Somewhere along the Californian shore was a town that didn't fit in. Nestled in the shadow of craggy rock, it was too small to be regarded as any sort of travel destination. Even if a curious person were to visit, they wouldn't find much. There wasn't anything picturesque about the place. There was a decaying main street, a few dim storefronts, and a handful of scattered, gray farmhouses in the distance. Perhaps the sun, shining strong and bright above, had faded everything. Or perhaps the town was just old and slowly dying.
The residents thought of strangers as enemies, and they were wary of outside influence. Their lives were their own, and the rest of the world did not interest them.
It was a place pulled out of time. A place of superstitious beliefs and cruel traditions. But to John Steinbeck, it was home.
He was outside, helping tend to the land that had belonged to his family for generations. The dirt was hard, and fought him. John was used to it, though. It gave him something to do while he thought about his life.
That, unlike the farm work, was new to him and unpleasantly difficult. He'd never given too much thought to the circumstances surrounding his life. About what it meant to grow up in such a secluded town, what effect it might have had on him. But today, he couldn't stop thinking about it. Because today, even though he was only thirteen years old, he had realized that his life was going to end very soon.
There was a small green vine growing from the inside of his arm, beneath his elbow. When he yanked at it, it hurt, like pulling one of his own fingers. And, as sure as anything, it was a sign that he would die.
John rolled down his sleeve to hide it, and tried to think.
Earlier that day, he'd been in a fight. He was always getting into fights. Most of the other boys his age were bigger and tougher than he was, which made him look like an easy target. Today, he'd brought a little bit of insurance with him: a chipped knife that he'd found stuck in the dirt.
Maybe it was the knife that had done this to him. Or maybe it was something he'd been born to. There was no way to tell, and it didn't matter much in the end, anyway. The only thing that mattered was that it had happened.
The fight had gone poorly, and one of the bigger boys had torn the knife from his hand. Towering over him, he'd threatened to slice John's throat with it.
There was only one thing John could do: he kicked the bigger boy in the knee, threw dirt into his eyes, scrambled to his feet, and ran. He ran fast and far, until he'd put enough distance between himself and his pursuer that he could hide.
There was a farm nearby, with a huge, overgrown vineyard. John didn't know what the owners did with the grapes; they were much too bitter and tough to eat. But he didn't really care. The important thing was that the grapevines were ill-tended, and made an excellent hiding place. He crept as far into the vines as he could, until he was completely surrounded by their dark green leaves.
Hopefully no one would come looking for him here. He wasn't sure if he could run anymore. Blood stained his shirt in multiple places, and part of one of his sleeves was ripped. He was going to get in trouble when he got home. His family didn't care that he got in fights, but they did care when he ruined his clothes. Stupid knife. Stupid him, for thinking it'd give him any sort of advantage.
Exhausted and hurting, he sighed and leaned back against the grapes. The vines scratched at his skin, but it was background noise compared to the rest of his pain.
Just then, a strange sensation washed over him. It started as a tingling in his forearm and gradually filled his senses. It was like being enveloped in pure sunlight: warm and golden. John opened his eyes, surprised. His arm was glowing and a little vine was there, growing out of a wound like he was made of dirt and not flesh.
Panic surged through him, chasing the warm feeling away. He pulled off his shirt, checking his other injuries. None of them were growing anything, thank goodness. He stared down at his arm again, and tried to yank the vine out.
It hurt. The vine, like it or not, was part of him.
John's heart raced. Things like this weren't unheard of. In the rest of the world, they might even be seen as a sort of gift, something rare and useful. But here in this town, they were regarded as a curse.
There had been stories about people with abilities, handed down from generation to generation. The stories went like this:
Terrible things lurk in the ocean. Things that hold no feelings of kindness towards the creatures of the land. Outsiders say they are nothing but fairy tales, but here, we know the truth. They are not fables or myths. They are real, and their malevolence knows no bounds.
Sometimes children develop strange abilities. Things that should not be possible. Things that might be magic. These children have been corrupted by the creatures of the ocean.
Adults never contract this curse. Only children. The creatures' influence is weak on land, and can only warp a child. Everyone knows that the victims are normal, until the day they are not. There is no pattern to the victims. They are not always the best and brightest of the town, nor are they always outcasts. As far as we can tell, it is random. Any child can be afflicted.
And once such a child is found, there is a ceremony.
John didn't know what the ceremony entailed. Only that the child was taken to the shore, under the cover of the darkest hours of night. The adults returned, but the child did not. And no one spoke of them again, except in hushed, frightened whispers.
All he knew was that it had happened once when he was very young. He still remembered the girl they took. Her name was Jennifer, and she was a handful of years older than him. She was nice. Sometimes she'd share her lunch with John, when he didn't have any food of his own. One day, she'd been outside, hanging laundry. Within moments, every bird in the area, from sparrows to falcons, seagulls to crows, flocked to her. They all stood deathly still, as if awaiting her command.
John never saw her again.
That was the day his parents had told him the story. Young as he was, he listened and nodded, and accepted that was how the world worked.
Now that he was older, he privately thought that the whole thing was bullshit. Every last word of it. It was stupid to think that there were monsters that no one had ever seen, watching them from the ocean, demanding sacrifices like that.
He'd only voiced this opinion once. The beating it earned him had ensured that he kept any more such thoughts to himself. As a member of the community, he was not allowed to question. The story of the creatures was tradition, and truth besides.
And now here he was, with a grapevine growing out of his arm. That much of the story, at least, was true. Strange abilities did exist in the world. But he didn't feel any different, apart from being very afraid of what was going to happen. He certainly didn't feel cursed by some ocean demon.
Not that it mattered. Even if he was cursed, he didn't want to die.
He poked at the vine again. It was, apart from the fact that it was growing out of him, a perfectly normal looking grapevine. Curiosity overtook him for a moment, and he tore a grape off the plant behind him. He pulled out the tiny seeds, sprinkling them into another cut. His arm started to tingle again, and more tiny green shoots began to curl out of his flesh.
His stomach churned but he couldn't look away. It didn't hurt at all. The sensation of the plants springing from his body was warm and soft. Maybe all he could feel was the sunlight they absorbed.
John's mind raced as he tried to figure out what to do. It was such a tiny, easily avoided ability... maybe he could simply hide it. If he didn't say anything, nobody would know.
If he was away from home too much longer, someone would notice. And that would restrict the freedom he needed to deal with the vines. So he rolled down his sleeve, covering them with fabric.
John nodded to himself. Not a long-term solution, but good enough to get home. Once he was there, he headed out into the fields to do his chores, and began considering his options.
Years passed. After the incident with the girl and the birds, there hadn't been another curse. The adults of the town began to worry. Such a long time between incidents was unheard of. Children were watched, very carefully, for any sign of the unusual abilities.
It was so ridiculous that it made John want to laugh.
The afternoon that he'd discovered his ability had ended with him behind the barn, alone with the sharpest trowel he could find. He bit down on a length of rope, and dug the vines out of his arm. It was just like weeding the vegetable garden, apart from the pain and the blood. He'd almost fainted, but he was determined. Once they were out, he burned the bloody roots with a lighter he'd stolen weeks earlier.
He ripped off the rest of his damaged sleeve, and tied it around the gaping wound in his arm. There were any number of excuses he could use to explain it away. Accidents happened all the time on the farm.
John was twenty-one now, and nothing had happened. Neither his family, nor any of the townsfolk ever suspected that he was cursed. And the monsters, if they existed, were apparently just as easy to fool.
Or so he thought.
It was late in the evening, and John was slumped across the sofa. Dinner was almost ready, and he couldn't work up the energy to do anything besides wait.
Someone knocked on the front door.
Unusual, but not unheard of. It was probably a neighbor who needed flour, or someone looking for a lost chicken.
John shuffled to the door and cracked it open. "Yeah?"
The man outside was no neighbor. He was a stranger, tall and disheveled. His hair and clothes were ragged, like someone had dragged him through the dirt to the Steinbeck doorstep.
Even if John hadn't been raised to regard strangers with suspicion, he'd still have felt uneasy with the man's appearance. There was something unnerving about him that was hard for John to pinpoint. Maybe it was the way he stood, feet slightly too far apart, hunched forward a little too much. Or the way he stared without blinking.
John's eyes narrowed, and he spoke in his least hospitable voice. "Can I help you?"
"Ah. This was not as difficult as I expected," the man said. His voice was deep and quiet, and almost entirely lacking in emotion.
"Who the hell are you?"
"Someone who has been searching for you."
"Well, you found me. Now get out of here before I get my shotgun."
The faintest trace of a smile crept across the stranger's face, and then vanished. "That would be... unwise."
Even though he was unnerved, John refused to back down. "Yeah, it would be. For you."
The man finally blinked, slowly. "For you as well."
"Is that all you got? I'm gonna say it one more time. Get the hell out of here."
To his surprise, the stranger obeyed. He turned wordlessly, and shuffled away from the farm house.
John walked out to the porch and watched him go. The man's gait was awkward; it made John think of someone falling in slow motion. But he didn't fall, instead he leaned into the next step and repeated the motion again and again. Maybe it was just a trick of the eyes, something to do with how that long coat obscured his legs, or with the swaying of his hair. Whatever the cause, it made John's head ache.
"Who was that at the door, John?" his mother called from the kitchen.
"Nobody, Ma. Just some salesman."
"A salesman? Here?"
"I told him to get. It's fine."
When John looked back towards the road, the man had vanished. Even at a brisk pace, he should still be visible; the land was very flat and it was still light out. But there was no sign of him.
Until the next day, when, right before dinner, he reappeared at the door.
And the day after.
And the day after that.
Each time, John lost a little more of his patience. A week into the ordeal, he answered the door with his shotgun already in hand. "I told you not to come 'round here anymore."
"Listen. You show up again, you're never leaving. Nobody in this town's gonna doubt me if I say you were breaking in, or stealing cattle, you understand? Some stranger that nobody's seen before? They're not even gonna care." He glanced meaningfully at his gun.
The stranger stared back at him. He didn't look afraid, or even worried. His expression remained as blank as always. "Shooting me would not be as simple as you expect."
"Yeah? I'm willing to take that bet."
As he spoke, the man's head began to list sideways. It didn't stop where it should have. His neck kept bending, until his ear was touching his shoulder, and his long hair hung perpendicular from his head.
John had started to have suspicions, what with the stranger's odd behavior. But this was proof that his fears were real. Whatever this thing was, it wasn't human. And it was looking for him.
John swallowed the fear that rose up within him, and forced a confident grin. "What, you think that because you don't have any bones, that proves something? Or are you just trying to scare me? You think I don't already have a pretty goddamned good idea of what you are?"
A thin smile curled one corner of the creature's mouth. "Do you?"
"I ought to. I've been hearing about you my whole damn life. But that doesn't mean I'm scared of you."
"Yes you are, or you would not have hidden yourself. You would have faced me."
John's temper rose. "The whole thing is bullshit. Leave me alone!"
The stranger leaned in, close enough that John could feel the chill that surrounded him, and smell his stench of decay. "I will have you."
The dark voice swirled through John's mind, whispering to his most primal, vulnerable parts. His vision went blurry and his muscles weakened, and for an agonizing second he pitched forward, on the verge of fainting.
As he fell, John did the only thing he could think of, and slapped the stranger in the face. His skin was clammy and cold.
And then everything went dark.
When John came to, he was crumpled on the floor of the living room by the front door, which was now closed.
What had just happened?
Why had the stranger, who had come to take him away, left him when he was passed out and helpless?
Unwilling to believe that he'd be so lucky twice, John became much more cautious. If the man came to the door, John only opened it a crack, confirmed who it was, and then shut it again without a word. If he approached while John was working outside, he would gesture to the gun that was never far from his person.
After a while, the stranger stopped approaching him at all. John would see him sometimes in the distance, staring in his direction. But he never got close enough to speak.
That suited John just fine.
Most nights, John ended his day at the bar. It was a drab, unimpressive place, but it was better than sitting around listening to his family complain about the weather.
He'd just gotten out of his truck when he heard a familiar voice.
"I will see you soon, John."
Whipping around, he squinted into the darkness, searching for the stranger. But he was nowhere to be seen. Unsettled despite himself, John headed inside.
He drank more than usual that night.
A newcomer walked into the bar. John recognized him immediately: a man who used to be a boy that bullied those smaller than him.
When he saw John, he laughed nastily. "Well, I'll be. John, you still alive? Figured a shitty little runt like you would have died by now. God knows I tried to help with that."
John glared back at him. "Shut your mouth, Tom, or I'll shut it for you."
"Ha. Fightin' words, eh? Didn't you learn your lesson years ago, when I nearly cut you open?"
"Guess I didn't."
"You know, this town's been more of a shithole than usual lately. Maybe the old geezers got the right idea. Town does need a sacrifice. Too bad you never got that curse, John. Nobody'd miss you. Your folks'd never even notice you were gone. How many kids they got, anyway? Fifteen? Twenty? One less wouldn't bother 'em none."
"Shut up about that stupid curse," John spat.
"Why? You still moody about that little bitch? She was a good for nothing, just like you."
"You shouldn't disrespect the dead."
Tom laughed, loud and braying. "She was a fucking monster, John! She doesn't deserve respect. If she had a grave, I'd go spit on it."
John was more than a little bit drunk, and now he was also angry. He couldn't even explain why, exactly. Jennifer had been his friend, but they'd never been close. And people had been taunting him about his height and his family his whole life.
Maybe it was the effect of the stranger's words, still ringing in his ears. Full of anxious energy and a boiling temper, John slammed his glass down and stood up.
"I said shut up."
"I will. I'll kill you."
And now there was a body buried behind the old shack on the outskirts of town, and blood on his hands that wasn't his. And a whole bar full of witnesses that had heard him threaten to kill Tom.
Strange and secluded as the community was, manslaughter was still a crime. And that's exactly what he'd done: he'd let his temper get the better of him, and he'd hauled Tom off and beaten him to death.
John stared down at the dirt that marked the shallow grave.
It all felt like something that had happened to someone else. He couldn't even remember the details. He'd caught Tom off guard, and despite all the alcohol he'd had, he was still more sober than the larger man. Somehow he'd won. It was fuzzy, like a dream. But the sinking feeling in his stomach and the panic racing through his veins was real. The towel on the ground, so bloody that it left a red stain on the ground, was real. His truck, parked behind him with blood spatter on the door, was real.
Tom was dead. And John had killed him.
It felt the same as that day years ago, when the vine grew out of his arm. In one split second, it felt like his whole future had vanished. But this wasn't something he could hide.
If he was lucky, he'd go to jail. If he was unlucky, Tom's friends would rally together and exact revenge. Eye for an eye, that was a simple law. The town would turn a blind eye if he went missing under those circumstances.
If he went missing...
That was his only chance, wasn't it? No one would care, not for very long. People moved on from all sorts of tragedies. Most of the townsfolk wouldn't even notice. His family would miss him, for a while. They might wonder what they'd done wrong. But they'd get over it, bound up in the complicated process of life.
A dull certainty settled in his chest. He had to run.
John climbed into his truck. He needed to get out on the road, to drive until he couldn't anymore. But a sudden apathy came over him, and he slumped against the steering wheel instead, staring out the window at the scene of his crime.
Did it even matter if he ran? Sure, he might be able to escape the townsfolk, maybe even the cops if he hid well enough. But he'd always know what he had done. That was something he had to live with for the rest of his life. He was a murderer. It didn't matter how much of a jackass Tom had been, he was the victim now. And John was nothing but a killer.
He started to wonder if the superstitions had been right, after all. Maybe he was cursed, and this was the natural end of someone who defied fate.
The hair on the back of his neck stood up. Someone was watching him. Someone familiar.
John groaned. Maybe the thing would finally just kill him and put him out of his misery. "I know you're there."
The deep voice of the stranger answered him. "Very perceptive."
"Not really. You make the air go all strange."
He stepped out of the shadows, and approached the truck. "I will always be here in the darkness, waiting for you. I will be in your shadow, until you no longer have one."
"I'm not in the mood for this tonight," John grumbled. "Guess I should let you know not to go around the house any more. I won't be there, and my family isn't gonna know where I am, so don't bother them. You hear me? Leave them alone."
"You are leaving." It was a statement, not a question, and so John didn't feel the need to answer.
Instead he turned the key, and as the engine roared to life, he leaned out the window. "Better get out of the way."
But the man didn't move. "John?"
That was the first time he'd called John by name, and it sent a shudder down his spine. "If I drive far enough, maybe I can get away from you, too. Goodbye, whatever you are."
"I am Lovecraft. You have never asked, but that is what I am." Was his voice a little sad? It was probably just John's imagination. The truck was almost too loud to hear him at all. Any inflection would have been drowned out completely.
"Great. Good. I don't care. Now get out of the way before I run you over and add your body to Tom's over there." He threw the truck into reverse, and backed away from Lovecraft.
If Lovecraft said anything else, John didn't hear it. He backed out to the road, and headed for the highway.
It was so dark that the road spilled out ahead of him, created by his headlights as he drove through void. Endless and unknowable. That was fine with John. He didn't care where he was going. Just as long as it was away.
John drove through the night, but as the sun rose, his adrenaline wore off. There was no way he could keep going. His head pounded, his vision was blurred, and he could barely stay awake. Hopefully he'd put enough distance between himself and the place that used to be his home.
He pulled off into a secluded rest stop, and curled up on the seat, exhausted.
Blood filled his dreams. Blood and vines. They bound him in place while he struggled to escape, knowing that at any moment, death would find him.
Shuddering, he tried to fight his growing feelings of panic. This was what happened to people who left. The outside world was dangerous. He was only safe at home, and--
John woke, terrified and alone. Without even stopping for breakfast, he got back on the road. The highway was busy now, and the constant traffic wore at his nerves. When he exhausted himself again, he found another rest area and attempted to sleep.
Days passed. John ate very little, and slept only fitfully. His mind and heart were numb. He wasn't worried about the future anymore. All there was for him was this: constant movement, a purgatory of steel and asphalt.
Static and fading music from the radio were his only companions. John had never been so lonely. For his entire life, he'd been surrounded by family. There were always people nearby. Being alone with his thoughts had been a rare and precious thing. But now, he wished for nothing so much as the sound of someone else's voice, someone to pull him away from of himself, even if only for a moment.
The few minutes he spent buying gas or food became the highlight of his day. Sometimes he was so overcome with melancholy and loneliness that he didn't even drive very far.
He would sit, slumped over the steering wheel, absorbed in his thoughts. What had happened to him, really? Was this his doing, or had the townsfolk been right? Was he a cursed being after all? This new life of his certainly felt cursed.
Of course, blaming the strange power in his blood was much easier than admitting the truth. For so much of his life, he'd believed that the stories of curses and monsters were garbage. But now that they gave him an excuse, here he was, seriously considering that they might be true. No, it was his own fault that Tom was dead, his own two hands that had brought about this fate.
He'd thrown his life away, for what? For a fit of anger that had gotten out of control. And now he was empty, living on instinct and gasoline fumes. If anyone looked at him too long, asked him too many questions, he felt like he might unravel. What would they see, as his outer self unpeeled? What truth lay buried deep inside him?
Nothing. That was the truth. At the core of him, there was nothing. He'd spent his life being a farmer's son, with his future laid out before him. He'd grow up working on the farm, grow old there, and die there. With that taken away from him, there was nothing left.
John began to wish that Lovecraft would find him. But here, hundreds of miles away from the place that had been home, how could he? He'd spent much of his life trying to chase the creature away. But now he wanted to know, almost desperately: Had anybody else ever cheated their fate like this? What happened to them? And most importantly, what was he supposed to do now?
John stood on the beach, and stared out at the waves.
There was no way this would work. This wasn't even the same ocean. But the silence in the truck had become overwhelming. Even the radio couldn't drown it out. In John's mind it was the silence of the grave. His purgatory had become a coffin.
And Lovecraft was--
John laughed at himself, there on the cold beach. Lovecraft was the only other person he knew. The only person who might not be immediately disgusted with him. Even if the creature appeared and killed him, so what? At least it would put an end to the emptiness inside of him.
"I'm here," he called to the water.
The wind answered him, bitter.
"Please. I don't know where else to go."
If Lovecraft could hear him, he wasn't answering. But how could he be sure that he could hear him at all? This was so far from home. If only he had some way to announce his presence.
A cold certainty shot down his spine. Of course. He had exactly that.
John pulled out his pocket knife. He'd sworn to himself, years ago, that he'd never do this again. Never take the risk of being discovered. But that was what he needed now, wasn't it? He needed to be seen for what he really was.
Besides, he'd kept that little bag of seeds with him, hadn't he? If he'd never meant to use his ability, why had he kept them? His whole life after that day had been nothing but one lie after another.
Grimacing, he cut a gash into his arm.
The seeds took hold and grew almost of their own accord; his arm started to tingle, and then the warmth rushed over him. This time, instead of panicking, he closed his eyes and tried to relax into it, willing the little vines to grow. They wrapped around his arm, trailed down his legs, and curled over themselves as they headed towards the water.
John could feel the roughness of the rocks, the salt tang of the ocean. A shiver of doubt ran through him and he opened his eyes. Vines as thick as his wrist grew from the spot on his arm.
The sensations messed with his brain. He was submerged underwater, he was drowning; no. He was still on land. He was breathing air. He was alive. He was human. Still human. No. He was coiling over the rocks, taking in the sunlight, warm even in the cold air.
No. He was himself. This was all him, but he wasn't dying, none of him was dying. John's head swam, overwhelmed, and he collapsed onto the rocky shore.
When he opened his eyes, the vines were nearly gone. All that remained were a few tendrils that coiled around his arm. He sighed with relief, and then noticed that someone was standing next to him.
It was Lovecraft. "You have stopped running, John."
Still groggy and disoriented, John could barely answer. "Yeah."
John took a deep breath. "I've got some questions. What I want to know is, is this your fault? Did you make me like this?"
Lovecraft raised an eyebrow at him. "You are the one who cut open your flesh and placed seeds there."
Anger surged through him. "Don't play stupid. Everybody back home says these curses are your fault. Is that true?"
Lovecraft glanced at the vines, and was silent for a moment before answering. "What do you think, John Steinbeck?"
"I still think it's a load of bullshit. But I want to hear it from you."
Lovecraft tilted his head, and then he laughed. It was the first real sign of emotion that John had seen from him, and it was, if anything, more unnerving than his usual calm. "You are correct. That is the truth. A human life is worth less than a grain of sand to the ocean. Your power is a quirk of chance, like your nose or your hair. No god, malevolent or otherwise, chose you to receive it."
"Then why are you here? Why are you following me, if this doesn't have anything to do with you? What are you?"
"I am what you perceive before you, and much that you do not. There are very few like me. To stay alive, we consume the energy of humans with powers such as yours." As Lovecraft spoke, his hair billowed out behind him, blown by wind from some unknown place.
Fear took hold of John's heart. Before, Lovecraft had seemed like something slow and stupid. Determined, creepy, but not a real threat. Now he seemed much more vital, much more dangerous.
"Why me? Aren't there other people you could... feed on?"
"Why is anything the way it is? That is simply the way that things are. You were born with the potential to birth an ability that defies nature, and so you did. And as a creature who feeds on those like you, I have followed you, biding my time."
"You're going to kill me."
"Is there any reason I should not?"
To Lovecraft's surprise, John started to laugh. "No. There isn't. I don't deserve to be alive, not after what I've done. I know that. I got drunk and angry. I killed a guy. I shouldn't be around anymore. Besides, I can't keep going like this, all by myself."
Lovecraft watched him, silently.
"You know what's really stupid?"
"I do not."
John's laugh got harsher, more desperate. "Of course not. You're just some monster. You probably don't even understand feelings. But me, I got too many of them. I got so desperate, so lonely, that I thought maybe, just maybe, I could talk to you. Because you don't care if I killed somebody, do you?"
"Right. All you care about is this ability that's running through my blood. Hell, it probably makes me more like you, right? I'm not really human, either. Not entirely. Hell, is that where you came from? Were you ever some kid with a garbage power that he didn't understand and didn't want? Somebody who did something that ate away at him until all that was left was a shell that looked human? I don't want that to happen to me, I don't... I don't want to be a monster. But it's too late... I can't blame you, I can't even blame this stupid power. It's my fault." John's voice wavered and broke, and he struggled to hold back tears. "I'm scared of... of what I might do... I can't be around people. What if I kill somebody else?"
Lovecraft watched him as he crumpled against the ground, shoulders shaking.
Even through his distress, John's defiance remained. He glared up at Lovecraft. "Are you just gonna stand there? Finish me off. I'm not gonna fight. Or am I too broken, too disgusting, even for you?"
The expression on Lovecraft's face was almost one of pity. "Why did you call to me, John?"
"I thought that you'd kill me."
"If you wished to die, there are many simpler ways."
John shook his head. "I don't... I don't want to die, exactly. I just thought... I might as well give in to my fate, like I should have done years ago... That's why this all happened, right? I was supposed to die back then, but I didn't, and now--"
Lovecraft's voice was soft, almost kind, as he interrupted. "There is no such thing as fate. The universe does not care about you. You cannot blame it, any more than you can blame me."
John stared up at him, his eyes red and his voice still wavering. "Then what am I supposed to do?"
"Your life is your own, John Steinbeck. Make of it what you will, as you have been doing."
"You're not going to kill me?"
"No. Truthfully, I never intended to do so. You are a curious creature. Clever enough to hide, but stubborn enough to stay in the town that would put you to death. And the only one of your kind to ever threaten me. Certainly the only one to lay hand on me in violence. Now you wander, lost. Your life is far too interesting to sacrifice for mere food."
Pieces fell into place. Why Lovecraft had been so persistent, but never actually hurt him. Why he came all the way out here, to the other side of the country. He wasn't hungry, he was curious. And, bereft of ties to any other living being, that was enough for John.
He staggered to his feet. "Fine. Better than nothing. Guess we might as well do this together, then."
Lovecraft blinked. "Excuse me?"
"You heard me. If you're so damn curious, then you might as well come with me."
"You are asking me to live... alongside you?" Lovecraft spoke slowly, confused.
John nodded. "Yeah. I'm used to having company. Being alone's driving me crazy. And you're the closest thing I've got to a friend. Hell, you probably know me better than anybody back home ever did, anyway. I need somebody to talk to, and you wanna see what damned stupid thing I'm gonna do next. So come on."
He held his hand out, and although Lovecraft stared at it for a moment, he eventually took it. His skin was as cold and clammy as John remembered.
"You are not afraid?"
"Should I be? You just said you wouldn't kill me. And my life isn't exactly great right now. Couldn't get much worse, in fact. What have I got to be scared of?"
A smile appeared on Lovecraft's face, and he nodded. "You are a very strange person."
John smiled too, for what felt like the first time in years. "I'm a terrible person. And you're... well, I don't even know what you are. But you and me, we're gonna go out there, and do the best we can."
"Very well. Let us see what the future holds."
It wouldn't be anything like the future he'd envisioned for himself, of course. But it was a lot better than nothing. And maybe, just maybe, it might end up not being so bad, after all.
John's grin widened. "Come on, Lovecraft. Let's get started."