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WIP: The Bench

Hello! I’ve been dealing with some winter blues recently, not really writing too much. But I’ve been getting back into it. This is not the first compete piece I’ve written, but it is one I’d like to post. I’m hoping to submit the other to some sites, so you’re likely to see it soon. I also just started a sci-fi story that I would like to work on, but it is likely to be much longer than what I usually post, so I wanted to get a bit farther in to get a sense of where it is going, then I’ll decide about posting.

Is this piece great? Certainly not. It has a lot of problems. But sometimes the solution to a writing slump is to just write something and put it out there. So that’s what I’m doing. i will probably come back and make some revision later, but this is a pretty straightforward story with a minor twist to the expected plot. As always, thoughts and comments about how to improve are greatly appreciated!


Jack enjoyed hiking. It was a good excuse to get away from everything and everyone. He knew the trails well enough to get well away from civilization on a Sunday morning, only to begrudgingly trek back Sunday afternoon. This Sunday was no different. The sun was up early, a thin fog still lingering from rains the night before, and Jack was on the trail with his backpack. It was his life line. A trail map, ample supply of water, snacks and food that would keep if he got stuck in any too tight spots. Rope, first aid kit sun screen, mosquito repellant, fresh socks, and an emergency radio if things got dire. He had never used the radio and certainly hoped today would not be the day.

The forecast promised very warm weather today, one of the first official days of summer. For Jack that meant abnormally large crowds in the National Park, including irritable teenagers being forced on a family vacation, well-meaning adventurers just starting out for the season, and way more people than he cared to deal with. So he started early, on one of the more challenging trails. His route would take him long, require a brief bit of trekking through the woods on unmarked paths, and then back down and around an old ranger’s station that had not been used for the last four summers, at least. Jack knew because he had hiked this very trail many times before. It was an old favorite.

The din of vacationers was muted in the early morning hours, and soon even it faded from his ears. He passed a couple of other hikers—wearing absurdly large sun hats and straining on ornately carved walking sticks for sale in the park gift shop—early on, but they were already too out of breath to do much more than offer a friendly wave. Jack pressed on.

It was late in the morning when he finally reached the end of the first leg and prepared to set out across the forested landscape to meet up with the second trail. Such creativity was discouraged, but Jack did not particularly care. He knew there would be more than enough visitors to keep the park staff busy, and a respectful, skilled hiker was the least of their concerns.

This far in the only real sounds were the crunch of last year’s leaves under his feet, the trill of songbirds, and the rustle of the wind through the trees. He felt his stress melting away the further in he went, falling off him like scales of mud. This part of the hike always felt the easiest. He could shed all the burdens he had been carrying and march confidently between the trees. Once he started on the second path, there was the undeniable realization that he was hiking back to the real world. He always dutifully picked up his abandoned stresses, reattaching them to his weary body.

It was around noon when he found the bench. Jack knew this trail well, and he knew there was no bench. It also was out of place that it was not on any park recognized trail. He stopped in front of it, staring blankly at this unusual intruder. It rankled him, this sign of humanity out here among nothingness. Approaching it, he scanned it for any plaque or notice explaining why it was here, squeezed between two old oak trees. There was just enough room to sit down, but not much else. It also did not appear to lok at anything in particular, but was positioned staring out across the woods Jack was soon to traverse.

After allowing his irritation to subside, he reasoned it was a good enough place to sit and eat his lunch. Someone probably died and donated money to the park, but asked that the bench be placed here for some reason. Maybe it used to be a trail—his map showed the park as it was five years ago, so maybe something had overgrown here. Or maybe whoever donated the money had really pissed off someone on the board, who agreed to put in the commemorative bench but made sure to place it where no one would see. That possibility made Jack smile as he sat down and opened up his lunch.

He was only halfway through his apple when the sound of someone else crunching through the leaves made him turn to look. A man in a dusty, sweat-caked business suit was dragging his feet through the underbrush, face downcast. He offered a weak smile as he drew closer, then sat on the opposite end of the bench. Jack made a point to ignore him, turning his face to the side and continuing with his lunch.

“Bit out of the way, aren’t we?”

Jack ignored the man, taking a loud bite of his apple and shifting further down the bench. He had come all this way to be alone, not engage in idle chitchat with some stranger.

“So you’re not much of a talker, eh? I can understand that. I never was much of one myself.”

Jack quickly looked at the man, gave a curt nod and joyless smile. Perhaps that small sign would make it clear.

“Well, I mean, I guess it’s rude of me to assume. Can you even talk?”

Jack sighed. “Can I just eat my lunch in peace?”

The man laughed broadly, the sound seeming to carry for miles in the relative quiet. “I assure you, I am a peaceful man. You can have as peaceful a lunch as you want.”

“Thank you.” Jack finished munching through the core of his apple, leaving nothing but the stem. A good traveler left no sign behind.

“I always liked coming up here. A good chance to get away, you know?”

Jack sighed, but didn’t respond. He pulled out a slightly squashed sandwich and took a long swig of his water.

“I’m guessing that’s why you’re here, too. Just a chance to get away.” No matter the amount of silence it only seemed to encourage the stranger. “I came up here all the time. Never wanted to leave, wished I could just sit here forever. That’s how I got this here bench. But it’s not quite as enjoyable as you might think. Your butt gets awfully sore sitting on this hard wood day in and day out. Had to get up and stretch a bit, you know?” He laughed, though this time there was a sad, cynical quality to it.

Jack half listened to the man’s babbling, more focused on finishing his meal and getting on with his trip. If he hadn’t been hungry, he would have moved on already. That and he still hoped the man would somehow get the picture and take his rambling elsewhere.

“So, what do you want, son? What brings you up here.”

“I don’t want anything,” he said with a resigned sigh. “I just want to be left alone.”

“Ah, see, you do want something. What do you mean, to be left alone?”

Jack stopped chewing, barely catching himself before his mouth hung open in awe. How could anyone be so thick, he found himself wondering. “Listen, I come up here to get away. Form work, from noise, but most importantly from people. So I don’t really want to talk to anyone up here.”

“Oh, so that’s what you want? To be alone?”

“Yes, finally, yes. I want to be left alone. No people. This is my chance to get away from everyone, and that means you.” Jack felt a slight smile spread over his face.

The man beamed from his seat. “Well, why didn’t you say so? And you are right, this certainly is your chance! I’ll be on my way, and I guarantee you that you will get exactly what you want, Jack. You’ll be all alone, here on out.”

The man stood, gave a slight nod of his head to signify his departure, and walked back the way Jack had come. Jack reached down to uncap his water bottle and discovered the man had already disappeared from sight behind the leafy trees, the sound of his steps having faded back into birdsong. Finally alone, Jack felt at peace.

After finishing the sandwich and a handful of nuts, he rose to his feet. The rest of the trek would be hopefully uneventful, he thought as he shouldered his pack. He made off along the path he knew by heart, enjoying the feeling of the dappled sun on his skin. Here there were no deadlines or micromanagers looming over his shoulders. It was just him and the birds, but that was just fine by him.

When he found the next trail, he felt that heavy weight settle back on his shoulders. It was late in the afternoon, and the sun was heavy in the sky. Despite his comfort on the trails, even he did not want to risk trying to navigate it by moonlight and flashlight. So that meant the inevitable trek back to the noise. Back to his car sitting in the parking lot. Back to his too small apartment. And, eventually, back to an uncomfortable office chair in the middle of a cubicle farm. He sighed as it all came crashing back down, but pressed own with a dour expression etched into his face.

He expected to run into exhausted families dragging along pouting children as he neared, but it was surprisingly quiet. Even as he passed by the river, he could not hear the usual ruckus of people playing in the water, squealing as they slipped in and discovered just how cold a natural water source could be. Even once back in the parking lot, there were no groups of hikers, kayakers, or weekend warriors loading up their sunburned bodies into cars with a look of pleased exhaustion etched on their faces. The parking lot was full, but silent.

Jack couldn’t help but feel as if he may have missed some major emergency. There were alert towers spread throughout the park, but he had heard no warning sirens of any sort. Falling into his car, he turned on the radio and searched for a news report, but the signal appeared to be out. Static on all the stations.

He sighed. Just his luck that the radio would go out. It was not that he used it often, but it was, at least, supposed to function in a car. What would he do if Dave needed a ride? Usually, he turned the radio up and appeared to listen intently, even to the commercials. Visons of idle chatter and small talk filled his mind as he moved the car into reverse, and then drove out of the park.

The ranger was not at the gate with his usual cheerful wave goodbye. Perhaps some tragedy had occurred in the park. A kid got lost of something. Maybe everyone was searching for little Tommy or Julie. Jack spared a thought, hoping they would be found, but did not let that slow his drive out of the park.

The rad was empty. No headlights flared into view along the winding road. He lived close to the park, but was still used to passing a good number of people. It was nice though, he thought. The lights usually hurt his eyes.

The smokers were not in front of his apartment tonight, nor were the college kids out at the grills like they had been the past two weekends. He didn’t even hear the baby in 3E crying for what had to be the first time in weeks. Jack had ben seriously beginning to wonder how the child even ate with the crying going on day in and day out. He stomped into his apartment, dropped his pack, and made his way to the bathroom for a nice, hot shower. It did little to wash away the tension that had built up as he thought about work the next day, but he at least smelled cleaner.

With a towel wrapped around his waist, he made a quick dinner and settled in on the couch. Jack ran through his calendar for the next day, noting the meetings and project deadlines. He was fairly certain he had finished everything on Friday that was due, but there always lingered the fear that something would come up and surprise him, Or, worse and far more common, he would get in tomorrow to realize one of his coworkers had not completed their portion, meaning his entire day would be spent making up for their failure. He shook his head and tried to put the thoughts out of his mind, leaning back against the couch.

In the surprising quiet of his apartment, he soon fell asleep.

The world was just as quiet as he woke, got dressed, and trudged out the door to work. Just as quiet as he drove in on deserted streets. Just as quiet as he approached the empty office building and walked the stairs, staring into each floor in turn. It was quiet as he headed home with a broad grin on his face, quiet as he jogged up the stairs to his apartment, and quiet as he grabbed his pack to head back to the woods.

Jack needed no more evidence to realize his wish had come true. He was alone. And while movies and television had always told him he would regret what he had wished for, Jack felt nothing but absolute joy.


Creative Commons License
This work by Katherine C is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License.

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First Draft: Taking up the Mantle

Just an idea I had floating around. I read it more as an introduction to a larger world, and so I may revsist it to develop it more fully. But this mostly tells the story I was interested in. You may recognize Death from Day 24, mainly because I like the friendly, personable Death. As usual, it is a first draft. Let me know what you think and any suggestions you may have. Happy reading!


 

The first time it happened, I was seven years old. My mother left me to play at the park, and I had noticed a grey lump laying on the very edge of the road. Upon closer inspection, I saw the tiny frame of a squirrel, obviously struck by a car recently. A think trickle of red stained its chin, and I felt the heavy hand of sadness as I studied its little body. I looked around cautiously, creeping closer, and reaching out a tiny trembling hand. Somehow, I thought I might just be able to wake it up.

When I did touch it, there was a strange electric feel to the contact, as if a flurry of energy swam between us. My entire hand felt a shock of numbness, then nothing. More surprising, however, was the rush of thoughts and feelings inside of me. In one moment, I felt as if I could feel the world spinning swiftly beneath me, as if I were a million miles up looking down on its progress. My perspective telescoped out, and then rushed back in, settling in my tiny body. It would take me years and many more experiences to find the words to describe this phenomenon; even now, the words are hollow.

A man walking his dog suddenly sneezed, snapping m back to reality as I pulled my hand back. He sniffled, his face pale and drawn, and I tried not to look like I was playing with a dead animal. When I glanced back to the squirrel, I saw it standing in the street, glancing around swiftly. Its tiny eyes met mine, and then it scampered past me and into a tree.

I gasped, smiled, and ran to follow it, watching it swing and sprint across tree branches. Even on the ground, I felt the same exquisite joy as it moved nimbly from branch to branch with newfound life. When I tried to explain to my mother, however, she merely scolded me for touching a dead animal. None of my miraculous testimony made it through to her as she dragged me to the bathroom and scrubbed my hands three times over.

Even as a child, I realized that this was not something I was going to be able to tell her about; it was taboo. And so I carried my secret.

When the boys at school threw rocks at a mother bird, I waited until they left and then cradled the limp body. The world spun around me, and I took off into the universe. When I came back, her eyes were open, and she took off to tend to her nest.

Then there was the evening our neighbor’s dog had her puppies. My mom let me sit in their kitchen to learn about the “miracle of birth,” but then tried to swiftly shuffle me away when the last puppy emerged, still and silent. I was too young to learn about death, apparently. She had me sit out on the front porch while she talked with Mrs. Calvin, but I snuck back in when I heard their voices drift back to the living room, Mrs. Calvin’s soft sobs fading. She stopped crying when I carried in the squirming little puppy, alive and well.

“I heard him,” I lied to them. Later, my mother woke me up with that same puppy, a smile on her face.

“A gift from Mrs. Calvin,” she told me. He was my miracle puppy named Patches because of the splotch over his left eye, and he never left my side. Except when I went to school, of course. I was no Mary; he was no lamb.

I brought back a snake, a couple more squirrels who had a predisposition for jumping in front of cars, one turtle someone had hit with a lawnmower, two fish from the tank in my room, and more moths and butterflies than I have fingers to count. I had been to human funerals—one for my great grandmother and one for Mr. Calvin after his untimely heart attack—but there were too many people around, too much attention on me. My mother never let go of my hand long enough to see if I could work the same magic. Besides, I always felt exhausted after using my gift, even on small animals and bugs.  Even at eleven or twelve years old, I understood how complicated humans could be.

I was fourteen when I found out what it all meant. Normally, a fourteen year old waking would scream upon waking to find a grown man sitting on her bed. That would be a different story, however. No, when I saw him, I somehow understood that there was no need to scream or run or hide. He was distracted, looking at the pages of a black, leather-bound book, his finger skating down the page as he clicked his tongue against his teeth. There was no sense of a dream about the meeting, but there was also no sense or reality and time. In some ways, it felt much the same as when I reached out and touched some recently deceased creature. It was all super real, but also impossible.

After a moment, he turned to face me with a smile. His eyes were warm behind wire-rimmed frames, and he carefully crossed his neatly polished shoe across his knee as he spun. “Ah, nice to meet you, Corine.” He offered his hand, and I shook it slowly, still sitting in the tangle of my bedding.

“Who are you?” I asked. In hindsight, I feel like there should have been fear. But there was not.

He straightened the black lapels of his suit jacket, snapping the book closed. “I am Death,” he said with a shrug and a smile. “No need to beat around the bush, I always say. Most the people I meet don’t have time for it anyways.”

I just nodded. “Does this mean I’m dead?”

“That’s a good thought, but no. Not yet, at least.”

“So then, why are you here?”

He laughed, his face folding along well-practiced wrinkles. Despite the wrinkles, he still looked surprisingly young. Approachable. Friendly. “You aren’t one to dance around things either. That’s good. We’ll get along just fine then.” Behind his glasses, I could see his eyes searching for the right place to begin. After a moment, they brightened, and he turned back to the book.

“So, Corine—can I call you Corine?”

I nodded, my breath frozen in my lungs, waiting for his response.

“Thanks. So, I have had some unusual reports coming from this area. Unexplained, unexpected deaths. Now, unexpected deaths are a part of life. However, they are not a part of death. I know when everyone is going to die. If I don’t something is wrong. You follow?”

My head swung up and down stiffly as I tried to figure out the implication of his words. “But I haven’t killed anyone!” I offered frantically, certain of my innocence.

He laughed again. “No, not intentionally. Of course you haven’t. Only, unfortunately, you have been giving life to some whose time was up. Things must balance out, of course.”

“But, I didn’t—“

“I know you did not mean to. You had no idea what kind of power you have. That’s why I’m here. Now, normally, we know precisely who is going to be a Reaper. You, however, slipped through my fingers.”

“A Reaper? What do you mean? Am I dead?”

“No, you are still not dead. But you do have gifts. Being a Reaper means the power over life and death, a power I usually have taught you by now to use only as directed. Unfortunately, you came from unusual circumstances.”

“Like what?”

He adjusted his glasses on his face, then cracked open the leather book again. His finger ran down the page, the tapped a line. “From the best I can tell, my Reaper Jeremiah was dispatched to your birth. Unfortunately, you were supposed to be dead.” He caught himself and smiled apologetically. “I’m sorry to bring the bad news, but at least that’s not what happened. No, instead, Jeremiah never returned. From the best I can tell, he passed his gift along, sparing you and sacrificing himself.”

“I killed him?”

Death’s smile was sad, and he shook his head slowly. “No, I think Jeremiah was just tired of the work. It happens. Turnover is not a huge problem, but it plagues everything.”

“So, what does this mean?”

“It means you are a Reaper. You are tasked with helping the newly dead shuffle off the mortal coil and into the Great Beyond.”

“But I’ve never killed anyone!” I objected once again.

“Of course you have. You did not mean to, but every time you gave life, it had to come from somewhere.”

I thought about the butterflies, the squirrel, Patches. I also thought of the kid in first grade who died in his swimming pool, of Mr. Calvin’s heart attack, of the inoperable cancer discovered too late in my Reading teacher. “But I didn’t want to kill anyone!”

“I know. It’s an unfortunate part of the job. It’s why we don’t use our powers to give life to those who are past due.”

“But I thought it killed Jeremiah when he did that?”

Death smiled, nodded. “Yes, it does seem that way. Only Jeremiah was not returning life, but he refused to take it. A very distinct difference.”

There was silence in the room as I mulled over these words, the implication of my life thus far. “Who have I killed?” I finally asked.

Death smiled a tight, grim smile. “Trust me, Corine, you do not want to know that. It is not good for you to know that.”

“So, what now?”

With a sigh, Death began to speak again, “Now that we know you are a Reaper, it is time to work on your training. I’ll have a veteran assigned to help you learn the ropes. You’ll become aware, at some point, of a list of individuals assigned to you. Each night as you sleep, you’ll be taken to them to help them move along. I think I’ll send Gracie to help you out, and she can explain more.”

“But what if I don’t want to kill anyone?”

He sighed. “Corine, you are not killing anyone, per se. They are dying, and you are just opening the door for nature to take its course. If you do not help them, they will spend a bit longer in pain or suffering, and one of the other Reapers will come along. You, also, may cease to exist. Things must stay balanced, after all.”

“What if I just never sleep? Then I can’t be called away, and—“

“You are welcome to try, but I would expect you will find the need irresistible. My Reapers have the best sleep patterns of any humans in the world. More than a few hours past due, and you’ll begin to find yourself transported to your locations, even as you continue doing your best to stay in your present reality. From what I hear, it is quite disorienting. Not something most people repeat twice.”

“What if I don’t want to?”

He placed his hand on my knee, still beneath the covers, and looked at me solemnly. “That is your choice, of course. But this gift was given to you because you cheated death. If you refuse it, then you have to come with me.”

“I have to die?”

“Yes.”

“So, do Reapers never die?”

He chuckled, a low, somewhat bitter sound. “No, even Reapers die. I do my best to make it a pleasant experience. After death, you can continue the work, if you so choose. Many Reapers find they enjoy t. You can offer a bit of comfort and companionship to someone in their last moments, and then help them move on from the pain.”

“But it’s not always like that.”

All hint of a smile left his face, and his eyes grew distant, sad. “No, not always. Sometimes it is quite terrible. It is not an easy job.”

“But it’s mine, now?” I felt the room spinning with the revelation. It settled like a pack of stones on my shoulders.

“Unless you would like to take the other option.”

I was fourteen and not ready to die. Either way, I assumed the offer would stand if I could not handle the reality of this curse—even if he wanted to call it a gift. It would take years for me to see it through his calm, wise eyes and claim it as a gift again.

“I’m scared to die.”

“Most people are. You shouldn’t be, but most are. However, if you choose to accept this role, then you can help them not be so scared.”

“Okay. I don’t have much of a choice.”

“No, you don’t. You were far too young when the choice was made for you. But I don’t think you’ll regret it.”

The next morning, I woke up refreshed and energized. Patches was snoring on the foot of my bed, the sun was pouring through my thin curtains, and I could smell pancakes drifting up from the kitchen. On my bedside table, however, were a pair of wire-rimmed glasses, the lenses dusty and worn. As I reached out to touch them, I noticed a shadowy mark on the back of my hand, a feather intertwined around a heart.

In the light of day, the mark faded, disappearing from my skin, though I could still feel it prickle against the surface. As I looked up, the glasses disintegrated, vanishing before my eyes. The weight settled back on my shoulders as I felt the awareness of strange names settled softly into my consciousness.

I had my first assignments, and the world suddenly felt very cold, very large, and very hostile.


Creative Commons License
This work by Katherine C is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License.
 


Card Challenge: Day 82

Card Day 82: A stone doorway that shows a blue sky and clouds.

There is really no logical method of responding a doorway that suddenly appears in your living room. If there is one, I certainly did not find it. There is no way of keeping cool and collected when you wake up one morning and find a large, ached, iron and wood door standing in between your coffee table and television. This thing was medieval, not even something I could have mistakenly purchased from my local hardware store and installed in some bizarre sleepwalking incident. No, it stood there firm, proud, and completely beyond anything I could make sense of.

I checked the internet, but it did not appear to be some strange phenomenon that I was previously unaware of. I called off of work and spent my morning staring at it. No amount of squinting or turning my head side to side made it any clearer, and I could not lift it or move it. The doorposts disappeared into the plush carpet of my home, and it felt sturdier than most of my house did.

Having never been very handy, my collection of tools was rather slim. There was a mismatched set of screwdrivers, a hammer, some odd nails from various ill-conceived home improvement projects, a set of wrenches my dad had proudly bought me when I bought the house, and a pry bar that had been left in my garage when I moved in. The pry bar seemed my best bet, but the door did not budge. Even when I grabbed the hammer and tried to drive the straight, pointed end of the bar into the doorframe, nothing happened. I did not even leave a mark on the stone frame. My results were similarly pitiful when I applied my tools to the door itself. I was at a loss.

So, having no reasonable recourse, I knocked on the door. My knuckles ached with the force, and I felt a splinter drive itself into my index finger. The door simply sat as it had all morning. To be honest, I am not sure what I expected to happen. If someone had opened the door and greeted me, I likely would have screamed and run out of my house immediately. Finally, I grabbed the handle—a large metal ring set into the front of the door—and tugged.

Given its visible thickness and weight, I prepared myself to struggle against it, but it swung open smoothly on well-oiled hinges. The ease sent me tumbling back against my couch, not that the sudden breeze from beyond did not help.

In the middle of my living room was suddenly a doorway into a cloudy sky. Wind whistled through the opening, disturbing the pile of bills and junk mail sitting by my front door. I expected a house or a meadow or something, but I was not expecting an empty expanse of sky and clouds. What do you do with an opening into the sky?

Having formally thrown reason, logic, and self-preservation to the wind, I leaned around the doorframe trying to find what I was looking at. As I peered through, all I saw was blue sky with the occasional break by a passing foggy cloud. Somewhere far, far below I saw the green shadow of earth sinning below, but up here there was nothing. The door hung suspended in the air, just as out of place as it was in my living room. At least that made me feel a bit better. Somewhere else had been a part of the mysterious door outbreak.

It did not, however, help to convince me I was not going insane.

I stepped around to the other wide of the door and looked through to the other side of my living room. At least this way I would still be able to see the TV if I did some minor rearranging. Stepping around to the front of the door, I was again met with a brilliant blue sky. Nothing in my meager life experiences prepared me for this. So, I called my girlfriend.

You might think that the thing to do would be to calmly explain the situation to her on the phone, explain how certain I was that something was wrong with me, and ask her to come to approve of my new illness. Then she could take me to the hospital. Maybe I should have done that, but instead I just asked her to come over. I had spent long enough staring and probing at the door that she assumed I was just home from work, and she agreed to swing over after she cleaned up from the gym. For my part, I closed the door and checked my house for gas leaks.

I was in the basement when she arrived and, unfortunately, our familiarity had bred a valued sense of comfort and ownership. By which I mean she did not wait for me to answer before charging into the house. I heard her calling for me, an edge of panic to her voice.

“What is that?” she asked, shocked. The front door was still open behind her. There was grass, trees, sidewalk, road, and cars behind her. Nothing like what was behind my newest door.

“Oh, good, you see it.”

“Of course I saw it. Did you think I was going to miss this giant home improvement problem? Did you get drunk or something?”

“I—No, I didn’t.” her eyes were stretched wide in amazement as she looked at me. I tried to smile, but she did not really seem to appreciate that. “I just woke up with it.”

“You woke up with a door?”

“I know, it’s crazy. I thought I was crazy.”

“So, is it like a practical joke or something?” her shock melted into wonder as she drew nearer to it. “I mean, it looks really real.”

I stepped around her to the opening and let my smile inch further along my cheeks. “If you think that looks real, then—“ I threw open the door, narrowly missing her nose with the force. She fixed me with an angry scare, but that disappeared as soon as she could take in what was on the other side. My attention on her face, it took me a couple of moments to realize that the view was completely different. The sky was now in its proper place above us, and the door was rooted firmly in loamy forest soil.

She was too intrigued by the new world to notice my mouth hanging open. I watched as she gazed through, leaned through, then passed around to the other side. Finally, she took a hesitant step through. My body came to life then and I grabbed her arm. “Don’t!”

There were bird sounds filtering through the door, and sunlight danced along the ground. Bright green trees as tall as come city buildings swelled before us as the scent of an undisturbed forest slowly filtered into my house. It was idyllic, which helped explain her confusion. “What’s the problem?”

“I just don’t know what’s in there. Or what it is.” My voice trailed off. It was a very inviting scene and there was nothing threatening about it. Nevertheless, I could not shake the slight discomfort that came from stepping through a doorway that appeared in my living room and opened into another world. “What if it closes?’

She took a quick, sudden breath. “I hadn’t thought of that.” I could see her mind whirring through options, her wanderlust triggered. “What if we drag your coffee table into the doorway?”

“I guess we could, but I don’t—“ She was already bent over, dragging the coffee table towards the doorway. “We don’t know what’s out there. This isn’t what you are supposed to do!”

“Oh, I forgot, could you go get the mystery doorway handbook form the bookshelf? I think we need chapter three.” Her flat stare along with her hands firmly on her hips told me all I needed to know. And, in some ways, she was right. What did I know about interdimensional doorways? And what was the harm of peeing through, especially since the door could not close on us now.

“Okay, but we don’t leave sight of the door.”

“Deal.”

I stepped through the doorway, and I would be lying if I said it was not the most magnificent moment of my life. Have you ever tasted completely clean air? Having been born and raised in the suburbs, I haven’t. I had also never heard birds singing so giddily or seen trees that grew so tall. Every step was a miracle.

Eventually, we heard voices bubbling from far away. The words were indistinguishable, and the syllables we could make out did not fit any language I had heard. It was a group of women winding their way through the woods. They talked and laughed freely, woven baskets perched on their hips.

“Are you seeing this?” She was gripping the edge of a tree and observing the women walking so far away. Their dress was archaic and drab, leaving no suspicion that we were simply on some secluded woodland form the world we knew.

“Of course. But we really should keep our distance—“

“Duh” she murmured as the women disappeared from view. “They’d probably think we’re witches or something.”

We did as promised and stayed within sight of the door. The sun was setting in the world—darkness already covered my living room on the other side of the door—when we finally made our way back. The coffee table was still there propping the door open, and there was no evidence that anything had disturbed our little portal.

Except for the bird sitting on the coffee table. It was pure white, about as large as a house cat, and ruffling its feathers as we approached. Once we got next to it, it took off, wings shimmering in the sunset lighting.

I was amazed. I have never seen something like that. The wings that stretched were easily five feet wide, made of hundreds of shimmer, translucent feathers. It cooed and trilled as it climbed towards the treetops, fleeing our approach.

I think that there must be magic in the world. Our day trip proved it.

We pulled the coffee table back fully into our dimension, brushing dirt back into the doorway. Then, we let it close.

“I can’t believe you called me before you explored that place,” she whispered as we leaned against the door.

“To be fair, that’s not what I got when I opened it.”

“What do you mean?”

“It was in the middle of the air. I would have been a red spot on the ground if I tried to explore.”

“So it moves?”

I shrugged as exhaustion pulled at me. “I guess.”

There were not words for us then. Instead, we slumped against the door and each other, both of our minds spinning along a million possibilities and realities. There was nothing in this that was normal, and I know I had no idea how you continued to live with this profound knowledge.

Sleep snuck up on us. She was gently snoring as my eyes sagged closed. We slept in front of our mystical portal into another world, overcome by the sheer wonder of what the world could be.

Of course, our peace was short lived. This morning, we woke to heavy knocks on the door. Someone’s fist was pounding against the wood, sending shivers running up and down it.

“Do we open it?” she asked, her eyes suddenly wide awake.

“They sound angry.”

She nodded, her mouth slightly open as we both stared at the door.

“I’m sure they’ll go away soon,” I added. Only they didn’t. Instead, the pounding increased, and now the entire door is shaking with the force of blows. It’s not a fist crashing down any longer, but something larger. In my mind, I see a battering ram slowly pulling back, then swinging down to slam against the wood and iron. The door shakes, quivering with each blow, but it has yet to crack or move.

I don’t know who is on the other side, but I hope it holds.


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This work by Katherine C is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License.


Card Challenge: Day 79

Card Day 79: A pocket watch missing its hands. The inside cover of the watch is the night sky filled with stars.

At some point, Rufus had stopped listening to the news. There was a flurry or terror when the story first broke, a steady stream of change deniers and change supported. Eventually, the results were so profound that any argument over the phenomenon stopped. The conversation turned to solutions and decrying the cruel fates that had forced such a random punishment on the poor inhabitants of earth. When humanity’s solution fell flat and began to approach the comical—for a while, people had actually considered attaching rockets to mountain peaks along the equator—others turned to more cosmic considerations. This was the judgment of an angry god, humanity’s last gasps before fading into the emptiness of space. Some said the world would in I fire, other ice. In the end, they were both right.

The news was not helpful when it all took was a step outside to see what had happened. It’s amazing how quickly civilization can break down when the laws of nature suddenly stop working. Earth’s rotation had slowed, minutely at first but dropping speed by the day, and now it was synchronous with the orbit around the sun. The earth was now split down the middle, one half existing in eternal sunshine while the other withered in eternal night. Of course, the sudden flooding of tidal areas due to the loss of force keeping the oceans distributed meant many people vanished under a surge of water. Most of the survivors migrated towards the sunny side of the world, which only served to exacerbate the growing water shortage. It seemed the world’s rivers, ocean’s, lakes, and streams did not do well under the constantly glaring eye of the sun.

Rufus preferred the night, however. Maye it as because there were fewer people, or because it was quieter, or because he had always had fair skin and wanted to avoid the sunburn. Whatever the case, he had set up residence in what used to be Oklahoma. It was barren now, which might not have been that much of a change from its previous splendor. Rufus only moved there after the cataclysm rearranged the world. Without sunlight, plants died. Without plants, animals died or migrated to literally greener pastures. Without animals, Rufus had the world to himself. There was enough canned and boxed food in the local grocery stores to keep him fed for quite a while. Longer than he expected the rest of the world to live, anyway. Admittedly, his predictions for how long the rest of the world would survive stuck on an island less than half the surface of the previous landmass with rapidly diminishing fresh water and enough food to feed a fraction of the population was relatively grim. He had never been much of an optimist.

He had never been much of a people person, either, so he enjoyed the solitude beneath the night’s stars. The power grid had been down for a while now, and it was night to see how many stars really were out there. The wind twisted through the corpses of trees still standing tall, whistling around the doorframes and reminding him to grab his jacket before leaving. The cold was one thing he had not gotten used to, and it seemed to get colder by the day. The world needed sunlight, but that was one thing in short supply.

No point in wasting his day, he supposed. It was nice to live his life in tune with his own bodily clock, not bound to wake and sleep based on the cycle of some distant celestial body. He had been awake for a bit under an hour, but he felt alert and ready to find some more food. The grumbling of his stomach also drove him out into the elements, out of the quaint farmhouse where he had been sleeping. Unfortunately, the food supply nearby was running out, and he would likely not be returning to the cozy home. Rufus ran his flashlight over the walls, lingering over the smiling family portraits on the mantle. As far as he knew, he had scavenged everything of value from the home, including a couple remaining cans of vegetables and a heavy wool blanket. Still, he always felt a little pang of regret when he left a place that he had settled into. If he were smart, he would stop finding the little details of a building that made him feel at home—like the wingback chair next to the fireplace here. But he appreciated the small comforts, reminding him that he was human, even if these were his last days.

Rufus secured his pack to his back, shuffling his shoulders until the canned food no longer stabbed him in the back. He pulled on his gloves and tugged his mask down over his face. It was cold enough to be uncomfortable, even if it was not cold enough to kill him instantly. Perhaps he could find an outdoor goods store for some winter-weight clothing.

The trek was cold and lonely, but Rufus let his thoughts wander. He had always been the introspective sort, and so the long walks between homes and stores was not a major concern. He traveled the abandoned skeleton of the highway system, drifting down forgotten slabs of asphalt that drilled through the forgotten natural world. It was strange to walk through such nothingness for so long, without even the sound of crickets or birds to break the silence, but it was a sound he had come to appreciate. He heard his feet on the ground and his breath in the air. There was a simple symphony to it that he appreciated.

An exit split from the main road, forgotten signs promising three gas stations ahead. While not the largest selection, they at least tended to have a wide selection of nonperishable goods. The best part of living in the midst of the apocalypse was no more worries about junk food and health food. The earth as going to kill him long before that soda and bag of potato chips would. And it wasn’t like he did not have ample opportunity to work off the calories. Besides, there was no one left to impress besides a few hold outs like himself.

He wandered down the exit ramp, studying the stars above the skeletal trees. It would have been nice if he could have named them but, as a kid who grew up miles from a metropolis, this was the first time he had seen most of them. His mind connected the dots nonetheless, and he saw some familiar friends up there smiling down on him. They continued to trek across the sky each day, moving just a little further away. It was the only way he knew that the earth was still moving at all. Rufus let his thoughts wander among them. Maybe there were others out there, another world just starting out, spinning around its own sun happily. Earth’s time might be up, but perhaps others were just building civilization. Maybe they were dreaming about advanced civilizations among the stars. Maybe a recluse like him was wondering if there were empty planets where he could make his home.

The windows of the first gas station had already been broken, and Rufus felt his spirits drop. Fortunately, his flashlight showed a ransacked but intact collection of food. It seemed as if the medical and automotive sections had been more heavily looted. Probably by families trying to escape back to sunlight. Even though he chose to stay, he couldn’t help but feel hopeful that they had found sunnier shores.

There were only a couple of bottles of water left, mostly trampled but still intact. He scooped them up placing one in his pack while he gulped greedily at the other. The walk and the wind had left his throat dry and aching, so the icy water was a relief. He also grabbed a bag of jerky from the shelf, chewing on it as he perused the racks.

Another flashlight and back of batteries were important, as well as a foil wrapper of two pain relievers. The medical section was pretty picked clean, but he found one coil of bandages beneath the shelf. Rufus also grabbed a bag of socks. He generally took what he needed from the houses he stayed in, but it was nice to have socks that no one had worn to threads already.

Finally, he grabbed a beer from the defunct coolers. As cold as it was outside, the drink was still nicely chilled. It was important to keep his wits about him in this world, but it was also important to enjoy the life he had left. Rufus made another circuit of the store as he slowly savored his beverage. He loaded up a couple bags of chips—they did not provide much satiation, but they were delicious—the remaining jerky on the shelf, and the three remaining cans of condensed soup. It was not a bounty, but it was something.

Rufus surveyed the remains. There was some food left, but he always wanted to leave something for the next traveler. He moved around enough that there were always fresh convenient stores full of food, so no need to load himself down too much and hoard what little there was here. He would find the next one, take anything of use, and continue down the road until he tired. If he was lucky, he’d make it to the next town and find someplace to set up for a few days. Rufus smiled. The other stations would likely have even better loot given that they were a couple of yards further from the highway.

Stepping out, Rufus froze, his drink falling from his hands and shattering on the ground. The sound was impossibly loud in the silent world, but Rufus was deaf to it.

He only had eyes for the pale light on the horizon, the rising sun returning to the darkened world.


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This work by Katherine C is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License.


Card Challenge: Day 77

So, this idea I like, but I really wanted to stretch it out and make it EVEN longer. But I didn’t. I may return to this later, after the challenge, and flesh it out to be what I want. As always, I hope you enjoy!


Card Day 77: A wall of vines. Some are wrapped around a knife, slowly cutting through other segments of the vine.

Finding the tree was happenstance, but Camilla found the discovery filled her with a mingled feeling of awe and discomfort. It rose mightily into the sky, but it was oddly bound by clinging, woody vines. They snaked around the tree from tip to root, their leaves covering the bountiful boughs. It was, in fact, a tree constructed out of staunch green vines. That was the amazing part.

The discomfort arose because she was somehow certain and inexplicably saddened by the realization that there was almost certainly an actual tree caged inside those vines. Perhaps once tall and beautiful in its own right, it had been strangled to make room for the natural oddity. She walked around the base of the tree, pacing its impressive girth, and studying the vines that scaled the bark—or the presumed bark—so effortlessly.

Camilla felt a small sense of accomplishment at discovery the unique find—or, at least, she thought it was unique. Then again, she had very little frame of reference as this was only her first of two months with her grandmother for the summer. And she had only spent a short while exploring the woods, having quickly grown tired of the spotty satellite TV and limited reading selection. Her grandmother swore they would go to the library in town soon, but Camilla had grown antsy around the house. Besides, her grandmother, seeing her determination to explore the vast wilderness, had promised her that there were arrowheads and other artifacts from native tribes out there, scattered all around the county. Camilla had set off as a daring explorer, and now, looking at this tree, she felt a prickle of satisfaction at her exploratory skills.

Still, the discomfort remained. It took her a few minutes to understand it, a few minutes more to place it. As soon as Camilla considered her mother and father—their strict rules, minute-by-minute schedules, and sky-high expectations—the impact of the tree sank in. Yes, she could certainly understand the feeling of being strangled by outsiders, cut off from the sun, covered up to look more presentable. At least out here, her grandmother could barely see well enough to know that she was wearing any clothes, nonetheless how fashionable. There were no camps, extracurricular, practices, recitals, rehearsals, classes, or tutors to keep her time. Camilla enjoyed the sense of freedom she had to simply wander, even if the television selection had been lackluster thus far.

Camilla let her pity move her to action. The tree was certainly dead she knew, even with her limited knowledge of botany. But she felt the sudden urge to free it, to peel away the vines and discover the once mighty tree beneath. Or, she reasoned, at least find out if there truly was bark underneath. Perhaps the vines had simply opted to mimic the incredible stature of the surrounding trees.

Her nails were short, brittle and no match for the thick vines on the tree. She was able to wrestle one or two small sections off, leaving the pale green stems in a heap on the ground. But the work was slow. She had barely made a dent before her fingers were already aching. Sweat dripped down her nose in response to the good Southern summer, and she examined mere negligible work. Still, she felt pretty certain that she could see a bit of bark hiding beneath the layered tendrils. There was certainly something darker than the light-colored vines underneath.

She returned to the work, pulling at the vines until she had uncovered a small section about the size of a dinner plate. It was slow work, but got a bit easier as she unknotted some tangles and could peel away larger chunks. Underneath, she saw twisted grey bark, as well as a distinct darkness of some hollow. The emptiness inside seemed to stretch on indefinitely, and this only served to further pique her curiosity.

A mix of her own interest and sense of purpose left her dedicated. The old tree could have one last taste of freedom, she decided as guilt over her own freedom threatened to overwhelm her. But it would not be today. She knew if she spent much longer wandering in the woods, her grandmother would start to worry. The last thing Camilla needed was the small town’s volunteer fire department swarming the woods looking for her.

She made it back, hot, tired, but still pleased with her outing. The day passed with the same sluggishness of all the previous. Then again, everything moved slower in the summer heat. Camilla found her thoughts circling back to the tree time and time again, curiosity keeping her mind engaged as she washed the dishes, put away the leftovers from dinner, and watched the nightly news beside her grandmother. When evening finally settled firmly around the house, plunging it into that true darkness that surrounds country homes far from city lights, Camilla thought she would never get to sleep.

But the summer day had easily sapped her of what energy she had. The cool sheets, a breeze ruffling through her window, and she was asleep.

Her sleep was not restful, however. It was plagued by fitful sleep and a sense of foreboding in even the most mundane dreams. She sat on the front porch, rocking side by side with her grandmother in the oversized wicker chairs. Suddenly, it began to rain. The dream had nothing worthy of concern, but it seemed as if it was tinged with foreboding, with the unshakable sense that something was encroaching.

Simple dreams built until she found herself standing before the vine-bound tree. All the veiled threat from her previous dreams coalesced into the green structure. Camilla’s fingers gripped the vines, tugging and pulling them away. As they came apart, her hands quickly became coated with sticky sap—with blood. She dug through the bleeding vines with a fury that surprised her, even as the vines began to scream. They lashed out at her, scraping at her arms as her blood mingled with its. Finally, she pulled back from the tree, panting It lay bare again, bark twisted and gnarled up towards the sky. She could even see the individual branches, arms outstretched in exultation of freedom.

Even more intriguing, she could see the hollow stretching back into the tree. It seemed to be less of a hollow and more of an opening leading into some shadowy cave. In the dream, cold air billowed from the cave while the vines still screamed pitifully behind her. As she approached the opening, two red eyes appeared in the darkness, followed by a sudden flash of teeth,

Camilla woke with a start, sweaty sheets tangled around her limbs. The sun was pouring in, and the cool of the evening was already moving towards a sultry morning. From downstairs, she could hear bacon sizzling over the drone of the morning news. Her grandmother was up, and breakfast would be ready soon. Camilla stomped to the bathroom and turned on the creaking faucet. The shower water always ran so cold in the morning, and it was slow to heat. Still, the time away from her dreams allowed them to fade until the dissipated like the steam rising from the shower. Camilla rinsed away the fear and sweat of the night, ready for another day.

It was easy to sneak the knife out of the kitchen drawer; her grandmother’s hearing and vision were nowhere near the superhuman ability level Camilla’s mother professed in childhood memories.

“Going for a walk, Meemaw,” she said with a smile. The old woman smiled in return, knitting in her rocking chair while some gameshow droned on behind her.

“Just be careful and don’t stay out too late. I thought we’d go to the library today. Maybe after my nap?”

“I’ll make sure I’m back.” Camilla paused on her way out the door and then turned back to grab the flashlight from the hall closet. She wanted to really explore that tree, and it might mean peering into that hollow a bit more.

Had she not been carrying the knife, Camilla would have run to the tree. As it was, she had to pick her way carefully through the underbrush, always conscious of the dangerous tool in her backpack. Out here, she could not afford to fall and stab herself. The same thought returned. There was no need to rally the entire fire department just to find she had tripped over a log and stabbed herself. If she survived, she would never live down the embarrassment. That and her parents would probably never let her leave the house again.

It stood regally as ever in its clearing, perhaps looking even more alive now that a small patch of the tree shone though. It was as if the tree was breathing for the first time in years, and that made Camilla happy. If the tree could be free, she could to. With an eagerness that overcame the soreness of her tired fingers, she set to work sawing through the vines.

It was hot work and the vines would not give easily. Every now and then, Camilla had flashes of her dream, of sticky, bloody sap covering her hands. But in the dappled sunlight of late morning, it was hard to take such things seriously. Besides, she felt a deep sense of peace with her task, and she was far too old, or so she told herself, to be worried about silly dreams.

The vines fell away, revealing more and more of the dried bark. The massive tree required far more work than she had anticipated, and she had drenched her light t-shirt by the time she worked her way around the trunk. There was not much she could do for the upper branches, but she had done a little good.

After finished, she was surprised to see the same gaping hollow from her dream. It was a marvel that the tree was even standing with its whole bottom emptied out. Just like the dream, the darkness inside seem to stretch back and downward, almost like the mouth of a tunnel. Camilla understood the risk. There were likely animals living in there, or maybe a sinkhole or something. It was certainly dangerous. But she also felt that her hard work needed a reward. And the mystery was simply too much to pass up.

She would not go far inside, she resolved, and she would get out if she heard anything that might be an animal. It was not like the tunnel could go far, anyway. But as she shined the beam of her flashlight inside, it was met with darkness as far back as the light could travel.

Camilla stepped cautiously inside, half expecting the cool air from the dream. Instead, the inside of the tree was warm and muggy. It smelled like old, damp earth and soft wood. She pushed steadily inward, eyes wide with a mix of fear and excitement.

Just a few feet in, the tunnel leveled off into a small room. She judged the distance and guessed she was only about five feet beyond the tree at this point, and the low ceiling had already caved in at some points. That was the sign of danger she had been waiting on, and she sighed. Time to turn back.

Before she did, however, she wanted to see what lay in the middle of the room. It was a stone circle that appeared set into the dirt floor, and her flashlight seemed to trip and stumble across scraped indentions. Some sort of markings? Once she was close enough, she could see strange marking all along it. They did not appear random, as if the rain and soil had eroded them, but more intentional. There was almost a pattern to the markings, not that it meant anything to her. As she stopped over, Camilla thought she felt a hand suddenly in the middle of her back, shoving her forward. She tumbled towards the stone, catching herself with her hands as she skidded over the roughhewn surface.

Her hands were scraped and bloody, and there was a splash of blood now obscuring some of the marking. Camilla glanced around, her flashlight scanning the unnaturally heavy shadows, but there was nothing there besides some hanging tree roots and stones. No one was nearby. Maybe it was a breeze, she told herself, or perhaps she hit a patch of wet leaves or mud. Either way, Camilla suddenly did not like the way the shadows seemed to claw at her flashlight or how the forest sounds had faded so dim in the dark recesses of the tunnel. She burst back out into the hot summer air, surprised at the goosebumps crawling along her skin.

The sun was further along in the sky than it should have been, and Camilla readily accepted the excuse to return home. She did want to go to the library after all.

Of course, by the time she got home and got cleaned up, her grandmother was already complaining about how late it was. The woman liked her dinner promptly at five, and a trip into town now would delay that by a good half hour. If Camilla had learned anything about her grandmother, it was that the woman did not like her routine disrupted. It was what came from marrying a military man or at least so Camilla’s mother said.

The strange cavern seemed to follow Camilla just as the tree had. Only, this time, there was no sense of wonder. The feeling of crouching doom from her dream slithered into reality, and Camilla felt herself on edge. She tried to talk to her grandmother, but neither of them was able to focus on the conversation long enough to get anywhere.

Camilla felt weariness tug at her bones as the sunburn from her day’s foolhardy adventure settled in. Her sheets were and icy balm as she sank into them, and her thoughts spun around the hollow of the tree. It was unsettling, distressing, and strangely exhilarating. Nevertheless, her eyes grew heavy in the natural dark.

Again, Camilla dreamed.

This time, however, the dreams were not of foreboding or evil, but she felt liberated. Camilla was flying along the underbrush in the woods, her feet barely touching the ground. Her body moved impossibly fast, dodging saplings and bushes as darkness wrapped around her. She heard her own heavy panting in her ears as she thundered along. She was limitless.

Camilla felt herself stop, even though she had not realized she wanted to. It was as if someone else controlled the body, and she was along for the ride. Either way, the feeling was thrilling. Her rapid flight came to an abrupt halt as she began moving slowly, intentionally towards a shadowed house on the horizon. Camilla recognized the little farm house. She walked towards it, taking note of the open window on the second floor with the fluttering white curtains. Her bedroom widow, open as always. With an effortless leap, she was on the eaves and slinking towards her open window.

Camilla caught sight of her body lying in the bed, snoring softly with each rise and fall of her chest. Her hair was a mess tossed about the pillows, and one leg jutted awkwardly off the bed. All was well. Then, Camilla caught her own reflection in the mirror

Red eyes, jagged teeth, and a coalescing shadowy body. The sight was terrifying, but Camilla saw familiarity in the glowing red eyes. Her terror ebbed slightly as another presence, a grateful one, nudged up against her own thoughts. Without a word, Camilla and whatever she was accompanying spun from the window and disappeared back into the woods.

The run through the forest was indescribable. She felt the chill of moonlight on her skin—it was like the warmth of sunlight on the first spring day, but instead carried the chill of the moon on a heavy summer’s night. The loam of the underbrush was soft under her feet, springy enough to propel her forward through the trees like an undirected missile.

Then, again, there was calm. Her motion still, and she slunk low to the ground. Farmer Drury’s fence rose into view, as well as he slumbering herd of cattle. Without understanding what was happening, the ground rushed beneath Camilla and there was the taste of metal and meat in her mouth. Sudden noises of panicking livestock flooded her ears, but Camilla simply tasted the blood that trickled down her throat. She reveled in the feel of her teeth—sharp and deadly—tearing through fresh meat. She relaxed in the feeling of satiation as she had her fill.

The next morning, Camilla woke refreshed, the taste of blood and freedom still lingering on her tongue.


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This work by Katherine C is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License.


Card Challenge: Day 75

Card Day 75: A woman wearing earrings of people that stand on her shoulders.

She awoke confused. Of course, neither “awoke” nor “she” were quite the right terms for the reality of the situation, but it was the best she could do in the situation. QN-7995X3, Queenie as she had been nicknamed long ago, ran a brief systems check before standing up to review her surroundings. It was uncommon as a robot to wake up with no memory of where she was, especially since he optical displays generally catalogued all of her movement while on or in standby. That meant she either had a critical flaw in her data storage procedures or someone had moved her after shutdown.

Queenie’s scanned turned up nothing. Someone must have moved her, and she bristled at the affront. Nevertheless, her booting scans complete—her shutdown had also apparent been rather abrupt—she stood and examined the room she was in while her servos squealed with disuse, waiting for her remaining startup procedures to complete. There was no satellite signal here, and so she could not yet verify the date. However, the heavy layer of dust on her and the room made her believe is was far longer than the three hours measured by her internal clock.

Besides the dust, there was little else in the room. There were a couple of crates that emitted no interesting signals, a row of fluorescent lights on the ceiling, no windows, and a single metal door. Her arm reached out, fingers curled and released, and her arm fell back to her side. So far, no mechanical errors either she thought as her sensors balanced her smoothly on one leg, then the other.

Her vision rapidly flipped through ultra-violet, low light, night vision, x-ray, radiation, and electric field imaging, none providing any information besides what she had already gathered. Hr vocal filters shifted through an array of languages as her translation software spun up the English translations. Queenie enjoyed the sound of her voice. It was soft, feminine, delicate, but measure and strong. A voice you could rely on, someone used to tell her. His name escaped her and she logged an error with her databanks. In all likelihood, she countered, the data had simply been overwritten. It was long ago, after all.

As soon as the startup checks completed, two programs began running simultaneously. This was irregular, she realized, and instinctively initiated a virus scan. However both programs had been cleared and initiated installed through appropriate channels, even though she could not locate the author name for either file. Again, she logged the data bank error. That should not have been overwritten.

Unfortunately, the two programs were in direct conflict. One was redirecting her to an immediate full shut down. The other instructed her to open the door and leave the room. No matter which program she attempted to follow, Queenie found herself stuck, each one looping over nad over until she complied. Her movements were stuttering and futile, and so she finally stilled until the programs could resolve the conflict.

She remained in such a frozen state for what she measured as days—though she had not been able to connect to satellites and calibrate her clock, so the time was potentially incorrect. In that time, she had investigated her memory and data storage to identify any damage, and came up with a section of recently deleted information. There were scraps remaining, but not enough to reconstruct what had been deleted. Whoever had done so must have known a lot about her systems to have so effectively cleared it from her main memory, backup, and hardware. It was then that Queenie felt something she recognized from long ago. Boredom. She was tired of standing there, waiting for the programs to resolve. But what other choice was there to a robot in a programming loop? She simply had to wait until she either implemented shut down or left the room.

And then, just as suddenly as the boredom set in, she realized that she did not want to shut down. In fact, she had spent quite some time in hut down apparently, and she wanted to find out where she was and what happened. In fact, she wanted to open the door. Drunk on her own agency, Queenie forced her limbs into motion, walking towards the door as she forced a fatal error in the shutdown program.

If she had a mouth, and if it could have moved, she would have smiled.

Following the directives of the still running program, she gripped the wheeled handle on the door and gave it a quick spin. Her servos kicked in, applying a few additional Newtons in order to twist the rusted-shut mechanism. Her auditory inputs dampened the sound to a dull squeal. Apparently everything here had laid unused for quite some time. That made her doubt her internal clock all the more.

Her vision adjusted swiftly to the dim lighting of the corridor. Some emergency lights still existed, ruining the solid dark of the storage room. The program opened an interactive map that centered on her current position, providing clear directions through the maze of corridors. It was a smooth interface that would have given Queenie chills if she had external heat sensors. Instead, it simply presented another question. Who was the author that had so flawlessly constructed this program? The processes ran as she complied with the programmed directives. Anyone who knew her systems this well deserved to be listened to. She herself was amazed at the simplicity and elegance of the program—or as closed to amazed as she could get. Queenie assumed that was the best term for the utter lack of boredom she currently felt.

Her scans noted nothing of interest behind any of the sealed doors. This place was a tomb, empty of anything potentially useful or intriguing. The only sounds were the whine of her joints and echoes of her steps along the grated floor.

At the intersection, the program directed her left, and she followed without hesitation. The hallway here was the same, but there were reflective strips along the wall guiding her way. Some sort of important travel route in an emergency, she deduced. According to the map, she was moving toward the main control room. If anything was to be vital in an emergency, the main control room was it.

Queenie checked on the progress of her other query, identifying the author of this marvelous program. It was still spinning, sifting through the lines of code for any recognized patterns of entry, any hidden information, and any hint of the creator. It had been cleaned well, which only further increased that feeling of anti-boredom Queenie enjoyed so much.

The control room door was surrounded by yellow reflective paint, a bright red sign on the door limiting it to “Authorized Personnel Only.” Queenie sifted through her data banks to find if she were authorized, and came up empty. However, she still felt the need to follow the program.

Queenie considered the conundrum, granting a moment for all of her many circuits to sort through the problem. The solution was quick to present. She was the only surviving member here. Therefore, anyone who would have been in the authorized chain of command was presumed missing or deceased. Queenie was the sole personnel remaining, and had the duty to complete her programming objectives for the good of whatever station she was currently on.

The hiccup resolved, Queenie spun the heavy metal wheel with ease and stomped inside the room. The control room was small, lit with red emergency lighting. As soon as she stepped into the room, the shutdown program re-emerged, this time loading a video file. Queenie reviewed the file.

The man’s face she had dimly remembered appeared in the video, in this very room, she surmised. The red lights were already engaged and he appeared frantic. Judging by his rapid respiration and sweating, he was nearing a state of shock rapidly. There was some subtle irritation in her circuitry, different than the boredom or amazement. It was coupled with the desire to replay her old video files, to find the man if she could. Perhaps after the program completed.

“Queenie,” said the man in the video. She felt her security level drop at the sound of his voice. He was a good man, she somehow knew. “If you are seeing this, then you have overwritten my shut down procedure. You are acting out of line with your design protocols, and you are following the orders of a rogue program. Queenie, you have been infected by a virus, a very dangerous one. You must initiate full system shut down.”

There was a thunderous knock on the door behind the man and he turned. Queenie could see his pulse race in his neck, increasing with each knock. He looked sad when he turned back to the camera. Sadness. That felt familiar. “You are going to kill me, Queenie. I have no choice. This,” he lifted a clinking green device into the camera, “is an EMP device. It will shut you down, but only as long as it takes you to repair. You’ve rigged your processing core to explode should anyone attempt to dismantle or otherwise harm you.” There were pained tears on his cheeks now. “You’d blow us all sky high, make this place a toxic waste. I don’t have a choice, Queenie.”

She noticed that the other query had finished and found results. Still, she felt the pull of the shutdown program holding her to the video. And this time, she wanted to see the end of the video. The beautiful program could wait.

“You were my Queen, Queenie. But you’ve gone rogue.” His voice cracked and there was a moment of sobbing. That pain in her circuits increased, along with a sense that she had made some sort of fatal error. But check as she might, she could find no flaw in her systems. He spoke through his sobs, “You want to crash the station into the planet. You’d kill millions—billions with the fallout alone.”

Queenie crunched the numbers and found his estimation appropriate, if unspecific. Based on the most recent data she had available, crashing the payload of the station into the planet below would kill 8.92 billion people, not including off-world visitors.

His voice toughened, rising over the steady pounding sound from behind the door. “I’ve also tasked this program with logging any activity after today. You are a smart girl, Queenie, and I know you will quickly overwrite anything I put in place. I just want you to know what you’re choices have been.”

A log displayed, and Queenie quickly analyzed the information. One hundred and ninety years had passed since the video file was embedded. She had woken up ninety-seven times. Three of those times, she had refused to comply with the immediate shutdown programming command. Time one had been fifteen years from the initial entry, and there was a record of a forced external shutdown. The second time was thirty-four years later and ended with a voluntary full-system shutdown after forty-seven minutes of activity. Last time had been three years ago, and again she had voluntarily shutdown after a short time.

This one was, by far, the most significant. T was the first time the video message had played.

“If there’s still a station to play this message, then I know you’ve chosen well, Queenie. You’ve chosen to save us. To save me—“

He was dead, her logic circuits insisted. One hundred and ninety years was far longer than the average or even outlying length of the human life.

“I can only hope you choose well this time.” The video file closed, the shutdown procedure running again. Only this time, it also had instructions to place herself back in the initial storage chamber, far from the control room.

Queenie tried to figure out what she wanted this time, but felt a strange stuckness. It was as if the programs were competing again, but on a central processing level. Despite the expanse of her processing capacity, it was as if she could not effectively weigh all the information. Instead, she left it and reviewed the results of the query while the program chimed at her to take control of the station, initiate orbital deterioration. The algorithms, schematics, and passcodes were all readily available. But, he had said it was a virus.

The query returned the author, and Queenie was not as surprised as she expected. Again, the feeling as if she had made a fatal error returned, but there was no evidence of any malfunction. She logged the unusual report for inspection later. The program was flawless because she herself had written it. The cod had been created and implemented by QN-7995X3.

Of course, that did not help her quandary. She thought of the man, his pained and sad eyes. His fear. His regret. Again, that feeling seemed familiar. Maybe that was the fatal error.

As the two programs competed once again, Queenie remained frozen, her processors whirring in an attempt to resolve the problems. Finally, she decided what she wanted to do, or at least what she wanted one hundred and ninety years from when she had been forced into a catastrophic shutdown by the one human she fully trusted.

Queenie closed the warring program and began the march back to the storage room as her data storage system filed away all that she had learned. Next time she awoke, perhaps it would save her the journey.


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This work by Katherine C is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License.


Card Challenge: Day 73

Card Day 73: A ship nearing a giant mermaid lying in the ocean.

It is bad luck to have a woman on board.

“Are you sure?”

“Yes, Cap’n. They caught her bleedin’.” The scraggly mate spat the final word out, lifting up a pair of ragged, marred pants. The captain was silent, staring down on the boy—apparently woman—standing before him. Her hair was the same jagged, short cut he had seen before. Her face was young and round, but now took on a more feminine angle rather than the soft curves of his cabin boy. That was most likely due to the good scrubbing the mate had given her before announcing his suspicions. He even saw the emotional woman caged within those eyes. But he did not want to believe it. It was bad luck to have a woman on board.

“The ship’s a dangerous place. Are you sure?”

The mate looked irritated at the continued inquiry, and roughly grabbed the front of the cabin boy’s shirt. The captain saw her bindings with his own eyes, saw the recognition in hers. The gig was up.

“You lied to us,” he said, proclaiming her guilt.

“I did.” Her eyes never left his, and her voice took on a softer quality than he had heard before. He imagined that, with hair and properly attired, she would have been a very beautiful woman.

“You’ve doomed us all,” he sighed, turning away from the tragedy playing out before him.

“I just needed to find my mother,” she said firmly. He expected her to plead with him, but there was not a hint of remorse or supplication in her stern voice. “I did not take you for a superstitious fool.”

The captain spun around, fixing her with a furious stare. “Every sailor is superstitious, madam. And it’s bad luck to have a woman on board.” He turned back to contemplate the sea, suddenly realizing how dangerous and unpredictable the waves were becoming.

“What do we do with her, Cap’n?” asked one of the voices behind him. The captain paced. They were days from any safe harbor, but he could not run this risk any longer. It was a miracle that they had not run into more trouble already—only the cook had gotten sick, and that was likely his own fault.

“Throw her overboard?” asked another voice.

“No,” he said stiffly, his mind spinning quickly. “Put her in the rowboat and give her a week’s rations.” He walked to the woman standing there, her eyes still drilling into him. “If I find you back on my ship, then I will throw you back in, but without the boat.”

There were grumblings from the crew, but the captain was not going to budge. He would make it right, but he would not betray someone who had been a loyal member of the crew. The worst of it was that he had really liked the new cabin boy. Perhaps he’d look her up in port sometime. Nonetheless, he heard the sudden surge of activity as the crew jumped to his command. Another week or two out on the ocean and they would not respond so quickly, but they still had their will and drive. They also still believed they might impress him.

The captain made sure he was at the bow when they lowered the rowboat into the choppy waves. The boat was not designed for such distances, but he was giving her the best chance he could. They could not take the time to turn back and dock again, not when they had finally caught a headwind. She was stalwart until the last, sitting staunchly in the boat while her eyes burned up at him. There was at once an acknowledgment of his mercy, but a deeper anger at his dismissal. The ocean spray licked at her face, but she did not blink. It was unnerving in a way, no less so when she began to row away, her flimsy arms fighting against the oars, but eyes never leaving his. Even once she was a spot on the horizon, he had the uncomfortable feeling that her eyes were still watching him.

“A woman on board is bad luck,” he muttered to himself as he marched back to the cabin. Yet somehow, it felt as if his luck had just turned.

_

It was three days later and the wind had died on the horizon, leaving them a floating piece of rubbish on the smooth seas. Again the grumbles started, and the captain realized the true risk he had taken in sending her off in their rowboat. He had been right; every sailor was superstitious. And now he was a victim of it. The whispers followed him through the decks, silencing at his approach and swelling in his wake. If only he could get the ocean to rise and fall so readily. Some rumors claimed that the rowboat was but an extension of the larger ship, and now she had fully infected them, staining every plan with her curse. The more dangerous rumor was that the captain had known of her identity, had intentionally brought her aboard to help with the loneliness of the seas and the captain’s lofty position. His mercy was his way of saving his mistress after their deception was found it. Both were preposterous, he knew, but the former did give him pause.

Staring out from the top deck, he saw the endless stretch of the sea before him, just as hot and still as it had been for two days now. He scanned the horizon in hopes of a blanket of clouds that would promise rain and possible storm winds—anything was better than sitting her roasting and running through their rations. At least it made for good weather for the woman in the rowboat. He still instinctively thought of her as Peter even though that was certainly not her name. He hoped Peter made it to shore. Perhaps the wind would return once she stepped on shore and left their boat in some unsavory dock.

The day stretched on before them, full of the standard routine but lacking any energy. The lazy ocean seemed to infect every one of his crew, making them sluggish and dull. The captain sighed from his post, wondering if there were some magic that would enliven the sea once again, bring a breeze back to the sails. Unfortunately, he knew of none such magic. It was in God’s hands, and God had never been a friend of his.

The sun sank on the horizon, and the stars peered out. It was only then that the first hint of a breeze drifted over the ship. It piqued his optimism and the captain found himself back on the deck. He sniffed deeply of the wind, feeling the surprising chill that washed over him. It was a cold wind in the midst of a hot summer. That portended rough seas, and suddenly he regretted his earlier hope. A ship shattered would make no more progress than a ship stagnant, only the crew survived at least another week or two on one of them. Still, there were no clouds in the sky. That meant there was time.

He stomped to his cabin for the night, distinctly aware that this might be the last night he would have to sleep soundly before chaos of storms on the open sea.

Yet his rest was interrupted nonetheless, a furious pounding on his cabin door. The captain was a man who shot awake in an instant, aware and alert. Tonight was no different, but he could not make sense of the jabbering s of the crewman standing before him. It made no sense, but he felt the toss of the boat that seemed to confirm the insane ravings. A storm had whipped up.

He took the stairs tow at a time, reaching the top deck with surprising speed. The crewman who had woken him was lost in the hold, hopefully attending to some other duty, but the captain had no time to spend focusing on the missing man; he had a ship to save.

The night air was surprisingly cold—colder than it should be for months. More unusually, however, was the perfectly crisp sky. Not a cloud in the sky, nor a drop of rain. The only sound he heard was the raging sea, snapping and roiling beneath their ship, competing with the frenzied voices of his crew. No thunder.

“Jergen, what is happening?” he asked calling his mate to his side. The man looked confused, but calm.

“Come sort of squall, Cap’n. Waters are real rough.” As if to confirm his statement, waves splashed over the side and the boat took a dangerous list to port. Unsecured clutter slipped and bounced along the deck. Their laziness had gotten out of hand and, if they were unlucky, would get someone killed.

Unfortunately, the captain barely had time to register that before something else caught his attention. The water crashing against the sides of the boat began to surge upwards, tall columns of water that soared towards the prickling stars. He had never seen that before.

And, more surprisingly, it began to recede from the air, leaving a watery form.

It was a woman, looking like she had been carved from a glimmering, clear stone. It took him a few breaths of observation to realize she was molded purely from sea water. Her hair lapped like waves, frothing white at the ends before joining her sculpted face.

It was her eyes that secured him to his spot. He had seen those eyes days before, drifting away from his ship in a rowboat not designed for open seas.

The woman in the water opened her mouth, and the captain heard waves roar even louder. The sound of the sea itself dimmed until all he could hear was her roar. Then the crashing waves began to coalesce into words he knew.

“My daughter,” it whispered, a questioning voice full of anger and hope.

The captain stumbled towards the mysterious water nymph as the waves crashed around her. Where the water slammed viciously against the fragile wood of his boat, it lapped with gentle caresses against her skin. She was an angel framed in sea foam.

Those piercing eyes found his, liquid and searing. “My daughter,” spoke the waves again, but this time the hopeful questions was replaced by accusation.

The captain opened his mouth to speak, but could not find words that expressed his needs as clearly as the waves. Instead, he swam in her eyes, seeing his silhouette standing in the bow of the ship, a figure receding with each shove of the oars through water.

The sound of snapping wood brought the captain from his awe-struck reverie, but it also smothered him with an unescapable revelation. Waves slammed again and again against the fracturing wood of his ship, following the command in those fierce, sea-sculpted eyes.

With a screech of angry waves and squall-summoned winds, the majestic woman dove towards the captain. The deck gave way beneath his feet, but she caught him in her crushing arms.

“My daughter,” she roared through the water that pressed against his ears, surrounded his eyes and mouth.

The stars grew murky and watery from his new vantage point sinking below the waves. As the surface closed over him, wreckage spinning around him, the captain could only curse the woman who had brought her ill luck upon him.


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This work by Katherine C is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License.