The doctor was late, but this time, for once, Daniel didn’t mind. He sat in the examination room, gazing at the artwork on the wall, feeling a strange, tingling contentment. So many times, he’d languished in a room like this, squirming before cropped Renoir poppy fields, eroded O’Keeffe landscapes, anonymous still lifes of tulips washed out by an invisible sun. Daniel always had a visceral reaction to these props, a hypersensitivity developed from years of helping people display mass-produced posters as cheaply as possible at the last Ben Franklin in town. He tolerated the job only for those special, one-of-a-kind works that people sometimes brought in out of the blue, that truly called for an artist’s attention and care. He was looking at one such work now: a scroll painting, framed considerably after it had begun to yellow and fade with age.
He assumed the scroll was Japanese, given the name of the specialist he was there to see. Dr. Sakamoto had been enthusiastically recommended by Dan’s therapist Maya, just as he was about to cancel all future appointments with her and the three or four other medical professionals he consulted in his ongoing quest to lead a normal life with a charming little disease called multiple sclerosis. Maya (whose office décor was limited to candles and soothing Buddhist statuettes) had been suggested by Dan’s neurologist (Monet water lilies) as the next line of attack in dealing with his most chronically devastating symptoms, depression and fatigue. The first, he was sometimes able to manage with meditation, and acupuncture when he could afford it, but as long as the second remained untreatable, he despaired of any lasting relief. And the real trouble, Daniel had told Maya for the tenth and final time, was that none of the pills he’d been prescribed – sedatives to fight insomnia, stimulants to keep him awake – did anything to address the real heart of the matter. The trouble was not that Dan couldn’t sleep. It was that he couldn’t stop dreaming. And his dreams were masterpieces of horror.
If there were such a thing as connoisseurs of nightmares, Daniel imagined them debating the relative potencies of the two major classes of bad dreams. Which is worse, they’d ask: the nightmare that stealthily skirts the borders of plausible reality, until you realize that the kitchen in which you’re slicing that bloody steak is not your kitchen, but belonged to a house you inhabited when you were six, and the steak is actually your own hand? Or the one that plunges you headlong into an alien dystopia that uses dismembered kittens for currency and ends with your face being gnawed by mechanical lampreys? Dan didn’t know the answer, but there was a long line of skittish ex-girlfriends who’d formed their own opinions about the childhood trauma that must be at the root of either variety. He’d been sorry to disappoint them, but at least two therapists had hypnotized him and found absolutely nothing in his retrievable history but a pronounced family tendency to dream fantastically fucked up shit. And to be fair, it was not all bad. Very, very occasionally he had good dreams, with monsters that were interested in other prey.
As it happened, the two creatures that cavorted on the paper of the painting he stared at now were exactly the sort of things that might populate those dreams. They seemed to be a mishmash of at least three different animals. Their snouts were too long to belong to a tapir, their teeth too predatory and their tusks too sharp for an elephant. The fur on their stocky bodies was shaggy in places, especially around the head, and their muscular flanks were striped like those of a tiger. The artist had depicted them in the most astonishingly vivid and joyful act of flight, their backs arched, their clawed, leonine feet ringed with clouds. Their eyes rolled up in their bony heads, and their tongues lolled lasciviously from their mouths, as if lapping up some unspeakable delicacy. Daniel was just about to get up and take a closer look when the door opened.
“Sorry to keep you waiting, Mr. Craig – I’m Dr. Sakamoto,” the sparsely bearded, surprisingly young medic intoned, holding out his hand. Dan shook it, wondering if the bland formality was in some way meant to distract patients from the bristle of silver thorns piercing his ears, and the swirling tattoos peeking from under his shirt cuffs.
“Not at all,” Dan assured him casually. “I’ve been admiring your art.”
“Ah, that’s great!” Sakamoto smiled (he had unsettlingly perfect teeth) and appeared to relax instantly as he sat down. “You’re already getting familiar with your new best friends!”
At a loss, Dan glanced at the painting. Sakamoto’s grin faded just slightly, realizing that some critical piece of information had not been transmitted by his colleague in Mental Health Services.
“Oh, Maya didn’t go into details, huh?” He sighed, but only for show. Dan definitely got the sense the man looked forward to this part. “No problem, it’s always best to get it from the source, and with all due respect, this treatment is my baby. But before we get started, let’s go over your questionnaire.”
He snapped out the paper in front of him, smoothing imaginary wrinkles.
“Diet looks good: no caffeine, no alcohol, no late-night meals… Sleep hygiene too: no reading or watching TV in bed…”
“No TV at all,” Dan added. “Makes the dreams worse. Reading, I do in the early evening. Not too close to bedtime.”
“What do you read, fiction?”
“Not anymore. I read history, science, some news, though I have to block all the images; you never know what’ll filter through.”
“But you used to read fiction. Any particular kind?”
Dan hesitated, his jaw clenching slightly; he remembered Maya suppressing a most unprofessional laugh, saying Are you sure you’re not doing this to yourself?
“Science fiction. Fantasy.”
“Some of it could be considered that.”
“Good. Go back to all that, seriously. I mean, the nonfiction isn’t working, is it?”
“Puts me to sleep,” Dan smirked.
“No doubt. Bed partners,” Sakamoto went on, a bit abruptly. “None. That’s just as well for now. The treatment can be transmissible, and we don’t want that happening until you get a good buildup in your system.”
Dan’s eyes widened a bit at that, but Sakamoto had already moved on.
“Pets: two cats.”
“They don’t sleep in the bedroom with me.”
“That’s good. Same reason, more or less. Felines have their own dream ecology, and let’s just say it’s not safe to include that variable, now or ever, really… OK. Air temperature in the bedroom: 58 degrees. Hmm. That’s very energy-efficient for the season, but you might want to boost that a few degrees for the next week. The baku like it a little warmer. Start with 60 or 62, and then you can step it back down to 58.”
“The baku,” Dan repeated. He followed Sakamoto’s eyes back to the scroll on the wall.
The doctor’s gaze, when he turned back to him, sparkled. He turned his chair so they were sitting slightly closer, and leaned forward, hands clasped together on his knees. Dan half-expected him to whisper, though he did not.
“Every culture in the world,” Sakamoto began, “has developed legends, beliefs, superstitions about the nature of dreams. We’ve wondered where they come from, what their purpose is, whether they are meaningless fancies or omens of good or bad things to come. In the Indo-European traditions alone, there’s an amazing variety of supernatural creatures that feed on, take advantage of, or otherwise use the dreams of human beings for their own purposes. Bogeymen give nightmares until children behave the way their parents want them to, jinn grant wishes, succubi and incubi prey on our repressed sexual urges. Some ghosts speak to the living through dreams. So does God, and the Devil too. Do you have a personal belief about the meaning of your dreams, or where they come from?”
Daniel felt a strong urge to come back with something flippant and outrageously creative, but the sad fact was, he was just too tired.
“They come from some part of me I have no control over,” he said wearily. “They have no meaning or purpose, they just run on and on until they’re done – or until I stop them, if I can. And it doesn’t matter how much or how little actual sleep I get: by the time I’ve acted out a double or triple feature, I’m completely exhausted. It plays hell with my MS symptoms… Didn’t Maya tell you any of this?”
“She did,” said Sakamoto, unfazed, his sharp eyes scintillating. “And she also told me that you remember every dream you have, after you wake up. Is that correct?” Daniel nodded. “Good, because that is one of the main reasons you are here. A remembered dream, particularly a nightmare, is an unhealthy one. It has no natural predators to keep it from feeding upon you. This is what I’m about to do for you, Dan.” Pushing his chair back, he got to his feet. He strolled over to the painting, inclined his head meaningfully toward it, and smiled. “I’m going to introduce those predators.”
Daniel found himself rising to his feet as well. Not bothering to use his cane, he took a few steps forward to stand beside the doctor, gazing at the scroll. He could not tear himself away from the creatures’ ecstatic, rolling eyes.
“We have known about the baku,” Sakamoto went on, “the dream eaters – for a very long time. We know they migrated to Japan from China sometime in the 13th century. The onmyōji that first identified and described them learned that they’re highly specialized feeders. Dreams that people wish to remember – pleasant, happy dreams – they have no appetite for at all. But strange, random, disturbing dreams – violent nightmares – they consume with gusto.
“In Japan, for centuries, people honored these beneficial parasites, invited them in with amulets, celebrated them in paintings. But, hardly coincidentally, about the time that doctors began indiscriminately prescribing antidepressants and other pharmaceuticals for sleep disorders, they started to die off at an alarming rate. By the turn of this century, there were fewer of them than there are Amur leopards today. I’ve been lucky to be at the forefront of efforts to restore their numbers and reintroduce them to their former hunting grounds, and I’m happy to say that we’ve seen a successful recovery even in China, where they were ignored into complete extinction. I could tell you amazing stories about what benefits we’ve seen in places like Shenyang and Datong, where the factory workers suffer from truly life-threatening insomnia.
“Of course, they’re making a much bigger comeback in Japan, where they were better established to begin with. Many elderly people recall being children and calling for ‘Baku-san’ to come eat their nightmares. Among the younger set, one of the best-selling gift items for the past few years have been baku phone mascots, essentially modern amulets; that was one of our cleverer tactics, and very cheap to produce. So thanks to a combination of our conservation efforts and public education, new generations are learning how to create healthy oneirosystems again, and the bakus’ appetites are just as voracious as ever,” Sakamoto grinned. “But the dream eaters are native to Asia, so we naturally had high hopes that their populations would recover there. Introducing them elsewhere… has been more of a challenge. But this is why we developed the infusions, and we’ve found them to be very effective, particularly among certain populations with a strong affinity for folk magic. African diaspora, Scottish and Irish ancestry…”
“I’m all of that, actually,” said Daniel, eyes riveted to the furry hides of his ‘new best friends’. Then suddenly, snapping back from fairyland: “Stop just a minute here. Are you telling me that baku are real animals – like, you can see them under a microscope?”
“Sure,” said Sakamoto, and took a frowning look at his wristwatch. “Well, some people can. Now, I know you have questions, concerns. I don’t want to rush you. I am about to introduce an alien life form into your circulatory system, and from there – well, to be totally honest, nobody knows where they go from there.”
“Nobody knows how my MS therapy pills work either,” Dan observed with a shrug. “He glanced around the room, looking again for the IV stand. Everyone kept talking about an infusion, but there was no equipment to be found.
“If you’re looking for the drip, my nurse will be bringing it in shortly. We don’t like to alarm people who might be afraid of needles.”
Daniel laughed, a suppressed explosion.
“Oh right,” Sakamoto said, scratching his beard as he smiled, “you’ve had more than the usual amount of exposure to those. Well, you’ll be happy to know this is much quicker than a steroid drip. None of that metallic aftertaste, either.” Dan’s expression was growing progressively optimistic. “Actually, if people report any aftertaste, they say it’s like bacon!” He paused to stifle a laugh that might easily have been described as hysterical. His stern, good-looking hipster doctor face came back instantly. “Now then: questions.”
“Only one,” Dan replied automatically. “Side effects. There’ve got to be side effects.”
Sakamoto, clearly prepared for this one, beamed.
“None. Nada. Honestly, the only thing you’ll see or feel are results. I mean,” he chuckled, “unless you turn out to be an ancient onmyōji reincarnated into a 21st century Scottish-Irish-African-American body. Which, I guess, is not completely unimaginable, and wow, wouldn’t that add some insight to all those demon-rich dreams of yours? In which case, there is a second-line therapy, which would necessitate some overseas travel… But I’m going to be very positive about this, Daniel, and I think you should too. Oh,” he paused, touching Dan’s arm, “but I do want to remind you about keeping the cats out. Baku are not apex predators,” he added ominously.
Dan blinked, and said: “OK.”
“All right, then! I’ll go let the nurse know you’re ready, and you will be on your way to a good night’s sleep!” Sakamoto grinned, slapping Dan fraternally on the shoulder. “We’ll make a follow-up appointment for you in one week. That should be long enough to see if we’ve gotten anywhere, or if we need to tweak the dosage, or the delivery method, or who knows, book that flight if it comes to it, ha ha ha!”
Sakamoto once again extended his hand. Fortified and excited by the promise and confidence in that grip, Dan smiled. He was already looking forward to this night, having a little glass of whisky, reading a short story from the Cthulhu anthology his last ex-girlfriend had given him but he’d never actually dared to open, crawling into bed, then waking up hours and hours after dawn, when the alarm went off, with absolutely no idea of the passage of time, and no memory of what visions had passed – much less been stalked, pounced upon, and devoured – in the fits and twitches of REM sleep.
Rested. Rested was how he’d feel. The word sounded like pure fantasy.
It was late afternoon when Dan left the clinic; the winter sun was sinking but still strong. Thinking that the appointment would take longer, and uncertain of the infusion’s effects, he’d taken the rest of his shift off work, as well as the following day. He was tempted to call Walter – who often tended the run-down little store on his own – and tell him he’d be there as soon as he could grab the next bus. It was probably purely the Placebo Effect, but he honestly felt better already. But ultimately, he bowed to experience and reason, and resolved instead to just show up the next day, early in the morning, and astound the old man with his uncharacteristically bright eyes and bushy tail.
After a detour to the pet store to pick up some catnip for Wenz and Pugz (partly as a means of sharing the wealth of his newfound well-being, partly as compensation for their sustained exile from the bedroom), and a stop for sake and sushi (which seemed only appropriate for dinner, under the circumstances), Daniel made his way to his apartment. It was the upper of two flats in an old Victorian, and even by the time he’d climbed the steep outside stairs (jabbing his cane into the snow that had accumulated there) and the stairs to his flat (clinging to the slippery, time-worn handrail), the little burst of energy that had been carrying him like a cloud had almost completely evaporated.
For the last two months, he’d had the opportunity to move to the lower flat, which had still not been leased, but the top one was cheaper, and it reminded him on a daily basis that his condition had still not reached a point where such a move was necessary. If it wasn’t for those stairs, and the walk to and from the bus stop, he might not get any exercise at all. Taking his shoes off at the door to his flat, he reflected further that the people who moved in after him might not be as considerate about noise as he was. The old, steam-heated house was loud enough on its own without neighbors stomping about overhead.
Noise from below was much easier to deal with, but only if their tastes in music were agreeable… Sighing, he lamented the loss of Leticia, who’d lived there five years before moving out to live with her new boyfriend. He’d never known anyone with as geographically and chronologically varied a musical palate. Or anyone who offered to add his laundry to hers so he didn’t have to navigate the twisting stairs to the basement where the washer and drier lived, along with a million spiders. And centipedes. He was not a fan of either. Naturally, they proliferated in the untamed wilderness of his unconscious mindscapes.
Wenz and Pugz greeted him with characteristic feline exuberance when he entered the living room – raising their heads just enough to glance at him haughtily over their shoulders.
“Yes, me again,” Dan intoned, looking down his nose at them in turn. Then he scratched them each on the head, grinning at the unmitigated warmth of their purring. He had to admit he’d been nervous about their reaction to him when he returned. Would they smell (or otherwise sense) the baku? Apparently not. Perhaps he’d need to be asleep for the little beasties to make their appearance, in which case they might never notice them at all.
“Bad news, buddies; doctor says no human hot water bottle for you at night, for a little while longer… But the good news is–” (he tossed the bag on the floor; they could smell the sacred herb through much thicker packaging than that) “there’s catnip!”
Spinning on his heel, he collapsed on the couch they’d just vacated, in a cloud of fine black fur.
He knew it was a mistake as soon as he’d done it. The velvet upholstered couch was second-hand when he bought it, and any claim it had ever made to good back support had been relinquished in favor of a mercilessly maternal, all-enveloping softness.
“Goddamn stairs,” were the last words he spoke before falling asleep.
About forty minutes later, and after a short, muzzy delay while he registered the darkness of the room, he awoke in a panic. Each cat claimed half of his lap. But seeing their drowsy irritation at his startled waking, he instantly relaxed, stroking their soft ears with relief. He could not recall dreaming, so he probably hadn’t entered REM. Unless his dreams had been eaten… He studied Wenz and Pugz closely, and found absolutely nothing amiss in their somnolent smiles.
“I‘ve got to watch that,” he admonished himself.
Just then, both cats jerked at a sound that might have come from the radiators, but with the house’s cavernous Victorian acoustics might have originated anywhere – a muffled, metallic thunk. It was not repeated in the space of five minutes, and the three of them relaxed. Then, a few moments later, a series of noises rattled them all again – each sound a very precise sh-SHUNK, with a three second interval between them. Like drawers being opened and violently shut again. Like the downstairs apartment kitchen drawers, which Leticia had never ever slammed.
Nevertheless, after he had extricated himself from the grip of the couch and his roommates, and nervously gone out to stand on the landing in his stocking-feet , it was decidedly the sound of the downstairs kitchen drawers that he heard. And after he’d felt his way down the stairs (his cell phone in one hand poised to call the police, and his cane in the other prepared for some ill-advised heroics), and peered into the brightly lit lower flat, Leticia is exactly who he saw.
“Motherf—‘ello!” was the unique word with which she greeted him, turning sharply with a large soup ladle in her hand, which she instantly lowered. She smiled by degrees, edging down from rage to half-tamed civility to a vaguely weary warmth. “I mean, hi, Dan! I’m… looking for something.”
“Obviously,” Dan offered with an expression that had also been ratcheted down several degrees to match the circumstances. “You scared the shit out of me!”
“No, no worries – can I help you? What are you looking for?”
Ticia chewed a lip as she glanced around, and finally drew his attention to the bottle of wine in her hand.
“I guess he – I guess I took the only corkscrew there was,” she said, her voice hovering between bitterness and despair. “I hoped that of all the crap I left here, I‘d have at least left one goddamned corkscrew…”
“Oh,” Dan frowned, “something… fell through?”
Ticia laughed, mirthlessly.
“Yeah, you could say that. Mary Lou said I could squat here, til… til I got things figured out.”
She glanced at the sleeping bag in the middle of the room, and heading him off at the pass, shook her head, one warning finger raised.
“I’m fine, Dan,” she said. Gradually, her eyes regained most of the warmth and softness he remembered, like a restorative brandy waiting at the end of a winter hike. “Really.” Looking down at the bottle in her hand, she laughed, ruefully, “And I suppose I‘d probably be better off without this, anyway!”
“Oh I have a corkscrew,” offered Dan without hesitation. He also chose the first possible interpretation of her look of apprehension. “But don’t worry, I won’t impose. I‘ll be right back.”
Though he had trained himself never to hurry, he made surprisingly light work of the stairs this time, and borne by the pure enthusiasm of being helpful, returned within minutes.
“Once a Boy Scout…” he said when he presented her with the corkscrew, filling in the ellipsis with a grin that even he knew was goofy. He promptly replaced this with the half-smile that would be more familiar to her. Ticia’s own expression became concerned, her head tilted slightly as she examined his face.
“Are you OK, Dan?” she asked, and he felt a compulsive jab of fear. The distorted sensory effects of his disease often made him feel that he existed in a bubble of space-time that floated apart from everyone else, but he usually assumed that this disconnect was invisible to anyone but him. Apparently the alarm showed in his eyes, because she hastened to add, “You just look really tired.”
“Oh,” he replied, cautiously relaxing. “Well, that’s ’cause I just really am. But I had… I had a new treatment today, and I think it’ll help with that.” He could tell she was about to say something generally encouraging, so he gave her arm a pat and retreated smartly toward his apartment. “I’m glad to see you, Teesh,” he said, quite sincerely. “Just knock if there’s anything else you need. But knock loud; I think I’m probably gonna be out cold soon!”
“OK,” Ticia smiled. “Me too, thanks to you!” She brandished the corkscrew, indicating the dragons she herself was about to slay.
Halfway up the stairs, a funny thought occurred to him.
“Hey, would you like a couple cats to keep you company?” he asked. “We can leave our front doors open.”
Ticia hesitated, pinched her lower lip with her fingers in the way he always assumed meant she was trying to find a way to say no, and then said, “That would actually be kind of awesome. Thanks, Dan.”
Naturally, as soon as the door to downstairs had opened, the cats were gone. They’d only returned after dinner, when they heard the sound of their food bowls being filled for the night. Now, thoroughly gorged on kibble, they decided to stay upstairs, snoozing on either side of Dan on the couch, while he avidly consumed page after page of modern tentacular horror. The tales were by turns spine-chilling and hilarious, but eventually, all the glistening repulsiveness and the pornographic madness and the frequent mind-numbing homages to Lovecraftian verbosity made his eyes start to droop. Like a character in one of the stories he had just read, he forgot all his earlier advice to himself, and sacrificed all care to the exigencies of exhaustion.
When his eyes opened slowly to the shadows of the living room, lit just well enough to read, he calmly regarded the clock on the shelf: just after 3:30. The last he’d noted the time, it had been slightly after 9:30. He’d been sitting up then, but now he found himself on his side, head cushioned on a pillow-like arm of the couch. On the floor near his feet, the cats made a two-headed ball on the bed he’d cobbled together out of clearance fabric and stuffing from the Ben Franklin. Wenz had her eyes half-closed; Pugz snored faintly, on the verge of dreaming. Had Dan dreamt? Or was he, still? He searched the room for that one item out of place, that belonged to another time or reality or planet or dimension. He waited to feel that inimitable, crawling banality of the dream within a dream, which would erupt without warning into nightmare. Instead, he felt strangely alert. Painlessly awake. A hopeful smile stole over his face, and the smile broke into a grin when he felt the dampness of drool soaking the arm of the couch. He’d slept, hard; hard enough to dream just about anything – but thanks to the baku, he might never know what.
It was in that instant of duplicitous peace that he noticed Wenz’s eyes. In the space of a heartbeat, they were not only wide-open, but the pupils, dilating slowly but inexorably until they all but filled the cat’s eyes, were trained somewhere above Dan’s head. He knew this irritating habit as well as anyone who’d spent a lifetime with felines, and yet in all the times he’d taken the bait, looking over his shoulder to find a tiny spider, or (more often) nothing at all, his heart had never pounded this hard. Right now, he was pretty sure it was no spider. And as the bruised purple flickering crept into his peripheral vision, and chills prickled along his arms and the back of his neck, he damn well knew it wasn’t nothing.
There were three of them in the air above him, each at least as long as Dan was tall, and they bore enough resemblance to the painted baku in Sakamoto’s office that he was not nearly as startled by them as he might have been. They seemed more fluid and colorful than the ones in the painting, fuzzy edges fluxing between blue and red, purple and black, but their gleaming claws and tusks seemed plenty substantial, and Dan ducked his head instinctively away from them. As he did so, he detected three glowing red filaments that flowed loosely about them. They joined together into one strand, which followed him as he moved; it was attached, somewhere, to him, like some kind of dream umbilical cord. What he didn’t understand was the strange sound that they started to produce – a muffled, high-pitched sound, like horses screaming underwater, that he seemed to hear over a distant crash of surf. Gradually, he became aware that they were not only screaming, but pulling away from him, rearing up on their leonine legs, straining at some invisible barrier. Their trunks snuffled along the edges of something Dan could not see, as if they were blindly and desperately feeling for an exit. Suddenly, with a nauseous certainty, he knew they were not running from him.
A shadow that was more of a presence than a dampening of light brought Dan’s gaze slowly back around to where the cats lay. Pugz, whiskers twitching, was now in the grip of REM sleep; Wenz settled into her earlier half-drowse, one ear back, as if annoyed that she’d bothered to go on alert for something as trivial as a trio of elephantine monsters. Neither cat seemed remotely aware of the phantasm that hovered silently over them, tethered to Pugz by a similar dream tether to Dan’s own. Stupefied by terror, Dan stared at the creature’s enormous, lamp-like eyes. Eventually, distantly, he realized that they were not looking at him – perhaps not even seeing him. The vaguely feline head, perched atop a segmented body that was somewhere between centipede and crawfish, moved hypnotically from side to side, its snake-like tongue tasting the air. It watched the panicking baku intently, two pairs of clawed hands flexing, waiting for the moment to strike.
When it did, a stunningly fast motion like the snap of a whip, it devoured the smallest of the three baku in one flashing bite.
“No!” cried Dan. Both cats woke fully at the sound, staring at him in disgruntled disbelief. But the monster, to his utter dismay, did not disappear the moment Pugz stopped dreaming. In fact, the dream tether floated loose. The thing drifted almost casually closer to the shrieking baku.
“No you don’t!” Dan screamed, and casting about for something to throw at the thing, gripped his paperback tome of Cthulhu stories. As he poised to hurl it, the book opened, and for the first time, the creature looked directly at him. “Oh shit,” he groaned, suddenly aware that a 24-ounce book would be about as lethal a weapon as a stream of expletives. Nevertheless, these were all he had, and as the creature’s twisty body coiled in sickening readiness, Dan aimed at its head and hurled the book – and a cascade of insults – with all his strength.
The baku–eater dispersed like blown dust.
“What the fuck–”
Dan wondered at the sudden pitch drop of his voice, until he realized it was not his own. Leticia stood in the doorway, staring at him in alarm.
“Are you OK?” she asked, for the second time that night, but with much wider eyes.
“Did you see that?” Dan gasped. He looked over his shoulder at the two surviving baku, who had calmed slightly and now seemed to be comforting each other with their trunks. “Do you see them?”
His heart sank as he followed her eyes all over the room; apparently, she saw nothing but a crazy cat man in his pajamas, throwing books at bogeymen. He dropped his head in his hands as she entered the room.
“Dan,” Ticia said gently, crouching next to him. He waited for her to say the inevitable: I think you had a nightmare. But what she said was: “Tell me what happened.”
Dan looked her in the eye. The muscles of his jaw worked as he gauged what he could possibly have left to lose.
“If you have any of that wine left, you might want to get it. Otherwise… Do you like sake?”
For nearly an hour, Leticia had listened, sipping her sake thoughtfully, interrupting only two or three times to ask a clarifying question, or firmly saying “Go on”. At least once, Dan had paused, not because the tale was distressing, but because Ticia continued to be completely blind to the baku, who floated above their heads like two restless, monstrous balloons. It was a little disconcerting.
In the silence that followed the heroic climax, Dan waited for the verdict that he was in fact barking, slathering mad. Instead, Ticia asked to see – of all things – the book. He watched incredulously as she leafed through it, a smile spreading across her lips that was so giddy and contagious he found himself grinning as well.
“Elder Sign,” she announced, triumphantly holding up a page of the book with the branch-like symbol that Howard Phillips Lovecraft himself had sketched, and which the editor of the compilation had placed at the end of every story. Dan’s smile vanished as he contemplated the possibility that Leticia herself was the unhinged party in the room.
“You think… that thing was one of the Old Ones,” Dan stated carefully, as if addressing an unpredictably violent child. Ticia choked on her sake.
“No!” she giggled between coughs; the girlish push of her hand on his arm made him smile, and feel more than a little flushed. “I think you’re a freakin’ onmyōji, man! It’s as plain as day!”
Dan’s mouth opened and promptly shut again.
“How do you even know what the hell that is?” he sighed. “Just because Sakamoto said it a couple times, doesn’t mean I have a clue. It’s a person who can see things like this,” he jabbed a thumb up at the baku, and Ticia raised her eyes uneasily; she plainly still saw nothing. “That much I understand.”
“Uh, way more than see them,” Ticia said, “obviously. OK. Well, my understanding only comes from watching anime, but if those shows have any basis in reality – and that sounds completely ridiculous just now, considering everything – onmyōji can control yōkai – those are demons, at least Japanese ones – as well as destroy them, with paper.”
She made an impressive but nonsensical throwing gesture, as if pitching a ninja star.
“Paper,” Dan echoed, looking at the book.
“More specifically, with paper that’s been imbued with magic.” She held up a cautionary finger at Dan’s wry expression. “I am not saying that this is a magic book. I’m saying it had a symbol on it that just so happened to make a connection. You said you read like a quarter of the book tonight, so the symbol is imprinted on your memory. So, unconsciously, was the idea that you might be protected from that horrible creature if you showed it the–”
“Elder Sign,” Dan spoke alongside her, shaking his head. “I’m sorry to bust your theory, but I didn’t choose a page and throw the book. I just threw it. And I’m not sure I was so concerned with protecting myself; I wanted to protect them. I just wanted the thing to go away. And it did.”
There was a silence of about ten seconds while Ticia looked hopefully upward, was again disappointed, and sighed. She licked her lips.
“OK, then, you got lucky. And the Elder Sign is legitimate juju, which I’m really kind of freaking out about right now.”
On some inscrutable whim, Dan took hold of Ticia’s hand and squeezed it. He was not quite sure of what he was going to say until it was said.
“Teesh, are you seriously believing all this?”
She seemed startled, and pursing her lips ominously, narrowed her eyes.
“Are you… about to tell me… you’ve been making ‘all this’ up?”
“No!” Dan exclaimed. His mind was racing and he scrunched his eyes closed in some vague hope of slowing the maelstrom down. “I just… I can’t even believe it myself, and more importantly: how the hell am I going to get these guys back where they belong? Look at them! Oh crap you can’t, sorry – but they’re not happy. They’re pacing like caged animals. They don’t belong outside… well, outside my head. Or mind. Soul. Whatever.”
He didn’t remember that his hand and Ticia’s were clasped until he felt the pressure. Her eyes were uncategorically earnest.
“Dan,” she said, “we’ll figure it out. Does Dr. Sakamoto have an emergency number?”
Dan made a skeptical noise – no doctor of his had ever given him such a thing – but after struggling free of the couch and retrieving the card from the bookshelf, he was shocked to discover that Sakamoto was an exception. He dialed the number and waited.
Leticia, standing now beside Dan in the center of the room, put a hand on his shoulder.
“Did he say what I thought he said?”
Dan nodded, very slowly.
“I’m going to Japan,” he laughed, weakly. “Sunday. For at least two weeks. I can’t wait to tell my boss about that; I’ll be lucky if I have a job when I get back. Then again, according to Sakamoto, I can have a whole new profession if I want it. Who knew onmyōji were in such high demand…”
“Outside of anime,” Ticia grinned. Seeing her, Dan smiled too. He found himself leaning closer by instinct, but stopped himself short, recalling the reason she was even here again to begin with. Suppose the old boyfriend managed to redeem himself somehow? But Ticia’s eyes sparkled as if they too were a magic only he could see, and before he knew it, his lips were being warmed with her miraculous kiss. “I’ll take care of the cats for you,” she said, and laughed at his raised eyebrows. She pulled him back to the couch, which consumed them again with velvety, overstuffed enthusiasm. “I’m not scared. Hell, they probably have even scarier things in them that neither of us see. Ever hear of Taxoplasma gondii?”
“I asked Sakamoto,” Dan said, forcing them both to focus, “if Pugz will be OK without his dream eater, and he said the things are… self-reproducing. It’s just a matter of time til there’s a new one.”
Ticia shuddered, which was slightly at odds with her obvious delight in visualizing this alien horror. Suddenly, though, she looked upward, worry etching her forehead.
“So what about them?” she asked. “Did he say how to get them back where they need to be?”
Dan nodded, a crooked smile on his face; he’d laughed when Sakamoto told him.
“Easiest thing in the world,” he said. “For me. I’ve just got to fall asleep again, and have a bad dream. Preferably several.” He chuckled again at the notion of having multiple nightmares on purpose, and shrugged. “They’re just hungry, poor things. Question is if I can even get to sleep again, after all this!” He reached for the bottle of sake, swished it around experimentally; luckily there was a fair amount left, and he poured two more cups.
“Want me to read you scary stories?” Ticia inquired temptingly, the edge of her cup poised at her lips.
“Just anything but Lovecraft,” Dan laughed. “Kanpai!”
“Kanpai!” Ticia followed suit, then leaned forward conspiratorially. “I’m serious, you know. I’m not sure you know this, but, I write scary stories, Dan.” She nodded gravely in response to his pointing finger, his open-mouthed smile. “Like, old school scary stories. Ghosts and carnivorous tricksters and things that go bump in the night. Man, I could probably keep those babies fed for, like, 1,001 nights.”
A full minute passed. Dan set his cup down gently on the floor. He took her hands, and looking solemnly into her eyes, asked:
“Where have you been all my life?”
When Daniel woke, the sun was doing its best to burn through the dark curtains of his bedroom. He stared at the windows for several minutes before reaching for the clock on his nightstand. It was 8:30 in the morning, and he was definitely not going to work. Not because he wasn’t up to it; he’d never felt more up to facing a day in his life. The realization made him giddy, as did the emptiness of the room. The baku were gone. Probably napping themselves, now, bellies distended after their feast. The thought made him chuckle to himself.
Shortly after that, he heard a light step outside his room, and turned to see the door open. Two black streaks shot toward him from the shining space, landing on his bed with deafening purrs and fish-smelling, raspy-tongued cat kisses. He dutifully scratched their heads and throats in tandem, and rolled his eyes for the benefit of Leticia, who waltzed into the room with her cell phone playing the “Call to the Cows” from Rossini’s William Tell Overture.
“Stand aside, Addamses,” she told the cats imperiously, and Dan caught her in his arms as she descended, folding her into the downy warmth.
Some time later, Leticia lifted an inquisitive eyebrow, her head indicating with a vague arc the invisible things that were no longer there.
“Yes,” Dan said, kissing her. “They’re home.” He tapped his temple. “Thanks to you.”
“’Tweren’t nothing,” Ticia pronounced, though a proud dimple appeared in one cheek. “So… you feel better? You look better.”
“I feel something I honestly can’t remember having felt for… ever, it seems.” Smiling at him patiently, Ticia waited for him to elaborate, or not. Dan kissed her a few more times first. Then he said: “Rested.”
The word still felt like fantasy. But it was a magic he could learn.
Author’s Note: Yes, that little twig separating the sections is Lovecraft’s own Elder Sign (image via Wikimedia Commons). Profuse thanks (apologies?) to Paula Guran, editor of the anthology New Cthulhu: The Recent Weird, which is so obviously the book Dan wields so, um, valiantly.
Also, I think this begs to be made into a manga/anime but I don’t have the time/resources to shop it around. Any mangaka out there, get in touch!
The Infusion by Sunshine Jansen is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 4.0 International License.