The storm has come and gone, readers, and boy, was it a doozy. The Hemlocks, I’m pleased to report, came away mostly unscathed, but I’m afraid I cannot say the same for the town at large. Days later, Prism Bay is only beginning to wring out its many soggy corners, and I fear there is still a long way to go. To be honest, the place is a mess, albeit a fittingly eccentric and unconventional mess.
Last week, you will remember, we were battening down the hatches for something called an “ethereal vortex”—what I’d determined, using the best of my investigative reasoning, to be a local variety of tropical storm. At Amy’s All-Hours Confectionary Kitchen, we readied for inclemency of all descriptions, both physical and metaphysical—as it turned out, storm prep in Prism Bay involved a good amount of superstitious precaution to accompany the more traditional protection-of-property concerns. Mrs. Sylvester, meanwhile, took a far more blasé attitude toward the coming meteorological threat, hardly even bothering to shut the windows as the skies grew dark with swirling clouds. I was pretty worried, readers, about the Hemlocks and about Mrs. Sylvester—for no reason, it turned out. The Hemlocks still stands; if anything, it looks a little tidier post-vortex.
That is not to say there was no storm at all. There was a storm, readers, a ferocious and noisy one that wailed and roared and rattled the shutters for thirty-six hours straight. It was one of those big, angry summer tempests that unzip the sky in a rush of white lightning and fling down every manner of mess the clouds know how to store. Hailstones the size of a baby’s fist pummeled the roof between long bouts of rain that sprayed as though from a pressurized hose, and thunder became less a noise than an impact, a giant’s foot stomping hard enough to make the cutlery leap. I was at times tempted to go out and see it up close, to stand on the cliffs and observe nature’s fury sweeping over Prism Bay, but stayed in out of a vague fear of running into “storm wraiths” and a reluctance to leave Mrs. Sylvester alone amid the atmospheric upheaval. She hardly seemed to notice, but I knew I’d have felt awful if she’d suffered some accident while I was away.
By the time the storm was over, however, I was convinced Mrs. Sylvester had been right all along. The so-called ethereal vortex never got much worse than a particularly bad thunderstorm—for someone like me, who rather enjoys a little foul weather now and then, it was actually rather pleasant. I spent most of the day reading by the window with a mug of coffee, now and then looking up to watch the pine trees sway in the wind. We lost power for an hour or so at the very height of the vortex (or whatever), but that was as bad as things got. I was a little disappointed, to tell the truth.
Late Friday morning, with the rain reduced to a patter, I decided to head into town to check on my friends. The Hemlocks had weathered the storm without trouble, and Mrs. Sylvester appeared almost cheerful—as energetic as I’d seen her since mid-July at least—so I expected to find the rest of Prism Bay in similarly good shape. But hardly had I donned my Hemlocks-issue slicker and wellingtons and set out on my Hemlocks-issue bike than I began to encounter evidence that all was not entirely right in these here parts.
On the long drive leading from the house, I began to notice things scattered across the grass—translucent, slimy things, about the size and shape of hamburger buns. It wasn’t until I actually ran one over that I realized they were jellyfish. The context was just all wrong: jellyfish belong in the ocean, so what were they doing out here among the pines? The idea that some manner of water-borne tornado had sucked them from the bay and deposited them over the Hemlocks hit me just as a gust of wind loosed several more from the surrounding trees, dropping them with a series of wet plops, like water balloons full of slime. I pulled down my hood and peddled faster, making sure not to hit any more as I coasted toward the main drag.
Things only got worse from there. Fallen twigs littering the road became thick fallen branches, then whole fallen trees. Several times I was forced to stop and lift my bicycle over some heavy wooden blockade—nor was there any cleanup effort going on that I could see. There were fewer jellyfish in evidence, which seemed like a good thing until I realized they might all have been smashed into a general coating of slime, now possibly being sprayed about by the wheels of my bicycle. Getting splashed with mashed-up jellyfish tentacles sounded like a spectacular way to ruin my day—dead jellies can still sting, I’ve heard—but I pressed onward, increasingly concerned about what I would find once I got into town.
Readers, the place was a disaster. Even before I reached the town center, I encountered sections of street that had caved in, the pavement giving way as rushing water eroded the ground beneath. These potholes had become pools where live jellyfish now swam, while low areas of roadway had been submerged entirely to form lurid jellyfish lakes. Things were even worse along the waterfront: the boardwalk had been shattered, completely torn away in some places, and whole sections of Main Street had collapsed as the embankment below fell to the ocean’s relentless pummeling. But that, readers, was only the beginning.
There was crud everywhere. Not just slime, or jellyfish—though there were plenty of those about, dotting the ground and floating in the puddles that had collected along the remaining sections of Main Street. But here in the town center, it seemed jellyfish weren’t the only things that had been dredged from the depths. There were huge hunks of what looked like meat and blubber, bones in sizes I’d only ever seen in museums littering the pavement, tentacles that must once have belonged to giant squid draped across the street and over buildings, thick as the tree trunks blocking roads elsewhere in town. I was reminded of photos I’d seen on the Internet, of decomposing whale carcasses washed ashore and mistaken for sea monsters. Well, this storm must have churned up every rotting deep-sea corpse for miles around.
Considering all the aquatic carnage, the local businesses were holding up pretty well. There was some damage, to be sure—a place simply does not have dead whales dumped upon it and come away unscathed—but things weren’t nearly as bad as they looked. The sidewalk on Main Street’s inland side was mostly whole, as were the storefronts, even if they were quite befouled with gunk. Amy’s All-Hours Confectionary Kitchen, my first stop, had suffered no major structural injury that I could see, and not only that—it was open.
The windows remained boarded, and inside, the floor was damp, but there was a lively crowd, and the air was redolent with good smells. There was still no electricity, but the gas must have been working—unless Amy had simply built a fire out back, which I would not have put past her. Amy herself was in good spirits. She’d ridden out the storm in the small apartment above her store, standing guard against the weather like someone fending off looters in the midst of a riot. “Hope you’re hungry,” she said, having emerged from the kitchen at the sound of the bell still mounted outside (“Yes We’re Open but Ring Bell Because Vortex”, remember?), “we’re having a storm feast.”
I was familiar with the concept of a storm feast, if not the actual term. Without electricity, much of the food in Amy’s refrigerators would soon spoil, and it was up to us to make sure nothing went to waste. A good amount of egg and milk was consumed in various forms, along with an esoteric selection of meats ranging from bacon and steak to alligator and snake. Meanwhile, we visitors helped clean up; there was no power to run a wet vac, but we managed to procure a squeegee, courtesy of the same Mr. Smith who had lent Amy her evil-eye-repelling nazar. Before long, cases of beer began to arrive as if from nowhere, and a full-fledged power’s-out-party ensued to celebrate our victory over the storm.
I would be happy indeed to end the tale of my first ethereal vortex there, readers, perhaps with a little epilogue to tell you how Prism Bay is even now on its way to recovery, electricity restored and repairs underway, but unfortunately that isn’t how the story goes. The power remains out and most parts of town are without gas, too; yesterday, I caught a rancid whiff on the wind, and later found out the sewers had begun to overflow. If anything, the number of random squid parts littering the roads has only increased. The jellyfish seem to be multiplying—breeding, maybe, but it’s almost like they’re materializing out of nowhere, like dew on the grass.
The realization that Prism Bay was not bouncing jauntily back from the storm dawned on me slowly, because at the Hemlocks everything was and continues to be A-O-K. We must have our own generator, because aside from those sixty-ish minutes of darkness during the vortex, the lights have never refused burn upon request. The best explanation I can muster is that the high cliffs on which the house stands shielded it from the wind’s most ardent ravages, with our relatively lofty elevation putting us beyond the reach of flooding waves.
What’s harder to figure out is why the town isn’t doing more to set things right, to clear the roads of debris, to bring back power and other vital services, to get rid of all those jellyfish. Every time I go out, I have to find a new path around the maze of submerged streets, some with finned creatures wending through their muddy shallows. Boats sprawl like beached dolphins in lawns and fields. Twice now I’ve seen pillars of smoke trailing through the sky as some fire—possibly even somebody’s home—raged unchecked.
And yet, despite the deplorable condition of Prism Bay, hardly any of its residents seem interested in rebuilding. Everyone I meet appears listless and disheveled; the sense of sullen helplessness is especially evident in the Town Center, where citizens can be seen at all hours of the day and night shuffling glumly amid the wreckage. The speed with which the town has gone from prosperous summer community to band of ragged castaways wandering a desert island is astonishing. Now, I know that’s easy for me to say from my cozy perch at the Hemlocks, but honestly. It hasn’t even been a week.
There are, at least, a few people working to return Prism Bay to its former glory, even in the face of municipal indifference and public despair, and I’m proud to say I’m among them. Amy’s All-Hours Confectionary Kitchen has become a sort of informal headquarters for efforts to repair the Town Center, and while our forces are not numerous—composed mostly of small business owners and their friends—we are determined.
If one good thing has come out of the storm and its aftermath, it is the new friendships that have sprung up as people who might not otherwise have met are thrown together by circumstance. I could cite any number of examples, but one has stuck in my mind as particularly illustrative, a scene simultaneously poignant and adorable—and also relevant, since it involves characters you know, readers.
It happened this Sunday, as I was helping Pippa organize some books that had become misplaced from their shelves during the storm. How exactly this happened isn’t exactly clear, but I was given to understand it had to do with the owner of Prism Bay Literary Merchants, a shadowy individual who avoids the store during working hours but is rumored to come through and rearrange the inventory at night. Some independently wealthy reprobate, I’m guessing, rampaging around in a booze- or cocaine-fueled fit of literary mania. Anyway, I had a big stack of books needing return to their native shelves, and while I was shuffling a few volumes to fit Maritime Navigation for Dogs by Admiral H. T. Fluffington (humor, I assumed, though it was housed in a section called “canine professional development (excluding law and finance)”), I heard voices, low and urgent, in the next aisle over.
“No, look at this passage,” someone was saying—someone, readers, whose voice I recognized, because she had been making cryptic threats toward me only a few days before. It was Elle van der Geest—no surprise finding her hiding out among the shelves, I thought, even if the store was closed. But she wasn’t alone.
“Which, this one here?” another voice asked—a boy’s voice, I was almost sure. “What, just because it mentions a lunar eclipse? That doesn’t prove anything. Lunar eclipses happen all the time.”
“Not like this one,” Elle countered. “This one was right at the apogee, meaning it had the longest totality in like twenty years—and there won’t be another like it for almost ten more.”
“So what?” said a third voice, a girl. “It’s only like a ten minute difference, right?”
“Ten minutes can be pretty important if you’re performing a complex ritual,” Elle said, “especially one that involves drawing energy from an outside source, or directing it toward an especially powerful barrier. It could come down to a matter of seconds.”
“Like if you were forging a Lance of Unreason,” said the boy, sounding impressed and fearful at once, “and using it to pierce the Eleventh Sphere of Reality.”
“Exactly,” said Elle. “This would be your only chance for like a decade.”
“And you’re sure you saw—”
“Yeah, the real deal, not just some cheap imitation salamanders.”
“Guys,” interjected the third voice, which had been quiet most of this time, “will one of you please explain what in the name of leg-humping dachshunds you’re talking about?”
“Here, Mimi,” Elle said, and there was a brief rustling of pages. “This part right here. Read it.”
“‘Of all the Outer Horrors of the Nameless Void’,” intoned the voice I now recognized as belonging to Mimi, the young woman formerly of the explicit t-shirt, “‘few are as loathsome and abominable as’ oh you have got to be kidding me what the hell does that say?”
“Klexumwathi B’un Gatha Tohlaris Urusind’raxalai,” Elle pronounced fluently. (I, meanwhile, am transliterating entirely from memory—just as I’m reconstructing my general impression of this overheard conversation.)
“‘Few’,” Mimi repeated, “‘are as loathsome and abominable as Klexumwathi B’un Gatha Tohlaris Urusind’raxalai. Called sometimes the Rusted King, the Death of Dreams, He Clothed in Carrion, the Moldering Dark, Dissolution of All, the Endless—’ shit, Elle, this goes on for like twenty pages.”
“Just skip to the end,” Elle said, amid more page-rustling. “Look, right here.”
“This part?” Mimi asked. “OK, so, ‘the Emperor of Rot waits perched in the Outer Void, beyond space and time, and touches the realms of matter and light in only the barest measure, seen in all things that fester and decay. Yet it is ever his intent to bring all existence into his power, and render all life into a state of endless corruption. Only seldom and briefly has he held sway in this world, but where he takes hold, he makes for himself a domain neither living nor dead, where all is forever rotting but never destroyed. You may know his coming by the essence of decay that gathers before him, breaking from the cycle of death and renewal to assume true physical form, most often in the shape of orbs of putrefying jelly that litter the’ oh my god oh my god oh my god.”
“But that still doesn’t make sense,” said the other voice, the boy. “I mean, the Outer Horrors can’t even find this place, and none of their servants could get past the guardians.”
“Well obviously one of them did, Tyler,” Elle said irritably. “Some servant of the Outer Horrors got in here somehow, and forged a Lance of Unreason and pierced the Eleventh Sphere of Reality, and now Klexumwathi B’un Gatha—”
“Can we just say the Rusted King or whatever?” asked Mimi.
“And now the Rusted King is here—or on his way here,” concluded the boy, Tyler, who I assumed to be Tyler the well-armed young man from the Prism Bay Beach Club (I was about to proven right, readers). “And we’re all about to be banished to a world of eternal decay, sure, fine. But I just don’t understand who would do something like that.”
It was fascinating stuff, readers. I wasn’t sure if they were talking about a role-playing game, or a television program, or a movie, or book, or what, but whatever it was, these kids were utterly immersed in it. Maybe they were even coming up with the whole thing on their own, an exercise in pure adolescent imagination. To me, it made perfect sense to find a group of young people escaping into a world of make-believe just now. Fiction—fantasy especially—is a tried-and-true method for coping with difficult or traumatic circumstances, and the situation around Prism Bay certainly qualified there. On top of that, these three all struck me as pretty lonely kids. I’d never seen them in the presence of friends—or anyway, not until now. So even if it was a little sad to think their lives were difficult enough that they were drawn to this other world—one that, as interesting as it sounded, was also pretty disturbing—it warmed my chilly writer’s heart to see them discovering it together.
All of this was going through my mind as I listened, readers—until I noticed the three had fallen silent. I realized that I had unknowingly sidled out from my hiding place, and was now in full view, the subject of stares from three pairs of surprise-widened eyes. They gaped at me, the bookish young woman, the well-armed young man, and the young woman formerly of the explicit t-shirt, from among a landscape of stacked books. I instantly felt guilty for intruding on their little world, but there was nothing to be done for it now. “Hey, kids,” I said, very awkwardly. “What’s going on?”
They fled in a rush, knocking over books as they went—rudely, I thought, but understandably. To have reality intrude upon a game of make-believe is a jarring, embarrassing thing, as I knew from once being a child myself. On top of that, the store was closed, and Pippa hadn’t mentioned they were here, meaning they’d probably snuck in. I wasn’t going to rat them out, though—they hadn’t taken anything, even if they did leave another batch of books off the shelves. (And who knew? Maybe the store’s drunken owner wasn’t responsible for the mess after all.)
I picked up the books they’d been using and began returning them to their places—gaming books, I assumed, like for Dungeons and Dragons. Ah, youth. I’d put most of them away before I realized I was in the section where I’d found Essays in Eternity: “books better left alone”. Quite the opinion to have about role-playing games, I thought, but I made a note to come back and check a few of these out at a later date, when things weren’t quite so crazy. Whatever game this was, it sounded pretty cool.
So a few bright spots in all this squalor, is what I’m trying to get across. Hopefully next week I’ll be able to report that Prism Bay is more firmly upon the road to recovery. Send good thoughts, readers—until then!