by William J. Piovano
A chat message flickered on the screen, an identical repetition of several more which he had received during the past hour. ‘GET BACK IN. MUST PREPARE UR NEXT BOUT’. Another one.
Alan stared sullenly at the screen, its image — Jenjis’ field of vision in that world — frozen in the same place where he had left it, only now two different people sat in the bench opposite him. A female warrior with red hair and a diadem, and an orc.
Alan wondered if a pretty girl was watching through those female eyes — or perhaps through the orc’s. Queer thought. There might have been other people at the tavern’s table, outside the field of vision, but Alan would have to log in to look around.
He did not want to log in.
It was the first time in months that a part of him refused to reconnect. The last time — it seemed so long ago! — he had been reluctant to return after losing a sparring duel with Antis. Fortunately it had not been a tournament. If people knew he could be hurt... Jenjis’ aura of invincibility was a powerful asset in combat. But this was different. Nothing had happened to him this time. On the contrary, he had won.
Every second of this vacation is costing you time and money, he reminded himself sternly. Why linger in this place, where he was no one?
Another message popped up on the screen. Antis, asking when Jenjis would be back for a party. Some Elvish group had staged a post-tournament celebration, and Jenjis was to be, as Champion, the guest of honor. ‘You’re the guest of honor!’ popped a message on screen, Yelena’s this time. The news of it must have just been broken to his friends, all at once.
Outside it had begun to rain again. Alan wheeled himself to the window, edging in as close as he could. Then, reaching out, he pulled up at the rusty hooks. The wooden frame scraped in protest, sleepy from months of disuse, and then slid up slowly. A blast of cold air hit him like icy water, pricked his face. Goose bumps studded on his arms, and shivers quivered down his spine. He almost felt something in the numbness of his legs.
He stretched out a hand, and watched the drops splatter around the sweaty fingers, slide down the valleys of the palm to collect at their bottom. Fat drops, silvery and refreshing. He turned his hand over. I want to sit in this rain, he thought, and wheeled for the door.
* * *
The rat’s teeth raked at her in the dream-become-nightmare. Gagged her like tear gas. A hairy snout, black whiskers wet with infected saliva, jabbed out from where Peter’s head should have been. The soft parted lips had curled back to bare spotted gums swollen by the yellowed teeth. Fangs. And the eyes, they were malevolent. Worse, they had something of Peter in them, only the blue rings were injected with black serum, and they desired not to kiss her, but devour her. She screamed but lacked sound.
Snarl, it went, rabidly trying to swallow her head.
Ithaca convulsed back into herself with a strangled breath, eyes bulging open to reel in the confusion which was her apartment ceiling. Like normal nightmares, it had died in the moment of most extreme terror. This is wrong, her panicked mind told her. Wrong.
It was wrong. Where was Peter? Had he left? No, he did not live here. He lived in Moscow. She had to see him, talk to him, find out what had happened. Where had he gone, why had he attacked her? No, that had not been him. It was a monstrous beast, a cross of man and rat... dear God rats! Where was Peter?!
Ithaca sat up in bed, still heaving, holding a hand to her chest. Maybe Peter was angry at her. But that made no sense either; they had spent a wonderful evening together. He was always satisfied with her no matter what they did. He appreciated her efforts...
What if he is angry?
When Ithaca and Peter had arguments, they always made up before she could wake up. This time it had been far from gentle, though, and unresolved.
And a monster had taken Peter’s place.
Why did it have to be such a monster... a huge, horrible rat? Of all animals, she hated rats the most. They terrorized her.
Rain drummed against the window, bent sideways by a harsh wind. The fridge buzzed in acknowledgement of life. Footsteps thumped upstairs. The rest was quiet, dark and unmoving like the wooden desk and the empty bottles in the wicker basket. Ithaca listened to her own breathing, willing herself to calmness and taming the beating in her chest. She turned to reach for the medicine bottle.
It had fallen over, and was nearly empty.
Cursing her nightmares and her panicked flailings, she dropped to her knees to salvage that which had already gone. Most of the contents had already seeped into the carpet, leaving a shade of stain and only a bare few doses of the fluid to settle against the side of the brown glass. Curses muttered became curses hissed as she sucked at the dampness, tasting dust and medicine.
Lying back on the bed, she made rough attempt to smooth out her dress again. “Let it be just enough, please please,” she begged to someone. The she closed her eyes and downed the remnants of the bottle. She squeezed her eyes shut, forcing all mental pictures of Peter in her head. Muscular, tall, standing, lying, dressed and even naked and making love to her. Not the rat, the told herself, not the rat.
Fuzziness. Blurry darkness, but no Moscow, no living room. No Peter. The humid apartment air still smothered her skin. She could feel it against her will. After a minute — or was it an hour? — she opened her eyes and saw the ceiling. She wanted to scream, but instead she wept. Wept as her heart pounded away the effects of the medicine. She could not sleep like this. Excited as she was, she would need a heavier dose, much heavier. The bottle, in her hands, was empty. She dropped it onto its fallen brothers in the wicker basket.
When tears too had run out, Ithaca stood and got dressed in the dark. She did not bother to change out of her dress. The pharmacy was closed, so she’d have to wait for a while, but she didn’t want to waste time once back home. Sitting on the chair, she began pulling on her boots. Already she missed Peter. Suave, devoted, painfully handsome.
Rat’s dripping fangs snapped out.
She jumped and dropped the boot. The monster was sneaking into her marriage! Ithaca squirmed in her seat, shuddering the wet furry horridness off. How was she to get rid of it? I have to find Peter, she thought.
Wrestling into her boots at last she stood and made for the door, but just as she turned the handle she wondered: what if the rat-creature was waiting for her, on the other side? Would it let her wake? She hesitated, then habit forced open the door and she walked out.
Rain poured heavily. Ithaca lifted her skirts and ran down the sidewalk. She should have waited in the apartment, not in the street, but one side of her had to escape the room or go mad. Halfway down the street she stopped, panting. Rivulets of water streamed down her face and coalesced on nose, chin and dress to plummet to the ground. What a sight I must be, she thought. The rain had deserted the city, leaving only the light trash to glide down the oil-stained asphalt river.
A clatter behind her.
She spun, expecting the Rat and its pus-colored fangs. Instead there sat a man in a wheelchair, trying in vain to wrestle one of his wheels from a drainage hole. She thought she recognized him, thin and pale. She stared at him long enough to appear discourteous. The man blushed, adding embarrassed frustration to his yanking efforts. Remembering her manners — or forgetting Peter and the Rat long enough for it to happen — Ithaca walked over to help.
“Can I?” she asked, hands raised in offer. She felt camaraderie for this soul lost in the thunderstorm.
The man shrugged, sighing. “Can I say no?”
She took hold of the handles and pushed until the wheel jumped out of the drainage hole.
“Thank you,” said the man.
Ithaca smiled wryly. “You’re welcome. Enjoying the rain as well?” She felt so very tired.
“Actually, yes,” he replied. When Ithaca frowned, he added, “I’m taking a stroll... erm... getting some fresh air.”
“In the rain?”
“It’s quite a wonderful feeling, the rain, if you close your eyes and accept it.”
“If you say so.” I don’t want to close my eyes.
The man ran a hand over his bald scalp, sweeping water off. A peculiar gesture, with so much rain everywhere, and more falling. “So where are you off to in such a hurry, if I may ask?” He seemed to revel in the water’s touch.
“I...” Ithaca took a moment to make up some story, but imagination failed her. “I’m going to the pharmacy.”
The man did not remind her that it was well past closing time, nor that she could have taken an umbrella, or a taxi, or waited for the rain to stop. He stretched out a hand. “I’m Alan.”
She studied the hand as though it were some alien animal.
“Ithaca,” she conceded at length, and when his fingers closed around her palm, it was like a hot poker. Heat, new and strangely exciting, at the touch of flesh.
“There’s a lot of fresh air between here and there,” he said with a suggestive roll forward.
“There is,” she said, settling into a walk beside him. She didn’t think either of them had any idea where they were going.
Copyright © 2008 by William J. Piovano