Her ‘natural talent’ for swimming got Gretchen Marsh out of Innsmouth and into college. She had thought that her parents would object and object strongly, but to her surprise they had quickly agreed. Father gave her a sermon and many rules and orders to follow, but in the end she was allowed to go.
And she couldn’t wait to leave Innsmouth. It was a small, rotten, crumbling little town along the shore of New England. It was a place where all the sagging houses were the same paint-less, old, gray. The sky was gray, the ocean was gray, the ground was gray and even the people were gray. If that were the worst of it though, Gretchen Marsh would have counted herself very lucky.
It was a place where visitors never came. The towns around them avoided them as if they had the plague and the natives of Innsmouth preferred it that way.
She would have preferred to not be there.
She remembered when Child Services came to Innsmouth and told her father (he’s the mayor among other things) that Innsmouth had to start bussing their children to public school in the neighboring towns because Innsmouth had no schools, no records of any of their children ever attending school and no one qualified to home school.
She didn't, but other children hated the idea of being forced to meet with outsiders but father said that they had to go to public school to avoid attention of the government. Back in the 20,s Innsmouth had been raided and the town had never forgotten.
For Gretchen though, the news was a blessing. This was finally her chance to see what lay outside the small, lifeless town and its cold grey waters. It was a chance to see how others lived.
It was also a chance to get away from the evil that permeated every inch of the horrible town.
Once at high school she worked as hard as she could to get good grades. During gym the coach was surprised to find that she was the best swimmer in the class…by a large margin. The next day she was a member of the high school swimming team. She won every competition but they didn’t make her team captain. Though she won them state, they didn’t like or trust her because she was from Innsmouth.
The talent scout however had no such biases. He wanted her for the Miskatonic University Swim Team. She hadn’t made a single friend in high school but she had managed to impress the one person that actually mattered.
Gretchen stood out in front of the general store along Innsmouth’s Main Street. The old, abandoned hotel stood across the cracked road. There were more weeds and mud than actual asphalt here.
Many of the people that walked by gave her the evil eye but they didn’t dare say anything out loud. They didn’t like the idea of her being willing to go out and mingle with outsiders, but she was the daughter of the High Priest and that kept their mouths closed. So they glared at her with their broad, fish-like faces and large, unblinking black eyes.
It was the “Innsmouth look,” something she hadn’t inherited from her father. In looks she took after her mother: her birth mother. The woman Father was married to was not her birth mother. Her real mother had been an outsider and she got her small, petite frame and narrow face from her. She had never admitted it openly, but she detested the fish faces of everyone around her and was glad she did not resemble them. She did have grayish skin and dark eyes though.
Her white hair blew in front of her face and she tucked the loose strand behind her ear. A dark grey storm was looming over the ocean, threatening to come to shore and bring torrential rain with it.
She took a while to look at the sea. That was something she would miss. The ocean was perhaps the only thing she liked about Innsmouth, though what lay beneath the waves was a different matter.
Her parents weren’t there to see her off, only her twelve year old little sister, Hannah. She had a round, oval face with large, black eyes and a shark like grin. She was always grinning with a maniacal look on her face.
“You will be back for the summer solstice, right?” Hannah asked.
“I will try.”
“You have to be. The stars aren’t yet right, but one day they will be. It would be good to learn what we might. Father said he will teach us the Ceremony of Dark Waves.”
“He’ll teach you. He’s already taught you more than he has ever taught me.”
“Not true. Either one of us can become High Priestess on Father’s death.”
She didn’t want to admit to her little sister that she had no desire to be the High Priestess of the Esoteric Order of Dagon. If she ever spoke what she really felt they’d throw her in a hole where no one would ever remember her or they’d do far worse. She’d seen it happen.
She still remembered the screams coming from the basement of the church.
Finally the old bus came into view. The driver always hurried threw and only stopped long enough to open and close the doors before he was off again. Like most outsiders that were native to the area, he had an obvious fear or mistrust of Innsmouth. She couldn’t blame him. After seeing what she had seen, he had every reason to be fearful of her town.
“This is my bus,” Gretchen said and picked up her two suit cases.
Hannah looked to the bus and gave a typical Innsmouthian scowl. Like everyone else in town, she hated the sight of anything from the outside world.
“Don’t talk to them, Gretchen. Don’t make friends. Don’t let them corrupt you from your true destiny,” Hannah said.
“Promise me. We’re daughters of Dagon and Mother Hydra. Do not forget that.”
She looked one last time to see if her parents would be there to send her off. She hated them and knew they were wicked people, but they were still her parents. Disappointed and relieved at the same time, she saw that they weren’t there.
Gretchen hurried across the road to where the bus would stop. Her suitcases were heavier than she had anticipated and she barely got to the stop before the bus did. For a second she wondered if the bus would have hit her if she had been slower.
The bus door folded open with a creak and the sour looking man eyed her.
Without saying a word of greeting to each other she picked up her cases and struggled up the narrow, steep steps. He closed the door as soon as she was clear and began driving off.
“Arkham?” She asked.
“Two dollars to station. You’ll take another bus from there.”
She reached in her purse and pulled out two crumpled dollars. Money was not an issue. The town looked bleak and penniless, but they were literally swimming in gold. She didn’t need the swimming scholarship. Her family had enough gold from the sea to buy the university several times over.
She was the only passenger on the bus and she took her seat near the window. She watched the grey, decrepit town of Innsmouth disappear from view. The sandy, marshy lands that surrounded the town stretched out for miles in each direction.
This felt strange. She had never really been by herself before. Even in high school, when she was along, she had been surrounded by people.
She was leaving all of it behind and going someplace she had never been before.
This all felt very strange. For the first time ever she’d be able to drop her act, the character she always played. No longer will she have to proclaim a faith she wanted no part in. She’d be able to be herself honestly.
If only she knew who she was.
At home she had to be the perfect daughter of the High Priest as her family and the town expected her to be. At high school she had to shun outsiders because other children of Innsmouth would be watching.
Not that she had to shun them. They were perfectly able to shun her without any help. No one wanted to be seen talking to someone from Innsmouth. The kids from Innsmouth were never part of the school. The way they dressed, acted and even their appearance were so different. They really did look…different.
The bus rolled and bumped along until the gray marshes turned into green woods. Small towns and gas stations passed by. The bus would occasionally stop and a new passenger would get on. Gretchen didn’t have the “Innsmouth look” like the others from home, but she must have looked strange enough because each new passenger stayed clear of her. They must have suspected where she was from.
No one talked to her the whole bus ride. It was fine. She was used to it and even if they did want to talk, she wouldn’t know what to say to them. She had never had a real conversation with an outsider.
After a two hour bus ride they came to the final station. She hauled her heavy luggage from the bus and looked for a ticket booth. There were people hurrying all around her and none of them gave her a second glance. An electric information board showed times and destinations of different busses. She tried to make sense of it but couldn’t.
She wandered around for a few minutes until she found the ticket booth, tucked inside the station next to a little shop that sold sodas, candy bars and magazines.
“Um…I need a ticket to Arkham,” she said.
The old woman with the curly hair behind the glass looked something up on her computer.
“Ten dollars and it leaves in fifteen minutes. Bus 43B,” the woman said without looking at her.
Gretchen sifted through her wad of cash until she found a twenty, the smallest bill she had and gave it to the woman. After getting her changed and ticket she walked over to where bus 43B was. She climbed in and handed her ticket over to the driver who was eating a sandwich.
“Yeah, take a seat. We’ll be leaving in a few,” the man said.
He didn’t look at her funny or with any hint of suspicion and for the first time Gretchen felt that she was closer to being herself.
She wanted to say ‘thank you,’ but her own nervousness and lack of experience chocked the words in her throat and so she silently found her seat in the back. No one in Innsmouth ever said ‘thank you.’ Some of them couldn’t even speak anymore. She had heard it used for the first time in high school and had never had a chance to use it herself.
The sky was growing darker and she knew it would rain soon. She hadn’t packed an umbrella.
She looked around the bus, a much bigger, fancier and comfortable bus than the small, noisy, drafty thing that came through Innsmouth. The bus even had individual air conditioning, reading lights and small TV’s spaced around so anyone could see. She had never thought to put TV’s on buses!
Fifteen minutes and six passengers later the bus rolled out of the station and headed toward Arkham, where Miskatonic University was.
It wasn’t long before rain started pelting the windows of the bus. The road grew shiny and the sky darker. Rainy days always made her feel more comfortable, more at ease.
Then a movie started on the TV’s. She had seen a few educational movies in high school but had never watched one for fun. It was a cartoon. She had never seen a cartoon before. She sat mesmerized as she watched a story about an alien with a giant blue head try to act like a villain and fail miserably, eventually turning into the good guy in the process.
She had no idea that cartoons could tell such stories and she felt remarkably like the blue guy in the movie. She knew she needed to see that movie again.
The end credits were going when the bus began to pull into the Arkham bus terminal. This station was even larger than the last one.
When she exited the bus she almost tripped on her dress. Her black boots splashed in the water sending cold water up her legs. The rain was coming down in giant drops that soaked her before she could get under the overhang of the station. Her stringy, white hair clung to her face and neck.
She found the ticket booth easier this time. She was becoming a professional traveler now!
“How does one get to Miskatonic University?” She asked.
The man was reading a magazine with movie stars on the cover. She only knew they were movie stars because it said it in big red letters.
“If ya don’t got a ride, you can walk or take a cab,” the man said.
“A cab?” She had no idea what a cab was.
“Yeah, there’s a few taxis out front. Just wave em down and they’ll give ya a ride.”
She knew what a taxi was! Her brief moment of panic was over.
Gretchen walked outside before realizing that she had missed another chance at saying ‘thank you.’
She saw three yellow taxis lined up out front of the station. She hurried over and waver her hand. The first taxi opened and the man waved her over. He held the door open and tossed her suitcases into the trunk.
Inside the taxi smelled…different. It didn’t smell like the sea salt and decay of Innsmouth and it didn’t smell of dust and sanitizer like the high school. Whatever the smell was, it was strong.
“Where to?” The driver asked once he was back inside.
“You a student?”
The taxi took off and they drove through the rain as the unfamiliar town passed by her window. Her eyes were fixated at the sights that zoomed past her. She saw stores of all kinds, restaurants and theaters, all brightly lit and new looking. It all had a life to them that Innsmouth never had even on the brightest day.
People were smiling, running, and laughing. No where did she see the stooped, crawling, distrustful figures of her home town.
“Where to on campus?” The driver asked.
“Um…where would new students go?”
“Ah, I know.”
The driver passed a large stone sign that said “Miskatonic University.” She sat up straight and looked around to take in every detail. This was to be her new home. This was how she would escape Innsmouth.
The taxi pulled up in front of a large, stone, Gothic building with a banner that said “Welcome new students!” Glowing, warm lights came from the windows and despite the rain there were students running in and out.
“This is it,” the man said.
“How much do I owe you, sir?”
She gave him another twenty and he gave her the change. Then he ran out and helped her get her luggage out.
“Good luck!” He called out as he rushed to get back in his car and out of the rain.
She hurried up the wide, stone steps to the giant wooden double doors. A man held the door open as she rushed in.
“Thank you!” She managed to get out.
He smiled and nodded and then ran off.
She could do this.
There were several tables covered in forms, pens and plastic bags full of who-knows-what. Smiling, healthy looking people sat behind each table. Other students her own age were gathered in clumps, talking and looking at the papers on the tables.
Not knowing what else to do she walked to the first table.
“Um…I’m new here,” Gretchen said.
“You’ve come to the right place. First year student. That’s always exciting,” the smiling woman said.
The woman found her name on a list and gave her a packet of paperwork to fill out. After that she handed Gretchen one of the plastic bags with MU written on it in big red letters.
“Inside you’ll find a map, your schedule, rules, student hand book, dorm key and other odds and ends,” the blond, smiling woman said.
“Where is my dormitory?”
The woman showed her on her map and then pointed in the general direction.
She found herself walking across an open field with old, brick and stone buildings lining either side. It was pouring rain and she had given up on staying dry. Once soaking wet there was no need to rush.
Her long, gray dress clung to her legs and the ground squished beneath her boots. She noticed that none of the other girls wore dresses, just like high school. All she had were the handmade clothes from Innsmouth: shapeless, baggy clothing made to hide deformities and “signs of the Deep Ones.”
Father had paid extra to get her a room to herself.
“No daughter of mine will share rooms with an outsider,” Father said.
“Outsider” meant any unbelievers which were considered sheep, ready for the slaughter.Though she didn't agree with the reasons, she liked having a room to herself.
She trudged through the soggy, green field and followed the map she kept in the plastic bag to keep it dry.
Eventually she found the dorm building and went up to the fourth floor. Doors were open everywhere and girls were moving in, talking to their neighbors and making introductions. Some wore so little clothing it was scandalous. Some had their families there helping them move in.
It was all light, life and noise.
Her small room on the fourth floor was a clean, well lit, but Spartan little room, much smaller than her old room back at the Marsh’s mansion, but it was her room. This was her new home.
She even had her own bathroom, something the other students did not have.
She left her baggage by the door and walked over to the one window. It looked out over the green field that was the center of campus. She knew it would look different in the sun, but even in the dark, rainy light, it was a more hopeful place than her town ever could be. Already she knew she would like it here. She would use the education and opportunities here to get as far away from Innsmouth as she could.
Never again would she have to pray to that monstrous demon, Dagon. Never again would she have to watch as some stranger was sacrificed to ensure another good year of fishing. She would never have to pray to Mother Hydra or Cthulhu again.
Yes, this was the start of her new life.