18. The Nightmare Machine

TOUCHING THE NIGHTMARE clock didn’t hurt this time; it just took up residence in my mind as surely and swiftly as a thought. There was no sensation of falling, no pulling apart as vast mathematical distances compressed like accordioned paper to accommodate my body.

I was simply there, in another place, as if I’d fallen asleep and forgotten where I was.

Crow stood next to me, looking singularly unhappy. “How long this lasts is up to you,” he said. “The clock is a harsh master. I’ll be here, but I can’t interfere. If you can weather the machine grinding your mind, you may use it. But you won’t.”

I didn’t argue. I had no idea what was coming, except that it wasn’t going to be pleasant.

Crow looked around at where we were, which was nowhere special. We stood on a brick sidewalk in front of a blue house, shutters sagging and paint a thing more of memory than of fact. “You know this place?”

“Yes,” I said, feeling a hard lump in my chest. I did know it, too well. Here, I was eight years old. Here, in our first care-home, Conrad and I were in a dark closet, sitting with our knees pulled to our chests, smelling musty winter coats. Here, we were locked in, because we’d been bad.

Not bad. Evil. That was the word our care-mother had used. She thought it would be worse for Conrad to see me punished, because I cried all the time. Our care-mother thought I was a brat.

But I knew the closet was worse for Conrad. He hated small spaces. He had gotten himself stuck in a dumbwaiter in our old flat once and nearly stopped breathing before the landlord fished him out and returned him to our garret. My mother had barely noticed he’d been gone at all, lost as she was in her fancies.

That had been the beginning of the end. The landlord called the care-workers. The care-workers called the Proctors. The Proctors took her away.

Conrad would shift next to me in the dark during those times, and I would hear choked breathing. I would pretend he wasn’t silently sobbing into his knees. I’d squeeze whatever part of his arm I could find in the dark and whisper it’d be okay.

It wasn’t okay, for months. Finally our neighbor noticed we were rail thin and still wearing the same clothes we’d arrived in. We were rushed out, to another care-home, which I now knew was because Archie was trying to make sure we were all right while he was off with the Fae, chasing the specter of harmony of a world without Proctors. He’d greased the Lovecraft care-workers well enough that if we were being abused in any flagrant way, we got moved to a new care-home and never got separated.

But for those months, there was the closet. I didn’t mind it after a while. At least we were out of our care-mother’s sight, and even if we had to sleep in there, she didn’t bother us.

Conrad, though, stopped sleeping, stopped eating, jumped at every sound. He thinned out in more ways than physically, and spent long patches of time just staring at things like the aethervox or the hole in the front hall carpet, waiting. Waiting for the next time he’d go up into the hot darkness and be locked in.

And in his nightmare, I was right there with him.

Couldn’t breathe. Couldn’t see. Couldn’t tell my sister it was going to be all right. I was weak. That horrible fat woman made me weak, no matter how hard I tried to stand and be the man of the family. I wanted to grab the scissors she used to chop off all of Aoife’s hair and jam them into her fat back so far they disappeared, up to their pearl-handled hilt.

“No!” I screamed, Conrad’s anger feeling like acid in my guts and throat.

His claustrophobic rage was like a tide, and I swam away from it, trying to define my own memories of that horrible house. It didn’t help much, but the thing did begin to crumble, collapsing on its foundation like I hoped it had years ago.

Then it was over and we were gone, and in an entirely new kind of darkness. This one was alive, rustling, stinking of wet dog. Old sewer pipes dripped above me, water landing on the back of my hand, brackish and black like blood in a no-color lanternreel.

This dream I didn’t recognize from my real life, but I knew who it had to be and I didn’t want to have to see it.

Cal watched as light appeared, half in and half out of his ghoul shape.

The light was carried by a girl, plump and buxom, with rosy cheeks and bouncing curls. Bethina stopped and looked at him, and her pretty face crinkled in disgust.

I…,” Cal rasped, but all that came out was the ghoul voice, his true voice, and Bethina screamed.

As I occupied his view in the dream, I saw what he wanted to tell her, so badly it ached. He wanted to tell her, and knew he never could, that eventually he’d either break her heart or reveal himself as a monster, to her disgust and terror.

“Bastard!” Bethina shrieked, and all around her Cal’s nest came to life, ghouls pawing and clawing at her, tearing her clothes. I choked, doubling over, but the air of the sewer wasn’t any better and I couldn’t breathe.

I want you …,” Cal croaked, and then he couldn’t speak. I want you to see me, he’d tried to say, but it was an obscene parody of that, and Bethina dropped her lantern, the aether globe shattering open.

“Burn!” she screamed. “Right to cinders!”

The fire caught impossibly fast. Smoke filled the tunnel, obscuring Bethina, who sobbed, naked and covered in soot. Cal listened to the screams of his nest dying, Bethina crying, choking on smoke, and he couldn’t move.

I couldn’t either, tied to his mind until the horrible recurring nightmare played itself out. I couldn’t push on from this. This wasn’t memory, this was pure overwhelming fear manifesting itself like poison in Cal’s subconscious. His senses made it visceral, until I was screaming too, and then choking, until I thought I was going to pass out.

When the smoke cleared, Crow and I were someplace much worse.

I recognized the flat where Conrad and I had last lived with Nerissa. It hadn’t been in a good part of town, sitting on the edge of the Rustworks near South Lovecraft Station. Conrad slept on the sofa, and I slept on a small Murphy bed that came out of the sitting room wall. It might once have been an ironing board, but it was just the right size for an eight-year-old girl.

I wasn’t inside the flat, however, but rather was looking at it from the outside, up at the yellow glow of the window, since the building was so old that it didn’t have an aether feed, just oil lamps that coated everything we owned with a fine layer of soot.

A shape passed in front of the glass, then another. Boy and girl, racing back and forth, yelling in some sort of made-up contest.

“Archie.” The view rolled to the left, and I saw a younger Harold Crosley. Gray still shot through his white hair, and he carried considerably less weight in his jowls. “We need to keep moving,” Crosley said. “Patrols are tighter than ever.”

Archie waved his hand, his breath steaming in the cold. “In a minute.”

“Now,” Crosley insisted. “We can’t stand staring up at a window forever, Grayson.”

Archie rounded on Crosley. “That’s my family in there, Harold.” He ignored Crosley’s huff of irritation and turned back to the window. He stared intently, all his attention on the children inside, hearing them laugh through the thin single-paned glass.

The sense of loss as he stared at the window was so intense, so profound, that I felt myself starting to weep. It was the opposite of being full—when Archie looked up at our flat, he was totally empty. He felt so far from us he might as well have been on the opposite side of the globe.

He knew he had to protect us from the silver-tongued, sharp-toothed Fae. Knew that for that reason, he could never be with us. Must never draw attention to his family. Never expose them to danger.

Nerissa came to the window. She was too thin, her hair lank, her cheeks flushed and feverish. She wouldn’t last much longer here in Lovecraft, Archie knew. I could feel the bank book he carried with him everywhere, an account left over from when his father was alive, secret from the Brotherhood. It wasn’t much, in the scheme of the Grayson family’s formerly vast wealth, but it would be enough to pay off the right city officials to make sure his children were safe.

Archie knew in that moment that he would have chucked his upbringing, his travels to the four corners of the globe, his massive house in Arkham and all the fine things within, to be able to go up the stairs, open the door and sweep Conrad and Aoife into his arms. To kiss Nerissa’s too-warm forehead and tell her it was all going to be all right.

But he couldn’t, so he turned his back on the flat and followed Howard Crosley, pretending it was only the icy winter wind that had caused the moisture in his eyes.