I’d been following a trail of madness and melting reality across four states until I found her sitting in a truck stop outside of Tucson. The bell dinged as I pushed open the door. She sat in a booth by herself. A family two tables down gibbered at each other like monkeys. The servers lay curled up on the floor. The cook was burning something on the grill. I didn’t want to know what but it didn’t smell like pancakes.
I sat across from her.
“Yolanda Sothoth?” I asked, although I already knew. It wasn’t only the damage she was doing to the universe just by sitting there. She also had these weird lumps on her flesh, like her skin could barely hold whatever lurked underneath.
She drank her coffee and nodded.
“You’re father sent me to find you,” I said.
“I figured, but you can tell him to go to hell.”
“Parents, right?” I poured myself a cup of coffee. “Caff or decaff? Ah, doesn’t matter. We’ve all got our issues, kid. My Dad was a real piece of work, and Mom . . . well, I never really knew her. She lives under the sea, worshipping strange fish gods.”
I rolled up my sleeve to show the patches of greenish-brown skin below my wrist. If you didn’t know any better, you might think it was a rash.
“We’re never really far from where we came from,” I said. “Not people like you and me. If you want to even call us people. Me, I’m a hell of a swimmer, and I hear the ocean calling. Even now. Even here.”
She said, “It’s not fair.”
“No, it’s not,” I replied. “I can’t even really enjoy a bath. Too much time in the water . . . it does things to me. So I shower, and I don’t even do that as much as I should. But that’s me. You’re different, Yolanda. And you know it. This entire universe is your forbidden bathtub, and you burn it away just by sitting there. You weren’t meant to stay here.”
The diner door opened and an indescribable thing on the threshold gurgled and howled at us.
“Shut up,” I said. “Let me handle this.”
The thing growled, shutting the door.
I reached across the table and took Yolanda’s hand. Her touch caused my skin to peel back and show the scales underneath. And the sunken city screamed for me in a song both beautiful and terrifying.
“It’s a rotten deal, kid. You don’t deserve it, but you and I both know you can’t stay here. You can’t contain it, and it’ll only get worse.”
“What’s it like?” she asked.
“I don’t know,” I said. “What you are is beyond me. I can’t make you do anything, and you can keep running, ripping apart this universe with your every step until it falls away into tatters. It’s up to you.”
The scales crawled up my arm. The dry air scraped against my skin.
“I guess I knew,” she said. “I always knew.”
She let go of my hand. The greenish-brown flesh didn’t smooth back. I hoped it might, but the change might be permanent.
She didn’t thank me. She didn’t have any reason to. I hadn’t saved her. I’d only thrown her into mysteries likely to consume the fragile human side of her parentage. Nobody could know what would be left behind.
The door opened and her father gurgled as she stepped across the threshold. And then she was gone, off to whatever horrific wonders awaited her.
The universe struggled to fix itself. The family stopped gibbering and finished their eggs. The servers got to their feet. And whatever the cook had been cooking, he threw it away, though the smell hung in the air for a while.
I studied my scaly hand. It was only two hundred miles to the ocean from here. If I got into my car right now, I could be there before dawn. The call was almost irresistible. But I ordered another cup of coffee and resisted for one more day.