Work ends at six, which gives me ninety minutes to get home, shower, dress, and emotionally prepare for my brother David’s birthday dinner at our parent’s house. It’s supposed to be a quiet night for family, gifts, and overcooked everything.
Then David shows up with his girlfriend, Kenzie — A Priestess of Azathoth.
“It’s actually High Priestess now,” she says, smiling at my father from across the dinner table.
“Oh,” Mom says. “Does that mean more money?” She sounds almost proud.
Kenzie nods, glowing. “The Order will provide me with a more generous stipend commensurate with the increase in responsibility.” When she smiles, it’s like looking at a drawing of The Black Widow by Jae Lee.
“Even though the courts keep trying to repress our beliefs, the Elders are expecting big changes over the next twelve months thanks to the recent successes we’ve had at the ballot box. There should be a lot of lucrative opportunities for people with the right kind of background.” She’s looking at David like he’s a wounded fly; he’s grinning like an idiot.
“Kenzie thinks I could really rise through the ranks,” he says on cue, “especially with my experience in network security.”
“Sure,” I laugh, “because between the banks and our elections, what hasn’t been hacked in the last few years? Not that High and Holy Order of Azathoth knows anything about that because as we all know the media is chock full of lying liars!”
Kenzie clears her throat, a hint of color coming into her ivory cheeks. “That’s true. The world is full of narrow-minded elitists ready to blame every crime on some oppressed group they don’t like.”
My eyebrows try to climb off my forehead. “Oppressed? Seriously? Your lobbyists and followers are basically running Congress now, and didn’t Kansas just declare itself a Constitutional Azathothian Protectorate or something? I heard they’re already forcing the poor and disabled into stockyards.”
David’s face is red enough to stop traffic. Our parents have turned into living statues.
Kenzie licks her lips, straightens her back, and smiles, “Vile rumors. Besides, the nation was doing nothing to help, and the climate-refugee crisis was out of control, so the Elders dispatched two legions. Now that order has been restored are you surprised people want to show some gratitude?”
“By sacrificing their fellow citizens?” I snap.
“Maybe we should change the subject?” Mom’s laugh is practically a scream.
Dad joins in, paraphrasing one of his favorite Twain quotes, “In matters concerning religion and politics a man’s reasoning powers are not above an insect’s.”
“And yet,” Kenzie sighs, “there are people, driven by intolerance and hate, who would see every insect dead.”
David lifts his glass and glares at me. “To the people of Kansas, and those that supported them in their time of need.”
“And to David and Kenzie!” Mom says, her voice still nervous.
Now they’re all staring at me, glasses raised.
Family photographs cover the walls around us; Mom and Dad building houses with Habitat for Humanity; a photo from my time in the Peace Core in Ghana; pictures of David standing with his graduating class at MIT.
I want to shout. We are not the evil ones here. We are not the kind of people who serve alien bugs from Shaggai and worship an ancient horror.
But the looks they’re all giving me as I refuse to join the toast, almost glassy-eyed with hope, or expectation, like they’re all in on a secret, or…
“Wait,” I sputter, “don’t tell me you’ve all converted?”
“They’re not bad once you get to know them,” Dad says. “I mean, sure, the Elders are bugs,” Kenzie shoots him a look, and he grimaces, “err, insectile beings, I mean, and I know the legions have a mixed reputation, but the followers.”
“Like Kenzie,” says David.
“Yes, like Kenzie.” Dad nods. “People like Kenzie are working to change all that.”
“Also, the professional opportunities are amazing,” David says. “You can’t believe the tech they have. Stuff they haven’t shared with the public.”
I can’t take anymore. “The Elders are theocratic space cockroaches who eat people and pray to a primordial evil from beyond spacetime!” I stab a finger at Kenzie. “People like her are collaborators! Have you all lost your minds?”
“Azathoth isn’t really evil honey,” Mom says. “It’s view of things is just different than yours.”
I’m about to protest when Kenzie places her hands on the table, and I finally notice the engagement ring.
She stands. “I think I should go. Some people need more time and space to acclimate, and,” she trails off, tilts her head toward me. “I don’t want to make things worse.”
David stands with her. “I’m sorry Mom, Dad. Kenize is right. Thanks for understanding.” He hugs our parents as they, too, rise from the table.
Eventually, Mom starts clearing the dishes as Dad sits down with a freshly opened bottle of wine. He refreshes my glass and furrows his brow.
“You know,” he says, “you didn’t need to be such a monster. Kenzie is about to become a member of this family. You need to be more accepting.”
I polish off my glass in a single gulp. “Sure, because acceptance worked out great for — ”
That’s when I see the horrifying thing skittering around the bottom of my glass, like a centipede carved from obsidian, oozing burgundy ichor from its glistening fangs. Everything slows down. I turn and see Kenzie standing behind me, my Mom and David behind her.
“But, but,” things are shifting inside my mind. A small voice, high and shrill, screams in my head, born from some darkness where the brain stem meets the spine, but soon it falls silent.
I look up and see my family, all of my family, around the table again, looking calm and happy.
My smile mirrors theirs. “You were right, all of you. We need to make the world a more understanding place.”
William’s work has previously appeared in the The Arcanist, as well as in Little Blue Marble, Mythic, NewMyths.com, and other fine publications. When he’s not pecking away at his laptop, William can usually be found chasing his costumed three-year-old daughter around Salem, Massachusetts, or on the mats at Fenix Brazilian Jiu Jitsu in West Peabody. You can also find him on Twitter @DelmanWilliam and on Facebook.