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Gender and Horror + Final Version: Dionaea Muscipula

So, I am finally getting around to posting (here) the final version of what started as Pheromones all those months ago. I am happy to announce this was recently posted on creepypasta.com. It ended up with a new name, a slightly different slant on the story, and what I feel is a lot more direct storyline. I’ve had the benefit of seeing two or three additional iterations of this particular piece, and so to me it seems like it has been quite the journey. The final idea is one I am really happy with, but one that seems to have evolved quite a bit from the seed of an idea that started it all. In fact, this whole story started from the line “There was something predatory in the way she walked.”

Since this is my blog and I can blather about whatever I like, I am going to talk about how this story developed, specifically how I felt about the blend of gender, sex, and horror. To skip that and read the final version of the story, click here and it will jump you down the page to the beginning.If you are interested in my rambling thoughts, read on!

One of the things that really bothered me after I got the idea for Pheromones (which will forever be it’s title in my mind, even if Dionaea Muscipula is a much better one) was how to handle the sexuality and danger I was interested in without playing into harmful gender stereotypes that plague horror. In short, women who engage in sexual activity are either innocent victims or sex-hungry monsters. Knowing that I was writing a story about a seductive monster, I feared tripping into these. If the monster was female, then it was playing into the same stereotypes that vilifies any sexual desire from a woman as indicative of a drive out of control. However, making the victim female meant I would yet again punish a female character for seeking a sexual interaction, reinforcing stereotypes that plague the genre. I mean, I watch plenty of horror movies. Once the chick decides to hook up with someone, you can almost be guaranteed they will die soon. Sex is dangerous for women, is the implicit message. Or, conversely, women who like sex are risky and untrustworthy. So I felt I was in a pickle.

Originally, I decided to make the “monster” more or less human, somewhat vampiric, and ultimately female. For where I am, the ability to show a woman empowered enough to seek out sex was better than the weak victim, I knew my story arc, and I tried to choose the lesser of two evils. But I was certainly never happy with it. In my mind, Annalise was powerful, dangerous, and independent. I mean, while it was beneficial for me to write such a woman, it also sounded like propaganda that someone would have spread in the 20s to prevent women’s suffrage. “Give them the vote, they’ll be all out on their own. They’ll destroy us all!” That’s exaggerated and silly, and I doubt anyone gives my writing that much thought, but that’s how it felt. On the one hand, it was a victory for me, but it also fed other, harmful lies that I disagree with as well.

As I said, lesser of two evils, however. I’d rather have a fiercely independent female monster than a deceived victim punished for her weak female will. I know both of these are exaggerations and probably more involved than they should be, but part of my desire in writing this was to explore sexuality in my writing, within the context of horror, and do it effectively. So these were the underlying thoughts that primarily concerned me.

I toyed with changing the genders. I thought about making it a same-sex attraction. That one felt like I was skirting the issue, and I also believe that, being a straight white female, it’s something I would need to practice in writing first. I practiced writing in the male voice for a long time, and still have to be very intentional about it. (I also really enjoy writing “female/male sounding” things and then having the character be the opposite gender, just to challenge my own gender norms).

Ultimately, I wrote the original version of Pheromones and flt okay about it. I loved the idea, but the ending and dynamics never felt right. It was too vampy, a little to cliche, and not what I wanted. I rewrote the ending dozens of times and was never quite happy with it.

Then, I thought up this new ending in the shower one morning, and it felt right. It took the conversation away from the strict gender roles, made it more fluid, and enhanced the predatory aspects of “Annalise” that I wanted. It also fit better with the fly trap idea, a flower which blooms and wilts, only to bloom again. It kept the strong woman, but also demonstrated that brutality was not a gender characteristic, but a part of the monster. What I had realized was that her goal was never sex, but hunger. My attempts to tie hunger into gender in an effective way was the problem, since hunger is not male or female. It is animal, crossing gender boundaries. And so the ending similarly crossed those boundaries. It did not end up being an in depth exploration of gender and sexuality, because this is not the best way to explore such complex topics. But it did present the ideas and help present a male-female dyad in horror that manages not to fall into (too many, at least) gender stereotypes. It is not perfect, and I know Martin’s character is probably unfair, but for me it was an important opportunity to deal with these themes.

Okay, so that is a lot of rambling, but I wanted to share some part of my creative process. I try to be thoughtful about what I put out there, so sometimes it is nice to share the thought that went into something. If you’ve read all this, thank you, nad I hope it was moderately interesting. Without further ado, Dionaea Muscipula. 



Martin looked somberly into the murky gold of his lukewarm scotch. He hated these kinds of functions. Not only was he not particularly good at large crowds, dancing, loud music, and general social interaction, but it only became all the more painful when you combined a room full of people with his same weaknesses and demanded that they play the roles. It was a professional conference, he bemoaned, but he was the only person with the seeming self-awareness to feel abject discomfort at the whole evening’s proceedings. He slumped glumly in the stiff reception chair, his body depending on the unsteady table to keep him upright and appearing engaged. The white table, stained with leftover dinner crumbs and a spilt half glass of red wine, had been empty for what felt like an eternity as his dinner companions—strangers in nice suits and dresses who prattled on as if they were 25 again—had given themselves over to the open bar and dance floor.

He glanced at his watch. Surely after two hours of such nonsense his dues were paid well enough to warrant sneaking back to his room for some sleep and relaxation. Others might jest that he was a stick in the mud for retiring so early, but he would not make a fool of himself as his colleagues were so wont to do.

Gathering his tired dinner jacket and room key, Martin froze. From across the room, he spotted a gorgeous woman slicing through the crowd. There was something predatory in the way she walked. An utter lack of self-consciousness as she strode through the flailing bodies in the crowd. There was a look in her eyes, evident from half a room away, which showed she knew she stood on a level above all those around her. She had the look of a sated wolf prowling amongst unguarded sheep, utterly disinterested in their bleating. Her hair flowed in sheets of shining black as deep as the moonless sky, waving with disdain as she cut her own path through the writhing masses around her. Almost instinctively, the way parted for her, bringing her directly to Martin’s table.

With indelible grace, she swept a glass of red wine from a passing waiter, holding the delicate glass in her soft fingers. She smiled, pearly white teeth flashing between plump red lips. Her eyes were brilliant green, reflecting Martin’s dumbfounded gaze right back at him. The lovely scent of flowers encapsulated him as it rolled off her body. It was far more intoxicating than the mild drinks he had been nursing all night. Martin felt as if he were being drawn into her web, but he had no will to fight it.

“Annalise,” she breathed. For a moment, Martin was unsure what to do. All he knew were that those syllables were the most heavenly sounds he had ever heard. He would endure pain, torture, war, strife, poverty, illness, and any worldly ill if only those three syllables would replay again and again. To have those lips speak such beauty!

She smiled again and his mouth snapped shut from its gape. “M-Martin,” he stammered as he collected himself, shamed by the coarseness of his own voice.

She reached out a slender hand to touch his arm. “So nice to finally meet you.” Martin felt his heart begin to thunder. She knew of him? She wanted to meet him? What crazy fever dream had he slipped into? “I won’t keep you, as it seems you are leaving, but I just couldn’t miss the chance—”

“No, no. Not leaving,” he interjected, eagerly grabbing his chair and planting himself into it. “Just was, uh, getting a better view of things, you know.” She laughed and Martin prayed his ears would ring with that delightful sound for the rest of his life. He would go deaf to the world if only to hear her laugh.

“Then may I join you?” she asked, somewhat hesitantly, betraying the assured confidence Martin had seen so clearly moments ago. He could not imagine having such an effect on a woman, especially not one like her. Martin sat up a little straighter in his seat; keeping his dignity tonight might actually pay off for once, he mused. She must like a serious, intellectual man. Well, by God, she had found her man then.

“Where are you from, Annalise?” He was so smooth, he congratulated himself. Those words flowed like butter.

“Please, I didn’t come all the way over here to talk about me, Martin! Tell me about you,” she purred, her hand falling gently on his forearm as she moved closer. As close as he was, he felt himself absolutely adrift in her marvelous scent. She smelled of sweet flowers opened brightly to the summer sun, and Martin was content to collapse into the field.

So talk he did. Martin regaled her with stories of his groundbreaking work as she eyed him with pure wonder. He shared about his glowing academic career, the awards and showcases that had chosen to honor him and his work in his brief career. He spoke in heartfelt about his calling to the field, the passion and the reward he felt from doing such work. She played her role well, smiling at the right parts, laughing at his clumsy jokes and sighing in awe of his humble victories. Martin felt his chest swell with pride as he prattled on about his meager life, finding his own ego reflected and doubled in her searching green eyes.

After a while, she smiled and squeezed him arm softly, interrupting him mid-flow. It was amazing how easy it was to talk to her. He found himself divulging so many things to her, almost as if he had known her for half of his life. It was just her soft presence, the comforting aroma of flowers, and the focused interest pouring from her eyes. It made his tongue loose in a way no person or substance-induced state ever had. He froze in silence, suddenly feeling the ache of his throat after so much talking over the din of the music.

“I’m having trouble hearing you over all of them,” she said, rolling her eyes towards the mass of drunken hooligans who would don suits tomorrow and nurse hangovers through the scheduled sessions. “Do you think we could go somewhere more private?”

Martin was flummoxed. In all his years, he had never expected to catch the eye of such a woman—of any woman, if he wanted to be honest with himself. He had even less expected to find such a beautiful groupie for his relatively dull research. And now, this surprise of all surprises revealed another layer of amazement. She was trying to seduce him! Martin smiled. Perhaps he would let her.

“My room is just down the hall from here,” he spat out quickly, his eagerness spilling over his words. She gave him a reassuring and understanding smile.

“That sounds perfect.”

Martin stood from his seat, his legs wobbling uncertainly. He could remember college years and first dates with similar weakness of the knees, only this seemed even more extreme. A goofy smile drifted over his face; he was drunk on her presence, and there was no use in denying it. Every system he generally kept so well controlled was flying by its own rules, freed by her enchanting smile and intoxicating scent. He offered her his arm, and the two floated from the room. Martin’s legs seemed to belong to someone else, carrying him confidently out of the room. The doors swung shut behind them, effectively muffling the raucous music still pouring from the banquet hall. At this rate, his colleagues would be stumbling into the first session still decked in their party finery.

The sounds of the others faded as they walked along the hallway until Martin realized he and Annalise were shrouded by a heavy covering of silence. Anyone else in the hotel had long since gone to bed, and the music down the hall had faded quickly. He supposed it only made sense that the place would have good soundproofing for such an event. The silence was surprisingly intimate. He could hear her soft breath, the air moving over the swell of her full lips. Her feet sunk lightly in the plush carpet, whispering softly in the hall. In contrast, he heard his heart racing in his chest, listened to the uncoordinated and irregular pace of his own steps dragging through the carpet. He was a love—or perhaps more accurately lust—struck mess.

He fished the little plastic card from his wallet, and the door gave its friendly beep as the light flashed green. After shoving the door open, his arm flailed about in the darkness seeking the light switch that always seemed to be two or three inches higher or lower than he remembered. With a click, the lights hummed on and bathed the room in a harsh and artificial glow. Despite the generally terrible effects of such lighting on people, Annalise still appeared radiant as she stepped into the room. She was commanding as she entered, and he felt as if perhaps they had unwittingly entered her room rather than his, given her comfort. But no, his shirt and slacks hung pressed in the closet, his battered suitcase tossed unceremoniously on the second twin bed. She simply possessed an air of belonging wherever she went.

The smell of flowers carried him along in her wake, and he stumbled into his own room behind her, coming up short as she paused in front of him. Her eyes were smiling as she turned to him. “What a wonderful evening,” her words drifted into the silence of the room as she fell softly against the crumpled bed spread, her red dress a stark contrast with the dull white sheets.

“Uh, yes, it has been—“ magical, enchanting, impossible, miraculous?“—quite the night,” he finished weakly, standing uncomfortably in the entryway to his room looking around. He felt his eyes lingering too long in hers, drawn in by their brilliant spell. The heavy presence of flowers in the air made him feel woozy, and he nearly stumbled as he broke his gaze from hers.

“Martin, what if I told you that I have been thinking about my lips on you since I first laid eyes on you?” She whispered haltingly, her eyes betraying the innocence on her lips.

Flabbergasted, Martin sat in silence. Now he knew that this must be some kind of ruse. Or perhaps someone had spiked his drink and he was hallucinating. The drink—had he had more than he thought? Would he wake up groggily to some ancient troll in his bed? Could he have fallen asleep at the table, and now this goddess was his sweetest dream?

Before he could reach a final conclusion—brain tumor?—her lips were on his, her body pressed against him. His shock had prevented him from seeing the speed with which she pounced from the bed, catching him in her arms and drawing him back to the bed. No matter what doubts he might have, he could not deny the reality of the experience happening in that moment. He swam in the warmth of her limbs around him, the taste of her soft lips, and the scent of her lithe body. In that moment, all he knew was that his lips and hers were dancing together now, their tongues meddling somewhere in between. She pushed him back on the bed, her lips following his steady descent down to the stiff hotel bed. Martin’s heart was a metronome in his chest, trying to keep pace with his flying thoughts. He pulled her close, kissing every inch of that beautifully pearly white neck and face that he could. She laughed and smiled as she playfully pinned his hands down on the bed.

“You know, Martin, there is something delicious about a body excited.” Her tongue snaked its way into his mouth, those brilliant red lips melding with his for a brief moment. “And our bodies tend to respond the same to excitement and fear,” she whispered, coming up for breath. Every word she spoke sent waves of excitement across Martin’s body, just to feel the gentle ebb and flow of her breath across his skin.

“Me, personally,” she smiled, leaning to kiss along his neck, “I prefer the taste of excitement.” She ended this with a soft nip at his earlobe. Martin felt a slight stir of discomfort at her choice of phrasing, but brushed it off. Just a turn of phrase, he reminded himself, finding himself again drowning in her green eyes and the soft scent of sunlit flowers.

Her fingers played with the silk knot at her waist, carefully untangling the ribbons so that flashes of marble skin slipped through. She turned her back to him, letting the dress slowly fall away to reveal her perfectly sculpted body. Martin’s eyes grew wide as she spun, but his pleasure gave way to terror all too quickly.

Her chest was a tangle of intertwined flesh, a traumatic knot of scars and blood. In the time it took Martin to make sense of it, the knot began to writhe, petals of flesh slowly unfolding to reveal a gaping maw of teeth where her stomach should have been. Her once bright green eyes were now dull and dead, any hint of life yanked from them with the reveal of this monstrosity. Where the aroma of flowers had so allured him, now he could only smell the sickly odor of rot. A scream, initially frozen in disbelief deep within his gut, slowly clawed its way up to his lips, breaking through the air with a brief cry before those yellowed, broken teeth closed around his head.

The room echoed with the muted crunch of bone, the moist sound of blood and flesh abandoning their respective domains and mingling in a blender of jagged teeth. It gulped, Annalise’s whole body quivering with the effort of ingesting the body of her momentary paramour. The sheets were stained with blood, matching the brilliant fabric of the discarded dress. However, it was not interested in waste. Most of the blood flooded its gullet, Annalise’s ivory skin warming and brightening with the fresh flood of still-warm liquid.

Sweet iron filled the room, its scent nearly overpowering. The now lifeless body of Annalise flopped about as the creature neglected grace in favor of speed. Her head lolled onto her chest, drifting dangerously near the still gaping teeth. A thick, coiled tongue snaked out of the mouth, slithering across the bed to gather whatever remained before it could fully soak in to the cheap hotel mattress. With a shake and an odorous sigh, the creature sat back on the bed. Slowly, Annalise’s eyes began to change, drifting from their brilliant green to a steely blue. Her hair fell out like leaves shaken by the wind, short cropped salt-and-pepper strands replacing it. Her arms and legs lengthened, then thickened. After a moment, the creature stood, a perfect copy of Martin, but imbued with a very different spirit.

It considered the new body, then reached into its mouth to retract a thick pair of black glasses. For a moment, it held them to its new face, considering the advantages of such eyewear. Ultimately, it discarded them and watched as they shattered at the base of the wall. Unlike Martin, the creature walked tall, shoulders back and eyes up high. It smiled charmingly as the skin of his face stretched with the unusual gesture. While Martin certainly did not have sculpted abs or a youthful body, there was at least minimal evidence that he had taken good care of himself, resulting in a relatively slender and strong physique. The creature turned Martin’s head side to side, looking itself up and down in the mirror across the room. It was far from perfect, but with a dash of charm and some newfound confidence, it would certainly do. “Nice to meet you, Martin,” he said, his voice starting with the lilting soprano of before and then taking on a confident baritone that filled the room.

After pilfering the clothes hanging in the closet, the creature looked at the mess it had made and smiled. Martin slipped into its new costume, and walked strongly towards the door. His hand hovered over the light switch, gaining one last glimpse at the bloody masterpiece now staining the cheap room. Then, he plunged it into darkness and made his way back to the festivities.

The night was still young.


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


Update + First Draft: the Lonely House

Hello there! Let me clean off some cobwebs and give an update.

The short story is my life is a tangled mass of chaos right now.

The longer, whinier story follows. Not only am I trying to collect all the data from 40 participants for my dissertation, but also hold down a current assessment/therapy case load, finalize paperwork for my new position, pack my entire apartment for a cross-country move, spend time with my friends before said cross-country move, exercise a bit more, and remain relatively close to a functioning human being. In a month, almost all of these things will be done. Because I move in a month, which means everything has to be packed, paperwork finalized, dissertation data collection done, and friends hundreds of miles away. I can hopefully do some writing then, in between unpacking my apartment and starting a new job. At least that one has regular hours, so I don’t have to work until 9pm.

You know, just outlining all of that made me feel better. It did not make me any less stressed, but it at least affirmed that my stress is well-justified. So, I apologize for no updates. I have a couple ideas rattling around, but I’m definitely not performing at my peak right now. I’m a bit weighed down by stress and feeling a hefty wallop of general fatigue. Combine that with grieving for the people and places we are leaving behind, and it does not make for a very good creative environment. Not for me, anyway. I also keep making really dumb mistakes when writing (I spent about a week using the wrong form of who’s/whose before realizing it), which tells me my brain is about at capacity. If you have sent me something and I ignored it, I am sorry. I just am having to spend some time focused inward, keeping myself together. All day I am surrounded by others, wearing my outward-focused face. It wears me out. When I get home for the day, I just retreat and let the introvert in me recharge. Long story short, I cannot promise regular updates until after mid-July. Hopefully life will have some sort of pattern after then.

That all said, I am stuck in an office for about 6 hours today with little to do. I had a client reschedule, so I can’t go home (I will not miss my hour-long commutes), but I am in a holding pattern on a few cases right now. Can’t work, can’t go home, can’t do testing, can’t pack. And I’ve made all my phone calls for the day, just waiting on returns. So, I can write a little something, at least.

I’ve had a lot of ideas recently, which is nice. I’m thinking about starting a writing prompts page. I think some of them are interesting, and I would rather someone use them if I’m going to be too swamped to do it! We’ll see.

So, here is what I got done today. I’m pretty pleased that I got something  like this done between 11am and 3pm. It’s rough, but it has the makings of something pretty entertaining, which is what I aim for! Most of all, I hope you enjoy this little piece. There are probably some things I don’t know about filming a movie that could be helpful, so let me know anything I got wrong in the comments. Happy reading!


The dream was always the same. It did not happen regularly, but he knew each time just what would happen, as soon as he saw those oxidized gables rise into view. As far as he knew, Keith had never seen that house before. It had no correlate to his waking memories, though he knew it like a childhood friend in his dream. The feeling of familiarity was so strong, he had once described it in great detail to his mother, certain it had to be some relic from his early childhood years.

It was green, he had stumbled as a child. Now, he understood that the roof was copper, but old and weathered. Vines snaked along the brick front, giving it a fuzzy, organic appearance, the dark ivy leaves only adding to his fumbling insistence on the green building. Tall, dark windows leered down at him, all centered around the imposing black door in the front of the home. Up a set of weathered stone steps, the vines tracing along the cracks here as well, and face-to-face with the glimmering gold knocker.

His mother had smiled, praised his imagination, and assured him they had never been to such a house. She did not listen to him explain the many rooms inside, all eerie with their emptiness. It was not simply an abandoned house, but it was cavernous and grieving its lack of inhabitants. Each room was as unsettling as an empty eye socket. Yet he could read the impressions left in the home enough to realize it had once been extravagant. The trim around the ceilings, the plush carpets and glistening wood floors, the rich walls covered in dark paint of thick wallpaper all spoke to extravagance. It was like the shadows of a young debutante in the face of an aged widow.

Inevitably, the clock would begin to ring in the house. It was the only piece of furniture left, a stately grandfather clock at the end of the hall. It boomed throughout the empty house, the tolls redoubling over and over again. Try as he might, Keith could never count them. He could not distinguish the echoes from the real chime, and simply ended up muddling through wave after wave of thunderous hours.  As the sound filled the empty house, he felt it begin to press again his eardrums, threatening to smash him. Every time, he knew he had to leave the house in order to prevent the sound from crushing him entirely. It could not hold the clock, its sounds, and the echoes with him inside. And so he raced out to the backyard, into a world of spindly evergreens and withered grass.

Whenever this dream began, he knew where it would end. His feet invariably crunched through the grass, still putting distance between himself and the now-dim peals of the grandfather clock. Each step lessened his fear that the noise would come spilling from the house and yet again overwhelm him. If it filled the outside, how would he ever find a place to escape that sound? It was not until he came around the corner and saw the tiny pond that the sound would vanish, swallowed up by the impossibly dark water.

It was not a natural pond, but one crafted and placed in the midst of the garden, supposedly to be ringed by merry flowers and restful spots of repose. However, it was now lonely in the midst of overgrown bushes and looming evergreens, their branches jagged fingers pointing to the unholy spot. The water was still and black, seeming to promise unreachable depth. The sky and trees were reflected perfectly, a dark mirror showing a shadowy world.

A cold feeling always wrapped around him at this point as his feet drew inexorably closer to the edge of the pond. Eventually, he would be standing over it, looking into his own eyes reflected back. Only it was not quite his face. There was malice in the eyes, a subtle smirk in the mouth that intimated something sinister. Keith would watch himself, watch the clouds whistle by and the trees bob in the wind.

The next moments played before his eyes like scenes from a home video, never altering in the slightest. The ring around his finger—his father’s wedding band, gifted to him by his mother after his passing—slipped off of his finger. He could feel it inching down, but could not risk breaking eye contact with his reflection in the pool. It would bounce on the stone, its ring a sharp counterpoint to the weighty bellows of the clock from before. The noise hung in the air as if frozen, even as the ring tumbled and sparkled into the water. Then, he could see it sitting just below the surface, betraying the shallow depth of the pool. He’d lick his lips, worry and sadness on his brow, while his reflection sat immobile, watching and smiling.

Finally, he dove forward, his hand plunging into the icy depths of the water. It was cold, thick, and sluggish around his hand. His skin looked pale and distorted in the light, almost as if it were greying and rotting in the water. As his fingers closed around the ring, his prize won, bloated fingers surged from the darkness, wrapping around his wrist.

Keith would fling himself backwards, landing on his back against the stone. As he looked up, the head of something would appear above the water, skin waterlogged and hair dripping with oily water and pond scum. Its eyes would look like his, the mouth curled in that smirk.

Keith woke up with a start as the thing put one rotted hand onto the lip of the short retaining wall just as he always did. As usual, he was freezing, his toes almost aching with the chill. While the dream did not come at regular intervals, it came often enough to fix a routine. Keith slipped from his covers and wrapped a robe around, stuffing his feet into battered house shoes in his closet. He dutifully went around to each window and door in his house—twelve windows and two doors in this one—to make sure he had left nothing open that could cause a draft. He checked the thermostat and read it was sitting comfortably at 72 just as it should. Finally, he moved to his dresser, pulled his father’s ring on for comfort, and returned to his bed with an extra blanket. In the morning, he would wake in a pool of sweat, the blanket thrown aside and his robe shrugged off during the remaining hours of sleep he had left. Still, he had to do what he could to shake the biting chill that currently bound his addled body.

The morning came early, and Keith woke up just as he predicted. It at least made the cool water of the shower feel all the better as it jolted him to alertness. He had a long day ahead, and so the jumpstart made it at least seem possible. Still, he poured an extra bit of coffee into his thermos, sacrificing room for cream in order to pack in the extra molecules of caffeine. Keith smiled, banking on the placebo effect to get him from his front door to Natalie’s without winding up taking a nap in some neighbor’s ditch.

Keith picked up his equipment from beside the front door and chucked it into the back of his SUV with little ceremony. When this was still a new, daring hobby, he had treated each pieces with special dignity, setting it affectionately assigned spots. Now the cameras, tripods, cabling, lights, and other paraphernalia ended up in a tangled heap that he would sort out at the film site. Checking his watch one last time, he leapt into the driver’s side and sped off to make up time lost contemplating various shower thoughts and the miracle of coffee.

Natalie was waiting for him when he showed up, a hint of irritation shimmering through her otherwise friendly smile. Having known her since grade school, he appreciated the restraint required for her not to express her annoyance. Though, to be fair, having known him since grade school, he assumed she expected him to always run five minutes late.

“Did you get my text?” she began as she swung into the car. She tossed a messenger bag into the back seat and immediately moved to turn the air conditioning up.

Keith patted his pockets quickly, finally locating his phone. The messenger icon was in the top corner. “I did, but I assume you wanted me to read it,” he shot back as he thumbed open the message.

Don’t forget extra cabling. Place is old. May need extension cords.

“I’m guessing no luck?” she said with a sad smile.

“Actually,” he began with an exaggerated flourish, “you are very much in luck. I decided to pack some extra just in case. Just using my good ol’ boy scout’s preparedness skills!”

She rolled her eyes and fell back into the seat. “Well, at least one part of it stuck. I’ve got the directions, so just head to the highway. I’ll guide from there.”

As they had on so many morning. Keith and Natalie set off down the road. He kept his eyes fastened to the asphalt while she calmly led him through the steps. As usual, they stopped for breakfast sandwiches at the diner right beside the highway and munched on those as they traveled out of town. Somewhere along the way, Natalie got bored and began scanning radio station while Keith repeatedly asked her where the next turn would be. They missed it, looped back around, and eventually pulled off into a gravel drive way.

Once the shadows of the trees fell over his front windshields, Keith felt an uncomfortable sense of déjà vu mixed with anxiety. He felt as if he had seen these shadows before, as if they had previously traced their way over his face. And it was invariably tied to something he did not want to experience again.

“Where’d you find this place,” he groused,” because it is seriously creepy?”

She raised an eyebrow and laughed, “Creepy? The place is beautiful. Just wait until you see the house.”

He did not have to wait long. The gables rose into view, standing proudly in their familiar green. Keith could feel his heart begin to crash against his chest with slow, heavy beats as his eyes grew wide. The car rolled to a stop as he stared, mouth agape, at the specter before him.

“Keith, what’s your problem? Drive on up, I don’t want to walk through the mud.” She smacked his shoulder, hoping to pull him out of it, but he simply ignored her. “Keith?” she tried again.

His head suddenly spun around to face her. “Why are we here?” he snapped. His eyes danced like a cornered animal.

“We’re here for the filming. I told you, I think this place will be great—“

He put the car in reverse, and she grabbed his arm. “Hey, stop! What are you doing?”

“Natalie, we can’t go traipsing around abandoned properties. First, that’s trespassing, and second, you have no idea what could be in there. There could be wild animals or hobos or bad floors or—“

“What are you talking about?” she yelled over his flurry of words.

His response was merely to slam the car into park and point at the house. “That. That’s what I’m talking about. We can’t film here. It’s dangerous and illegal.”

“It’s not illegal. I talked to the owners and they gave us a great rate to use it. We just have to clean up after.”

“Owners?” Keith knew this house had no owners. It could not have owners. It devoured those that tried.

“Yeah, I’m not going to have us traipse into some unknown place. Give me some credit.” She crossed her arms, making no effort to hide her irritation now. “So, if my papers are in order, can we drive up to the entrance or am I going to have to walk?”

His fingers itched along the gear shift, wanting to finish backing out of the drive and speed back down the highway. But he felt rationality pulling him back. This was ridiculous. How would he explain to Natalie why he floored it away from a perfectly good filming location, one that came at a steal it sounded like? He imagined the words out of his mouth. ‘I had a nightmare about the house.” He would never live it down, nor should he. He was being unreasonable, the rational, human part of his mind reminded. The animal part continued to growl and back into the corner, hackles raised.

“Sorry, I just—“ there was not a good way to recover from the moment other than just moving on like it never happened. So he did. “Are we renting furnishings for it or keeping it empty?” he asked, hoping to change the subject to something less bizarre than his behavior.

Natalie’s words were short, reminding him she was not going to let the moment just fade. “It comes fully furnished. I mean, I’m not terrible at my job and you have not even seen the place. So how about I worry about those details?” Her tone stung him, but he nodded in silence.

The feeling did not leave as he drove up to the front of the house, seeing the dark windows and black door. He reminded himself that the house was very similar to the one in his dream, but probably not the same. Even if it was, he probably saw it in some movie somewhere. Yeah, that was probably it. The family seemed willing to rent it out for filming, so maybe he saw it on television when he was a kid. It just lodged in his dreams and followed him here now. A coincidence, to be sure, but nothing worth ruining a friendship and appearing crazy over.

“Its overcast today,” said Natalie, more to herself than anyone else. Her eyes were focused out the window, studying the clouds as if they handed her their weekly schedule. “Maybe we get outside shots later, when the sun’s out?”

“I definitely don’t want to get set up and rained on,” replied Keith as he looked up at the house looming in his front window. He still felt the temptation to turn the ignition and run, but he carefully quieted that voice.

They were the first there so they could start set up for the shot. Keith knew he was Natalie’s right hand man when it came to these sort of things, which is why the other crewmembers would not get there until later. She trusted him to get it right and not mess it up. Before the courage could leave him, Keith shot out of the car and towards the trunk to retrieve his gear. Natalie squeezed in beside him and began grabbing odds and ends, carrying the lighting rigs and various tools that he would have to set to her specifications in just a few minutes.

“I’m thinking we’ll find a good parlor room and shoot some of the opening dialogue shots.” Keith nodded. Now he as a worker following orders, and that helped to lessen the creeping terror seated in his gut. “Put it here,” she commended once they got inside, “and let’s go find out room.”

The house was furnished with period-appropriate pieces. Seeing the house in its almost lived-in state was reassuring. The lonely hunger did not lurk in each room. In fact, it almost seemed inviting, as if it wanted him to have a seat on one of the couches and gaze out the window at the trees swaying outside.

His anxiety peaked again as they climbed the stairs. At the end of the hall would be the tall, menacing clock with its resounding bell. His breath caught in his throat as he spun on the final step, but he released it in a sudden sigh when there was nothing at the end of the hall. He had simply imagined the clock. It was, after all, a dream.

Natalie had a notebook in hand, jotting scribbled notes into it as they examined each room. She noted the furniture, position, window direction, space, and suggested use for each room, her head snapping from the room to her notebook with avian speed.

Finally, the climbed back down the stairs and she designated the room. “We’ll start in the first room on the left, and I think we’ll have good lighting for some afternoon shots upstairs later. Can you get started down here?” she said, but was almost out the door before he could respond. She knew he could handle it, as did he.

There was a car door slamming outside, and Natalie rushed out to get the cast and costume crew set up. She wanted to be filming in two hours, which was a tall order. Still, if anyone could rally the troops, it was Natalie. Keith set to work.

There was a zen quality to the set-up that always seemed to center him, The actual filming could be harried and chaotic, but doing this work ell always made him feel ready for whatever bizarre request Natalie would next throw his way. After an hour, the rest of the crew arrived and began to move about. They helped him adjust the lighting, get the sound set up, and position another camera. It was a generic set-up for the room, one that would have to be refined once Natalie finally got the lead actress placed, but it did a nice job based on the limited information in the script. With about thirty minutes remaining, Natalie scurried in with a cardboard box and began placing her own set pieces, including a tumbler and handwritten letter for the desk.

Of course, nothing ever actually started on time, despite Natalie’s best preparation. The sound guy was sill tweaking his setup when the hour rolled around and passed, but the lead was also still finishing up her makeup. Keith just sat on one of the couches, staring out the window at the beckoning trees. It was as if everything swirled around him, but he rested safe in the middle of the eddy, unmoving. The house was no longer threatening, but a sheep in wolf’s clothing. He had spent so long afraid of it, but it was just a childhood memory packaged up in some generic anxiety. Now that he was in the house, he felt peaceful. At home. Welcomed.

Eventually, already well behind schedule, they were rolling. Natalie’s pet project was this period piece drama that she swore was going to be accurate down to the minutest detail. It was not necessarily Keith’s preferred genre, and he found the dialogue even less entertaining after what felt like infinite shoots. Each time, Natalie had quick comments, little changes, and nit-picked details to highlight. Each time, the actress smiled, nodded, and seemed to give the same wooden delivery.  You get what you pay for, Keith smirked.

Finally, they had managed to eke out a few acceptable takes, and Natalie was on the war path again. “Up the stairs while we have the light,” she barked as she brushed past Keith on her way to the designated room. He sighed and began gathering what he would need. It was a much smaller space, which meant less room for equipment. He hoped that would speed set up rather than bogging him down in the tight quarters.

They lost the light during set-up, but Natalie was not to be dissuaded. She steamrolled on ahead with other scenes, which required Keith to spend much of the evening switching out filters and lighting apparatus to make sure the lighting stayed just right for a candlelit scene. He was exhausted by the end, and the actress was grumpy. Natalie was fueled by indefatigable energy and vision.

“Come one, let’s just get in one more scene and then we can wrap this for tomorrow,” her voiced pleaded with them, as if she could wring out enough passion from within her to inspire the others.

“I have a forty minute drive home and still have to go to the gym,” whined the lead, a usually smiling blond woman by the name of Amicia.  “I can get here earlier tomorrow, but I really need to go home. My dog’s going to have to be let out, too.” She was already taking off layers of her costume while they stood and debated, effectively silencing any further debate.

“If you tell us where, we’ll set up for tomorrow before we leave,” offered Claud and Gladys, the sound and second camera crew.

Natalie was being worn down, and her drive was quickly leaking away. She ran a shaking hand through her hair, and Keith remembered to ask her if she had stopped for lunch or dinner at any point. He had snarfed down a turkey sandwich in between scenes, but he had not seen her with much more than a half-empty bottle of water. “No, we’ll need a few shots in here tomorrow morning. Especially the letter arrival scene. No need to move it tonight. Just get here on time tomorrow.”

The house emptied rather quickly, and Keith had a chance to notice the disarray. There were pieces of paper and tape all over the floor, as well as some empty soda cans, facial tissues, and plastic bags that seemed to float around wherever the film crew stepped. Natalie was draped into a nearby chair, furiously scribbling notes in her notebook before the last of her energy finally did give out.

“Ready to go home?” The new quiet in the house revitalized Keith’s uneasiness. In the dark and shadows, the house seemed to take on more of its nightmare qualities, furnished or not.

Natalie looked up, bleary-eyed, and then peeked at her watch. She sighed. “It’s almost eleven and I want to be back here by 5 tomorrow.” She closed her eyes as she did the mental math. “I think I may just sleep here tonight. There’s a bedroom at the end that we probably won’t use for anything.”

“Come on, you can’t stay here!” There was an edge of anxiety in his voice that he had not intended, but he suddenly felt very afraid of what might happen if she remained there. He could feel the hunger creeping from the walls now that the rest of the crew had left. Sure, it had put on a pleasant face, but the house was still not satisfied.

“Why not? The doors lock and the water works. I might as well get a little extra sleep. If you could get here by seven that would be great.”

“I’m not going to leave you alone in some creepy old house in the middle of nowhere,” he offered firmly.

“Why are you so hung up on how creepy this place is?”

Keith shrugged. “I don’t know. It’s a nice house, but no one lives here. Probably haunted or something.”

She rolled her eyes. “It’s not haunted. Geez, Keith, I never took you for such a superstitious guy.”

“Well then why does nobody live here? I mean, it’s a great house. But no one uses it except for ragtag film crews?”

Her voice got quiet as she gave the news. “The family said their son passed away a few years ago, and they could not stand to live in the same house. But it’s a family home and they figured they’d pass it down. I just saw it and asked about it, so they let me come in. It’s the first time they’ve had a crew in here, so I thought it would give us some unique backgrounds and scenes.”

“So it is haunted,” he shot back, oblivious to her argument or the apparent sensitivity of the moment.

“What!? No, Keith, it isn’t haunted. Some kid just died. It’s sad, but don’t go starting rumors like that. They’re a nice family, and I don’t want anything like that getting out.”

“How’d the kid die?” He was onto a scent and unwilling to let it go.

“Keith, that’s none of our—“

“How can I know it’s not haunted?” He attempted a smile, halfhearted as it was, to remind her that he truly was looking out for her safety. The nagging sense of dread would not let go of him, however. Worse, that creeping sense of déjà vu had returned in full force.

She shrugged, her defenses overrun and inhibitions lagging behind. “He had seizures. Seems like he had a pretty big one and fell into some pond out there. They spent about three days looking for him before they found him. It was in the papers at the time, when we were just kids. I found it at the library.”

“That seems like the kind of thing that would inspire a haunting,” he pressed again.

She pressed her fingers to her eyes and sighed. “I’m not getting into this with you. If you want to believe it’s haunted, fine, it’s haunted. Get out of here and go home. I, who does not believe in ghosts, will stay here and sleep. Goodnight.” She got up from the chair and began walking out into the hallway. Keith caught up with her, grabbing her wrist.

“I really don’t think it’s a good idea for you to stay here alone.”

“Great, but I’m going to. Let go of my hand and let me get some sleep.”

“I’ll stay, too.”

She threw her free hand up in exasperation. “Fine, you’re a big boy, do what you want.”

She continued down the hall, now free, while Keith felt apprehension tingling over his entire body. This was a very bad idea. But it was also the only way he could keep her safe. Suddenly, she paused and spun around.

“Oh, if this is some ploy to get into my pants, you should know I don’t sleep with crew,” she deadpanned, then broke out into a broad, sleepy grin.

“You might just force me to quit, then,” he snapped back. She laughed, waved him off, and closed the door to the extra bedroom.

Keith sat and stared at her door for a bit before thumping down the stairs to another as of yet unused room. He knew that Natalie would let him sleep in one of the beds, but she would also gripe when she had to fix it in the morning. And it would never be quite right. He opted to spare her the stress and sleep on one of the many couches spread throughout the rooms. It was hard to imagine a family with a little boy living in the gargantuan house, especially with its dated furnishing. Ten again, perhaps the family simply set it up this way to preserve the history. It was a family home, Natalie had said. Maybe these were family pieces. Or maybe it was just a frozen memory. Or maybe they were just creepy and weird.

The day caught up to him, and he fell asleep, still trying to piece together the kind of family that would live in such an odd home.

_

Waking up in the house was shocking, especially with complete darkness wrapped around everything. For a moment, he was certain he was caught up in the dream again, as the same sense of knowing washed over him. Only after a few deep breaths was he able to remember he was merely spending a night in his nightmare house. In hindsight, it was not the best idea. Keith thumbed the side of his watch, and his eyes bathed in the pale green light, eager for anything in the pitch black night. 3:43am.

In the dark, the house felt cavernously empty. Even though he knew it was fully furnished, he could not help but feel it was gaping just as hungrily as it did in his dream, begging to devour anything that might fall into its maw. The feeling was certainly unsettling, especially as he saw himself lying patiently behind its teeth. Yes, this sleepover was certainly a bad idea. But, he reminding himself, it was for Natalie. Keith knew the place was not as harmless as she thought, even if he could not convince her of that.

He laid in the silence. Natalie would be getting up soon if she planned to start work at five. He strained his ears, but heard no sound of stirring from upstairs. Then again, it was a very large house. While sound travelled, it did not go that far.

His watched gave a soft beep for the hour, the face lighting briefly, and then stilled. As if on cue, Keith’s head began to pound. He felt the headache explode in his temples, a relentless pulse that ebbed and flowed with his heart. It swarmed him from the silence, throwing itself against his skull. His ears were ringing, and he felt as if his head would simply explode from the sudden pressure. Keith felt fireworks going off inside his head, bright flashes that forced him to screw his eyes shut.

He sat up, then stumbled towards his bag of gear. Despite his feeble hopes, there were no pain relievers to be found. Giving up on that, he stumbled into one of the bathrooms and splashed water on his face, as if that would magically wash away the pain. It did nothing to dull the crushing sensation in his head, but simply teased relief. Keith looked up at his relfection in the mirror, but felt as if his head was swimming. He could not focus, but was able to see well enough to know he was in pretty poor shape.

Back on the couch, the pain continued. It beat continuously, like a stampeded running from one side of his brain to the other. Dimly, he remembered being told that there were no pain receptors in the brain, so it could not feel pain. Right now, it felt as if there must have been billions and they were all on fire. Perhaps, he thought, this was what an aneurysm felt like.

A brush of breeze from outside caught his pained brow, its touch almost impossibly soothing. He stumbled to his feet and made his way to the open door, aware that his feet travelled what felt like a well-worn trail from the room to the door. Outside, the din inside his head began to calm. With each touch of the wind, it seemed as if the pressure cut in half, until he was finally able to open his eyes and breathe deep of the night air. There was a lingering ache behind his temples, a reminder of what he had endured, but that was pleasant compared to the prior pain. The trees whispered in the wind, tossing back and forth.

Then, footsteps. There was a sound of crunching leaves up ahead of him, the pace slow and methodical. Keith froze. No one should be out here at this time of the night. Maybe it was an animal?

The open door surged into his memory, easily quieting his momentary fears. Natalie must have gotten up early to scope around outside. He also knew she liked a morning jog, and this was probably the only chance she would get today to work out.

“Nat?” he called out. There was no answer, but the steps continued to draw further away from him. He pressed on, looking around by the light of the mostly hidden moon. “Natalie?” he tried again as he caught sight of person disappearing behind a wall of evergreens and low-lying shrubs. Keith began to jog a few steps, then caught on a tree root and nearly skidded across the crackling grass. He caught himself on a nearby concrete bench, and moved more cautiously.

He had opened his mouth to call for her again, but the sound died on his lips. He turned the corner to find himself staring at that ill-fated pool, its water an impenetrable black in the scant moonlight. Worse, Natalie was standing in it, her eyes locked on the surface with a vacant stare.

“Natalie?” he whispered, the words barely shuffling through his windpipe as fear clamped down around it. She did not respond. He crept closer.

There was a ripple on the water; it spun around her calves, lapping up against her knees though she did not move. From a couple feet in front of her, a bubble rose, then formed into a solid face creeping slowly from the water. As Keith watched in horror, shoulders and arms followed the head, water clinging to them like mud as the figure struggled to break free.

There was a wheezing noise as it broke the surface, a ragged, breathy sound that seemed to come from its half-open mouth. Natalie did not move, but her eyes flicked from the surface of the water to the thing’s eyes. Her face was an impassive mask, peaceful in its imperturbability.

Keith scrambled over the ground. He leaned over the small edge of the pond, stretching his arm as far as it could go, but still missing her by inches. “Natalie!” he yelled. It sounded as if the thing laughed, the wheezes coming in short, rapid bursts before smoothing back to the jagged rhythm. It reached out a hand towards Natalie, and Keith watched in horror as she lifted hers to it, her slender fingers joining its waterlogged, blackened ones.

Instantly, Natalie began to sink below the surface. At first, she seemed at peace. Keith continued to try to reach her, sitting on the edge and reaching out as far as he could over the water. She was always a few inches from his fingers, just out of reach. By the time Keith realized it was going to require more risk, she was already down to her waist. With a single, steeling breath, Keith swung his legs into the water and made toward her.

With his entrance, Natalie seemed to wake up. There was a jolt of confusion across her face, followed by fear. She looked to the thing, and a short scream ripped from her lips. Then, her eyes found Keith’s, and she reached her hand to him.

“Keith! Help!” she called, though he was already doing all he could. As he made his way to her, she began to fight to free her hand from the thing that held her.

The water wrapped around his legs like syrup. It was as cold as ice, and weighed more than he could ever recall from water. It was a chore to shift his foot forward a few inches, but he pressed on, even as it sucked at his legs. A few more shuffling steps and he was able to brush his fingers against Natalie’s. There was relief on her face at the touch, though her other hand was still captive.

One more step, the effort like dragging weights through wet sand, and his fingers knotted around hers, though she was now up to her chest in the shallow pool. “I got you, “he said, half to himself. Her eyes were desperate and he could not look away.

Keith wrapped his other hand around her arm, pulling and tugging at her. She fought back, thrashing in the water and doing her best to lose the creature with its vice-like grip. But the water continued its relentless charge up her body, wrapping around her shoulders and neck.

Keith threw himself forward, falling to his knees to get a few more precious inches of reach. He wrapped his hands around her shoulder, but felt her continue to sink deeper and deeper into the darkness. The water was so cold, leaving his fingers aching with the effort. They were clumsy as they grabbed at her, holding on to whatever he could find to keep her above water. Still, there was nothing he could do to stop her descent into whatever lay beneath the pond.

He could not look away, even as her eyes screamed at him from below the water. Even as the thing hissed with glee and melted back into the surface of the water. Her fingers were finally yanked away from him, sending him tumbling back into the water.

He sat there in shock until the sun came up. The water lapped at his legs and chest, returning once again to the smooth, flowing liquid he was used to. It no longer clung to him or pushed him back, but simply moved in lazy ripples to the time of his breathing. His eyes never left the water, the place where hers disappeared moments before.

The crew found him out there when they returned to an empty house. His babbling did little to help them understand, as he raved about things in the water, clocks, dreams, and drowning. It was a jumbled mess of what sensations and fears were able to escape his addled mind.

The police swarmed the property, looking for any sign of young Natalie. Likely killed after refusing the advances of her longtime friend, the rumor went, who was then driven mad by guilt. However, the story took a turn when they found her lying at the bottom of a shallow pool, one that had been walked past time and time again by officers, dogs, and even the witnesses. She had been there three days, they said, but no one had seen her.

Except for Keith. He saw her every time he fell asleep. The dream had changed, but it was always the same.


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


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.


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


I’m Back! And with Something New – First Draft: Of Neighbors and Deceit

So, I did decide to take a month off and relax. During that time, however, I did some writing, including editing some old pieces (which I will be posting soon) and starting a few longer things. I’m also trying to iron out some HTML things so I can get an index up of the Card Challenge stories. So, I have one long-ish piece in the works, just trying to decide what to do with it. I’m not going to promise I’ll finish it, because I’m worried that in tone, it is way too similar to the piece I’m posting today. We’ll see how it goes, but the narrative tone is so similar, I’m not sure they work as stand-alones, even if the ideas are very different. Then again, I can just post both and see which one feels better.

Now that I’m back, my goal is 1-2 pieces per week. That will either be something new, edit of something old, a chapter of a longer piece, or a reflective-style discussion post from me. I’m not sure which days of the week I’m going to post, so I’ll have to work that out based on my general schedule. With classes over (and almost over for my entire life!!), I have more time, but I’m also starting data collection for my dissertation. Things may just have to be in flux right now.

All that aside, here is a new piece I’ve been working on the past few days. As usual, it is a first draft, so it has some problems that need to be worked out. However, I have been editing as I go and reworking aspects of it throughout the process, so I feel like it is a pretty solid piece. It is very long (5000+ words), so I have cut it behind a click-through. If you have strong feelings about such “Read More” tags (“I never click through to those” or “I wish this was always the case so long pieces don’t clog things up”) please let me know so I can plan accordingly in the future.

Without further ado, here is the piece. A bit of realistic horror. As always, happy reading!


Of Neighbors and Deceit

Marty and Dan—a pleasant, Midwestern couple from all appearances—moved in a bit too early one Saturday morning. I remember the sound of their couch thumping against our outside wall around 8:00am, followed by Dan’s short bark to the movers. I suppose he was concerned about waking the neighbors. Just not concerned enough to wait for a more reasonable hour. As strangers stomped through our tiny hallways, I sluggishly drifted from bed, to my closet, and then out the door. This was during an exercise kick, and so I was ruthlessly dragging my protesting limbs to the gym. If I had to be up early, I could make use of it.

Marty was coming up the stairs as I was going down, carrying a box with a handful of books stacked precariously on top. They shifted and slid to the floor as she reached the final landing, and I heard her mutter a soft curse before dropping the box down beside her. Her hair appeared to have once been tucked into a neat, tight bun. Now, it danced around her head or laid plastered to her sweaty brow. She had the look of a typical suburban mom, dressed in a pair of unflattering jeans and a pale blue blouse, darkening every moment as she sweated a bit more. It was July; they knew the risks when they decided to move. And apparently their gamble to beat the heat and move in early was not helping.

I stooped to pick up one of the books that had skidded to my feet. It was the neighborly thing to do, after all. Marty smiled at me and took it.

“Not how I wanted to meet the new neighbors,” she sang, a hint of breathlessness escaping through the cheer.

I laughed politely. I am not a good adult; I do not handle small talk and forced participation well. But I put on a smile and did my best. “You caught me in workout gear. I’d say we’re even. I’m Lyla. Uh, apartment 322.”

She took my hand, nodded. “And I’m Marty, apartment, um,” her eyes grew distant for a moment, and she squinted as she shuffled through her memory, “apartment 312!” she finally exclaimed. “We’re across-the-hall neighbors!”

She was obviously more excited about this news than I was. I smiled, and tried to creep down the stairs around her with a brief, “then I’ll be seeing you,” but she called out before I could escape.

“Dan! Come meet our neighbor, Lula!”

“It’s Lyla,” I whispered, mortified at the encounter. I had chosen a quiet apartment just so I would not have to meet my neighbors. I had a good streak, three years strong, without more than a friendly nod or holding a door. Now I was frozen on the stairs.

Dan was a large man, easily filling the doorway. He had that steelworker, cattle farmer look that I always associate with the Midwest. His arms were meaty appendages wedged onto his body, and they hung tensely at his side, reddened by the work of moving in. His face was flushed, speckled with its own sheen of sweat. I suddenly became acutely aware of the sweat prickling in my underarms as the awkwardness of the situation increased. There was a desperation in Marty’s voice as she called for him that made me feel responsible and terrified all at once.

One giant paw wiped Dan’s face as the other reached toward me. I took his hand, feeling his grip settle around like a vice as he nearly crushed my smaller one. “Well, Luna, nice to meet you.”

“It’s Lyla,” I meekly offered again, smiling and trying not to wince at his grip.

“My apologies, Lyla!” He beamed, and I watched a bead of sweat trickle from his forehead, down his nose, and crash against the slight bulge of his belly beneath the damp t-shirt. “Sorry for the noise this morning. We should have it all out of your hair in just another few hours.” He jutted a short thumb back towards the hallway where I could see two spindly movers—high school students scrounging for a summer job, I assumed—trying to find a way to wedge a dressed in the narrow space between the door and wall.

This was my chance, and I nabbed. ‘It’s no problem. Got me up early for the gym. It was nice to meet you Dan and Marty,” I offered them both a smile. Marty’s mouth began to open again, but I was three stairs down before she could begin.

“Would you—I guess we’ll see you around!”

From the bottom floor, I could hear her still going, her attention turned to Dan. “Nice girl.” I could hear her pick up the cardboard box again. “But what kind of name is Lyna?”

(more…)


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 76

Card Day 76: A fairy rescuing a small boy from the gaping maw of a green, dragon-like monster.

Brandon knew that he should have gone home hours ago, but wisdom had not won out. Instead, he was still attached to his dim seat at the sticky bar, eyes glazed and glass empty. He was drunker than he should have been, but still passed his most important test. He knew he was drunk, so that meant he could not be that drunk. Even though his stumbled and slumped against the chair when he stood—probably his legs had fallen sleep from sitting in the same position and same chair since the bar was full of Friday night hopefuls drinking to celebrate making it through the week. Now it was just clogged with the sad remnants who drank to make it to Saturday.

Alcohol was an effective, if blunt, tool, equally dimming all sensations until Brandon could experience his world from an arm’s length. Everything seemed distant, almost as if he were watching a video through someone else’s eyes. That at least explained why his arms and legs felt unstable even after his twenty-something years of experience with them.

Brandon was resolved not to be one of the regulars who remained there until grimy sunshine crept in and the lights went off. No, he had standards and enough sense to get home before he fell asleep in the quiet room. The raging pulsing music from earlier had faded to old and well-worn favorites; there was nothing to keep his mind from turning back to the sad thoughts he drank to forget.

He stumbled out the door, shocked into a higher level of sobriety by the surprisingly chill. It was late fall, so it made sense that it would be getting cool, but it had ben pleasant when he entered the bar. Then again, the sun had also been up. He rubbed his arms briskly, feeling the chill bumps already growing on his arms, and turned left down the street. No matter how drunk or not he was, he never drove home from the bar. It was just asking for bad decisions. And so he set off, walking through the dark streets under anemic pools of artificial light.

This part of town was not frequently traveled at night, so the lights alternated on and off in an attempt to save power. The whole city was spending itself into poverty, but at least they were saving some electricity.

He stumbled on his own feet, sliding against the brick wall beside him and banging his shoulder sharply. The pain radiated through his shoulder as he let out a few choice words. Apparently he was drunker than he thought, especially if he could not even walk home successfully.

Another mistake, another failure, and another disappointment. He leaned against the wall and considered his predicament grimly. He was a coward hiding behind alcohol s if it would bandage all the wounds he had given in his time. His own soul lay in tatters under his rage, and he left a path of destruction through the lives of others. The beers were simply his attempt to anesthetize that violent part of himself, preserve himself and others. Only it was a futile practice that left him alternatively numb and raging.

No matter how carefully he medicated, he ended up hurting himself—if he was lucky—or others either way.

Brandon tried to reason with himself, reminding himself that the alcohol made his thoughts darker than reality. But his inner self refused to accept his logic, instead wrapping himself in that cold blanket and shutting out any outside help. Irritated at his own stubbornness, Brandon pushed off the wall and stumbled down the road farther.

The next part of his journey led him along the bridge of a state highway, which at least meant other people were zipping past him in the world. It seemed right that he would slowly traipse along while the rest of the world flew past at 65mph. It was only fair. Then again, Brandon was not in a hurry to get back to his empty bachelor pad, recently gutted of any signs another human had once lived, laughed, and loved there with him. She could not take his sluggishness, the monster that lived inside and ripped him apart from within. She certainly could not take the vicious words that spilled out of his mouth, wounding her so that she would know how much he hurt. NO one should be forced to endure that, and he could not blame her from leaving. If he could leave himself, he would.

Brandon stumbled again, distracted by his own self-loathing, He smashed into the flimsy barrier between him and traffic Only this time, the waist-high wall crumpled and gave, sending him flailing towards the oncoming traffic.

No matter how much he hated himself, Brandon felt a flicker of fear at the slow realization that this was not going to end well.

Only instead of rolling off the hood of a speeding bullet or skidding along the pavement—or both—Brandon felt something grab the collar of his shirt and tug him back, sending him crashing into the concrete barrier on the other side of the walking path. The concrete did not give away, and he slid down to sit on the broken sidewalk. His heart thundered and he felt surprisingly sober in that moment. A car honked as it whizzed past him.

Beside him on the concrete was a frazzled looking woman. Her eyes hefted heavy bags, and her orangeish hair flared out in dozens of directions without any intention. Her clothes, once white, were muddied and stained. She glared at him with about half of the hate he generally directed at himself.

“Are you suitably proud of yourself now?” she snapped. Her voice was young and high-pitched, grating against his ears with the fury of her irritation.

Brandon’s mouth opened and closed, but he was still in a state of shock. His life had possibly flashed before his eyes, but all he remembered was a deepening sense of dread. Then again, that seemed fairly appropriate. His heart was a rhythmic thunder in his chest, pulsing louder than the sound of rushing traffic. The deep, gasping breaths he took made him feel as if he would never actually catch his breath again.

“Well? Nothing to say for yourself?”

Her anger confused him, and his brain was still too foggy to formulate the correct response. “Thank you?” he responded.

She rolled her eyes. Not the expected reaction. “Oh, thank you,” she singsonged, standing from the pavement and smacking her hands together.

“I—I’m sorry. I don’t know what happened, but thank you for grabbing me. I would have been—“

You would have been nothing but a slimy spot on the pavement, that’s what.” She viewed him dismissively from where he sat on the ground. Brandon hurried to stand up, even though his head spun a little with the rush.

“I know. You saved my life. I don’t have any money or anything, but if I could repay you?”

A bitter smirk crossed her face. “Yeah, you could stop making my job a nightmare. I mean, seriously, some people get easy marks who live a nice, reasonable life. Then I get assigned to you, and I haven’t slept soundly in six months from chasing after your ridiculous antics.”

Brandon began to worry that he had struck his head in the commotion, because nothing she said made sense. “I’m sorry, I just don’t understand. What did I do to you?”

“Oh yeah, I forgot, you drank half of the booze in Calacanas County tonight. Let me slow this down for you. I,” she pointed exaggeratedly at her own chest, “am responsible for taking care of,” she made an exaggerated pause, raising her eyebrow, only to deflate when he did not fill the silence, “you.” Her eyes crawled over his face, searching for understanding. Apparently, she found enough. “And you have made an amazing series of bad decisions. I had to save you from three different bar fights, keep you from stepping on a rusty nail and developing tetanus, not let you crack your head open on the sidewalk, and dive in front of a speeding vehicle to drag you out of the way. That was just tonight!”

Brandon’s mouth snapped closed, then drifted open again. Everything she was saying had a dim feeling of déjà vu, but he could not identify the moment. Then again, most of his night was a hazy blur painted amber-gold.

“So, I’m tired. If you could just try, for once, to stop killing yourself accidentally, I would really appreciate it.”

His mind finally caught up. “So, you’re like a…guardian angel?”

She rolled her eyes dramatically, hands on her hips. “Yeah, a guardian angel. See the wings?”

“No,” he stammered. She laughed.

“That’s cause I’m no angel. At least you got the guardian part right.” The woman ran a hand through her hair, flattening half of it, but leaving the rest just as much in disarray. Her voice calmed. “So, now that we’ve had this chat, think you could lay off the death wish?”

“I—I haven’t been trying, I mean, I’m sorry. I—I won’t do that anymore.”

Her head swung slowly side from side, a deep sigh slipping through her lips. “Just, do your best. Maybe take a vacation? I could use a vacation. No place dangerous like the beach or mountain climbing or anything. Just…how about you just go find a book and read for a few hours?” She turned her back on him, walking back down the street slowly with her head hung low.

A flame flickered in the dim night air and he watched her lift a shaking cigarette to her lips. “I need a np.” With that, she vanished.

Brandon looked around, stunned to find himself on the same sidewalk. There was no explanation for what had just happened. With all the caution and awareness he could muster, Brandon restarted his trek home, running a hand through his hair to find the head wound he was certain he must have endured.


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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 69

Card Day 69: A man being pulled along in a cart by a toy soldier while other toy soldiers line the passage.

The lights were out at Fort Kestrel when Zach arrived home. His house was also empty, and he made the correct assumption that, due to whatever had caused the power outage, his wife had to stay at her post a bit longer today. It was a bit irritating floundering about in the dark, but he fumbled with the window shades upon entering, and pale light filtered in from outside. It was, at least, a sunny day. Even if that made the underlying reason for the power outage less clear.

Zach scrounged along the baskets under the coffee table until he found one of the big, decorative, scented candles that had decorated the top before other clutter pushed them aside. He lit it, the artificial scent of cinnamon quickly assailing his nostrils. At least it was light for those pesky interior rooms. And in a large enough glass that he could carry it with him, He was not in the mood to scrounge around for other candles or spend the time policing the flames. Then again, last thing they needed was a house in ashes.

The base was surprisingly quiet, but Zach tried not to think about it too closely. There may have been some sort of drill or announcement that he was not aware of. Living on base had its fair share of intrigue, but most of it was more boring than intriguing for Zach. Still Lily should have been home, especially since he had gotten out early. And usually the neighbor kids were out screaming this time of day, just after dinner time for the perfectly happy family. They wre good kids, he just was not a fan of loud noises late at night.

Honestly, that meant the decision to live on base had probably been the wrong one, but Lily’s job had bizarre enough hours that it had been worth it. Still, those bizarre hours were almost always planned, and this one wasn’t. It was probably nothing, Zach told himself, walking around the house and opening whatever windows he could find.

Looking out, so much was quiet. There was a hush over the base that made him feel uncomfortable. It was generally a bustling place, but now it sat lonely. As the sun began to grow closer to the horizon, promising a beautiful sunset, Zach jiggled his cell phone in his hand, quickly tapping the central button to bring the screen to life.

There was a message waiting for him. He must have missed the vibration while driving along the pitted roads leading from his office to his house. At least that explained something. He swiftly clicked through the menu options, wondering what he had forgotten.

“Zach.” Her voice held a tint of panic, and he wondered if it was a panic he should catch as well, or simply related to the bustle of the office. “I—Honey, I love you. Something went very wrong today. I won’t be coming home. If you get this, stay off base. Stay in your office. I—“ he could hear her voice fracturing. “I love you, Zach. Remember that, okay?” The message went silent in his hand, replaced by the emotionless metallic voice of the menu operator. Zach could sympathize with that emptiness, plunging the depths of emotional numbness he now felt. That message was dire. It was terrifying, final, and heartbreaking. He sat frozen, afraid that if he moved, all he was would shatter.

Eventually, the message service disconnected, leaving the phone empty in his hand. That was okay. He was empty, too. But his mind swirled with a thousand questions. What had happened? Did she mean she wouldn’t come home tonight? Ever? The tears in her voice seemed to suggest ever. What gave her forewarning, but no way to escape? What should he do now that he was on base? Where was everyone? Had something happened to everyone? Is that why the power was out? They tumbled over one another in his brain, never around long enough t piece together any answer.

Then, the warning claxons began to sound. He jumped at the sound, the way it echoed in the emptiness. If the message time was anything to judge by, they were about an hour and a half too late. If only he had answered his phone, he could have found answers to some of these questions. He could have told her he loved her too. But she knew that, didn’t she?

The correct protocol for various drills ran through his head, but he felt heavy. It was too much to stand, move, follow through on proper procedures. Besides, it was not an alarm sound he recognized. The weather sirens went off every week like clockwork, so he knew that tone. This was different. Nor was it the bugle calls that ran at regular intervals across the day. It was probably wise to move to the storm shelter, but part of him wanted to sit here until Lily came through the doors. Even if that meant he never moved again.

Zach eventually picked up a new sound, the sound of a car roaring along the empty roads. Come to think of it, they had been surprisingly empty. There was a full lot at the commissary, but empty streets. Zach’s thoughts flashed back to the empty-eyed guard at the entry shack, waving him through after a cursory glance at his ID. That, at least, was normal. But he wondered what that man was doing now. Was that his vehicle? Was he investigating the sirens? Was he caught up in whatever had silenced the base?

His phone clattered to the floor as Zach stood, marching towards the door. He did not know what was going on, but he wanted to find out. The best way to find out would be to go toe Lily’s lab, see if anyone there could tell him anything. He grabbed the keys from the side table, and was about to start his car when he realized silence had once again settled over the town. Unsure of why, he opted to remain silent rather than drawing any further attention to himself.

Along his walk, Zach noticed that all the windows were drawn. Yes, it was getting late, he recognized that by the golden glow in the sky, but there were usually some home opened to the great outdoors, windows wide on dinner tables and television screens. Tonight, it was dark. He could not even distinguish candlelight flickering behind the heft of closed curtains.

The rumble of a truck caught him by surprise, and he instantly became the proverbial deer in the headlights. Before he could adjust to the brightness, there were dark uniformed figures surrounding him. This was not good.

“All civilians were commanded to report to Jefferson Plaza at 1800.” The voice was cold, emotionless, and stiff. It was also a voice he did not recognize, and the bright truck lights prevented his eyes from reading the nametag.

“I was at work. I did not know,” he stammered, blocking the bright light, but it did nothing to unshadow the people surrounding him.

“We will take you there now. Get in the truck.” One of the men grabbed his arm, and he instinctively recoiled.

“No, I need to see my wife. Lily Summers? She works in the Med Research Building—Calvin Research Hospital?” He was glad the name came to him, because he was certain that referring to the “rat lab” or “bone cabinet” would not have jogged their memories like it did Lily’s.

All four of the soldiers around him froze, heads cocked slightly to the right. Zach was afraid to breathe, afraid he might upset whatever delicate balance was at play. These men were not soldier—there was a stiffness and awkwardness to their movements that suggested the gear was unfamiliar and bulky. It was almost as if they did not quite fit in the uniforms, even though the shadows clearly filled it out.

“We will take you there. Get in the truck.”

Zach did not trust these unusual soldiers with their mechanical ways, but he needed to see Lily. He also realized that their willingness sto take him to her in her restricted lab meant they certainly were not who they masqueraded as. His sense of foreboding grew as he hauled himself into the back of the truck.

The base was small enough that it was but a brief, bumpy ride to the squat white building. N the dim light of the truck, he could read their nametags. Martinez, Halcomb, and Bridges, plus whoever was doing the actual driving. He knew Halcomb from one of Lily’s work get togethers, and he also knew that the person wearing his uniform was not Halcomb. That man spoke with a soft voice, a slight stutter on occasion. None of that was evident in the short words spoken by this man. His words came out in short, sharp, loud bursts, almost as if the ability to modulate his speech was not quite there.

Zach unloaded from the truck when told, marched into the white building as informed, and sat in the back of the elevator as the uniformed men pushed buttons and entered the clearance code. There was no reason Zach should have been brought down to Lily’s level, not with his lack of clearance, and he knew that. He tried to study the faces behind the darkened visors as they rode together in the elevator, but all he could make out were eyes. And he did not dare trust what he saw, because the eyes he could see were bulging in fear, screaming in terror. Their mouths were thin, flat lines that appeared bored. It had to be an illusion of the light.

The doors opened onto a long, hallway, lit sporadically with emergency lighting. As he walked along, he heard the crunch of glass beneath his feet, lying below each shattered bulb. Whatever had happened, a lot of power must have surged through to burn out this many lights and, in all likelihood, power for the entire base. It was still odd no one had gotten power back up.

They paused in front of a metal door, punching in numbers on the keypad with fingers that skated over the buttons like spiders along a web. It was a strange contrast to their previous stiffness, and it left him feeling as if tiny legs were skating along his skin. Zach shivered as the doors gaped wide.

He saw Lily standing before him, and his insides melted. She was okay, she was alive, and whatever this craziness was, she would help him out. He expected her to be surprised at his arrival, but she looked disinterested to annoyed.

“Ah,” she said pursing her lips as she turned towards him, “Zach.”

His words flooded out of him, unleashing some of the tidal wave of emotions bottled inside of him. “Lily. You’re okay. What happened?  I got you message, but I was already home? Where is everyone? What is going on? What about the power?” He rattled off questions as he took a couple of frantic steps towards her, arms out wide. Unfortunately, the guards from before grabbed his arms and held him fast to the spot. Zach pulled against them, struggling with all the might his untrained body had, but their hands squeezed tight enough that his hands began to go numb. “Lily?”

The woman sighed, smiling sadly at him. “Yes, I suppose I am this ‘Lily’ you are looking for. She talks about you. She wants me to tell you she loves you, and that you should run.” The woman gave a quick yip of a laugh at this. “Of course, it will do you no good to run now.”

“What do you mean? Lily? I love you, Lily! What’s going on?”

His please, the fervency in his eyes, did little to break the woman. “I’m sure she appreciates that. She can hear you, you know. But, unfortunately, I need her right now. I need you.”

“Wha-Who are you?” She was walking towards him and Zach felt paralyzed by her eyes—by Lily’s eyes—staring at him with such cold detachment.

“I’m just a traveler taking a lift,” said the woman with a calm smile, but Zach felt terror race up his spine. “Unfortauntely, it’s a bit cramped in here. I need to drop off some passengers, and I think you can help.”

“Lily!” he screamed, renewing his fight against the soldiers at his arms. But he did nothing, and they did not even flinch at his furious protest. She watched him fight, that same calm smile on her face. Exhausted, he looked back at her with defeated eyes. “Why?”

“Why? Well, that’s easy. Lily,” she said the name as if it were foreign to her tongue, “invited us. She was poking around with that energy crystal back there,” the woman tossed her head towards a dull, whitish rock on the table across the room. Zach knew nothing of that, but that was nothing new. “And she broke through. She let us free, let us into your world. She’s quite the lovely host.”

“What do you mean? How did you come from that rock? Where did it come from? Where did you come from?” The torrent of questions poured out of him in a stream, barely comprehensible.

“My, aren’t you the curious one?” said Lily, laying a cold hand on his cheek. “You will have plenty of time for your answers once you let us in. For now, just know that we came from very far away, and we are very happy to be here. It’s been so long.” The hand on his cheek turned into a vice, pulling his head towards her. Her lips—Lily’s lips—were on his, stiff and passionless. The woman breathed into him, and Zach felt his vision grow dark as his body went limp. Something oozed through his throat and lungs, seeping into his blood, along his body. Eventually, Zach felt something slithering behind his eyes, a mist creeping along his spine. And then, Zach stood. Only, Zach did not want to stand. He wanted to crumple to the floor, collapse into tears. His face was an emotionless mask. Someone else moved his lips, pressed air through his lungs, made words appear before him.

Someone else walked down the hall and away from Lily. Someone else donned a uniform that was the wrong size, and tried to forget the pain streaming from Lily’s eyes. Someone else tasted blood on his lips and savored it.

Zach screamed, but someone else smiled.


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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 65

Card Day 65: A cat sits in its bed, staring up at a deer head mounted on the wall. Tears drip from the deer’s eyes and down to the floor.

Henry had the growing sense of unease that there was something following him through the woods. It was a subtle sense, steeped in his own paranoia and cautious personality, but unshakeable. It was as if he could hear the slightest echo to his steps among the crackling leaves, or as if the birds seemed to wait just a bit too long to return to song behind him. He was born and raised among these woods, and he felt as if he could read them like an open book. Today, the message they were spelling out was grim, and he could not escape the clammy feeling creeping up his back. He was being followed, watched, and stalked.

The feeling of eyes on his back made his skin itch, almost as if a cold wind had whipped up and bit at his well-protected skin. Henry though he might just crawl right out of his skin, leave it a husk on the ground, if only to escape the impossibly unsettling feeling. Every tree branch suddenly became a traitorous hand seeking to pin him down and impede his progress. His home turf took on sudden maleficence he strained his ears, trying to hear the double crunch of his steps mirrored in someone else’s, attuned to the whispered music of another’s breath filtering through the trees.

It took all the resolve he could muster not to turn heel and flee through the woods. His home was on the other side, just over a mile’s journey, and even at his age he could make it in fifteen minutes or so at a light jog. His heart wasn’t what it used to be, but his doctor would probably approve of the exercise. But his pride forbade such an act of cowardice, so he held his steps to steady stroll through the diminishing sunlight. It would be dark soon, which might have been reason enough to hurry his trip, but the lingering possibility of some adversary that could perceive it as a sign of weakness meant he would be late getting home, strolling in and hanging his hat on the hook just past sunset.

Fortunately, the idea of the woods at night was less terrifying, or would have been under normal circumstances. His youth had been defined by sneaking into the woods for drinks and carousing with his buddies. Not to mention the many early morning hunting trips with his father—generally full of its own drinking and carousing—that had given him a familiarity with the darkened woods. In some ways, that was his territory to prowl. He felt as if he knew the way better under the cloak of night, those times when he relied on his other senses to guide him.

Only now, there was the very real danger of a predator. Carter Jinkerson had sworn he saw a couple of wolves roaming around a couple weeks back. Henry tried to dismiss the thought, noting that the footsteps—real or imagined—that he heard were not the soft padding of some four-footed animal. No, it was something large and heavy, walking about on two feet that perfectly mirrored his own. Somehow that realization did nothing to relieve his feeling of unease. He had bested every kind of animal that haunted these woods, but a human, now a human would certainly be challenging.

There had not been any string of attacks or murders in the sleepy town, so he tried to remind himself that killers did not just spring up in the midst of the woods. It was probably some kids, maybe one of his buddies trying to give him a scare. Even more reason to not let them see him sweat.

It was then that Henry realized the footsteps he had been thinking so intently on had, in fact, grown silent. He no longer heard anything sneaking along after him, even if the unusual silence did hang thick among the branches. Nothing but one set of steps pushing through the fall’s bounty of leaves, thundering through like a wounded deer crashing through the underbrush.

The silence was terrifying. He had lost the one thing that gave him an edge. He had known he was being hunted, and now he had lost his predator. Henry took a few great gasping breaths, trying to look as if he was merely resting, while his eyes jumped from tree to tree in a futile hope of finding one of the guys from the town leaning with a wide grin from behind his cover. But no one appeared, and Henry’s heart began to beat heavily against his ribs with the panic that left his limbs leaden.  Even if he was not walking, he could hear the steady steps of his heart pacing the forest floor, seeking solace in trees that had so often filled him with serenity.

And then the leaves cracked behind him, closer than he had imagined and gaining with each shuffling step. That sound sent a jolt running through him, the alarm of the woods filtering through his heavy soled shoes and through his body. It spurred those limp muscles to action, pushing through the detritus. Thin, wispy branches whipped at him, tugging on his clothes as if pleading to also be taken away from whatever monstrosity dogged his heels. The steps were heavy behind him, signaling some beast much larger than any he had ever hunted. Henry fled, his eyes trained to the treacherous ground, unwilling to risk of fallen branch or surprise sinkhole ending his perilous flight.

The fading sunlight threw long shadows across the forest floor. The slender bodies of the trees lay in straight lines, painting lanes that he used to direct his steps toward safety. His home was just a bit farther on, just beyond the edged of the woods. He pushed himself to keep moving, even as his lungs ached and his mind swam with possibilities. Most disorienting was the shadow that followed along behind him, something that towered over his meager silhouette. It consumed his shadow, devouring it was the long, angled face. Spindly protrusions—could they be antlers?—protruded from the head of the shadow, dueling the black and grey branches lacing the ground. And it always grew closer, gaining on Henry’s frenzied steps.

Breath, hot and sticky, rolled of his back. It came in great puffs, crashing onto him like a wave, and he felt primal terror of something old and unknown snaking through his body. It threatened to anchor him to the spot, cease all bodily functions, and sacrifice his life to avoid living with the knowledge that such a thing could exist. Only Henry barely understood what it was he was fleeing. But his instincts knew that it was dangerous, ancient, and inescapable. The memory would cling to him like disease. It would rot his life away, turn his speech into frenzied howlings of woodland monsters and curses. Henry’s baser side understood all of this, even as his human mind scrambled over all the rationality and logic it could muster. Unfortunately, things like what lived in his forest were utterly impervious to the machinations of rational thought.

A tree branch snapped at his cheek, ripping his baseball cap from his head and leaving a thin trail of blood. The pain, slight as it was, freed him from the hindrance of that instinctive fear and returned full control of his muscles. Henry vaulted back to his top sped, a far less impressive speed than it might have been five or ten years ago, and made for the tree line. He could see the golden light just beyond the trees, the freedom from shadow. Just beyond that would be his home, the front porch light on, and a heavy shotgun in the hall closet.

Those steps never faltered, but never seemed to gain on him either. Henry almost felt like this thing that he could not bring himself to study was toying with him. It was waiting for him to turn, look back, and trip. Then it would pounce, its lure taken by the prey. It, however, did not know just how stubborn Henry could be. Presuming to know its plan, Henry steeled himself. He would not give it the satisfaction of looking.

The trees thinned around him, and he imagined the steps slowed behind him. In his delirium, he was certain that the pursuit had slowed. He was escaping. The thought blossomed in him as he burst through the trees, a flock of pheasants startled from their roost and exploding into the air. He felt the same rush of escape, putting distance between himself and whatever his hunter was. As his front porch grew closer, Henry felt as if his heart would pound right through his chest wall and beat him to the safety of the house.

He collapsed inside, falling against the backdoor. Nothing sounded after him. There were no steps on his front porch. It was silent in his house save the ticking of a clock on the mantle. Henry marveled at the silence, wondering if perhaps he had imagined the pursuer in the forest.

While his hand scrambled to the closet and pulled out his ever reliable shotgun, Henry risked a peek through the glass of his front door. He saw shadows leaning long form the woods, but there was a section of darker shadow. Something tall and imposing, its shoulder heaving in the woods as if out of breath after a long pursuit. Antlers reached high into the trees, branches mingling with branches. He could see feral golden eyes sparkled at him, then whirl and disappear.

Henry flipped the deadbolt, and leaned heavily against the door. He had no answers, no any energy to move farther. The paralysis of fear finally snared him, and he spent the evening cowering by the door.

When he woke in the morning, it was easy to attribute his fear to a bad dream figments of his imagination, or symptoms of a stroke. Perhaps it was time to see Dr. Macoughley in town after all. His knees and back ached as he rose unsteadily from his vigil by the door. The hardwood floors—while attractive to look at—did not make a suitable bed. He felt certain he would hear about this for the next few days from his creaking joints. At least, he reasoned, it was looking like another nice day outside, full of early morning sunshine. Maybe not a day for a stroll in the woods, but pleasant nonetheless.

Henry opened the door to take in the view, to prove to himself that he was not terrified of the woods that had so long been his haven. Instead, the view confirmed his fears. On the porch sat a twisted crown of tree branches, reaching high and twisting like the beautiful antlers that resided over his fireplace. The branches jutted perversely from a bleached white deer skull, the eyes empty and glaring deep into Henry’s own. Worst of all, however, was what lay beside the strange skull.

There sat his hat. Jagged tears ran along the right side, tiny tufts of his hair still tangled within the material. The blood rushed from Henry’s face, leaving him a ghost standing on the porch of his home. The only thing about him that remain alive was the shallow, stinging cut along his right cheek.


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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 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.


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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 61

Card Day 61: A knight rides on a white horse across the pages of a book. The opposite page has a dark pit, tentacles reaching out from it.

“Are you sure this will work?”

Ursula gave an exaggerated shrug, not even making the polite attempt to hide her ignorance. “I mean, I figure it has as much chance as anything else.”

Quentin sighed, fixing her with a firm, side-eyed stare. “Just so you know, those aren’t the kinds of things that inspire confidence when you’re asking someone to risk life and limb on some plan you’ve cooked up.”

She returned his stare with a lopsided smile, her barely-managed hair flopping across her eyes. She brushed it aside mechanically and shrugged yet again. “If you’d rather I lie to you, I can, but I thought you’d like to know that there’s about an equal chance of success and failure with this.”

“False confidence is a powerful thing,” he muttered, returning to his pacing.

She remained crouched on the ground, flipping through the pages are her eyes flew across the words. “If it makes you feel better, I’ve done my homework.” Another page flipped, snapping crisply in the air. Quentin looked down at it, noting the ornate script that flowed across the page. To him, it looked like some kind of spirograph creation, circling in and out and back across itself. But Ursula assured him she could read it.

“And all of that research never mentioned another way?”

She did not speak, but shook her head. Studying on page intently. After an extended paused, punctuated by Quentin’s frantic footsteps, she finally broke the silence. “Remember, I’m taking the risk with you. But we’re out of options, Quentin.”

He slumped against the wall of the roach motel, pointedly not looking at her. “I know. I know better than anyone. Better than you.” He stomped from the room to the tiny, dingy bathroom, slamming the door behind him. Ursula sighed, leaning back on her heels and letting her head fall into her hands. She understood that he was nervous, that the task was likely a death wish, but he had sought her out. He had brought the information, put the pieces together, and pushed her towards identifying a final solution.

Still, the cold feet made sense, she supposed. It was a suicide mission most likely, but at least she knew the information she had was correct. Quentin’s sister had been the Seventh Forgotten Woman taken by the creature, and Quentin was her Legacy Bearer. He was the only one who remembered he had a sister, and Ursula had verified that by digging through prior records. Old magic struggled with the conveniences of modern technology. The erasure was there, but there were crumbs remaining—failed links, dead domains, and occasional mentions. This entity, fortunately, did not actually re-write any timelines, and so there were at least traces to be found. Interviews with her family had led to blank stares, minor defensiveness. Only Quentin remembered the bubbly 26-year-old woman who went for a jog and vanished from time and space.

The Unsatiated—the name was the closest translation she could make—had met its human needs, so that meant that is merely needed one moon cycle to fully emerge. And last time it had, there had been a swath of the country that suddenly disappeared, hundreds of people vanishing in a blink and barely remembered. From what she had pieced together, however, the creature seemed to feed on the memories it could accumulate, taking first a few until it could emerge from hibernation, then devouring all those that remembered the missing individuals. And then stealing away those who remembered the new missing, and so on. In this interconnected age, the results would certainly be devastating.

Still, she felt powerlessness sweep over her again. The only solutions were conjectures strung together across a dozen ancient sources, none of which had been able to stop it. Of course, Ursula certainly believed she had done due diligence and devised a process that had a shot at working, but only time would tell. And, unfortunately, that time was tomorrow during the new moon.

Her eyes ached from deciphering the old script, and she could feel the mental fatigue piling up. The corners of her eyes were flooded with dark shadows and grasping claws, reminding her that the words she poured over were not meant for mortal minds. She closed the book, letting her façade of bravado fade as she dragged herself to the stiff mattress. A good night’s sleep was possibly one of the most overlooked necessities for a successful banishment.

_

Given his haggard look, Ursula assumed Quentin had not taken her advice about sleep. He had been gone when she woke, and returned only an hour before they were to leave for the lake. She bit her tongue, avoiding the scolding her certainly deserved. The time was better spent preparing him.

“So once I’ve done the summoning, you’re on. Know what to do?”

“Yeah, I know,” he mumbled, grief seeping through his voice.

“And you have the—“

“I’m ready, okay! Can we get this over with?” His anxiety boiled over into anger, and Ursula pursed her lips at him.

“Lack of preparation will get us both killed. I’m putting my life in your hands. I’m putting hundreds of lives in your hands. So, thank you, but I will cover all the bases. You have the token, yes?”

Shame flashed over his face, a shudder of embarrassment and irritation mingling as well. But his anger was dulled. “Here.” He held out a bracelet made of faded strings woven together.

“And it was hers?”

“I made it for her at summer camp when I was eleven. She wore it for years, but left it at home when she went to college. I found it in the bottom of her—of the storage room closet.”

“Good, that will do nicely. A gift bound in love, tying Legacy with Forgotten.” She looked down at her carefully prepared notes, striking through the items. “And you’re prepared for what might happen at the end?”

“Forgetting her? No, I can’t stand the idea. But there’s no choice, right?”

“No. You won’t even remember that you saved the world. But you will have.”

“Great,” he muttered sarcastically. “Are we good?”

She merely motioned to the van, and he folded himself inside. The ride there was long, mostly silent, and heavy with the impending tension. Darkness held close to their van, unbroken by star or moonlight. Wind whipped its way through the trees, and Ursula could feel nature beginning to bristle with the impending defiance of the laws of the world. Yes, the time was drawing near, and so at least if they failed, there would be very little time to live with the disappointment.

Their arrival was met with silence as well, and Ursula gathered her bag of supplies to complete the summoning. The trees clustered around them, groaning with the wind. Yes, it was the perfect night for arcane rites and rituals. Eventually, the lakeshore rose into view, water lapping angrily at the rocky shore as it promised an impending storm.

“Better make this quick. Looks like it might get bad out here,” offered Quentin, his courtesy suggesting they put the previous conflict behind them.

“It will certainly get bad out here,” she offered with a grim smile, “and it’s going to be our fault.” With that, she dropped to her knees and began to gather her equipment from the canvas bag. She started by drawing a large spiral on the ground with ground-up chalk, closing the outer edge. Starting at the edge closest to the lake, she placed a water-smoother stone etched with a name in each ring, leaving the central most clear. In the middle, she placed a single white candle, lighting it against the best effort of the wind. Her hands were shaking as she poured a measure of blessed oil into a lidded, gold bowl, placing it to the side next to a knife. Preparations complete, she proceeded with the rite.

Quentin listened to her whispered words, hearing them whisper through the woods with a sibilant, melodic tone. It seemed to rise over the wind, circling around him with a strange pull. Then, he heard things he recognized. Names he did not know, followed by the one he did. April Maria Davidson. That name was like music to him; he thought he might never hear another soul say it with such a knowing tone. Yes, she was known, she existed, and he remembered. For the moment, at least, he remembered. But he would soon have to sacrifice even that.

Once Ursula grew quiet, there was a ripple from the water. It was a woman rising out of the water, her body glistening with pale white that seemed to shine like the absent moon. Her hair was dark, falling down to her knees and covering her with an inky veil. She floated there above the water, mist and substance all at once, her eyes radiating hate towards the mortal on the shore. Her mouth split open, rows of teeth glistening inside her dark maw, and released a soundless scream. Quentin felt it slam into his body, even if he could not hear it. Ursula crumpled to the ground, and he feared she may have heard that sound that his mind so flawlessly protected him from.

One of the creature’s arms swam forward, an extension of mist reaching across the lake towards the now distracted Ursula. Just as it was about to reach her, Ursula rolled, bringing forward a mirror and deflecting the appendage.

“Do your damn job already,” she snapped, looking at Quentin with ferocious, pained eyes. “Or you and I can both die here.”

Shocked into action, Quentin drew the bracelet from his pocket and scooped up April’s stone from the circle, careful not to disturb the remaining stones or chalk spiral. His lips fumbled over the name Ursula had taught him, trying to approximate her melodic way with the language. It sounded more like marbles being thrown into a garbage disposal, but it also caught the creature’s attention. She fixed her empty eyes on him, mouth knitting together into a smile. Now, he could hear her whispers.

“Don’t listen to her. Think of April. Do what we said.”

Quentin broke his gaze from the woman, the whispers fading to a distant suggestion or voices. He knelt beside the gold bowl and held the knife in his trembling hand. This was it, the moment of truth or utter failure.

Boldly, drawing on strength form a source he could not recognize, Quentin drew the knife across his palm, screaming the creature’s arcane name once again. “I, Legacy Bearer, banish the name of April Maria Davidson. Bound to the essence, I too banish you from our world. I complete your task, I break all of April Maria Davidson’s ties to this world. And so, I banish you.”  His voice was breaking, and he felt tears trickling down his face. Despite the woman’s screams, he pressed his bleeding hand against the etched stone, then wrapped it in the bracelet. Quentin looked at the bloodied stone and the bracelet, his last memento of his beloved sister.

It was a sacrifice in the truest sense as he cast the items into the gold bowl, lifting the candle to light the oil. The scream grew louder, the wind whipped stronger, and Quentin felt his memories begin to fade like dust. He fell to his knees, weeping, as the final thoughts of April fell through his mind, rebuilt around the emptiness of a person erased. It ached as those memories dissolved, almost as if his entire being was being destroyed as well.

And then, there was nothing. He looked around at the dark lakeshore, taking in the woman kneeling on the ground nearby, a strange assortment of items surrounding her.

“Um, excuse me, who are you, and why are we out here?”

The woman smiled, but her eyes looked sad and lonely. “I’m no one,” she quipped. “And I guess you were out for a walk?”

Quentin scratched his head, looking around. “Huh. Weird, I just don’t remember coming out here. Must have been distracted,” he laughed, though it did nothing to resolve his discomfort.

She smiled politely back. “Some things are better to forget, I guess.”


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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 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.”


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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 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.


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Card Challenge: Day 52

Card Day 52: A red-headed woman floats, wearing a metal cage as a skirt. Inside, two fish swim.

Everyone who grew up near Lake Wonapango had their own story about the lake. Some were your traditional and expected fish stories, some dealt with summer love and improprieties, and others were tragic tales of misadventure. And then there were the other stories, ones that spoke of great loss, the kind that does not stop when the sufferer passes on. Lake Wonapango held deep, dark secrets on its sandy bed, and sometimes those secrets floated to the surface. I remember well the night I myself came face to face with one of those secrets. All my years of trying to forget have done nothing but burn it more firmly in my thoughts.

I was never the fishing type. While it was the most common past time for those who lived around the lake, it was just never my thing. I did not have the patience or the appetite for the long hours spent catching the local fare. It seemed wasteful to haul them up and toss them back in. Still, like most folks around the lake, I had my boat. It was little more than a rowboat—I mean, it had a tiny outboard motor strapped to it, but I rarely used it. You see, I took the boat out not for fishing or swimming, but just to enjoy the water. I always went out at night, and the growl of the motor seemed overwhelming in the otherwise peaceful setting. So, I used it as a chance to get a good work out in, rowing along to a few of the calm, quiet spots I knew of.

The night in question was one of those nights hanging in between spring and summer. The air carried the heavy humidity of summer, but still settled on the cool side of warm. It was heavy with the hopes and aspirations of summer. The crickets, frogs, and cicadas had all started their raucous chorus, so I would say it was anything but quiet out there. But out on the water, it was still peaceful. There’s something about Lak Wonapango that just feels rights when the critters are singing out of key.

There were two empty bottles in the bottom of my boat, and I was leaned back against the edge, the lake water gently rocking me back and forth. The sky stretched out like an endless canvas above me, inky darkness pierced by diamond light. The moon was full, glowing warmly down on the scene. I know that this memory is colored by nostalgia, cast glorious in contrast to the events that were to come. But I don’t know if I could imagine something better and more peaceful than that evening. Maybe that’s why it had to go so wrong. Perhaps beauty and peace like that simply cannot exist in this world for long. The balance must be righted.

In that moment of peace, there was a splash. Now, anyone who has spent much time on isolated waters can tell you a splash does not mean much. I was surrounded by all sorts of wildlife that may have wanted to slide into the water. Or a tree branch could have fallen in. Heck, it could have even been one of the many local fishes swishing to the surface to snag an unfortunate water skimmer. There was no real reason it should have caught my attention. Part of what bugged me is that it did, though. Whatever thoughts and reveries I had been lost in shattered along with the surface of the lake. I sat forward, scanning about. The boat listed a bit with my sudden movements, the bottles rolling and clanging in the bottom.

The ripples began near an old fallen log that jutted its way into the river. Probably a turtle, I thought, swimming back t the shore after a long day of sunning. I tried to rest back against the boat, slip back into my quiet contemplation, but my ears were on edge, straining for any other sounds.

Silence. Completely and totally save for the water lapping against my boat. The bugs and frogs had quieted down, and their absence made me feel suddenly self-conscious. I grabbed the oars to row back home, suddenly feeling out of place on the lake that had always been home.

As my paddles dipped into the water, I imagined I heard an echoing splash hiding in their noise. It was paranoia, I told myself, or an echo from the banks. But still my ears strained. I finally paused mid-stroke, the oars lying limp in the water, and heard another splash following behind me. I spun around and watched as something broke the surface of the water. It was an arm, long and pale in the moonlight. I felt frozen to the spot, watching as the other arm rose and fell, gentle strokes pulling whoever it was steadily closer. I watched the pale shadow glide beneath the water, the feet arcing into the air and pushing it downward just before it reached my boat.

People did swim in Lake Wonapango, so I assumed I must have surprised a sunbather or skinny dipper with my evening sail. I wondered who it was, since they had obviously made towards my boat and darted away to avoid detection. My mind wandered to a couple particular townsfolk I would not mind stumbling upon skinny dipping, but before the thoughts could get too far, something bumped the bottom of the boat.

I was alert and scanning the water, assuming it must be someone playing a joke on me after disturbing them, I was not too thrilled about the potential baptism I might endure if they took it too far; my goal was relaxation, not swimming in the murky water. I watched for them, trying to see when they would surface. But no one showed.

The second bump was louder, sending me careening into the side and almost overboard. It was no longer a funny joke, and I grabbed the paddles again. They could spend all evening in the dark depths of Lake Wonapango if that’s what they wanted to do, but I was going to go home and put an end to the long day.

The paddle in my left hand barely moved in the water before something latched onto it, ripping it from my hands. Wood splintered as it came free, disappearing into the water behind a trialing white arm. I watched it rocket to the bottom until I lost it in the shadows.

I admit, I was cursing up a good storm out there on my boat. Down to one oar, it was going to take me a while to get myself home. This joke was not funny any longer. I took my remaining paddle and prepared for the long journey home.

Only then a hand appeared over the side of the boat. The fingers were long, pale and greenish in the light. I assumed it was the reflection of the moon on the water or something, but now I’m not so sure. One thing I did note as weird was the webbing between the fingers and the long, tapering fingernails. That hand was attached to a long, slender arm.

Suddenly, a face broke the surface of the water. It was mostly human, but just not quite right. The eyes were too round, not the right oval shape. They also stretched a bit too big and had an unusual sheen to them. The lips were wide and flat, curled into a suggestion of a smile. Overall, the face was somewhat flattened. But she blinked those big, shining eyes at me and I was caught. Her hand—a bit slimy, very cold—trailed along mine, winding up my arm. I felt myself leaning towards her, enraptured at the unnatural beauty. Her hair lay in wet ringlets along her body, and it was clear she was completely naked below the water. I could not tell you what else was going on in the world around me then, because my entire being was consumed with devouring her presence. It was as if I had never experienced human connection until that point. Her lips slipped into an alluring smile, an unspoken invitation to come closer.

I tingled with the feeling of her hand on my arm—I only later realized that the tingle was not simply arousal, but a potent toxin that left my arm numb for hours after. In the moment, however, it was bliss. Every nerve danced with her touch, sizzling to new life as her skin glided over my own.

I was in the water before I realized it, drawn in by her smiling eyes. I felt as if I were diving straight into her pupils, drenching myself in their dark depths. But the muddy water of Lake Wonapango filled my mouth, its vile taste reminding me that this was no paradise. My arms flailed about, the one she had carefully caressed flopping mostly useless in the water. I felt her hands running across my chest, the same burn of pleasure and paralysis following her fingertips.

You would think that I would have been able to realize the danger I was in with this mystery creature, but I felt no threat from her. Even as she gently tugged me towards the lake bed, I felt she was only interested in my wellbeing. She could have held me underwater and watched me drown as long as her eyes held mine. No, it was not the awareness of her perilousness, but the long forgotten admonitions of my parents. You never go swimming if you’ve been drinking. It was a recipe for disaster. Their warnings ringing clear, I made for the boat

I suppose she sensed my intention to scape, because those long nails on her hand began digging into my skin. Fortunately, she had well-numbed most of my upper body by that point. I managed to flop into the boat, my vision going blurry around the edges. Eventually, the moon was the only thing left that and some thunderous pounding against the sides of my boat.

I woke up the next morning, the heat having returned in force. My chest was sticky with blood, my head pounded, and my arms felt like they were filled with jello. It was a long, painful, exhausting trip back to shore. A long road of recovery and failed forgetting stretching ahead of me.

Most people blamed the bottles in the bottom of my boat for the strange report. I must have fallen in, gotten scraped up on some rocks. Others, I think, thought it was suicide gone wrong. But, I now know why the lake has claimed more than its fair share of victims. I know why men and women go missing out there, no sign of a problem in their peacefully floating boat. I stay away from the lake at night. I got lucky once, and I’m in no mood to tempt fate. I don’t think I could resist those eyes this time, and I know I’d make my home on the sandy bottom of the lake if she ever invited me again.


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Card Challenge: Day 49

Card Day 49: A giant eating a city.

Ryan woke up hungry, just like he had every midnight for the past four days. He stumbled wearily from bed, his feet dragging the cluttered wood floors of the apartment toward the kitchen. He had lived in the place long enough to navigate the treacherous span of hallway, living room, and kitchen with ease, leaving lights off to avoid waking his light sleeping roommate. Once he arrive, Ryan bathed the kitchen in the cold light of the refrigerator, searching desperately among the bare shelves. Behind a jar of pickle juice—someone had neglected to buy more—he found a hidden container of Chinese takeout. Led by his ravenous, primitive hunger, he ate the meal straight from the cardboard container by the light of the fridge.

_

He woke up late in the morning, a brief spark of panic flooding him before he remembered it was Saturday. He had not missed his alarm, it had just never been set. Rolling over in the warmth of his bed, he listened to the sound of his roommate opening and closing cabinets in the kitchen. As if on cue, his stomach growled menacingly, assuring he would have no peace lying lazily in bed to while away the day. Tugging on a pair of shorts of indeterminate age and cleanliness from his bedroom floor, he meandered out.

“Did you eat my food?” snapped Garret in greeting.

Ryan grumbled his apology, “Maybe. I was hungry last night.”

“Really? Geez, dude, you’ve eaten everything in the house.” The obviously irritated man slammed the refrigerator door shut with as much force as possible, rewarded only with the unsatisfying “snick” of the seal catching.

Ryan grabbed a bag of croutons from the pantry, shaking them quickly before turning them up into his mouth. “Not everything,” he said around the mouthful of bread.

“I guess it wasn’t everything, but it sure is now.” Garret gestured at the empty fridge and the bare pantry. “Are you going to start munching on the baking soda next?”

“Sorry, Garret,” responded Ryan, casting his ashamed eyes down on towards the ground. “I just—I think something may be wrong. I’ve been starving the past few days.” He gave a halfhearted shake of the empty bag, hoping to find some crumb.

“What, you gotta tapeworm or something?” asked the unsympathetic Garret as he snatched his keys off the counter. “Well, maybe you should get that checked out. I’m going to Jumbo Burger.” This time, the door resounded with a far more satisfying slam.

Ryan tossed the bag into the garbage can, feeling that same gnawing hunger. Maybe it was a parasite or something. All he knew was that, Since Tuesday, he had not felt full once. He had eaten hamburgers, salads, ice cream, canned vegetables, boxed dinners, frozen dinners, and a hearty helping of chocolate, but that bought him mere moments of satiation. Looking into the depths of the overflowing trash can and gaping emptiness of the cupboards, he felt a sense of shame and dread. He scheduled a doctor’s appointment for that day, and made sure to leave with enough time to pick up a couple burgers and fries on his way.

_

Arriving home after the appointment, he only felt more frustrated. They had taken blood, checked his vitals, and congratulated him on losing twelve pounds since the last visit. As he told the story about his unending hunger, his doctor looked at him with an empty smile and asked if he had felt stressed recently. Ryan was certain that, even after hearing his stomach roaring in the appointment and producing the $35 receipt from his midafternoon lunch purchase, the doctor did not truly believe how dire this situation was.

He set the groceries on the table, unloading two bags worth of chips, popcorn, bread, and as many calorie-dense food as he could gather on his dwindling budget. He hoped that some of the tests would come back and solve this problem before he literally ate himself out of rent. Garret wandered into the kitchen, eyeing the groceries.

“Sorry about your food. Have whatever you want,” mumbled Ryan in a peace offering. Without speaking, Garret ripped open on of the bags of chips before disappearing back into the living room. The loading music of the latest smash hit game blared from the room, and Ryan grabbed the bag of chocolate candies, stuffing them into his mouth as he tried to fill the endless pit.

He remembered hearing that black holes grew larger and more powerful the more matter they consumed. He began to wonder, mostly in an attempt to stay upbeat about the situation, if he did not have a black hole steadily growing in the pit of his stomach. Then again, he had no proper education in astronomy, so there was no telling.

His afternoon was spend scouring the internet for any relevant information, becoming more convinced that he did, in fact, have some kind of parasite, and eating through the copious groceries he had bought. Night settled heavily on the apartment, eventually silencing the sounds of gameplay from the living room. Ryan heard the floor creak as Garret made his way to his room, and finally pulled his acing eyes from the screen. All the research he did provided no cures, or at least none until he received the report back from the doctor. He could feel the pit in his stomach growing once again. Knowing that there was nothing left for him from his afternoon foraging, Ryan took a couple of hefty shots of whiskey from the communal bottle—the only thing that seemed to have absolutely no effect on his overwhelming hunger—and let the alcohol soothe him to sleep over the protests of his stomach.

Only, this time, he awoke already buried in the fridge. His hands were ice cold, and he saw the torn open bags of frozen vegetables lying on the floor. His mouth was gritty with the raw peas and carrots, and something else. In shock, he realized that the steaks they had frozen for a summer barbecue—once it finally got warm enough—were also missing. Their packages lay beneath the vegetable bags, confirming his suspicions.

Ryan rushed to the bathroom just in time to throw up the amazing amount of food he had devoured. Hunger roared back to life, even more painful than before. He felt every muscle in his body was aching with the hunger, and his stomach knotted over itself, end over end. Sitting on the cold tile floor of the bathroom, he shook with terror and weakness, feeling every fiber of strength in his being rallying to bolster his hunger. The growls of his stomach echoed through the tiny room, haunting him with their commands.

Ryan leaned his head against the toilet and wept. He was quick to flush before his body took over and devoured the expulsion in desperation. Eventually, he felt his vision narrowing, growing dim around the edges. This was it, he despaired. Somehow, he was starving to death despite having eaten as much as he could cram into his mouth. The cool porcelain of the toilet pressed against his forehead as the white tiles faded to black.

_

Ryan woke in his bed, feeling surprisingly refreshed. As he looked at the clock and saw it was mid-afternoon, the alertness made more sense. The memories of the night before felt like a nightmare in the bright sunshine of the afternoon, and he dared to hope that was the case. He threw his legs over the side of the bed, delivered from the impossible hunger. Silence filled the apartment, so quiet he could hear the clock ticking softly on his desk. Garret must still be asleep, he thought, and decided to make a gesture of apology. He would refresh the groceries in the house—real food, this time—and perhaps pick up a lock for the fridge.

Stepping into the hallway, he could see the carnage from the night before still in the kitchen. The freezer door stood open, but at least it was empty, Ryan thought grimly. Packaging laid over the floor, a despicable reminder of his curse. At least whatever it was seemed to have finally remitted. Throwing up must have helped. He wandered in there, his feet padding softly on the wood floor, and cleaned up what remained of his mess. Now, shower and then the grocery store.

He was nervous entering the bathroom, the site of his breakdown the night before. But those thoughts vanished as he caught sight of himself in the mirror. Blood on his face, on his chest. Blood caked in his hair, staining his teeth. He felt frozen terror settling in his limbs, forcing him to stand and stare at his horrifying appearance. What had happened?

Feeling certain he was still in a nightmare, Ryan slowly exited the bathroom, still staring into his own eyes as if that monster would leap from the mirror and devour him. Once outside, he slowly turned to look towards the other door in the apartment, hanging slightly ajar. Garret’s room lay on the other side, silent. With a trembling hand, Ryan pushed the door open.

Garret was inside, his eyes wide in fear and pain. There was so much blood, so many chunks of missing flesh with uneven teeth marks running up and down his body. Looking at the mangled body, Ryan felt a disturbing mix of disgust and desire.

He savored the taste of blood on his lips, quashing the revulsion with the sheer pleasure of finally being sated.


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Card Challenge: Day 48

Card Day 48: A young girl and boy in tattered clothes walk along a dark city sidewalk. Their shadows fall on a blank wall behind them, taking on the shape of a ferocious monster.

Malcolm pressed back deeper into the shadows, listening to the hollers and clashes of the neighborhood gangs roaming the streets. His jeans were cold and damp after sitting on the rain soaked pavement, but he hoped the shadows loomed thick enough to keep him hidden. He mentally berated himself, squeezing his eyes shut as if he could force himself to wake up from this terrible nightmare. Decisions this stupid did not come around too often, but he knew that this one could be the one to end all possibility of future bad ones. He had known he needed to leave and make for the shelter earlier, but he had dawdled and lost track of time, meaning he was trying to cross half the city after nightfall.

They were approaching his alleyway, their voices a loud echo of three of four different people babbling at once. Most of what they said was nonsense, posturing, and blustering, but he also knew that they were itching to find anyone to take out their inflated aggression on. He had no money or food to buy them off, and no good will to earn him mercy for his passage. They would not take the affront likely.

Malcolm held his breath as their voices passed a dozen or so feet in front of him. The wall against his back was cold and rough, but he pressed against it even tighter, almost as if he was trying to melt right into it. The voices grew in volume, and he could see five men wander past, their bodies hulking and casting long shadows down the entrance to the alley. He did not dare move or even breathe as they sauntered past, eyes roaming the streets and looking for a fight.

He exhaled slowly and silently as their shadows passed by on the street, fading as they turned down another side road. Cautiously, Malcolm stood, his knees aching from his prone state for so long. He had been lucky to hear them early, before they had a chance to see him, but they had spent an awfully long time dawdling, smoking, and regaling each other with the previous night’s exploits. At least, Malcolm considered grimly, he knew who had been responsible for the four dead bodies on Lower East. Not that the knowledge would ever be put to the cause of justice, but the closure on the mystery was somewhat welcome. In a world where dead bodies turned up in the city streets like rats, it was nice to have at least one person to blame for some of the atrocities.

On tiptoes, he crept to the edge of the alley and peered around the corner, ears straining for the slightest sound. Their voices still echoed, but fading quickly. Otherwise, there was nothing. Not one to pass up an opportunity, Malcolm sprinted across the street and into another alley way, walking slowly through the shadows. It was best to stay in the alleys, off the main thoroughfares, hidden in darkness. It at least gave him a head start on hiding.

Malcolm could not help but wonder, as he walked the lethal streets, what a life without constant danger might have been like. He had read books about it, about people who lived their lives in moderate comfort, more concerned about who to love and how to find a job than how to survive a night on the street. People in his books were studied and learned, knowing amaing things about the way the world worked. But, he guessed few of them knew how to make a scrap of bread last a week or how long you could go without purified water before the runoff began to make you too weak to stand. The people in his books would have died in a week.

And, Malcolm supposed, he probably should have. He was born on the streets, and it was rare to see an infant who actually grew to adulthood. He had a couple of birthdays left but—barring any future stupid mistakes—Malcolm felt his chances were good to defy the odds. It was his mother he had to thank for protecting him, raising him, sacrificing for him, and ultimately teaching him the tricks of the trade. She knew how to hunker in an alley if the shelter filled up, how to scrounge for food, and how to keep warm on nights that claimed many a finger, toe, and life.

Malcolm’s childhood was filled with many similar nights tucked into the shelter of dumpsters while chaos ranged around them. His mother would hold him close, covering his ears to block out some of the awful things. Of course, it never got rid of it all. When he would get very scared, she would turn him to face her, her hands clutching his cheeks softly.

“Malcolm,” she would whisper with her soothing voice, “you don’t have to worry one cent about them out there.” Her eyes were sincere and hopeful, wooing him into peaceful trust. “Ya see, you got a guardian angel watching over you, little man. Nobody gonna hurt you, not while your angel’s on watch.” She would gather him close to her and stroke his hair with smooth, measured strokes until he fell asleep beneath her watchful gaze.

Of course, that guardian angel had not saved her in the end. Like most people, she wound up black, blue, and ice cold after leaving to find food at dusk in desperation. Malcolm cursed himself at the memory. He had been too young to go, too young to help, and too young to be left alone. Hell, he thought, he was still too young to be on his own in a world like this. But no matter how hard he railed against the injustice, it did not change the facts.

He wove through the streets, following practiced paths that he hoped would lead him to the Gathering before too long. The little community was probably on edge since he was missing, especially with the violence encroaching ever closer to their tiny sanctuary. Malcolm just hoped he would make it home, rather than providing evidence for their worry.

Lost in his thoughts, regrets, and memories, Malcolm did not see the shadows looming around the corner, nor the glass bottles littering his path. He did, however, notice them once his foot struck one, sending it skittering across the pavement with loud cries of offense. At the sound, the shadows moved, gaining voices that encroached quickly on his position. Malcolm’s eyes flew wide open, watching as the group of three rounded the corner. His heart raced, pushing blood to his limbs so that he could flee. Spinning on his heels, he took off, feeling the worn soles of his sneakers slip and slide over the pavement. The men gave a yell and took off after him. All his hopes for silence and discreetness were gone in an instant as he created a stampede.

He was out onto the street in an instant, scanning quickly side to side to find an escape. Unfortunately, he only saw the gang from before closing in. The leader gestured to him, and they began the pursuit as well. No amount of ducking and swerving through alleyways was going to help as they quickly cut off his potential escape routes.

His mouth ran dray with fear as his brain quickly shuffled through options. He had seen on man dart down a side alley to cut off his forward escape, another darting after him down the road. The three were still rushing up behind him. Malcolm looked down the large road and accepted his only path. It was in the open and a bad place to lose pursuers, but it was the available option.

Since nothing was going his way that night, the streets were slick with rain and refuse. He did not make it far before his feet flew off in different directions, landing him on the pavement with a sharp crack to his head. They were upon him in a minute, leering jackals circling their prey with looks of excitement plastered on their faces.

Malcolm’s vision swam, bursting with stars, He felt blood seeping from his forehead, a decent gash appearing where he had fallen. The world spun around him, a mirage of bloodthirsty faces rotating dizzyingly around him. He tried to stand, but his legs were weak and wobbly beneath him. With a helpless groan, Malcolm sank back to the ground, his fight gone. The circle tightened around him like a noose.

Suddenly there was brilliant light. Malcolm thought it was yet another sign of concussion, but the others responded as well. They shielded their eyes, looking around and yelling at one another. Their words were gibberish to him, indistinguishable for the loud humming he heard in the air around him. Their mouths opened in screams, and he imagined that he watched as some invisible force flung them away from him. In his delusional state, Malcolm swore he saw their bodies fly across the streets, smashing into buildings and crumpling lifeless to the ground, He though, perhaps, he saw one of them running and screaming, only to be cut down by an invisible blade. Weirdest of all, Malcolm thought he felt the gentle caress of his mother’s hands in his hair as he drifted into unconsciousness. The darkness closed in, and Malcolm said his final goodbye to the cold world that had been his unfortunate home.

However, the bright rays of morning pried his eyes open once again. He found himself lying in the middle of the streets, a pounding headache radiating from the cut on his forehead, but no worse off. Around him, seven men lay in various states of disarray, cast aside and torn apart.

His mother’s words floated back through his memory, and he felt the gentle presence of her watchful eyes on him once again.


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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 47

So, tomorrow is kind of a big day for me. It means I may or may not post tomorrow, depending on if I get wonderful or terrible news at around 9am in the morning. The whole internship thing I have mentioned wraps up tomorrow, and I find out where or if I will have a place next year. So, if you are the praying sort, I gladly accept those. But any good thoughts, warm wishes, or positive vibes are also appreciated. As much as I like the idea today, I feel like I was not really able to focus sufficiently to execute it very well. Please let me know if you have any thoughts or suggestions, and happy reading!


Card Day 47: A collection of toys for sale in a shop window. There is a rabbit, a car, some clothes, and a sad looking doll of a young boy.

Little Danny Vicars had been missing for three days, something which set the sleepy town of Crowncrest on edge. Those sort of things happened in the big cities so many had fled, not in the smiling streets where everyone knew your name—and your business. Nevertheless, somehow the shadows had crept along the sunny, picket fences and stolen away one of their own. On that third day, the owner of Jack’s Pawn and Thrift found a Danny-faced doll in his donation bin, complete with the scuffed tennis shoes, red windbreaker, muddied jeans, and unruly blond hair that had been on all the descriptions. A sick joke, decried the good people of the town, casting mistrustful stares at one another. No one knew who could pull such a cruel joke, and Mrs. Vicars pained wails echoed along the streets yet again.

Of course, no one understood that, with the grim discovery of the callous doll, Little Danny had been found. In all of their tracing and retracing of his last day, the true event was lost.

The day before his vanishing act, Danny was playing in the cul-de-sac with his friends, riding bikes and pretending to command armies in battle. Eventually, as many eleven year-olds are wont to do, it became an opportunity to show off and impress one another, drifting from the cul-de-sac to the nearby woods, pulling complex tricks—little more than hops and millisecond wheelies—with their bikes, and using the words their mothers so vehemently objected to.

Danny played along, but he had that quiet, cautious side that so often made him the butt of jokes. His attempt at a bike stunt had ended with him rolling in the dirt, his friends howling with laughter.

“You just ate it!” mocked Joey, holding his sides with laughter. Calvin was content to simply point and laugh. Grumbling, Danny picked himself and his bike out of the dirt and wheeled over to his friends.

“How about you shut your damn mouth, Joey,” he snapped, the uncommon curse words stumbling off his tongue.

“Oh, now you’re a big tough guy, huh?” Joey’s laughter stopped sharply, cutting off mid howl. His face turned into a hard mask, staring down at his friend. “Think you can just tell me off like that?” Joey gave Danny a push, which was all it took to ignite the two into a contained brawl.

“Hey, stop! We’ll get in trouble,” pleaded Calvin as he tried unsuccessfully to break the two up. They continued to spar, both making feints at one another, but both too afraid to throw the first punch.

“That’s what I thought,” spat Joey as the two circled, “too chicken shit to do anything.”

“Am not!” yelled Danny as he watched his opponent, throwing fake punches that Joey avoided with unsteady ducks.

“Oh yeah?” questioned Joey at the height of his youthful impudence, “then—“ he swung, the blow swinging just over the top of Danny’s head—“prove it.”

“Joey, that’s not fair—“ began Calvin, but the leader cut him off.

“I double-dog-dare you to go into Widow Madison’s creepy old shed.”

Widow Madison was, clearly, the town’s requisite loony. The old woman had, however, been in the town longer than anyone could remember, and she was rather harmless. Most people said that she had once been a very well-respected, polite, and successful citizen, working in the elementary school for years. There was little evidence of such success now in the face of the withered old woman. She was most often seen sitting and glaring from her back porch, if not tending to whatever hid inside the creepy lean-to in her backyard. The adults of the town admitted that she was old, likely quite demented, but ultimately harmless. She had lived a hard life, always trying to complete her happy family with some beautiful, successful children, but never doing so. When her husband left her, the woman who had once been so vibrant faded into the shadow that now haunted her own home.

The children made no allowances for the personal tragedy, and instead invented dark pasts and secret evils for the lonely woman. Rumors had always swirled and deepened about the old woman and her eccentricities, most commonly falling back on the old witch trope. Thus, her home had become the ultimate place of secrets and danger.

Danny did not dare hesitate, even as his heart fluttered in his chest. “Deal!” he said. Calvin’s eyes grew wide, looking at the two, and Joey merely looked smug.

“You’re going to be sorry,” spat the older boy, his arrogance etched on his face, even if internally he realized how risky his gamble for superiority truly was.

The three wheeled their bikes back to the country roads, towards the old part of town with its larger homes and sweeping backyards. Widow Madison was at her station on the front porch, watching them with her weathered eyes as they tried to stroll casually along. Of course, being eleven, their casual was about as convincing as if they had walked into the Main Street Bank with ski masks on. Nonetheless, they felt confident in their ruse, giggling to one another as they passed.

After finding the old woman, they looped back around, skirting behind the Wilson’s backyard to reach her rickety fence. “Are you two going to watch?” asked Danny, a slight waver in his voice. On the one hand, he hoped they would in case anything went wrong, but on the other, he hoped they would not be able to see through the knot holes in the wood well enough to know if he completed his quest.

Joey squeezed his eye against one of the holes, then pushed away. “Can’t see a damn thing with all those bushes. Last winter, Michael Stringer said he saw body parts in there,” he grumbled. “You better bring back proof. Tell us what’s really in the shack.” Joey grinned, malice flickering in his eyes. Danny glanced nervously from the two boys to the wooden fence, then dutifully pushed himself up and over.

The garden on the other side was overgrown with weeds and flower gardens that had not been tended in ages. True, in the winter, it would have been a desolate graveyard of spindly limbs and wilted plants, but in the midst of the summer, it was a jungle. Danny picked his way along the ground, keeping one eye on the backdoor of the house as if waiting for it to open.

He reached the shack without incidence, putting one hand on the door, its peeling paint flaking beneath his hand. His heart thundered, a stampede pounding in his temples as his breaths came in rapid gasps. With one deep breath, he shoved on the door.

It groaned with the pain of opening, revealing shelves upon shelves of old dolls lining the walls. They all stared down with empty eyes, girls and boys, men and women, all arrayed neatly on the shelves.  Each one had a nameplate attached to the shelf below them.

Olivia Madison, 1953,” read one in spidery script. The little girl smiled vacantly at him, her arms slightly outstretched as if welcoming him inside.

Jimmy Madison, 1954,” read another. He walked along, watching the years climb and the dust fade from the dolls. One of the dolls, a man rather than a child, had her husband’s name, and a date the town busybodies would have recognized instantly.

Fearing discovery, Danny rushed towards the door, grabbing one of the last dolls on the shelf on his way out. Judith Madison came along with him, her legs dangling as he ran towards the wooden fence. Her pretty pink dress got tangled by the rosebushes, ripping a large tear into it, and he unceremoniously tossed her over the wooden fence, resulting in a large scuff over her right eye, a hairline crack on the back of her head.

Danny then threw himself over the fence, catching his breath as Calvin and Jeoy stared in wonder at the doll.

“You did it?” whispered Joey, his eyes wide with shock. Danny simply nodded, trying to see if his heart was going to slow down or spring right from his chest.

“Did she see you?” asked Calvin in fear.

Danny went o shake his head no, but paused, He did not think so, but he hadn’t checked. Panic flooding him, he scurried to the knots in the fence, trying to catch a glimpse of the back porch. His heart froze, breath caught in his throat, when he saw the pruney face glaring out the back window towards the fence.

“No,” he lied.

Unable to revel in his victory due to the queasiness in his stomach, Danny made an excuse to go home. “Don’t forget your girlfriend!” mocked Joey after him, tossing the battered doll at him. That night, Danny shoved the little doll under his bed, but felt her eyes peering at him all throughout the night. His conscience began to gnaw at him. He was not a thief; he was not a bad kid. The next morning, he left early for school, planning to swing by Widow Madison’s before school and leave the doll on her front porch. He could make it right.

Of course, Danny never made it to school, and three days later, there was an empty spot in the shed, a smudged marker vacant for “Danny Vicars, 2010.


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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 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.


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Card Challenge: Day 44

Card Day 44: A golden set of scales weighs a feather in one tray, a coin purse in the other. The feather hangs low despite its apparent lightness.

Trevor had been stretched thin between the angel on his right and devil on his left for days now. Sitting before the man from HR—a man he had never seen before and who did not wear the name badge required by company policy—was not helping the situation, as the man seemed to be the living embodiment of all the immoral, cowardly suggestions whispered by his personal devil.  The basement room was cool, dimly lit, and echoed with creaks and groans of the internal piping of the old building. Trevor though he might smell the rotten egg scent of leaking gas, but he assumed it was just nerves. No one else seemed to mind.

“Trevor, now I know you have been working so very hard for us over these past few months,” said the man. He had introduced himself as Mr. Smith, leaving Trevor to wonder how stupid he actually looked. Mr. Smith gave a stiff smile, his face contorting as if it were unused to the gesture. “You must simply be exhausted.” His gruff voice was meant to sound comforting, but it just took on a low, growling quality.

“I guess that is true. I haven’t had a vacation in six months because no one will approve—“

“I know, it is completely indefensible on our part. I mean, overworked as you are, you are bound to mishear or misunderstand some things, right?” His eyes glinted with sly camaraderie

“I mean, maybe, but I don’t think that’s—“

“I know, and I think that’s the problem. You’ve been thinking too hard for too long. That’s why the Company would like to offer you an all-expenses paid vacation.” With a flourish, he produced a brightly colored travel brochure full of sun and sand. It seemed all the more out of place in the grey basement office. “We’ll take care of everything, and you can just relax, forget anything you may or may not have seen or heard. What do you say?” He pushed the brochure over the metal table, and Trevor saw his name printed on the top of the tickets, the dates beginning tomorrow and spanning two weeks.

“Are you trying to make me disappear?” asked Trevor, feeling a twinge of righteous anger at the meager buyoff. Given what he knew was in those files—what was maybe even still sitting in some forgotten basement corner—it seemed like a foolish ploy. He knew the drill. Once he stepped out of the airport, some local gang would swing by and shoot up the place, leaving him a silenced victim in a worldwide war on drugs.

“Disappear?” Mr. Smith looked genuinely surprised and confused. “Why, not at all, Trevor. We don’t want you to disappear. That causes questions. We just want you to feel happy. Taken care of, even.” His oil slick smile was back, greasy as two-dollar pizza.

Trevor sat silent, staring at the man’s cold, black eyes. He could see a spark of frustration beginning to grow there, and Trevor felt the weightiness of the situation settling over him.

The smile never wavered as he reached into the briefcase at his side. “Of course, a vacation is merely a token of our gratitude for your most recent service. You have been so loyal to us for so many years, it is only fair we do the same. Take a look,” he said sliding the envelope across the table and sending the brochure skittering to the floor. “We here at the Company would like to assure you never have to worry about going without. In fact, we would like to reward your loyalty very generously.”

Trevor opened the envelope, peering in at bank statements, checks, and financial plans that were well above his knowledge base. As he set the envelope back on the table he realized that his hand was shaking with the tension of the situation. Perhaps, he reasoned, he simply needed to make a treaty with the devil to escape this increasingly gloomy picture.

“So, as you can see, we really would prefer it if you didn’t have to disappear, as you so quaintly put it.” Trevor watched the man’s stretching smile, suddenly reminded of Shark Week.

“And what do you want from me?”

“Trevor, Trevor, you have already done so much. We don’t really want anything from you. In fact, we’d like to relieve you of some of your responsibilities, take those pesky files and recordings you’ve been tending for us. It’s quite a burden carrying all that sensitive information, and we know we’ve unfairly burdened you. So, if you just give us those files, everything will be taken care of.”

Trevor looked down at his hands in his lap, his voice shaky. “I can’t give them to you,” he admitted weakly. The air turned electric with his confession, but Mr. Smith had carefully rearranged his pleasant smile by the time he looked up. His eyes still drilled angry holes.

“I understand, Trevor. You may feel you have a duty to protect that information, to make sure it does not go missing. I think the stress is getting to you, and you should stay in the Clarion tonight, a nice relaxing evening in the city’s finest hotel. You can’t be responsible if someone were to break into your home, take some work files you forgot you had lying around, right?”

“You won’t find them in my house,” whispered Trevor, taking care not to make eye contact. He prayed the encounter would end, that the Company would exhaust its solutions and let him go. It was an impossible pipe dream, but he had to cling to one ridiculous hope in the despair.

Mr. Smith’s smile was cracking, revealing more and more of the anger coiled beneath the surface. “Well, burglaries can happen anywhere. Where are the files, Trevor?” his voice was a barely contained growl now.

“I—“ his throat went dry with the impending confession, “I already gave them to the police.”

The words hung there in the air, and Trevor watched Mr. Smith’s face twist from an unconvincingly fake smile to a look of disgust. “Well, I thank you for wasting my time then,” he spat, standing suddenly from the metal chair. It skidded across the concrete floor with a harsh shriek.

Trevor dared to breathe a sigh of relief. Now they knew that it would be suspicious if he went missing; perhaps that was his key to salvation.

“You just made my job much more difficult, Mr. Conner,” sighed Mr. Smith, smoothing wrinkles from his dark suit jacket before straightening his inky tie.

“I’m sorry,” whispered Trevor quickly, his eyes darting towards the door, waiting for it to open and grant him his desired freedom.

“I’m very sure you are. Well,” his voice matched the sneer on his face, “at least you’ll know you did the right thing.”

The last thing Trevor heard was the metallic snap of a gun being cocked before his world collapsed into an explosion of light, sound, and finally darkness.


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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 43

I confess, today’s post is way longer than the limit, but I was having such fun writing it that I just wanted to keep going. This is another one I may return to in the future, just because it was an interesting idea I would like to develop a bit more. Any thoughts, questions, concerns, or critiques, feel free to swing by the comments and let me know. As always, happy reading!


Card Day 43: A half-devoured thanksgiving feast.

The food sat half-eaten and rotten on the table. Victoria tried not to think about why that was, though it was a scene she had seen replayed over and over again in her travels. It all happened so fast, no one even had time to realize what was happening. One moment the world was full of holiday cheer, turkey, and family togetherness, and the next it was a place of chaos, terror, and bloodshed. She shuddered at her own memory, shunning thoughts of the football game cutting to emergency broadcast, the sound of rending flesh carrying through the last frame before all hell broke loose across the world.

“Phil, double check the windows in the back. I’ll block the front doors. You,” she pointed at the teenage girl gagging at the stench of wasted food, “check the kitchen for nonperishables. And Davey, see if you can’t get rid of the maggot party in the dining room,” she finished with a weak smile before turning towards the high backed chair nearby. She pushed it up against the door; it was heavy enough to slow down someone trying to enter, but mobile enough they could pull it away if escape became the priority. It had been a few nights since they had a major disturbance at night, but she was not about to let down their guard just yet.

“I don’t know if I can stay here,” moaned the girl, a hint of sickness in her weak voice. “It smells awful.”

“Liza, there are beds, a fireplace, and a roof over our head. It’s sundown, so it has to do. Any luck in the kitchen?”

Liza gestured to the counter behind her where there was a stack of cans and boxes. Victoria marched over to them, carefully inspecting each one. Condensed soup, a few boxes of hamburger helper, pancake mix, and baking supplies. It was a relatively meager pantry, but she assumed most of the cupboards had been emptied to complete the feast lying in decay on the dining room table.

Phil wandered into the room, looking grim. “Windows weren’t good, but I pulled some stuff in front of them. We should be fine tonight.”

“Were they broken?”

His face stretched into a tight smile. “Not so much. Looks like folks here had ‘em open, enjoying the breeze when it all went down.” Those in the kitchen were silent, each called back to their own personal hell. Phil spoke up again. “At least it looks like we’ll have a decent dinner tonight.”

That snapped Victoria back to the present, the house filled with the stench of death and a ragtag band of sorrowful faces looking to her for leadership. “Can you two throw something together for us? Store what you don’t use.”

“Shouldn’t you women be the ones in the kitchen?” smirked Davey, a smile in his eyes.

“I’ll be in charge of cooking if you’d like us all holed up here for a week with food poisoning,” shot back Victoria. He chuckled, turning toward the counter to inspect the goods.

“I just don’t see why you always get out of working,” he said with a smile. Liza shook her head at the two adults, constantly chiding and joking at one another. It was hard to find joy in the newly desolate, always dangerous world, but somehow they managed. Mostly through practiced avoidance and intentional unremembering, but if it allowed them to survive, so be it.

“For your information, I’m going to check upstairs for supplies and any other…disposables.” She struggled with the last word, and all of the light left the room. They all knew what disposables meant, and the wordplay did little to lessen the grimness of the task. Phil nodded sharply and attended to his task.

Victoria passed the basement as Davey was walking up, his face slightly green after his unpleasant task. “All done,” he said weakly, gesturing vaguely to the darkness behind him. “Doesn’t look like anyone made it down there, either. No disposables to speak of, but there may be some supplies. Want me to grab a light and check?”

She put a steadying hand on his shoulder. “Maybe later. You’re a bit green in the gills, so why don’t you take a break?” He gave a weak, thankful smile and nod, shuffling towards Phil’s boisterous voice. Victoria continued toward the stairs.

The second floor was a dim hallway with doorways on either side. Given the smell, she was hesitant to open the doors, but it was the task she had chosen. The first room was empty, a child’s bedroom with toys scattered across the floor. A well-worn teddy bear sat forlorn on the bed. At least someone would get a bed to sleep in tonight. The second door was less pleasant. There the door opened onto a chilled bathroom, someone’s unfortunate torso half in and half out of the window. The winter had kept it from smelling too foul, but the scent of rot was still evident. She grabbed the towel hanging on the doorway and shoved the body the rest of the way out. One disposable down, but given the size of that feast, there had to be more. Maybe, she dared to hope, they had escaped. Her mind imagined the family, at least the one hanging in frames along the stairway, rushing to the windowless basement, barricading themselves in until the horrors had ceased, until dawn poked through. Maybe they had found one of the survivor colonies. Maybe they were waiting in the remaining two doors on the floor.

She tried ot think of other things, putting the family out of her mind as she rustled through the medicine cabinet. Some antibiotic ointment, bandages, acetaminophen, and cough syrup. Nothing lifesaving, but some nice luxuries. The light through the window was growing dimmer, and she pressed on down the hallway.

Door three held the horrors she had hoped to avoid, blood leaving the carpet caked and cracking with her steps. There was not enough substance left of the bodies to clean out the room; they were smeared on the walls and ceiling indiscriminately, no way to make it habitable. She closed the door behind her and continued to the last room.

The nursery surprised her, pristine as it was. This face had not been in the photos—too young or not yet born, she supposed. A tiny mobile sat still and collecting dust, the baby blue walls a stark contrast to the crimson room of before. It would do to sleep, she supposed, tossing books from the tall bookshelf to the floor. She dragged the shelf in front of the window, leaning against it. This life made her sick most of the time, but only in the silence of isolation could she let the mask crack. She had wept the tears she had, but the emptiness in her soul continues to ache.

After securing the remaining windows, she stomped back downstairs to find Phil, Davey, and Liza building a roaring fire in the hearth using the broken dining room chairs. A haphazard collection of pots sat with whatever dinner would be, and Victoria fell into one of the chairs.

“That bad?” asked Phil, catching the drawn pallor of her face.

“Could be worse. Two bedrooms, one bed, one room…” she shrugged, and they understood. One room desolate, destroyed, defiled. One room full of everything they wanted to forget.

It was not long before she had a bowl of soup in front of her, the flavor weak and watery. She ate it with a thankful smile, though the only sound over the meal was the clinking of spoons on the porcelain dishes. How different, she imagined, than the last meal in this house, full of family and life. They were the surviving dead, marionettes mimicking the role of the living. She sat down by the window—blocked by the dining room table now in its side—and peered through the sliver of a crack left visible. The sound of someone sinking to the floor beside her snapped her back to reality.

“Time yet?” asked Liza, almost bored.

“Soon, I guess.” The silence deepened between them,

“Where were you—the first time, I mean?”

Victoria pondered the question, considering leaving the silence intact. Liza’s brimming eyes convinced her otherwise. Secrecy and pain were no way to build a future. “In Liberty, at my uncle’s place. We were watching the game.”

“How did you make it out?”

Victoria ran her tongue along the back of her clenched teeth, trying not to remember the painful night when the stars crashed down. “Like most people did, I suppose. Once the windows started breaking, I ran to the basement.”

“Did your family-“

“No. None of them. It was all over so quick, I didn’t have time to save any of them.” She fixed the girl with an empty stare. “I used to feel guilty, not saving any of them, but then I realized it’s a miracle I even survived. I didn’t know what I was doing or what was happening. Even if I went back now with what I know, I don’t think I could act quick enough to do anything.”

Liza dropped her eyes to the floor. “I don’t even know how I made it. I fell asleep and woke up to everything,” she pointed around the room, “like this.” Victoria could see the pain in her expression, and balked. She had never been good with this emotional kind of stuff, and the events of the past had only served to harden her.

“We’re all lucky, I guess,” she said unconvincingly, turning back to the windows. She stared up at a sky rapidly emptying of stars. Bright streaks flashed down towards the ground, hitting with a whistling crash. From the impacts stood lanky creatures, modeled from stardust, glimmering with cold light. The looked around with large, shining eyes that lit the air around them like spotlights. Victoria moved away from the window.

“They’re awake,” she sighed, standing on creaking legs. “Let’s lie low, make sure they don’t spot us. Away from the windows and keep quiet,” she said, reminding here band of survivors needlessly. They all knew the drill by heart. It only took one night of devastation to learn the rules.

Grimly, the settled in, waiting for the light of morning to call the stars home and free them once again.


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Card Challenge: Day 42

Halfway there! Very exciting. This project seemed impossible in the beginning, but I am really enjoying how I am learning and growing through it. Also, I’m happy to say that the habit is starting to take hold, which was always my hope.  I really enjoyed writing today’s story, and I hope you enjoy reading it!


Card Day 42: The bars on the window of a snail shell prison have been sawn through, leaving a blanket rope dangling to the ground beside broken chains.

The fall knocked the breath from his lungs, and his first gasping breath was full of the taste of the fresh, free air. The moon and stars stretching above him was a welcome sight as he recovered, his back resting firmly against the fresh spring grass. Everything took on a new light, a delicate and ephemeral beauty that he thought he would never experience again. He drank deeply of the air as if it were the only thing that would sustain him.

Slowly, the reealit6 of the situation settled back on him, encouraging him to stir from his spot on the ground. He was still next to the tall stone building, just below the window he had crashed through moments before. While he had tried to be quiet, he was certain that they would notice his absence soon and mount a search party. He needed to put distance between himself and the god forsaken building before they could fan out.

As he pushed off the ground, he felt a dull ache radiating from his left ankle. Apparently the fall was not completely flawless, but he supposed it could have been far worse. Had he landed wrong and broke a leg, or struck his head and lost consciousness, it would have been a short jaunt back to his cell in the dank castle. At least he had a chance. Limping slightly, he began to push through the woods, following the thin sliver of the moon overhead. If he remembered correctly and things had not changed too much, there was a decent sized city not too far away. He planned to hit the main highway and plead for help to anyone who happened to pass by.

The forest seemed to close in on him, wrapping its branches towards him to slow his progress. Just a figment of his imagination, he assured himself, but it did not dispel the uneasy feeling that the trees themselves were watching and misleading him. If not for the moon, he was certain he would have circled right back to that infernal tower. The night was surprisingly still and calm. There was no hum of insects, no chatter of the nocturnal wildlife. It was as if the whole world was holding its breath, betting for and against him. Onward was his mantra, and his irregular steps led him deep into the heart of the woods.

The wind brushed against his back, and he could hear the words floating towards him, an indecipherable haze of haste and panic. “Find him!” he thought he heard snaking through the trees. Despite the pain and encroaching feeling of hopelessness, he pressed on. He could not go back, would not allow that fate to befall him.

Lo hanging branches tugged at his arms, leaving painful welts and gashes. Their malevolence was clear, and he suspected the woodland would eagerly betray his heading to those foul witches. He could hear the yips and barks of the hellhounds at their employ, already picking up his scent and barreling through the undergrowth toward him. The road and a friendly stranger were his only hope.

Then again, he also needed a stranger with no sense of self-preservation. That is the only reason someone would stop and pick up someone looking as bedraggled and unsavory as himself. He knew it had been four days since he had bathed, and nearly nine months since his last true haircut and shave. The women did their best to keep him presentable, but that still left him with a shaggy mane of tangled hair, now further complemented by early spring leaves and brambles, and a good shadow’s worth of stubble across his face. Add that to the fact his torso was now laced with scars in intricate patterns, a few still seeping blood, and he looked like a terror crashing through the forest. He resigned himself to the fact that he was more likely to give someone a heart attack leaping in front of their car than he was to find someone who would be willing to stop for him. Still, he did his best to feed the fire of hope within him; without it, he was merely a shambling husk of a person, better left to do whatever those she-demons had in mind for him.

The vision of asphalt stretching before him was almost more than he could bear. He felt his knees weaken at the sight, a memory of civilization that he thought would only live as a dusty fragment of nostalgia. The stone was cool under his hands, having already released the meager spring heat into the night, the stones rough. Like a dying man gasping for water, he clung to it. Freedom was in sight.

Lights on the road, and his heart quickened. It was a foolish hope, but the only one he had.

“Here!” he screamed, waving wildly at the approaching vehicle. Taking a risk, he stepped over the crisp lines to stand in the path. Even if it hit him, that meant freedom, he supposed. “Please help!” he called again at the oncoming lights. The car swerved, careening into the opposite lane, and he heard the engine accelerate away from him. He worked quickly to regain his deflating confidence. At least now he had a path, and he could walk along until he found civilization or a lunatic willing to take a chance on him. The city lay to the west, if he remembered, and that meant—

“So that’s where you got off to,” came the saccharine voice from behind him. The sound sent a chill up his spine as his stomach turned with revulsion. “Gave us all quite a scare tonight.”

Her pale face was the only thing of her that was visible of her in the inky black night. Her body was covered by a thick black robe, and soft black gloves ran up to her elbows. She smiled, the sight ghastly in the dim moonlight. He could see other figures stepping from the tree line, surrounding him front and back.

“Now, you may think we are upset, but please don’t. Your spirit, your will to live, your fight is precisely why we chose you. In fact, I think if you never tried such a daring escape, we would have known you were not the one.” She was walking towards him now, her feet crunching softly along the ground. In his mind, everything she touched withered and died after exposure to her toxicity. The very air around her was poisoned and defiled by her exhalation.

“But now,” she purred, her eyes alight with pleasure, “we can be sure.”

He turned to run, darting across the road and toward the second line of trees. It was an impossible hope, but something in him whispered that the opposing forest would be a haven, not yet touched by their black magic. He heard shouts behind him, arcane words that hummed with familiarity. In an instant, he felt the shadows grip his feet, the asphalt liquefying to hold him fast. She approached him, a smile on her blood-tinted lips.

“Sh,” she whispered, as if she could be soothing, “you should be honored. You, of all the human worms we have tested and tried, have a purpose. You shall be the vessel for our Master. He will be most pleased with your offering.” She laid her hand against his forehead, her skin radiating an unnatural warmth. The shadows deepened around him, until that was all he could see. With that, he gave in to the unnatural sleep as they dragged him towards his protested fate.


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Card Challenge: Day 41

Card Day 41: A man in black and woman in white sitting around a chess board while windswept hearts surround them.

Galen’s palms were sweaty, anxiety coursing up and down his body in paralyzing waves. He took a few deep breaths, trying to calm his racing heart and relax his sweating brow, but the effect was negligible. He sat in the uncomfortable, wood-backed chair and prayed for success to gods he did not believe in. As his anxiety reached a fever pitch, the door swung open.

She waltzed in, pale white dress billowing around her. Her hair hung in strands of spun gold, gossamer strands that floated about her like a halo. Her eyes were crystal clear and blue, gleaming from a flawless marble face. She was as beautiful as he remembered, and if possibly even more so. He felt, for a moment, as if his pounding heart must have frozen, because he could feel or hear nothing as she floated to the chair opposite him.

She smiled, extending her hand across the black and white board between them. It hung in the air, slim and delicate with perfectly trimmed nails and smooth skin. Galen took it, feeling electricity spark from the connection.

“Sorry I’m late. It’s nice to see you again, Galen,” she said, her voice smooth.

“You as well, Ama,” he responded, his voice cracking slightly due to his nerves. She merely smiled at his embarrassment.

“Shall we play?”

He responded with a sharp nod and watched as she carefully lifted a pawn from the board, moving it across the board. Galen’s hand shook as he considered the pieces, trying to find the right move to make a strong opening, but not become too aggressive and over reach his skill. He gave a nervous chuckle as he felt the seconds slipping by.

“I’m not very good at chess,” he admitted, feeling blood rush into his cheeks. She simply studied hi from across the table, her eyes taking in his stubbled chin and scruffy mess of brown hair. As he watched her watching him, he felt as if he saw a glimmer of interest and attraction flicker across her eyes. He felt a swell of confidence, sitting up a bit straighter in his chair. Unknowingly, he broke the spell and she returned her eyes to the game.

“There will always be other games,” she comforted, resting her hands lightly on the edge of the board, the only sign of impatience that he could see.

“Well, you never know, maybe I’ll get some of that beginner’s luck!” he rallied, taking a haphazard stab at the pieces, hoping the move would at least keep him in the game. There was a pleased look that snaked into her eyes, immediately robbing him of the brief moment of confidence.

She considered her move quickly, pearly hands skimming over the board and placing her pieces with practiced ease. “So, how have you been?”

Her presence was intoxicating. Galen thought of all the difficulties he had faced since they last met, the feelings of isolation, or captivity even, but they all paled in her presence. In that moment, he felt deep, abiding, comforting peace. He was in the presence of his one true love, and the feeling was freeing. “Everything is worth it to be with you again,” he said smoothly and earnestly. This time, she blushed.

“Maybe we will one day find your game, and then we can stop meeting under such circumstances.” Her eyes were again trained to the board, like a predator stalking prey through the underbrush. His hands did not move.

“I’ll play forever if that means I can spend it with you.”

“At this rate, we might just.” There was an edge of irritation in her voice, impatience bristling at the surface. But her smile remained, light and friendly.

Galen quickly grabbed a piece, sliding it across the board.

“We’ve played so many, Ama. What is your favorite game?”

Her hand hung in the pace between them, a bishop midway in its flight across the board. “I suppose I’ve never thought about that. My favorite has always been the game at hand. It’s more about who you’re playing with, in my experience.” The thought complete, she placed her piece.

Galen looked at the board and tried to discover some impressive move, but his lack of experience was showing. He was beginning to wish it were any other game than chess. It had been years since he played, and even then it had only been at his grandfather’s request. He had not played a match since the man passed years before, and the rust was showing in his performance. Whereas the figures had been arranged so neatly at the beginning, now they sat in a slight scatter across the board, telling secrets he could not interpret. “Well, I hope this one is not a complete waste for you, then,” he said, placing a piece at random.

She laughed, the sound like a bell, and Galen felt a wave of ease flood over him. “Galen, I always enjoy playing with you. If I didn’t, I would not visit so often.”

It was his turn again, and he was beginning to understand that her speed meant this was likely to be a short game. “You know I enjoy the time with you, too, Ama. It’s the highlight of my week. Maybe we’ll one day find a game that I can beat you at.”

She was barely looking at the board now, instead smiling up at him. “I’m sure we will, someday. And what a day that will be.” There was a sadness in her eyes as she completed her turn, a sadness Galen knew all too well. “Check.”

He looked down at the traitorous board. It could not be nearing the end so quickly. There had to be something wrong. Looking at the blur of black and white, he tried to piece together how the game had gone so wrong so quickly. He saw the threat, but his options seemed limited. The sweat at his brow began to slowly trickle down his face an embarrassing problem to have, as he tried to identify the safest approach. He was, however, in a corner, and the time was nearly up.

“You know I love you, right?” he asked, a pleading tone in his voice, as he carefully lifted a knight to block the threat. It bought him time, if not much more.

“Of course I do, Galen. And I care deeply for you.” She took the knight, but he breathed a sigh, safe for the moment.

The slight tremor in his hand was now a full blown shake, threatening to topple all the pieces on the board at the slightest wrong move. He went to set his piece down carefully, but her hand grabbed his. The delicate touch surprised him and sent a tingle up his arm.

“You cannot move yourself into check,” she reminded, nudging his hand back. Stymied, Galen picked up another piece and moved it after checking for her approving nod.

“I hope that someday you might love me as well, Ama.”

The sadness was back in her eyes, almost tearfulness. “There are many days I think I do, Galen. But there are rules we must live by.” She set her piece down with a depressing finality. “Checkmate.”

Galen felt his shoulder’s sag in defeat, looking at his fate played out along the board. “I guess today was not my day,” he sighed, letting his head fall into his hands as his king toppled onto the checkered board.

“No, not today.” She rose from the chair, sweeping towards the door. “But I do mean what I say, I think I love you. Perhaps next time you will win, and we can be together,” she said, as she had so many times before. With a final wave, she left the room, and Galen heard the sound of the lock falling into place behind her.


So, I did not plan to pull a romance card the day before Valentine’s day, but it happened. I have already done a bad date, a mourning for lost lovers, and a love note (yeah, Day 9 was totally a sweet love letter. Nothing creepy there!). This one is heavily inspired by the Atalanta myth, and I admit there may be flaws. It may not be very clear what is going on based on the narrative alone, but I thought it was a fun way to weave in romance and competition. And not write a super standard V-Day story. That said, thanks for reading, and happy Valentine’s Day tomorrow!


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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.”


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Card Challenge: Day 33

Guys, I worked today from 9am-8pm. Talk about tired! Therapy, reports, testing, feedback, notes, and random paperwork, bleh! I really want not sure this one was going to get finished, and I think it is probably lacking some pieces just because my brain is on the fritz. But I got it posted! Pushing through the tired and busy! Woohoo! i hope you can at least find something you enjoy about it. Happy reading!


Card Day 33: The sun looking down on a sea of umbrellas.

Janine loved to play with shadows. She remembered the games fondly from her childhood, miniature dramas put on against her bedroom wall by her grandfather. Even with his thick, arthritic hands, he managed to create wonderful images. Then again, she thought as she smiled at the memory, she was very easily impressed as a child. Once, she recalled the long dragon-saga he had presented during the week she was at home with the Chickenpox. He carefully walked her through the story, shaping her hands and letting her dictate the story, even though her feverish and childish commands did little for the strength of the tale. He was always smiling, light sparkling in his eyes from the flashlight in the corner. Those were the memories that helped her sleep soundly at night.

Now, she sat in her own dark apartment, idly splaying figures, animals, and objects across the wall from the flickering light of the television. What was on there did not really interest her, and she let her mind wander through the shadowy world at her fingertips. Janine let the parrot on the wall take flight, bursting out of the cone of light to disappear into the impeding darkness. The screen behind her grew dim with some program, and her light failed. Janine turned her attention to the television with a glower.

“It’s not the television’s fault they had to investigate the basement,” came a voice from the shadowed chair behind her.

“I know. I was just having fun.”

Her companion chuckled warmly, and she turned to smile at him. He was slouched across the chair, limbs sprawling over the arms and over the back. Somehow, despite the seemingly impossible posture, he was comfortable. His features were obscured by the shadows of the living room, but she knew he was smiling back at her.

“Did you order dinner?” he queried, his voice betraying the intended nonchalance of the question. He must be very hungry, she told herself.

“Yeah, like twenty minutes ago. Didn’t you hear me on the phone?”

There was an impatient grunt from the shadows.

“Well, it should be hear in like ten minutes. Think you can last that long?” There was a hint of concern in her voice; he was not the most polite or enjoyable company when he was hungry.

“I guess you better hope I can,” he growled, sinking deeper into the plush chair. Janine rolled her eyes at the display; he could be so dramatic at times, and it was exhausting to always cater to his whims. But, Janine reminded herself, that was what friends were for. They looked out for one another, helped each other grow and develop, and sometimes made inconvenient sacrifices for the other’s happiness. He was her oldest friend, memories of him stretching all the way back to her childhood. Just after her grandfather died, actually. She felt a tingle of discovery at that realization, never having noticed how serendipitous his arrival was for her.

Janine turned her attention to the movie, watching the wide-eyed co-eds drift deeper into the dungeon-like basement. While some might have responded with anxiety, tension, or concern about the characters, Janine smiled to herself, her mind drifting back through memories yet again.

Her basement growing up was gargantuan, filled with boxes, spiders, and darkness. She had been terrified of it since the day they moved in, and it seemed, at the time at least, that her terror was the primary reason her mother forced her to carry her clothes down to the hamper buried in the basement. It was not until her grandfather and the shadow puppets that Janine learned to take the stairs one at a time when leaving the basement.

It was about a week after her grandfather died that she met her now friend while tearfully making sad shadow puppets on the wall. She was not sure where he had come from, given that she was located in the darkness of the basement with just a flashlight for company, but he joined her in playing with the shadows. Whereas her figures moved slowly, lethargically over the wall, his danced with stunning agility. Eventually, their shadow games became the highlight of her day. She rushed home from school, grabbed her flashlight, and then they were off to create sweeping dramas and heartbreaking stories in simple shadows on cold concrete walls.

Janine knew her mother worried during those times, but she was so consumed with her own grief, and Janine was smiling. If she had any concerns about her strange new friend, she certainly was not going to mention them during such a delicate time. And, once the time was right, it seemed impossible to separate the two.

“The darkness is gonna git you,” he whispered, an edge of eagerness in his voice. He was glued to the screen, still watching the shaky footage of the three girls creeping through the darkness.

“You can be seriously creepy, you know?”

She thought she saw him shrug, a slight shift in the weight of shadows that indicated some form of movement. Janine shook her head.

“What did you order, anyways?” he asked with sudden curiosity.

“Chinese, why?”

He groaned. “I don’t think I’ve met that driver.”

“Just what you’d expect—young, wide-eyed, probably a bit high most of the time. He’s good enough.”

“Is he clean?”

“Does it really matter that much?”

She heard him begin to speak before a sudden rap on the door interrupted. She felt his eyes on her, a bit of irritation creeping in beneath the growing hunger. “Behave,” she hissed at him before turning and calling over her shoulder from her spot on the sofa. “The door’s open! Bring it in!”. Though she could not see it, she heard her friendly companion give a delighted purr as his tongue snaked over his lips. Janine heard the door creak open, a column of light spilling into the room and banishing some of the heavy shadows she so happily cultivated.

“Is this Apartment 115?” came the nervous voice of the delivery boy.

“Yep, just bring it in and set it on the table. I’ll grab the tip!” She hopped up from the sofa, walking towards the dark kitchen as the delivery boy took his hesitant steps into the apartment, the door a gaping maw of light behind him.

“You order the number 6?”

“Yep, that’s me. I’ll just be a second.”

She listened to his sneakers shuffle across the hardwood floors toward the living room. From the corner of her eye, she could see her friend coiling himself into the seat of the chair, ready to pounce. As soon as the boy stepped over the threshold and into the shadows, there was a muted yell, a brief scuffle, and then silence. Her shadowy friend sank back into the seat, a smile of satisfaction certainly playing over his obscured face.

Janine loved to play with shadows, even if that meant sacrifices at times.


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