Unsleeping

by Martha Taylor, soulcake[at]bellsouth.net

Chapter 7

 

 
 
 
 
 

 It was a little too warm in the loft, and it was much too light. Jim lay curled on his side with his pillow clutched hard in his arms. His heart was thudding in his chest so violently he could feel the reverberations through the mattress. Through the floorboards, practically. He wondered if Blair could see the floor shaking.

Blair.

Jim held his breath, listening. There. Blair was right downstairs, right where he was supposed to be. Well, almost. He should have gone to bed hours ago, but apparently he was still sitting up working. Jim could hear the rustle of turning pages, then the quiet, muffled patter of his fingers on the keyboard. A lamp was on in the living room, and Blair hadn't turned down the thermostat. He only did that when he went to bed. No wonder it was too warm upstairs.

Jim slowly uncurled his long form on the bed. His calves and forearms ached, making him wonder how long he'd been bundled up on the bed like that. Angie Ferris's song was still going through his head like a bad taste he couldn't get out of his mouth. What a hell of a dream. He rolled onto his back and sat up, raising his arms above his head and trying to stretch. There was a knot under his left shoulder blade that made him gasp and curl into himself again. Blair's fingers paused on the keyboard, as though he had heard Jim's gasp, but then Jim heard pages turning again. Blair had simply taken his hands off the keyboard to pick up his book.

Jim straightened up again, breathing carefully. Must be getting old. A couple of bad nights, and he was knotted up tighter than a clenched fist. No question of getting right back to sleep, either. Not when he was still afraid to close his eyes. He got up quickly, angry with himself, and padded downstairs before he could think about the dream anymore.

Blair looked up at him. He was sitting sideways on the sofa in a nest of pillows. His glasses were half way down his nose, hair falling out of his ponytail and tumbling around his shoulders. The laptop was on his stomach. He had one book propped open on his knees and a second, much fatter one, lying just in arm's reach on the coffee table. "Jim, man," he said, "What's up?"

"Why aren't you asleep?" Jim demanded instead of answering the question. He turned the thermostat down and then came and stood over Blair, his arms crossed over his chest. "You should have been in bed hours ago."

Blair shrugged, picking up the book on his knees. "Yeah, I know. I just wanted to get a start on the Huysmans here before I packed it in for the night. It's slow going, though. Taking me longer than I thought it would."

Jim plucked the book out of Blair's hands and looked at it. The text was French, and not the kind his Introduction to Conversational French would be any help with. He handed it back. "Still trying to get something on that history professor?"

"Yeah, I am," Blair admitted. "Trying to find out more about the book Ross was trying to steal. There aren't any English translations, but while I was in the library this afternoon I found that Huysmans translated some of Kulten into French around 1870 or so. My French isn't great, but it's better than my Middle High German, I can tell you that much." Blair scowled, picked up the book on the coffee table and dropped it again. A French-English dictionary, Jim saw. "At least I thought it was, but this stuff isn't making any sense to me. Either I'm getting it all wrong, or Huysmans added a lot on his own when he translated von Junzt's book, because whatever this is, it isn't sixteenth century Qabala."

Jim sank down on the other sofa. The dream was receding, pushed from his mind by the sound of Blair's voice, the light in his eyes, even his left hand making frustrated circles in the air. "What is it, then?" Jim asked.

"Damned if I know." A quick grin. "Not something to joke about, is it? Seriously, though, it's majorly bizarre, even though he starts out with the ordinary stuff. A lot of necromancy, mostly, which is what you'd expect to find in a book like Kulten. Raising the dead, using corpses and body parts in magic rituals, that sort of thing. I found the symbol that was on the board in my room, by the way. The same one someone put in Susan's backpack. It's a sign you're supposed to write on the forehead of a corpse you're trying to bring back to life. Anyway, all this stuff, it's old, well-known, well documented rites, going all the way back to the Greeks. No surprises there. But then von Junzt takes this left turn into nowhere, and things get totally weird."

"Weirder than raising the dead," Jim said, and tried to smile. He could feel how miserably he failed. Blair saw it, too.

"Jim, are you all right? What are you doing out of bed, anyway?"

"Just couldn't sleep. Tell me what the really weird part is."

"OK, this is what makes me think I must be getting the translation wrong. He talks about a void of blackness, but he's real vague about just what it is and where it is. Either it's right around the corner, or maybe it's on the far side of the stars, one way or the other." Blair shook his head. "I don't know, it's all crazy. Anyway, this black place, that's where the Olds Ones come from. Or maybe it is the Old Ones. They're entities and a place, both at the same time. I think."

"Old Ones?"

"I don't know. It doesn't seem like von Junzt is talking about demons or familiars. Doesn't sound like any system of demonology I've ever come across. It's more like the Old Ones are part of the whole shape of creation. The dark side. The part we can't look at too close, because it would probably blow our minds if we saw how the pieces really fit together. I think that's what von Junzt is hinting at, anyway. He just won't come out and SAY anything." Suddenly Blair slammed the book shut on his knees. "Stuff is giving me the willies, man. And anyway, maybe I'm getting it all wrong. There's a guy at Miskatonic, Professor Howell Phillips, who seems to be the reigning expert on von Junzt and his ilk. I'll try to give him a call tomorrow." Blair set his laptop over on the coffee table and stretched hard. "You want something to drink? Maybe some hot tea?"

"Nah, thanks." Jim stood up, took one of Blair's outstretched arms and pulled. Blair allowed himself to be hauled to his feet with a tolerant grin. His wrist and the back of his hand were cool to the touch, and Jim felt a little stab of guilt for turning back the thermostat. "I'm just going to go back to bed," he told Blair. "You should, too. You're not going to be any good to anybody if you get so obsessed trying to pin this on Nagle that you can't sleep. Believe me, Chief, I know what I'm talking about here."

"Yeah, I guess you're right," Blair agreed reluctantly. He knelt in front of the coffee table, saved his work and shut the cover of the laptop. Then he reached expectantly for Jim's hand, and Jim pulled him to his feet again. "What do you think, Jim, really? Do you think I'm going off the deep end with this stuff?" He gestured back to his books, then answered his own question. "Maybe it doesn't have anything to do with what happened to Ross, but I won't know until I've done the research."

"I know," Jim said. "And there's no such thing as researching a case too much. You taught me that, Sandburg."

A startled smile spread across Blair's face. "Thanks." He stood there for a moment longer, grinning up at Jim contentedly. "I'm glad you woke up. The truth was, this stuff was all starting to get to me. I think I really didn't want to turn out the lights and go to bed. Pretty dumb, huh?"

Jim couldn't help smiling back in the face of that look. "Well, yeah, it is. I won't tell anyone though."

Blair laughed out loud. "Know what I'm going to do if I have nightmares tonight? I'm gonna come crawl in bed with you."

"Is that a promise or a threat?"

"Guess you won't know till I get there, will you?" Blair tried to dance out of range, but his wrenched ankle made him clumsy, and Jim cuffed the side of his head with his open hand. Blair just laughed again. "Sweet dreams, man. Don't let the bedbugs bite."

***

In the end, though, joking about it didn't help. The nightmare lurked at the center of Blair's consciousness like a whirlpool in the middle of the ocean. Blair circled it all night long, coming ever closer, knowing every time he awoke from his shallow, restless sleep, that it was waiting for him still. It was Jim's alarm clock that awoke him the last time, and he opened his eyes with a sense of panic, knowing his fragile craft was whirling about the very edge of the maelstrom. One more revolution and it would have him. He clutched at the sheets, trying to wake himself up completely. He could hear Jim overhead, footsteps crossing the floor, then padding down the stairs. There were Jim's steps passing his bedroom door, making the french doors rattle just a bit in their frames, and if he would just say, "Sandburg get your lazy ass out of bed already," that would be enough, but no, this morning of all mornings, Jim decided to let him sleep in, and he passed the doors without a word.

A moment later Blair heard the chunk of the pipes in the bathroom, and then the rush of water, and it dashed him back into sleep. He spun at the edge of the whirlpool, looking down at the blue green depths. Then he was over the edge, whirling down into the abyss, and the dream had him. He'd known it would get him in the end. What else could he have expected after obsessing about David Lash all day long?

Despairing, helpless, he was dragged down to the bottom of the ocean of sleep and into the middle of his nightmare. Less dream than memory, though Jim always told him that couldn't be true. He was in the kitchen, bracing himself with a hand on each countertop. He had dialed Jim's pager, and he was waiting for Jim, because there was no one else who could help him, and nothing he could do to save himself. He couldn't even run anymore. How could he run from someone who was everywhere at once? A rattle at the back door, thundering footsteps on the fire escape, a shadow across the skylight and at the balcony doors. That couldn't be one man, a single pursuer. It couldn't be, but if it wasn't, then what in the name of sanity was coming for him? It whistled around the outside of the loft like an evil wind trying to slip through a crack in the wall -- Jesus, Jim, please, please help me -- and then came the inevitable snap like the crack of doom. All the diffuse energy of madness coalesced once more, became solid and human, and David Lash kicked in the front door.

The only mercy was that in the dream, he felt no terror. He almost felt no fear at all. Terror only came from anticipation, Blair thought. It was the fear of not knowing how things were going to turn out, and the terrified hope you might after all be able to fight hard enough and run fast enough to escape your fate. But all this had already happened. There was no hope of escape, and without hope, there could be no fear.

He ran head on into Lash, hardly even seeing him, no plan of escape at all besides bowling him over and perhaps managing to make it as far as the hallway. They both fell hard in a tangle of limbs, and Blair was screaming. Lash didn't make a sound. They rolled over and over, and when Blair felt the wooden floor under his hands and knees he crawled toward the open door. Hot fingertips raked his skull and knotted themselves in the hair at the back of his neck, and Blair didn't spare breath for another scream. He hoarded all his breath and all his strength trying to fight his way free. He slammed his elbow back and twisted his head down, not caring about the hold Lash had, not caring frankly if he scalped himself as long as he got away. But his elbow sank into something yielding, and Blair screamed silently then, because he knew there was nothing yielding and soft anywhere on David Lash. He was pure sinewy strength, everything extraneous burnt away in the fires of utter madness.

Something always broke in that instant, deep inside Blair's mind. Just like the first time. Just like every dream he'd ever had since then. He didn't stop fighting, though. Not even then. He hurled himself to the side, trying to dislodge the monstrous thing on his back. Feeling a sudden gust of air, he was able to get his feet up under himself and stagger toward the smashed open door. For an instant the way seemed clear, but then, impossibly, Lash was in front of him once more. Blair veered off, running doubled over, trying not to think, not to reason, because figuring out what was really going on might be worse even than allowing Lash to take him. He jumped the coffee table, put one foot on the sofa cushions and the other on the back, and fell forward as the entire sofa tipped back under his weight. He was planning to hurl himself straight through the balcony windows. Nothing mattered except getting away.

Before he could make it, a hot, strong hand suddenly slipped under the waistband of his jeans from behind and yanked him backward with vicious force. Blair struck out in animal desperation and slipped to his knees. One flailing hand grasped the blinds and pulled them down in a papery rustle. He shook himself free and saw David Lash standing on the other side of the balcony window, smiling in at him.

Everything was broken, everything was lost, but his body still didn't have enough sense enough to stop fighting. He lurched to his feet again, turning once more and staggering toward the front door even though he knew he would never reach it. He tripped over an electrical cord and fell headlong, hearing the television set smash to the ground behind him, and this was the moment he never could avoid, the blinding pain at the back of his skull, and then the terrifying age in limbo until he awoke in a place that smelled like standing water and hot candle wax, chains weighing down his hands and feet.

But it didn't happen like that this time. He realized he was frozen, waiting for Lash to hit him, and when he didn't, the breathless terror of hope bloomed in his heart. Once more he pushed himself to his feet and ran. This time he would make it. This time he would get out. He believed it so completely he didn't even see Lash standing in the doorway, waiting for him. Lash caught him effortlessly in his outspread arms and embraced him with all the passion of his violent need. Blair shuddered, his body going rigid with horror, and the moment of helplessness seemed to be all the creature David Lash had really needed all along. The shambles of Jim's living room spun sideways past Blair, and with a muffled thud Blair found himself dropped onto his own bed, the futon unforgiving under his shoulders and tailbone. David Lash knelt over him, smiling in obscene satisfaction. "I can be you," he whispered to Blair, caressing his face with fingers that elongated into drumsticks. They beat a restless tattoo upon his cheekbones.

"No," Blair whispered back in horror. This was not the way it had happened. It was supposed to be over by now. He was supposed to wake up. "No."

Lash leaned closer. His breath smelled like anise and tea tree oil. God, he's even using my toothpaste."I can -- be -- you," Lash said again, and the universe contracted violently, squeezing the breath from Blair's lungs and his soul from his body. So this is the void, Blair thought, and yeah, von Junzt was right, it was pretty horrible all right. It was his own little taste of hell. But then it went away, and he was kneeling on his own bed, holding a man down under him.

Wide, frightened blue eyes stared up at him, and tangles of curling hair covered the man's face. As Blair watched, the fear in those blue eyes slowly faded, and the mouth opened in a wide grin.

"What do you think?" Blair Sandburg asked him. "Do I make a pretty good you?"

NO. Blair scrambled backward off the bed. Oh, no, oh no, this was not possible. His hand flew to his head and he pulled off the wig, then stood staring with stupid horror at the wad of brown curls in his hand.

And then he finally heard the voice he had been waiting for all along. "Freeze," Jim barked from behind him. "Just step away slow."

Blair whirled around. "Jim, you've got to help me. Look what he's done to me."

Not a spark of recognition showed in those steely eyes. "I said freeze, you son of a bitch."

"But Jim--"

Jim didn't hesitate. He fired again and again, though Blair didn't fall until the force of the bullets themselves drove him back against the bed. He slumped to his knees, dying. The void was opening for him, but Jim pushed him away, reaching out for the body on the bed that was not Blair Sandburg and would never be him.

Blair opened his eyes with a shriek, escaping the dream like a man who would escape a fire by flinging himself out the window.

"Blair!" Jim shouted back at him. His hands were on Blair's shoulders, holding him. "Blair, buddy, come on, you're awake now."

Blair felt his own body flinch violently, as though he really had gone out a window and hit the pavement hard, and he stared up at Jim, wide-eyed with shock, desperately trying to figure out what was going on. He gave one more cry, a hoarse, strangled squawk as his body finally caught up with his head. He gulped for breath, and Jim pulled him up and wrapped his arms around him. Blair buried his head against Jim's shoulder, not giving a damn about anything except the glorious realization he was alive, he was safe, and it had all been just a dream.

Jim still held him, rocking just a little, his warm, gentle hands patting Blair's back. "Steady," he said, "You're doing great." Warm, gentle, and very wet hands. Blair's T-shirt was sticking to his back where it was soaked through. His front was even wetter where Jim held him cradled against his chest.

Aw, Jim. Blair raised his head, and Jim released him, trying to smile at Blair, but worry still obvious in his eyes. He was sopping wet from the shower and naked as a baby. He hadn't even finished washing the shampoo from his hair, and a little trail of foam trickled down the side of his face. "Jim--" Blair said helplessly, "Jim, hey, I'm all right."

"Good," Jim said. He touched Blair's face. "You didn't sound all right there for a minute."

"I am." Blair took a deep breath to demonstrate how all right he was. "Go finish your shower before the soap gets in your eyes."

Jim nodded and made no move to get up. "You were talking about Lash," he said. "In your sleep. Yelling." There was a haunted look just under Jim's slightly desperate smile.

"Yeah, it was that old dream again," Blair admitted softly. Jim had his own nightmares about David Lash, Blair knew. "But it was all mixed up with the stuff I was reading about last night. Weird."

Jim relaxed a little. "It's this case," he said, nodding. "Stirring things up again. It's happening to me, too."

"Is it? You're having nightmares too?"

Jim nodded again. "An instructor at the academy told us all once that when you stopped having bad dreams, it was time to get out of the business. Not much fun, though."

"No. Not really."

"You're OK, Chief?"

"I'm OK." Blair reached up and wiped away the shampoo suds curling toward Jim's eye with the side of his hand. "Get back in the shower." He wiped the suds in turn on his wet T-shirt. "I know it was only a dream."

Jim padded back to the bathroom, dripping the whole way. Blair rolled out of bed, pulling off the wet sheets and comforter. Only a dream. He believed that. After all, that's what Jim had kept telling him in the weeks after Lash's death. Blair had taken a blow to the head, and he couldn't remember what had really happened the night Lash attacked him in the loft. Those dreams were just his mind's way of trying to fill in the missing gaps, and they hadn't done a very good job of it. Lash was only a man, and a dead one at that, buried in Potter's Field with five bullets from Jim's gun still in his chest. It was all just a dream, not memory at all. That's what Jim told him, and he believed that, he did. After all, what other choice did he have?

***

"I don't know how long this song and dance with IA will take," Jim told him. Blair stood at the curb, leaning in the open door of the truck. "I hope it doesn't run into the afternoon, but with Sheila you never know what she'll pull out of her hat."

"Yeah, I know. You sure you don't want me there? Just in case?"

Jim smiled at him, but Blair could still see the faint lines of worry around his eyes. Jim had had a bad night, too. Probably worse than he'd admitted this morning. "Thanks, Sandburg, but I'm a big kid. I'll be OK."

"I know you will. Just give me a call when you get done to let me know how it goes. I'll be working on things from this end -- maybe have something for you by the time you get back. That'd be good, wouldn't it?"

"That'd be good," Jim agreed. "Just leave me a message if anything turns up before I get out of the hearing."

"I will."

Blair stepped back from the truck, but before he could swing the door shut, Jim said in a serious, low voice, "Sandburg, keep an eye out, all right? Ross was willing to die for that book. If it looks like there are any more like him around, I expect you to keep your distance till I can get here."

"I know, Jim." Blair swung the door shut. "I will."

It was another clear, cold spring day. A shame it was almost too cold to enjoy the sunshine, Blair thought, scurrying across the quadrangle to Hargrove. Wasn't like they saw all that many sunny days in Cascade, was it? In the light of day, surrounded by students bundled against the wind and hurrying to make their own classes, last night's dreams and terrors seemed very distant and more than a little foolish. He had to calm down, remember he was living in a mostly rational world, and stop taking the rantings of people like Nagle and poor Ross seriously.

He swung himself up the stairs to his floor in Hargrove. His ankle was a little stiff, but he'd live. It was a couple minutes after nine, and the halls had cleared. His own footsteps were the only ones scuffing along the tile. He rounded the corner, and saw a woman huddled on the floor against his office door. Her head was resting on her knees, her backpack on the floor beside her. Susan.

"Hey--" He ran to her side and half crouched beside her. "Hey, what's wrong? I thought we were going to meet at the dean's office at ten. Is something wrong? Are you all right?"

She lifted her head. Her face was streaked with tears, her eyes still streaming. "I can't," she said, her voice quavering. "I can't go to the dean."

"Susan, I want you to calm down and tell me what's happened, please.  Come on, it's all right."

She made a helpless, despairing gesture with both hands. "They broke into my room. I hadn't been gone five minutes, when I remembered I'd left my calculator in the desk. I went back and it was all over everything." She took a desperate, hitching breath.

Blair fumbled for his keys and managed to get his office door open. "Come on, let's get out of the hall," he said, and helped her to her feet. "What was all over everything?"

"That corpse sign. It was painted on my door, on my bed, on the mirror -- I hadn't even been gone five minutes. Not even five minutes." Her voice was rising dangerously. "Why are they doing this to me?"

"I don't know, but we'll find out, I promise. Have you called campus security yet?"

"Oh, god, no, I just tried to find you."

"All right, that's the first thing." Blair dumped his backpack on the floor and picked up the phone on his desk. "What dorm are you in?"

"I'm in Mathers. Room 206. Blair, I don't know, what if this just makes it worse?"

"How can it get worse? Now they're destroying your property. Come on, Susan, that's way over the line."

"I guess so," Susan agreed unhappily, twisting her hands together as Blair called. He tried to reach Suzanne Tamaki, but she wasn't at her desk. He talked instead to the campus safety officer the switchboard routed him to, giving him Susan's dorm room number and the barest details of what had happened.

"All right, they'll meet us there in ten minutes," he told her when he put down the phone.

Susan looked at him unhappily. "Are you sure this is the right thing to do?"

He felt like Jim as he said, "If you have any other suggestions, I'd be glad to listen. Susan, this is vandalism, pure and simple. This makes the case against Nagle and the rest of the class even stronger."

"I guess so," she agreed reluctantly. Blair handed her a box of tissues and she wiped her eyes and blew her nose. "I'm sorry," she said, sounding calmer. "You're right. It's all just so crazy. It feels like the whole world is coming apart. Why would anyone hate me so much just because of an old book?"

"I don't know, but it is crazy." Blair herded her gently out of the office again and locked it behind them. "We've been saying that all along, right?"

He smiled at her and was rewarded with a tentative near-smile back. She tucked a lock of her fine, mouse brown hair behind her ear and nodded. "Right," she whispered.

They walked back across the quadrangle and cut through the law library, and then through the faculty parking garage built into the hillside under the upperclass dorms. By the third flight of stairs in the parking garage Blair's ankle was aching in earnest, but for Susan's sake, he was determined not to limp. He let Susan lead the way all the same. Across the fourth level ramp was the sidewalk that wound up the hill to the dorms. Almost there. The sun slanted in through the open sides of the parking garage, and coming out of the shadow of the stairwell, Blair suddenly noticed something odd about Susan's backpack.

It was moving. Something in it was moving.

Blair stopped dead. "Susan?" Understanding was just dawning, and he couldn't keep it out of his voice. Susan must have heard it, because she stopped so abruptly the Chihuahua nestled in her backpack raised its pop-eyed head to look around, and gave an indignant yip.

"It was you," Blair said, and goddammit, he was too furious to be scared, not even when Ross's roommate Eddie suddenly appeared from behind one of the concrete barricades, smiling almost apologetically. "It was you.  You were the one in Special Collections with Ross."

Susan turned around slowly, nothing apologetic on her face at all, just bright, angry tears. "Of course it was me." She took a step toward him. "You didn't even recognize me." Her face twisted. "I could have run you down last night, Mr. Sandburg.  The only reason I didn't is because Ross needs you in one piece."
 
 

***

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