“Have you guys seen Lisa, or know where she is?” Asked Tracy, the talkative blonde waitress at the diner where we now sat. She was now frowning, tapping nervously at the table in front of us, and barely waited for our answer before continuing, “only she was supposed to be here by now and it’s already past the end of my shift. I thought maybe, since you guys are staying with her help group you’d know. Going to be really hard to find someone else to cover for her at this time of night, which means I, probably stuck here... Also, I’m worried. I know she’s got some problems of her own, so I’m wondering if she’s ok. Do you folks know anything?”
“Not really,” I said, feeling slightly sick even as I said it. I couldn’t even look at the other waitress’ eyes as I answered. I remembered Lisa walking towards one of the hungry mouths just a few hours ago, devoured by that abomination, and clenched my fists tightly.
“Oh, sorry for asking, just thought I’d be worth a try. She needs someone checking in on her now and then.” She let out a sunny smile, only slightly dampened by her tiredness and worry. “So, what can I get you two?”
“Cheeseburger and coffee for me,” said Suzy, returning her bright smile with one of her own.
“Just coffee for me, thanks,” I muttered, not even disguising my depressed mood. I did not smile.
“Well, that’s unusual for you two. Planning to stay awake for something?” Asked Tracy, immediately curious.
“Don’t plan to sleep at all,” I replied, and I meant it. I was afraid of closing my eyes and seeing those people getting devoured. And the singing... I could almost still hear it, if I strained enough, and it hovered on the edge of my perception, seductive and terrible. I tried my best to ignore it.
“Ooh! Sounds like you guys are busy! Any special reason? Is it like a job you guys have to do tonight or something?” She asked, looking from one of us to the other and smiling even more. Clearly my morose attitude wasn’t having any visible effect on her spirits. But her question, on the other hand, hovered awkwardly on the table while I stared back at her and tried, feebly, to think of a good excuse. She broke the silence with a small laugh, covering her mouth with her hand.
“Sorry, look at me prying again! It’s a bad habit of mine,” she laughed, looking a bit embarrassed, before cheerfully adding, “I’ll be right back with your food!”
I watched her walk to the kitchen and another sour thought made its way into my brain, and from there to my lips.
“She might never know her friend is dead. As far as she knows, she’ll just have disappeared completely.”
“Oh, don’t worry about that,” replied Suzy nonchalantly. “Shub-Niggurath will spit their remains somewhere close to here in one or two days, don’t worry.”
“Oh thanks. That makes me feel so much better,” I said in the most miserable tone I could muster.
“She would have died anyway, one year from now,” added Suzy with a calm shrug.
I shot her a most unimpressed stare. “You really need to improve your pep talking skills,” I grumbled eventually.
“As long as you keep refusing to understand this fact, I will be happy to keep reminding it to you, Cody,” she replied, unperturbed. “Really, your stubborn denial was cute at first, but at this point it’s getting aggravating.”
“I’m not in denial!” Was my initial, knee-jerk response. A moment of reflecting on the words that had come out of my mouth, and the way I said them, made me hang my head in shame. “Oh shit… I AM in denial, aren’t I?”
“Normal human behavior when facing death,” she said with a soft smile, eyes twinkling mischievously. “Most humans will die, but refuse to face that possibility. They wouldn’t be able to live facing their certain death every day. And you face something much, much bigger.”
“How should I deal with something like this?” I asked. No sarcasm in my voice this time, I was deathly serious. “How do I make peace with the future and with all these deaths?”
“With a cheeseburger!” She let out a chuckle while I stared at her, irritated.
“You REALLY need to work on your pep talk skills,” I muttered through my grimace.
Her smile did not waver, but her demeanor changed, and became less openly mocking. “It’s not a joke, or at least not the way you think. A cheeseburger might actually help in your case.”
“Really?” I replied, skeptical.
“Worrying about the future is well and good, but do it too much and you lose all sense of perspective. That future grows, and takes over all of your life, until every second of it is tainted and spoiled for the sake of that future. Every joy and every sadness, every small triumph you could have celebrated or every mistake you could have learned from, all ignored for the sake of that future, looming in front of you, so large it blots out everything else.” She approached me, still smiling, but her voice now held a slim glimmer of sympathy, so different from her usual, uncaring self. “You must focus also on the now, on what is happening in front of you. Good food, friendship and the good moments you find - treasure them. If you ignore these, if you deny yourself to live in the present, then there can never be any joy in your life, and you will burn yourself out before you can save anyone.”
Her speech hit me harder than I cared to admit, and I looked down and fidgeted with the napkin holder, at loss for words.
“How’s that for a pep talk?” she added. And when I looked up, she winked at me, before flashing a smile at the waitress carrying our coffee and plates.
“Two coffees and one cheeseburger,” she said, putting our order on the table and smiling back at Suzy. She was about to leave when I stopped her.
“Ah… Could you please bring me a cheeseburger as well?” I asked, slightly embarrassed.
“Sure thing, sweetie,” she said back, beaming with pride. “Ha! I knew you couldn’t resist our food!”
Suzy said nothing, although her smile spoke volumes even without any words. And the cheeseburger in front of her looked and smelled mouth-watering, with perfectly melted cheese, slightly toasted buns and a hamburger cooked to perfection.
“Might as well enjoy myself while I wait,” I said.
We whiled away the rest of the night at that diner, waiting for the Grandmaster’s plan to be revealed. And the cheeseburgers we had were truly delicious.
“Welcome,” said the Grandmaster, greeting us as me and Suzy walked into the same clearing where his cult was sacrificed the night before. Any regret he felt for his followers was well hidden, while my grief was like an open wound, bleeding for all to see.
“So, we waited. What’s your plan?” I asked, straight to the point, terse.
He - if you could indeed call the misshapen creature covered in growths in front of me a “he” anymore - seemed more confident than yesterday, and more bold too. Sitting on a rock and hunched forward, like a predator getting ready for another hunt, he did not seem disturbed by my lack of manners either.
“My goddess has granted me much,” he spoke, softly, but with absolute certainty. “Strength and resilience, yes, but also the gift to understand life… And change it. To mold the very fabric of all that breathes and eats to suit my purposes. Yes, I see it, in such grand and...”
“Spare me the speech,” I interrupted him, keeping my voice as calm as I could. “Tell me, what is your plan?”
He turned to stare at me, despite his lack of eyes, and stood utterly still on his rock for an uncomfortable length of time.
“Impatient,” he spoke at last.
“VERY impatient,” added a feminine voice behind me, which spooked me so much I jumped and turned around immediately.
“Don’t worry, boy” said a third voice, male and older. “You too can be saved. He’s found a way!”
The ones speaking from behind me, and which had spooked me so, were a man and a woman, average looking in their t-shirts and jeans. The man had a baseball cap on his head and a short-trimmed beard that was starting to grey, while the woman had all sorts of bangles and necklaces hanging on her slim body. Or… They would be average if it wasn’t for the alien and misshapen growths covering part of their bodies.
The man’s arm was completely covered in them, spreading up to his shoulder and collarbone as far as I could see, while the woman sported a torn hole in her shirt, where it would cover her stomach. And from that gap I could no longer see any semblance of human skin. Like the grandmaster, it was a bizarre amalgam of plant and muscle, growing its roots at one part while full of odd, hard growths on another section like a monstrous coral. There was no symmetry, no comfortable familiarity in their inhuman growths, which were made even more chilling when combined with how normal and human the rest of their bodies looked. I stared in open shock as both of them looked back at me and smiled cheerfully, and a bit nervously.
“My gift, given to me by my goddess from beyond the stars…” The grandmaster spread his arms for dramatic effect. “I have shared this gift with them. Before they were lambs, walking to their slaughter without knowing. Now, they will survive, and thrive, beyond!”
Taking a deep breath, I looked at them again, more calmly. Taking everything in, their humanity, their inhumanity… And those identical, cheerful smiles.
“They’re no longer human,” I muttered, matter-of-factly.
“Well, that’s a little bit rude,” said the woman, wincing for effect. She ran her fingers through her hair and smiled a little, as if embarrassed. “I think I still look pretty cute, huh?”
And true enough, although she was no supermodel, her face was young and full of life, even charming in her awkwardness. Until one looked below at the nightmare that was her stomach, sending chills down my spine until I looked away to prevent the instinctive disgust from building up inside me.
“We have changed, that’s for sure,” said the man, looking thoughtfully at his inhuman arm. “But if that’s what it takes for us to survive… I’ll take it.”
“He told us of what was coming, and how he saved us from this end of the world craziness that was coming,” added the girl, nodding in agreement. “We’re both grateful for getting this chance.”
“If you two, Suzy and Cody, are also afraid, I can offer the same salvation as I did for them,” said the grandmaster, and both of us turned around to look at him, as he extended his hand to us while making his offer. “You do not need to fear change, for it is through change that we will find salvation. Come with us, and together we will work to spread our gospel and save as much of humanity as possible from the end of the world. Together, we can save them, and more!”
“Pffffft,” was more or less the noise Suzy made as she stifled a laugh. She made that stifling noise more obvious in her disdain than any laughter ever could. After recomposing herself, she smiled sweetly at the Grandmaster and said, “I’m refusing your offer, as it does not appeal to me at all. You have nothing you could give that I would want. As for my companion… That’s for him to decide.”
Both now focused on me, and I could hear a step behind me as the other two followers approached, all eager to hear what I said. I cleared my throat nervously.
“Those two you saved just now, did you make the same offer to them as you’re doing to us?” I asked, stealing a glance at the two I was talking about. They looked at each other, then back at me.
“Honestly? It was kinda forced on us,” admitted the man, flexing his inhuman arm and making an unsettling noise as it squished and cracked. “But I don’t blame him for what he did. It would be a hard thing for us to understand, you know… Without even showing what the end of the world would be.”
“But neither of us regrets being changed,” said the girl, emphatically shaking her head. “Now we at least have something to hope for after the end.”
“Some things must be experienced, in order to be understood,” added the grandmaster. “I cannot turn an unenlightened person from complete ignorance to ultimate wisdom with words alone, my friend. And what else would you have me do? Stand and watch as the world burn? No… I have to do this. There is no other way.” There seemed to be almost sadness in his voice, even as alien as it was, coming from such an inhuman creature. “But you two… You know more, and understand better the stakes. So I offer you this choice I did not to the others, since it is a choice you two are informed enough to make.”
“It’s a generous offer, but I will need to think about it,” I muttered. “But… Not to be an asshole about it, this all feels kinda creepy.”
The grandmaster bowed his head, or whatever that lump was, and crouched lower. “Understandable,” he said, after a slight pause. “It is a big decision, and old human prejudices and preferences die hard. I will give you time to decide, of course. But one last request: Please, do not take too long to decide.”
Although he had no eyes, I felt menace from his posture, and my hands balled into fists before I realized. “Or what?” I asked.
“Eventually, the world is going to end,” said the Grandmaster, getting up to leave. “And we all must decide what to do about it.”
Saying that, he and his two followers walked back into the woods, and soon were gone from our view.
The sun was sinking behind the mountains like a corpse on a lake, staining the sky in hues of red. Yet still, I was busy deciding on what to do, not even having moved from the clearing where we and the grandmaster had talked on, a few hours ago.
Suzy had spent the whole time standing as still as one of the trees surrounding us, watching me with a blank face that betrayed no emotions. I turned away from her, as her presence only confused my thoughts even more. But there was no escaping from her presence.
“His… I dunno the word. Servants? Followers?” I hesitated, then continued. “Those two following the Grandmaster. They really aren’t human anymore, right?”
“No,” replied Suzy. She did not explain herself any further.
“But… They still have their personalities? And memories?” I asked.
“Somewhat...” was her reply.
“Yeah, yeah, I get it. Change is inevitable,” I spoke, rubbing my hands over my eyes and sighing. “Back in Innsmouth I made the mistake of judging people just because they were different. Because they were no longer human. I… I don’t want to make the same mistake again.”
“Very admirable,” said Suzy, offering some lazy applause as she smiled at me. I shot back an angry stare at her.
“Are that our only options though?” I asked, frowning and pursing my mouth tight. “To become a… A different creature? An alien? Or die? Is that all we can do?”
She did not even bother responding this time, but her smile remained on her lips, as hard to read as always.
“No, I’m serious!” I insisted, and started pacing anxiously in circles as I talked. “Your options so far have been - A: become a lab rat for an alien species that may play with your memories for their own ends. B: Have hybrid alien children and leave them as your descendants, or now C: turn into an alien creature yourself! Is… Is that really the best we can do? Is there nothing else? In your catalogue of options, is there no other way?”
She tilted her head, appearing to ponder over my question, before replying. “Even if there are ways, you will need help from a being with more power than you could ever have… Or you must become that being. There are no other alternatives, I am sorry to say.”
I nodded, digging my nails in my palms as if I could pierce them. After a deep breath, and slowly exhaling, I spoke. “I suppose… I knew that already. But couldn’t face it… Until now. It’s too much to expect to go save people without getting my hands dirty.”
“Oh?” Her lips forming an ‘o’ in mock surprise. “Finally reached a decision then?”
I got up from my sitting spot, stretching my back and hearing it crunch satisfyingly. “Yeah, you have a point. I can’t do anything if I don’t have the power to make it reality. And clinging to my humanity sounds really petty, at this point.”
“Well, well! How far have we come,” she commented, smiling wider now. “Does that mean you’re ready to sacrifice people for your goal?”
I made a face like I had swallowed something horribly sour, and replied with, “not sure about that. Fuck. No, fuck that. Aren’t there any other ways to.. Ascend, or whatever it is they call it? I don’t mind turning into a toxic avenger reject, but… No, not atop a mountain of corpses. Fuck that.” I swallowed nervously, lowering my voice. “Is that possible?” I finally asked Suzy, after steeling myself for her answer.
“Well, let me see...” She looked pensive at first, then widened her eyes in a mocking grin and - when I let out a huff of impatience - laughed at me. “What? I have to create a moment of dramatic tension here!”
“Seriously!” I barked, frustrated. She laughed again.
“Don’t worry,” she said at last, raising both palms in the air in a calming gesture. “There are ways. I can’t promise they will be exactly what you want, but there are ways to ascend without killing people.”
My breath, held in expectation at her answer, finally exhaled in a sigh. I looked away. “So there is a way,” I muttered.
“Yes. Although, of course...” she added.
“... There must always be sacrifices. Yes, I know,” I finished her sentence and steeled myself stubbornly against her quips. “But becoming a monster on the outside beats becoming a monster on the inside. And if I get to choose what to keep human, I pick my morality.”
“Not what I’d pick, but hey! To each their own. You weirdo,” she said, grinning.
I ignored her. “Guess the next thing we have to do is wish the other weirdo in town goodbye and then we can go.” I rubbed a hand on the back of my neck, deep in thought, before adding, “maybe I misjudged him. It’s a tough position to be in, and maybe he is only doing his best out of a bad situation. I… I still don’t agree with what he did, but if he is saving people… Then maybe…?”
“If you want to say goodbye, he is attacking the diner and the people inside it as we speak,” replied Suzy.
The silence that followed was brief, like something was caught on my throat. I couldn’t believe she had said those words, but no. She never lied. And if what she said was true…
“HE IS DOING WHAT?!”