The Stepping Stone Cycle

An episodic series of cosmic horror novellas by the acclaimed author of The Bridge Chronicles

The color beige filled the entirety of his vision, all beige, a bland colorlessness. No, not all, not everything. There. A tiny spot just out of reach. Mold? What is mold? Stain? Is that a stain? Tiny. Not even as big as his fingernail. Raise his hand to compare the size of his fingernail to the size of that dark spot on the… is that a wall? Fuzzy. He can’t seem to find the outer bounds of his perception only that ocean of inert beige and that tiny spot, that infinitesimal spot of darkness, that stain of moisture or age or imperfection of material. Is it a stain? Has it grown since he began looking at it? When did he begin to look at it? Why did he begin to look at it and why can’t he take his eyes off of it? Are these eyes through which he sees? Does he even see at all? A thin film seems to cover his eyes, seems to make it difficult to maintain focus on such an inconsequential detail. He cannot look away. These are his eyes. That is his hand out in front of him, comparing the size of his immaculately trimmed nail with that of the stain, that maddening stain on the sky of beige, this universe star scape of blandness corrupted by a speck of nauseating moisture. 

Blink. That is a wall. There’s the corner, joining this wall with another wall to its… right? Is that the right? Yes, right. That’s the correct word. He remembers that word. He wants to see where that wall to the right leads but he cannot take his eyes or his mind off of that spot. Did that spot just grow? Surely whoever has put him here could have removed that spot by now for as long as he’s been here. How long has he been here? He does not know. All he knows is that spot. If his eyes were hands, he would have dug that spot out of the wall by now but his hands don’t seem to want to take up the challenge. He studies the hands. Not particularly strong looking hands, not too hairy, fingers bearing little evidence of physical labor. He can move his eyes but his head will not follow. Something bright reflects off of the wall to the right, a lamp or a window or something giving off a great deal of light just out of the edge of his vision. He wants to see that light, wants to turn his head to gather in as much of that light as he can, to drown out the darkness of that spot, the black void of the time before the spot, of whatever brought him here but he can’t. 

Blink. His head turns to the right. There it is, there is that thing his mind calls light. A window, it’s a window not a lamp. It’s a window with a thin gauzy material covering it and a pattern of four crosses shading the frame of that delicious light. He does not like those crosses, they mean something to him but he cannot remember what. His hands reach down beside him to grip a cloth, sheets that he balls into his fists and brings to his face. A deep breath through his nose fills his senses with the stench of bleach and despair. He quickly drops the sheets at his side and begins to feel the skin beside his nose, to feel what must be his face. Just below the nose, a prickly growth of hair scratches his skin and he cups his chin in that hand, feeling the hair surround his face up to his ears. More hair on his head in tousled unkempt clumps, longer than it should be the hair reaches down his neck in wavy curls all the way to his shoulders. He’s wearing something on his shoulders that feels as uncomfortable as the sheets did to his touch, a dry, scaly itchiness. In the very back at the top of his spine, the garment opens underneath a knot of some kind of string. A gown, this is called a gown.

They put gowns on you in a hospital. A hospital is somewhere sick people go, he knows this, and he remembers that word. Is he hurt? Is that why he can’t remember what he should be called, what he should call himself? Something is wrong with his head. He cannot gather his thoughts and the memory of that stain keeps forcing his eyes back upwards. Even a glimpse of that stain is painful to him now, that tiny drop that his eyes refuse to linger on anymore but are nonetheless drawn back to repeatedly. There is something in that spot, something in that stain he will not face. Something before that stain came into his existence that makes his eyes dart back to that window and its delicious light. The bars on his window, those four dark crosses like an oil slick spreading on the still waters of light, they diminish the light in his eyes. They frighten him. Bars on the window of a hospital aren’t put there to keep things out; they are put there to keep him in.

His head snaps to a sound on his left. The latch on a door has just been turned and the door opens to reveal an overweight man, shorter than himself, carrying a tray into the room while whistling a tune that he vaguely recognizes. The sounds of the notes make the insides of his ears vibrate painfully but the pain is a good one, the pain of memory, of songs he’s heard before and danced to. What is dancing? Who did he dance with? He knows he danced with someone. The man with the tray puts the tray on a table he had not noticed before and begins to lay out instruments next to the tray one by one, silvery, shiny things that he cannot give name to. The man is not paying attention to him. His lips, his mouth begin to move as if given their own directions from somewhere outside of himself. Words begin to form, the first words he has ever spoken. 

“Not… stepping… I… I… I… not… stone,” he mutters. 

The orderly drops the fork on the table and it clatters nosily to the floor in one, two, three bounces before settling to a halt. The orderly’s eyes grow wide, a vaguely animalistic expression of fear and surprise that makes his face appear lizard like. 

“That’s my song. You’re singing my song. You can talk.” He looks over his shoulder at someone outside the door. “Craig? You better call up Dr. Dyer. I think our patient is talking.”

First Stone

Books by Gary A. Ballard

Under the Amoral Bridge  The Know Circuit  if [tribe] =  The Long and the Short Swords Reclamation  Tales from the Bridge Chronicles First Stone The Metal Black - Episode 2 of The Stepping Stone Cycle - Cosmic Horror Drowned

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