Aphelion Issue 220, Volume 21
August 2017
 
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What the Sky Can Hold

by Patrick Niemeyer




March 23

I never put much stock in dreams. To me, they’re just a junkyard, the place where your brain dumps all of the stuff it can’t find a use for. A friend of mine likes to interpret dreams. He’s always asking me if I’ve had any interesting ones lately, then getting out his dream book and telling me the sea represents, I don’t know, mystery or something. I just think it means I haven’t been surfing in a while.

Anyway, that was before last night’s dream. It was about Darla. Now for those of you who don’t know, Darla is the most amazing, beautiful, all-around magnificent creature on God’s green Earth. The instant I laid eyes on her, I knew beyond the shadow of a doubt that we were going to move in together, have babies, and change each other’s diapers when we were ninety. It lasted about six months, seven if you count…no, let’s not even go there. The point is, I really thought I was starting to get over her. It’s been almost a year, and I haven’t stalked her Facebook page, woken up sobbing in the middle of the night, or made excuses as to why I couldn’t attend a social gathering, then sat on my couch eating Cheetos and watching reality TV in a good long time. But this dream, man, this dream was intense. So intense that when I started crying in my dream, I woke up with tears in my eyes. I don’t know what it means, but I’ve got to find out.

I’m on my way to Darla’s house right now. I know it’s reckless to just drop by someone’s house unannounced when you’re trying to forget them, but I can’t shake the feeling that she’ll have something to say to me. Besides, the only class I have this morning is Intro to Econ, and that puts me to sleep. Wish me luck!

Later

Okay, that was weird. Turns out Darla had a dream about me, too. And she was sitting there, wondering if she should call me or something when I knocked on the door. We’re both kinda creeped out by the whole thing. Her housemate isn’t, but that’s because she belongs to some New Age cult that believes in this kinda stuff. Anyway, the train is just pulling up to the platform. I’m gonna bury myself in schoolwork and see if I can get my mind off whatever’s going on here.

Much Later

Christ, I’m freaked out. I just woke up from a nap—why did I fall asleep? I wasn’t even tired! And had the most crazy-ass dream. I was being stalked by this dude who looked like Sauron from “Lord of the Rings” (when he was fighting in the battle in the first movie, not when he was the giant eye on top of the tower). At the end of it, he was holding me over a huge pit, and I swear I could feel a breeze. I called up Darla, but she’s not answering. I hope she didn’t have the same dream. That would be freaky.

That Night

I’m a little scared to go to bed. Everything that’s happened today has freaked me the hell out. But I’m just so tired. I’m leaving my journal next to my bed, so if I die in my sleep, somebody will read it and maybe try to figure out what the hell was going on. Eh, it’s probably nothing. My mom always said I had an overactive imagination.

March 24

Well, that was different. No ex-girlfriends, no stalker Dark Lords, just…me. I was standing over an abyss. I was up on a mountain, on the edge of a perfectly round hole that was so huge and massive I couldn’t see all the way down. It was cold. When was the last time you noticed the temperature in a dream? Phone’s ringing. I hope it was Darla.

Later

It was her housemate. Darla’s gone missing. What the hell is going on here? Her housemate—Tara—says she’s got something for me. She wants to meet me out in the woods, out by some hiking trail I’ve never heard of. What’s she gonna do, lead me to a woodshed, then butcher me? It can’t be that much weirder than what actually happened to Darla. I’m taking this with me. If I see anything weird, I want to record it.

March 25

Good God, I don’t even know where to begin. These past 24 hours have been so messed up I don’t know if I’ll ever be normal again. It all began with Tara. I met her out by the trail just like she said. It was funny—even before we started walking, something looked different about it. Like the other trails all looked like part of the landscape, but this one looked like it had been added in later. There were other people there, but I don’t think they could see this trail. We started walking. She told me that she knew all this was really weird, but she had something to show me out here that would explain everything. I said that could be interpreted any number of ways. She laughed. I don’t think I’ve ever heard her laugh before.

Then we came to a clearing, and I knew once and for all there was something funny about the path. I’ve hiked every trail in this park at least two or three times. It was weird enough that there could be a trail I didn’t know about, but looking around, I didn’t even recognize the landscape. It was like the trail was a portal into another world. Even the vegetation looked…off. I’ve been in love with the outdoors since I was a kid, but I still didn’t recognize half of these trees. The weirdest part of it was that there was no sign of civilization in sight. No sound of traffic, no buildings off in the distance, not even another hiker anywhere I looked. For all I knew, we could be the only people for 100 miles.

“Jim,” Tara said, turning to me. “I’m going to tell you something I’ve never told anyone. At the end of it, I’ll tell you what happened to Darla. It’s not pretty, but I’m telling you because I think you’re a nice guy, and I know she really loved you.”

“Loved?” I said. “Past tense?”

She didn’t answer. Instead, she walked to the edge of the clearing. She closed her eyes and turned in a circle, and for a minute I thought she was going into one of her trances. Then she opened her eyes. “Jim?” she said. I half-expected her voice to be unusually deep, like someone else was speaking through her, but she sounded normal. “Come look at this.”

I stepped closer. She came right up to me and grabbed my hands. I had a vision—not a flash of images, just one: the abyss from my dream. Except this time, it wasn’t me who was teetering over the edge—it was Darla, and she’d fallen in. I could see her face just before she disappeared into the darkness. She looked scared. The only time I’d ever seen her that scared was when we had that rollover the night of Liam’s birthday party. I said I was sober enough to drive, but we hit an ice patch on the way back. We skidded off the road and into a ditch. I’d gotten pinned down by the steering column. She crawled out, waved someone over from the road, then held my hand while he called for help. She was shivering in the cold. I offered her my coat, but it was torn to shreds. She said she’d never leave me.

I know what you’re thinking: serves me right for driving drunk. Except I wasn’t. The breathalyzer test confirmed that my blood alcohol content was way below the legal limit. That wasn’t why she dumped me. When I asked her why, all she said was that I thought sacrifice was enough. I’m still not sure what she meant.

“Don’t let it happen to you,” said Tara, jerking me out of my fantasy. “I saw it happen to my grandfather. I can help you, but you have to let it go.”

I didn’t ask her what she meant. I pulled away, turning back down the path, back to the real world where everything was normal. I got back in my car (Kumar’s car, actually—I’d convinced him to lend it to me) and drove home, driving safer than I’d ever driven before.

I’m not going to think about this anymore. I don’t know what happened to Darla, but I’m sure that it has nothing to do with whatever Tara was talking about. I’m going to watch “Miami Vice” all afternoon until I’ve forgotten all about it.

March 30

I can’t take this shit anymore. I haven’t been to any of my classes this week. Mostly, I just sit in my room or go out walking along the beach. My dreams are so intense they don’t even feel like dreams anymore. Every morning, I wake up and I have to check my clock just to make sure that I went to sleep at all. I’m calling Tara. Maybe she can help.

Later

Tara says she can help, but she wants to talk to me in person. I told her I’m sorry about what happened on Monday. She said it’s okay, that it was a lot to spring on me all at once. She’s on her way over right now. I don’t know what’s going to happen. I just want whoever reads this to know that Darla was right: Sacrifice isn’t enough. I wish I’d learned that sooner.

That Night

There’s a party going on next door. My neighbor’s parties usually sound like fun, but I’m not in the mood for crashing right now. Tara’s gone. I don’t know when she’ll be back. I’m pretty sure she’s not gone for good like Darla, though. All I have is the letter she gave me before she went. I’m supposed to wait until the next rainstorm, then open it. At this point, I’m too tired to even ask what the hell that’s supposed to mean.

So yeah, she came to my apartment. I asked if she wanted to go for a walk. She said sure, but not on the beach. I was about to ask how she knew about that, but she stopped me. So we went down the street. I asked if she wanted to stop for coffee, but she said no. So we just kept walking. “What’s going on here?” I asked after we’d gone a block without saying a word.

“It’s actually kind of simple,” she said. “You, Darla and I are all in danger of being turned into demons.”

The signal on the opposite corner changed from “Don’t Walk” to “Walk”. I reflected on how odd it was that we were having this conversation while surrounded by people who were just going about their days. I missed the days when I didn’t have to think about demons.

“I’m surprised you didn’t laugh,” she said when we were about halfway across the street.

“I’m through laughing,” I said.

“You laughed when I asked if I could give you a Tarot reading.”

“That was different.”

“Right, because demons are so much more believable.”

“My ex-girlfriend wasn’t missing. Please, Tara, where is she?”

“She’s nowhere.”

“What?”

“Are you an atheist?”

“Yes.”

“So, you believe that after you die, there’s nothing, right?”

“Yes.”

“That’s where Darla is right now. She’s hiding in nothing.”

“Dead?”

“No. She’s just…”

“Hiding.”

“Yes.”

“How did she-“

“She had to eliminate her self. It’s like meditation. You know how in meditation you try not to think about anything, just be a blank slate?”

“Not really.”

“Well, that’s what it’s all about. I think it is. I only took one class. Anyway, Darla isn’t thinking or feeling right now. She’s just watching.”

“Can she see us right now?”

“I think.”

“I’m sorry,” I said to no one in particular. “You were right. It’s not all about sacrifice.”

“Do you want me to tell you about the demons?” she asked.

“Sure.”

“They’re not, like, red, with spiky tails or anything. They don’t breathe fire. I call them demons because I don’t know what else to call them. They’re not in any of the books I read.”

“So what are they?”

“They creep in when you’re not looking.”

“So, like, the things I see in the corner of my eye? And when I turn around, they’re not there?”

“No. They’re too fast for that. They’re like what’s behind you all the time, like they’re on the back of your head, so when you turn around they turn with you, except you can’t feel them. Does that make sense?”

“Sorta.” I stopped walking. We were standing in front of a movie theater, one of those places that shows old movies. This week, they were showing a Marx Brothers movie. I’d gone in there once with Preston, only it was really run-down, so we never went back. “Is there any way you can see them?” I asked.

“Think of it this way. If you put your back up against a wall, no one can be behind you, right?”

“Right.”

“If you can do that, but, like, with your mind, they come in front of you.”

“What do they look like?”

“I can’t do it. Darla could. It’s why they came after her. She was trying to teach you to do it, too. That’s why you started having dreams. They don’t like it when people make them do things.”

“So this whole thing started when Darla figured out there were things she couldn’t see, then tried to see them? Why couldn’t she leave them alone?”

“It doesn’t work that way. Look, I have to be somewhere. Can we start heading back?”

I took off my jacket as I walked. Spring was here, and it was getting warmer fast.

“They don’t ever leave you alone,” she said, her pace a bit brisker now. “They’re always there, trying to make you do things you know you shouldn’t. Like when you spend money on something you know you can’t afford. Or don’t study for a test even though you know you’re unprepared. It’s when you know you’re going to regret it, but there’s no one to make you do it.”

“What did Darla do? Did she refuse to give in?”

“No. She tried to destroy them. She thought if we could just get rid of them, we’d never have to do anything bad ever again.”

“And they didn’t like that?”

“No. They tried to destroy her. And you, because you were touched by her.”

“I don’t remember—“

“You will.” She stopped and turned to face me. She drew an envelope out of her pocket and pressed it into my hand. “I have to go.” We were still a block from my apartment. “There are instructions on the envelope. Don’t open it until the time is right.”

I tried to look, but she grabbed my hand. “Please. Wait until I’m gone.” She kissed me on the cheek and set off in a direction perpendicular to the route we’d followed. I meant to ask her what she’d wanted to tell me back at the clearing, but it slipped my mind. I’d been too busy trying to get away from it all.

As I write this, I’m feeling a little better. The letter is stashed in my bottom desk drawer. I think I might sleep better tonight. All I know is that we haven’t had rain in over a week.

March 31

I’ve been thinking about what Tara told me. I think she had it wrong. I don’t think the “demons”, or whatever you call them, are just, like, your insecurities. I don’t think the only way to deal with them is just to let them be. I think you have to fight with them constantly, or they’ll take over. Darla’s mistake wasn’t trying to destroy them, it was thinking she could. They’re too powerful for us to handle. That’s why everyone else just learns to live with them, like the one relative you hate but still see every Christmas.

What’s worse, they’re taking physical form. I saw one the other day. It looked like a spider, but with one too many legs. Or too few. Hard to say. All I knew is that something was off about it. I was asleep, not dreaming for a change, when I felt something crawling up the foot of the bed. I woke up, or at least, I thought I did. I had one of those dreams where you’re lying in bed, but can’t move. My eyes were closed, but I could see anyway that there was this huge spider-thing on my chest. Its body was longer and thinner than any spider I’ve ever seen, but it didn’t have a head, and it was standing on my chest, waving its front legs in front of my face like it couldn’t figure out where to sink them in. I tried to scream, to knock it away or something, but I couldn’t move. Then I woke up for real. I was about to relax, but then I realized there were little puncture marks in the bedspread where its claws had sunk in. I’m afraid to go to sleep.

April 5

Okay, here we go. It’s raining at last. Not just a drizzle, either—a full-on thunderstorm. I guess it’s time to open the letter.

Well, that was interesting. No telling me to meet her out by some hiking trail. She just wants me to close all my windows and lock my doors. Good thing my roommate is at her mother’s for the weekend. I don’t want her to see what’s about to happen.

I’m writing this quickly because I don’t have much time. I closed the bathroom window—it was the only one still open—and checked the doors (they were already locked) and my radiator sprung a leak. A minute later, the kitchen faucet burst. I tried to turn the water off, but the valve under the sink won’t turn. Pretty much every faucet and pipe in the place has started to spray water by now. I can’t leave—the doors won’t open, and when I pound on the walls and scream, nobody answers. My cell phone won’t work (big surprise), so as far as I can tell, I’ve got another fifteen to twenty minutes before the whole place is flooded. I’m going to seal this notebook in a plastic bag so anyone who finds it will at least know what happened, even if they don’t believe it.

Before I go, I need to say one thing: I figured out what Tara meant when she said Darla was trying to teach us to fight off the demons. The whole time we were together, she kept taking me places I’d never heard of, trying to get me to join her for stuff I wasn’t really into. She took me to a rave even though I don’t use ecstasy, then to this underground club where all they played was noise music. I don’t think she was into this stuff, either—she just wanted to expand her horizons. When I asked her why she did all this, she said that you can’t be afraid of something if you don’t wait for it to seek you out. I don’t think that’s true, but at least I understand why she made me sit in on one of Tara’s sťances even though she thought the whole thing was bullshit. The demons, or whatever you call them, don’t hate being challenged, they just don’t like it when you try to beat them at their own game. If you try to do to other people what they do to you, you start to become one of them.

I have to finish up now. The water’s at my waist. Catch you on the flipside, if there is one.

I’m not bothering to date this entry because it will be my last. A lot’s happened since I last picked up this book, and I want to make sure I get it all down before I stash it away.

Here’s what happened: the water kept rising, and I started to wonder if I was going to drown. I couldn’t break the windows and I could only tread water for so long, but just when the water was getting high enough that my head was about to touch the ceiling, I felt a breeze. I looked around, but couldn’t see anything because the lights had all gone out. Water started falling on my face. Was it raining? Lightning flashed overhead. I was outdoors! The water was moving around a lot more violently, and just when I was started to wonder if I’d be smashed against a rock, somebody grabbed me by the arm and pulled me out of the water.

I was, I realized, on an enormous raft. We were headed downriver, and before I could thank my savior, he pulled me towards the center of the raft saying something about getting me out of the way because we were coming into some rapids. The place where he was taking me turned out to be, rather than a cabin or overhang, an actual house with windows and plaster walls. Before I could say thank you, he opened the door and shoved me inside. I caught a glimpse of him just before the door closed. He was black like me, and wore what appeared to be really ragged mid-19th century clothes. “Get over here, Jim!” someone shouted. “Yessuh massuh,” he replied, and closed the door. That was the last I saw of him.

The house was small, consisting of only one room in the front and a smaller one in back that I couldn’t quite see into. The front room was lit by a small lightbulb hanging from the ceiling that swung back and forth with the movement of the raft. One of the spider-things stood in a corner, watching me (I think.) In an adjacent corner sat…

“Darla!” I ran forward to hug her, but she held up a hand.

“Hello, Jim,” she said. “Have a seat.”

The room was unfurnished except for the crate she was sitting on, so I sat cross-legged on the floor like I was waiting for story time.

“We have much to discuss,” said Darla, unnecessarily.

“Where is Tara?” I asked.

“She’s fine,” said Darla. “I want to know about—“

“Is that thing going to kill us?” I pointed at the spider-thing.

“No,” she said. “It’s actually quite friendly.” The spider-thing rubbed two of its front legs together in approval. Or anticipation. Hard to say.

“Tara said you were hiding from them,” I said. “Does that mean you’ve made up—“

“Silence!” she snapped. “Or I will have Rollo here discipline you.” The spider-thing, despite lacking eyes, was gazing at me very intently, its legs tensed as if ready to strike.

“Why did you leave me?” asked Darla, staring down her nose at me as if I were a disobedient child.

“Me?” I said. “You left! I begged you to stay!”

“Now Jim, we both know that’s not true. You could have had me if you’d really wanted.”

I couldn’t meet her gaze. I stared at the floor. “You weren’t the woman I fell in love with,” I said. “I kept trying to make you go back, but you wouldn’t change.”

“Oh, I changed all right,” she said. “Just in the wrong direction.”

“I barely recognize you. Your hair is different, your clothes are…I don’t think I’ve ever seen you in a red skirt before. What happened?”

“What happened?” She laughed—a cold, cruel, malicious laugh. “I woke up! Why settle for being human when you can be so much more?”

“Listen to yourself,” I said. “You sound like the witch from ‘Snow White’.”

“I was going for ‘Sleeping Beauty’.”

“Oh. Sorry.”

“Anyway,” she continued, wielding a scepter that I swore she didn’t have a minute ago. “I am going to offer you a choice. You can come with me and be a subject in my kingdom, or you can go back to your life in your little apartment and wait for me to conquer the world. No,” she added, seeing that I was about to speak. “That is not how you decide. I shall ask you a question. If you answer correctly, you can go home. If you answer incorrectly, you will come with me.”

“What if I don’t answer?” She smiled. Rollo clicked his claws together excitedly. “Where’s Tara?” I asked. “I’m not answering unless you tell me.”

She waved her scepter in the direction of the door to the back room, and some shadowy figure pushed a manacled, haggard Tara into the room. The manacles fell away as she dropped to her knees at Darla’s feet. She looked into her former roommate’s sadistic, gleeful eyes and scrambled backward, grabbing my arm and burying her face in my chest. Sobs racked her body. I put my arm around her.

“You can answer right or wrong,” said Darla. “She dies either way.”

“Ask your question,” I said. I saw no reason to draw things out.

She smiled—I was getting really tired of that—and held out her scepter. “Look into the jewel,” she said. I did. Inside, I could see millions of stars. It was the night sky all in one little stone.

“How many stars are there in the sky?” she asked after a long pause.

I remembered this night. We sat on her roof looking for familiar shapes in the night sky, kind of like how people look for familiar shapes in clouds, except we were trying to find new constellations. After a while, I gave up. I said there were too many stars, and I couldn’t keep my eye on one for long, because whenever I tried, I found one that was even more beautiful. She told me not to worry about that because the stars were infinite, and I should just try to find what was special about one before moving on to the next. It was happiest night of my life.

“The stars are infinite,” I said.

“Wrong answer.”

“What?” I shouted. “No, that’s right. You said—“

“There are billions of stars in the sky,” she said. “A billion is still a number.”

“No,” I said. “It’s not about how many there are. It’s about how many I see. And I see infinite stars.”

“It doesn’t matter,” she said. “You’re coming with me either way.”

I heard a crashing sound outside. The raft lurched underneath us. It was splitting apart. Looks like we didn’t make it through the rapids after all.

“Hold onto the scepter,” said Darla, still holding it out. “Or you’ll drown.”

I looked at the spider-thing. Somehow, it didn’t look so scary anymore. “You were right, you know,” I said. “Sacrifice isn’t everything. But it’s still important.” I reached out to the spider thing, not sure if it was going to gouge out my eyes, or tear me into little pieces, or what. Instead, it laid one of its front legs in my hand. I grabbed hold just as the floor fell out from under us.

I’m sorry to say that Tara didn’t make it out with us. The spider-thing guided us through the rapids, but as hard as I tried, I just couldn’t hold onto her hand. I’m pretty sure she made it out okay, though. Last Wednesday, I got a postcard in the mail. There was no signature, just the words “Maybe someday” in what looked like her handwriting. I haven’t seen the spider-thing since that night. That’s probably a good thing.

You’re probably wondering what happened after the rapids. To be honest, I don’t remember. Somewhere, the spray from the river started to feel more like a faucet. The next thing I know, I was lying in the bathtub being hit in the face by shower water while my roommate banged on the door asking if I was okay. I checked the apartment. No sign of flooding. It all looks more or less the same as it did before the rainstorm.

The police have questioned me about Darla’s disappearance, but I told them I didn’t know anything, and they left me alone. No one seems to have noticed Tara’s disappearance. I guess they’re used to her just taking off.

I don’t see too many stars in the sky anymore, or too few, but just enough. I don’t look for new constellations, though. I miss Tara. I wish she’d gotten to tell me what she never told me back at the clearing.

Sounds like the neighbors are having a party tonight. I think I just might crash it.


THE END


© 2017 Patrick Niemeyer

Bio: Patrick Niemeyer lives in the Bay Area and enjoys watching hockey, playing video games, and cooking. He has been published previously in Aphelion.

E-mail: Patrick Niemeyer

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