"Nearer and nearer it came, the dull crunching of wheels, nearer, nearer and yet nearer, and now, outside the door it ceased, and I dragged myself to the window and saw a black-plumed hearse. The gate below opened and shut, and I crept shaking to my door and bolted it, but I knew no bolts, no locks, could keep that creature out who was coming for the Yellow Sign."
-Robert W Chambers, "The Yellow Sign"
No one is supposed to remember the day they were born, but I do. I remember the doctor, and the delivery room, and the nursery, all of it. And I remember the Yellow Sign.
I didn't remember this for most of my life, of course. Only recently. These days I remember everything that ever happened to me, absolutely everything, which is why I know that the Yellow Sign is almost the first thing I saw the day I was born. To anyone else it would just have looked like an odd spot of moisture damage or stray paint on the ceiling, but even at four hours old I knew that it was something special.
I remember preschool, years later; they called me the little director because of the way I organized games for the other kids. One day I took a group aside and assigned them names and lines to speak, like a play. They followed my every instruction: "No, no," I would say to one, "you can't come in yet; your part is later, after Camilla finds the Yellow Sign." For three days we did this, "rehearsing" the same few lines every time, and eventually the staff got curious. One of them took me aside and asked what my new game was called. "The King in Yellow," I told her. She asked if I was the king and the suggestion seemed to upset me.
Then she asked me why I kept having the kids do the same scene over and over and I said it was because I didn't know what happened after that. "I don't know what the second Act is," I said. "When we get it exactly right, then I'll know." It was not normal for me to speak in such an earnest, mature way to an adult, of course; my intensity frightened her a little, I think. Maybe that's why the staff stepped in and said we couldn't play like that anymore. I was upset at first, but in time I forgot I all about my little game and enjoyed a somewhat normal childhood. But the "game" remembered me. Twenty years later, it came back.
One morning, after a particularly hard night out, my head was still throbbing from wine and my skin felt like it wanted to crawl away, but I was determined to make it to class on time anyway. When I got to the front door I found an envelope pushed through the mail slot, though it was too early for the mail to have come. The postmark was, bizarrely, February 20th, 1983, but despite being mailed before I was even born it had my name and the proper address on it. It wasn't until later that I did the math and realized that February 20th was very likely the day I was conceived, which is unsettling for more reasons than I'd care to think about even now. The return address was just down the street, not far from where Haight runs into Cole. Inside was a faded postcard and on the back was written:
"Let the red dawn surmise
What we shall do,
When this blue starlight dies
And all is through."
It meant nothing as far as I could tell, just doggerel. Underneath it, in entirely different handwriting, was something else:
"Have you found the Yellow Sign?"
I hadn't a clue what it meant; by this time I'd forgotten about the Yellow Sign from my childhood, at least consciously. But the back of my neck tingled. That question, "Have you found the Yellow Sign?” it stuck like a burr in my mind. All the rest of the week I caught myself muttering it at odd times. It had a magical quality. Once heard, it couldn't be separated from me. I wanted to blurt it out to strangers on the street just to see how they would react. Would any of them say yes? Would they smile and nod and say, "Of course, naturally, I'm so very glad you asked," and then…what would they do? I couldn't even imagine.
I guess I thought this must be some kind of elaborate prank and I expected there to be another part to it, but there wasn't. No more correspondence came from that address. I checked the place out and it turned out to be a tea shop of all things, although perhaps it was something else twenty years ago. Mildly disappointed, I put the card and envelope away, figuring it would make a good story for the rest of my life, that one strange puzzle piece that didn't seem to correspond to any other. I might have kept thinking that forever if it weren't for Rose. She and I had only one class together, Art and Politics; she was filling some gen ed requirement with it, but for me it was part of my degree. She and I didn't have much in common when we me, but we hit it off anyway. I'll never know what she saw in me, but I didn't question it. Why go out of my way to fuck up a good thing?
One day, after the lecture, we were making plans for the week. She told me she knew about a new club in the city, a kind of kinky underground sex club that was making a buzz. She was always into that kind of thing, but it was never for me. But this club, Rose said, was different from the other ones she'd taken me to. For one thing, it really was secret, and apparently very exclusive; the place operated as a regular bar but if you knew the right people you could get into the downstairs, where the real action happened. She said if I hung around she was sure I'd get an invite from the owner.
"You'd have a really good time," she said, "and it would be nice to have someone else I know there." She touched my arm. I still wasn't interested, but then she told me the name of the place: "The Yellow Sign."
I paused. Yes, I said, let's go check it out. Let's go tonight.
Maybe I thought the postcard would turn out to be a weird, poorly thought-out publicity trick. I waited for Rose to mention it if she'd ever gotten one too, but she said nothing about it. I thought about showing her the card, but no, for some reason it seemed too private, too strange. But I was curious enough now to go see what the place was all about.
It didn't look anything special from the outside; newer and sleeker than the competing bars on the Columbus and Broadway strip, but nothing unusual. It was popular though; the line stretched down the block. We waited for an hour. For some reason I couldn't take my eyes off the bouncer at the door; did I know him? Had we met? He seemed familiar. In fact, he seemed to know me, or at least, he wouldn't stop looking at me, even though he made us keep waiting. The neon yellow sign over the door bothered me too; under the name of the place there was a three-sided symbol of curved lines. It hurt my eyes to look at it, but I didn't like to turn away from it either because seen in my peripheral vision it appeared to be turning, like a hypnotic wheel. Then, whenever I looked straight at it, it stopped. I was grateful when they finally let us in; a few more minutes of putting up with that sign and I was liable to lose my mind.
Inside it was dark and hot; the drinks were decent the music was not so loud that you couldn't hear yourself talk, which was a relief, but something about it all made me uncomfortable anyway. The crowd was nothing special, lots of tight black clothes and severe hair. No one seemed to be up to anything out of the ordinary, just drinking, talking, dancing; if anything kinky was going on, I couldn't see what it was. Rose stuck by me, probably because she knew that leaving might have tipped me off about where the real action was. I didn't begrudge her the secret. Eventually I excused myself to the restroom, figuring it would give her an excuse to slip off to wherever she was going and then leave me to my own devices.
I locked myself in a stall, feeling mildly ill for some reason. I tried to think of a reasonable excuse for why I might have to suddenly leave if Rose was still around when I got back. Then I noticed someone had written on the wall with a marker; not normal graffiti but something that looked like poetry. I read it:
"You, sir, should unmask."
"Indeed, it's time. We have all laid aside disguise but you."
"But I wear no mask."
I read the lines over and over. They made less sense every time. There was a certain familiarity about them, of course, like when there's a song stuck in your head but you don't know the lyrics, and you strain and you strain and to just barely remember…
I decided it was time to leave. When I got back to our place at the bar Rose was indeed missing, but someone else was sitting in her seat. For just a second she looked enough like Rose to fool me, long enough for me to walk up and open my mouth before I realized I had no idea who this woman was. She was short and dark-haired and wearing a knockout dress. She was also now looking right at me and obviously expecting me to say something, which was reasonable on her part since my mouth was still open. I hesitated for as long as possible before going with:
"Um, hi. Can I buy you a drink?"
She looked at me with half-lidded eyes. "No need; I never pay for drinks here. But you can sit with me while I drink it." Her tone was neither inviting nor unpleasant; totally neutral. But I sat. Her name was Camilla. Apparently she was a regular. She told me she came here almost every night, in fact. She ordered a drink for me, and then another. I had far more than I should have, especially considering that my feeling of unease increased with each one, but she was hard to say no to. An hour passed; my head swam and the light from the glowing sign outside, reflected on the window, seemed to pulse and throb to the beat of the music, matching the throbbing in my head. Camilla was saying something, but I hadn't been listening. I asked her to say it again. She told me: "You should unmask."
I froze. What the hell did that mean? I fumbled for a response and came up with: "Indeed?"
"Indeed," said Camilla, smiling a little. "It's time. We have all laid aside disguise but you."
I shuddered a little inside as I replied: "But I wear no mask."
I didn't want to say it. It really felt like I just plain had to say it. But Camilla seemed pleased. I blinked, confused. "What was that?" I said.
"It's from 'The King in Yellow.'"
"Never heard of it," I said, swallowing another drink.
"No?" she seemed disappointed. "You should read it sometime." And then she recited more lines:
"Let the red dawn surmise
What we shall do,
When this blue starlight dies
And all is through."
I blinked. "Did you—?" I was about to ask, drunkenly, "Did you send me a postcard?” but of course, that was asinine. In any case, I didn't get a chance: She stood up to go and I really thought I'd lost her completely, but then she held out her hand. "Come with me?" she said. Unsteady on my feet, I followed. I thought she might be taking me "downstairs" to the place I was ostensibly here to see, but instead it was upstairs, up through a narrow stairwell hidden at the back of the club. Some security guy (was it the same bouncer from the front door?) watched the entrance, but Camilla waved him away. I was surprised to find an apartment suite situated over the bar. "Whose is this?" I said.
"Mine," said Camilla.
There weren't many furnishings, but everything looked expensive. There were no windows and few lights and only three real rooms. Drunk as I was, I flopped down onto the bed, testing the quality of the black comforter and black sheets. Camilla busied herself behind a dressing screen. I perked up when I saw her dress flung over the top. Fumbling a bit, I at least managed to kick off my shoes. When Camilla came back she had changed (or stripped down?) into a shaped white corselet. I recognized it because Rose had one just like it. It looked good on Rose. It looked better on Camilla.
She told me to undress, so I did, leaving my clothes in an untidy pile on the floor. She told me to lie back on the bed. She clamored up onto me, swinging one leg over and pinning me between the two. She gestured to the headboard, where I saw two brass rings bolted in, and she held up a pair of heavy chrome manacles, giving them a shake. She looped them through the rings and told me, in no uncertain terms, to put my hands up. The shackles locked tight around my wrists. She gave them a few tugs, experimenting. "Too tight?" she asked.
"No," I muttered.
"Good," she said. Then she gave a slap (but a light one) and said, "You forgot to call me Ma'am."
"No, Ma'am," I said, louder.
"Good," she said again. "Do you want the safe word?" I shook my head. She frowned. "You should. You'll get in trouble without it. But all right. Your call."
She grabbed me by the chin and pushed my head all the way back. Anytime I tried to look down, she pushed me back again. Her nails were long and lacquered and when she squeezed they bit the flesh of my cheeks. I tingled when she ran the sharp edges of them down my throat, my shoulders, my stomach. She teased them against my bare, vulnerable skin, and my wrists shuddered in their restraints. She put just the tip of one against my bare thigh and twisted in a little drilling motion; not enough to break the skin, but enough to make me whimper. I tried to look down at what she was doing and, once again, she grabbed me and pushed my head back, all the way back, hard, so that I actually heard the joints in my neck pop. It felt good.
Forced to recline as I was, I had an excellent view of the ceiling, and I noticed that a painting was secured right over the bed. In my drunken state the scene spun and wobbled in front of me, but still I was able to pick out the details: It was a bizarre image, an enormous winged giant bestriding the ocean, his shoulders crowded by seven heads, and beneath him some kind of multi-headed sea creature emerged from the waves, with a sword in one hand and a scepter in the other. It was Blake's "The Great Red Dragon and the Beast from the Sea" and I had seen it before, studied it in class, and while it was always unnerving to me, I now found it utterly terrifying. The dragon's eyes, I feared, were watching me, and I wanted to look away, but of course, Camilla would not let me. She threatened to use a harness to keep my head still if I didn't stop trying to fight her. So I stared at the painting while she worked on my body, always hovering just at the periphery of my vision.
I fixed eyes with the dragon while Camilla's nails and teeth explored my naked form. She would ask me questions and, regardless of the answer, reward me with a slap to my naked thighs that made me wince: "What did you think when you first saw me? Did you think you wanted to fuck me?"
"What did you say?"
"I said no."
"Don't you lie to me. Did you want to fuck me? Did you want to pick me up like some cheap bar slut and take advantage of me?"
"Disgusting. You're absolutely disgusting. Say it."
"You're fucking right you are."
She reminded me of Rose, only harder. I usually think of Rose as about as hard as a Domme gets, but Camilla was even more aggressive, even more demanding. It scared me. But I enjoyed the fear. It was stupid of me to turn down the safe word—dangerous even, but that risk got me off. It's the most irresponsible kind of scene. But that's what I wanted.
Camilla climbed back up and grabbed me by the hair, jerking my head and turning my gaze away from the painting (which I was grateful for, briefly). She pulled her breasts out of the corselet and held one taut nipple over my mouth and ordered me: "Lick." I stuck my tongue out and traced a circle around her areola, teasing her the way that usually makes a woman shiver. She pulled my hair harder. "I said lick, you useless shit," she said, growling between her teeth. "That means lick, not fuck around and waste my time. Do you understand me? Nod if you understand." I nodded. "Then get to it." I flicked the proffered nipple with the tip of my tongue and Camilla purred. "Good. Again. Harder." So I did it again, harder, and again, even harder. She pulled back a little and I moved up, trying to chase after it, but of course the shackles brought me up short. She laughed and slapped me. "Get a hold of yourself," she said.
She leaned over and practically smothered me with her bare tits, scooping my head up with both hands and pushing me into her. Since I was still under instructions to lick I did my best to keep my tongue moving. She moaned and squirmed a little, pulling me in tighter, yanking me up off the bed until the shackles jingled again. She pushed me away for a second, just long enough to me catch my breath (I felt my face redden) and then she pushed me back in again. She growled through clenched teeth as she buried me against her body and held me until I could barely suck in a breath and then again she pulled me away. Tears leaked out the corners of my eyes. I inhaled and before I was even halfway done she shoved my face in again. Blackness crept in at the periphery of my vision and I felt woozy. I couldn't talk (although even if I could have there would have been nothing I could say to save myself, since I'd declined a safe word and any amount of pleading would only have encouraged her), but I started signaling with my hands, flapping my fingers in a way that I hoped indicated recognizable distress.
Eventually she broke off and let me breathe, though whether this was because I had signaled or not I had no way of knowing. My lungs burned and my heart was hammering, hammering, hammering away at twice its normal rate. My head rushed and my blood burned. In my drunken, half-delirious state, I let my head loll, catching sight of that painting on the ceiling again, but only for a second before Camilla's body blocked it out. She sat over my face, spreading her legs and lowering herself down on me. "I hope you don't think you're done yet," she said. "All that licking was just a warm-up. You'd better work a damn sight harder on this." She rubbed her naked clit, sliding a finger around and around it in a circle.
"Or maybe I should just take care of it myself, hmm?" She produced a vibrator from an end table, a short purple one that made a formidable hum when turned on. "I could just make you watch," she said. "What would you think of that? I could keep all this to myself. Maybe I'll even go behind the screen so you can't even watch. I'll make sure you hear me though. Just so you know what you're missing out on." She put the toy against my neck so that I could feel the power of the vibration. "Feel that? That's what you've got to compete with. It's a lot, isn't it? And did you know, this isn't even its strongest setting? So why should I waste my time on you if I've got this instead, huh? Tell me that."
I couldn't answer, partly because I was too far out of my mind by that point (my head was throbbing and I was starting to see tracers; the thinnest part of my consciousness, the one that was still something resembling lucid, wondered whether I'd somehow imbibed something stronger than just alcohol during the evening, but most of me was too out of it to consider the ramifications of that) but also, partly, because I could tell by the way she was holding it that even I opened my mouth even a little she was going to shove the vibe in, possibly even choke me with it, so I kept my jaw clenched as tight as possible. Of course, if she ordered me to open up I would almost have to, but she seemed to like watching me hold out. She teased the gyrating head of the toy around my nipple, trying to make me yelp. I almost bit through my tongue.
Finally she turned it off and dropped it, then planted herself over my face again, lowering her wet pussy down and rubbing it against my lips. "Get to work," she said. I licked her from one end to the other; she was so wet I thought she might drown me. I might have even said that, or mumbled it drunkenly, because she laughed then, as if she'd just heard the funniest joke in the world. I licked again, swirling my tongue around her clit while she pulled her cunt open with two fingers. She made an unimpressed grunt. "Harder than that," she said. "I'm not in fucking high school." She began rubbing it against my tongue, showing me the pace she wanted. "Like that," she said, "only don't make me do all the damn work." I was in no condition to follow or even comprehend her orders, but motor reflex was enough to at least keep me mostly on track. She sprawled out over me, bending with her ass arched high in the air, her moaning mouth resting somewhere just below my waistline, so that her hot breath tickled my thighs.
Her body was tight. I've said that about women before, but this time it was true in the most literal way I could imagine: Every last muscle was hard and tensed. She was like a coiled spring. I imagined it would hurt when she finally snapped back. She worked her hips up and down, her ass waving as she ground against my lapping mouth. We were in perfect 69 position but evidently she was in an all-take no-give kind of mood. I pushed my tongue inside, splaying her, fucking her with it, or at least doing the best I could. Her nails were digging into my legs now, harder and deeper. I imagined the perfect red crescent marks she would leave on my skin, and then I imagined I'd take pictures of them while they were fresh and send them to Rose. She always got off on that kind of thing. She'd sent me pictures of her bruised ass after a spanking session last week. It was the background on my phone for a little while.
I'm not sure when I noticed the breeze. At first I thought a window was open, but then I remembered, through my mental fog, that this room had no windows, nor had I noticed a fan of any kind, and yet cold, wafting air made my sweat-drenched skin prickle. When Camilla spread her legs even wider and afforded me a view of the ceiling again I finally saw it: The painting was moving. The dragon's wings were beating, flapping steadily, with enough force to move the stars in the painted sky and make the waves of the false sea rise and fall. I felt, and tasted, the salt spray of that ocean on my face as the dragon's movements wrought turmoil on the scene. I blinked, confused, certain that this couldn't be happening but unable to deny that I was seeing it.
The dragon was looking at me again. Its eyes, indeed, the eyes of all its seven heads, glowed like fire. It opened its mouths and began to sing, an awful, discordant song that made it feel as if my head were splitting open. The walls shook. Camilla, though, did not seem to notice. And then the scene began to pour out of the picture's frame: the black, tortured ocean spilled across the ceiling and down the walls, flooding the room, and the dragon spread its wings across us, trapping us underneath the hovering bulk of its naked body. I tried to scream; maybe I even really did, but Camilla took no notice, of me or anything else that was happening, lost in the endless contours of her own orgasm.
This is not real, I told myself again. I've been drugged. I'm seeing things. I'm losing my mind. Any explanation would do, as far as I was concerned, as long as it explained away what was happening in front of me. Now the beast from the sea rose up, filling the room with its body, its bulging, monstrous eyes staring at me, its flapping mouths opening and closing in a silent chorus. It was reaching out for us, and then it half-submerged again to begin drinking in the sea. The bed moved, floating in the water, drawn in by that tide, and I, still helpless and chained to the frame, went right along with it, embarking on a short, doomed voyage to be devoured in the monster's gaping maw. I gave one last, concerted effort to scream as that endless tunnel of darkness opened in front of me and, somewhere in the unspeakable depths of the beast's body, perhaps where its heart should be, I saw the sickly golden pulse of light and the twisting, turning gyre of the glyph that I again knew in that instant, but only in that instant, to be the Yellow Sign.
And then it was over. The symbol, the monsters, the ocean, all of it, simply gone, and we were alone in Camilla's perfectly normal apartment. The painting was inanimate again, and the bed still in the same place, and even my screams seemed to have happened only in my mind. Camilla rolled off of me, throwing her head back, gasping, running her hands down her own naked, sweat-drenched body in an expression of abject satisfaction. She did not indicate that anything unusual had happened. She even smiled a little and gave me a congratulatory smack on the side of my ass as she unchained me. "Not bad," she said. I only groaned in response. She raised an eyebrow. "You all right?"
"I feel sick," I said. My head was killing me still. She petted my shoulders.
"Poor thing," she said. "Let me find someone to help you."
She found my clothes and all but dressed me herself, as if I were a child, while my limbs flopped, helpless and pathetic. "There, there," she said, her tone an icy parody of compassion. I eyed the painting with suspicion, but nothing seemed strange about it, except of course that it was a damn creepy thing to hand over the bed. I looked around as if seeing the apartment for the first time. "Is this place really yours?"
"Yes," Camilla said from behind the dressing screen again. And then she startled me by adding, "This whole club is mine."
I blinked. "I didn't know that."
"Of course you didn't," she said, reemerging. "I never told you."
And then she kicked me out. She wasn’t rude about it, mind you. She even walked me down the stairs. When we got to the bottom, she asked me again if I wanted the safe word. What the hell would I need it for now, I asked? She said, "It might come up again." And then she whispered something in my ear. When she did, everything became bright and brittle. The voices and din of the club quieted, like I was underwater. She nodded once and left. The bouncer watching the stairs (it really was the same guy from before, I now saw) gave me a smirk and then practically pushed me out the door.
Rose was waiting for me. She looked put-out. Not because she was waiting, but because she'd seen me come out with Camilla. Not that Rose and I were in any way an exclusive item, mind you, but she always hated the idea that I might be getting up to more fun than she was. She didn't invite me back to her place, which was fine, since I was very suddenly not in the mood. I could barely walk straight and everything around me was so bright and blurred at the edges that I couldn't be sure what was real. How I made it home is anyone's guess, but I fell into bed fully clothed (even my shoes were still on) and spent the night sweating and shaking, like I had a fever or withdrawals. When I finally surrendered to real sleep somewhere around four AM I still couldn't get any peace.
When I slept I dreamt, and in my dream I was riding in a hearse. Of course, I couldn't see that it was a hearse, since I was inside of it, but somehow I knew anyway, just as I knew, despite not being able to see outside of the casket I was sealed in, that the driver was the bouncer from the club. It wasn't a modern hearse though, it was the old-fashioned kind, a black horse-drawn carriage, and I could hear the beating of the horse's hooves. I hammered at the coffin lid until my hands were numb but it was no use; someone was sitting on the coffin, right over my chest, keeping it shut, and no matter how much I struggled I couldn't move them. I woke up sweating, terrified, hungover, and late for class.
I stumbled to the bathroom, bleary-eyed and aching all over. What the fuck did they give me last night? I looked like hell. And then the memory of what Camilla said to me on the stairs swam up in my mind and I gripped the side of the sink, waiting to throw up. Of course, you already know what she said, don't you?
"Have you found the Yellow Sign?"
Well, obviously she wasn't talking about the club. So what did it mean? And how did she know? She couldn't have been the one who sent me the letter, it just didn't make sense, she would have had no idea who I was. Unless Rose put her up to it? But that wasn't Rose's style, she would never go to such lengths to disguise herself. Nothing about last night made sense.
I was a vegetable during class; I just stared at the screen, and the images played across it were a series of unconnected, blurred dots. The instructor's words were a meaningless hum. Rose wouldn't talk to me after class that day, and in fact she wouldn’t talk to me all week, which was fine, because for some reason I felt resentful toward her too. Anything connected to that night in the club seemed contaminated to me, somehow. Instead of going out with Rose I spent more time in my "studio." That's what I called the laundry room in my building. Almost no one used it, since the machines were constantly breaking down and there was a Laundromat just across the street anyway, but that meant I had privacy.
I'd been working on a series of charcoal sketches. Normally I draw the same thing over and over again, obsessively. Rose said I was looking for the truth when I did that. She didn't mean it as a compliment. That day I started something new. At first I didn't know quite what it was that I was drawing, but gradually it took the shape of a man, a big man with stooped shoulders and a big head, standing in a darkened doorway—no, I realized, it's a window, and he's looking in, waiting. In his right hand he's holding something heavy, arm down at his side, but it's hidden by the window frame so we can't tell what it is. Only after I filled in the face with a few black slashes did I realize who he was: the bouncer!
I almost screamed; he stared up at me from my sketchbook and I felt as if he were really there, right in the room with me, looking at me through the sketch. Worse, I realized that the window he was peering into was my own, the window to my bedroom, and that the anonymous lump in the bed could only be me, asleep, unaware of the intrusion. The bouncer's position was even more unnerving considering how impossible it was; my apartment is on the fourth floor, and there's no fire escape on that side. The edge of the moon was visible just at the top of the window frame. No, I saw, it wasn't the moon; turning the sketch a little in my hand, I realized it was the edge of that three-sided symbol from the club sign, the one that bothered me so much.
I threw the sketch away. I didn't draw anything more.
Weeks passed and eventually Rose decided we should no longer be fighting about nothing. One day she tried to introduce me to Genevieve, another friend from the club. She seemed like a nice enough girl, smart and funny and a redhead to boot; Rose dropped hints that if I showed up at "The Yellow Sign" again all three of us could have a thing, but I passed. I tried to make a date with just Rose though, and although she made a big show about being "busy" all the time she finally gave in, like she always does. It was spring break and I felt like celebrating, so we got a private room at one of the hot tub spas in town. Rose and I were lounging naked in the tub, her fantastic legs draped across my lap and her head on my shoulder, when she asked, with affected casualness, whether I'd been looking into the club or not. I couldn't believe she was bringing it up again and ruining the afterglow, so I tried to brush it off as quickly as possible. I hadn't been back, I told her, it wasn't my thing.
"Oh," she said. Then: "It would be nice if you'd reconsider. A lot of the friends I made there don't go anymore. In fact…I'm getting a little worried. The cops came and talked to me."
I sat up a little.
Twice now, she said, one of her regular playmates had come up as a missing person, and twice now the police came to her door asking questions about it. One of the missing was Genevieve. And Rose had it from other people that a lot of club regulars had gone missing in the last few weeks. "But that's not even the part that freaked me out," she said. Even in the flickering candlelight of the small, private room, I could tell she was working hard to keep her poker face. "The second time the cops came, when they were asking me about Genevieve, there was something about one of them." My stomach turned over. Somehow I already knew what she was going to say. "He was that guy who watches the door at the club, the weird one. Everyone there hates him; we call him the Watcher. I had no idea he was a cop. When he showed up on my doorstep in that uniform I about had a heart attack."
Since then she said she hadn't gone back. She'd been afraid to, she admitted. I felt her shiver a little in my arms. "Maybe it's good that you're staying away," I said. "That place seems like it's bad for you anyway. Bad for anybody."
"I guess," she said. She laid her head on my shoulder again. "I just liked it, at first. It was like a whole other world. You never really got to see it. You'd understand if you did."
"Do you think…?” I considered my words carefully. "Do you think there's anything going on there, I mean, anything dangerous, really?"
She bit her lip.
"Is it something we should talk to the police about?"
"They already know," she said. "It's not just that bouncer; a lot of the regulars at the place are cops." She made a face; she hated cops, always had. "They know there's something going on."
"Are they're just ignoring it?"
"Maybe. Sometimes I think…well, I just don't trust them."
Before I could ask anything else she threw herself on me. Waves washed over the side of the pool as we twisted against each other, wet skin pressed tight to wet skin, the smooth black curls of her hair spilling around me as the heated, erect points of her nipples slid against the palms of my hands while I squeezed her breasts. Rose almost never kissed me like that; a real kiss, a deep kiss, a kiss for real lovers. I was lost for a minute in the soft, inviting contours of her body, a little, self-contained universe unto itself, licking droplets of water off the hard curve of her collarbone and the rounded slope of her shoulder. She'd been unusually gentle that night, and far more affectionate than usual, even complimenting me, something she usually never did while we were together, preferring instead her odd habit of sending me pillow talk text messages an hour later. That night she was active and engaged in a way I'd never seen her before. It made me wonder.
I pushed into her kiss and pushed against her body until she leaned back, stretched out with her shoulders against the opposite edge of the tub, and then I gripped the side, pulling myself on top of her. She lay underneath me, something else she would normally never do, and twined her legs around mine. She wrapped her arms around me and drew me in, nestling her face against my neck for just a second. Then her legs spread. I ran my hand up between them until they met, and I watched her eyes go wide and her lips part as my fingers rubbed up and down against her. Her nails glided down my back, tracing the line from the center of my shoulders to the base of my spine. She arched her back, pushing her breasts against me, pulling me down for a kiss that almost submerged her. Her tongue circled mine. I slid a finger inside her, feeling the warm water give way to something warmer and wetter still.
It looked for a moment as it Rose was floating in the dark, weightless and alone, and with her arms twined around me and her fingers in my hair she was pulling me down with her. I imagined us sinking forever into an abyss, embracing all the way, her kiss and her touch and the convulsing pressure of her body against mine and her sex around my intruding fingers as I pushed in, and in, and in as hard as I could and sent racking shudders through her frame trapping me until I surrendered and just let us both float away. I imagined the waters closing over, dark and opaque, until we both just disappeared from the world and I could afford to think about nothing except the feeling of her kiss and the smoothness of her wet skin. Strands of her dark hair clung, wet, to her shoulders, and they tickled my lips as I ran my mouth over her, licking droplets of water away. She sighed and ran her fingers through my long hair.
I had just closed my mouth over one of her nipples, nipping at it with the edge of my teeth and listening to her near-silent, shuddering gasp, when I heard a voice just behind my ear:
"You should unmask."
I spun around, almost dropping Rose in the process. The voice had been real and right behind me; it had not been Rose's voice. But the room was empty except for her and me, and the door was locked. There was one there. But I swear I heard the faint impression of a voice, like an echo: "We have all laid aside disguise but you." On the other side of the room, I saw that all but one of the candles had suddenly burned out, leaving ghostly trails of smoke rising to the ceiling.
Rose touched my neck. "What's wrong?" she said. But I didn't have an answer.
She kissed me goodbye that night and seemed to want to say something more, but I was barely listening. I told her I'd call her and, rather than accept a ride home, walked off down the dark street, lost in my own thoughts.
It was the last time I ever saw her.
Saturday I woke up to a voice mail. The missed call was from Rose, but the message was nothing, just eight seconds of silence. Maybe she called me by accident? I ignored it. Around noon I got a call from a mutual friend: She said Rose had missed their date and wasn't picking up her phone, did I know where she was? The obvious suggestion was that Rose stood her up for me, but I told her no, I hadn't seen her since Thursday, which apparently was the last day she'd seen Rose as well. I still wasn't all that worried. Rose could be a flake sometimes. You learned to live with it.
And then Rose's husband called me. That got my attention.
I let it go to voice mail; I had no interest in talking to him about anything. He and I had been friends once, but that was a long time ago (no, it wasn't Rose that came between us, and I wasn't what came between them either, as they'd been separated for six months before she and I became any kind of thing). I was, however, more than a little curious about what could compel him to pick up the phone and call me. His message was terse: Rose hadn't come home from our date on Thursday and she hadn't come home last night either, and if I knew where she was and if she was all right to please call because I "owed him that much."
Fact was, I didn't know, and if none of the three of us had seen her for 36 hours now…I called our mutual friend again. Did Rose say anything the last time you saw her? Did she mention the club? Have any cops been around? She said no to everything. It wasn't until Sunday that I allowed myself to panic. It was Sunday when Rose's husband called me again too, and kept calling until I answered. He accused me of hiding her, and when I denied it he said I had a "moral responsibility" to get her to come back, since it was "partly my fault" that they'd ever had problems in the first place. I wanted to tell him to fuck off, but by then I was too worried, and with Rose's stories about the cops at the club in mind I was half afraid to go to the police with anything. I had a nightmare vision of calling the police and having the Watcher show up on my doorstep. I didn't want that guy knowing where I lived. It wasn't that strange for a cop to moonlight as private security if he was getting paid well enough for it, but him working the door and working the disappearances at the same time unnerved me…
I was still wrestling with the matter by Monday when a knock at my door found, of all people, Genevieve waiting for me. I blinked, a little dumbfounded, but before I could ask what was going on and how she got here and where she had been while missing she threw something at me; it was a little blue notebook. Then she slapped me in the face, hard. I just about fell over. And with that she up and almost left; I caught up with her right at the elevator. "Wait," I said. She looked like she might hit me again so I kept my distance. "Genevieve, right? Look, I'm not going to ask where you've been or what that was all about, but just tell me, do you know where Rose is? No one has seen her all week. Just tell me yes or no and you can go, I don't care about anything else."
She paused. The elevator door opened, but she didn't get in. "I'm not Genevieve," she said.
I blinked. "Excuse me?"
"My name is Tess," she said. "Genevieve was my sister. Is my sister." She corrected herself fast, but not fast enough. Her lip started to tremble and in a second she was in tears, and I took her back to the apartment and sat her down, letting her compose herself. Feeling awkward and having nothing else to do, I made coffee. I don't even drink coffee but for some reason I always have it around. She accepted it without comment. I studied her; she was a perfect ringer for Genevieve. They must have been twins. Her hair was styled differently, of course, and she was a bit more conservatively dressed than Genevieve the one time I met her, but other than that the resemblance was eerie. I remembered the little book she threw at me and retrieved it. "What's this?" I said.
"It's Gen's appointment book," Tess said.
"Okay," I said, sitting down opposite her. "What's so important about it?"
She looked at me. "You're in it. You're all over it. The three weeks before she disappeared you were the only person she saw."
My jaw dropped. "Are you serious?" She nodded. I checked; she was right, my name and address were scribbled over and over again on the last pages. My phone number too. I shook my head. "Impossible. I only met the woman once, I swear!"
Tess frowned. "Why would she make it up?"
I shrugged. "I don't know. Maybe it's a kind of code so that no one can figure out who she was really seeing? Where did you even get this?"
"The cop gave it to me."
I felt a chill. "Which cop?"
"You know the one. The guy who moonlights at the club. The Watcher."
"Why would he do that?"
Now she shrugged. "He said there was something in there I should see. He said that they knew who kidnapped Gen but they couldn't prove it."
"Was this at the club?"
"Yeah, he was off-duty. Said he could get fired, even sent to jail for telling me this, for handing out evidence, but he said he thought I deserved to know the truth. I saw your name in there and, well, I guess I just assumed…" She peered at me over the rim of the coffee cup. "I'm not sure whether you're lying to me."
"Like I said, I'm not sure."
I sat back, helpless, leafing through the notebook; names and addresses, names and addresses, all meaningless to me except for two: One, my home, and two, The Yellow Sign. As far as I knew Gen had no clue where I lived and barely knew who I was. Why fill her appointment book with my information? I could think of one obvious answer: The Watcher might have altered the entries. As a cop he'd have no trouble getting my personal information or tampering with the evidence. But why would the Watcher send Tess to me? He must want us to talk about something. That meant I should probably do anything but, but there were things I wanted to know. "I think Rose has gone missing too," I said. "Do you know Rose?"
"You go to the club too?"
"I used to. For a while I worked there."
"I don't know. A month, maybe two. Until it got too weird."
"Too weird?" I almost wanted to laugh at that; what standards were we even using for that anymore? "How'd you get the job?"
"From Gen. She worked there after Louis went away."
"Her husband. Ex-husband. He was an army captain when they met but he's in prison now; old drug charges. Gen needed work and the club had just opened, so she went to work. Pro-domming, you know? It's good money. She'd done it before, before she met Louis. When the owner found out she had a sister she offered me a job too. We never, you know, did anything with each other. But clients liked the twin thing."
"So what do you mean when you say it got weird?"
"To be honest, the place always creeped me out. Little things. Like…" She paused. I prodded her. "You know the sign?" she said. "I mean, the real sign, outside, with that squiggly thing drawn on it?" I told her I knew what she meant. "It freaked me out the first time I saw it because, Gen's husband, Louis? He had that same thing tattooed in his arm."
"What is it?"
"I don't know. That's the thing, he didn't know either. He said he'd gotten one night while drunk on leave. Didn't even remember getting it done, just woke up with it. He had no clue. It always bothered me, for some reason. Looking at it gave me a headache. Gen too."
"Did he have anything to do with the club?"
Tess laughed without humor. "Louis? Fuck no. It was just a coincidence I guess. It must mean something, like a yin yang or a peace sign or something. Still, it freaked me out. Lots of things did." She darkened a bit. "It started to go really bad, after the owner got in on it. You know the woman, Camilla?"
"We've met," I said.
"Well, she liked Genevieve. She liked Genevieve a lot. Me not as much, but the twin thing was good for her too. She liked to dress us in matching outfits that covered my tattoos and then try to guess which one of us was which. She started giving Genevieve more clients and more money for sessions where she sat in and watched."
"Was anyone else ever there?"
"No. But she had that guy at the door most of the time, the same one who gave me the book."
I nodded. "So then what?"
"She got weird. Possessive. Wanted to stop giving us clients and just pay us to belong to just her. That's how she put it. Gen went for it but I didn't. She scared me." Tess bit her nails. "Eventually I quit. I didn't need the money as bad, and I didn't like watching what was happening to Genevieve. It wasn't the job, ya know, the job she could do. It's the way that crazy bitch got in your head…"
"Well, you've read the book, right?"
"'The King in Yellow.'" The back of my neck tingled again when she said it. "You said you met Camilla? She talks about it all the time. It's like the Bible with her. She had Gen read it over and over again. Sometimes she had her read it out loud. She tried to get me to read it but I wouldn’t."
"I just didn't like it. It's like…do you believe in Hell?" she said. The question caught me off guard. "I don't mean in any religious sense, but do you believe in a place that's just…wrong? Evil?"
"I don't understand?"
"I guess you wouldn't," she said. "You're lucky. I wish I was still like you." She stood up, apparently ready to go. I tried to stall her.
"What about your sister? What happened to her? When was the last time you saw her?"
"She just never came home from work one night," Tess said. "I bet it's the same way with your friend. I bet it's the same way with everyone who goes there. And you want to know where she is? I bet she's still there."
I blinked, confused. "Where?"
"The Yellow Sign."
"She's at the club?"
"She'll never leave. Ever. I know you don't get it. No one ever believes me when I tell them what it's really like in that place. No one takes me seriously."
"I'm taking you seriously," I said.
"I know. That's why I talked. But it's not going to matter. You haven't found it yet, have you?" I affected a confused look. She didn't buy it. "You know what I'm talking about. Just wait. Everything I said will make sense when you find it. It'll all make sense."
And she left. I went to the window and watched her as she left the building. I saw her walk down the street and turn the corner to where a car was idling; I only saw the back end, but it looked like a long black car. Like a hearse. When she was gone I looked through Genevieve's notebook again and again, reading the name: The Yellow Sign, The Yellow Sign, The Yellow Sign. Everything in my life had gone bad since I first heard of that place. Tess said it was evil. I didn't know what to think. I picked a piece of fruit out of the bowl on the table. It was rotten, the skin peeling away under my fingers. I threw it in the trash.
From then on, I was at the club every night. I rarely got more than four hours' sleep. I was hungover every morning. Every night was a constant throbbing symphony of music, drinks, dark corners, and strangers whose names I couldn't remember. I was hanging out hoping to meet someone who could tell me what was really going on. I watched for Camilla, but she never reappeared. I watched for that bouncer, but he was never watching the door no matter what time I arrived, though now and then I thought I glimpsed him in a crowd. I listened for any mention in any conversation of Rose or Genevieve or Tess, but no one knew their names. This was not something I could go to the police or to a lawyer over and not something I could ask for anyone else's help on for fear of what could happen if I involved them. I had to do this alone, just me. For Rose.
Even those nights I didn't drink, even when I couldn't possibly have been slipped anything, I always went home with at least a hint of that blurry, buzzsaw-like high and the awful nocturnal visions that went with it. The club was in my mind, always, like a stain that wasn't ever coming out. The question throbbed like a sore tooth: "Have you found the Yellow Sign?" I was convinced, against all reason, that the answer to it would reveal the inner secrets of the club, and what happened to Rose, and what was happening to me. Somewhere out there was the truth. Somewhere out there was someone who could tell me about the Yellow Sign. Somewhere…
When I got home I would sit down and scribble notes about what happened that night, though often I would awake the next morning to find that that all I had written were seemingly meaningless phrases: "The Phantom of Truth", for example, or "The Pallid Mask." Sometimes they were not even in my handwriting. The nightmares got worse. Never as bad as that first night, but still bad, and they came every night. Sometimes I dreamt about the hearse; sometimes about Rose, or Tess, or Camilla. During the day, the times I was awake and lucid, I did more and more sketches, even painted a little. Most of them were of Rose. I was looking for the truth in pictures again, as if I could pull the answers I wanted out of thin air with ink and paper, paint and canvas. Maybe if I just drew the right picture it would be like the real thing, and she'd be right back here with me.
After two weeks I was nearly at the breaking point. My teachers, I knew, had indulged my behavior and piss-poor work up to a point, but that would soon change. The club patrons would soon grow suspicious of me too, no matter how discrete I tried to be with my questioning. If I were a little smarter I would have made the connection to my big break a lot sooner, but as it was it took a scare. I came home one night drunker than usual, so out of it I could barely fit my key in the lock, and I found that the lights were already on when I got inside. Had I left them on? But no, as I came fully in, I saw that I wasn't alone. Someone was waiting for me.
At first it looked like a person covered by a sheet, but then the figure turned around and I saw that it was a kind of long robe. The intruder wore a mask, a mask of a pale white face that made my mouth go dry. Had I been in my right mind I think I would have run away then, but instead I just stood there, gaping, confused, uncertain whether this was real. Eventually I managed to stammer out, "Who the fuck—?" but could say nothing more than that. The masked figure came forward. My knees locked up. I really don't know what I meant to do next, but I didn't have to decide, because that's when I heard the voice:
"Don't you recognize me?"
I stopped. A chill clutched my chest. "Rose?" I said.
She took off the mask. "Hey baby."
"Rose, you're…" I groped for words. "What the hell are you wearing?"
"It's the Pallid Mask," she said.
There was a pain right behind my eyes. "You're not really here. I'm dreaming again."
"If you say so," she said. She put her hand on my arm. It felt solid and warm.
"Where did you go?" I asked.
"I never left," she said. "I can't leave."
I couldn't keep standing. I half-fell into a chair. She helped me. "It's okay," she said. "I'm here. It's okay."
She helped me down, then sat on my lap. The coarse fabric of the robe rubbed against me. "What're…wearing?" I slurred again.
"The Tattered Raiment," she said. "Don't you recognize it? It's from 'The King in Yellow.'''
"Dunno it," I said. She blinked and her brow knit a little.
"Really? You still haven't read it?" She did that half of a laugh that she does and shook her head. "You really are hopeless." She stood. "Help me out of this." I shook my head again, backing away.
"This isn't happening," I said. "You're not real."
"Don't I look real?" she said, taking the robe off. She was naked under it, of course. She pressed her body against mine, letting me feel it, hot and alive. She directed my hands to her ass and pushed down on my fingers so that I gave it a squeeze; it was firm and inviting. "Isn't this me?" she said. Her lips were right next to mine.
"I don't know…" I said. She kissed me. Her tongue darted in and out of my mouth, as quick as a hummingbird.
"Isn't this me?" she said between kisses.
"I don't know…"
She guided my hands up her smooth, thick, tanned thighs, and along the sloping lines of her hips, across the familiar scar on the right side and coming to rest on her abdomen, where I felt the rise and fall of her diaphragm with each breath. "Isn't this me baby? Isn't this me?" I kneaded her large breasts, rolling them in my hands while she leaned her head back and let her hair down, letting her dark curls fall across her naked shoulders. She turned around and placed her back to me, putting one of her hands behind my head and squeezing my wrist with the other. She arched her back, bending against me like a bow, turning her head to mine and kissing the underside of my ear. I shivered.
She bent over and hiked her ass into the air, letting me slide a fingertip up the middle of it, between her cheeks, glancing against the little hole there. She giggled. I did it again, then licked the tip of my finger and did it again. She squealed. By this time I'd forgotten all my questions, forgotten to wonder why she was here at all; my head filled up with that throbbing fog I associated with the club, and nothing else but Rose's body seemed important just now. I teased one fingertip inside of her; she moaned. I pushed in a little more, feeling how hot it was. There's a certain dirty feeling that comes with that heat that you can't get anywhere else. It's remarkable. I wanted more.
I positioned my hand so that my fingers splayed her asshole while my thumb rubbed underneath, massaging her naked cunt. She was gripping the arm of the chair, both to support herself and to provide leverage as she pushed back against me. I grabbed her hip with my other hand and, holding my breath in spite of the fact that it would cost me nothing, pushed one finger into her ass. She screamed and I stopped, but it turned out not to be a discouraging scream, so I kept going. I've always felt a certain degree of disbelief when it comes to anal; you're always thinking to yourself, is she actually letting me do this, can I actually keep going, is this real, is this happening? It doesn't matter how many times I've done it, how many times I've licked up the span between Rose's perfectly formed cheeks and stuck my tongue in, it's still a novelty to me.
Rose was more permissive than I'd ever known her to be, almost to the point of submissiveness. Perhaps with that in mind, it wasn't long until she vetoed any further fingering, making me (gingerly) move my hands and then rounding on me. She was stark naked and I was still fully clothed, and on top of that I was easily two inches taller than her, but she still managed to seem intimidating as she pushed me back into the chair and pinned me against it by raising a single bare foot and pressing it right over my heart. She told me to try and sit up, but of course I couldn't. The sinews of her legs stood out as she leaned in, pressing me. She was much stronger than she looked, and something about using a bare foot was always particularly gratifying for her. She held me there for a while, now and then telling me to try to get up and enjoying the fruitlessness of my efforts. Eventually her legs got tired and she let me go, planting both feet on the floor and taking a second to regain her balance. Then she snapped her fingers and pointed at the floor. "Down," she said. I slid off the chair and onto my knees, head bowed.
She wiggled her toes. "Kiss," she said. I knelt lower, pressing my lips to the back of one foot and then dotting kisses along to the curved side of her ankle, trailing up the calf with the tip of my tongue and then stopping at her knee, pressing my cheek against it. I could feel the blood rushing just beneath the surface of her skin. She looked like Rose, felt like Rose, tasted like Rose…was she really Rose? Was she really here? How could I be sure? I'd long since stopped trusting my memory or my senses. What could I even count on at this point? She felt solid. Tangible. Grounded. When I leaned on her, she didn’t waver. I could believe in Rose. If Rose was real?
She told me to stand, and to cross my arms behind my back. "Restraints," she said.
"You know I don't keep anything around the house," I said.
"That's all right," she said. "I brought my own." And someone grabbed me from behind.
Strong hands twisted my arms behind my back and pushed me to my knees; the grip was firm but the clammy flesh felt slippery somehow and, lurching forward, I slipped out and turned around. It was the Watcher; I had no idea how he'd gotten in. Had he been here the whole time, hiding and waiting? He grinned in a vacant way and came at me again. He was huge and I had not much room to run, so when he grabbed me I fell backwards, trying to take him with me. We landed hard and I kicked and scratched, trying to hurt any visible part of him, but he was unresponsive; it was like kicking a pile of mud.
We rolled across the floor, the spike of adrenaline clearing my head for the first time all evening. Again his meaty hands came at me, so I grabbed two of his fingers and tried to bend them back; his flesh sloughed off like the skin of a rotten peach. I gagged and my stomach turned. There was nothing of his right hand now but bones and rotted purple mess. He still grinned and I scrambled away, horrified. Rose was just watching the whole time. "Hurry up," she said. "The car is outside."
The car? I dared a glance out the window; down below, idling in the street, I saw the black hearse and knew that, inside, my casket was waiting for me. "Hurry up," Rose said again, though I was not sure which of us she was talking to. My limbs felt heavy and I became groggy. I just didn't have it in me to fight anymore. I waited for the Watcher's clammy hands to seize on me again, but nothing happened. I listened for the sound of his footsteps, or for Rose's voice, but everything was silent. Turning from the window, I looked around the apartment: empty. I was alone. My attacker was gone. So was Rose. Her mask and robe were gone too. There were no signs of the struggle I'd just had. And outside, the hearse was nowhere in sight.
I slid down the wall, head in my hands, trying to get a hold of myself. Dear God, what had just happened? Another dream? But I was wide awake the whole time. A hallucination then? The reality of Rose's absence and my sudden doubt that she had ever been there at all broke my heart. In spite of everything else, I had taken comfort in the revelation that she was still alive. In that moment, I would have traded my own safety or sanity for that assurance. Now I was denied even that.
I crawled into the bathroom and turned the shower up full-blast. I still felt, or imagined I felt, the slimy touch of the Watcher's rotten flesh. Real or imagined, I wanted to scrub his filth off of me. It was there, curled up in the tub, crying to no one at all, that I finally realized what I had been missing all along: the book. Rose mentioned "The King in Yellow." Camilla had too, the first night in the club, but I'd forgotten it in light of everything else. Even Tess brought it up, but somehow I'd been too dumb all this time to follow up on it. Were the answers I wanted there? Could the book make sense out of my world again? It was the only lead I had. I slept without dreaming that night, for the first time in longer than I could remember.
I looked it up the next day. No website had any information on the book itself; all mentions of it were in reference to other things, usually something terrible: a murder, a riot, a mass suicide. Perpetrators of various crimes mentioned it in rambling, insane confessions, and the title appeared in more than its fair share of suicide notes. But of the book itself, and its author, there was no word at all. No critic or scholar had ever written about it, no summary or review was to be found, no copy was for sale anywhere and no branch of the library had it in their collection. I checked the university libraries with little success and was about to give up when I finally hit on something: Berkeley had a copy, just one copy, in their rare books collection. I doubted they'd just hand it over for me to look at, but maybe I could get a minute or two of face time with it if pleaded scholarly desperation. It was worth a try.
I took a train out. I hadn't been to Berkeley since Rose moved. I was a mess that day, jumping at shadows. Every time I looked over my shoulder I expected to see an idling hearse creeping along behind me. I suddenly disliked being out in the open and I all but ran across the campus to the Bancroft collection. There I was in for a disappointment: There was no copy of "The King in Yellow" there. In fact, the librarian doubted such a book even existed. People sometimes slipped a fake entry for it into the card catalog as some kind of joke. She said she'd delete the entry now that I'd brought it to her attention, but she was sure someone else would just add it again, like they always did.
I was almost out the door when I heard her remark, seemingly in passing, that people who asked about that book usually went to see Professor Chambers.
I looked him up; professor of literature with some obscure specialization I could only guess the meaning of. He had office hours that day, so I hung around the campus and then wandered over. He must not have been at the university for very long, because his office was small and far off the beaten path. He was fortyish, balding, nondescript. When I came in he had a book of art prints open on his desk and I almost fell off the chair when I saw "The Great Red Dragon" staring back at me from the page. But he was attentive and seemed genuinely interested in what I might say, so I tried to focus. I wasn't sure how to begin; I told him was a student and was curious about "The King in Yellow."
"For research," I added.
Chambers looked thoughtful, putting the art book aside (and closing it, thankfully). "Well, it's a singular work," he said. "In fact, it's the focal point of my entire career."
"But what is it?"
"It's a play," he said. "Though it's never been performed. I only even know of a single planned performance, last year."
"What happened to that?"
"All the audience members were found dead in their seats on opening night. All two of them." He took off his glasses and cleaned them. "No, it's never been performed, only read, and rarely even that. It was suppressed, you see, on publication."
"By everyone. It was a source of enormous scandal. Branded obscene, impounded, destroyed en masse."
He leaned back in his squeaky chair. "Because it's a book that tells truths. Truths people aren't ready for. Do you believe that there are things no one should know?"
"I have no idea?"
He laughed. "Well, if you read the book, perhaps you'd have one. There's a persistent urban myth that those who read the play go mad, you see. And that its writer wasn't human. And that the play is a kind of gospel of an evil…well, no one really knows what to tell it. A god. A thing." He shrugged.
"Have you read it?" I asked.
"Oh, of course."
"But I was told there were no copies?"
"That's what they would have you believe. But a few always turn up sooner or later. I've read it several times, actually."
"So what's it about?"
He smiled a little more. "I don’t know."
I frowned. "But you've read it?"
"I have. Many times. But I can't tell you what it's about. It's different for everyone, you see. No two people who read 'The King in Yellow' read the same play. There are as many versions of it as there are people to read. I don't expect you to understand."
"Well how can it be a play about truths if it's never the same?"
"Do you think the truth is the same for everyone?" The sad, bemused little way he shook his head reminded me of Rose.
"What about…the Yellow Sign?" I said. Chambers sat back a little further in his chair; if I didn't know better I'd say he was impressed.
"Now that," he said, "is a singular matter in itself. The Yellow Sign is a part of the play. It's…an omen. A symbol of something great and terrible. To find the Yellow Sign is a horrifying thing, but for all that, many men and women have poured their lives into the quest."
"Is this it?" I took a piece of paper and I scribbled the three-sided shape on it. Chambers nodded. "Yes. For the most part." I said I didn't understand. "The Yellow Sign is just a symbol, like any other. What's important about it is not the shape, but what it represents." He took my paper and drew a line, one that intersected the Yellow Sign at various points. "Imagine that this is your life," he said. "This edge is where you are born, and this one is where you die.
"Now imagine that someone, or something, has the power to look at your whole life as a single thing, just like the line on this page, looking at your life from above, as it were, and that that someone 'draws' the sign and lays it over yours, the way you see here. Now and then, as you go through life, on your journey from one end to the other, you would encounter it." He traced the life line with his finger and I counted the points where it intersected the Yellow Sign. "To you these incidents might seem scattered and unrelated, but that's just because you lack perspective to see the whole picture. The pattern."
"Because I'm not up here; I'm down there."
"Exactly." He sat back, seeming pleased with his analogy. "Sometimes you'd see the Yellow Sign, or sometimes other things: names, people, seemingly inexplicable coincidences. They are all the Yellow Sign, in one form or another. Ultimately, the Yellow Sign is an indicator that a greater power has turned its eye on you." He paused. "For which I am very sorry," he added.
I nodded. My palms were itching and I sweated in the confines of the tiny, cramped office. "I guess the question is then: Whose hand is doing the drawing?"
Instead of answering me, he stood up and went to the top of the bookcase, so high up he had to stand on the chair to get up there, and when he came down he had a thin book full of tattered pages. He pressed it into my hand. It was worn and poorly bound, the kind of thing someone probably put together in their basement. The cover said, "The King in Yellow".
I looked at him. He nodded.
"There's a reading room just down the hall," he said. "Bring it back when you're done."
"Is this—?" I said. "I mean, will it…"
"All the answers you need," he said, "are in there." My feet were leaden. I couldn't move. Chambers scrutinized me. "You do want the answers, don't you? You want the truth?"
I dared to open the book and glance at a page; the words there gave me chills:
Camilla: Don't you see? I've found it, I've found the Yellow Sign! The end is here!
"It's still not too late, you know," Chambers said. He sounded sad. "Even now you can go back. You can forget it all. Everything in your life, every moment, every act, has been pushing you to this day, to this book, to the words inside of it and the revelation of the promised end. The Yellow Sign brought you here. But you have free will. You can walk away. If that's what you want."
I wasn't sure what I wanted. But I thought about Rose; I had to know the truth about her at least. No life would ever really satisfy me without knowing where she was and what happened to her. I left with the book. I went to the reading room. On the way I glanced out the window, and I was not surprised to see the hearse parked on the street outside, nor the distinctive figure of the Watcher waiting beside it. Waiting for me, I supposed.
I sat down with the book. It took me most of the afternoon. At one point, as I finished the first Act, I tried to stop, tried to walk away from the words that were infecting me. But as I threw the book down it fluttered open to the next page, and when my eyes unwillingly passed over it and saw what was written there I dived for the book again and picked it up and read all the way through, read each awful, painful, illuminating word. I read about the Pallid Mask, and the Tattered Raiment, about Camilla and Cassilda and the utter ruin that's left when you're corrupted by the pure and absolute knowledge of everything. But most of all I read about the truth. In the play, the truth had a name, and a voice, and it was called the Phantom of Truth, and it was known by everyone, and no one.
I read it twice. It was night by the time I finished. I left the reading room and went to Chambers' office. He was not there. In fact, there was no office there at all now, and a bare wall where the door had been, and I was sure that if I checked the campus website it would no longer list him as faculty, and the librarian would deny ever telling me his name. But these things did not surprise me. I was seeing with a new pair of eyes. The book had shown me the way. I was no longer scared, and no longer confused. I knew the truth about everything. Not just about my life, and about Rose, but about everything, everything in the universe. It was horrifying. It was beautiful. I wanted to tear my eyes out.
I left the building and went out to the street, where the car was waiting for me. Now that I was finally close to it I saw that I had been wrong; it was not the hearse of my dream at all, but a short black limousine. The Watcher had resumed his post in the driver's seat, but someone else was waiting for me at the curb. At first I thought it was Tess, looking like a whole new woman since we'd talked some weeks prior, but after a moment's consideration I realized that in fact it was not Tess at all but Genevieve. Back from the dead, or wherever else she'd been. I wondered, idly, if maybe they had really been the same woman all along, one woman somehow posing as twins. I laughed at the idea.
Genevieve hugged me, her lithe little body rubbing up against mine. "We've been waiting for you," she said.
"I know. I'm sorry, but I had to finish it," I said, indicating the book. "I had to know how it all ends."
"Of course," she said, taking it from my hand. "And now you know."
"Yes," I said. "I know. And I know that it's time to go. But…things still aren't right. I haven't found the Yellow Sign yet?"
"You will," she said. She pointed up, and I looked a the night sky and, following her finger as she traced an image in the stars, and I saw it: the three-sided shape, the endless gyre, a pale yellow constellation that you would never recognize if you didn't know what you were looking for but which, once seen, was like a brand on the sky. It was the unseeing eye of a dead god, one decayed lid all that kept us safe from the killing rays of his gaze. And to think it had been there all along, always, for eternity, and we were too blind to see it!
Genevieve kissed me on the cheek and let me into the limo, then joined me. Rose was inside, waiting for me, her legs crossed underneath a little black dress that hugged her figure so perfectly. I was not surprised to see her. The car pulled away, and I saw the blank eyes of the Watcher in the rearview mirror.
"We're going to the club," I said.
"Yes," said Genevieve.
"To the VIP room."
"That's right baby," Rose said. "You finally made it. How do you feel?"
"I don't know," I said. "I'm not sure that I…do feel. Anything." I looked at Rose. She smiled with her crooked eye tooth. "You're not really Rose, are you?" I said. She shook her head. "And you're not really Genevieve?" Another head shake. I paused. "You're not people at all. What are you? No, don't tell me, I don't care, just tell me, where are they? Where is she?"
"You'll be with her soon enough," said Rose (not really Rose, I knew, but such a remarkable facsimile that I could not think of her as anything else). The car passed over the bridge; I saw the reflection of the cursed stars in the mirrored waters of the bay. We crawled through traffic on the narrow streets until the car pulled into an alley and a back entrance to the club that I never knew was there. The Watcher opened the doors, letting Genevieve and Rose out first. He said nothing to me as I passed, not even when I glanced at the skeletal purple remains of his hand.
The back door opened into a secret hall. Rose's hot little fingers slipped into mine as the two of them led me to the VIP room. Through a single long window hidden behind a two-way mirror I could see the front of the club, see the drinkers, the dancers, the partygoers, the mass that I had until recently been one of, but now I saw them all for what they were, saw the emptiness and desperation of these hollow-eyed goblins. They were not for me. We moved on.
They took me downstairs, under the street, into a long, tilted corridor with rooms on all sides. Looking into each as we passed, I saw the most fascinating things being done to people. I wanted to stop and watch, but they forced me to move on. We came to a long room at the end of the hall, and there Camilla was waiting for us. She embraced me like an old friend. "You made it," she said. "I knew you would." I said nothing. I was not sure what to think. Neither Rose nor Genevieve really were who they were, so who about Camilla? Was she the same person I met before? Was she the person from the play? Was she a person at all?
They took me to a stool and sat me down. They stripped me and bound my wrists. I let them. The room we were in was long, very long; in fact, it seemed to go on forever. Rose, Camilla, and Genevieve stood in front of me. They undressed in a methodical fashion, tossing their clothes aside. Camilla held something folded in her hands; it was the Tattered Raiment. On top of the pile sat the Pallid Mask. I understood their significance now, but the question remained, who would wear them? Who would become the Phantom of Truth? It seemed Camilla was elected, because the others helped her into the robe, and then she fixed the mask to her face. The others took their positions on either side of me. "Are you ready?" said the Truth. "Are you ready to begin the transition?"
I nodded. "I am."
The Truth pointed to a table; on it were an array of gleaming instruments. Rose selected one, a crop with a barbed end. She pressed the tip of it against one of my nipples and twisted. I felt nothing. She looked at the Truth and the Truth nodded, barely inclining its head. Rose swung the crop and I saw it smack my bare flesh, saw the red mark that blossomed immediately on my skin. I even felt it, to a degree, but not as anything that could be called pain. I was inured.
Genevieve looked at the table, considering. She lingered over a knife on the end for a moment but instead selected a leather glove with pointed metal studs on the knuckles and the tips of the fingers. She went behind me and nestled her splayed fingers between my shoulder blades. At the Truth's signal she raked my back, the glove leaving red gashes; not deep, not enough to bleed, but certainly enough to make me squirm and cry out. Only I didn't. I didn't hurt a bit. Even when she did it the other way, crisscrossing my bare skin, I didn't feel.
Rose brought the nipple clamps next. Even when she pulled on the chain as hard as she could, even when I knew that there should be a lightening bolt of pain running straight through the center of my body, there wasn't. One by one they all but emptied the table, trying everything on me: The hooks didn't affect me. I couldn't feel the flail. Even when Genevieve resorted to the urethral sounds, I didn't flinch. All the while the Phantom of Truth watched us, occasionally directing through gestures but never speaking. The Truth was silent, always.
Eventually they untied me. Despite the abuse I'd been put through, I had no trouble standing. There were some few leagues between my body and my self by now. The Truth watched me, its blank face revealing nothing. Rose and Genevieve pushed me toward it. "It's time," they said together.
"Time for what?"
"You have to find the Yellow Sign."
"It can only be in one place," said Rose, and I knew she was right. I approached the Truth. It did not react. I looked at the tools left on the table, and I picked up the knife; the metal was cold in my hand.
"Go on," said Rose.
"Go on," said Genevieve.
"Go on," said Camilla, and suddenly she was right besides me, unmasked, dressed as herself. But the Phantom of Truth was still before me. Who wore the Tattered Raiment now? It didn't matter. I knew what I had to do. I drove the knife up into the masked figure's chest; it collapsed into itself, folding and contorting. I fell on it hacked away; there was no blood, its body was solid all the way through. I cut and peeled through layer after layer; the Truth was, as always, elusive — masked, covered, hidden, disguised. But I knew, like I'd always known, that if I attacked it head-on, the Truth could not hide from me.
The blade hit what I thought was bone, but then I saw light reflecting off of it. Putting the knife down, I picked through the shreds, and there, sealed in gold, was the Yellow Sign. I picked it up; it was hot to the touch, and more beautiful than I'd ever imagined. I had found it, I had really, truly found it, and now it was mine. The Phantom and his mask and his robes were gone; the Yellow Sign was all that remained of the Truth. It was the whole truth.
"Congratulations," said Camilla. I looked up at her, still on my knees.
"What happens now?" I said.
"Now you transition," she said. "Now you move on. Look."
She pointed; the walls were opening. I saw things behind them, such things. They came for me. They told me that it was time to go. I didn't want to leave, but they said I had no choice. I saw the place they meant to take me and I tried to fight them, but it was no good. I had found the Yellow Sign, and I was not meant for this world anymore. I looked to Rose or even Genevieve for help, but of course, they were not there, and never had been. They were in the place that I was going.
And the place that I am still. I can't ever leave, you see, not until it's time, not until enough people find the Yellow Sign so that the King in Yellow reawakens and batters down the walls between the worlds and spreads the Tattered Raiment across the sky, like the wings of the dragon.
And that's why I'm giving the world my story. Just as some other man twenty years ago, with his last act in this world, sent a message forward to me, a faded postcard addressed to a person not even born yet, now I'm sending one. Because people have to know. They have to seek, and find. Are you the person I'm looking for? You'll help me, won't you? You'll find the Yellow Sign? You wouldn't leave me trapped here forever, would you? It's out there right now. It knows that you're coming. You may even have found it already and not realized what it was. Please help me. Please set me free. I know you'll find the Yellow Sign, I know it. Won't you?