The birds sing me awake, their cries loud enough to drown out my dreams. I wind the surrounding sheets, still bearing the musk of my skin, stale and dry these days. It is a talisman against the wet, greasy decay of what hunts me.
I hear it breathing – the pop and crackle of rice cereal, slow and hollow in a lake of lumpen, sour milk. I reach for my paints, unscrewing the lids on the Manganese Blue and Cadmium Yellow.
I smear lines down my arms and chest, my thighs and around my crotch in patterns derived from Hermetic sigils but already matted and altered by my nervous hand.
I dress in a yellow t-shirt, a long-sleeved green t-shirt and then a Norwich City FC top. I draw more lines on my face, warpaint against the thing that hunts me today.
Ridicule is a small price to pay against your eternal soul.
I grab the battered, incomplete copy of Call of Cthulu, with the irrelevant sections long since torn away and the spine is now so much tattered remnants of the glue and thread that bound it together. The both of us, falling apart whilst holding onto the illusion that we are whole.
It stole most of my dice, but so long as I have one twenty-sided die, I can arrest its advances. I have enough pennies in the jar to afford something to drink or eat but not both.
Location is everything so I consult my map and the closest congruence of ley lines is the KFC just before Regent Road. It will be busy, but my survival outweighs my concerns over the opinions of others.
I run from Gordon Road, muttering a protective mantra to disguise my position. Its roar sounds, shaking the windows of the surrounding houses, already angered by my countermeasures and I sprint through the park.
A warm, thick breeze brings the smell of sulphur to my nose and I almost lose the rhythm of my mantras. A car stops, a horn sounds as I dash across the road. I see the KFC and enjoy the gentle, lilting spark of hope that arises in my chest.
I order a cola which is all I can afford and look around, seeing an empty table at the front which is where the best energy tends to pool. The young girl who serves me has a pained smirk on her face and manages to ignore my appearance long enough for me to pay and take myself over to the table.
The game demands enthusiasm and focus to be effective. I miss the guys I used to play with, picked off one by one by marriage, work and social lives. They have stopped playing the game, but it has not stopped playing them. It never will.
There is a father and his son to my right, who both shoot disbelieving stares as I set up and start playing.
I describe the KFC, the surrounding people to add weight and reality to the ritual. I keep the descriptions brief to avoid insulting anyone but it is my desperation that offends people.
How many pleasant afternoons have I ruined in defence of my soul?
As many as I need to.
The rules call for a perception check. I roll a one which is when a member of staff comes over to me, embarrassed but determined to do his job. I turn and knock over my cola with my right hip, which makes the father on my right stand up and swear as some of it splashes on his jeans. His hands are forming fists but the staff member calms him down in halting, thickly accented English before he asks me to stop playing.
To everyone around me, this is an affectation, a game but to me, it is life and death. I turn and continue to play, hearing a chorus of disapproval rise behind me. Tears fill my eyes, a sparkling bitter anxiety flowing through me.
Children stand at the window, watching me as they laugh amongst themselves. A smartly dressed man comes up and speaks to them which encourages them to leave, still laughing but nervous with it. The man looks at me with empathy and his eyes drift to the Call of Cthulu rule book.
He nods and moves on.
I make another sanity check and pass. The green paint tingles on my arms and cheeks, warning me of an incursion. I glance around and see that the team leader is putting his phone back into his pocket with a guilty smile on his face.
I hear the wail of sirens, and I know that they are coming for me.
I am close to establishing the ward and so I mumble my way through the rest, rolling the die and sending it spinning off the table. I knock into the couple on the other side and receive a loose, weak punch on the side of my head but it does not hurt me.
The siren reaches a pitch and then stops. I see the flashes of green and yellow and feel a deep, powerful relief as they come to me, saying my name with a gentle familiarity. They take me with them, and one of them even picks up my book, my screen and my die to bring with her.
I am safe with them. In the ambulance, the ritual begins again and I welcome the pinch of the needle then the deep, plasticizing relief of the drugs as they kick in.
It roars at my escape, forever hungry and determined to catch me. They strap me in with care and we drive away. I manage to smile to myself before I allow myself the pleasure of surrendering to the drug, knowing that for now, I am safe.