Unsleeping

by Martha Taylor, soulcake[at]bellsouth.net

Epilogue

 

 
 
 
 
 
 
 

Not for the first time this evening, it occurred to Blair that it was a beautiful night for stargazing. With no city lights to blur the skyline, he could see Vega, Deneb, and Altair ascending from the northeastern horizon in a brilliant triangle, as if pointing the way toward summer. Blair pulled the blanket more tightly around his shoulders and tucked his hands back under his armpits for warmth. Hard to believe summertime would be here almost before he knew it. Arcturus was high in the sky, yellow-gold, the brightest star in the heavens. When his neck started to ache from craning his head upward for so long, he dropped his head to lay his chin on his chest, trying to stretch out the cramping muscles, then rolled his head from side to side.

At once Jim's hand was on the back of his neck, palm warm, strong fingers making careful circles over tensed and aching muscles. "Sore?" Jim asked. His voice was a hoarse rumble.

"I'll live," Blair replied without thinking, and then it struck him as funny when he heard what he'd just said. He chuckled weakly, feeling the strain through his shoulders. Man, he was getting stiff. He wouldn't be able to move tomorrow. He was hardly able to move now. Jim had done the best he could, but this nest of blankets and sofa cushions heaped  against the balustrade was uncomfortable and cold.

It still beat the hell out of the alternative. Too bad they couldn't get even further away. Neither one of them was in good enough shape to get down the back steps, though, so this would have to do. Well, that wasn't strictly true. Jim probably could have managed it on his own, but he hadn't suggested it, and Blair wasn't about to. Probably made him a pretty selfish bastard, but on the other hand, Jim wasn't showing any signs he wanted to go traipsing off by himself either. In fact, it seemed whenever Blair was silent for more than a few moments at a time, Jim would come up with some excuse to start a conversation again.

"Cold?" Jim asked, right on schedule. He adjusted the blanket around Blair, despite the fact Blair had done that himself not two minutes ago, and then left his arm draped around Blair's shoulders. In the warmth and strength of that casual embrace Blair almost forgot about the cold night air and his aching body. He let his eyes close and dropped his head back.

"Nah, I'm good," he told Jim, and it wasn't precisely a lie.

"I could get another blanket," Jim said after another short interval.

"No." That was an easy one, even if it was cold out here. Jim had made four or five trips back inside already, hauling out sofa cushions, a blanket, sweat pants for Blair and even the first aid kit from underneath the sink. Every time he came back he was moving more slowly, and his voice was more strained. Blair wasn't sending him back in there again. He didn't know what was left on the threshold, and he couldn't smell it with the balcony windows firmly shut, but of course Jim could. Blair opened his eyes fast and shook his head, trying to banish that line of thought. "You see that bright star right overhead, man? The one that almost looks orange?"

Jim obediently craned his head back. "I see it."

"That's Arcturus. The cool thing about it is it'll only be close enough to see from Earth for about a million years or so, 'cause it's not orbiting galactic center in the equatorial plane of the galaxy. It's just passing through, and then it'll be gone." Blair worked his arm out from under the blanket and made a swooping motion with his outstretched hand to illustrate. Then he pointed straight up. "If you follow Arcturus down to the north there, the first constellation is the Northern Crown, and then Hercules is the next one and just to the west there is M13, that little fuzzy dot. I've seen it in a telescope a couple of times, though, and it's really beautiful then, like this cloud of light all glittering with stars. I bet you can see it that way without a telescope. You see which one I'm talking about?"

But Jim shook his head, and reaching out, brought down the hand with which Blair was pointing to the sky. "I don't want to look at the stars," he said quietly. "The spaces in between are just too damned dark."

Blair swallowed, feeling a chill. He knew what Jim meant all right. Reaching up with his other hand, he caught the hand Jim had draped over his shoulder and squeezed tightly for a moment. "Screw the stars," he said, and managed a laugh. Jim squeezed back, and Blair suddenly realized  Jim must have been humoring him while he rattled on about the stars.  The man had been a Ranger, after all.  He probably knew a little something about dead reckoning by the night sky.

He was trying to think of something to talk about that didn't involve the stars when Jim asked, "You want to try to get some sleep? We could lay these pillows out flat so you could stretch out, maybe get a little shut-eye."

That was another no-brainer. The last thing Blair wanted to do was sleep. He couldn't imagine leaving Jim alone that way. Not when Jim was willing to listen to his bargain basement astronomy lectures rather than face the silence of the evening. "No," Blair announced. "I'm fine. Hey, how does your side feel? Is it still bleeding? Do we need to wrap it up tighter?"

"It's all right."

"You'll tell me if it's not? Because it's gonna be a long time till morning."

"I'll tell you," Jim agreed, and another silence fell.

"Don't want you, like, quietly bleeding to death right next to me or anything."

Jim was good enough to chuckle even though it wasn't remotely funny. "I'll keep you posted," he said.

Blair's neck was beginning to cramp leaning against Jim's upper arm. He didn't say anything about it and didn't move, but Jim must have felt it anyway, because to Blair's regret he lifted his arm away so Blair was only leaning back against the sofa cushion. It was squishy and cold after the warm solidity of Jim's arm,  so Blair leaned his shoulder a little harder against Jim's. "Guess I can kiss my fellowship good-bye," he blurted out, and then wondered why the hell he'd told Jim that. He felt Jim stiffen against him.

"What do you mean?"

"Nothing, man. Just thinking out loud."

Not that he'd believed Jim could be put off so easily. "Why would they take away your fellowship?" Jim persisted.

Blair shrugged, then equivocated. "For one thing, this is my fourth year of teaching already, and there aren't all that many positions for anthro grad students, you know? It's not like the English department or something where they have to have a steady supply of new blood to teach all the freshman comp classes. It's real dicey whether I could have gotten teaching again next year or not. I'm supposed to finish up and be out of here by now."

"You never told me that."

Blair smiled a little in the darkness. "You never asked."

"So just how were you planning to keep yourself in seaweed and carrot juice next year without your fellowship?"

"You make it sound so final. Something would have come along. At least this way I know I need to start looking now."

"Why? You mean because of what happened today?"

"Well, yeah." Blair sighed. "You think they're going to let me step back into a classroom after this?"

"Sandburg, you were kidnapped at gunpoint from a parking garage." Jim's voice was low and angry. "It was not your fault. Nothing that happened was your fault."

"They were my students. It was my class."

"A congregation of bad head cases taking your class doesn't make it your fault either. The school's not gonna try and lay this on your shoulders."

"They don't have to lay anything on my shoulders. All they have to do is not offer the fellowship again. Look, Jim, forget about it. I don't even know why I said anything."

Jim shifted beside him. Blair could feel unhappiness radiating from every tensed muscle. "When you come right down to it," Jim announced at last, "Rainier's probably liable, at least in part. They've got some responsibility to provide a safe working environment. At the very least, not to hire professors like Nagle. He egged those students on, Sandburg. He was probably in on it from the first."

The night breeze was penetratingly cold, sneaking under the collar of the house robe and raising chills down Blair's spine. The street below them was quiet, everyone finally having gone in for the night, and Blair shivered and laid his head against Jim's shoulder. He remembered his surreal conversation with Nagle through Tom's locked bedroom door. "They killed him," Blair said, raising his head again. "At the very end he finally tried to stop them from hurting me anymore, and someone killed him. I was blindfolded, so I didn't see who it was." He took a long, shaky breath. "I don't guess it matters any more."

Jim didn't answer, and Blair couldn't tell if that was because Jim agreed with him, or just because Jim didn't want to discuss it right now. Probably the latter. There would have to be an investigation, Blair supposed, much as he wished they could blame it all on the earthquake and pretend the rest of it never happened. He couldn't imagine what the results of an investigation like that would be. What were he and Jim going to tell people about the last twelve hours?

What was he going to tell himself?

"Ross's school ring," Blair whispered suddenly. He forced himself to look through the dark balcony windows for an instant and into the living room. He couldn't see anything but the blank, black panes of glass, and thinking about Jim's complaint about the darkness between the stars, he shut his eyes fast and turned his head. "I heard it roll into the kitchen. We should - I mean, how are we supposed to explain how it got there?"

"We won't," Jim said quietly. "I put it away."

Oh, Jim, Blair thought, imagining Jim having to pick up that terrible artifact. "Where did you put it?"

Jim almost laughed. "They'll find it if they toss the place, but I'm not expecting anyone to. I dropped it in a bottle of bleach."

"Oh man." For some reason that struck Blair as funny in a horrible sort of way. "Just be sure we get rid of that bottle before laundry day."

Jim snorted. "What," he said, "you mean waste a perfectly good bottle of bleach?"

"Oh my god," Blair moaned. It hurt to laugh, but he couldn't help himself. The laughter came like hard blows to the gut, and the more he tried to stop, the worse they became. He curled over his bent knee, holding his sides, dimly aware of Jim patting his back and saying "Easy, Sandburg, you're gonna pop a seam," which just made him laugh harder than ever, and when the gasps of laugher became hard, dry sobs, Jim folded his arms around Blair and pulled him up so Blair could tuck his face against Jim's throat. His arms went blindly around Jim, trying to be careful of Jim's hurt ribs, but it was hard to be gentle when he was so exhausted and so afraid. Jim's arms tightened around him, understanding even though Blair couldn't explain, and held him firm against the world, even against the darkness between the stars.

"Jim," he whispered in a choked voice when he could speak. He didn't know how much time has passed, only that he could feel Jim's strong arms trembling with the strain, and the flesh on Jim's neck was damp from Blair's breath. "What are we gonna do?"

Jim took a long, shuddering breath and squeezed Blair so tight they both groaned. "The first thing we're gonna do, Sandburg," he said, his voice grim and serious, "is buy a brand new industrial size bottle of bleach, and then we're going to scrub every inch of floorboard from the street to the front door. Hope you didn't have any other plans for this weekend."

"Dammit, Jim," Blair wheezed, his head pressed hard against Jim's shoulder, "I told you, don't make me laugh anymore. I can't stand it."

"You think I'm joking? It's that or put the place on the market."

"Nah, that wouldn't work," Blair whispered, trying to get into the spirit of things. "We'd still have to wash the hall." He shifted a little, looking for a comfortable way to lay his head on Jim's chest. There wasn't one sitting up like this, but he stayed as long as his sore back and shoulders could stand it. Jim helped him sit back then, and Blair heard his tight, controlled breaths. The sound of Jim's pain made everything inside feel cold as ice. He reached for Jim's hand again and held on hard. "Sorry," he breathed, and felt Jim shake his head a little.

What a cold, clear, quiet night it was. Not the way the evening had begun at all. He couldn't even hear any sirens anymore. "Is there anything I can do?" he asked Jim quietly.

"I'll be all right."

That wasn't what Blair had asked, but it wasn't worth arguing about. Besides, Jim had a point. There wasn't anything he could do for Jim right now anyway, except maybe keep on talking.

"We'll tell people what they want to believe," Jim said abruptly, answering an earlier question. "That's all we have to do. Most people are like Pops after all. They don't want to read the stuff scribbled in the margins." Jim snorted softly. "Guess I'm a little like that myself, huh, Chief?"

"Right." Blair smiled. "Good ol' by-the-book Ellison. That's you, man."

"Damned straight," Jim agreed, sounding content.

"Hey," Blair said when the silence threatened to stretch out too long, "One good thing. While I'm laid up with this ankle, maybe I'll finally have time to finish that paper I've been noodling around with. That one on the unintended consequences of the federal gun regs on Cascade's inner city drug culture. All that's really left to do is double check some authorities. I should've done that months ago."

"That'd be great," Jim said. "Simon's been driving me nuts asking about it."

Blair chuckled. "Poor Simon. He's convinced if I give that paper at the DEA conference in June it might make some difference in the way the dough gets spread around. I keep telling him this is the Feds, man. They're not gonna listen to some long haired academic trying to tell them what the problem is."

"They might. It could be a chance to really make a difference."

"Maybe." Blair was more cautious. "Anyway, I'll finish it up and see. You know what I'd really like to do, though? There are some spots for guest lecturers at the Academy over the summer session. I told Simon before that I wouldn't have time, but my summer's suddenly looking a lot more open."

"You should give it a shot if you're interested. It would have made a lot of difference to me if I'd heard someone like you when I was at the Academy."

"Really?" Blair felt a stab of surprised pleasure so sharp that for an instant he forgot all about the cold and his hurt ankle and the rose thorns in his butt. He almost forgot about the puddle of muck on Jim's front door. "You would have listened to someone like me?"

"I'd've thought you were a total hippie flake." Jim put his arm around Blair's shoulders again. "But once I got out on the street, yeah, it really would have made a difference."

"No kidding," Blair said softly. He laid his head back against Jim's arm.

"But I thought you were going somewhere this summer. Alaska," Jim said after a short pause, and Blair realized he must have heard more in the garden than Blair had thought. "You told me you were going to Alaska this summer."

Not anymore. That travel grant would go the same way as his fellowship, but there was no need to tell Jim that. Especially not now, when Blair was considering the world from such a new and interesting point of view. "Nah, why do I need to go to Alaska to look for paleolithic sentinels? I've got my own right here."

Jim growled and cuffed his face, then pointed to the east with his other hand. "Those are a couple of planets just above the horizon there, right? Which two are they?"

Blair had to crane up to see over the balustrade. He hadn't thought Jim was watching the sky anymore, and it made him feel that things were a bit better if Jim were willing to look up.  Of course, Jim probably knew as well as he did which two planets they were, but Blair told him anyway.  "Jupiter and Saturn are the only ones we could be seeing this time of year. It must be closer to morning than I thought."

"Sure you don't want to try and get some sleep? Joel probably won't get here for hours yet."

"I'm sure," Blair said. Jim's arm was still around him, and Blair shifted closer, laying his head back against Jim's shoulder. The stars  overhead were cold and distant, but there were other worlds on the horizon, some of them as warm as Jim's encircling arms. "I don't really feel like sleeping tonight."
 

***

The End
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Acknowledgments

After such a long story, I can't just shut up and go home without another word or two.  Kitty has been helping me fight the walking dead in my prose  since the story began last September, and I couldn't have written it without her.  (thank you, dear)

For everyone who took a chance and read this story as a work in progress ... you are as foolish and trusting and brave as Blair Sandburg himself.  Thank you.  I know it was a leap of faith.  And if you're a sensible soul who waited until it was done before jumping in ... well, I love Jim just as much. I hope the story was fun either way.

"Unsleeping" itself, as fans of the genre will have recognized long before now, is an overblown pastiche of Lovecraft's short story, "The Thing on the Doorstep,"  among others.  Most of the books Blair mentions in the course of the story are Lovecraft's famously fictitious creations, but others are real, and were useful guides to raising the dead: The Book of the Sacred Magic of Abramelin the Mage (1458 - I was using S.L. Mac Gregor Mathers'  1900 translation); Crowley's Magic in Theory and Practice (1929);  The Discoverie of Witchcraft (Reginald Scot, 1584); Paul Barber's Vampires, Burial and Death, Folklore and Reality (1988); and Dead Men Do Tell Tales (Maples and Browning, 1994).

J.K. Huysmans (1848-1907) was a real person, author of occult classics like A Rebours and La-Bas, but  alas, he could not have translated Unaussprechlichen Kulten, which exists only as one of those "banned and dreaded repositories of equivocal secrets and immemorial formulae which have trickled down the stream of time from the days of man's youth, and the dim, fabulous days before man was ..." in the rear vestry room beside the apse in Lovecraft's "The Haunter of the Dark."

Thanks for reading, and happy Halloween,

Martha

October 1999 - July 9, 2000