(Inspired by HP Lovecraft’s The Call of Cthulhu)
In 1937, a rare, unidentified disease reduced my wife, Tabitha, to a rambling state. Eventually, she did not recognize me or our daughter. Olivia and I, along with my wife’s sister, gathered around Tabitha in her deathbed, speechless as we watched her struggle. My poor beloved! Her chest would heave, her eyes wide and blinking as though trying to orient herself. Every time I dabbed a wet cloth to her forehead and wiped away the crust around her eyes, I imagined relieving her burden — feed her poison, smother her with a pillow, or clutch her throat and squeeze — but I couldn’t bring myself to commit such a gruesome act.
Once Tabitha breathed her last, we mourned the loss in our own fashion. I poured myself into work. Disillusioned with my faith in God, I found another church to attend. Eventually, I stopped praying. Olivia became withdrawn and only conversed with her imaginary friends. She was five at the time, barely able to understand why her mother could no longer read her bedtime stories, let alone the concept of death.
A month later, my wife’s sister, Josephine, a nun, came to my office to discuss Olivia’s wellbeing. We agreed that Olivia would be better off under her care. They left for Rome that week.
Over the years, our sole communication was through letters, and even those were rarer than I cared to admit. One day, I received news in the mail that on December 18th, 1955, Olivia would return to Boston with her fiancé, Henry, and her Aunt Josephine. The timing was appropriate. It had been snowing for days, and I’d dreaded yet another lonely Christmas. Besides, the rooms within these walls had been empty far too long, void of any joy and laughter. Olivia and company would bring much-needed warmth to this house, where time had dragged endlessly.
I stood by the door to greet them as a yellow cab dropped them off. I hadn’t seen my daughter in eighteen years. Her once-unruly hair now framed her face in soft, strawberry blonde waves. She’d grown into a tall and slender young woman, whose stunning beauty reminded me of her mother. It pleased me to note that Henry appeared to be a well-mannered chap, though Josephine, to my utmost distress, seemed to have contracted the same mysterious disease as my late wife. She had withered into a fragile husk, her skin resembling tree bark.
She clasped her gnarled hand over mine, surprisingly strong in her condition, and whispered in a raspy, thin voice, “They’re coming, Arthur.”
I had not the slightest idea what she meant.
We celebrated Christmas in a quiet, subdued way. For the next few weeks, I summoned renowned physicians to the house, in the hope they might discover what ailed Josephine — none of them could diagnose her.
One night after dinner, Olivia, Henry, and I sat down to discuss Josephine’s sickly condition. The logs crackled and smoldered in the fireplace, and the peaty tang of smoke permeated the drawing room.
With great regret, I patted Olivia’s hand and said, “Nothing more can be done for your aunt.”
My daughter exchanged a grim look with her fiancé. “Oh, Papa, we have to help her. I cannot bear to see her like this.”
“I will do everything in my power to ensure she’s comfortable in her — recovery. You and Henry will stay, of course, for your presence provides her with much joy, and I know you would not abandon your aunt.”
Winter’s snow melted into spring. On February 24th, 1956, Olivia and Henry attended a dinner party, and I, missing their company, retired early.
Some time later, I awoke to noises that seemed to come from the bedroom where Josephine was resting. I crept along the hallway and stood outside her room. Pressing my ear to the door, I caught what sounded like a moan and a feeble scratching. Was Josephine trying to call for help? Perhaps she’d fallen from bed.
I eased open the door to find the room dimly lit by a circle of candles. A foul odor filled my nose. To my horror, a stranger, with an elongated cone-shaped head and hind legs bent into a crouch like a gargoyle, was straddling poor Josephine. Wings protruded from its misshapen back. Tentacles jutted from where a mouth should have been, and they were wrapped around her throat.
Instinct told me to run. I would have fled, save my legs were wooden and my feet nailed to the floor. A spark of courage caused me to blurt out, “J-Josephine?”
She turned her head to the side. In her expression, I saw something more than terror, a fascination for such a being perhaps.
The creature focused its gaze on me, and those eyes, pitch black and menacing, immediately sucked the air out of me. A chill seeped into my bones, and my whole body weakened. The cogs in my mind clicked into place. I turned to run and stumbled over a candle.
Something cold and slimy caught my ankle, slid up my nightshirt, and onto my skin. I could not breathe or move. That thing must have snared me with one of its tentacles. Two more feelers slithered up my leg and coiled about my torso as the monster approached. Behind it, Josephine fell into a demonic frenzy, thrashing wildly in bed as she chanted, “Ph’nglui mglw’nafh Cthulhu R’lyeh wgah’nagl fhtagn!” The hideous thing towered over me inches away. Its stench, a potent mix of rotting flesh and raw sewage, would have suffocated me had I not passed out.
I awoke in my own bed. In the chair beside me, Olivia sat, her features creased with alarm. She and Henry did not believe a word I said. The horrifying incident could be explained away as a dream, but what about the dreadful clarity of the scene, every detail burned into my mind — the bruises I’d sustained?
Josephine had suffered no hurt. She continued to wither away, yet was still very much alive, while my sleep was fraught with nightmares. I developed a fever after the incident. As days passed, I began to wonder if the exact phenomenon had happened to my beloved Tabitha, since she and her sister both had the same symptoms. Had that hideous, unspeakable thing visited her, too? Had she needed my help then?
These questions and many others gnawed at my vitals until I invited an old friend of mine, Professor Joseph Bryant, to the house. After examining the sketches I’d drawn of the monster, he pressed his fingers to his brow. I could not miss how stricken Bryant’s voice was as he promised to research this phenomenon and relay any information gathered.
Henry married my daughter. They were wed in a church I’d not visited for weeks. It was a quiet affair attended by a few close friends of the family and the priest, whose admonishing glances at me had not gone unnoticed. Whenever I tried to confide in Olivia about what I’d seen that night, she insisted my imagination worked too hard and changed the subject.
Josephine had become so weak she never left her room. I dared not visit her, for fear it would trigger a memory of that fearsome creature riding her bare belly and the peculiar expression she’d worn, as if enjoying her defilement.
In June, 1956, I finally received news from Professor Bryant. It seemed that the repulsive creature was none other than a manifestation of a god — a being ancient and dark, worshipped by a cult centuries ago, its name lost in the mists of time. Other than a journal, currently in the possession of the Professor’s old friend in Rhode Island, there were no written records of the cult. Apparently, secrets and knowledge of this ghastly being had been whispered from generation to generation. Only those whose bloodlines could be traced back to the first members of the cult would know. It made no sense. The answer Bryant gave me led to more burning questions, so I sought the help of a private investigator, Walter Burford. Although I paid him well, I was met with bitter disappointment when he never came back to me.
Memories of the creature plagued me during the day and haunted my sleep. I did not venture near Josephine’s bedroom again, though I continued to hear her rambling cries through the walls, begging to be let out. At times, it seemed there was someone else with her. I thought with a shudder the possibility of who or what it could be.
Olivia tended to her aunt, and naturally, she became exhausted by Josephine’s constant wails and injuries, which seemed self-inflicted. Fearing for my daughter’s health, I suggested it would be best to send Josephine to a care institution.
“No, Papa,” said Olivia, “I promised to look after her, and I will.”
Josephine died on August 5th, 1956. Two months after her passing, Olivia announced she was pregnant. Thrilled that I would soon be a grandfather, I decided to cease all investigations pertaining to the events on the night of February 24th. We could all use a fresh start.
On April 28th, 1957, Olivia gave birth to a baby girl named Carol. My granddaughter was such a bundle of joy that time flew by and all bizarre occurrences were forgotten.
When Olivia and Henry took Carol to visit a friend in New Hampshire on September 5th, I stayed behind. I don’t recall what made me go into the attic, but my gaze immediately fell upon Olivia’s suitcases, one of them quite heavy. Why hadn’t she unpacked it? Curiosity drove me to retrieve the keys from her jewelry box. Crouching in front of the case, I tried each of them in the lock. Eventually, I was rewarded with a soft click.
The suitcase lid popped open. Shock thrust me onto my backside. I gasped and pulled away. There was an idol lying inside the suitcase, unmistakably identical to the grotesque form I’d seen straddling Josephine. Exquisitely crafted, it was about seven to eight inches in height. I sat there, breathing hard, as the creature’s lifeless eyes stared at me.
When I finally regained my senses, I looked through the suitcase, and to my surprise, discovered a collection of mail addressed to me. In a burst of perverse inquisitiveness, I took them out along with an envelope of news clippings without touching the idol. The letters came from the private investigator I’d hired. Walter stated he’d obtained the birth records of Tabitha and her sister, Josephine, from their orphanage. This man, whom I’d mistakenly maligned, had traced their origins back to New Orleans. Their parents, it seemed, were members of a voodoo cult that worshipped the nameless god — or devil. Their father had been shot dead during an arrest led by one Inspector Legrasse on November 1st, 1907. Their mother, committed to a mental institution, escaped a week later. No one saw her again.
Shaken by such a discovery, I pored through the press cuttings and learned to my horror, that both Professor Bryant and the private investigator were now dead, each involved in a freak accident. A feverish chill tingled up my spine. Had I married a cult worshipper all along? Could their peculiar afflictions be connected to voodoo practices — a curse, perhaps? What about Olivia? Had she arranged for the mishaps to take place “accidentally”? Was my own daughter a cold-blooded murderer?
Scarcely prepared for what I’d stumbled on, I shoved everything back into the suitcase and staggered to my room in confusion. Had the people I loved been leading dual lives? Olivia had not just intercepted my mail but also had in her possession the hideous idol.
That night, the nameless monstrosity visited me in my dreams and burrowed its claws deep in my chest. Pain seared through me as it dug my heart out, bloody and still beating. My eyes flew open only to stare into two eternal black orbs. Trapped between this dimension and an ethereal world, I couldn’t move a muscle.
I spent the next few days puzzling over the events. There was no way my sweet Olivia would be involved in such ruthless endeavors and insidious practices. Perhaps she had merely kept the news of their deaths from me, thinking I might be upset, yet how could she have known of Walter? I’d employed him using the utmost discretion. And that carven idol? No matter how I tried to reason, I could not come up with a logical explanation for why my daughter would have that disgusting thing in her suitcase.
Finally, I decided to confront Olivia about the matter. I climbed into the attic to retrieve the items. I held my breath, my hands shaking as I opened the suitcase lid, for I dreaded having to look into the eyes of the malevolent idol again. My blood ran cold. What I sought weren’t there — her suitcase was empty. Had I been too isolated or tired of my monotonous life, and hence, imagined everything to keep my mind entertained? Was I hovering on the edge of madness? Troubled as I was, I understood I could not challenge Olivia without evidence. They were, after all, serious accusations of voodoo cult practices and murder.
I suppose I could pretend to know nothing of it, though it was too late to feign ignorance without consequences. I’d stared into the eyes of the Devil himself — I’d been marked.
My days were poisoned by my own thoughts and suspicions, while my nights were haunted by dreams of strange cities and the monstrous creature. My appetite vanished, and I grew weaker. Olivia and Henry showed concern, but how could I reveal what ailed me to people I could not trust?
Tormented by the nightmares and trapped in the gloomiest of realities, I felt myself sinking into an abyss of hopelessness. Perhaps I was destined to live my remaining life in unrest until death seized me — even then, would I be at peace?
I ate the food Olivia brought only after my neighbor’s cat had sampled it. The pills prescribed by the doctor they brought in were flushed down the toilet. One could never be too careful. I did not do this out of a desire to live, for what is life or family, if everything had been a lie? My biggest fear was what would become of Carol. Would my innocent granddaughter, like Olivia, be made to join voodoo cults and worship evil gods, not by choice but by blood? I could not watch Carol walk in the same footsteps as her mother. I had to do something. I had to do everything in my power to prevent this.
My days were spent in agony as the hideous monstrosity persisted in troubling my sleep. However, my desire to protect Carol gave me strength and kept me hanging on a thread between sanity and lunacy. I waited for the perfect opportunity, but I was running out of time. My health was deteriorating, and I now relied on a wheelchair for mobility.
On May 3rd, 1958, when Olivia left the house to visit a friend, I finally got my chance to speak to Henry alone. “Listen carefully, Henry, for what I’m about to tell you is beyond my own comprehension …” I shivered as I told him about the horrors I’d learned.
Henry, of course, was bewildered by my rambling tale.
“You mustn’t doubt, Henry. I’m afraid it’s a choice between your wife and your daughter. Leave here and take Carol with you.” By now, I was sobbing, overwhelmed by the terrors I’d experienced in the past months. “For the sake of your baby, trust me.”
At length, Henry agreed to leave with Carol but insisted he would embark on his own research to corroborate my stories. I did not mind, as long as Carol stayed away from her mother, safe from her cruel fate. While he packed, I cradled Carol and said a tearful goodbye. I stood by the window and watched them depart in Henry’s car. My hopes for Carol to have a normal life renewed, I slept peacefully that night.
The next morning, I awoke to a baby’s cries. A terrible chill swelled in the pit of my stomach. When I rolled my wheelchair to the kitchen, Olivia and Henry were there having breakfast. Next to them sat Carol in a high chair. I broke down and sobbed.
“Why are you back, Henry?” I scratched my arm, but the more I scratched, the more it itched. I peeled back the skin to reveal the raw flesh beneath. “Why did you not listen?”
Henry’s look was blank. “What are you talking about, Papa? I’ve been here all the time.”
I could not hold back my tears. “No, you left! I saw you go with Carol. Why? Why don’t you believe me?” I scratched both arms now.
“Oh, Papa, stop, you’re hurting yourself.” Olivia pushed me back to my room and helped me into bed. As she leaned down to kiss my forehead, she whispered, “Ph’nglui mglw’nafh Cthulhu R’lyeh wgah’nagl fhtagn. Don’t worry about Carol. Everyone loves her. She’s perfect.”
I trembled at the touch of her cold lips. Despite the poignantly sweet words, her smile was bitter. Something was missing inside her, the very part of what made her human — she was not my Olivia.
“Good night, Papa.” Her eyes shone in the dark. Just before the door closed, I heard a flapping of wings.