “This is really kind of you.”
It was a good reminder: no matter what was going on with cults and gods and signs and the end of the world, there were still good folks who wanted to help each other. It was easy to get caught up in all this, and in the paranoia of not knowing of who he could trust or what they wanted from him. But there was more than just that.
Camden licked his lips, tilting his head slightly. “You, uh, look stressed. You okay?”
Jay hesitated on what to say; on the one hand, of course he had the impulse to avoid talking about any of this to anyone. He’d sound absolutely nuts. On the other hand—Camden was also a relatively new arrival, according to Louis, only here for a few years, and was aware of the ‘factions’ while being in one of his own rather than anyone else’s. It was possible he’d have something of an outside perspective, and Jay also wasn’t sure he could get much insight on whatever was going on with Camden’s perspective without talking to him directly.
“I’m not okay,” Jay admitted. He looked down at the vase; it was an assortment of flowers that looked to have been arranged professionally, not plucked from a garden. “Can I talk to you about some stuff?”
“Uh.” Camden shifted on the step, but nodded, rubbing his hands together where he had them clasped. “Sure. I mean, you know, I came over to see if there was, uh, anything I can do for you, so… sure?”
“Thanks. Shut the door behind you?” Jay carried the vase in, though he turned back before he could entirely leave Camden’s line of sight. As much as he hoped to have a sympathetic ear in Camden, without knowing more, he didn’t want to leave anyone from this town alone in his house, with whatever strange supernatural things Aunt Grace might have owned.
Camden entered, shutting and locking the door, and looked around. “She really, uh, she was always real bad at cleaning up.”
“Way too much,” Jay agreed. “It’s worse than I remember as a kid, but she probably tidied for family visits and stuffed her junk in other rooms. Living room?”
He led the way out there, putting the vase beside the fireplace mantle, letting out a sigh as he sank down onto the couch. Camden followed him in, then perched on the edge of the chair there, hands on his knees, shoulders hunched.
“I’ve been hearing some strange things about the town,” Jay began. “About… well. Frankly, about cults.”
“Oh. Yeah,” Camden muttered. “I didn’t want to lead with that? You know, just say, cults? It’s weird as hell and super freaky and I thought maybe, they’d, um, leave you out of all that. You’re not your great-aunt. The worst thing would be if… if you were taking over her role just because… she wasn’t here?”
“What was my aunt’s role?”
“I don’t know exactly,” Camden said. He fidgeted, scuffing the toe of his shoe against the hardwood floor. “Being an outsider, maybe.”
Jay leaned back, tilting his head up to look at the ceiling. “I don’t know what you mean?”
“I don’t know if I do either,” Camden admitted. He sighed, slumping further in his chair. “She was good at giving advice without committing. Said she had her own interests to watch out for. I think she was a master of a dream realm.”
“Dreams again,” Jay said. “I don’t know what that is. A dream realm.” He tilted his head forward to watch Camden. “But I think it’s important?”
Camden dragged one broad finger against the arm of the chair he was sitting in. “I haven’t done it myself,” he protested. “But the… the gods people worship here, they’re from other worlds, originally. From… from somewhere far away. And some of them stay on this world and some stay on other worlds, but the dreamlands spread between all worlds so they’re, um, they’re… a way for even those gods and their creatures to get around, to spread their worship. And most people don’t go far enough into the dreamlands to leave their own… area? I guess. They just dream, their unconscious mind fiddles around with their memories and the things they have to work through and toys around with the stuff of dreams to let that happen. But some people can walk around the dreamlands. And some really advanced ‘waking-worlders’ can lay claim to a place in dreams. And some can make their own worlds. Everyone said that Miss Grace was a waking-worlder, and since she vanished, they all say that instead of dying, she chose create her own kingdom to live in.”
Jay couldn’t quite keep himself from grimacing. “Like ‘she went to live on a farm’?”
“Does sound like that kind of thing, huh,” Camden said. He, too, grimaced; it was a little more grotesque on him. “I don’t know if it’s real or not. I don’t know about much of this.”
“Who do you worship?” Jay asked, quiet. Not entirely sure he wanted to know.
“I don’t want to worship anyone,” Camden said. He ducked his head further. “My hometown, the community there, they worship these ocean gods, the progenitors of a race of undersea… things. But we’re cursed because of it.”
Cursed… Jay winced, sympathetic and out of his depth. “Louis said you had a… a condition.”
“Louis doesn’t know when to shut up,” Camden mumbled. He sighed, running fingers through his greasy hair. “They say our people have children with the deep ones. The things who live underwater, their blood runs through our veins. We start out looking normal and then slowly change to become more like them. We get drawn to the water, until eventually…”
“Eventually?” Jay asked, wide-eyed.
“I don’t know,” Camden said. “We go under. Maybe we drown down there. I thought maybe if we’re away from our community it won’t happen. Everyone else refused to go, so I took Candace and left.”
An uneasy feeling was swelling in Jay’s chest. “Your sister?”
“Yeah. She still looks human,” Camden said.
“So do you,” Jay said.
“Do I?” Camden made a face.
Jay made sure his voice was coming out firmly. “Dude, you absolutely do,” he said. “I imagine you probably have… changed so you see the ways you’ve changed most, but I wouldn’t have thought you weren’t human.”
“Just ugly, right?” Camden asked. He held up a hand. “Sorry, don’t—sorry. I know there’s no way you can answer that.”
“Sorry,” Jay said too. “It’s just… I don’t know what to say. Anyway, I’ve definitely seen worse. I bet you’d clean up well.”
Camden flushed. “Well, I basically avoid submerging myself in water, just in case, so that’s not really something I’m great about doing either.”
“Want it too much.”
“Jeez,” Jay said. “Sorry. I know it’s personal.”
Camden shrugged a shoulder. “…I guess it’s better that you learn about it,” he said. “If these things are all piling up, you should know whatever you think you need to know to have it help. And…”
“I don’t… nnn.” Camden sighed, then slapped his knees with his hands, straightening up more. “Listen, this stuff, all the things about it, cults and gods and dreams and curses, it’ll eat at you. It’s hard to keep yourself healthy with all of this battering around in your head. Believe me, I know. You should walk away from it.”
“I’m not sure I can,” Jay blurted out. “Someone told me the world was going to end.”
“—What?” Camden stared at him, bulging eyes wide.
“I don’t know! All he said was our world was going to end, and I didn’t have much time, and I needed to… learn? Investigate?” Jay picked at a torn thread on the couch, desperate to have something to do with his fingers. “I don’t know what’s expected of me. I think it has something to do with the dream world and I need to find some sort of sign so I can go into the dream world without putting myself at risk, and maybe I’ll learn more when I do that. But I don’t want to ally myself with any particular cult, but also I don’t want to alienate anyone, and I can’t go too slowly or the world might end and I don’t know if Aunt Grace left this to me on purpose—”
Camden rose, then came over, joining Jay on the love-seat. “Okay,” he said. “Okay, okay.” He put a clammy hand over Jay’s, preventing him from picking. “You’re not alone.”
That cut off Jay’s rant, the building pressure in his chest draining. “What?”
“If you have to be involved with this stuff,” Camden said slowly, “Lean on people where you can. Don’t… trust everyone, obviously, but don’t take it all on yourself. Being alone in this is a good way to completely lose it. I’ll help if I can?”
Jay swallowed; the pressure in his chest had seemed, actually, to shift to his throat, and was a scratchy lump there. “I don’t know,” he said.
“It’s fine if you don’t want me to,” Camden said. “But then, like… stop sometimes. Even if you’re in a hurry, smell some flowers. Read something normal. Email your parents.” He gave Jay what was surely meant to be an encouraging smile. “Keep in touch with normal things. And if you do want me to help you investigate just… tell me what you want me to do. If you want me doing things with, or just being there, or not being there, whatever helps you out the most… I’ll see what I can manage.”
[Please suggest an action in the Comments.]