The Call Of The Golden Gate
by Daniel Powell
I am an old man. In that way I suppose I do represent a miracle. Most who survive the jump die within five years–not from suicide, but from complications of their injuries.
There have been forty-six of us since the bridge was finished in 1937. I used to wonder if the others saw anything in the depths of that frigid water. Now I know the truth.
There was a man–a scholar–who claimed to have identified the monstrous creature. His credentials to make such a claim were, by his own admission, questionable. Still . . . a significant part of me believes him. What are my alternatives? I saw the thing.
Of the forty-six who have survived the fall, eight of us are still breathing. Some lay in hospital beds, connected to ventilators. Others wheel themselves up and down the bustling streets of the Haight-Ashbury district, pan-handling and protesting. One wears a crisp Italian suit and diamond cufflinks, and spends each day in a downtown high rise. He’s often on television and will likely win a seat on the city council in the fall.
Me? Well, I spend my days filling this notebook with words. They’re fragile things, of course, these words. They almost never existed at all.
But they’re here just the same and I think that when I’m gone, this little book will reveal a different side of that remarkable road stretching out over the San Francisco Bay.
I have a room at the Aquino Rest Home, and I spend most of my days at Sutro Heights Park, feeding the gulls and scribbling in my journals. It helps to pass the time–to keep the ghosts at bay.
The nursing staff dotes on me. When my illness runs its course, I suppose it’ll be one of them that find this journal at my bedside. I’m sure they’ll poke around in here, seeing as how it’s marked “private” on the cover, plain as day. That’s an invitation to snoop, I figure.
And I want them to see. I want them to see it all. I am ninety years old, and I was forty-one when I jumped.
My wife’s name was Angela. Sometimes, when I wake in the middle of the night, I can smell her hair on the pillow near my head. My shrink called it “sensory memory suggestion.” I call it wishful thinking.
Her hair smelled like apple blossoms.
My daughter’s name was Eliza. She was tall for her age and she enjoyed having a catch with her old man when he could make time for it. They were a hell of a pair, Angie and Liz, and the thing that happened to them was an accident. It often is, right?
My problem is that I don’t sleep well. Sleep is a fleeting thing when you get to be my age. I’m lucky if I get five hours anymore. Often, I’ll lie awake in the long hours of the early morning and wonder if it could have turned out differently. That’s natural. The shrink called it “survivor’s guilt.” That term has taken on special meaning for me, given my . . . circumstances.
The girls didn’t razz me about skipping the trip. Angie understood the stress that I was under to finish the audit before the end of the quarter. And I think they wanted some time alone–a little “girls only” trip, I suppose.
They packed the station wagon and kissed me on the cheek and headed north, to Angie’s sister’s place in Eagle Point. We’d been up to Oregon a dozen times since Liz was born. I can’t remember us ever getting lost before–not a single time.
They left on December 18, 1963–a cold and miserable day. Swirling fog and freezing rain. The sky an angry wash of gray and silver. We didn’t find them until the following spring. Almost a full season had to pass before the snow receded.
As near as the investigators could tell, Angie made a simple wrong turn onto a BLM road; the gate was supposed to have been locked. They made the mistake in the early afternoon, and they were low on gas. A ranger named Bill Evans came out a few hours later and closed the gate. He slapped a padlock on it and when the crews went searching for my wife and my little girl, they didn’t check that road at all, thinking it had been secured. That pretty much sealed the deal.
Bill’s an alright guy, by the way. He came to see me while I was on the mend. And we had a couple of beers once in Ashland, just after the story finally ran its course in the national media. After getting his load on, he cried a little. He asked me to hit him–begged me, actually. He wanted me to hurt him, but he was plenty hurt already and it wasn’t going to make me feel any better, so I just up and left him there in that bar.
Okay, back to my story. If I wander too far into the fog of that period of my life, I might lose myself again. Can’t let that happen . . .
Angie did what I’m doing here. She wrote about their ordeal. They lasted thirteen days on that frozen road. Can you believe that? Thirteen days. It was exposure that finally took them. They were weak with hunger and the nights were frigid. Oregon winters are nothing to joke about, especially in the back country.
And my wife and little girl had been hopeful, right up until the very end. There will be light and warmth in the morning and we’ll be at the hospital by early afternoon. I know Richard has been worried sick about us. I feel terrible to have caused so much strain . . . That was her last entry, recorded in her beautiful handwriting–a hand that had grown shaky with exhaustion–on the back of an old envelope that held the wagon’s registration papers.
I’d taken a hotel room in Ashland while the authorities scoured the mountains of southern Oregon. Jim Connelly finished the Wells Fargo audit for me and I never worked another day at Langham and Foster. Everyone understood. I took a lump-sum retirement payment, began my daily prayer meetings at the church of Cutty Sark and, in that fashion, two years slid by like a tendril of cloud on a slight breeze.
I was feeding the birds on Baker Beach when I experienced the first little push. It came in the form of a note. The day was windy and I was drunk. I threw handfuls of stale bread into the air while a couple of gulls strained against the gusts, gorging themselves. The wind pushed the detritus of urban life over the sand–fast food wrappers, cellophane packaging, and stained receipts. One lodged against my ankle. I tried to kick it away, but it wouldn’t budge. Finally, I bent down to pluck it free.
That’s when I saw the message.
Block printing. I bent and retrieved it and stared at it for a long time. It had been months since I’d been so interested in a thing.
I will walk to the bridge. If one person smiles at me on the way, I will not jump.
I remember the wind stinging me, whipping sand against my cheeks and wringing tears from eyes that I thought had run dry years ago. I turned the note over, looking for anything–a name or an address. Anything that could tell me about the person that had written the note. But aside from that cryptic message, there was nothing.
A gust of wind snatched the scrap from my hand and I turned to watch it scamper over the sand. When I looked up again, there it was. The Golden Gate Bridge is truly one of the world’s marvels. It stands against the swirling fog like a sentry, guarding the entrance to the kingdom of San Francisco.
I will walk to the bridge.
I blinked in the wind and sand and stared at that monstrous span, and after a time I was finished with my bottle and the light had diminished. I bundled myself against the cold and caught a bus back to the house I’d once shared with Angie and Liz.
The pushes began to come from all over. I was riding the bus one warm day in April when I looked up at a passing billboard. I was soused–that was the common denominator back in those days–so I wasn’t sure if I’d read it right. I jumped up and ran to the back of the bus, straining to decipher the words as they shrank on the horizon.
Absolutely no reason except I have a toothache.
I sat, struck dumb by the message. What in God’s name could it mean? Two weeks later I received a piece of junk mail from the Publisher’s Clearinghouse. Angie had always delighted in opening those stupid things–she called them the fool’s gold sweepstakes–so I still went through the motions myself. This one, rather than letting me down gently, said simply: Survival of the fittest. Adios–unfit.
I poured myself a tumbler of scotch and retreated to the couch. I looked at that thing for thirty minutes, expecting the words to twist themselves into something resembling a logical message. It never happened, so I phoned the company that mailed the letter. It took twenty minutes to sort it out, but finally I had a manager on the phone who offered me a surprisingly sincere apology.
“I don’t know what to tell you, Mr. Allen. It had to have been a printing error. We proof these things a dozen times before they go out. You might want to hold onto that one, though. Could be worth something someday . . .”
I hung up and threw the thing in the garbage. I cracked a beer and walked out to the back yard. The grass was getting high but the day was warm and I needed some air. I paced for a while, trying to get things straight in my head. Where were the messages coming from? What the hell could they mean? After a time I got a headache, so I laid down in the grass and, within a minute or two, I fell asleep.
When I opened my eyes, I saw the thin stalks of tall grass bending in the breeze all around me. Then I noticed the radio. It was my neighbor’s. His name was Harry and he liked to listen to the Giants on KNBR. I blinked my eyes and concentrated on the rhythmic cadence of the play-by-play.
“Fans, welcome to Candlestick Park! We have a real treat for you this afternoon, as Juan Marichal will take the mound for your San Francisco Giants. Juan is 3-1 so far in this young season, with a microscopic 1.89 earned-run average, and tonight he’ll be opposed by the Dodgers’ staff ace, Sandy Koufax. Tonight’s game has been brought to you by the altar of the ancients, the Golden Gate Bridge! Hundreds have jumped into the fog that swirls in the emptiness beneath the iconic span, responding to the call of something primal–something deep inside their hearts and their guts. There’s a beauty in that call–a singular experience that only the Golden Gate can provide . . .”
They kept coming, those strange words. The announcer–his name was Lindsey . . . well, Lindsey something if memory serves–kept talking, the pitch of his voice rising and falling and wrapping those horrifying words in the innocence of a sunny afternoon at “the Stick.”
I went inside and barked a fat stream of scotch and beer and stomach bile into the kitchen sink. I washed my face in the bathroom, studying my image in the mirror. When I blinked my eyes, the bridge was what I saw in the darkness–like the afterimage recorded in the explosion of a popping flashbulb.
I took a tranquilizer that night and, if I had any dreams, they’d evaporated by the time I woke the next morning.
The biggest push came in the fall. I didn’t have the writing back then. You have to understand that. I spent my days feeding the gulls and riding the bus. And I drank. I avoided the mail and I didn’t read the papers, frightened by what I might find there.
The push came in the form of one Harold Wobber. I learned more about him from the scholar I mentioned earlier. He served in WWI and worked as a longshoreman after his time in the service was over.
He visited me in a nightmare.
I was feeding the gulls on Baker Beach when they suddenly spooked. I still had half a bag of bread, so it seemed pretty strange. I turned my gaze to the water’s edge and that’s when I saw what had frightened them off.
He had lurched out of the water, dressed in dungarees and a navy pea coat. His cap was askew on his head, partially obscuring the left side of what remained of his face.
The crabs had been at him. Maybe the sharks, too.
I just stood there, rooted in the sand like a clump of oysters. He shambled across the beach, a terrible, ruined thing. His limbs bowed out at strange angles. His arms flopped in their sockets. I caught the muted glint of a protruding rib when his coat flapped open after another awkward lurch.
When he was close enough for me to hear him speak, he whispered, laboring over the words, “This . . . is as far . . . as I go.”
I watched as he slowly turned to face the bridge in the distance. I trained my eyes skyward and only the bridge endured on the horizon, hulking and horrible. It seemed to be breathing. I told myself that it was just a trick of the light. Even in my dreams I clung to a shred of rationality. But the longer I gazed up at it, the more I was convinced. The bridge pulsed. It lived.
When I finally wrenched my eyes from the span, I turned to locate the man who had washed up on the shore, but he was gone.
I remember hysterically throwing my sheets from the bed when I finally awoke. They were like tentacles, fleshy things slicked through with slime and tipped with suction cups, trying to drag me down . . . down into a place utterly devoid of light.
I staggered into the kitchen for a glass of scotch and ended up drinking myself into oblivion. When I came to, I was sprawled on the living room floor in a lake of piss.
But I felt better than I had since I lost my wife and my little girl. It had taken me far longer than it should have, but I finally had a plan.
Wrapping up one’s affairs is a tiresome chore. I wonder if the shrinks have identified “survivor’s remorse,” because it’s both a yawn and a hell of a hassle to see that a person’s estate is minded properly.
I drafted a will. I cleaned up the house. I even made a couple of obtuse farewells, to the peripheral acquaintances of my previous life that still harbored some form of sympathy for me. Those were difficult, but only because I didn’t want to tip my hand and have some altruistic relative dip back into my life. I don’t think the thing I’d come to call my life–the drinking and wandering and riding the bus around town–would have held up under scrutiny.
I circled a date on the map. October 19th. There was nothing special about it–no symmetry or purpose or grand design behind its selection. But it was a goal and it was measurable, and I took comfort in those small things.
It rained on the morning of the 19th. By a little after nine a.m. it had dwindled to a gentle mist. I drank bourbon to quell the shakes and bundled up. I locked the place and didn’t spare it so much as a sideways glance on my trudge to the bus stop.
The streetlights were still glowing in front of my house. I remember that very clearly. I jumped on one of those dismal San Francisco days when the streetlights never blink off at all.
I bussed to the bridge and began the hike to its center. I avoided eye contact, my hands plunged deep in the pockets of my coat. The sky was gray and the water was gray and my skin was gray and the people that passed by me on either side did so in a gray blur.
And then I was there. I’d made it to the center of the great bridge. I took a nip of my pint and closed my eyes . . .
The question is simple.
Why this place? Why so many?
Why did Jack Arbogast drive all the way from St. Louis to fling himself from the Golden Gate Bridge?
Why did Ann Templeton, a girl who had been tagged most likely to appear in the movies by her high school classmates, take the Amtrak from Banff, Canada, to do the same thing?
Why have there been no confirmed suicides from the Bay Bridge? Not a single one?
“Idealism,” had been my shrink’s reply. “People tend to think of it as a positive place, Dick. In that way, what you did was really quite normal. People jump from the bridge because they believe it will transport them. They think of it as a portal–a door to another place. A better place.”
He’d always been full of shit. But he doesn’t know how accurate he was when it came to that little pearl of insight. A portal, he said. Boy, howdy . . .
When I got to the center of the bridge, I closed my eyes and concentrated on Angie and Liz. I was sniffling in the cold air, my hands trembling as I gripped the railing. Regardless of how hard I tried, I couldn’t see them. There was only the bridge and the clouds and the swirling waters below me.
“Hey there! Hey, Mister?” a young man called out to me. He wore an earnest, concerned expression. His clothes were shabby and antiquated. He had on a thick wool coat over a dingy white shirt. A pair of brown suspenders held up trousers two inches too high above his ankles. An old poor boy cap sat on his head. And there was an accent in there, just beneath his words. English, maybe? I couldn’t place it. “You don’t need to go down there, Mister. There will be others, and it will have its fill. It always does.”
I stepped up onto the railing, nervous that he’d leap to restrain me. He didn’t. He just watched me with those washed out brown eyes–a pair of muddy pools in the midst of all that gray. He bit his lip and gave a slight shake of his head. Why?
“It was a simple mistake,” I croaked at him. Tears flooded my eyes. “They just took the wrong road.” I leaned into the wind and hitched my right leg up onto the railing. I looked back over my shoulder, but he was gone.
And then so was I.
I think someone screamed on the bridge. Maybe I imagined it, or maybe it was a gull. But I thought I heard someone shriek when I cleared the railing.
The shrink told me that many of his patients relive the important events of their life just before they try to commit suicide–a slideshow of all those seminal moments that mark our time here in the physical world. Graduations. Marriages. Triumphs and failures. Light days and dark ones.
That didn’t happen to me. No sir, I just jumped and a damp grayness–a cloying, stifling . . . nothingness–clamped down firmly on my senses. I don’t remember any whistling rush of air in my ears. I never saw the city skyline, arrogant in its beauty, on the horizon. I don’t even recall a sense of dread or mounting fear at hitting the water.
My world was gray, and then it was black. Black and cold and deep. . . deeper than I ever thought possible.
I hit the water heels first, angled slightly onto my back. I’ve since learned that’s the classic survivor’s position. I hadn’t been trying to save myself, but the shrink insisted otherwise. He said our bodies sometimes obey certain parts of our brain–secret parts that take over in times of extreme stress.
If that’s the case, why hasn’t my mind deceived me about what I saw down there? That’s an interesting question, my friends. But wait. I’m just a bit ahead of myself . . .
People who study such things believe that most jumpers hit the water at a rate of about eighty miles an hour. Think about that the next time you get your Chevy up to running speed on the freeway. Almost ninety percent of jumpers suffer broken ribs. Many never make it to the water at all–blown by the gusting winds into the bridge supports or down to the rocks at the bases of the towers.
Corpses have washed up naked–the force of the impact stripping the clothing from their bodies. I was fortunate and only lost my shoes.
I met a fellow from the coast guard who said that most of the jumpers perish from ruptured organs. The rescuers have to wear haz-mat suits when they pull them from the water, because most of them are leaking . . . well, they’re usually leaking something or other.
But I just hit the water and kept going. Deeper and deeper–man, I shot through that icy water like a Mexican cliff-diver. Down I went, the pressure rupturing first my left eardrum and then my right. The water seeped further inside of me. I could feel it in every part of myself. It was behind my eyes, freezing me from the inside out.
And still I went deeper.
I kicked my feet. It was nothing more than a reflex. I was confused–not sure if I was alive or dead or somewhere in-between.
The gray lifted a little and waves of pain coursed through my body, the flares signaling to my brain that, yes, here there were things wrong. Here, there were things gravely wrong.
And still I went deeper.
I kicked my feet again. My right ankle dangled impotently in the water. I moved my arms. The left one went up and down. The right didn’t. It hung from me, held only by the casing of my shoulder.
I watched the thin band of light above me diminish, sliding further and further away. How much deeper could I go?
I turned my head and caught a glimpse of sudden motion. Something black and green and run through with crimson veins. It swirled and flowed like a silk sash under the experienced hand of a ballet dancer. It was like a snake, fluid and rhythmic and mesmerizing in its movement. I tilted my head, craning my neck to identify it, and something flashed by above my head.
Then the light disappeared and I was drifting in darkness.
There was a flurry of motion all around me, and then something touched my face. It felt like leather–hard and slick and smooth against my shattered cheekbone. It lingered there, tasting me.
Then it was gone, and I turned my head to the right just in time to see another of the silken snakes glide within inches of my head. The bay positively boiled with motion. Something big, something enormous, was there in the water with me!
I flapped my left arm frantically, and began to ascend.
Something bumped hard against my hip, shooting me a dozen feet off-course in the water. There was a searing pain in my lungs and then–just like that–things changed for me. I suddenly craved oxygen like I’d never wanted anything before in my life. But there I was, about to be eaten by . . . by what? A shark? The bay teemed with great whites.
There was another bump, this one pushing me back down a couple of feet. Then the thing moved and I could see the sky again–glowing above me like the dusty clouds of the Milky Way.
And let me tell you, those clouds seemed equally reachable in that moment.
I flapped my good arm frantically and continued my ascent, sparing a glance beneath me in my haste to get to the surface, and that’s when I saw it.
It was just so big–a mountain of flesh and muscle. It floated beneath me, its clouded amber eyes reflecting hunger and . . . and something far more primal. They were old eyes–intelligent and patient eyes. I kicked my legs and flapped like crazy, expelling the little bit of air still remaining in my lungs, as it circled lazily below me.
It was a king in his court–an emperor before his legions. It had arms and legs. In that way, it was like you folks reading this. But that’s where the comparisons end, I’m afraid. It had a pair of great wings stretching from its back. And then there was its face.
Its elongated skull terminated in a cluster of reddish-green tentacles. There were ridges and coils of armored flesh rising up over its skull and along its shoulders, tracing clear down onto its forearms.
I wriggled in the water–a wounded, broken thing. We watched each other and it tracked my ascent, pacing me. I struggled for the surface, drawing closer and closer. When I had maybe thirty or forty feet to go, it reached for me. It wrapped a tentacle around the inside of my injured right leg. I felt its suction there, holding me in the water.
Then it released me and I was rising again. I watched it fall away, those amber eyes blinking out like a pair of extinguished torches as it disappeared into unseen channels.
I found the surface, snatching gulps of cold air in draughts that shuddered through me, racking my body in fresh torrents of bright pain. I floated on my back. High, high above me I could just make out the tiny specks of dozens of people watching me.
Soon, there was a boat. Then, there were hands beneath my armpits. Finally, mercifully, things went black.
The final tally: I broke my right ankle, dislocated my right arm, fractured two vertebrae in my lower back, fractured my jaw and orbital bone on the right side of my face, ruptured both ear drums, perforated my pancreas, bruised my liver, and busted four ribs.
And I had a collapsed lung.
I was very lucky.
If you’ve made it this far, I suppose you mean to finish it. You’re either humoring the ramblings of an old man or you have an appetite for fantastic stories.
I learned that term from the scholar, you see? I mentioned him earlier. His name was June Stanchcomb. He visited me in the hospital and his very first question concerned my tastes in leisure pursuits.
“Are you a reader, Mr. Allen?”
I was still having a hard time speaking back then, so I just nodded that I read a little. Outside of the press and a couple of assorted friends and relatives that were willing to risk the embarrassment of visiting crazy Dick Allen in the hospital, he was the first visitor I’d had.
My response excited him. Stanchcomb was exceedingly thin. He was pale and he wore his hair in a neat part–right to left. He had brown eyes, kind of like that man I’d seen on the bridge, and a precise little pencil-thin moustache.
He put his hat on the floor beneath his chair and leaned forward. “Are you familiar with the weird tale, Mr. Allen?”
My narrowed eyes let him know that I wasn’t. He seemed a little discouraged by that, but then he brightened and dug around in the pocket of his jacket.
“I am a professor, Mr. Allen. I work at the University of San Francisco. I teach various courses in theology and antiquated languages. But my passion rests in the study of a . . . well, of a very unique body of literature.” He unfolded the collection of papers, smoothed them on my little bedside table and nodded at them with obvious pride. “It’s an essay I recently published. It deals with . . . well, if you get the chance, I’d be grateful to you if you’d read it.”
I could move my left arm, but couldn’t quite reach the article. He put it in my hand.
Gods, Demons, and the Creators of the Ancient World
by June Stanchcomb, PhD, University of San Francisco
I didn’t know this guy from Adam, but what else did I have to do with my time? I nodded that I’d read the article and he smiled widely. He collected his hat.
“Thank you for humoring me, Mr. Allen. It’s a very rare thing to survive that . . . that fall. I’ve met others who lived through it, and I’m interested in your experience. I’ll give you a couple of days. The doctors said you should be able to speak without so much pain very soon.”
He gave me a courteous nod and slipped out of the room. I started to read the opening paragraph of my visitor’s essay, but soon the words were swimming and things went gray and I was dreaming of a happier time in what had become a very sad life indeed.
He visited three days later. Same rumpled brown suit. Same slightly battered fedora, stowed beneath the chair.
“What do you mean by all of this?” I said. My jaw was a persistent, aching wreck, but at least I could speak again in short bursts.
He looked at me sympathetically. “You saw the illustrations, I take it.”
“How do you know of this . . . this thing?”
He sighed. “Are you an enlightened man, Mr. Allen? Can you believe in the possibility of . . . other worlds outside of our own?”
I thought about his words for a long time, and he was content to sit with me in silence. “Is that what that thing is? An alien? You called it a god in your article. This . . . what do you call it? Ca-llou-lou?” I felt ridiculous even trying to pronounce the word.
Stanchcomb offered a thin smile and he dipped his head in concession. “There is a bit of controversy surrounding the word’s pronunciation. The man who wrote about these gods–the old ones, he called them–has said that the word is . . . well, outside of our pronunciation abilities. It’s generally pronounced Ka–thoo–loo. But to answer your question–it might be a little bit of both. God and alien, I mean. It depends upon whom you ask.”
Here is the word for the benefit of all you reading this: Cthulhu. Say it however it makes sense to you. It’s a doozy, to be sure.
“Who drew these pictures?” I asked, turning to the pencil illustrations in the back of the article.
“An artist at the college named Andrew Vandemar. He’s very talented.”
“He saw this thing?”
Stanchcomb shook his head. “It was drawn after consultation with two extremely special men. Their names are Wayne Branch and Trot Scanlon. They both survived the fall from the Golden Gate Bridge. Just like you.”
We had another period of silence while I processed his statement. “So there are others that have seen it,” I whispered.
Stanchcomb nodded eagerly. That’s when I first noticed that there was a kindness about him. He didn’t look at me like the doctors and nurses did–as if I had a screw loose up there and needed to be treated like a sick child. He was excited to speak with me. He believed I had seen something down there, and that belief was a tremendous relief to me.
“Oh yes, there are others, Mr. Allen.” He pulled a paperback from his coat pocket and handed it to me. The Thing on the Doorstep and Other Weird Tales, by H.P. Lovecraft. “Are you familiar with his work?”
I nodded that I wasn’t. Back when I read a lot it was always nonfiction. Military history, mostly. I’ve since come to believe that the monsters of war are not the worst this world has to offer. Not by a long shot.
He smiled at me. “Give those tales a try. I hope they’ll offer you some insights into your experience down there.”
He collected his things and we shook hands and he was heading to the door when I posed my question. “Did it . . . did it touch them, June?”
He paused, then slowly turned to face me. He nodded that it had, indeed, marked both Branch and Scanlon. “And you?”
It took some effort, but I was able to pull myself into a seated position. I pulled the covers to the side, revealing my right leg. A row of five saucer-sized rings stretched from my injured ankle to the base of my knee. They were brown and yellow–like the final stages of a nasty bruise.
But unlike my bruises, these weren’t going away.
Stanchcomb studied them briefly and gave a sad little nod of his head. Then he left and I started the first story while a spatter of rain sounded softly against my window.
He visited again in a week and we had a long talk about the stories.
“Why here?” I finally asked. “Why California?”
“This place sits on a grid of fault lines. Those lines run deep. And they . . . well, things can come up from below pretty easily, I think. It might just be that Cthulhu has come through a doorway that terminates in our little bay there. There are worlds that overlap, Mr. Allen. Places where the membrane between realms is exceedingly thin. I’ve arrived at the belief that our fair city sits perched on the apron of just such a place. The pathway may have been shut for eons,” he shrugged, “or, it may have always been open. I have no way of knowing for sure. But I think . . . I think that one of the doorways between worlds lies deep in the fissures of the earth–here, in the San Francisco Bay.”
“So the Golden Gate is a . . . a what? A feeding ground for this thing?”
Stanchcomb shook his head, dismissing the idea. “It’s not a feeding ground, at least not in the traditional sense. I mean, those who fall into the bay are often consumed, but not by him. They perish from their injuries, their bodies consumed by sea creatures–sharks and fish. Crabs. No,” he said, sighing with frustration, “it’s not a feeding ground. Unless it’s consuming . . . well, consuming something else.”
Aside from the persistent din of the monitors that tracked my recovery, the room was silent. “What are you thinking, June?” I asked him softly.
He arched his eyebrows, a look of resigned frustration on his face. “It’s part of the mystery, Mr. Allen. Why do some live, while others die? Fate–chance maybe. But I have a question for you: what do you remember of the days leading up to your fall? What of the details of your everyday life?”
I considered his question. “I’ve been thinking about that a lot in here. There’s nothing else to do but read and rest. But I went through a year–maybe more–where I don’t have much memory of . . . well, as you said, of the details of daily life. I remember a series of strange messages. But even those seem dim to me now. I couldn’t tell you what the messages actually said. On the day I jumped? Well, I remember that it was gray. Gray and gloomy. Other than that, I don’t recall anything with real clarity until I hit the water and I saw that creature. Then it was like waking up. Like coming out of a long, deep sleep.”
Stanchcomb nodded gently. “Branch and Scanlon had similar experiences. They said it was like subconsciously heeding a higher call. Like the bridge or, more likely, something in the deep waters below it, was beckoning to them. Drawing them to it. I think . . . well, I think it feeds on our misery. On our despair.”
We talked for most of another hour that day, but I can’t tell you what was said. I couldn’t shake Stanchcomb’s words from my thoughts, and it bothered me.
Something beckoning to them. Drawing them to it.
I barely slept a wink that night. I mean, if it happened once . . .
When I was a boy, we lived in a high rise. My father, bless his soul, worked ten-hour days at a local garage to ensure that my mother had nice things and that there was always a pot roast on the table come Sunday afternoon.
When I was six or seven years old, we were one of the only families I knew that owned a radio. Back in those days, our RCA was the envy of the whole ninth floor. An enormous piece of furniture, the radio was housed in a rich cherry cabinet, its dial like a leering grin back-lit by an ominous green light.
We loved that radio. I remember sitting near it on Saturday afternoons, listening to the radio plays. The Lone Ranger had always been my favorite, but there were a lot of great shows.
And then, while dusting one day, my mother toppled a vase that had been imprudently perched atop it. A quart of water rushed down into its works, frying the circuitry in an explosion of snaps and pops.
For almost two weeks, my father slept on the couch. It was the only time I’d seen him truly angry with my mother. Sixty-two years of marriage, and that was it–not bad at all, when you tally the final score.
Of course, we’d had the accident nine days after the warranty period had expired. Rotten timing.
And my mother suffered for what had happened. For weeks, she would turn the radio on a few times each day. As she passed through the room, she would steal over to the behemoth and gently turn the knob, silently chiding the thing to magically reconstitute itself. The green light came on, and there was always a light crackle of static. Nothing more than that, though.
My mother’s longing was palpable; if desire could have fueled that machine, she could have supplied it until the world was a cold, dead place indeed.
And then, one day while idly scanning up and down the dial, her efforts were rewarded. A voice leaked out of the radio and into the still air of our apartment.
“Well! My word!” she said, her voice high and excited. “Richard, come and listen! I think it works!”
I ran into the parlor and sat near the speaker, re-claiming the familiar spot I’d left vacant in the days after the accident. I smiled at her, focusing on the voice coming through the speaker.
It belonged to Mrs. Alexander, a spinster piano teacher who lived with three cats in an apartment at the end of our hallway.
“. . . and I just can’t abide by that new maintenance man,” she said, her voice dripping with disapproval, “and the way he looks at my things. I won’t have him alone in my apartment . . .”
That moment spelled the beginning of our radio’s second life. It had stopped being one thing, and become something else all together, you see?
Until my father raised the money to have it repaired, it was never again a radio. We couldn’t hear the plays. We didn’t get the news, or the George Gershwin Orchestra.
We only received the telephone conversations of our neighbors in the apartment building.
I believe I understand now what happened to us–to me and Branch and Scanlon. You see, they had suffered great losses as well. Scanlon’s sister had been killed in a streetcar accident two weeks before his fall. Branch’s wife had died of breast cancer three months before his own plummet.
I learned this from Stanchcomb and, together, we reasoned it out. When I had Angie and Liz, you see, I was like that radio before my mother had spilled a quart of water down into its circuits. And without them? Well, I was something different altogether.
And I think, like that radio, I was susceptible to new messages. To those pushes that came from all over. I think those messages found me. They came to me because of my sorrow–gravitating to me as surely as the needle of a compass always swings true north.
Why do some live while others die?
There’s no way of answering that question with any certainty, I’m afraid. But I think we now understand–Scanlon and Branch and Stanchcomb and me–why we found ourselves in that cold water beneath the Golden Gate Bridge.
And I don’t suppose, given the marks that have stained us, that we ever really escaped the creature who had summoned us to those frigid waters.
I only saw Stanchcomb twice more. The first time he brought Chinese take-out and we chatted well into the evening. He was bright and energetic and seemed to relish, as he put it, “a frank discussion on metaphysics.” His second visit was much shorter. The brown suit was more wrinkled than usual–his appearance disheveled.
“I’m not sleeping well, Mr. Allen.” I could never convince him to just call me by my first name. “And I think I’ve been followed in the last week. Someone ransacked my office at the college. They were looking for . . . for privileged information, I suppose.”
It puzzled me. “What are you talking about?”
His brow creased. “I’m not sure, really. The file I have been keeping on bridge survivors was taken, along with some other things I was working on. I have backups. But I don’t know why someone would bother with a man like me. There is no value in the things that were taken.”
We talked about my pending discharge from the hospital, and then he said something that has stayed with me through the balance of these long years.
“Keep a careful guard of yourself, Mr. Allen. I fear someone is trying to erase any evidence of the mark of Cthulhu. I’ve made the same statement to Branch and Scanlon.”
He gathered his hat and we shook hands and that was the last time I ever saw June Stanchcomb. He was murdered–found eviscerated on a park bench in the Marina District. The police called it a violent robbery, but I’ve always wondered if something else didn’t get to June Stanchcomb. An emissary, sent by the Great Priest of the Ancients.
So there it is; you’ve reached the end of my tale. Well, almost the end, I suppose. I must include one final detail. When the authorities finished their inquiry into June’s death, the scholar’s private letters became the property of the University of San Francisco. There is a librarian–a kind young man who also reads Lovecraft–who has granted me generous access to June’s final suppositions.
He had been investigating a series of coincidences when he was killed. Perhaps his final project, an essay tentatively titled “Elder Gods at the Precipice,” had been the catalyst for his violent death? A sprawling study, Stanchcomb’s project was a detailed account of harbingers of the end times–storms, natural disasters, war and famine and pestilence. He’d correlated occurrences of these omens with a diverse body of literature and religion, tying the whole thing to predictions made in the Mayan calendar. At first, his ambitious piece seemed more creative than scholarly, but it had a way of working itself beneath my skin. I began to pay more attention to the news.
And I have maintained my own study, all these long decades.
You’ll find it there, outlined in the stack of journals beneath my nightstand. As I write these final passages, an old man on the cusp of a new year, I’m well aware of the changes taking place all around me: the wildfires that rage on the Santa Ana winds; the rash of massive earthquakes that buckle the earth from San Bernardino to Crescent City, and whose temblors stretch north, to the mountains of Southern Oregon where I lost my wife and my little girl.
They’re having a Christmas party downstairs. My contemporaries sit hunched in their wheelchairs, blankets stretched over thin legs, muttering carols and sipping tepid egg nog. The halls of this place are resplendent with hope–hope for the portal of prosperity that is Christmas and, beyond that, the coming New Year.
I, on the other hand, am a little more pessimistic as we shuffle toward that unseen horizon.
That is my story. Perhaps it will sit there beneath the nightstand, unread, along with its brothers and sisters, but I sincerely doubt it. You see, the pushes have returned. The closer we’ve drawn to the date June noted on the Mayan calendar, the more frequent they’ve become.
I was at the market a little over a month ago when I stopped to check a note that had been tacked up on the community cork board.
Love was always scarce, and there was never enough to go around. Who knows? Maybe there will be more on the other side.
There was that one, and there were others–many, many others.
I’m acutely aware of how short my time really is. The doctors tell me the problem with my kidneys is worsening with each new day–they said it all happens very quickly in the final stages.
I suppose I am ready.
And what of the things you’ve read here? What of that one simple question: Why?
Why do better than eighty people jump from the Golden Gate Bridge every year? Why that place, and is it really their choice?
My kidneys are failing, but I’m not so sure that renal failure will claim my life. Because the mark of Cthulhu has not faded. No, in fact, if anything it has begun to glow. They are still here after all of these years. Five yellowish brown circles–a row of perfectly symmetrical marks curling around the sagging, puckered flesh of an old man’s calf muscle.
At night I can feel them moving–pulsating with some alien energy. Anticipating.
And I’ve come to realize that all of this business–my writing, the talks with Stanchcomb–is about one thing and one thing only: portals. Death is a portal, you see? These years have not been mine alone. I have shared them with others–with the people I meet and talk to at the park. I’ve shared them with the nurses here at Aquino. I’ve shared them with Angie and Liz in my happier dreams. They have been good years, and I’m very thankful that I didn’t perish in the cold waters of the San Francisco Bay.
But I’m not foolish. I know what waits for me on the other side. I know what waits for all of us on the other side–a doorway that, if June was correct in his calculations, will spring wide in mere hours.
That which awaits us is a huge thing–a monstrous, many-tentacled elder god that truly owns this river of time I’ve navigated these many decades.
And soon–very soon indeed, I think–that which has marked me will return to claim its prize . . .
December 20, 2012