Sean Patrick Hazlett has sold thirty short stories, three reprints, and a collection but he’s just getting started. He is a Writers of the Future winner.
The box from the National Archives arrived with the blistering wind and driving snow of late December. Miranda nearly set the package aside until she remembered Damien’s fanatical warnings not to open it. The bastard still hadn’t signed the divorce papers, so she took a peek anyway. With scissors, she carefully cut the packing tape so she could later cover her tracks.
Tentatively dipping her hand into a sea of foam peanuts, Miranda lifted a rectangular object wrapped in parcel paper from the box.
She hesitated, worried that if she went any further, Damien would know she’d broken the seal.
Screw him, she decided, ripping open the packing paper with the wild abandon of a prisoner escaping a super max prison.
It was a book. And by the look of it, an antique. Its ragged leather cover stretched taut over a sturdy bone frame, conveying a sense of timelessness. The tome’s jagged edges could easily pierce skin. Inscriptions reminiscent of Egyptian hieroglyphs encircled a stylized eye etched on the cover’s upper left quadrant.
Curious, Miranda opened the book. The stench of rot overwhelmed her. Turning her head, she gagged. Pepper, her coal black German shepherd, growled at the artifact. But Miranda refused to let its odor deter her.
The book’s blank pages felt smooth and durable like vellum. A sequence suddenly materialized on the first page. With a doctorate in mathematics, Miranda instantly recognized the pattern as a Fibonacci sequence.
She found the experience unsettling. Not only was the book writing itself, but it was populating its pages with Arabic numerals, a system invented over two millennia after Egypt’s Old Kingdom. There was also something fundamental in the book’s choice of the Fibonacci sequence. It was a pattern rife in nature, characterizing phenomena as diverse as the branching of trees to the structure of a nautilus shell to the spiraling of galaxies.
As Miranda read further, the pages revealed more complex mathematical concepts ranging from Fourier transforms to fractional derivatives to elliptic curves. It was as if the text were establishing a baseline of her mathematical competence.
Soon, the tome had exhausted her encyclopedic knowledge of advanced mathematics, unveiling concepts just beyond its current frontiers.
The book mesmerized her.
The ringing cell phone jolted Miranda from her trance, jamming her back into her own mundane reality. She nearly threw her smartphone across the room.
On the third ring, she answered, “What?”
“This is Seth Rosenblatt of Rosenblatt, Wilson, and Yablonsky. Is Miranda available?”
She rolled her eyes. “This is Miranda.”
“Oh, great,” he said, his tone indicating anything but. “I have a few questions regarding this divorce settlement. I don’t think Damien should sign it as is.”
Struggling to control her temper, Miranda cut him off. “Not now. Call Robert Menendez, my lawyer. He’ll handle this.”
“I’m sorry, Misses Adams, but I need your personal approval on several items.”
He was trying to take advantage of her, and she knew it. “It’s Doctor Lovko, not Misses Adams. And, like I said, don’t talk to me, talk to my lawyer.”
“But Misses…ah…Doctor Lovko, I must insist…”
She hung up the phone. When she glanced at the clock, five hours had passed since she’d begun reading the tome.
Reaching for the book, she opened it to where she’d left off, anxious to uncover more of its secrets. But all she saw was a blank page. Confounded, she rifled through the book, but found nothing. She cursed Rosenblatt and went to sleep.
* * *
That night, Miranda slept in fits and starts. When sleep did come, visions she could only describe as dreamscapes of unreality flooded her consciousness. Disembodied tongues whispered to her from beyond, urging her to press onward, to read further. But she had no idea how to unlock the tome’s mysteries.
A phone call woke her from her restless slumber. She opened her eyes, realizing she’d never left her living room. The book still rested in her lap.
The phone rang again. The light shone brightly through her windows. Checking her watch, she realized nearly eighteen hours had passed.
“Hello?” she answered.
“Miranda, this is Damien. Did you get the package yet?”
She hesitated, then looked down at the tome, wondering what to say. She needed more time. “No,” she lied, “but I’ll call you as soon as I receive it.”
“Okay, but it’s really important. Let me know the instant it’s delivered. And whatever you do, don’t open it. It’s very old, and I don’t want it damaged.”
A little late for that, Miranda thought. “Understood. By the way, did you sign the papers yet?”
An awkward pause.
“I thought we were gonna sit down with Seth Rosenblatt on Friday. Didn’t you set that up?”
“Why’s that my responsibility? You requested the meeting. Look, why don’t you have him review the documents and send his edits to my lawyer? Then you can sign it. Sound like a plan?”
“Sure,” he said before hanging up.
Damien was so self-centered and always fussing over trivial things. Frustrated, Miranda pounded her fist on the artifact. A stab of pain shot through her hand. Blood dripped onto the tome’s sharp bony ridges.
“Dammit!” she yelled.
She grabbed the book and stood up. It slipped from her bloody fingers. When it landed, it opened to the page where she’d left off. A drop of blood smeared the page. Letters formed, congealing into words, and words resolved into sentences.
* * *
Miranda cancelled her appointments and called in sick to study the ancient tome. It was the end of the semester. A meticulous planner, she’d already scored her final exams and assigned grades. Her nephew, Tommy, was due to visit her in less than two weeks, but she was confident she’d be finished with the book by then.
Moving beyond mathematics, the book began to reveal the greater mysteries of the cosmos. Miranda now contemplated what before had been unfathomable, expanding her consciousness and consuming knowledge like a locust swarm rampaging on a limitless ethereal plane.
Almost as soon as the book started sharing its secrets, it stopped. So Miranda bled herself to coax the tome to eke out more. Yet each successive cut yielded fewer and fewer sentences until a single drop could barely entice the stingy artifact to trickle out a handful of words.
Her bloodletting left her dizzy, unsure of her surroundings, and caught between reality and unreality. She had an uncanny suspicion that others watched her with hungry eyes. Disembodied presences lurked at the edge of her vision, imploring her to let them in.
Pepper growled in their direction and seemed increasingly uneasy in Miranda’s presence.
She gazed longingly at Pepper.
Miranda needed more blood.
* * *
Miranda hadn’t slept in four days, her desperation deepening with each passing moment. She sweated profusely and her nails had turned a bruised blue. She feared that any more blood loss would put her into hypovolemic shock. Yet she also experienced an odd sense of empowerment, her consciousness operating on a higher plane.
Through the fraying curtain between realms, discarnate entities whispered to her, wheedling her to draw the summoning circle someplace dark, someplace deep, someplace hidden from the light of the stars. All would be revealed, if only she’d let them in.
Coating the cellar floor in her own sickly blood, she followed their instructions to the letter.
Cloaked in darkness, she sat in the center of the summoning circle, chanting in alien tongues. The entities came ever closer, hissing from the void. Shapeless forms swirled around her, dulling her senses.
They tempted her with grandiose visions of the godhead, murmuring of the ability to know the future and change the past; to comprehend the nonlinearity of time. They showed her parallel timelines and alternate dimensions. They shared a glimpse of the power to create worlds and the fearsome might to destroy them.
If only she did what they asked, they’d shepherd her through the veil of existence toward the next stage in her enlightenment. She’d become one of them, one with them. A god holding dominion over a ceaseless cosmos.
As quickly as the god forms appeared, they vanished like fog in sunlight.
Miranda woke hours later, her vitality drained. She stumbled upstairs and prepared for the next step in her evolution.
* * *
Miranda worried that if she continued to fuel the book with her blood, she’d die before extracting its secrets. While the entities had shown her another way, it was a choice she could barely stomach. Yet from the edges of reality, the voices whispered to her, urging her along the one path to transcendence.
The ringing doorbell roused Miranda from her stupor. She struggled to rise from her bed.
“I’m coming!” she croaked with as much strength as she could muster, wheezing from the effort. She staggered onto her feet, the bones of her shaky, rail-thin legs creaking. Draping her azure bathrobe over her now frail frame, she lumbered downstairs.
She peered out her window to find Damien standing outside in a Brioni suit, obsessively checking his Patek Philippe watch.
Miranda girded herself for a fight as she opened the door.
“Finally!” he said in a tone more suited for a motorist who’d just cut him off on Route 128. Once Damien saw her, his outrage gave way to an expression of concern.
Miranda cut straight to the point. “What do you want?”
“My God, Miranda, what happened?”
“What do you mean?”
“I…I don’t know where to begin,” he stammered. “Everything all right?”
Damien had never been good about expressing himself. He’d always been so passive, so indirect. And it drove her mad. “Stop pretending to care. Tell me why you’re really here.”
He stared at her for some time. “All right. But you have to promise to tell me what’s been going on with you. To be honest, you look really sick.”
“Fine, I’ll update you on my life, such as it is.”
Apparently satisfied with her answer, he continued. “When I called you a week ago, you told me my package hadn’t arrived. Well, I reached out to the National Archives this morning, and they assured me that FedEx delivered it here ten days ago. Did you somehow miss it?”
That was Damien’s passive-aggressive way of calling her a liar. And the fact that he was right annoyed her to no end.
Miranda struggled between coming clean or perpetuating the lie. If she risked telling him the truth now, she might lose the artifact.
She shrugged. “You got me. It’s here. I wanted to hold onto it until you signed the papers, which, by the way, you still haven’t.”
He nodded. “Fair enough. Go get them. I’ll sign them now.”
It wasn’t the response Miranda had expected or hoped for. “Don’t you need Seth Rosenblatt to review them first?” she asked, playing for time.
“No. I trust you. Let’s get this over with. But what I really wanna do is examine the artifact.”
This wasn’t going well at all. He couldn’t have the book. There was simply no way she’d let him have it. She was too close. She only needed a few more days. If only she could stall him a little longer.
“Okay,” she said. “Why don’t you come in for coffee? I’ll get the papers.”
He smiled. “And the artifact.”
The voices whispered to her, buzzing like wasps inside her head. “Yes. Of course.”
He followed her into the living room and took a seat on the couch. He scrunched up his face. “When’s the last time you cleaned?”
“Let me start brewing the coffee,” she said, ignoring his allusion to the odor that permeated her home. “I’ll also grab the papers.”
As she turned toward the kitchen, he put his hand on her arm. His eyes focused on the scars on her hand from her bloodletting. “Miranda, I’m concerned about you. Your hand’s all torn up. You’ve clearly dropped a ton of weight, despite your always having been rather thin. Your hair’s falling out. It looks like you’ve been through hell. There something you wanna tell me?”
Cancer. He probably thought she had cancer.
“Why are you so concerned all of a sudden? You certainly weren’t worried about my wellbeing when you fucked Tina.” She pushed him away and trudged toward the kitchen. She started brewing some coffee and then went to her study to retrieve the documents.
The voices from the ether were growing louder, more insistent, crowding out her thoughts.
She tried to shut them out by focusing on the tasks at hand. Carrying the divorce papers into the living room, she dropped them and a pen into Damien’s lap. “Sign these. I’ll get the book.”
He glowered. “How did you know it was a book? You didn’t open it, did you?” His tone straddled a razor-thin line between panic and anger.
“You got me,” she said. “Don’t worry. I didn’t damage it. I was just curious why you were so obsessed with it.”
“Okay,” he said, visibly shaken by her revelation. “Can I see it?”
“Sure. As soon as you sign those papers.”
“Oh, right.” He rifled through the documents and began signing them.
“Let me check on the coffee, then I’ll get the book. Do you know much about its history?” she said, walking out of the room.
Damien’s mood seemed to flip-flop from hysteria to excitement. “Oh, I spent years investigating an obscure letter General Patton sent his wife, Beatrice, during the Second World War that mentioned an odd relic captured from German forces in North Africa. Before that, the grimoire’s history is hazy, but based on the cover’s inscriptions, it harkens back to Egypt’s Old Kingdom.”
She grabbed a knife and crockpot, and walked back into the room, approaching Damien from behind. “How can you be so sure?”
“Isn’t it obvious from the Eye of Thoth on the cover?” he said, tilting his head back toward her.
“Eye of Thoth?” she said in a half-hearted attempt to deflect his attention.
He regarded the crockpot and knife with apparent confusion, but continued. “In Egyptian mythology, the Eye of Thoth symbolized the moon, and the god, Thoth, was associated with magic, writing, and judgment of the dead.”
She walked up to the couch and stood directly behind him. She handed him the crockpot. “Put this on your lap.”
He seemed baffled. “What’s that for?”
From behind, she cupped his chin in her left hand and slit his throat with her right. Blood fountained from his neck, pulsing with the rhythm of his heartbeat. He stumbled upward, his eyes wide with shock. He opened his mouth to speak, but could only gurgle as he choked on his blood. He struggled to maintain his balance.
A chorus of voices wailed in a discordant symphony, but one voice—the only one that mattered—screamed in regret.
Damien collapsed. His arms reached out to Miranda.
Her heart raced. Tears streamed down her cheeks. What had she done?
Bloody divorce papers underscored the gravity of her sin. Yet otherworldly voices soothed her, convincing her she no longer needed the documents.
Death had done its part.
The discarnate voices admonished her not to waste the man’s life force. Calmed by these phantoms, Miranda obeyed, gripping Damien’s hair and settling his gaping wound over the crockpot for the blood harvest.
She shook afterward, terrified of what she’d done. But her guilt succumbed to self-preservation. Miranda slumped Damien’s corpse onto a dolly and wheeled it into her garage, dismembering the body with a circular saw. When she’d finished, she fed the remains to Pepper.
That night, she painted the grimoire’s pages in her dead husband’s blood.
* * *
The maggots came first, squirming from beneath the cellar door and into Miranda’s kitchen. The rats followed, rattling the walls as they scurried through them, chewing and scratching. Then the crows descended on her home, covering the oaks and maples in her yard in a kudzu-like shroud.
The night before, she’d been frustrated when, after so much blood and human sacrifice, the book had chosen to show her a mundane equation she’d mastered as a college sophomore.
The logistic algorithm was a simple differential equation biologists used to predict population growth. Miranda hypothesized that the increase of these vermin populations was linked to it, but there were so many variables that testing her hunch was impossible. She couldn’t see the rats in the walls, the maggots were too innumerable to tally, and the crows never stayed in one place long enough to count. But when the vagrants began arriving, shuffling in the snow outside her doors, her theory proved right. The number of drifters ebbed and flowed with the logistic equation’s mathematical certitude.
Plucked from the worst of Cambridge’s and Boston’s homeless populations, the vagrants loitered menacingly outside, surrounding her home. As individuals, they appeared mentally unstable; together, they acted as a single organism.
On the rare occasion Miranda left her home, they would spread like ripples from a stone splashing in a fetid pond. She saw the rabble’s arrival as the first tangible sign the godhead was within her grasp. They worshipped her; she was their god; her house, their church. And the fount of her power emanated from the cellar, a place she hadn’t ventured to since the summoning.
Miranda continued to race through the grimoire. She was on the verge of reaching its conclusion. But the closer she got to the end, the more pages she had to read. Each page was thinner than the previous one. The grimoire refused to end.
It was asymptotic agony.
Yet still she read. She read until her eyes were soaked in blood.
* * *
The next night, a vagrant entered her home unbidden and descended into the cellar, never to return. The following evening, another repeated this grim ritual, fueling the arcane writing on the grimoire’s ever-thinning pages. But with each new offering, new writing appeared on fewer pages until, by the sixth day, the sacrifice produced only a few words.
Tina phoned on the seventh day.
“Hello, Miranda? I know this is awkward, but have you seen Damien? He’s been missing for a week. I’ve asked everyone else.”
Miranda hesitated. Her first impulse was to lie to the homewrecker, to deny that Damien had visited. But the discarnate shades counseled her to tell a more twisted truth. “Yes, he’s here,” she said, clouding her deceit with the smoke of omission.
“What? Why’s he there? I’ve been trying to reach him, but he never answers,” Tina whined.
“Not my problem,” Miranda said with venom. “You’ll have to come here and see for yourself.” She hung up.
Thirty minutes later, Tina’s late model Audi screeched to a halt in front of Miranda’s residence. A woman with long, sinuous auburn hair and golden hoop earrings stomped toward the front door in skinny jeans and a black halter top.
Miranda watched her from the window, waiting. She could hear Tina huffing with frustration as she pounded on the door.
When Miranda opened it, Tina’s eyes widened. “What happened to you?”
“You can find your lover in the cellar.”
As Tina entered, her look of surprise shifted to fear as she saw the gauntlet of ten filthy vagrants lining the hall. Before she could scream, a shower of daggers descended on her.
The vagrants harvested Tina’s blood in black plastic buckets. She was still thrashing and wailing when they lowered her into the cellar. Miranda could feel the discarnate entities pushing through the increasingly diaphanous veil separating her world from theirs as they devoured Tina’s essence in the festering blackness.
Tina’s blood fueled the next stage in Miranda’s enlightenment. In her mind’s eye, she could project her consciousness everywhere and nowhere, never and always. It wouldn’t be long now. They were coming, and with them, her anointment. She could taste the power.
She was so close, only a hair’s breadth away. She turned the page, then another, basking in forbidden lore.
Soon it would be all hers. Very soon.
* * *
Shadows enveloped Miranda as she wallowed in oscillating dreamscapes in quantum superposition with Miranda’s own reality. The entities had become incarnate, occupying the skins of Miranda’s worshippers. She could feel herself dissipating, becoming both ethereal shadow and supreme consciousness.
She turned the page.
But no matter how many pages she turned, she was always one page from the end. The pages continued to fray and thin. It was as if they were a physical manifestation of the weakening membrane separating her reality from the outer reaches of unreality.
She was desperate to reach the godhead. She needed to reach the godhead. The godhead was her only hope.
Then the solution presented itself in crystal clarity. How had she not seen it from the very beginning? The pages, they’d always been the key. Their texture had always seemed so familiar, so close. And they bore the mark of great sacrifice. If she were to progress further, she needed to offer one of her own.
The ringing doorbell lurched Miranda out of her daze. As she shifted from unreality to reality, she experienced a twinge of horror.
Her nephew, Tommy, waited at the door.
Part of her resisted the urge, but it paled in comparison to what lay across the threshold of the grimoire’s final page. She knew the path; she understood what had to be done.
Miranda’s worshippers dragged Tommy into the house. The ten year old screamed and flailed. She waited in the kitchen. Three more worshippers clenched their knives in preparation for the final ritual, the last stage of her metamorphosis.
They bound Tommy to a chair opposite hers. He cried, “Aunt Miranda, they’re hurting me!”
Miranda sat with the serene knowledge that by opening her dimension, she’d unlock the gate to godhood.
Her followers sharpened their knives. Transcendence required both a sacrifice and a witness.
An acolyte strapped Miranda to her chair and flayed her alive. The pain was exquisite, and the last she’d ever feel before she left her mortal coil.
As Miranda had instructed, the acolyte infused Miranda’s flesh into the grimoire.
The grimoire reached out to Miranda as she sought infinity. Pushing beyond the envelope of reality, she knew eternity. Time was nonlinear; all possibilities, instantaneous. She held them all in her mind’s eye simultaneously, with perfect clarity.
She was the harbinger of all that was to come, of all that was, and of all that is. She reached forward from the future and backward into the past.
She unwound the dream.
She was transcendent.
The book slammed shut. A foul wind reeking of decay swirled around Miranda’s dying body. She’d never suffered more intense pain.
Now that the entities were free, they ended the farce.
Tommy stopped crying and smiled. Eyes black as obsidian were the last things Miranda ever saw.
Copyright © 2018 by Sean Patrick Hazlett