IN THIS TWILIGHT
By AL BRUNO III
The water was cold, too cold; being immersed in it made Thelma’s heart catch in her throat. She felt her legs scrape along and away from the submerged stairs, tumbling in slow motion. There was water in her mouth, working its way down her throat and up her nose. She tried to curse Chad’s name but all she could do was gag.
Half swimming, half thrashing she tried to pull herself out of the stinking mess. The water came up to her chin, lapping slimily at her face. She felt like a child that had blundered into the deep end of the pool but no swimming pool had ever been like this. Soft, lumpen forms shifted under her feet as dark lithe shapes slipped past and around her torso. Thelma told herself it was just trash disturbed by her flailing, nothing more than old clothes and garbage.
The girls were laughing, retreating back up the stairs. Thelma tried to make her way after them. The weight of her soaking clothes pulled at her, something pale and eel-like squirmed along her arm. She heard Chad speaking and a trio of huffing, blubbering voices answering in reply.
The three massive figures moved down the steps and into the water. They converged on Thelma.
The Squonks were as gentle as Annie’s word. There was no escaping their collective grip but they kept their touch feather light. They lifted her up out of the water. Moving slowly and burbling to one another they carried her up the stairs. Once they were out of the basement Thelma tried to get down, at first she asked politely, then she struggled.
The second floor was still lit by kerosene lamps, their white-yellow glow rising up from floor level.
Chad and his Oracles were waiting for her in the room at the end of the hall. The Squonks set her down in the doorway and Thelma stood there, shivering and glaring, “That wasn’t funny.”
“Hush.” He gestured to the hulking figures and they retreated back down the hallway, “It’s not much longer now.”
The six girls took hold of her wrists, pulling her into the room. Thelma’s every footstep squished and dripped. They surrounded her and began to undress her.
“Hey!” This was nothing Thelma had expected.
When she slapped their hands away Bonita slapped back, “You want to catch your death?”
“Besides…” Annie said, “…you don’t want to know what was in that water.”
Chad had his back turned, his arms were crossed, “Do you believe in God? The God your parents tell you about?”
A pair of hands untucked her shirt, another set pulled it off. Goosebumps ran riot over Thelma’s exposed skin, “I don’t know.”
“Yes you do.”
“Fine. I don’t believe in God, it just doesn’t make any sense. The universe is too big and too cruel.”
“But there were gods once.”
“I knew it,” Thelma said. Someone shucked her feet from her sneakers and socks, “You’re some kind of a cult.”
“No we’re not,” Chad said, “these gods, they’ve had a thousand names over the years but now when they’re talked about by the forces of decency they’re called ‘the dark gods’.”
“I don’t like the sound of that.”
“Of course not, that’s the idea because these gods are real. They’re living artifacts of a simpler, better time. They’re like spiritual coelacanths.”
“Then why don’t these gods do something? What do they need you for?” Four sets of hands tugged her wet jeans down to her feet. Feeling herself start to blush Thelma stepped out of them.
“These dark gods retreated from the world. They hid themselves in the lost places. They’re waiting for their Hierophant to wake them.”
“That doesn’t sound very impressive.”
“Oh they still answer prayers, they still receive the faithful. The Oracles are trying to help me track them. So far all we’ve been able to find is roadside altars and hidden faiths but my Oracles said you would change everything.”
“Me?” Thelma said, “You were looking for me that night?”
“Of course,” Chad said.
“And what are you going to do now that you’ve got me?” Her plain white sports bra joined her other clothes on the floor, a pair of fingers hooked onto the sides of her panties and rolled them down her hips.
Bonita had an old bed sheet, she used it to dab the water from Thelma’s skin, “We get you dressed, take you to where you can lie down, then we give you some Eagoryl.”
“The rest comes easy,” Annie smirked, she had a tank top and a pair of shorts in her hands. “Just lie back an enjoy it.”
The girls all laughed at that. Bonita playfully slapped at Annie, “You’re bad! She’s bad!”
Thelma caught another girl’s attention, the brunette, “What’s your name?”
“How long have you been an Oracle Sara?”
“A year maybe. I was fifteen walking along the side of the road and Chad offered me a lift home.” She giggled, “I always was a sucker for older guys.”
“How old is he anyway?”
Sara paused, “Pretty old. Maybe thirty.”
“Oh Sara…” Chad laughed quietly.
The shorts were pulled roughly up Thelma’s hips, the tank top yanked roughly over her wet hair. The girls retreated to the sides of the room. Chad turned to smile at the scene.
“Just a minute.” Thelma took a moment to adjust herself and make sure no part of her boobs or ass were hanging out, “This is all so you can pray to some old gods that are hiding?”
“It is my destiny to serve them. My family have always served them, at least until my father ruined everything,” he drew close to her, “this is what I was born for.”
“And then what?” Thelma took an involuntary step backwards.
“And then?” He led her from the room, the girls followed, “Anything. Everything.”
“And all you need to do this is a few Oracles?”
“It’s that easy.”
“Then why hasn’t it happened yet?”
“Because things keep going wrong?” Thelma stopped suddenly in the hallway, Sara blundered into her, “Is that it? That’s why Samantha died isn’t it? That’s why there are only six Oracles. That other girl I saw, she was one of them wasn’t she?”
“She got too close. You can’t let the Maelstrom draw you in.”
“How does this tell me about my father?”
Sara said, “You can see lots. Its Chad got rich.”
“What about your big lawsuit?” Thelma put her hands on her hips.
Chad admitted, “That was bullshit.”
“Are you going to back out now?”
“You know better,” Thelma followed him into the room with the stained mattress. The Squonks were kneeling beside it, dabbing absent mindedly at their faces. She sat down, a Squonk took hold of her feet and swung her around until she was lying back.
“It’s OK to be scared,” Bonita said, “we were all scared.”
Annie shrugged, “I wasn’t.”
“Ladies,” Chad said, “I need you to go outside and wait. Why don’t you listen to the radio?”
“All right,” Bonita said, and then she leaned down and planted a kiss on Thelma’s forehead, just above her left eye. The other Oracles followed suit, one kissing above her right eye, the other her cheek, then next kissed the opposite cheek, Sara kissed her chin, then finally Annie kissed her on the lips. None of these kisses were dry and perfunctory like the kisses of a friend or relative, they were damp and lingering.
Thelma watched the Oracles leave, walking hand in hand. She found herself thinking, If Peanut had seen any of this he would have fainted.
“You’re smiling,” Chad reached into his jacket pocket. He had something in a baggie, a half-mummified spiral of flesh.
Thelma watched him open the plastic sandwich bag, “Sorry.”
“It’s a nice smile,” Chad said, “now I need you to open wide and relax.”
“What is the Hierophant?”
“First open your mouth.”
“The Hierophant is the instrument of the dark gods’ will, watching and waiting on the border between death and dreaming. When the time is right the Hierophant will walk the Earth and choose the ones destined to serve,” Chad held the slip of flesh over her mouth and squeezed until it bled.