The Thing In The Frat-House

My dear meriko,

It is with a sense of near-horrific irony that I deliver to you this poor excuse for a Yuletide gift. If I could think of any other person who could ease my sensibilities in this matter, I would have course have done so, and sent you a nice fruitcake or something instead of the contents of this box. However, apart from an acquaintance in Seattle, I could think of no one whose expertise was appropriate to the identification of the items within, and I could not bring myself to send the package to the Northwest, for if I am correct regarding the origins of these hideous – but I am getting ahead of myself; let me start this tale at its proper beginning.

As you know, as of last spring I was yet uncertain of where my further education would lie – with my feeble grade point average, even Van Wert Technical School in Ohio would not admit me – and with my top twenty-two choices for University eliminated, I was left with only the school on the banks of the Miskatonic River. I waited through the month of May, my hopefulness lessening daily, until the fateful call came on the 23rd. The representative of the admissions department, whose voice carried a disturbing, grating, hissing undertone which chilled me to my very marrow, informed me that Miskatonic U. was expecting my presence in the winter term. He said it that way: "the University is expecting your presence in the winter term." Once my surprise at my acceptance had faded, and my annoyance at his tone had subsided, we discussed some incidental details of housing and coursework; I was to stay in the Kappa Theta Lambda house (which assignment seemed odd, as I had understood that one generally met with fraternities beforehand to ensure some degree of compatibility, and I had not ever heard of the Kappa Theta Lambda, much less met any of their members). I asked why I could not begin in the fall, and was merely told that "the University will not have any unexpected admissions openings until December."

Soon enough I was on my way to school. Arriving late due to unscheduled elk on the train tracks (imagine!) I actually had to attend my first day of classes before even finding my new home. The University seemed strangely quiet for the beginning of a term, and the other students, few in number, were all pale and haggard, as if they were facing final examinations beyond their worst nightmares rather than having just finished with them. I had, naturally, had little choice in my course selections, and two of the courses I had chosen were cancelled due to under-subscription. The oddest course was Applied Metaphysics 4A, wherein the instructor, a strange hairy little man, spent the entire class explaining to us that Applied Metaphysics was in fact oxymoronic, and that the course would in fact be a complete waste of our time, yet we would not be able to graduate from University without passing it. I cannot begin to relate the litany of literally-impossible, paradoxical tasks he set out for us as the bulk of our coursework (counting the angels dancing on the head of a pin was a mere five points of extra credit).

At the end of the day, I was feeling somewhat haggard myself; the strenuous travel, the busy day of classes, the stress of being displaced from my home, and the overcast skies all conspired to sap my strength and enthusiasm. It was growing dark – my watch had broken on the trip, so I couldn’t be sure if dusk had somehow already begun to approach, or if a storm was threatening. I followed a sloppily-sketched map provided by the Disorientation Office (at first, I thought the name a joke among the students, but the sign over the door actually says exactly that) through the maze of old buildings to the Kappa Theta Lambda house. The house, four stories tall and as old as the nation itself, was in poor repair; the porch was sagging and slippery with moss, the paint more peeled than not, and half the windows boarded up. The house was quiet, with only a dim flickering light visible inside, downstairs, and I was somewhat apprehensive about knocking on the door – perhaps the denizens were already sleeping. I gathered my wits about me, calculated the time at about 4:30 in the afternoon – certainly no later than five, and rapped sharply twice on the door. I was just preparing to knock again when the door opened. A tall, horribly thin figure looked out at me, or perhaps looked through me. My mouth dry, I introduced myself.

"Ah," he said. "The New Boy. Come in." He stepped back from the doorway to allow me to enter. "I’m… Bill." He introduced me to the others – only four brothers (Bill, Lawrence, Dunblane, and Jimmy) in the house before my arrival – and showed me to my room on the fourth floor. It was small and damp and musty. Some quick mental calculation on my part determined that there was almost a whole floor to be had by each of us, so I asked if this was the only room there was available. Bill regarded me briefly as if I was a particularly intelligent baboon.

"There’s other rooms," he said, finally. "There’s rooms that we don’t go in. They’re locked. We locked ‘em. We locked ‘em up and put the keys in a box. We put the keys in a box and taped up the box. Then we put the box in the trunk of Lawrence’s old Pontiac. You with me?" I nodded, wondering what on earth he was talking about. "Then we drove Lawrence’s old Pontiac down to Virginia. We drove it to a lake in Virginia. In the middle of the night we drove it there. Then we got out of Lawrence’s old Pontiac and we grabbed Lawrence and tied him up and punched him a bunch of times because he wasn’t too thrilled with the next part, which was setting fire to Lawrence’s old Pontiac." He grinned, showing discolored, crooked teeth. "That was my contribution to the plan, actually."

His serious, intense expression returned. "So we set fire to Lawrence’s old Pontiac, then while it burned we went and chopped down a little tree and stripped off the branches and all, and then when the fire was mostly out we used the trunk to push Lawrence’s old Pontiac into the lake. Then we hit Lawrence a few more times to keep him quiet, and we did a little binding ritual to keep the keys in the box and the box in the trunk," – at this point, Bill’s voice was rising in volume and pitch, and I was sincerely regretting having asked about other rooms at all – "and the trunk in the CAR and the CAR in the LAKE and the LAKE IN VIRGINIA," – and Bill’s head began tilting slowly back and over to the left and spittle began flying from his mouth and I felt it wisest to stand very still and quietly and to let him finish – "and to keep VIRGINIA RIGHT WHERE IT GODDAMN WELL IS AND TO KEEP THE WHOLE GODDAMN SURFACE OF THE PLANET FROM FOLDING UP AND BRINGING THE GODDAMN STATE OF VIRGINIA AND THE LAKE AND THE CAR AND THE TRUNK AND THE BOX and the KEYS back HERE and OPENING the doors and letting the noises back out into the rest of the house." He paused for a moment, turned his head back to me, wiped his mouth on his sleeve, and appeared to gather himself back from wherever it was that he’d gone. "Well. Right. So here’s your room," he finished, calmly.

"Right. Thanks," I said, and as quickly as I could I got my things into the room and shut the door behind me.

The room was about 8 feet by 12 feet, floorboards warped, rusty nail heads providing a dangerous obstacle course. I crossed over to the window and determined that I had a grime-veiled view of the jungle of weeds that made up the back yard of the house. In trying to open the window to air the place out, I managed to shatter one of the four small panes of glass. I looked down onto the back porch, where I could see quite a bit more glass than my small accident could account for, and so I shrugged and turned my attention to the bed. The mattress was small and stained and ragged, and there were only two moth eaten blankets, and no sheets. I debated the wisdom of joining the others for a bite to eat, but between the shouting match I heard brewing up downstairs between Bill and Lawrence, and my exhaustion, I finally slipped my shoes off, curled up, and tried to sleep.

I awoke in darkness, at first uncertain of my whereabouts. I was cold, and the rising wind whistled through my broken window. My stomach was growling, and my head throbbing. I lay like that for some moments, unwilling to leave what little warmth I had, unwilling to face my housemates (if they were still awake) or their kitchen (seen only momentarily, earlier, but every bit as disquieting as you would expect of a frat-house full of madmen), unwilling to impale my tender feet on rusty nails in the dark. Yet I hungered, and so I gathered my courage once again, replaced my shoes, and headed down the stairs. The staircases between floors were alternately installed on the north and south sides of the house, so on each level I was obliged to walk the length of the main hall, past the many locked doors. On the end of the third floor was Jimmy’s room, with lamplight streaming from underneath the door; Jimmy had seemed, if not the sanest, at least the quietest of my house-mates. I stepped quietly as I passed, telling myself not to disturb his studies, but more truthfully, I feared him as I feared everything in this house.

On the second floor both Bill and Lawrence made their home; they had adjoining rooms in the middle of the hallway. Whether their proximity was the cause of their animosity towards one another, or somehow independent of it, I could not understand why they wouldn’t trade rooms with one of the others, or why one of them had not taken my room on the fourth floor to escape the other. Their rooms looked dark, yet as I passed I imagined that I heard a noise like a sob, though it could have easily been the simple creaking of the ancient house.

Finally on the first floor, I made my way to the kitchen. Dunblane’s room was off in the back, so I would not be disturbing him any. In the living room between the stairs and the kitchen was the old grandfather clock, reading a quarter to one in the morning. I reached the kitchen: a disaster area. It was roomy enough, even with the huge chopping block in the center, but every surface had at least a few dirty dishes haphazardly piled upon it. The sink in particular demanded a wide berth; I would not have gone near it in darkness for all the riches in the world. The floor, well, you could have eaten off the floor. Really – there were bits of food all over it. The crumbs and bits remaining on the block caught my attention, and simultaneously fascinated and repulsed, I approached the room’s centerpiece.

Deep cuts in the old, concave-worn block were evidence of the frequent and vigorous use of the large meat cleaver lying there. Some of the stains, reddish, brown, and dark-green, were easily explained, but I shuddered to think what the yellowish-green had come from. Carvings of initials and dates around the perimeter of the block suggested that it had seen at least fifty years of service in this house, but what the strange curvilinear runes among the graffiti were supposed to indicate, I had no idea. I turned away, and hesitantly began to open the cupboards. My quest was rewarded presently with a half-full box of Triscuits, apparently having been accidentally pushed behind many less appetizing options.

Oh, how I wish I had stopped my explorations of that eldritch kitchen with the discovery of a simple edible snack food item.

Yet in the very next cupboard, I found the coffee maker. As soon as the thought of coffee entered my mind, of course, the pulsing in my head doubled, and I realized I had not taken caffeine since mid-day yesterday. Naturally I wasn’t feeling my best; I was simply in withdrawal. I took down the old Braun, taking no notice of the spatters of food with which it was decorated, and cleared a small space on the counter to set up the machine. Paper filters for the machine were in the same cupboard, but the search for coffee beans led to a secondary quest. Soon enough, the other cupboards and shelves had been searched, and the only remaining possibility was the freezer. I hesitated. The fridge, no, never would I enter there alone, but surely the freezer couldn’t be too bad. I reached for the handle. My hand trembled, and I must confess I let out a tiny whimper.

Suddenly there were unintelligible shouts from the floor above, and I jumped straight into the air. The shouts were followed by a few seconds of pounding – Lawrence and Bill quarrelling again, I realized – and then silence. I turned back to the freezer, and this time, unhesitatingly opened it. Vodka. Ice cubes. Ziplock bag of meat. Badger’s head. One-pound bag of coffee beans. Yes. Then the horror: The ancient seal on the bag, the runes surrounding the image of the tentacle-haired priestess. Dear god, no. Not that. Not Starbucks. Not tonight, not on top of everything else.

"Ngah," I said, backing away, closing the freezer. "Nnnnnnnnng." I fled the kitchen, pausing only to snatch up the Triscuits, and sprinted back up the stairs, two at a time. I don’t remember what happened next, only that I awoke with the crackers strewn across the floor of my room, and a few soggy, gnawed bits of the Triscuit box lying in the bed. Still, in daylight I somehow felt a little better, and was glad to leave the house and head for class. After another baffling day’s worth of higher education, I stopped back at Disorientation to ask where the Housing Office was; I wanted to see if I had any options regarding a different place to live. I was told that the Housing Office was in Louisiana, but would be back early next week. Frankly, I was afraid to ask for clarification of that statement, and after being informed that there was nowhere on campus where I could actually buy coffee or coffee beans, I could think of nowhere else to go, and so I returned to the house.

The weather was better today, and while the improved lighting showed the house’s state of disrepair even more clearly, my mood was better, and as I entered the house, I resolved to have myself a cup of coffee, Starbucks or no. I thought I was imagining the smell of fresh java as I entered, but soon discovered that one of my housemates had in fact beaten me to the punch. The bag of beans was lying empty on the counter, and mere drops of coffee were left in the pot. I made my way from room to room, finding no one on the lower floors, and finally knocking on Jimmy’s door. He was home. He was working on his Time-Domain Autotheistic Heterodoxy paper. He was finishing the last cup of coffee. He had, as a matter of fact, drunk several pots of coffee today while I had been at my classes. He had finished the entire bag.

"Are there any more beans? Anywhere in the house?" I begged him.

Jimmy regarded me through the thick lenses of his glasses. "You might ask Dunblane. He’s always stashing food around so we can’t find it. Bastard."

I thanked him, took my books and went down to the living room to wait for Dunblane’s return.

It was hours later, and I was deep into a book that I thought at first had been assigned for my History class (but must have in fact been for Literature, as it was about the fall and forthcoming rise of the island of Atlantis), when I heard Dunblane come home. He was a small and jumpy fellow, and was trying to sneak back to his room when I intercepted him.

"Dunblane!" I said. He jumped.

"Oh, hello… it’s you, isn’t it. You. Yes. Yes?"

"Yes, Dunblane, it’s me. Listen, do you know if there’s any coffee in the house? I’ve got this splitting caffeine-withdrawal headache and Jimmy’s drunk the entire damned bag that was in the freezer. Please, you’ve got to help me."

"Hmm. Coffee. Hm." He eyed me suspiciously.

"Yes, Dunblane, I need coffee. Please, do you know where any is?"

"Hmm, well, let me think…"

As he wasn’t flat-out denying the possibility of there being coffee in the house, I decided in my desperation to engage in a little psychological warfare. "Ah, god, I’m going to be screaming out the window all night long if I don’t get any coffee. If only Lawrence still had his old Pontiac, I’d steal it and drive a hundred miles to find some coffee. Howling all the way. Dear god help me."

"Steady on, steady on," said Dunblane. Finally, squinting at me, he muttered, "Listen, do you know what happened to the last of the Triscuits? They were gone this morning." At last, I had a tiny flicker of hope.

"Yes, Dunblane, I’ve got the Triscuits. They’re someplace safe. You can have them if you tell me where I can find some coffee. I need coffee, Dunblane, do you understand me? Or tea. Good strong tea. Or amphetamines. Do you have any amphetamines, Dunblane?"

Dunblane stared his beady-eyed little stare. "You’ll give me the Triscuits? Promise?"

I tried to look more sincere than desperate. "Yes. Promise."

He glanced around to make sure that none of the other housemates were within earshot. "A box. A box of beans. With, you know, the seal. The runes."

"The runes? More Starbucks?" I moaned.

"Yes. Yes." He nodded vigorously, apparently done with his revelation.

"Where’s this box?" I prompted.

"Oh. It’s in the basement. Behind the water heater. Don’t tell the others, please. Don’t let Jimmy have any more coffee today. It’s very bad for him and sometimes he prowls through the house at night and whispers through the doors and makes us all go mad when he has too much coffee. Don’t tell them." He began to tremble a bit.

"Alright, Dunblane, I won’t mention the coffee to the others. I might just take a bag upstairs and chew on the beans instead of making coffee, so they don’t wonder, is that okay?" He nodded slightly, and I headed for the stairway.

Dunblane grabbed my sleeve. "Wait! Wait! Triscuits?" I shivered.

"They’re upstairs in my room, Dunblane. Go ahead, it’s open." With that, I went to the stairs down into the terrible basement of that terrible house, hurrying lest my nerves fail me.

Then I discovered the lights didn’t work so I had to go back to the damned closet next to the kitchen to get a flashlight, and by the time I reached the stairs again, I’d had time to think about it and I was shaking like a leaf. Who knew what Dunblane had tucked away down here, and what manner of vermin had come along to eat it in the meantime?

The flashlight trembling in my hands, I made my way down the rickety stairs into the damp blackness. The stairs creaked under my feet, and the rest of the house replied in kind. Holes in the walls had been blocked with scraps of wood, carelessly nailed and bolted in place – even an unfortunate table-leaf had been pressed into service to keep nameless wild creatures from taking refuge in this place. Dust and cobwebs choked the spaces between the rotting crates, mildewed cardboard boxes, broken bicycles, and other detritus left behind by generations of frat boys. I made my way back through the stacks, searching for the water heater.

Dunblane had not led me astray. Behind the rusty tank, stacked atop three old car tires and a cracked aquarium, there was a cardboard box, perhaps twelve inches by twelve by seven, with that hated seal emblazoned upon it. I slit the top open, barely breathing, and slowly opened the box.

Imagine my horror at what I saw within. The two of them, ruby and emerald, alien and squamous, sitting patiently in the box for their release. Sitting upon the scraps of the bags of coffee that they had infested, not a bean left, consumed by these vile and hideous things. Somehow I managed not to scream and bring my housemates down into the basement; instead I quietly closed the box, carried it out, and walked to the campus post office.

You see, of course, I had to send this box on to you, for the stench of bad coffee could not entirely mask the faint scent of the sea. I yet hold out hope that a marine biologist such as yourself can take one look at these pathetic creatures and recognize them and toss off a few syllables of Latin to name them. I pray with all my heart that you can explain their presence here in a house at Miskatonic University, to explain their grotesque ability to gorge themselves on Starbucks coffee beans, and thrive, and grow so large in a sealed box without appearing to have left behind a single drop of excreta. However, if you cannot identify them, I think your wisest course would be to reseal the box as quickly as you can, borrow someone’s old Pontiac, and take them to a lake to be rid of them.

I remain yours truly, &c.

for meriko, christmas 1999

from russell

with apologies to H. P. Lovecraft

and nods to Neil Gaiman