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.
This work by Katherine C is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License.
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.
This work by Katherine C is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License.
Card Day 67: Children riding a wind-up carousel atop dragons, elephants, and other creatures.
The dragon rose majestically over the forest, her wings unfurling and casting deep shadows along the ground below. She stretched her neck, releasing a vicious cry into the sun-laced air, as her wings arched back and forth rhythmically. In the forest below, there was movement that caught her eye, perhaps a worthy foe. Large, intelligent blue eyes scanned the forest, picking up the disturbances in the foliage that marked her opponent’s movements.
On the ground, the dinosaur roared its own battle cry, staring at the trees in an attempt to reach the best floating high above. His steps thundered along the earth, creating rumbling disturbances throughout the area. Animals fled from before him as he made his way to the arena. This would be the final battle, the one to prove ultimate alpha predator. Above him, he could see the flying shadow following behind him, heading to the determined place.
Rock walls rose around them, towering and imposing, limiting her top altitude while keeping him in a cramped earthly domain. Both roared, circling one another and looking for any weakness. She struck first rearing back and spewing a blast of liquid fire to the ground. The dinosaur rolled away, narrowly avoiding a swift loss. He raised his claws, raking at the air, but finding her out of reach. Instead, he reared back and shot his own ball of flame towards her.
“Hey, that’s no fair!” snapped Xandi, swatting at her twin brother.
“You did it to me!” he responded as he shoved her in turn.
She put her hands on her hips. “Yeah, well, dragons can breathe fire. Dinosaurs can’t. Maybe you should have thought of that before.”
“Well it’s still not fair. You can breathe fire and fly. It’s no fun if you just fly away the whole time. I guess you’re just chicken.” Xander smirked at her and stuck out his tongue. Unfortunately, he also closed his eyes to complete his taunt, so he did not have a chance to see her barreling towards him until she tackled him to the ground.
Now that the dragon had left her lofty domain, the fight could truly begin. The punched and pinched at each other, roaring with pain and irritation as they rolled along the playroom floor. The ruckus quickly summoned a referee, however, and their mother stormed in to separate the two.
Having twins had taught her quite a bit about how to break up a fight, so she grabbed two arms and tugged them in opposite directions, ending up with two panting children on opposite sides of her body. “That’s enough, you two. If you don’t want timeout, then the fight is through.” Both looked angry and offended, carrying the weight of perceived slights and a few red marks from the brutal fight.
“Xander was cheating. He was a dinosaur, but he kept blowing fire!” She accentuated her point with the stomp of a foot, and her mother sighed. They were both too young to have that much attitude.
“Well Xandi wouldn’t even play! She was just flying and trying to beat me!”
“That’s the whole point,” she sneered back.
“Yeah, but you were being a big chicken—“ His mother’s sharp look cut off the taunt before it could progress to the actual clucking, but Xandi understood the intent nonetheless. Their mother shook her head, drawing them side by side in front of her. The same bright blue eyes stared at her, the same dark hair framing pale faces. If they were not different genders, she would have sworn they were identical twins.
“Listen you two, I don’t care who did what or what animals have what superpowers. You cannot hit your brother or your sister.” Her eyes drifted side to side between them, pinning them both to the floor. “If you cannot play Monster Battle nicely, you cannot play at all.” She watched them both soften as she threatened their favorite game. Their mother rolled her eyes internally and reminded herself to thank her husband for the wonderful Godzilla marathons.
“No, please, we can play nice!” whine Xandi, giving a half-sincere smile to her brother,
“Yeah, we’ll be good and quiet. No more fighting. No more real fighting,” said Xander as he quickly corrected his statement.
“I don’t know, guys. We do this a lot. Maybe it’s time to take a break—“
“No,” rose the chorus, plaintive and heartbroken.
“Give us one more chance, Mom.” Xander held onto her arm, resting his head against her shoulder. Xandi reached over and put a hand on her brother’s shoulder in true teamwork.
“Yeah, Xander can have fire-breath, I guess. It’ll be more fun, then.” She did not sound convinced, but Xander brightened at the concession.
Their mother stood, eyeing them both closely. She knew she still had dinner to tend to on the stove and a hefty stack of paperwork waiting for her review. If for once the promises were true, it would definitely make her evening a lot less stressful. Worst case scenario, she would be back in ten minutes to break them up again and set them to different tasks.
As their mother left the room, they envisioned a giant alien mothership floating away on the horizon. They could return to the duel.
“Alright,” said the dragon from her lofty vantage point, “you can have fire breath, but then I get—“ she paused as she searched her repertoire of appropriate monster abilities,”—ice breath!”
The dinosaur grumbled something under his breath, but accepted the solution. “Fine. But if you fly out of bounds, then you lose.”
“Fine,” muttered the dragon, never having broken the steady beat of her wings. She flapped above the arena as the combatants sized one another up.
Xander struck first, blowing a billowing cloud of fire upwards as he rushed around the arena. Xandi glanced around, suddenly seeing the air turn into a boundary of flaming walls. “That was smart,” she said, and he smiled smugly in response. “But not smart enough. Ice breath!”
With that, the sky turned into frozen blocks of fire that swiftly plummeted to the ground. The dinosaur used all its agility and speed to dodge out of the way, but one of the falling pillo—ice blocks struck his shoulder, and he careened wildly along the ground.
He roared in pain, sliding along the dusty arena floor and bumping against the rock walls. Pictures hung along the rock face trembled, but held firm. They both sighed in relief as the lack of devastation.
“Now I’ve got you!” roared the dragon, circling her fallen prey. Victory gleamed in her eyes along with a haughty sense of accomplishment. “You won’t get away from me!”
Even in his wounded state, the dinosaur was not to be bested. He lifted a rock from the floor next to him and flung it with all his might toward the spiraling beast. She was taken by surprise, never having suspected her injured foe to be so creative or strong. The stone struck her wing, and she found herself careening back towards the ground. And the waiting claws of her opponent.
The twins crashed into one another, once again rolling across the floor in the throes of laughter and mumbled threats. They locked arms, faces hovering inches from one another, and rolled back and forth across the floor.
They tumbled and fought, managing to seamlessly block one another’s attacks. Eventually, their breath-based powers exhausted, they restored to throwing stones from around the arena, crushing one another under pillowy weights. The dragon lifted a handful of pebbles and watched as the stuffed animals mercilessly rained down on her foe. He stood no chance, as he could not block all the dozens of projectiles launched his way. But he dove behind a rocky outcropping, then launched another boulder towards her. She barely had time to roll out of the way, struggling to fly away on her injured wing.
They were breathless and screeching, dodging behind furniture and overturning pillows, cushions, footstools, toys, and anything else that made a suitably safe stand-in for deadly attacks. Eventually, the ruckus drew the mothership back into the room.
“Guys,” sighed the alien voice, cutting into their battle. The dragon and dinosaur froze, investigating the new threat. “I thought you were going to keep it calm.”
“We were, mom, we just—“
“You made a huge mess.” Both creatures looked around at the ruins of the arena, stones littering the floor from one end to the other. Little remained of the once pristine battleground. It had truly been a ferocious fight.
“We were just having fun,” muttered Xander, his eyes darkening under his pouting brow.
“Yeah, but fun does not mean destruction. Listen, dinner will be ready in ten minutes,” said the alien, pointing animatedly at the sundial looming on the arena wall. “I want this place picked up by dinner. No more Monster Battles.”
“Yes, ma’am,” moaned Xandi and Xander. They slowly began walking towards the pillows, picking them up with half-hearted zeal and dropping them limply on the couch. The mothership floated away again as she ran a tired hand through her hair.
“I’ll get you next time,” taunted Xandi as she restacked the various stuffed animals in their assigned spots.
“Why wait until next time?” growled the dinosaur, a devious smirk on his face. Before she could react, he scooped up the footstool cushion and smacked her in the back of the head.
This work by Katherine C is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License.
Card Day 58: A person made entirely of orange, autumn leaves walks with a wooden walking stick towards dark hills beneath an orange sky.
Walter pondered his map beneath the heavy brows of old, stately buildings. His back ached with the weight of his backpack, and his knees groaned and cracked as he stood and tried to unravel the knot of roads. He pinched the bridge of his nose, the map catching and flapping in the breeze once half-loosed. This was supposed to be the trip where he accomplished all his lifelong goals, saw the world, and embodied the idea of “aging well” that he heard preached so furiously. Instead, it seemed to be the trip of getting lost, sore bones, and midafternoon headaches.
The map continued to defy him, reminding him again and again that his eyes were not what they used to be. No, Walter agreed, they certainly were not. Then again, none of him was. Walter, of course, considered himself middle aged, but h was nonetheless old enough that people mistakenly referred to him as an elder. He was also old enough to carry the aches and pains of a life lived long and hard.
He shifted his weight, swinging the backpack to his other side and momentarily relieving the pinch against his back. The map was so small, and the buildings here were not as well marked as he would like. Walter leaned back against the nearby building, granting reprieve to his aching feet as he removed a portion of the weight. This building had stood the test of time, that e could be sure, it could handle his meager weight for a few moments.
Despite the frustrations, he smiled at the memory of many such side streets and new experiences. Yes, this travel had been rough, and his body was tired, but it had also been incredibly rewarding, He had never thought he was the kind to leave his tiny home, take off to Europe, and squander his savings on rich food and exotic accommodations. But Walter had wanted to age well, seize life in both hands as long as he had it.
And maybe that was the more accurate truth, he granted. Walter was looking to die well. Even in the twisted Italian streets, he could not escape that reality, No, fleeing to Europe, abandoning the life he had known, and putting miles and oceans between him and his doctors had done nothing to remove the burden of steadily dying. The memory swelled up, overtaking him even there. He remembered well the sterile office, the soft words, the professionalized sympathy. Words hung frozen in the air, others floated past him unheard. Six months were two words that kept his attention. Walter watched in the office as his golden years shrunk from a couple of decades to “won’t see the end of the major league season.”
There were, of course, so many pitying glances. The receptionist at the front was sorrowful, eyes watery and mild as he stepped forward to settle his bill. Walter let himself chuckle in the shadowy, foreign streets. Yes, he had paid them for the pleasure of receiving his death sentence. He did suppose, however, that with such feedback, it was unwise to wait to collect on bills.
No matter how bad life had gotten, Walter had always held to his sense of humor, grim as it was. Part of his need to leave was that the folks he knew no longer had room for humor in the scenario. He was constantly being smothered by concern from his friends, neighbors, and co-workers. The jokes he wanted t make—morbid, grim, and utterly inappropriate to the situation—were met with slight gasps of shock and tearful eyes. Walter had fled the suffocating atmosphere of propriety to grieve his life his way. And so he toured lonely streets, laughing at his own dark jokes.
A car horn broke through his reverie. Somewhere, a pedestrian had almost lost a leg, he smiled grimly. It had only taken him one or two close calls with pounding heart and rapid breaths to learn that pedestrians did not have the right of way in many cities around the world. Still, he had remarked to more than one bystander, he as a dead man walking either way. Car or cancer, did it really matter at this point?
Still, the city sounds drew him way from the home he had left and back to his current conundrum. The early morning sun was shifting towards noontime, and he had still not found his desired goal. Admittedly, his journey had started a bit later in the day, as he had enjoyed a couple of hours dozing in the soft, luxurious bed and letting his aching muscles unwind. And then he had been forced by his raging stomach to endure a heavy, delicious, and decadent breakfast at a local restaurant.
For years, Walter had watched his diet. He had cut out coffee to prevent any negative cardiovascular effects. Breakfast had been a grapefruit and glass f water, perhaps with a multivitamin on the side. But here, in this world of food and fantasy, he devoured rich and creamy desserts, fatty dinners full of cheese and cream, and drank dark coffee by the gallon. The taste of pastry still hung about his mouth, reminding him of the snack he had squirreled away in his backpack for later. If you have six months he saw no reason to waste it on careful eating and moderation. If ever there were a time for indulgence, it was now.
Walter straightened and smiled as a young woman walked down the side street towards him. Young, he chuckled. She was clearly fit the middle-age category far more accurately than Walter did. A young boy hung on her hand, and he could hear the melodious voice gently chiding him. Having been a mischievous child himself, Waletr had learned that he could recognize a mother’s rebuke in almost any language, at last based on his travels thus far.
“Scusi,” he offered, his tongue trying to figure out the unfamiliar sounds. Yet again, he bristled at the difficulty of switching language. There had been a time he would have leapt between languages flawlessly, back when his mind was sharp and quick. Now, he felt like he was paging through a dictionary carved into stone tablets for as long as it took him to recall the few phrases he had learned on his flight over.
She paused, seemingly surprised by the stranger’s voice. He did his best to smile pleasantly, and she returned the smile before rattling off some string of syllables that, while sounding lovely, meant nothing. Walter continued to smile, then held out the map.
“Dove sono?” he asked in broken tones. As beautifully a the words rolled of her tongue, he felt like he was spitting stones
She wrinkled her brow—trying to decode his broken Italian, he reckoned. Walter held up the map, waving his index finger over it before giving an exaggerated shrug. Her face suddenly brightened as she let out a simple “Ah.”
The woman gave her son a sharp look, then grabbed the map with her free hand. After a brief study, she placed one long, manicured finger on a tiny intersection. “Here.” Her English sounded foreign, exotic, and perfect. Walter felt a deep sadness ell up inside of him that he had never experienced this part of life before now. How long had he wasted on his tiny corner of the world while turning his back on everything else?
“E il museo?” he asked again, his tongue beginning to wake and wrestle with the new sounds.
She smiled at him and then returned her eyes back to the map. Quickly, she pointed to another area, a tiny open square in the tangle of streets. “Here.” She added again, fixing him with a broad smile. Walter added his smile to hers as he folded the map back up and stowed it away.
“Grazie.” She half-spoke something to him as she turned back to collect her son, quickly disappearing down the shadowy street and back into the sunlight.
Walter began to walk, the old cobblestones under his feet as centuries old buildings loomed over him. There was something so right about being in the ancient city as he himself grew old. He walked the ancient city streets, feeling kinship with the worn stones he trod, the comfort of familiarity blanketing him from watching windows in squat buildings.
Walter felt as if he had a lot to learn from the city that had aged so well, well enough to become a treasure in its own right. He smiled and set his goal. He would learn to live well, age well, and die well in whatever few days he had left. With that, he pulled out his breakfast pastry, and let the sun shine down on his aching bones.
This work by Katherine C is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License.
Card Day 56: A boy climbing a ladder and sculpting a bird out of the clouds.
Florence had never been a good sleeper, and tonight certainly was no different. She tossed and turned, fighting against her covers to achieve the perfect balance of hot and cold, feeling at once too tightly covered and too exposed. It was impossible, she decided, to get comfortable in the sweaty tangle of sheets, and the air outside of the shelter of the blankets was too chill. She gave in to the losing battle, lying helpless and frustrated in a knot of sheets, pillows, and irritation.
Self-help books all told her the same thing. Lying there and trying to sleep was not going to do any good, so she should find something soothing and relaxing to do until she felt tired again. With a groan of frustration—the clock already said 2:15 and her alarm was set for 6:00—she set her feet on the comfortably cool wood floor, padding softly towards the kitchen.
Growing up, her mother had always given her a glass of milk and crackers when she could to sleep, and Florence repeated the ritual religiously. A snack acquired, she sat munching at the darkened kitchen table, trying to figure out why her body could be so tired when her eyes remained so alter. The crackers were loud in the silence of her home, the only sounds the occasional hum of a car drifting along outside and the quiet whisper of the air conditioning circulating through the house. It stayed set on a nice, cool temperature at night, just like the doctor ordered. Not that it helped.
The first part of the ritual complete, she moved to the living room, the dog-eared book and tiny reading light at their appointed positions. Computers, television, and cell phones were all forbidden, but books were highly recommended. Sometimes Florence felt she should probably develop a taste for bad books so that they would actually put her to sleep. Still, doctor’s orders.
A few pages in to the dog-eared copy, she did feel her eyes beginning to get slightly heavy, just enough that she dared hope it might be working. There was something about reading that quieted those anxious voices in her head, lulling them into sleep just as surely as smoke stilled the hornets’ nest.
Her chin was sinking onto her chest when there came a slight knock at the door. It was quiet, but rang out obtrusively in the quiet of the house. She snapped to attention, a new wave of fear crashing over her. Who would be out this late at night? Why would they knock on her door? What could they want? Should she call the cops? Was it a ploy?
New anxieties began buzzing about, shattering the forced meditation of her evening ritual. She set the book down from where it lay steepled on her stomach, leaning forward in her chair. There was no other sound, no call for help, no repeated pounding. In fact, the silence refilled the house so quickly, she assumed it had been a half-experienced dream, a car backfiring on the road that her brain twisted into some fitting sound. Still there was a tiny doubt nagging at her, and so she walked over towards the door. Peering through the glass, there was nothing out there but her front porch, wilting flowers that reminded her to add “water the plants” to her checklist.
Turning to walk away, her foot brushed up against something. It was a tiny package wrapped in butcher paper and bound with twine. It was awkwardly oval shaped, and definitely foreign to her house. Had she heard this dropping against her floor?
A thousand new questions began clamoring in her head as Florence carefully undid the string and unwrapped the present. She was half expecting a severed finger or ear to leer out from the wrapping. Instead, much more pleasant fare awaited. Inside was a small, ceramic dove. Its wings were spread mid-flight, and it was crafted finely enough that she imagined she could see the feathers ruffled by the air. It was beautiful, she conceded, if still a creepy package to wind up in her entryway at nearly 3:00 in the morning.
The trespass sent chills up her spine, but she found the object captivating. It was hard to focus on all the anxious thoughts as she stared at it, the limited light from streetlamps outside glinting off the smooth finish. It was perfect, cool to the touch, and oddly reassuring. Still, she as certain the excitement would keep her up the rest of the night. Might as well finish a book, at least.
Returning to her chair, Florence found herself turning the trinket over in her hand, examining all the impossibly tiny details. She was drawn to it, her eyes running back and forth over it, seemingly discovering new details at each pass. Without realizing it, her hand began to loosen and her head dropped forward. Eventually, she fell precipitously to sleep, the figurine resting softly in her lap.
In her dream, she was flying. The landscape raced away below her, dappled pastures broken up by stretches of pale white clouds. The sun was warm, the breeze cool, and she felt the exhilaration of freedom rush over her. Ahead, a mountain swelled into view, its peak snowcapped and gleaming in the brilliance of the sun. Guided by a quest she only half understood, Florence swung herself towards the mountain, diving at a microscopic opening hundreds of feet below her.
The landing was smooth and gentle, carrying her gracefully into the mouth of the opening. She rested briefly, and looked up to see an open door. Listening to the draw of some unspoken goal, she walked through the door.
The inside of the mountain was beautiful, swirls of white, pale blue, and purple rock dancing about in naturally flowing veins. The walls glimmered with embedded minerals, giving the whole place a seeming glow. Following the path, she eventually entered into a large room seated at the base of a sweeping caldera. Sunlight streamed into the room, highlighting a tiny man carefully carving an abstract figure. To the best of her knowledge—and for some reason, she felt she should trust her gut here—it as a man and woman dancing.
“Ah, Florence,” he chirped as she entered. He carefully descended from the ladder in a cloud of rock dust. It was hard to tell where the pale white dust ended and he began. He was swallowed by a long white beard and a mop of white hair which danced about him like a fine mist. His cloak had likely once been a nice, bright, cheerful blue, but it had turned pale at the accumulated debris, as had the simple brown pants. There was not a clean inch on him, but that did not prevent him from making a show of dusting his hands on his pants.
He extended a hand once he reached her, and she bent to shake it graciously. The wisdom of her dream had fled, and she was merely confused. “I’m glad you made it. I’ve been trying to get in touch with you.” He fixed her with a stern glare, his eyes a bright stone grey. Normally, she could see them shinning with glee. Now they looked somewhat serious, though still inviting.
“You wanted to see me?”
“Well of course. You don’t think folks just wander their way in here, do you? I’d never get my work done!” he said, gesturing quickly at the statue behind him. Florence nodded knowingly, but her puzzlement spilled out across her face.
“But I suppose that is precisely the problem, now isn’t it?”
“I really don’t know,” said Florence honestly, trying to take in whatever was going on around her. She missed the confidence of her previous flight.
“Of course you do. I’ve been in here working diligently to craft you the best dreams I can. I have worked up all kinds of wonderful things. And what do you do? You let them go to waste, spoil, and rot!”
“I—I’m sorry,” she began her stammering apology, but stopped as he waved his hand.
“Yes, I’m sure you are. But I am a busy man. Do you know how many dreams I have to construct a night? Do you? Billions, Florence. And then so many people do not even appreciate what they are given.’ He sighed, shaking his head. His cheeks were flushed red with the passion of his speech.
“I try to sleep, but—“
He waved off her defense once again. “Now, I took valuable time out of my day to meet with you about this. I simply cannot spend my time on projects that are going to waste.”
“I don’t know how to fix it,” she mumbled, her eyes scanning the ground. He pursed his lips and studied her out of one eye, thoughts obviously racing through his own head.
“Yes, that is a problem, isn’t it?” He stroked his long beard once, twice thoughtfully. “Do you think you could give me some sort of notice? Maybe if you know you aren’t going to sleep, you could just let me know, say around noon?”
“I wish I could, but I just can’t. What about that statue you sent me?” she asked, surprising herself with how easily the pieces fit together.
He shook his head. “No, far too tiring for me. If I did that every night, I wouldn’t get half of my dreams done in a day.” His voice trailed off, and then his head shot up, a smile on his face and twinkle in his eye. “I’ve got it!” He raced off to a workbench near the nearly-completed statue, pulling up a sheet of paper. “You are on Earth, right? Well, I’ve got just the thing. One of my coworkers brought it in just this week. The perfect sleeping potion!”
Florence grabbed the paper from him, her eyes scanning it and devouring it eagerly. Yes, it all made sense. It was so clear. She nodded, a smile swallowing her face. “This is perfect!” she exclaimed. Not only had he solved his problem, but hers as well.
The man nodded knowingly, turning back to his project. “Just don’t forget it. I won’t have myself wasting all this energy for nothing.” With that, the beautiful dream faded into swirls of color, then darkness.
Florence woke with a start, the sound of the alarm chirping from her bedroom. She craned her neck, stretching out the sore muscles form the uncomfortable position. This was not recommended, she thought grimly. Still, she felt rested, somehow at peace. It had something to do with a dream, she thought fuzzily, grasping at what remained. She remembered sculptures, rock dust in the air, and flying. But the details remained a hazy suggestion of something more.
Still, as she shifted to get up, she felt the dove sculpture shift in her lap. Somehow, that seemed to remind her of something, something old and half-remembered. She set the figurine on the table beside her, mentally making a grocery list. Some sort of inspiration told her it might be the answer to what she needed.
This work by Katherine C is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License.