Nothing made a person appreciate good air conditioning like Texas in the summer. Sweat, during daylight hours, wasn’t a bodily function so much as an article of clothing. It was a familiar, constant presence, lingering on the skin at all times. The unpleasant product of near 100% humidity and an average temperature approaching the surface of the sun.
Dan’s new house, in contrast, seemed to maintain itself at a brisk sixty degrees Fahrenheit. The heat outside was almost worth it, just for the contrast. Nothing woke a person up like a face full of cold air on a hot day. Dan was certainly getting his share of that experience, as he guided a pair of movers in and out of his miniature castle.
The men had arrived this morning, as dawn crept up on the horizon, each of them at the wheel of a large truck. Now, it was almost noon, and their labor was nearly complete. What had been a barren, soulless structure was now bristling with life and color. Couches and beds and paintings, small busts depicting unknown faces, a few abstract wire-frame contraptions hung on the walls, Dan’s house was slowly becoming a
Abby absolutely did not fuck around when it came to decorating. The girl had been on a mission, with a stubborn bent and a limitless credit card. Dan didn’t know where to put more than half the shit she’d bought, but directed the delivery men inside all the same. He knew she’d come by later and rearrange it all anyway.
The two movers were burly fellows, with barrel chests, large beards, and arms thicker than Dan’s thighs. Gregoir would’ve liked them. The pair seemed brothers, judging by their shared features. Stubby noses, strong chins, and large brows. Also, the trucks. Two Brother’s Moving Company had been sprayed across the sides. Not the most imaginative name, but refreshingly accurate.
The older brother, the one with flecks of grey sprinkled in his hair, stopped beside Dan. His arms were wrapped around an entire recliner, both limbs stretched unnaturally long. Like taffy, or rubber, like a goddamn cartoon character. Looney Toons, come to life. He held the chair up like it was weightless, shifting only slightly so that it could rest against his waist. His head tilted towards the over sized thing, inquiring, “Where you want this, boss?”
Dan pulled his eyes away from the man’s deformed limbs, and gestured deeper into the house. “Just leave it in the living room. Next to the couch, I guess.” Dan could rearrange things once they were gone. Assuming he had the space. As big as Dan’s house was, he was quickly running out of room. He should probably check on how much is left, actually.
The heat was like a heavy blanket draping itself around him as he walked outside. A glance at the sky confirmed what Dan already knew, not a cloud in sight. Sweat beaded on his brow in seconds. Dan made his way down his circle-drive, towards the second moving truck. The first, fortunately, had already been emptied of its many pieces of furniture. Both vehicles had been backed into Dan’s driveway, their backs open and insides on display.
The truck was almost empty. Only a few of the smaller items were left: several lamps, a large foot rest that doubled as a chest, and some kind of cabinet. It probably had a fancy sort of name, but Dan didn’t know it. Decorating was not his strong suit, and he knew how lucky he was to have Abby around to do it for him.
Dan stared inside the truck for longer than he should have, sweating in the summer sun, contemplating his next action. It took more effort than usual to will himself forward, but will it he did. He appeared inside the truck, his hand around the largest lamp. It was taller than Dan, coated bright gold, and split into several branches near the top. Half a dozen small bulbs were screwed into it, each jutting out at odd angles. Dan couldn’t help but wonder how functional it actually was. Probably not very.
He hefted the unwieldy thing, testing its weight. His veil sank into it, the sapphire blue mixing with white-gold. The process took less than an instant, the lamp darkening into an ugly seaweed-green, visible only to him. He could feel it now, like an extension of his body. A mental command pulled them both out of existence.
The Gap was dark again, an endless familiar void. The dull chill weighed on his soul, a numbing presence forcefully ignored. He kept his eyes forward. He didn’t dare look up. Dan spun on his heel, feet digging into the nonexistent ground, and settled the lamp against his shoulder. One step forward, and he appeared mid-stride in his foyer. A blast of cool air welcomed him inside, washing away the sweat. So very different from the feel of t-space.
The younger of the two brothers rounded the corner of the closest hallway, nodding to Dan as he passed by. Dan returned the gesture, climbing the stairs one by one, making his way to the master bedroom. He relished the physical activity, burning limbs distracting his mind from more pressing issues. He continued on like that, until the trucks were empty. Short jumps, from the driveway to the foyer. Fast and easy. Just like he’d been doing all morning. Repetitive. Mechanical.
Noon came, and the work was finished. Dan tipped the two men generously, thanked them for their services, and sent them on their way. They moved quickly, hoping to beat the thick rain clouds that lingered just beyond the horizon. Summer storms, sweeping in to smother the city. Dan watched them pull out of his driveway with a dull gaze. He was exhausted, his clothes drenched in drying sweat. His mind was no better. Scatterbrained and scattershot, his thoughts careened about the insides of a pinball machine. Unsteady, unfocused.
He needed a shower and a change of clothes.
Hot water washed away his weariness. He let it run, let it fog up his mirror and turn the tiled room into a sauna. He didn’t bother putting clothes on as he stepped out of the bathroom and into the master bedroom. The cold air waiting for him was like a shot of caffeine directly into his veins. His brain slowly revved back into life.
The bedroom stood in stark contrast to his Plain Jane quarters on the Neptune station. Dan’s king-sized bed sat on an exquisitely carved wooden frame, with several pairs of sheets neatly folded on top of it. He would need to clad the thing before Abby arrived. His dresser, a hefty tallboy, matched the bed. Hardwood, sanded to a smooth sheen. Several paintings adorned the walls, Abby’s idea, splashes of color added to the otherwise calamitous wallpaper. The room would need to be painted. A cowhide rug covered most of the floor. Dan curled his toes against it, feeling the bristled fur. He stared at the patchwork hide, brown and white spots patterned in his vision.
“I’m okay,” he said to himself. His words echoed off the walls of his room. Hearing it again was almost reassuring. “I’m okay,” he repeated, listening to his own voice repeat endlessly. For a moment, he even believed it.
It was long enough. Dan slapped his cheeks, once, twice, then forced out a laugh. His face pasted a smile upon itself. Abby would be by soon, and she deserved to see him cheerful. It was a big day for Dan. You only get one first house.
Despite himself, Dan found his melancholic mood evaporating in the face of Abby’s relentless charm. His girlfriend led him by the hand, down the hallways of his own house, chattering endlessly about her design choices. The once grim surroundings seemed to brighten in tune with his mood, the dark corridors splashed with good cheer.
“You wanted a home, Danny,” she said encouragingly. “We gotta make it
Light bulbs would be the first order of business. For the hallways, for the foyer, he’d line the place like a Christmas tree if that’s what it took to brighten it. Gregoir probably knew a good electrician. The clapper sensor needed to be moved, and Dan certainly wasn’t willing to crawl through the attic in the middle of summer. Let someone with a heat-resistance upgrade do that.
The upstairs living room had been transformed into a gym. Dual pictures of muscled fighters Dan didn’t recognize hung on either side of the entrance. Inspiring icons of manhood and martial pursuit. Presumably, this world’s version of Bruce Lee or Muhammad Ali. Dan gave himself a mental reminder to look into the fates of those particular men, then entered the room.
Rubber mats lined the floors, the walls, everything really. Abby had included a copy of her bastardized Bowflex, alongside a leg press and more weights than you could shake a stick at. The wall mounts that had once held a television were gone, replaced by a matte black audio system. The speakers were small, about the size of Dan’s closed fist, and the control system was no bigger than a stuffed envelope. It sat on a pedestal, far from the weights, where no one could trip and fall on it. In the center of the room was a small elevated arena, not unlike the one beneath the Pearson, though obviously in better shape.
“For sparring,” Abby added mischievously. The bottom of the ring was lined with crash pads. There was no possibility of breaking the floor, here.
Dan was unsure of how worried he should feel about that.
The kitchen was the least changed. Abby had bought an expensive coffee machine. That was it. The house came with a microwave and an oven already. The dishwasher was nice enough, though Dan might replace it at some point, and the stove seemed to work. The refrigerator left something to be desired, being somehow too small yet too bulky, but that could be solved later. It was good enough for now.
“Your fridge is empty,” Abby mentioned as they passed. “We can go shopping later, and fill it up.” Dan’s distracted grunt probably didn’t win him any points, but he was too busy looking at his living room.
It stood adjacent to the kitchen, separated only by an open counter top. He’d arranged this room himself, using the furniture Abby had ordered. A massive leather couch spanned the width of the room, pressed snugly against the walls. Recliners were placed at each end, where the couches terminated. At each top corner of the room, large speakers had been fitted. Surround sound. And finally, at the center of the room, a massive screen was mounted on the wall. Abby’s old television.
“You didn’t have to give that to me,” Dan said, staring at the futuristic device. Crystalline structures ran along its border. A voice command would spin them into life, projecting the screen in hi-definition. 4K would cry itself to sleep, seeing this.
Abby ran her hand down his arm, then looped herself around him. “I wanted to.” She led him to the couch, pushing him down onto the cushions. They weren’t as soft as Abby’s furniture, but they got damn close. She followed him, plopping down on his lap and wrapping her arms around his neck. Her eyes stared into his, gentle and understanding. They watched each other in silence. A vent rattled, somewhere in the distance. Air whistled through the vents in the ceiling.
“You haven’t told me how your meeting went,” Abby said slowly. She bit her lip, eyes flicking down, then back. “You don’t have to— I don’t wanna press. Just… is everything okay?”
She was nervous, Dan realized suddenly. Nervous that he was pulling away. That he didn’t want to share things with her. That she’d done something wrong.
He pressed forward, kissing her. Soft lips met his, and everything was briefly right with the world. He pulled away, watching her face. Red blossomed across her cheeks. Her lips curled into a smile. He remembered why he was falling for her.
Dan’s mouth opened.
Cthulhu is stalking me
. It closed with a click.
“I don’t know how to describe it,” he admitted.
She blinked at the confession. Her hips shifted, moving herself closer to him. Her arms curled, drawing him forward. Her lips pressed against his cheek, then his neck, then brushed against his earlobe.
“Try,” she suggested softly, breath tickling his hair.
He spoke of Matilda, her observations, her theories. He told Abby about his own experiences, his own realizations. He described the epiphany that led him to the Gap. The cold, dull, numbness that had always lingered in the air. He spoke about the
that lingered above him, watching him, connected to him.
He spoke to Abby until his throat was dry and his voice was hoarse. His worries, laid out like a buffet before her. He sounded like a crazy person, speaking about invisible monsters made of eyes and teeth. Infected by whatever insanity that fueled Lovecraftian dreams. Some part of him worried that the Gap had finally reached into him, that his power only delayed the inevitable madness.
Something in his chest unclinched and loosened when Abby smiled at him.
She ran a hand along his cheek, cupping his jaw. “I have no idea what to do,” she admitted, “but we’ll figure it out together.” He could see her worry, her concern, but not a hint of doubt. “You said it yourself,” she continued. “Your power hasn’t changed, only your perception of it. It’ll be okay.”
He wasn’t sure who her words were meant to reassure, but he valued them all the same. They settled into the couch, into each other. Dan put on an old Western movie, and they fell into a comfortable silence. Time passed in such a manner. Hours of companionship, washing away his worries. Day turned into night and sleep came peacefully.