Welcome to the Attic!

Posts tagged “be careful what you wish for

Card Challenge: Day 64

Woohoo! On the last quarter! It’s been quite a ride, and will probably continue. Unfortunately, I have a raging migraine tonight, so there may be a lot of typos or issues here. I will probably look over this tomorrow and try to make some corrections. Tonight, I’ve just got to get my eyes closed. Happy reading!


Card Day 64: A rabbit in armor, sword drawn, standing before three different doors.

It is strange to think that my life spun on a pivot based on one choice alone. In one breath, I drastically altered life as I knew it, striking off on some path that I could never have imagined had you granted me ten thousand years to dream. No, it was the impulsivity and daring of youth that set me on this path, and I cannot help but wonder what may have been if a cooler head had reigned and selected my future. Life is, ultimately, the assembled sum of choices made in moments of strength and weakness.

“Take my hand.” The words had been a command, but they were a choice. And I chose adventure, leaving behind the life of simplicity I had thus far known. I leapt from the precipice of the unknown with a mysterious stranger whose tongue was decked in gilded lies. I eschewed the life I had known to chase after the fairytale presented.

Only his fairytale did not have a happy ending, and did not include brave knights or sweeping castles. No, his fairytales were grim reality dressed in a veil of magic. True, there is magic in this world of mine, but not the kind to transform frogs to princes. That was a lesson I learned quickly with him.

I had been young and impressionable. He had been the answers to all the darkness and ennui that dogged my daily life. I was an independent woman who wished for the fantasy of my youth. So I sought it out, digging through the recesses of our reality and searching for the tears.

My search led me to him in a back alley shop carrying all kinds of items, covering the gamut from arcane to mundane. A spells hop, he said with a smile. Only I did not realize that by opening a relationship with him, entering his world, I was actually granting entry to a myriad of unwanted guests.

“Take my hand,” he said, and led me into his shop, into his world. He showed me how to create a spell, how to transform the world and revitalize the magic I sought. Old ways, he said with the gaze of a zealous worshipper.

At first, things had been magical in the most innocent sense of the word. He had shown me how to create light and beauty, how to enchant things so that they took on a feeling of whimsy. I learned simple things to make the colors of my world shine brighter, to make music dance before me, and to grant levity to the struggles of life. I was overwhelmed with luck and beauty. It was like the greatest high I had ever experienced, only it was not bought with self-delusion and unhappy consequences.

Of course, the consequences were there, they just hung back in the shadows and waited until I was so ensnared that I could not escape.

It began with whispers that followed me throughout my day. They ebbed and flowed like waves, overwhelming me at times with their threatening whispers. Whenever I used the gifts he had unlocked within me, I heard them swell to a rabble, only to dim as I exhausted my gifts. As I transformed the pebble in my hand into an apple, they screamed, and then faded on the wind. Every time I cast a light about my home, illuminating my abode with dancing light that shone with tranquility, they raged against the peace. Only when it grew dark did they quiet again.

I thought I was going crazy, but that is not the thing you can tell a therapist. Yes, I hear voices, but only when I use magic. That’s a one way ticket to a life I did not want. So I chose not to reach out for help, but to live with it. I told him about the voices, and he smiled knowingly.

“You didn’t think you’d get this all for free, did you? You’re building quite the tab.” And he stopped taking my calls. The shop closed up, a smudge of paint on a brick wall downtown. From shadows he came, and into them he once again melted.

Had they stayed voices, I think I would have been fine. I could hold them back, limit the use of my skills, and make it by without becoming overwhelmed by the ever clearer voices. As long as I did not think about the horrors they whispered, I could hold it together.

Soon, there were shadows in my eyes. They clung around the edges of my sight, deepening natural shadows and sneaking from them when I was not looking. Their forms were obscure, fluctuating, moving with the ease of light filtering through a dusty window. At night, I woke to find them grinning down at me, hungry and waiting. “An account must be made,” they whispered, grinning with delight.

I know I should have stopped then, stepped away from the new world I had uncovered. I should have returned to the life of normalcy, hoped that they would let me go with time served. But this was more addictive than any drug. Imagine you could change the very fabric of reality around you to make life exactly as you wished. Mourning? Then simply alter time and space so that the loss never happened. Disappointed? Just a few tweaks here or there and the world realigns to your specifications. Lonely? It’s always easy to find someone when you know exactly what they’re looking for. The allure is in the ease. For such a huge power, the keys are relatively simple. Just a nudge to time here, a pull on this part of space, a twist of that arbitrary boundary. Once I knew the rules, it was as if all the world was nothing but a puzzle to be figured out and pieced together per my command. That is a power I could not step away from.

Of course, my refusal did not suit them either. They grew more and more terrifying. They woke me from sleep to scream and growl. My dreams were their playground, filled with images of horror and despair. Every time I tried to right the world in my dream, it twisted before my eyes. Not only did I not get to go home with the man I had hoped for, but I watched as he was ripped limb from limb. My attempt to brighten my apartment turned into a blazing fire, my nostrils filled with the scent of burning flesh while I listened to the screams of my neighbors. I woke in terror.

And tonight, I woke in terror to find they had taken on an even more tangible danger. This time, one of them was seated on my chest, two of its many appendages pinning my arms to my sides. I could try to describe it, but I know words do not do it justice. Its form was mist, eve in movement, but I also had the distinct image of a snarling wolf impossibly balanced on my torso. In no way did the writhing mass of shadow actually resemble a wolf, but that is the form that best describes the being before me. It at once had a form and denied that shape.

“An account must be made,” it snarled, breathing long coils of hot, rancid breath over my face. The stench of my dreams resurged, burning flesh and rotting meat comingled. The claws around my arms dug deep, and I felt my skin pop with the pressure, beads of blood trembling down my arms. I could feel its hunger at the sight, an almost ecstatic trembling in its undefined form.

“An account will be made,” it purred, jaws flashing near my face. “We are owed. We will be sated.”

And I screamed, focusing the primal rage, fear, and desire into one vocalization. I looked at my blueprint of reality, this alien blot marring the system I had learned so well. It was an invader in the world I had created, and I must be the defender.

I know my story could have ended hours ago, a blood stain on a mattress in a bad part of town. A series of screams reported to cops who did not care, a person who vanished into the night, a collection of blood and bones without any valid explanation. I could have been a cold case reserved for the stuff of urban legends.

But my teacher taught me so much better than that, even if he did abandon me. Then again, I don’t think he knew half of what he taught me. But you can learn an awful lot when you can freeze a moment and pick delicately through every neuron of their brain. Yes, you can learn so much.

And so I cleansed my world. I brought back the light that I had created and tended so gently, used it to burn away the claim that thing placed on me.  I can close my eyes and see the shock, awe, and fear on its face—or lack of a face—as it realized that the morsel it had in its claws was far more competent than expected. I hate to admit, but that look was intoxicating. As was the feeling of its form dissolving within my thoughts. I felt the structure of its phantasmagorical shape fall apart, covering me in its darkness. It ran warm, thick, and soothing over my skin; it seeped into my wounds and fed me with energy from beyond the veil.

It was a taste exhilarating, fulfilling, and empowering in a way I had never known—a way I did not know a mere human can know.

So, still wearing the remains of my foolish captor, I am once again faced with a choice. Another pivot point in my life has arisen, and I must this time be aware of what lies ahead. I may remain here, waiting, and try to return to life before I was filled with this indescribable power. They will return. Or I can flee, hide myself from the powers I have gathered, and hope that my account may one day be forgotten. The life of the victim, ever on the run.

There is a third option. I may hunt, feed myself on this essence that provides all my life has been lacking. I can drink deep, rip apart those who would dare to threaten me. I can drench myself in shadow and fill myself with their fear as I take the offensive.

Humanity has so long been prey; perhaps it is time for at least one of us to take on the role of the predator. Besides, I can feel the hunger awaken again.


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

Advertisements

Card Challenge: Day 57

Hello, wonderful Reader! I apologize for not posting yesterday. I was running from 7:30-9:45 with class and clients, so I was simply worn out by the time I finally made it home. Just a day of back-to-back-to-back appointments. So, I just had to keep myself sane and healthy. Still, I was frustrated because I really wanted to write this story! But, better late than never. I only have one day left to skip, so hopefully nothing too major gets in the way. Thanks for sticking with me, and I hope you enjoy today’s piece. Happy reading!


Card Day 57: An hourglass. As the sands fall, they cover a youthful young woman below while revealing an old woman above.

The world fell out of balance slowly, so slowly that at first no one noticed. Eventually, however, the changes grew to a swell so extreme that it was impossible not to notice. Religious folks proclaimed the apocalypse, the green champions decried humanity’s misuse of the world, and science curried to find a suitable answer for the unraveling of everything believed to be true. Nevertheless all the time spent pointing guilty fingers do nothing to slow the inevitable. In the end the world fell apart, just like everyone warned it would.

With the collapse of the world as she knew it, Opal found herself the only person—perhaps the only creature—left alive. Her world had gone from one full of joy, vibrancy, and community to one that was best described as a barren waste. Admittedly, this change had begun long before the world started its tumultuous descent into nothingness. She had wrought her own demise long before, and humanity simply imitated her chaotic spiral into oblivion.

The first loss had been her husband, an unmourned passing which ultimately freed her from his tyrannical, at times abusive rule. She had not wept for him, but had leapt into life with seal. From there, she blossomed, caring for her beautiful children, managing her household, and running her little universe in shining perfection. Her methods were, of course, trying to those around her who might have found it difficult to live to her exacting standards. But Opal had standards, and just because that meant others had to work did not mean she was wrong.

After his passing, Opal later was forced to say farewell to her twin brother, who died surprisingly young under curious circumstances. There was, of course, a shadow cast across Opal at the time, but she grieved him so deeply that no one pressed the issue. Still questions hung around the family like old cobwebs, seeking to uncover why he had died so brutally, what the symbols carved into his hands, forehead, and soles of his feet could mean, and why every mirror was shattered in his house. The craze of Satanism was in full swing, and Opal poured all her ire towards that possibly fictitious and certainly exaggerated subculture. Opal had loved her brother dearly, and many said she was never the same after he passed.

She did, in fact, become a bit of a recluse. She dressed darkly, wearing thick sunglasses and veils to cover her face. More surprising in the small town was her departure from the local Lutheran Church, akin to spitting in the face of half the town. Her children—grown by then—tried to convince her to return, but she only withdrew more and more. It became such that she rarely left her house.

Of course, then her eldest daughter died, and most thought the news would simply shatter what remained of the fragile woman. However, she responded to the news with all the grace they remembered from the woman of old, carrying herself with dignity at the graveside as she buried a child. She mourned appropriately, and then placed her home for sale. Hr life moved into times of perceived festivity. She traveled, saw the world, dressed vibrantly, and eschewd all the things a proper lady was expected to do in her old age. Opal had a fondness for Jack Daniels, ordorous cigars, and younger men. Her children, those who remained in their small hometown at least, spoke of her in hushed whispered with blush rising to their faces. Senility, they tried to suggest. But their mother would not offer them that.

No, while Opal appeared to age, she remained quick enough to cause a ruckus any time someone suggested her mind was going. Her wits never suffered, and even though she appeared to grow old, she remained as spry and active as she ever had. Many folks said she was brighter, smarter, and more athletic than the Opal they remembered way back in high school days. But soon, those folks began to die off, leaving Opal the shining example of a generation buried to time.

She buried three more children as time went on, leaving herself beholden to no one. Though the town she had once knew had forgotten her, Opal still breezed in from time to time, a figure cut out of mystery that no one rightly knew what to do with. It seemed as if she enjoyed baffling the locals, winging in with her knowledge, grace, and devil-may-care abandon for anything reputable folk would do.

Her ties to the living world grew thin as Opal buried grandchildren she had hardly known, accompanying weeping great grandchildren she recognized only by their sharp cheekbones. She was the figure in black hovering about the edges of the gravesite, her eyes turned downwards in silent contemplation, But she never stayed long, carried off by the next wayward wind to chase whatever fancy had most recently struck her.

When the world began dying, she hardly noticed. She had no one to mourn as people—young and old—began to simply collapse in the streets. The news was depressing and had no impact on her daily life, so she ignored it. Only when the traffic thinned to a trickle and her favorite shops began to board up did she notice something was wrong. Yes, something was terribly wrong. An epidemic of death wrapped across the globe, claiming victims without disease or injury. One moment, a child was laughing, the next her heart stopped. A mother drove home from work, and then plowed her car into the guardrail, brain-dead before the impact.

The anxiety that seized the planet did nothing to Opal; she knew she could not die. However it did crimp her style, leaving no one to be in awe of her, to accompany her wild adventures, to scam for a few extra dollars. The woman beholden to no one began to feel lonely, to wilt without the eyes of others on her.

And now, she was relatively certain she was the last one left on the planet. Being immortal was not nearly as much fun without an audience.

She sat just outside Chicago, resting on the hood of her most recent vehicle, yet again out of gas. She knew that the gas pumps probably still worked, but it was generally easy to just find a new one and pick up again. Hotwiring was one of the many skills her long life had granted her. Only, now, she paused for a break. She thought she had seen someone in her rearview mirror, so opted to do the polite thing and wait.

Sure enough, the lanky woman came waltzing down the highway, swaying to unknown music and dancing in the destruction. Opal’s face twisted into a bitter scowl as the woman neared. “I don’t find that very funny,” she snapped once the woman was in earshot.

The young woman smiled at her, fixing Opal with a concentrated stare. “Opal, darling!” she greeted. “I hope you don’t take offense, but,” she shrugged, “I assumed you’d be more welcoming to me with a face you can trust.”

Opal resettled herself against the hood of the car, crossing her arms. “That’s not a face I care to see anymore.”

“But, Opal, it’s your face, yes? And my, weren’t you beautiful!” The creature wearing her face smiled at herself in the reflection of a nearby car before finding Opal’s eyes again. “Were being key, I’m afraid.”

“What do you want?” spat the old woman, now beginning to feel the heat of the sun on her wrinkled skin. Her mind was sharp, her body young, but her appearance had definitely degraded over time. She did not need that worthless hellspawn rubbing it in.

“I got the sense you were looking for me.”

Well, that at least was true. Opal had finally decided she had had her fun. It was time to make peace with death and move along. “I’m ready to die,” she said bluntly, not meeting the creature’s taunting gaze.

“I’m sure you do. But that’s not how this works.”

“But I made the decision, I made the deal. Now I want it to be over!” She slid off the hood of the car, standing to her full five and a half foot height. Not an imposing figure, but one that seethed with years of unspent fury.

The young woman did not respond, but ambled along the highway, gazing aimlessly out into the wastes. “Do you even know why all this happened, Opal?”

“I don’t care why it happened, I want—“

“You should care. You caused it.” Opal’s words dried up in her mouth, and the creature smiled, pleased with the response. “You see, Life and death are so delicately balanced, and then you come along. You unhinged it all with your “immortality” schtick. I mean, really, you thought there would be no consequences?”

“But there were!” she said with a start, taking frenzied steps towards the woman. “I sacrificed everything! I gave you Samuel!”

“Ah, the brother. Yes, I suppose that sated Death for a while. But eventually, his books came back out of balance. And he’ll search high and low to find that missing number. Only, my boss and I made sure he could not find you.” Her face broke into a wide, pointed tooth grin. “We made an agreement, after all.”

“Well, then I’m ready to pay for my crimes. Give me all you’ve got, drag me to hell if you must. I’m ready to die.” Opal put on as brave a face as she could muster, trying to cover up the years and decades of weariness etched in every wrinkle.

The demon wearing her face laughed, a throaty sound that echoed across the empty sky. “Opal, dear, you are paying already. Welcome to your Hell. You’ll have long enough to enjoy it, I promise.”


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


Card Challenge: Day 53

Card Day 53: A single die with a devilish figure growing legs and emerging from the pips on the surface.

Natalie felt the heft of the die in her hand. It was small, cold, and surprisingly heavy in her hand. Despite being a single small die, it felt like she was holding a crushing weight. Perhaps it was simply the import of the question.

He cleared his throat, obviously annoyed by her prolonged silence. “So, are you the gambling sort?” he asked again, raising his eyebrow provocatively.

She looked down at the die, feeling surprisingly as if the pips were eyes staring eagerly up at her. They were so dark on the dingy white background, and the sensation chilled her. “I’m not,” she whispered, still not meeting his eyes. At her response, he stood up straight, shrugging his shoulders.

“Oh well, I tried.” His hand, long and slender with crisply manicured nails, reached towards hers, moving to pinch the die from her hand.

Reflexively, her fingers closed over it and held tight even as the edges bit into her hand. “No, I’m not the type, but I have to try.” Her yes met his and she was struck by the lack of humanity in them. They were dark blue, the pupils large and endless pits spiraling back into his skull. There was no life or light in those eyes, instead they seemed to suck the brightness of the hospital room into him, leaving everything feeling dim. As if she had forgotten to take her sunglasses off when she came in. It took her several breaths before she realized that his lips were smiling even as his empty eyes drilled into her.

“You’ll take my wager?”

He looked too pleased with this turn of events, and she thought back to every story she had ever heard. These kinds of deals never went the way you wanted, and there was always a hidden catch. But Natalie felt that she had no choice. She was back against the proverbial wall, and she would cling to the only way out she had, even if that meant dancing with the Devil himself. Behind her, she heard the sounds of the respirator churning, the heart monitor keeping a steady tempo. It all seemed to be counting down the seconds remaining in the offer. She could see him beginning to grow weary with the waiting, almost ready to withdraw the offer from a hesitant buyer.

“I’ll take it. We play and, if I win, no one dies tonight or anytime soon.” She had tried to be very clear in her wording, but even now she wondered if she had left too many loopholes. How soon was soon? Who was included in the “no one” discussion? What if no one died, but everyone spent the remainder of “soon” in a coma? She gnawed on her bottom lip apprehensively as she replayed the discussion. It had all seemed to clear before, but now there only seemed to be holes.

He placed his hand on her arm, the skin dry and radiating an unhealthy heat. “I may not be an honest man, but I’ll make sure you get what you deserve. You win, I’ll make sure you and your family live a nice healthy life together. I win, and no one intercedes. This story unfolds like it should, only I get a little piece of you once your time is up.”

“You will save her, right? If I win, I mean.” There was desperation dripping from her words and she clasped his hand. Obvious discomfort stretched across his face at the touch of her hand. Behind her, the machines keeping her daughter alive continued their steady symphony, unobtrusively metering each measure of her too-young life.

He simply nodded, withdrawing his hand from her and taking a couple steps back, as if the distance between them had suddenly become too intimate. “Do you want to know the rules?” he asked condescendingly. She could see he was growing tired of the mortal game, and she began to fear she might lose him. Still, playing without rules would not win her anything.

“Yes.”

He nodded curtly, pulling another ivory-toned die from his pocket. Its pips were just as dark and deep, reminding her suddenly of the pupils of his eyes. Maybe that’s why she thought they were looking up at her. “You’ll go first and roll your die,” he gestured at her still clenched fist, and she suddenly became aware of the sharp pain, releasing it suddenly. “After that, make a bid—higher than your number—that you think will be the total on both our dice after I roll. Then I roll. If our two dice add up to the bid, I win. If I roll lower than your number but go over the bid, you win. If I roll higher than you and go over, it’s a draw and I roll first next time. The game is over when we roll the same number or if we roll lower than the bid six times. Winner of the most rounds wins. Got it?”

She nodded her head slowly, the different rules and permutations floating around her. Natalie was suddenly aware that, cognitively, she was in no shape to make such decisions. It was hard to even follow his words. Somehow she suspected that would not void her agreement.

“Good,” he purred, moving towards the counter in the corner of the room. “You’re up.”

Her hand was shaking so much, she felt she did not even have to put much effort into juggling the single die. It fell from her hand, clattering across the table. Four eyes loomed up at her in the increasingly dim light of the hospital room.

“Tough one,” he sighed, not a hint of compassion or sympathy in his voice. “Bid it.”

“Seven?” she bid questioningly. He smiled a crooked grin and made a grand show of shaking the lone die with both hands. She watched as it tumbled to the table, three tiny beads facing up.

“Beginner’s luck,” he grinned as he scooped his die from the table, obviously pleased with his performance. She shook her head, trying to hold onto all the rules and decide if there were a better way, Should she have bid higher? Lower? Was it really just luck? Was he cheating? Her fingers numbly gathered the die to her, suddenly terrified of releasing it. What if they matched this round? It would all be over.

“Take too long and we’ll have to call it,” he said with a pleased smile, gesturing at the large clock on the wall. The die plummeted from her hand, bouncing a couple of times before settling.

A six. “Seven,” she bid, and he looked irritated.

“I suppose the luck may be turning. Not much chance for me here,” he growled. Hi roll produced an unfortunate three, and she saw disgust ripple over his otherwise calm features. “All tied up now, I suppose.”

The traded rounds, their scores racking up steadily. The game remained close to her partner’s obviously swelling irritation. They swapped the first player position as well, and she quickly realized that she stood little chance of winning against him if he set the bid. His years of experience quickly became obvious when he had the power. There was a hunger as he played, a revelry in the competition. Yet a darker demon took over every time his lead slipped, and she watched rage boiling below the surface. Natalie began to fear that it might just boil over, scalding her as collateral.

Her eyes were tired and the game was long. They sat at nine games to seven in his favor, and his pleasure at the events was clear. Fatigue wearing on her, Natalie tossed the die again. Another four. “Five,” she answered, slightly more confidently. A four gave her a good chance he would be under her number, good enough that she needn’t risk not meeting the bid to prevent another point for him. Still, only a two or three would give her the point. A one went to him, a four ended the game, and five or six gave him the lead, a results she feared she would not come back from. Fortunately, it was a two that landed on the table. Nine to eight.

She rolled again, she bid again, he rolled again, and they were tied. She felt thunder rolling in her chest as the importance of the situation settled on her shoulders. This was an important roll. She could pull ahead, possibly win. With prayers on her lips to figures she had never really considered before that moment, she released the die. One.

He chuckled. “Tough break. At least you’ll have another chance to win it back.”

“Three,” she stated despairingly.

His die tumbled over the faux wood surface rattling and grinding its way to a rest. She watched the numbers flash as it bounced, her heart sagging as she knew none of them held the answer. A single, solitary eye gazed up at her from the table. He appeared miffed.

“Well, that was an anticlimactic end,” he grumbled. “I suppose the deal is off. Best of luck, and you will never see me again.”

Natalie’s heart bounded into her throat as she saw her daughter, tiny and pale, rapped in the hospital sheets. “Please! One last roll. Winner takes all.”

His lips twisted into a smile, and she realized that she had played right into his trap. “If you insist. Of course, since I am agreeing to your wager now, it is only fair that I take the lead roll.” The five landed on the table, and he smirked. “Last roll, right? Winner takes all? Let’s go with a bid of six, then.”

She gulped, her hand shaking. She knew that the most likely outcome was she rolled a two, three, or four and bust the bid while still being a lower number. Five would not help her, only put her in the same predicament. And a six was just as useless in this sudden death round. With a wish and a prayer, she tossed the die onto the table. She could not watch it dance and spin, seeming to take an eternity spinning on its edges before it finally came to rest.

One.


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


Card Challenge: Day 46

Card Day 46: A collection of theater masks showing all different emotions.

Put on your mask; don’t let them see you sweat, rehearsed Lily to herself, carefully arranging her face into the mask of friendly interest and moderate warmth. Inside, the battle of anxiety roared on, waves crashing against the roughhewn rocks walls of her defenses, threatening to overwhelm her. But on the outside, she was polished and calm, a delicate smile hovering in the curve of her lips. Her eyes might have been screaming, but in a fast-paced, microwave minute and Facebook isolation world, no one was likely to notice if her disguise was incomplete.

She flexed her hands beneath the table, curling and uncurling her fingers in what was proving a fruitless attempt to generate some blood flow and rid them of their clammy feel. Her face remained carved with attention and friendliness as her date—the fourth one tonight, with three more lining the tables to her right—rattled on about his most recent hobby.

Distracted form the conversation, she almost missed his joke, barely giving her time to swap out masks and put on her “good-humored, chuckling” face. Fortunately, she caught the first sign of a smile on his lips and made the swap, mirroring his own soft smile. This had been such a bad idea.

The bell on the other side of the room dinged, its chime echoing. One more swap into the “pleased to meet you, but no promises” mask and she had a brief moment of respite. Chairs squeaked across the floor, the men walked nervously and awkwardly along the plotted course, and eventually some new face was sitting at her table.

Watching him extend an eager hand in greeting, she felt as if she were a creature on display. She did not see that momentary pause she was sure others saw in her face. No, his expressions skipped fluidly from introduction, to interested, to laughing—she had not thought her response would be quite so funny—and back to serious. Her self-consciousness peaked, but she dutifully kept her head high and her lips in an appropriate half smile, not willing to break the façade.

Didn’t everyone have their repertoire of masks? Lily felt her mind wandering, pulled along the train of thought. Was she really so weird? Did it come so easily to everyone else, and she was merely missing some vital piece that made the masks something more? It was as if he had read the script beforehand, and knew exactly how to play his role. In contrast, Lily realized she always felt like the surprised, underprepared understudy, diligently studying those around her and floundering through her most important roles. Of course, such a life of improvisation had left her practiced at the art, and she knew she could fool most people. Only, here, in this setting, she was surrounded by people flawlessly playing the right social game, completely unaware of the impossible talent they possessed.

Lost in thoughts, Lily realized she had missed some vital cue. The man across the table—Steve, his name tag said—was giving her a slightly bewildered look, obviously waiting for some response. She was supposed to be embarrassed now, and she quickly rearranged her face, bringing up a hand to cover her eyes that would never match. Transition complete, she set her fingers delicately on the table.

“I’m so sorry. I was distracted—“ by how human you are, her mind completed—“by how incredibly well-spoken you are. I was just thinking, I wish I could speak—“live—“like you.”

He chuckled good-naturedly, his eyes looking proud and humble all at once. That was a mix she had never quite pinned down, so she opted for abject humility whenever such complexity was called for. Her cheeks were beginning to ache with the constant smile.

The bell again, her savior. She stole the brief moment she had, letting herself fall inward and just relax. There was no one watching for the briefest of moments, and she could just be, without the social mask the world required. This was such a terrible idea, she reiterated, wondering why she ever let her friend talk her into it.

Another man, but this time something aught her attention. She nearly missed it, slipping into her “pleased to meet you, likewise” mask, but she was so familiar that it could not go undetected. She saw him put on his own mask, “the pleasure is mine,” covering his face as he spoke the words.

As she pulled her interested and aloof face on over her old one, she watched as he slipped into his engaged and passionate one, telling her all about his current business venture. It was not the mask that caught her eye, but that brief pause in between where she could see him.

He asked about her work, and she watched his intensely interested face flicker into life while she swapped to the humorous work cliché look. She watched as she spoke and his mask fell fr an instant, only to reappear with a slightly brighter smile. As she asked a question, she jumped at the opportunity.

“Stop,” she whispered, just as his mask fell but before it could be replaced. Her eyes were dancing, her lips curled in the most authentic smile she had ever felt. “You’re like me.”

He observed her for a moment, his face empty of all the socially dictated expressions for this occasion. This was not, he seemed to recognize, a socially dictated exchange. His eyes lit up as well. “I always wondered if people could tell.”

“I don’t think they can,” with a conspiratorial head nod towards the other tables, “but I know what to look for.”

“So, why’d you end up in a place like this? Torture, right?”

Lily was shocked by the giggle that leapt from her lips, even if her mask did not match. Her face was stuck on intently interested while her mind was dancing through joy and discovery. “Parents, guilt trip, you know.”

“And eventually us kids have to give in, put on a good show.” She nodded sharply once. “Wanna go? I know a great place without all of,” he jerked his head sharply to the side, “them.”

It was completely unacceptable to get up and leave in the middle of speed dating, certainly against some rules somewhere. But being with him, Lily felt herself empowered. She could thrust aside the shackles of modern social convention, be who she wanted, and do what felt right to her. He seemed to have no such concerns, whisking his jacket from the coatrack and leading her out the door.

“So,” she took a too-long pause to look at his nametag, “Evan, where is this place?”

“Hop in my car and I’ll drive us there. It’s got great atmosphere, private, no people to bother us. You can really get to know me.” He made no effort to hide the pride and arrogance in this, no cover of false modesty. Lily studied him and realized she understood everything about him, because he made no attempt to hide it. She knew it was against all the rules to get in the car with a strange man after meeting him for ten minutes, but she also knew that the world’s rules had never made sense to her. She slid into the passenger’s seat, squeaking across the leather seats.

He started the car and began to drive along the city streets, speeding in and out of the round pools of streetlight. They sat in silence, faces blank and empty. There was no room for masks between them; they were merely humans.

He finally stopped just beside a dreary looking tunneled walkway. Someone who was better at independently reading cues would have felt their hair rising, a gut feeling of dread and bad choices settling in. Lily, however, did not. She was thrilled to have found someone just like her, tired of the shackles of acceptable social life, ready to embrace the freedom of truly being human with another human. She stepped out of the car without hesitation.

“See, I told you we would be free,” he said, as if he could read her thoughts. “It’s just through there, one of my favorite spots. I’ll catch up,” he pointed to the trunk and Lily nodded.

“Through the tunnel?” she asked, her voice flat. He smiled, slipping into a reassuring mask—she felt for him, because it certainly was hard to let those habits die. Without another word, she turned on her heal and began an even-paced marched through the tunnel.

The sound of his steps accelerating behind her was somewhat surprising, but less so than the feeling of a thin cord around her throat. Her face burst into an expression of shock and terror, perhaps one of the most authentic expressions she had ever worn. She had no tie to consider the appropriate mask—was there one for such an event?—but merely clawed at his hands.

Her fight was short lived, and she hit the ground with a muffled thud. Evan looked down at her, wiping his hands. It was not quite how he had expected the night to go, but she had been far easier to woo than many of the others. His cold, empty mask finally gave way, revealing a hint of anger, fury, and pleasure all mingled together on his face.

He did not like being truly seen, and Even said a silent thanks that she had been too foolish to dig any deeper. She might not have liked what she saw.


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


Card Challenge: Day 37

Card Day 37: Two ants sword fighting on top of a stack of gold coins.

“I can’t do this without you, Matt.”

He sighed, fading beneath the onslaught of her persistent pleading. “Lydia, it’s just crazy. I mean, you can’t actually believe this stuff?”

She smiled and shrugged. “It is crazy. But just imagine if it works. We’d be rich beyond our wildest dreams, free to do what we want. We could finally run off together!”

“I know, it would be great. But, what, we’re going to sell our souls to the devil and then spend our days on our own private island?”

“Nope, no soul selling required. It’s all right here,” she spun the worn leather book towards him, and he saw the spidery nonsense written on the page. He shoved it away.

“You know I don’t read any of that. This is ridiculous, Lyd.”

He looked up to see the whimsy and determination fade from her eyes, shattered by sudden pain. “Don’t you trust me?”

That was the final straw, and Matt finally gave in. “Of course I trust you. I’ll help you do the ritual-thing,” he agreed with a dismissive wave of his hand. “As long as you agree this is crazy stuff.”

Lydia smiled and shrugged, granting him a quick peck on the cheek before darting away to prepare.

_

The little country church, so endearing during the day with its white siding and little bell tower, loomed intimidating and dark under the moonless sky. “Are you sure this is right?” asked Matt, giving the building the side eye.

“Well, you won’t read the manuscript, so you’re just going to have to trust me,” she giggled, tugging at his hand and pulling him into the building. “Now, you have to help me set up.” Suddenly, two stubby white candles were in his arms, their matching counterparts in Lydia’s. “Take those and put them due north and due south. These,” she wiggled the candles in the gloom of the building, “will go on the east and west.”

Matt complied, dutifully carrying the candles to the far north and south of the building. It was unsettling walking down the long rows of empty pews, the eyes of Jesus staring down on him as he trespassed the sacred space. He felt the pressure of dozens of eyes on him, accusing him of his blasphemy and sin. The wrongness of the situation settled on him like a sheet of ice, nearly freezing him in place. Lydia’s whistle brought him back.

“Here,” a white piece of chalk flashed through the air towards him, ultimately landing at his feet with a snap and puff of white. “Use that to draw a line between the two candles, but don’t connect them in the middle,” she warned, bending down to do the same from her candles. Matt picked up the two halves of chalk and carefully followed her instructions.

“We’re making a cross?” he asked, wondering if this witchcraft weren’t possibly more benign than he suspected.

“Not quite. A broken, unfinished cross. So make sure they don’t connect!”

The lines drawn, Lydia met him in the center and pulled a thin metal chain from her bag of supplies. She very carefully laid the chain in a perfect circle, touching each of the four lines from the candles. Next, she set a tall, slender, black candle in the midst of the circle.

“A silver chain, and everything is in place.” She looked back over her work with a giddy smile, clutching her hands together in excitement.  “’When the empty moon hangs twixt heaven and hell, cast your eyes unto the darkness,’” she quoted, almost as if unaware of the words trickling from her lips.

Matt shuffled uncomfortably from side to side, watching her as she spun around the place, wide-eyed with excitement. The sense of unease from before had not relented, but instead grew more intense, as if the shadows were drawing about and suffocating him. Yet she seemed completely unfazed by the heavy danger in the air; if anything, she seemed invigorated by it.

“Are you sure this is a good idea?”

She froze in her place, then turned slowly to face him. Her face smiled widely, but there was an edge of threat to her voice. “I thought you said you would trust me on this, Matt.”

“I do, Lyd, I really do. But doesn’t this just feel…wrong?”

She quickly crossed over to him, warmth radiating from her caring glance. “Oh, I guess it is pretty weir, huh? But, just think, soon we’ll have all the things we ever wanted. We’ll have our dreams.” Carefully, tenderly, she ran her hands along the side of his face, cupping his chin softly. “We’ll have each other.”

Matt sighed heavily and laughed softly. “If it even works. Which it probably won’t. I mean, you did just dig that out of a thrift shop,” he said, nodding his head towards the book lying on the dusty floor next to the northernmost candle.

“Exactly. It’s just a silly little game.” Her smiled widened, and she was beaming with excitement. “Now, you stand in the center while I light the candles. It’s time.”

Matt took up his appointed position in the silver circle, standing just behind the unlit candle. Lydia ran from the western candle around, ending at the northern one where she fell to her knees beside the book. Now, Matt knew from their planning, she would read some words and answer the “questions” that some spirit was supposed to ask. He fully expected her to keep up the charade even when the questions weren’t asked, and then they would giggle and laugh and get some cheap coffee for the drive back home.

However, things did not go as planned. She knelt down, whispering in the silence of the church. And then there was a heavy shadow at her side, red eyes burning out of the darkness. She spoke to it, as if in a trance, eventually slowly raising her arm to point at him. That was too much for him, and he went to run towards her, scoop her into his arms, and bolt from the cursed place, but he looked down to see the silver chain twined about his ankles, suddenly impossibly heavy given its frail appearance. There was cold creeping up his arm, and he saw tendrils of shadow lapping along his wrists.

“Lydia!” he cried, and she turned sorrowful, empty eyes towards him. “What’s happening?”

Her voice was heavy with grief and exaltation, a blend of emotions that left him feeling hollow inside. “I told you I couldn’t do this without you, Matt.”

He screamed as the shadows began tearing away at his skin, every molecule those dark tendrils touching exploding into the immeasurable agony of oblivion. “I thought—I thought we were doing this together!” The silver chains burned at his legs and the shadows licked up his arms and across his torso with ferocious, hungry speed. “I thought you loved me,” he whimpered, the pain forcing him to his knees.

“Oh, Matt, I did love you. I do. This never would have worked if I didn’t,” she said, smiling as if her confession made it all better.

The last thing he heard as the shadows consumed all that was left of his body, leaving nothing but a tattered soul in torment, was her parting consolation. “But, Matt dear, you have to understand. Now, I will be unstoppable. Now, I will be a god.”


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


Card Challenge: Day 32

Card Day 32: A boy walks along rolling green hills at night, blowing bubbles into the sly. The bubbles take on the shape of planets, rings and all, as they float upwards.

Peter dreamed big, probably too big many times. His dreams had the nasty habit of shoving into the real world, pushing the daily necessities out of the way. Nevertheless, Peter was also resolved to never sacrifice his dreamer’s spirit, no matter what the costs. Right now, the costs were approximately $1976.15 in back rent and interest.

He had no idea where the money would come from, nor what he would do when his meager possessions—a ratty couch from the thrift store, a low-power microwave, and a collection of ratty t-shirts that he had collected in college—were kicked to the curb. His latest big plan had failed miserably, which would have been a devastating blow to many. But Peter’s terminal case of optimism painted everything with possibilities and new horizons. Who knows, he mused, perhaps the bout of homelessness would finally sate that hunger for adventure gnawing at him.

Hands in his pockets, Peter walked along the street, whistling with his hands in his pockets. Yes, there were massive problems looming, but he was utterly unable to do anything productive towards those at the moment, so it was best to focus on what he could do. Right now, he could whistle and trace the patterns in the clouds.

_____

The next night found Peter under the stars. He had opted to leave the couch for some other passing vagabond to use, mainly because it would not fit into his hatchback. The t-shirts, microwave, and an old lamp he had nearly forgotten about rattled in the trunk as he puttered along the highway. The eviction had gone through, so he was now free to see the world. Wanderlust tugged at his heart, pulling him out of the city. He was not sure where he was travelling to—the signs on the highway pointed to Wichita—but he was eager for the next great adventure. Peter dreamed of the stories he would hear and live out. Perhaps this would be his chance to write a book. Or, he pondered, maybe he should pick up odd jobs and pay his way around the country. He could do restaurant work in Wichita, clean some windows in Austin, sell newspaper in New York, and catch lobster in Maine. The world was open to him, and he was beholden to no person or thing.

The limitless freedom was exhilarating, if not also terrifying.

However, Peter had been on the road since 8am and the sun had long since disappeared from the horizon. The gas station coffee did little to keep him awake, and so he turned left off the highway, turning into a lonely exit promising a truck stop and a campground. Peter opted for the campground which, he thought, would be quieter than the hustle and bustle of an active travel center.

He pulled into the dirt lot and, seeing no one around, drove along towards one of the many abandoned camping spots. It seemed like the highway signs had not been updated since the place had closed down. Nevertheless, it would do for a place to snag a few hours of sleep. The car was stuffy with the scent of fast food French fries and summer heat, so Peter rolled the window down. The wind sung through the car, carrying a hint of highway exhaust and diesel fumes. The muter roar of the highway droned in the distance as Peter pushed his seat back and flipped his baseball cap down over his eyes. A smile on his face and not a worry in his mind, Peter fell asleep almost instantly.

The restful sleep, however, was not to be. While he was able to gain a few hours of relaxing snooze despite the best attempt from horns on the highway, it was a peculiar silence and electricity that woke him just past midnight. The crickets were silent, as was the highway, and the air hung heavy and still. As he struggled towards wakefulness, Peter was reminded of the huge storm that had blasted through town a couple years ago, predicted by a similar stillness. The air felt alive and electric, as if it were humming all around him. Peter peered out the windows into the inky blackness, lit by the silver disc of the moon. No clouds obscured it, meaning it probably wasn’t a storm on the horizon. The stars sat twinkling as brightly as ever, immune to the aura of unease permeating his setting.

Suddenly, there was light in the air. It was bright, as if all the electricity in the air suddenly became visible in that moment. The hum of energy returned, redoubled, and seemed to pulse with the strange light. In the light, Peter saw…things.

At first, his mind could not make sense of what he was seeing. Where the world had been black just inches from his window, now it was lit in cold white light. Shadows danced along it, his eyes unable to see through the brilliant light to make out more than the shape. They were squat htings, with appendages flailing about. They seemed to walk upright, with four other things—arms, perhaps?—moving in an almost swimming motion through the air. Finally, one drew closer, and he was able to see a being with tiny, dark eyes and a long antenna-like nose. It walked up to the door of the car, placing its hands on the edge of the window. Its fingers were webbed, splaying across the door in an impossibly wide span. Peter felt lightheaded, the world spinning in a haze of light, shadow, and that enduring hum.

As if aware of his overwhelmed sense, the creature turned towards the others, emitting a sharp series of squeaks and rumbles. The light overhead disappeared, the sound ceased, and the creatures vanished. And then, Peter vanished. His car sat, lonely and mostly empty in the abandoned campground, a monument to isolation and adventure.

For his part, Peter was finally objectively terrified. He found himself in a corridor with steely walls. Light seemed to glow from the walls themselves, flooding the corridor with stark white light. It was too bright, pulsing behind his eyes. One of the creatures was at his side, taking his hand in its webbed fingers. It tugged at Peter, pulling him down the corridor to a large room where many others sat. He was directed to a chair, its dimensions clearly not made for his lanky human body, and dutifully sat. From behind him, someone fitted a small contraption to his ear, swatting at him harshly when he tried to remove it.

There was a flurry of voices in his mind, speaking languages he had heard and some he had never imagined. He was certain that he even tasted one of the languages, a gush of fresh strawberries filling his mouth. Then, the noise died down, giving way to stilted English.

“Inhabitant of Sphere 279. Welcome. We invite you hear to know you, to learn of you. We mean you no harm. You may return to your terrestrial location at any time you wish.”

All the eyes turned to him expectantly. Peter smiled, laughed with discomfort. He scratched at his head, his mouth flopping open and closed as he sought the words to speak. As soon as he took a breath to say something, one of the creatures thrust a pale blue sphere towards his face. Peter heard his voice in the sphere for a moment, then listened as it became the squeaks and growls of his hosts.

“Uh, think I can hitch a ride?” They laughed—at least, he heard them laugh in his head. In the room, it sounded like gears grinding to a sudden halt.

After a moment, the leader spoke. “Of course. Such is our quest. We will learn, you will learn.”

Peter smiled, finding his wanderlust growling hungrily in his mind. He could travel the galaxy, picking up odd jobs to pay his way. A bus boy on Neptune, interpreter on Pluto, landscaper in Alpha Centauri, a barista on……


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


Card Challenge: Day 19

Card Day 19: A cat stands before an easel, painting a scene of fish swimming. As the cat looks away, one of the fish swims off the canvas.

Carter’s eyes were beginning to blur with the mix of colors swimming between his palette and canvas. He was uncertain how long he had spent standing in front of the easel, his brush flying with inspired fervor across the once white space, filling it with his vision. Only, now, the vision had dried up, leaving him with a half-finished piece and no idea how to continue.

His weary eyes searched for the clock on the far wall. It was nearing two a.m., and his body suddenly groaned with the ache of standing for the past five hours with little to now movement outside of his wrist and elbow. It was like a trance of a sort, so enraptured had he been with this idea. It flowed out of his hands and onto the canvas as if creating itself. Carter felt weary and empty, but unfortunately the final product did not fill him with the same manic elation that the idea had. It sat in a half-finished state. All of the gross outlines were there, and he had splashed the color into the appropriate spots, but it lacked a life and vitality that he had hoped to infuse.

Now his eyes stung and watered, his lids dropping low. He mentally scanned the room, seeing the multitude of brushes and open tubes of paint. He needed to clean up unless he wanted all of this to go to waste. After subsisting on ramen for longer than he cared to imagine, he was not about to throw away his investment. He sighed, glancing at the canvas. When he entered the room that night, he had felt certain this was to be his masterpiece. He had felt that through every magical stroke, even as his arm grew weary. It was not until the spell mysteriously broke that he could see the abject mediocrity staring back at him. His first year art school projects had been more convincing.

Just a slump, he thought, consoling himself. And I made something at least tonight. The thought was less than reassuring. Turning from the canvas, Carter felt his shoulders slump. This one had felt real. It had felt necessary and important. Only, now…

He gathered the brushes up, trying to tidy up his space. He was so tired, though, and his feet ached after all that standing. In a concession to his exhausted body, he slumped into the wooden, straight-backed chair for a brief respite. Combatting the allure of sleep, he studied the failed canvas staring back at him. No, not failed, he softened, unfinished. He felt a new confidence that something would come along and show him how to complete this picture. The winds of inspiration would whip up again. For now, he simply studied it.

The background was foggy, a mist of trees and clouds that melded into a surreal landscape. He was very fond and proud of the way the limbs of the trees jutted out of the fog, mixing their solidity with the ephemeral fog. It was a beautiful juxtaposition, he granted. The foreground, however, was where he lost that delicate touch and realistic edge.

He had wanted to show the werewolf in mid-transformation, blending human and animal in fluid brushstrokes. It had come to him in a moment looking at the face of his dog, seeing his own human face reflected in the canine eyes. He would make the eyes the central piece, turn the body into a mirage of human and animal so that no one part was clearly either one. But the eyes would be wonderfully human and ferociously lupine. Unfortunately, it was the eyes that now gazed at him with drying paint, dull and lifeless under the yellow lights.

Carter walked to the painting, intending to set aside the reminder of his wasted evening, but a sudden sharp, barking noise gave him pause. In the newly minted silence, a new sound filled his workshop, echoing off the bare walls and concrete floor. It was a growl, deep and rumbling. Carter looked around, expecting to see Jonesy with his hackles raised at some imagined villain, but the loyal dog was nowhere to be seen. He followed the sound, and it led his eyes back to the canvas, where the creature’s mouth-snout was rippling with sudden energy. Now, the eyes were alive.

From the impossible blend on the canvas, the creature began to take shape. It merged out of the paint just as the animal features had flowed seamlessly from their human. One moment it was flat shapes on a canvas, and the next it was jutting into the world as if it had been molded. His mind reeled with what was happening as the growl grew louder. There was now a glistening line of saliva on the lip-jowls. The arm and paw now existed in three dimensions, reaching out from the canvas. Carter stumbled back away from the frame, his eyes affixed to it in horror.

He watched all the imperfections of his artistry fade away into the perfection of reality as the creature emerged, struggling against the fabric of reality and sanity. The paint seemed to stretch and grown as it took on flesh, and Carter was captivated with equal parts amazement and terror. It was not until the head broke through and the jaws began to snap that he found his feet and ripped out of the workroom.

Carter slammed the door behind him, hearing snarls and howls echo off the enclosed space. He gazed distrustfully at the cheap wooden door. Jonesy was barking, a sound which barely registered in his mind over the suspiciously human and utterly inconceivable growl.

He grabbed Jonesy’s collar and rushed towards the door. All thoughts but escape had fled, and Carter was left scrambling across the linoleum floor towards the exit. Jonesy leapt and growled, barked and whimpered, twining about his feet. In an instant, Carter felt his feet fly from the floor, his body hurtling towards the metal door separating him from freedom. And then, there was darkness.

The dull glow of morning brought him back to consciousness, along with a throbbing ache in his forehead. There was a sticky splotch of blood on the floor, corresponding to the odd stiffness of his face. He stretched, looking around and trying to remember what had led him to such flight. Jonesy sat beside him, carefully licking his hand as he saw his master awake.

The impossible events filtered back, and Carter felt foolish. Fumes, he reasoned, I shouldn’t have spent hours enclosed in that room. He gingerly lifted himself off the floor and walked towards the firmly closed door to his workshop. There was a slight hint of trepidation as he reached for the doorknob, but the light of day and the power of reason chased away his doubts. With sudden courage, he yanked the door open.

Inside was his canvas depicting a scene of fog and trees, a strange void existing prominently in the foreground. Outside, glass lay scattered about his window, leading off into the city streets with paint-stained footsteps, not quite animal and not quite human.


I went a bit  more literal with today’s, but I think it worked out. Hope you enjoyed it!

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