Jackson clung grimly to his seat as the bus rattled over a corduroy stretch of road, tossing him against Gwynn. She held a flute case in her lap, while in the back of the bus, the rest of the flute section, seven girls and a boy—piped a discordant, screeching melody that wasn’t improved by bouncing around as the bus lurched down the rough track. Gwynn wore her hair short, seldom used makeup, and he’d often seen her sitting in between classes working on a sketch pad.
“Weren’t you supposed to play today?” said Jackson. The bus lurched left, pushing them the other way.
“Last week for seniors.” She looked out the window. The woods that lined the road when they took the bus in kindergarten were now blasted, shattered and burnt fragments that stuck up from the ground in painful angles. “The underclassmen have to learn how to play without us.”
Jackson nodded. Only five days until graduation. “Same with the newspaper. The senior editors handed their duties over to the juniors the first of the month,” which stung because Jackson had been the sports editor. He was sure Drew Whittier didn’t have the same drive to get to the heart of a news story that he had. How would the fall preview go without Jackson’s input? Did Drew have the same contacts on the football team? Did he know anything about cross-country? The section would be a mess.
It was hard to think, and even harder to be optimistic with the flutes shrieking behind him, but he wished they played louder, protecting them. Through the tinted windows, the low-hanging clouds swirled, glowing orange and red at their edges as if reflecting an unseen fire, a sure sign an Old One was about. Only flute music could placate them, although that was no guarantee. Three years earlier the forensic team didn’t escape, even though they traveled with that year’s state championship flute section. Some of those kids were still at the school, in a separate room, tended by aides who pushed their wheelchairs about and fed them.
Gwynn leaned into him, “Do you have your speech ready?”
Jackson grimaced. “Everything I write sounds stupid. What do I say about our future? We might not even have a future.” He’d been both proud and terrified when Principal Akeley named him valedictorian. At the beginning of the year, Howard Durst and Emma Chen had higher grade point averages, but they found Howard in the library on Halloween, slack jawed and drooling after reading from The Book of Azathoth (which was supposed to be locked up and unavailable to students) while Emma fell for a weirdly fishlike football player from cross-county rival, Dunwich High, and failed all her first semester classes except Mythology.
Gwynn said, “Write something hopeful.”
The road to the high school entered Trimount Canyon where low, limestone bluffs rose on either side. Jackson relaxed. He felt safer within the stone walls. They’d be harder to notice here, but they hadn’t gone a half mile before the bus slowed, then pulled onto the shoulder. Pale rock blocked the view out the windows across the aisle. Cloud-shrouded light illuminated the road through his window, though. The flute section redoubled their effort. A tremor shook the bus, then another. Dust drifted from the cliff walls as the sky darkened and grew more crimson.
“Put your heads down, kids,” shouted the bus driver. “Heads down and stay down until I tell you to sit up. Just like the drills.” She sounded calm, as if she did this every day. Even as Jackson pressed his chest into his knees, he marveled at how collected she was. Without the flutes, silence ruled.
The bus trembled again. Whatever Old One came their way was immensely huge and heavy. Would it step on them without even seeing them? Or would it pick them up, shake them about like pebbles in a box? Would it stare at them, sucking their minds into madness before it tossed them aside or dropped them down his terrible throat?
Gwynn grabbed his hand. They’d never held hands before. She was just a friend who’d been in his classes since preschool, like many of the seniors.
She whispered, “Will you open with a joke? Last year’s valedictorian told that great one about the three blind guys at a nudist colony.”
An Old One had never come this close to Jackson. They left omens in the sky: blood moons, tortured clouds and foul winds, signs in the sea: unnatural tides, fish kills, strange eruptions, but never a genuine appearance. Like tornados or tigers or tsunamis: they were much talked about, often part of nightmares, but not actually real.
He knew when it passed over. The hairs on the back of his neck stood, and then a pull from above from the Old One’s self-generated gravity. An icy, pure glacier abyss opened in the sky, as if the bus had turned upside down and longed to fall up. Jackson swallowed hard and clung to Gwynn’s hand. A thought looped, faster and faster: If I survive . . . If I survive . . . If I survive.
Then his organs shifted. The pull released, and darkness relented.
Jackson breathed deep. “I don’t know. A joke might be cheesy. I thought a shared memory like when Mrs. Peterson made hot fudge sundaes in kindergarten.”
They hadn’t sat up. Heads down, holding hands, Jackson felt as if they were alone somewhere, sharing a lifelong past. When the Old One eclipsed the sky, Jackson couldn’t tell if he was feeling Gwynn’s hand or if he was her feeling his hand. It seemed in that instant he saw the bus floor from his eyes and hers. For a blink, he sat in her mind, surrounded by her thoughts, being her, and he knew she’d become him. She hadn’t been as scared as he was; she’d thought about painting the clouds—blending the orange into the red and the red into gray. That close to pure, psychic alienness, they’d joined. The power to drive a human mind mad must have degrees. They hadn’t been taken over the edge, but they altered. Their skin melded; their nervous system became singular. The Old One, its mind more vast than human imagination, washed through them without bending from its alien mission and unknowable intents. Jackson had never been closer to anyone.
“Did you feel that?” Gwynn asked.
“Old One aura. Remember from the orientation?” He shivered. He couldn’t feel more exposed if they sat next to each other naked. How would they look each other in the face again?
Gwynn stayed down. The bus driver hadn’t cleared them to sit up yet. Jackson could tell Gwynn searched for words. How would she process what they’d gone through? Would she be able to talk to him?
Finally, she cleared her throat. “I forgot about those sundaes.” She squeezed his hand. “Every day was sunny then, even the rainy ones.”
In the hallway, Jackson pushed past the Acolyte Club who’d set up tables against the wall with promotional flyers and pamphlets. “We’re doing a chant around the flagpole after school to placate our benign overlords,” said a sophomore boy Jackson knew from the newspaper. The boy had blue lines on both sides of his neck in nesting curves, imitating gills. Jackson couldn’t tell if they were drawn or tattooed. Lots of kids had them, and many greased their hair and brushed it straight back from their foreheads, as if they’d risen from the ocean. Lately they sported large black buttons with yellow writing that read “Nothing Without Sacrifice”.
“DBD,” the kid said. “DBD, bro.”
Jackson shook his head, refusing the flyer. DBD: Dead but Dreaming. Jackson thought, aren’t we all.
Half the school belonged to the Acolyte Club. A group of teachers sponsored, slicking their hair back too. The rumor was that some of them encouraged the Acolyte Club to circulate the petition, asking the school board to change Kennedy High’s college-oriented, liberal arts curriculum into a religious one. They listed classes they wanted to add to graduation requirements, including “Important Figures, Relics and Places from Abdul Alhazred to Zon Mezzamalech,” “Sea Wisdom,” and “Intro to the Outer Mysteries.”
Gwynn sat behind him in British Lit. Jackson took out his notebook with quotes he’d been collecting that he might use in the speech. She looked over his shoulder. “Is that Othello?”
Jackson turned back the pages, one by one so she could see. “Yep. Othello, Macbeth, Gilgamesh, the romantic poets and the realists, stuff from American presidents, movie quotes, song lyrics, advertising slogans, and stuff my parents say. Nothing has struck a spark yet.”
He didn’t want to meet her eyes, but she wasn’t talking about the trip to school, which was good.
A couple girls a row over whispered to each other, looking Jackson and Gwynn’s way.
Gwynn said, “The word is out about our close encounter. Everyone on our bus will be famous by lunch. What are you going to say about what happened?”
“I’m not sure I know what happened.”
“Ask one of the acolytes. They’ll have an explanation.”
Jackson almost laughed despite himself. “Will it involve the transmutation of souls or surrendering ourselves to the vast indifference of the universe?”
“I almost wouldn’t mind the dissolution of self as long as they don’t ask me to wear my hair like that.”
Jackson said, “One of them told me that in madness lies sanity, and then asked if he could copy my Calculus.”
“Everyone wants to copy your Calculus.”
“You’re not helping me with the speech.”
“Do you want help?”
Jackson faced her. He hadn’t ever looked at her eyes before, not with this attention. They were dark brown on the edges, fading into gold near the pupils. She’s the girl with the treasure-well eyes.
During lunch, Principal Akeley looked up when Jackson entered her office. She often wore floral pantsuits. Today’s ensemble leaned toward pinks and purples, as if a giant orchid had thrown up on her, but she had an unforced smile and liked to joke. Normally Jackson didn’t mind talking to her, but not today. She’d want to know about the speech. Instead, she went a worse direction.
“Have you decided on a college, Jackson?” She put her hand on a short stack of brochures on the desk. “You missed the early application deadlines.”
“Umm, not completely. Maybe the University of New Mexico in Albuquerque.”
“Long way from home. Long way from the ocean.”
“That might be the point.”
“Why not Miskatonic?”
Akeley raised an eyebrow.
Jackson said, “Miskatonic in Town. Nobody wants to go to college that close to their parents.”
Principal Akeley shook her head. “It’s the same everywhere.”
“Then does it matter? I was going to apply to Stanford.” He regretted saying it. He didn’t want to sound bitter. Palo Alto didn’t exist anymore. In its place, a four-mile wide crater filled with the San Francisco Bay seethed and bubbled. Last summer, for weeks, news covered the disaster. They showed seabirds by the hundreds of thousands gathered on the shore, piping a terrible din, wheeling about in great clouds above the water, but never landing, and whatever stirred the unnatural bay didn’t surface.
She hunched forward on her desk, and grew intense. “They don’t care about us, Jackson. I don’t believe they know we exist.”
“Don’t say that to the acolytes.”
Akeley continued, “Today, on the bus, might never happen to you or anyone you know again. Stanford may never happen again. They could disappear as suddenly as they arrived. You can’t make your decisions based on the worst case scenario.”
“I know. I know. But it’s harder for us, for the seniors, I think. What did you worry about in high school?”
The principal straightened her folders, then glanced at her clock, looking infinitely tired. Jackson realized she had other appointments. “The world changes. Growing up is challenge enough. How’s your speech coming? You know I need to approve it first.”
“I’ll have something for you soon. Tomorrow after school?”
She squinted. “You haven’t started it yet.”
“Not the speech itself, but I’ve been thinking. I’ve gathered material.”
“A lot of people depend on you to make a good show of it. Parents, alumni, the school board and all your peers. Give them something to think about.”
They shook hands.
Outside her office, Jackson thought, way to take the pressure off, Akeley.
Jackson knew Gwynn was on her way before she appeared around a corner of the school a hundred yards away and walked toward the bleachers where he sat. All day he’d noticed ghost feelings: the weight of a pen in his hand when he wasn’t holding anything, a necklace he wasn’t wearing rubbing against his neck, an inhalation when he exhaled. They were Gwynn’s experiences. He wondered if their link would fade.
She set her art portfolio and book bag on the bleacher, then settled onto the bench next to him. “Weird day, huh?”
Something itched between Jackson’s shoulder blades. He thought about trying to get to it, but he knew he’d look stupid stretching about.
Gwynn put her hand behind him and scratched at exactly the right spot.
“Thanks,” Jackson said. They looked at the football field and clouds without speaking for a minute before he realized what she’d done. He glanced at her. She clasped her hands in her lap, sitting still. From the other side of the school, a dull, rhythmic mumble arose. He recognized the source: the chant at the flagpole. It would take a lot of acolytes to be that loud. The story of what happened with the bus had lit them up. Interruptions filled the afternoon as teachers reminded acolytes to stop whispering. Several times, Jackson caught an acolyte staring at him.
She said, “I got a C on my final art project.”
“No way!” The yearbook had named Gwynn “Most Artistic,” and the newspaper had written an article about her winning entry at the Massachusetts Art Institute High School Show in December. “How in the world did that happen?”
“Because of this.” She pulled a small canvas from the portfolio. On it she’d painted an orange resting on a worn wooden table. A single rose lay before it. Behind both, a crystal pitcher, half full of tea, glowed warmly in sunlight from a window not in the picture. Even with his limited understanding of art, Jackson gasped. Something in the way she’d painted it made the shadows utterly real, and the orange’s skin held and reflected the light.
“That’s beautiful. What didn’t she like about it?”
Gywnn laughed. “The assignment was a still-life, clearly, but she put on the table a dead rose, a broken pitcher, and a nasty, rotted orange. She said, ‘make your painting reflect a mood.’ Evidently she wasn’t going for what I saw. Last week we did multi-media with mutant ceramic tuna, rubber octopuses and seaweed. The art room looked like an insane asylum fish market. Gave me nightmares.”
“Does she wear her hair slicked back?”
“You know it.”
On the horizon, clouds swirled and pulsed with internal light. Jackson watched them warily.
Gwynn put the painting back in the portfolio, then produced a notebook and pen. “I have an idea for your speech, but you have to answer some questions first.”
She made a mark on her notebook. “Good. Do you want to be funny, serious, or both.”
“Are you giving the speech for your parents, your friends, the senior class or just yourself?”
Jackson wrinkled his brow. He hadn’t considered that, plus the chanting and roiling clouds distracted him. “I’m not sure.”
“You’ll have to decide.”
On the school’s other side, the murmur intensified. Jackson had heard the chants before, and seen bathroom graffiti featuring strange words, not in English, unpronounceable with too many consonants and lots of apostrophes. Jackson almost missed the casual racism and crude sex talk from elementary school. Yesterday, below a poorly rendered representation of what might have been a slaughtered sheep, or a dog drawn by Picasso, someone had written, “In his house at R’lyeh dead Cthulhu lies dreaming.” Underneath that, in a different hand, was a reply, “Wake him!”
“The acolytes are moving,” said Gwynn. A crowd flowed around the school, heading toward them, arms in the air, repeating, “Iä Hastur cf’ayak’vulgtmm, vugtlagln vulgtmm.”
More emerged, hundreds of them, walking slowly, waving hands in the air. Jackson recognized some. Bud and Terrance from newspaper. Chuck who had played third base in junior high. Junior class president Lisa Schmaltz, her face filled with zeal, the bizarre words tumbling from her lips. Many were seniors he’d march with into the gym for graduation in a week, friends he’d known for years.
Gwynn said, “That’s creepy.”
“Have you seen the buttons?”
Jackson joined her. She stood. “Do you think they’re literal, about sacrifice, I mean?”
Together, they started down the bleachers. Jackson said with a calm he didn’t feel,
“They’ve been eyeing me all day. I don’t want to find out.”
They broke into a run across the football field, away from the chanting students and didn’t stop until they reached a low hill overlooking the school. The crowd filled the football field, arms still in the air, weaving back and forth, words now indistinct, but “Cthulhu R’lyeh” seemed a key component.
Jackson shivered, then moved closer to Gwynn. He was afraid to hold her hand again. Memory of the morning was too intense, but he felt safer next to her. The clouds darkened. A cutting wind swept through the trees behind them. Jackson heard it rushing through the leaves before it pressed against his back, cold and smelling of the Atlantic. On the field, the chanting rose in volume. Arms swayed, hands dancing like demented starfish. The students undulated in obscene synchronization. For a second, he was convinced that whatever monstrosity that missed them this morning was returning to finish the job, that if he looked up, a huge object would descend, a tentacled, leprous, oozing mass, the base of a huge trunk that disappeared into the clouds, a single leg of the creature whose head must reach into the stratosphere.
The image trembled in his mind as vivid as a prophetic vision.
Principal Akeley appeared at the crowd’s edge carrying a megaphone, while the congregants looked to the clouds, ecstatically repeating whatever appeal they were making.
She brought the megaphone up, fumbled with it until it emitted a siren howl. The kids nearest to her looked her way.
“Students,” she said. “Buses will not wait. If you miss your ride, you will have to walk home or call your parents.”
Jackson imagined the acolytes falling upon her, their primitive lusts let loose and indulged, but the chant faltered. Arms fell to their sides, and they moved toward the school. A student tossed a Frisbee to another. Kids laughed. They hummed with lively chatter. Within a couple minutes, the field emptied.
“We survived,” said Gwynn.
Their hands moved toward each other, a mutual decision, and they touched. Nothing had changed from the morning. The connection remained. Jackson knew Gwynn and she knew him. No consummation could be more complete. They would be friends forever. More than friends.
And nothing in the future seemed bleak.
Jackson thought about the folder filled with quotes in his locker. For the first time, he imagined himself giving the speech, not what he would say, that was still a mystery, but he knew he wanted to speak of hope.
He said, “How does this sound: None of us knows our future, but we don’t need to when we have each other.”
Gwynn shivered. “Corny. Corny but true.”
The clouds above the school folded upon themselves then flashed from internal lightning. A few seconds later, the rumble washed across them. Something incomprehensible moved above, but Jackson realized it always had. For all of time the universe had been indifferent to humanity.
We are on our own.
Graduating from high school, really graduating, meant finally realizing that truth.
© 2018 by James Van Pelt
Author’s Note: I’ve been a high school teacher for a long time, and I remember being in high school myself vividly. When I heard a suggestion to write a cthulhu mythos story set in a high school, I kicked myself for not thinking of it sooner. Where else but in high school does the universe ever feel quite so huge and uncaring?
James Van Pelt is a part-time high school English teacher and full-time writer in western Colorado. He’s been a finalist for a Nebula Award and been reprinted in many year’s best collections. His first Young Adult novel, Pandora’s Gun, was released from Fairwood Press in August of 2015. His next collection, The Experience Arcade and Other Stories was released at the World Fantasy Convention in 2017. James blogs at http://www.jamesvanpelt.com