“Flesh that is yours shall Z’garh Khrl’ur bestow. Inside you Kragn dwells, and to Kragn shall you return.”
Dylan’s first thought when he peered through the window was: Why have they dragged me to this dump? But when he pushed into the shop and the bell tinkled, he couldn’t help but smile. The bell was a grinning metal skull hanging from a twisted wire noose.
“Cool, hey?” chirped Mike behind him – which was enough to immediately make it uncool.
Dylan glanced around. Quorn Fine Arts and Antiquities was a dim and musty dungeon, crammed with dark furniture, dated paintings, yellowed books, fluted glassware and other assorted junk. A dozen or so clocks ticked and tocked in the darkness, adding to the stifling sense of a bygone age.
Dust tickled Dylan’s nose and he sneezed fast and hard, sending more dust into the air. Rubbing his nose on his sleeve, his eyes landed on a stuffed fox, its glass eyes on the lookout for its next meal. Behind the fox was a mouldy ferret that was destined to spend eternity with its teeth buried in a rat.
His father dropped a heavy hand on his shoulder. “This way,” he said to his wife, moving Dylan aside like a hat stand.
Dylan glanced at his mother, who was having one of her moods. She’d dressed in a plain grey sack, pulled in at the waist by a black belt, the outfit completed by an over-sized blue denim jacket. Her brown hair was held back with an elastic band and tucked behind her ears. Her face was pale and expressionless as she stared past Mike, past the jumble of merchandise, through the shop walls, to something on the other side. She’d spent all morning in bed, and her eyes looked like they wished they were back there.
Mike was compensating by being annoyingly cheerful. It was the only tool in his toolbox, and he could always be relied upon to bring it out when someone was feeling down. It never worked, but he seemed to believe the universe depended on him maintaining a state of emotional equilibrium to keep their dysfunctional family from imploding.
Trailing behind them, Dylan was startled by the sight of a skinny youth with collar-length black hair and pimply white skin scowling at him. It took him a second to realise it was his reflection in a mirror. The boy in the glass was dressed all in black, and looked as weary and morose as his mother. His lip was curled, his eyes half-closed. Dylan hardly recognised himself.
Dropping his eyes, he turned away, unnerved by the encounter, and wishing suddenly, like his mother, that he was back home in bed.
Suddenly his father cried, “Voilà!” and did an improvised tap dance. He ended with his open hand pointing at a dusty sideboard that looked as if it had seen better days. His mouth opened in a huge grin.
“Is that…?” began Lauren, her eyes coming back into focus.
Mike nodded with the enthusiasm of a pre-schooler.
“All the way out here?”
He lifted his shoulders.
“It’s not really Hepplewhite. Must be repro.”
“You’re the expert.”
Lauren, all business now, went to inspect it. “Looks authentic.” She pulled open a drawer, which was lined with a square of paper printed with strawberries.
Brought to life by this sudden reminder of her past, she waved Dylan over. “Come and see what your father’s found.”
Dylan slouched towards her. Sometimes he resented her mood swings even more than her depression. At least when she was depressed, he knew how to take care of her; they were allies in their misery; they understood each other. When she was on a high, she tried to act like his mother, and that never worked out well. Not after all those years they’d spent apart – all those lost, unhappy, resentful years of being little more than strangers.
Lauren had pulled open every drawer, and was now on her hands and knees, checking underneath it.
Mike folded his arms. “Mr Waite assured me it’s Hepplewhite. I said you’d know straight away if it wasn’t. He almost bit my head off when I said that.” He glanced around. “– bit my kneecaps off, more like it,” he corrected with a smile.
Dylan watched as his mother stroked a large dent near the bottom right corner. The sideboard was evoking memories of something, a thing or place from happier times. The movement of her fingers seemed like something personal, something he shouldn’t be watching, but he couldn’t drag his eyes away.
“Happy Anniversary!” cried Mike, raising his hands.
Lauren half smiled. “This is incredible,” she gushed, pushing herself to her feet. “It’s not in bad condition, considering. Nothing that can’t be restored.”
“I asked Mr Waite to keep his eye out, and this is what he came up with.”
“It’s like my grandmother’s. I haven’t seen one close to it since she died.”
“I remember. Her pride and joy.”
“Can we afford it? This is an expensive piece.”
“You can’t put a price on memories.” He coughed into his fist. “By the way, we’re having baked beans on toast for dinner for the next six months.”
Dylan, bored by their conversation, fell into an armchair, sending another cloud of dust puffing into the air. Leaning forward, he choked and sputtered as the dust settled in his lungs. When the fit was over, he reached out and grabbed the nearest distraction: a greenish-brown statue. Sliding down in his seat, he raised the statue above his head, turned it around and upside down, held it at a distance and squinted at it.
The statue was carved from a single block of stone, and felt cold to the touch. It was in the shape of a bloated monster, a maggoty blob with large, ugly pustules covering its lumpy body. It had eight fat, arm-like appendages, four on each side. Four eyes sat above a huge flabby mouth. The thing was squatting on a black pillar, hunched forward, two of its arms resting over its bulging belly. Its black eyes bored into Dylan as if it knew him and hated him. Dylan stroked its cold head.
Behind him, unheard and unseen, a white-haired figure in a rumpled brown suit emerged from the back office. The man was short and thin, with rounded shoulders, a moon face and receding hairline. His brow was thick and arched, his ancient skin mottled and scored with deep lines and furrows. His green eyes were set deep inside his skull.
At the counter, the man collected a ceremonial knife with a gold, jewel-studded handle and long, curved blade. The knife was heavy, and seemed to weigh him down as he approached the armchair.
Preoccupied with the statue, Dylan didn’t notice him. The man stopped beside him.
“Who do we have here?”
Dylan jumped in fright. “Jesus Christ! Give me a heart attack, why don’t you?”
“Mr Waite!” cried Mike. “Hi! That’s just Dylan.”
Dylan went back to playing with the statue, making it walk along the arm of the chair. “Just me, just Mr Nobody,” he said under his breath.
“Lauren,” said Mike, joining his wife, “this is Wilfred Waite.”
Wilfred ignored them. He was peering down at Dylan, his eyes like marbles, a smile tugging at his thin purple lips. In fact, everyone was looking at Dylan, at his amateur puppet show.
“You came,” declared Wilfred.
His breath stank like something had died and rotted in his lungs. Dylan glanced up at him. The whites of his eyes were tinged with yellow, the skin around them so dark it was almost black. His face and hands were brown with liver spots, and there were scabs on his forehead that reminded Dylan of the fungus that grows on fallen trees. In old Bert’s words, the shopkeeper looked like death warmed up.
“Yessir, here we are,” chirped Mike. “Today’s the big day.”
“Not you,” snapped Wilfred, hardly bothering to turn his head. “Your boy.” He lowered his voice to a hoarse whisper, and said to Dylan, “I knew you would come.”
Dylan cringed at the old man’s creepiness, at the uncomfortable proximity of his bent body and the stench of mothballs and stale sweat that came off his clothes. He turned to his father with a mute plea for help, but Mike looked as confused as he was.
“Your boy,” said Wilfred Waite, turning to Mike at last, “is the spitting image of me when I was a lad.”
“A century ago,” muttered Dylan.
“Dylan!” scolded his mother.
But Wilfred was nonplussed. “Two, to be exact,” he corrected.
He eyed the statue, and said in a voice that was almost a chant, “Flesh that is yours shall Z’garh Khrl’ur bestow. Inside you Kragn dwells, and to Kragn shall you return.”
Dylan frowned at the old man’s words. He pushed himself up in the chair.
“You have excellent taste, young man,” continued Wilfred. “That is the great Kragn Z’garh Khrl’ur.”
“The great what?” He turned over the price tag. “Twelve hundred bucks?”
“It’s an antiquity.”
“It’s grotesque,” said Mike.
“What’s it supposed to be?” asked Lauren.
“Kragn is The One Who Came Before,” explained Wilfred, hobbling towards a display cabinet. He lifted the glass top and placed the knife inside. “Z’garh Khrl’ur bides His time in serene contemplation, served by the Eternal Priests, awaiting the day of reckoning when He will tire of His divine benevolence and initiate the Reclamation.”
“What’s that?” asked Dylan.
“The Reclamation? It’s means reclaiming.”
“Yeah – duh … but what’s this thing wanting to reclaim?”
Wilfred straightened his back. “Everything.”
Dylan smirked at the old man’s melodramatic tone. There was the glow of fever in his green-yellow eyes, and he was telling the story of this monster as if he actually believed it.
He sniffed the statue’s head. It smelt like stale seaweed. “What does its name mean?”
“Clever child,” purred Wilfred. “The name does have meaning, though it goes without saying it has no equivalent in any earthly language. The closest interpretation of Z’garh Khrl’ur would be ‘Bringer of the Dark’.”
“That doesn’t sound so scary.”
“It’s a promise, boy, not a threat.”
When Dylan looked at him questioningly, he closed the lid of the display cabinet and returned to the armchair.
“Kragn ruled the sublime order before this false universe began,” he explained. “He despises what has become, and when He so chooses, shall return time, space, matter and energy to the order of Before. In the darkness that preceded the dawn of our delusive reality lies Kragn’s glory and our salvation.”
“You’re saying this thing lived before the Big Bang?”
Wilfred closed his eyes.
“That’s stupid. There was nothing before the Big Bang.”
The old man’s eyes shot open. “The only stupidity is ignorance and fear, boy. There was indeed another reality – the only true reality – a perfect order surpassing anything now in existence within this turgid mess you call the universe.” He glared down at Dylan, trembling with mania. “Greater than your puny mind could ever conceive of, greater than any human mind can conceive, where reality was dark order, and Kragn reigned supreme above all.”
“That’s enough chatter, Dylan,” interrupted his father, patting the sideboard. “We better make tracks before it starts raining again. Are we ready?” he asked Lauren.
“Assuming for a moment that was true,” resumed Dylan, enjoying the debate he felt he was winning, “nothing could have survived the Big Bang. It was, like, a gazillion degrees.”
“You sound so certain for someone so young.”
Wilfred smiled at him, revealing crooked brown teeth. “No, it’s magic.”
“Now you’re taking the piss,” said Dylan, waving the statue in his face.
“Put that thing down,” said Mike. “Before you break it, and I have to pay for it.”
Dylan ignored him. “If this thing is almighty enough to destroy the universe, what’s it doing ‘biding its time’ or whatever you said it was doing?”
“Biding time is what we all must do if we are to achieve our deepest desires. Of course, I wouldn’t expect a mere child to understand that. Mr Gates,” sang Wilfred, surrendering the fight, “I trust you will be treating the lovely wife to a special dinner tonight?”
Mike pulled his eyes away from his insolent son. “Only the best for the best.”
“Twenty-five years if I recall correctly.”
“You have a good memory, Mr Waite.”
“That’s silver. Would I be correct in hazarding a guess you’ll be dining silver service?”
“Good suggestion. Never thought of that.”
“Maybe. We’ll have to see.”
Dylan, angry the old man was now ignoring him, said, “They’re going to Café Mellow.”
“Dylan!” barked his father. “It’s supposed to be a secret!”
“Mike, please,” breathed Lauren, placing a hand on his arm. “I already knew. He’s not spoiling anything.”
“I don’t … arrgh!” Mike turned back to the sideboard. “Get up, Dylan,” he grunted over his shoulder. “We better get this thing in the truck, or we’ll be late for the secret dinner I’ve been planning for the past two months!”
Dylan pushed himself out of the armchair, statue in hand, and stood with rounded shoulders as his father accompanied Wilfred to the counter and completed the sale. He continued watching as his father returned to the sideboard. His mother went to the other end to help him lift it.
Mike straightened. “Dylan, are you just gonna stand there and let your mother drag this thing out of the shop?”
He gave a small shrug.
“Put that thing down, and get over here.”
“How about we all help?” suggested Lauren.
Dylan stood stroking the statue of Kragn, intrigued by the notion that something might have existed before this universe began. And there were people around who believed it had found its way into our reality. Wilfred sidled up to him. “The restaurant,” he murmured, taking the statue from him and dropping it into the armchair. “Did you mean Café Merlot?”