Read the rest of the series here!
They parked their car in the gravel lot, positioning themselves as close to the tree line as they could. The corn maze was closed this time of night, and no one wanted to be caught lurking around after hours. However, being equal parts bored and broke, the chance to explore the maze in complete solitude was too much to pass up.
Joel, Erica, Mandy, and Alvin stumbled across the ground as they headed for the dark line on the horizon that marked the entrance. It was incredibly dark out, which made it even better. Eventually, their eyes would adjust.
Drawing closer, the small group saw the closed up outbuildings. The windows to the ticket booth were closed and locked, the petting zoo was deserted, and the snack truck was dark and silent. They hung close together, laughing in whispers as they made it finally to the entrance. A tall, cut-out of a scarecrow smiled down at them, holding in one gloved hand a signpost with the rules. The writing on it was childish, printed on in a font that resembled broad brushstrokes.
“Rule 1: NO RUNNING! No one wants to leave with a skinned knee!
Rule 2: NO BAD LANGUAGE! Keep it fun for EVERYONE!
Rule 3: DO NOT CUT THROUGH THE CORN! Now why would you want to ruin all the fun?
Rule 4: NO FLASHLIGHTS! It’s better this way, promise!
Rule 5: NO PICKING OR THROWING CORN! Keep hands, feet, and objects to yourself!
Rule 6: COMPLY WITH ALL STAFF MEMBERS INSTRUCTIONS! They’re just here to help!
Rule 7: HAVE FUN!!!!”
They were a corny set, but a staple at any event of this sort. There was a rope stretched across the entrance, which made their illicit entry even easier. The four of them slipped beneath the braided rope, the corn rising up around them and blocking out everything but the starry sky above. The moon was thin and pale in the sky, providing only the minimum of light. It turned everything into a misshapen shadow of reality.
There were creaks and groans from the buildings, the whisper of corn bending and swaying in the wind. It set the scene for them, and they all adopted whispers despite the fact no one would be out this far in the wee hours of the morning.
“Left or right?” Joel asked as they faced their first split in the path.
With two votes for left and one for right, they followed that trail straight to a dead end, turning around and laughing as they retraced their steps and proceeded down the right path. The maze led them through twists and turns, each one promising some new reveal. There was an edge of the forbidden to the whole operation which kept them on edge and on their toes. It was as if some angry farmer with his shotgun were about to burst from the corn to chase off trespassers. The four of them proceeded through the maze, taking more wrong turns than right, drunk on the thrill and risk of it all.
After about an hour, more hopelessly lost than they had been for a while, the excitement began to fade. The cold also began to set in, as the temperatures dipped from what had been a pleasant fall evening into the early nips of winter.
“Left, right, or straight?” asked Joel, fatigue creeping into his voice.
“Right,” said Mandy. Erica agreed.
“What are you talking about? That will just lead us back to where we came from. We have to go left.” There was an edge of frustration to Alvin’s voice as he spoke.
“Majority rules, so we go right. We’ll take the left if we’re wrong.”
“What about I just go left and we see who gets to the end first?” there was a prickle of competition in Alvin’s voice. He had a bit of an aggressive streak which led to him turning most events into some sort of game or championship. This was no different.
“If you want to, go ahead.” Mandy pulled her phone from her pocket and shook it at him. “We’ll text you when we beat you,” she said with a sly smile. She knew him well enough to know that he needed only the tiniest bit of goading to throw himself headlong into a perceived race.
He smiled and took off at a run through the field.
“Hey, didn’t you read the sign? No running!” called Erica after him laughing and rolling her eyes. “Geez, I wouldn’t want to be off on my own here. It’s creepy,” she said more quietly, pulling her jacket around her shoulders.
“No kidding,” returned Joel as the three moved through the stalks.
After a moment, a new sound joined the rustle of the corn and the stomp of their feet. It as a rhythmic, pounding sound, like a heartbeat echoing across the field. The three paused to listen, none of them quite sure how to place the noise.
“Is someone playing drums?” offered Mandy. Erica and Joel simply shrugged.
“Maybe Alvin is listening to music or something?” There were mirrored shrugs following Joel’s suggestion. Either way, they pushed on. The sound grew closer, but seemed to be coming from a handful of rows away.
“What the—“ came a shout from within the corn. Alvin’s voice, starting low and reaching up into a high pitch yelp. The pounding noise had stopped, and now there was something new, an up and down chorus of what almost sounded like a cartoon character. The three strained their ears, trying to pick up on what sounded like words, but they could not piece them together.
“Get away from—“ more yells from their friend.
“Alvin?” called Mandy, beginning to turn back to where they parted ways. Joel and Erica followed behind.
“If this is some kind of joke, it’s not funny,” added Joel. He wasn’t sure if he was worried it was and he would look foolish, or if it wasn’t and something truly terrible was going on. Maybe that farmer had shown up after all.
The pounding noise resumed, filling in the echoes from the rise and fall of the cartoonish voice, and they could hear Alvin calling out, warning off whatever he was facing down. His voice grew closer and closer, the remaining three following it through the rows as they tried to trace his steps. He had gotten impressively far away in the few moments they had separated.
The second voice slowly began to fade into coherence as they grew closer. “No one wants to leave with a skinned knee!” chirped something in a voice overly full of cheer. Thud, thud, thud, thud, ran the constant drone in the background, followed again by “No one wants to leave with a skinned knee!”
Alvin’s cries turned from words to general shouts broken by panting breaths. They were close now, just a couple of rows from where he was at the very least. Mandy raced ahead along the path. There was the feeling of something large and imposing galloping along the paths to their side, a ripple through the corn that left an echo of whatever it was.
Turning one last corner, Mandy came to a sudden stop. Alvin could be seen rushing down the long row, glancing over his shoulder every few moments to look at the monstrosity in pursuit. Mandy’s eyes followed his, landing on something that her mind struggled to fit within her previous frame of reality. Loping along the rows of corn behind him stood the grinning scarecrow from the entrance, no longer a mere cardboard cut-out. He towered over the corn, the tallest stalks coming just to his waist, lanky arms and legs spinning as he hurtled along the path. Each step was another beat of that imagined drum.
“Run!” called Alvin as he spotted his friend, panic etched into every muscle of his face.
Almost as if in response, the creature spoke, “No one wants to leave with a skinned knee!” Its face did not move or change, the same smile stretching from ear to ear. The voice echoed out, mechanical in its cheer.
Joel and Erica arrived, taking a shared moment to take in the scene as Mandy had. Now Mandy was yelling, urging Alvin to run faster, to get away. In slow motion, the three friends watched as one of the scarecrow’s large feet rose up, trailing straw in its wake, and came down on Alvin’s back. Alvin fell forward, face pressed into the dirt, still yelling for his friends to run. The sound grew muffled as the foot pressed him further down, the words turning back into indistinguishable yelling. There were snaps and pops, the whine of mechanics compressing the scarecrow’s foot deeper and deeper into the ground.
“No one wants to leave with a skinned knee!” it continued to repeat, words never faltering or changing.
Erica grabbed at a rock on the ground, hurling it up at the smiling face. It hit with a dull thud, then bounced off into the corn. She was back at the ground, grabbing at any fallen ears of corn and stones within reach.
“Leave him alone!” she screamed, her voice harsh and raw. “Get away from him!”
The scarecrow lifted its foot from the indentation in the ground, and Joel tried not to look at the sticky material stretching behind. Alvin was quiet now. So was the scarecrow.
It slowly lifted its smiling face from Alvin’s fallen body, scanning the remaining three as Erica flung more and more projectiles. Mandy was sobbing now, and Joel just felt numb.
“Keep hands, feet, and objects to yourself!” chimed the scarecrow with forced glee. It took a step towards them, and Joel and Mandy stumbled backwards. Erica continued her assault, rage plastered on her face. In a few short strides, she and the Scarecrow were face to kneecap, poised like two fighters about to battle.
“Keep hands, feet, and objects to yourself!” droned the cartoonish voice of the scarecrow as it bent down closer to her. She flailed out with arms and legs, fingers morphed into viscous claws that scratched at the fabric and paint covering the monster even as it grabbed her shirt and lifted her in the air.
“Erica, run, go!” said Mandy over her sobs. But Erica was blinded by battle lust, continuing to swing and strike out at the giant foe. It was almost as if she truly believed she could win.
“Keep hands, feet, and objects to yourself!” said the scarecrow once more, then, with a flick of his wrist, sent Erica flying out across the stalks of corn. For a moment, she was silhouetted in the sky, then again swallowed up by the darkness.
Mandy wailed, turning and gripping Joel by the collar and drawing him close. “We have to go!” she said, serving to snap him out of frozen immobility. Fight, flight, freeze.
Mandy took off at a run, dragging Joel along by one arm.
“No!” he said, suddenly fueled by terror. He ripped his arm away and stood in the field. Despite having finished with Erica, the scarecrow had not begun pursuing them. “Don’t run,” he gasped, the reality finally settling on him.
“What? Are you kidding me? We have to get away.” She took a few steps back and grabbed Joel by the arm again, trying to pull him from his spot.
He fixed her with wide eyes set firmly in his ashen face. “We will. Just don’t run. It won’t find us if we don’t break the rules.”
Her face was puzzled, then awareness struck. “Okay,” she mumbled, sniffing back tears. “Let’s just get out of here.”
As they walked through the rows upon rows of corn, they strained their ears for the steady thunder of the scarecrow’s feet. But it was quiet again, save for the rustling of the corn in the wind. After what felt like days of trekking through the corn, Joel finally cracked, sinking to his feet.
“We’re going in circles,” he mumbled. “It’s like there’s not even a path out anymore.”
Mandy knelt beside him, grabbing his arm and trying to bring him back to his feet. “Come on, Joel, we have to keep going. We probably just took a wrong turn.”
He shook his head, eyes staring unfocused at the ground. Everything was darkness. “No, don’t you get it? He’s trapped us here. There’s no path out.”
She was crying again, still tugging on his arm. “There was a path in. We just have to retrace our steps. Come on, we can do it.”
There was a violent swing of his head toward her, his eyes blazing with fury. “You think that’s how this works? That we’ll just walk out of here? We already broke the rules, Mandy. We’re going to fucking die here!”
He seemed almost as shocked as she was as the words spilled out of his lips. Shock turned to horror as the sound of footsteps began again in the distance.
“No,” he whispered. “I didn’t mean to. It was an accident.” Suddenly, Joel was on his feet again. “It was an accident, I swear. I’m sorry!” His eyes scanned the rows and rows of corn, searching for a reprieve.
“Keep it fun for everyone!” echoed the response, followed by a childish giggle. As the steps came closer, the voice repeated its mantra, followed by what might have been a friendly laugh in other circumstances.
“No,” yelled Joel as he turned to face the direction of the sound. “I said I was sorry. I’m sorry!”
Still closer. Mandy grabbed his arm again, pulling him towards the path. “Come on, Joel, we have to get out of here before it finds you. We have to—“
He yanked his arm away, eyes filled with despair. “No, it’s too late for me, Mandy. I broke the rules.”
“We can figure it out, let’s just move. We can stay ahead of it.”
“Keep it fun for everyone!” Now it was distinct.
“Get away from me!” roared Joel, shoving her into the darkness. Mandy stumbled, landing hard on the ground.
There was a pause in the unstoppable steps, a brief whirr of electronics, and then it spoke again. “Keep hands, feet, and objects to yourself!” A momentary pause. “Keep it fun for everyone!”
“Run,” he said, turning his back on her to face what was stalking down the rows.
Mandy finally gave in, turning and walking slowly down the rows of corns. Don’t run, she reminded herself. Don’t curse. Don’t throw corn. Don’t cut through the rows. She tried to remember all the rules on the sign. Taking the first turn, Joel disappeared from sight just as the scarecrow turned onto his row. She winced at the sound of screaming coming from him, tried to block it out as it became muffled. When it finally stopped, the silence was far worse.
Her tears laid a marker of her progress, ephemeral breadcrumbs that did little to show her physical steps but were everything to her emotional unwinding. She walked until here feet were sore, then continued until they faded into numbness. The moon never moved and the sun never rose. Eventually, she looked at her watch, seeing the numbers click from 6:00 to 10:00 to noon, but her world never changed.
She stopped at another dead end, staring at the impenetrable wall. She had walked every possible path, but none of them led any further to freedom. Perhaps, she allowed herself to think, Joel was right.
She had held the thought at bay, afraid it would finally dissolve what little hope she had left. True to her fears, it did just that, but left a firm streak of defiant determination in its wake.
“If that’s the game, then,” she whispered, stealing her resolve. With a deep breath, she plunged through the rows.
Almost instantly, the footsteps picked up again, rocketing towards her. ”Now why would you ruin all the fun?” mocked her predator. She heard corn crunching beneath his feet as he crashed toward her. Every step was closer, the voice repeating its phrase again and again with maddening consistency.
Mandy imagined she could feel the ground tremble with each of its steps. She heard the echoes of its voice and felt phantom whispers of breath, hot and rancid, on her neck. But looking behind, the monster was not yet in sight.
She also imaged that there was a break up ahead. That she could see something besides more corn standing beyond those far rows. It was hope, she said with defeat, hope trying to reassert some little flame to keep her going.
“Now why would you ruin all the fun?”
And then, she was stumbling out onto grass, corn falling away behind her. The sun was bright and high in the sky. Mandy stumbled, falling to the ground as her eyes reeled from the transition between total darkness and total light. She scrambled along the ground, turning to look back at the hole from which she had burst. But there was nothing but golden stalks of corn.
This work by Katherine C is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License.
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The collection of girls sat gathered around the Ouija board, huddled in tight. Candles flickered from the table top, casting just enough light to pick up the black letters printed on the board. Sherry’s mom had bought the game for them to play with on their annual Halloween slumber party. The nervous giggles died down as Sherry did the honors of asking the first question.
“Is there anybody out there?” she asked, leaving the words hanging there in the silence of the house. Her parents had gone to bed hours ago, and they had even agreed to send her annoying little brother to their grandparents’ house for the night. The triangle on the board stubbornly refused to move.
“I don’t think it’s working,” whispered Janie, doing her best to mask relief with boredom.
“Sh! Be patient,” barked Sherry. “It’s okay, you can talk to us,” she cajoled any listening spirits. “Just say hi!” Still nothing.
Claire piped up, always the voice of optimism. “Maybe they are just shy. It might be better if we introduce ourselves, first.” The remaining three agreed, Sherry eager to find anything that could help jumpstart what was supposed to be the main event.
“I’ll start. My name is Sherry. This is my house,” she smiled, looking around the room toward the ceiling. After no noticeable response, she nodded to her left.
“I’m Janie. That’s it.”
Everyone looked at the third member of the party. “I’m Olivia,” said the third, her voice thin and wavering. “It’s nice to meet you.”
Finally it came full circle. “And I’m Claire! Now you don’t have to be so nervous!”
“Good idea, Claire,” said Sherry with a smile. “Now, is there anybody out there?”
Their expectations rose, only to trickle back down as the silence stretched. No response.
“I’m going to the bathroom,” said Janie, rising and stomping out of the room.
Olivia piped up, uncertainty in her voice as always. “Maybe we could ask something else? Like maybe it’s rude that we keep talking like they aren’t even here?”
“Well what would you ask?” snapped Sherry.
“I don’t know, maybe…” Olivia leaned down, placing her fingers on the planchette. “Would you like to talk to us?”
For a moment, nothing. Then, the little piece of plastic spun toward “Yes.”
There was a moment of silence, then gasps as the reality settled in. “What’s your name?” said Sherry.
The pointer did not move.
“Are you dead?” asked Claire. Sherry gave her a withering look.
“You can’t just ask things like that. It’s rude, Claire.” But the being responded, the marker spiraling towards “No.”
“Are you a demon?” said Sherry quickly, her eyes wide.
“Well what are you then?”
A pause, Sherry eyeing the board with equal parts amazement, excitement, and terror. Slowly, this time, the marker moved.
“I-S-E-E.” Then it stopped.
“An isee? Like the slushies?” asked Claire with a short giggle. Sherry scoffed.
“No. I see. It sees or something. What do you see?” Sherry asked the ceiling.
“This isn’t funny. Are you doing that?” asked Olivia, fixing Sherry with a plaintive look. Sherry shook her head. The planchette moved to yes.
“How many people are in this room?” asked Claire, caught up in the moment.
“4.” The three girls quickly counted one another and arrived at the same conclusion. There were three of them sitting around the board.
“Why are you here?” asked Sherry. There was no response.
Janie’s return startled all three of them, and they fell back with shrieks that devolved into giggles.
“Janie, we’ve got something!” Sherry nearly shouted when she had calmed down enough. Janie looked skeptical.
“Really? What’s their name?”
“They wouldn’t tell us,” said Olivia, looking somewhat embarrassed and frightened at the missing information.
“Well, what is it then?” snapped Janie, obviously under the impression she was about to be the butt of some half-conceived practical joke.
The events of the night likely could have been attributed to sugar, a slight tendency towards deception, and superstition. Until that question. Because with that, the Ouija board responded on its own, no hands or sneaky fingers nearby to push the piece along the board.
“I-S-E-E,” it spelled again. Eight eyes watched it fearfully.
“What do you see?” asked Janie, her voice just above a whisper.
“We already—“ began Claire, but then piece was moving again.
“Y-O-U,” it reiterated, and everyone could feel the exasperation whatever it was had at repeating itself.
“What do you mean, you see us?” asked Janie with scared bravado.
“Y-O-U,” it said, moving faster. “Y-O-U-Y-O-U-Y-O-U-Y-O—“ Olivia snatched the thin piece of plastic off the board.
“I don’t think we should play with this anymore,” she said, hugging the pointer to her chest as her eyes stared down at the cheap board.
“Come on, Liv. It’s just getting good,” Sherry said. “Don’t be a baby and ruin it for the rest of us.”
Olivia looked at them, then tossed the marker to the floor before standing herself. “I’m going to bed, then. You guys can play with the devil all you want.”
“No,” said the board, but Olivia was already out of the room.
The remaining three circled around, leaning in close to watch every possible move.
“Are you a spirit?”
“Are you evil?”
“So you’re good, then.” Janie wasn’t asking, but the board answered.
“Maybe Liv’s right,” said Claire, her usual optimism dissipating as reality sunk in. Games weren’t supposed to play themselves. “I’m going to go to bed, too. I’m not having fun anymore.”
The door closed behind her, and Sherry leaned over the board with feverish excitement. “Can you see our futures?”
“Who am I going to marry?” began Sherry. She quickly crossed her fingers and began mouthing the name Tony Anderson, her crush since the third grade.
“That’s not an answer. You have to answer my questions.”
“Let me try,” interjected Janie. “Who will I marry?”
“D-A-V-E,” it said with some finality.
The two girls looked puzzled, turning the name over. Neither knew of a Dave. There was David Smith two years ahead of them, but he never went by Dave.
“A mystery man, eh?” joked Sherry.
“I guess so. Let’s try another one. Will I be famous?” asked Janie, a smirk on her lips.
“What about me?” interjected Sherry, already preening.
“An artist? An actor? A politician? A scientist? A—“ Sherry ran out of desired careers as the marker repeatedly bounced over the word “no.”
“Well then what?” she finally asked, exasperated.
There was a finality to the movement. Sherry turned white, her eyes seeming to take up half of her face with shock. “Dead,” she whispered, the word barely audible over the hum of the air conditioning unit.
“Yes,” the board dutifully replied.
“I don’t think I like this anymore, Janie,” Sherry said as she backed away. “I think this was a very bad idea.” Without taking her eyes from the board, Sherry turned the doorknob and exited the room, turning and running once she was out in the hall. Janie could hear her footsteps as the pounded down the stairs to the living room where Olivia, Claire, and safety were certainly waiting.
Janie eyed the board curiously, a smile barely visible on her lips. “So,” she began, “if she’s famous and I’m not, I guess that means they never catch me, right?”
This work by Katherine C is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License.
Hello! Sorry for the silence. I just started my new (old) job, and I’ve been trying to get all the paperwork and stuff squared away. It’s been a headache and a half, but hopefully all the right forms are to the right people now. I’ve also had a nightmare of a cold recently, so that has not helped me with the whole creative aspect of things.
But, of course, I do come bearing another story. This is the epitome of a first draft, though. As always, the story is below. My critique to myself would be a good concept and interesting start. However, the ending lacks a bit of punch and the pacing may be off. I’m afraid it drags at the beginning and then rushes through the climax. (I also just realized I dislike the tense switch from past to present at the end. It seemed like it worked at the time, but it’s a strategy I’m not usually a fan of. Something else to consider…) So I’d expect some tinkering on this. I’m also toying with the idea of expanding this story into multiple parts. I’ve had a couple of character ideas kicking around for a while, and they might be the perfect way to help the protagonist learn more about the eponymous Bottle Lady and her curse. But I think I need to get part one right before I think about expanding.
I would really appreciate any feedback or advice anyone has. Do you agree with my own critique? Disagree? Think I’m missing a glaring issue? I really enjoy showing the process of writing for me, and I hope you will join me on that journey. Either way, as always, happy reading!
Growing up, I never would have called my mother superstitious. Sure, she had a story and warning for everything, but there was none of the magic hand waving that I associated with tenuous superstitions. No, her beliefs were undeniable fact. The sun rose in the east and set in the west, what goes up must come down, and the Rat King would nibble your toes at night if you failed to rinse your dinner plate. There was no myth to it.
Once I left home, the absurdity of many of these beliefs finally sunk in. It’s not so much that I honestly believed these growing up, but just that I assumed everyone had these stories. Didn’t everyone know the story of the Crooked Old Man who lived in the basement and would creep up the stairs if you failed to shut the door? No, they didn’t. And in hindsight, I’m surprised I didn’t end up more disturbed by these creepy stories.
I grew older and the stories made sense. She was a single mom, living in a city hundreds of miles from her family, doing everything to make a life for three kids. The stories kept us in line. She never believed a one of them either, but they created rules. She did not have to be the bad cop, because her fables were there to fill in the gap. Still, it would have been nice to know not everyone grew up with these stories. I would have worried my college roommate a lot less.
After the power of the stories as real had faded, the behaviors remained, firmly ingrained in my routine. Getting undressed? Take our clothes and put them in the hamper, making sure not to leave your pants or sleeves or socks all bunched up. I completed the action rhythmically thanks to eighteen years of practice, not because I was afraid the trapped skin cells and dirt would give rise to an evil twin. But it’s hard to explain that story to someone and not have them think you’re crazy.
So, I chalked up my mother’s story to superstition and well-intentioned morality stories. Even being grown, she sometimes brought them up when we were at the house, reminding us to use coasters so the witch couldn’t use the ring to peer into our living room. We smiled and complied.
I’m feeling sentimental now, I guess. Like maybe I should write all these stories down before I forget them. Mom died, you see. Last month. It’s still a fresh wound, but she had been so sick for so long…
Still, none of that is the point. The point is that she was not wrong.
I had to dig pretty far back in my memory to remember the first time she spoke about the Bottle Lady. I was very young, and we had just had a screaming match full of all the fury my little body could muster. I don’t remember what I said or why I was upset—being young there are a million possible reasons. But I remember the feeling of my raw throat and flushed cheeks as she sat me on my bed. She was beside me, one hand on my knee and another on my back, soothing. All the details are fuzzy, but I imagine she had that same resigned, loving, irritated look that she seemed to perfect in my teens.
“Mija,” she said. Or maybe I just imagine she said. It’s not important. “Mija, we must never yell things like that, especially not where the wind can take those words away. You never know who might hear.” Older me made sense of this by thinking she must not want to disturb the neighbors with a childish tantrum. And a hefty mix of “don’t air your dirty laundry in the street” thrown in for good measure.
I don’t remember my words, but I recall a stubborn streak emerging. I’d do what I want, because I was old enough to realize I could decide my own actions and affect others. I was a power drunk tyrant of a toddler. Or so she always told me fondly.
“If you do need to yell, make sure to go around and close all the windows. Make sure it’s not too windy outside either. Perhaps you may need to even close the chimney. When you’re rea good and sure no one else can hear you, then you can yell all you want. But you have to take some time to prepare, first.”
Grumbling and obstinance on my part, met with her smile and gentle hand. “You see, the Bottle Lady likes to listen for people who are angry and unhappy. She listens on the wind to hear angry little children. If she hears you, she’ll follow that sound all the way back to you and scoop your little voice right up into one of her bottles. Then you won’t be able to say a thing.”
My mouth agape, staring, wondering. It’s a wonder I did not have nightmares my entire childhood. But she smiled, then leaned down with mock menace. “Of course, then, maybe, I’d get a little peace and quiet!” She was tickling me and I was laughing, the punishment passed. The Bottle Lady was a frequent bogeyman in our home. If I started to yell at my sister, mother would be there to point me to the windows. Once I had checked all the windows and doors, I could come back and say whatever I had on my mind. Of course, most of the anger had burned out by then. Eventually, it simply became another habit. If I began to raise my voice, I’d stomp off to check the doors and windows, returning a couple of minutes later in a much better mindset to speak. And the idea of fighting on the playground or at school—places I could never hope to contain my words—was foreign.
Her superstitions had a purpose. I just never imagined any of them could be true.
I was not in a good place after she died. I mean, I’m still not in a good place, but I’m less the mess I was and more a typical grieving child. Or as typical as grief ever is. I let my good habits slide—dishes piled in the sink, clothes on the floor, the TV blaring at all hours. It was a call from some debt collector that finally broke me. I was in our old house, in the midst of packing up her belongings. They had no way to know she had passed, and God knows she had racked up debt trying to stay alive. That does not make them any less vultures. They wouldn’t listen, and before I knew it, I was screaming into the telephone.
I was not in my right mind, and I could not tell you what I truly said upon penalty of death. The anger and pain just gushed out of me and through the phone. How dare they, I said. Didn’t they know we were grieving (which they couldn’t have, I know)? I was sick and tired of putting up with it all, of looking happy and pulled together. I just wanted to be left alone.
While hanging up would have been sufficient, I flung the phone against the wall. It burst into hunks of cheap plastic, leaving a gash in the drywall I had to later fill. The house had to bear the scars of my immature rage.
I didn’t even think about the Bottle Lady as I stormed around the house, shoving things into boxes ahead of the big sale. My sister was pushing it, despite my requests to slow down. My brother refused to get involved. Who knows what things I muttered in that house. I was angry at myself, angry at the creditors, angry at Mila and Peter, angry at God, angry at my mother. All the while, the curtains flapped in the nice breeze. I’m sure the neighbors thought I was crazy, but then again they probably would have given me the benefit of the doubt.
I slept in my old bedroom that night, staring up at the posters of my teenage heartthrobs, still enshrined there after so many years. Mom had always left our rooms the same, saying the house would always be ours. And it was until Mila decided to liquidate it.
We were also told to never leave the windows open while we slept, lest some bad spirit sneak in and put naughty words in our mouths. I could not remember a time in my life when I had fallen asleep with a window open, but that night was the exception. Grief swarmed me, and I was unconscious only a paragraph into my book chapter.
The wind was truly blowing when I woke up, kicking the gauzy curtains about in a frenzy. They snapped in the wind, which is what I assumed woke me up. It felt and sounded like a storm was brewing up somewhere, so I considered it a lucky break. Doing my best to avoid entangling myself in the curtains, I stumbled over and slammed the window down, then dutifully traced my steps through the house to ensure everything was sealed up tight. The realtor would have my head if I got the “original wood floors” waterlogged with such a careless mistake.
She was standing on the in the hallway as I made my way out of the kitchen. I froze, my eyes quickly trying to parse the strange silhouette. In the dark, all I could see was a dark lump in the center of the hallway, with a large square extending from about four feet to the top of the ceiling. The figure lurched forward, the square dragging along the ceiling with the clink of glass from somewhere. Trying to assign human anatomy to it, I recognized the short, wide leg that stomped forward, followed by a belabored sway forward. From the leg, I was able to pick out a torso and two stubby arms.
She stepped forward again, falling into the limited light from Mila’s bedroom window. I could see her face, round and squashed together. Her lips looked swollen, and her eyes squinted until there was nothing more than a thin shadow marking their location. One her back, strapped haphazardly by two worn leather straps, was some large wooden structure. She carried it along, her back impossibly stooped by the weight of whatever it was. I could hear the glass rattling with each step she took, tinkling in time to the shaking of the wooden behemoth.
She smiled when she saw me, the shifting muscles somehow creating an even more displeasing image. Almost in relief, she sagged towards the ground, slumping her shoulders until the straps released whatever it was on her back. Her posture stayed just as stooped, giving the impression she was nearly walking about on all fours. Still smiling, she turned and tugged on what I quickly recognized as a door on a large cabinet. She carried the thing about with her.
The doors fell open with a long, irritated creak. The hinges appeared to barely hold it together, and they swung, pealing their displeasure with each miniscule movement.
Enraptured as I was by the scene, I turned and fled the moment she turned her back to inspect the contents of the cabinet. The kitchen door led out into the back yard, which connected to the front by a gate. It seemed trivial to escape, especially since the woman was at the wrong end of the hallway to prevent me from fleeing. However, the door was shut tight. I gripped the doorknob tightly and turned with all my might, but it simply spun in my hand.
The basement door was opposite the exit, and there was a way out through there. I turned to sprint down the steps, but she caught me in my tracks. My mind tried to piece together how she could have made it from one end of the hallway to me in the time it took me to check the door, but none of the pieces matched. It was a categorical impossibility. Still, she slowly shuffled between me and the door, her mouth still wide with a smile.
There was a glass bottle in her hand, something made of old, weather-worn blue glass. She lifted it up and shook it at me, the glass catching what little light there was in the kitchen. “Yours?” she said, her voice bursting from her mouth like a moth escaping a musty closet.
She deftly withdrew a cork from the bottle, and I heard my voice. “Don’t you have any decency?” the voice shouted, breaking the stillness in the kitchen.
It continued. “I certainly couldn’t live with myself if I was half as vile as you”
“Go to hell!”
“They just think they can dump everything on me, but they’re in for a rude awakening.”
“Bet they just wish I’d up and die, too. Make it easier on everyone.”
More and more hate poured out of the bottle, and I felt my eyes widen. That was my voice, and the words were all too familiar. I heard myself on the phone, pacing the house, swearing as I threw things into boxes and crunched old newspapers around them. It was a terrifying mimic of my entire afternoon.
The Bottle Lady nodded, placing the cork back in the bottle almost lovingly. Her eyes met mine, cruelty glinting there, as she raised the bottle and brought it crashing down on the floor. Little pieces of blue scattered across the cheap linoleum.
With surprising dexterity and speed, she swept up a handful of the shards and threw them into her gaping mouth. I could hear the crunching, see the trickle of blood snake down her chin. She swallowed and then smiled with newly bloodstained teeth.
“You should have known better,” said my voice from her lips.
She turned and began shuffling her way back out of the kitchen, coattails dragging along behind her and leaving a trail of grime in her wake. My mouth opened. “Who are you and why the fuck are you in my house” was what I intended to say. But there was only silence. My lips flapped open, the air gusted through, but there were no words. They were trapped, buried somewhere deep in my chest.
I sprinted after her, lips forming into the shapes for “Wait!” and “Stop!” to no avail. She was at the end of the hall as I exited the kitchen. I could see into the cabinet now, see dozens if not hundreds of bottles lining the shelves. There were all shapes and colors, some filled and some empty.
With unexpected tenderness, she closed the doors and lifted the straps to her back. I was close enough to touch her, to grab one arm. The flesh beneath was soft, nearly oozing from beneath my fingers. She turned to me, still smiling from a face now painted with blood and spittle, and then was gone with her cabinet.
I yelled and screamed silently sitting there alone in the house. My sister came over around noon the next day and found me in a heap precisely where the Bottle Lady disappeared. There was a trail of dirt and leaves leading form the kitchen to the hallway, which she began complaining about as soon as she entered the house. The words died on her lips when she saw me.
They say its selective mutism brought on due to grief. Selective because my sister, brother, and one rather peeved creditor say I have been calling repeatedly and leaving terrible voicemails. I’ve told my sister I wish she were dead six times, apparently, and have repeatedly told my brother mom never loved him anyways. Of course, I know I haven’t said those things, but my sister did not seem to buy into the Bottle Lady story no matter how quickly I wrote about what happened. And I have not found anyone to confirm it’s not me leaving 3am voicemails for the whole family. I just sound crazy. My psychiatrist agrees.
Worst of all, though, are the things I’ve been saying to me. She whispers in my own voice whenever I’m alone. “You’re worthless,” I say with more vitriol than I’ve ever used in my life. “Mom as the only person who could ever love you, and she died just to get away.” It’s a constant barrage of all my worst thoughts, delivered by the one person I thought I could depend on.
I think she’s angry that I’ve been writing this. Like I’m somehow cheating. The things she says to me, that I hear myself say, have gotten worse and worse. I assume the phone calls to my siblings have, too, but they understandably cut contact with their toxic sister.
I see her now. Hiding around the corner, in the shadows of my closet, three seats behind me on the bus. She just smiles and watches, waiting for me to break.
Like a predator, she separated the weakling from the herd and now has only to circle until I give in to my weakness.
I fear she won’t have much longer to wait.
This work by Katherine C is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License.
So, I’ve got a few things in the works, including one kind of neat project I had hoped to post this week. But, it is (as always) taking longer than I anticipated. So, it should be coming along before too long. In the meantime, I wanted to write something shorter. I’ve been writing really long things recently, which is good, but it can be a crutch for me. So here is something shorter to try and tell a story well, but briefly. As always, first draft. Let me know your thoughts!
It was a fool’s errand to be out in the cold, but Dana felt she had no other choice. The car was stopped and getting colder by the second, her phone did not work, and she was sure she had seen a town just a few miles back. So a walk in this weather, bundled as she was, shouldn’t be a problem. Only it was quickly becoming one.
Her mittens were more than adequate for the usual walk from her car, down the couple of blocks to work, and into the aggressively heated building. But the fabric was soaked after one or two unfortunate tumbles into the snow, and her fingers were chilled to the bone. They had passed the point of obnoxious ache and entered into an almost pleasant numbness. Her feet, in contrast, pounded with the ache of walking and increasing cold. The beaten up pair of boots she dutifully dragged with her did an admirable job protecting her, but with drifts above her knees, snow was quickly slipping in and turning her socks into soggy, icy cages.
Dana blinked and felt her eyelashes stick to one another for a moment. Her scarf was wrapped tight around her mouth, nose, and ears, leaving a humid and increasingly odorous environment as she stomped along. The town had to be close. She imagined a warm cup of hot chocolate in her hands, enlivening her numb fingers once again. The image was real enough that she could almost taste the rich chocolate favor. But then reality intruded yet again.
The wind howled around her, muted by her dutiful scarf, but it ripped and tore across the ground. Occasionally, a tree branch would sway and dump a generous serving of snow onto her stockinged head. She tried to block out the sound of creaking branches, her nerves already on edge.
And then there was something different. This was not the random groan of branches, nor was it the constant rumble of the wind snapping through the trees and kicking up clouds of snow. No, this was a strange, rhythmic sound. It was the sound of footsteps crunching through the snow, breaking through the icy top layer and sinking into the soft drifts below. They mimicked Dana’s own steps, but slower. Whoever was out here with her was clearly not in the hurry she was.
Which meant, she reasoned, that they must know where they are and be close to shelter. It could be her saving grace.
She pulled the scarf from her mouth, looking around in hopes of catching sight of her companion between the trees. The steps sounded close. “Hello? I’m lost.”
She listened, but the steps continued on, just as slow and steady as before. She looked, but everything was the same palette of grey, white, and green pine needles. She glanced behind her, down the arc of snowy asphalt stretching behind her. It would be easy to see someone walking along the side of the road—part of the reason she had chosen her path—but whoever was out here remained hidden.
Dana peered into the branches on the other side of the road. The weak sunlight was quickly fading, and she could not make out much more than a mass of shadows.
“Hello?” she tried again. “My car broke down and I need to get to town,” she offered, hoping it might convince the stranger that she was no threat.
The steps paused, and she was almost angry at the sudden silence. Now she did not even have the sound cues to help her find the person she was now sure would be her savior. But, she reminded herself, it meant they may have heard her.
“Do you know of anywhere I can go to get warmed up?”
Slow, steady steps resumed, now at a slightly quicker pace. She continued to scan the trees, hoping to see her rescuer. There was a flurry of movement to her left, and she spun quickly. Something was moving between the trees, but it blended with the grey and white all around her. Whoever it was, they were large, knocking aside tall branches and leaving them swaying. Was it a hunter wearing some sort of snow camo? She tried to estimate the height from the branches, but the answer kept coming back impossible. Her eyes promised the branches were at least 10 feet high, but she knew that was impossible.
Looking through the increasing shadows, she tried to discern the outline coming towards her. The steps were quicker now, increasing as it moved. But try as she might, it continued to deflect, the light diffusing across the white snow and white clothing of whatever hurtled towards her. And then it was closer, free from the maze of grey branches and tree trunks.
And it was not a person, Dana realized quickly. It walked on two legs, but towered beneath the canopy. Its face was of some indistinguishable animal. A flattened snout, low angled ears, dark eyes, and rows of teeth. It watched her closely, sniffing the air.
“Elo?” it mimicked, tilting its head to the side and staring at her. “Elo,” it said again.
Dana wondered for an instant if her brief pause had been enough to freeze her boots to the ground, but then life returned to them. She was able to ignore the pain and she ran down the roadway, trying to put distance between her and whatever creature she had disturbed.
Now she could hear its steps crashing behind her, covering the icy ground in broad, gangly bounds. It spoke with a mishmash of her words, coming out half-spoken.
“Car own. I go arm lost.”
And then there was ice swelling up to meet Dana. Her feet had betrayed her, flying back behind her as she plummeted to the ground. She heard those words echoing in the darkness as the smell of musk and decay overtook her.
Dana woke up warm. There was a blanket covering her body, soft and scratchy all at once. She pushed herself deeper into it, reveling in the encompassing warmth. There was the smell of smoke and the crackle of a fire in the air. Her mind slowly put the pieces together and informed her that she had no idea where she might be, wrapped in a blanket in front of a fire. With that, her eyes flew open.
It was a cave, lit only by the glow of the fire in the middle of the room. There was a smattering of bones, camping equipment, and branches littering the floor. Dana’s boots sat to the side, just beyond the fire but close enough to dry.
And then there was the hulking behemoth, sitting on its haunches and looking into the fire. It made a few muffled noises, half grunts, and adjusted its position. Then, in what seemed to be slow motion, it turned to look at Dana. There was recognition—perhaps excitement—in its eyes as it noticed she had awoken. With shuffling steps, it moved over to her. Dana tried to escape, but there was nowhere to go. Behind her was a stone wall and in front of her a monster. Her arms and legs tangled in the pelt thrown over her, further impeding her hopes of escape. And then it was beside her, its large paw reaching towards her face with outstretched claws. She screamed.
It softly touched her cheek, the rough skin of its hand running across her cheek. It opened its mouth in what almost resembled a smile, tongue lolling out like a pleased dog. The scream faltered as confusion took over.
“What are you?” she asked, eyes locked onto its large face.
“Warm,” it said, gesturing broadly to the fire roaring.
“You brought me here to get warm?”
It did not provide a response, but moved over to the fireside, settling down into a crouch and watching her. When she did not move, it gave a quick hop and slapped the ground with one massive hand. Dana slid forward slowly, feeling the increasing heat as she inched her way along the floor. Once beside the creature, it turned back to the fire, watching it as if hypnotized. Dana herself watched the fire, noticing the way the tongues of flame licked at the wood and danced wildly. The shadows skirted around the room, creating monstrous hallucinations from clumps of rock and hair. She tried not to look at the bones.
And exhaustion took over, her eyes growing heavy. She fell asleep leaning against one firm, furry arm.
“We’ve got her here!”
Someone was yelling and Dana was slowing waking up. There was a commotion, the sound of someone crashing through snow and branches. And then a police officer was in front of her, reaching down and checking her pulse.
“What are you—“ She felt dazed and confused, half awake and uncertain how she came to be there.
“Dana Morrison? Are you okay?”
“I don’t know. Where am I?”
“Are you injured?” he asked, visually scanning her and she pushed herself off the frozen ground and into a seated position.
“I don’t—I don’t think so.”
He clicked his radio. “Paramedics to my position. We need to get her out of here.”
The next few moments were a flurry of activity. He kept asking questions, providing only brief answers. She had been missing for almost two days. They had found her car down the road. It was a miracle she was alive.
The paramedics arrived and checked her briefly before loading her up for a trip to the hospital. But as they strapped her into the gurney, one approached her.
“This blanket probably saved your life. No sense leaving it behind,” she smiled, smoothing the fabric over Dana’s legs. Dana glanced down to see a rough pelt draped over her legs. She tried not to think about the impossible familiarity, because she knew that cave couldn’t exist. It had to be a hallucination brought on by hypothermia.
This work by Katherine C is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License.
Here is something I threw together in honor of fall. Just an idea that I wanted to play with. As always, I would love to hear your thoughts in the comments!
Michael had no reason to fear. True, it was certainly a situation where one might consider fear an appropriate response, but there was absolutely no reason for him to fear.
It had been a peaceful evening up until that point. The day had been dreary, rain trickling down window panes and pattering on the sidewalk. He had watched it, gloomily, from his office window. It was hard to stay focused and productive with the grey and slithering weather slipping past his window. The morning felt like early evening, the afternoon like dusk. His body was already prepared to crash when he got home, convinced it was 7:00 by the time he made it out of the grey structure.
Somehow, however, the cloud cover had broken on the drive home. There were only a few hours of sunlight left, but Michael eagerly soaked it in from behind his car windows. After getting home, he resolutely set out for an early evening walk to take in the clean, warm air. It was a perfect walk, the scent of fall in the air, still slightly damp from the day’s rain. The sun was warm and beaming.
His neighborhood was nice, and it seemed others had a similar idea. Families and children seemed to be soaking up the lovely weather, certain that rain would trundle back by the next day. It was the unofficial rainy season, the tail end of summer as it shifted to the chilly fall weather. There was some magic to the changing season, and it seemed everyone wanted to witness to it.
Michael had eventually drifted into the park, making his way into the wooded paths. The sun filtered through the leaves, highlighting the subtly shifting shades of the leaves. A nice breeze picked up, and he tugged his jacket closer. The leaves whispered around him. It was peaceful.
But, as is common with fall evenings, the darkness seemed to settle in at a surprisingly rapid pace. The sun eventually sunk beneath the hills on the horizon, casting long golden fingers around the newly approaching clouds. Shadows grew long, eventually melding into one another, casting a heavy blanket of darkness over the park. Michael sighed as the lamps flicked on, sodium yellow now filtering through the trees. If not for a growing hunger in his gut—that slice of pizza from lunch had not lasted as long as he would have liked—he might have spent a little longer meandering along the path. The air was getting a bitter edge to it, and he almost thought he could hear rain whispering in the top of the leafy canopy. It was for the best to return home.
Only, as is so often the case, the best laid plans most certainly went awry. He found himself standing at a fork in the road, completely unsure of which path he had come from. He had been lost in thought, barely paying attention to where his feet wandered. Still, the park was not that big, and there was no harm in taking a wrong turn. The worst case, he reasoned, would be he ended up on a street a couple blacks over instead of next to his house. The weather was still nice enough to make it adventure, not an inconvenience.
The leaves rustled around him as he arrived yet again at a fork I n the path. He had not passed this many, surely. Still, he was certain that the paths would eventually lead it. They were all pretty much interlinked circles, after all. He tried to remember the map at the edge of the park with its brightly highlighted trails, but it was simply a mess of tangled lines crossing over and under one another.
It was not until he came upon yet another path with no memory of the choice that he began to feel a slight prickle of unease. The park was not that big.
His pace was faster, and he zipped up his jacket His hands were actually getting a bit chilled, even though he had not thought the temperature was supposed to drop that drastically tonight. Around and around he wandered, hidden under the leaves and following one stout lamp post to another.
And then, the path ended.
For a moment, Michael stood and stared at the path that simply thinned and then disappeared into a pile of leaves. There were no sounds—not even the sound of cars zipping past on the nearby roads—besides the whispering of leaves rustling overhead. The wind must have kicked up, he reasoned, as the sound rose to a crescendo.
He did not remember dead ends in all of his trips to the park. Then again, he did not remember forks upon forks leading him deeper and deeper into the woods. It was obvious he must not have been paying much attention. Shrugging his shoulder, he turned around.
It was then Michael began to fear, even if there was no reason to. Standing before him was a pile of leaves, which certainly does not sound terrifying. However, if you were walking along the woods, slightly lost, and suddenly came upon a human shaped collection of fall leaves, you might startle as well. You certainly would as it opened big, golden, owl-like eyes and stared at you with predatory eagerness.
Fear tends to produce one of three responses in a human. They will choose to either fight, flee, or freeze. In this moment, Michael chose to freeze. His mouth fell open as if someone had unhinged his jaw, and his eyes seemed to fall back into the cavern of his skull. For a moment, he simply took in the image of some impossible creature before him.
It opened its mouth—though it did not quite have a mouth. He only understood it as a mouth because of the sounds that began when a chasm opened up just below the eyes. It was leaves whispering in the wind, hissing and slithering in a language he could not comprehend. It was then that he noticed the jagged points of red and orange ringing that opening, the undulating vine that writhed within the expanse. Teeth, his mind labeled. Tongue.
Suddenly, they looked sharp. Michael felt his fear—as useless as it was—enter a new stage, call upon a new tactic. Flee, it said. He turned and began to rush through the underbrush, damp leaves slick with rain and threatening his minutest progress. Still, despite the treacherous footing, he made his way through the woods, hands batting away grasping branches. Behind him, he heard the leaves laughing at him, their bodies sliding one over another, laughing in a frozen breeze.
Michael did what you most certainly should not and chanced a glance behind him. He could see the strange creature cut from foliage rising among the tree, clambering over the branches like water pooling over stones. For a moment, he was struck by the memory of his chemistry teacher rolling mercury in a glass bottle. It seemed to glide over the surface the same way this creature wove between the branches.
Of course, his attention torn away, he was quick to slip. And that thing was quick to pounce, diving from the trees in a flurry of movement. Michael was pinned to the ground, and he called upon his very last resource. He started to fight. Michael’s legs flew towards the creature, ripping into its leafy form, only to be swallowed up in the mass. He tried to pull his arms away, to scrtch nad punch at what he assumed was the things face. But instead, his arms seemed ot sink into the loamy soil beneath him. The woodland detritus beneath his back seemed to come alive, wrapping around him and pulling him into an impossible embrace.
The creature almost seemed to smile, that gap of a mouth stretching wider with that same sibilant laugh. Now he could see the teeth clearly, sharp and dangerous despite their innocent appearance. It smelled of rot and decay in there, eons of autumns cast into an inky pit of some living horror.
In that moment, Michael gave up on fear. As the teeth grew closer, wrapping around his yes, he finally saw the error of his ways.
And so, Michael had no reason to fear. Fear should do something, give a creature some hope of surviving an ordeal. But, for Michael, it had no purpose. He could freeze, flee, or fight all he wanted. But there was no good reason to fear. After all, he was dead the moment he laid eyes upon those hungry eyes.
Hello! Sorry for disappearing again. I’ve been settling into a new routine, and recently developed annoying daily headaches. By the time I get home from work, I’m fending off one, and that makes me unlikely to do much writing. For those I generally email back and forth with, this is why I may have been relatively silent. Computer screens tend to exacerbate the symptoms. I’m trying some environmental changes, like using lamps and natural light more than the obnoxious fluorescents at work, drinking water, sleeping more, and other things. Hopefully I get them managed soon, because it’s really frustrating to deal with them daily. They aren’t bad, but having them every day is really getting old.
And then there’s the age-old problem where I currently hate everything I’m writing. That’s always good. Which means I have a handful of half-finished things, and nothing ready to be posted. That is good in that I will have lots to post at some point, but bad in that I do not currently have a multitude of pieces to choose and post from. Well, except for this piece. It’s a shorter one, and I more like the idea than the piece. It was an attempt to write something in second person that I would not absolutely hate, and I think it sort of does that. You’ll just have to judge for yourselves the merit of this one! Happy reading!
You do not remember what happened back then. Whatever it was, it is lost in a haze that only briefly resurfaces in your deepest nightmares or that flash of anxiety deep in your gut. You were too young to remember it then, and youth may be precisely what saved you. Only you are not so young now, and your youth can no longer be your shield.
You know something happened, try as you might to ignore it. You caught hints of it in those stilted dinner time conversations when your parents would smile and swiftly change the subject, obviously dancing around something sinister. There was a fear and panic in their smiles, so you knew it must mean something. Even if you consciously brushed it aside, it burrowed into your subconscious. You remembered the half-known dreams with abstract feelings of guilt and pleasure that woke you with the power of the mood, even if the specifics grew fuzzy. You knew that there were certain words and phrases that sent an unnatural shiver down your spine, even though they seemed so benign. There was something buried in your life so deep, no conscious thought could uncover it.
You were so small when it happened, you must have been innocent. That was what they said at the time, at least. You do not remember the babysitter with her short, dark hair and innocent, trusting eyes. She had just been certified for babysitting, or so she said, whatever that meant. She was responsible and organized, if perhaps a little strict. Dutifully and impersonally, she prepared your dinner, put you in pajamas, and tucked you into bed. No matter you were not ready for bed. Once she thought you were asleep—though you certainly were not at such an unreasonable hour—she tuned out the house with that music she was so enamored with. It all sounded angry and violent to your unaccustomed ears. You could hear it surrounding you as she made you dinner, heard the sounds drip from her lips as she hummed and half-sang along from somewhere in the house as you fought not to sleep.
You were angry, and he was there to help. You certainly do not remember your imaginary friend. Trauma at such a young age has a way of wiping away those details. Or so they say. He was there to soothe you, and he promised to make sure she understood. You do not remember his smile, with those fine, sharp teeth. You may remember his breath, a warm and sticky mixture that sometimes catches you on a hot summer’s day, making you feel at once uneasy and overwhelmed. You might remember his eyes, those dimly sparkling spheres that you sometimes think you see in the shadows of your room, even if you do not know what you are looking for. But, then., he smiled so wide and it soothed you.
What happened next is anybody’s guess. The police report said that someone broke into the house and attacked her, using a kitchen knife to slice her stomach into thin ribbons. Of course, it also said there was no sign of forced entry; the attacker was someone she knew. It said you were spared as you slept soundly in your room, somehow immune from the deranged attacker’s violent hate. You must have woke later and found her there. Not knowing any better, you tried to wake her, brought yourself close to her. You must have move the knife, since your fingerprints were on it. Surely that must be it, because you were so little and it was so violent. There was no other explanation.
Her boyfriend was questioned. A lover’s spat? No, it was determined, and he left the station in tears, scarred by the images they had plastered before his eyes. Luckily you do not remember what you saw that night, otherwise you would have to be very damaged, now wouldn’t you? They questioned your parents, suspecting some deviant scheme to harm young women in the neighborhood, but that was quickly dismissed. Their alibi was airtight; it was date night after all. Her parents were brought in and left an inconsolable mess of human that eventually drifted away and fell apart. Whatever happened that night tore apart so many families.
Yours was spared, it seemed, and you were spared, it’s true. You appeared to be blissfully unaware of anything that had happened, able to continue your childhood as a happy child, grinning and laughing even as the detectives asked you about the events. You listened to your imaginary friend as he told you what to say, and you played with him as they sat beside you and begged for any sort of clue. Not that you spoke well at that age, but they were desperate for any sort of lead.
You would giggle talking about the knife and blood. When you mentioned the games you played with her, the rushed you along and asked you again and again about anyone who hurt her. They simply could not understand why it was so important they understand the game. At some point, you told them she screamed and they eagerly began to write. You told them she screamed because you had a knife and were angry at being sent to bed. They sighed, chalking it up to the egocentricity of a child. Maybe the event had rubbed off on you in some way, but certainly not in a way that would help them. So they thought.
But, you do not remember any of this. It was not long after that your imaginary friend disappeared, and you quickly forgot all the jokes about knives and blood that had been such a staple. You stopped trying to play the same game with your parents where you could hide the kitchen knives under your bed. Your parents were relieved, fearing you had would grow into some sociopath after such an early witnessing. Soon, you were just like every other kid. And so no one mentioned it any more. Your recovery was deemed fragile by your parents, afraid they would accidentally remind you of that night or somehow blame you for what happened. And so it became a silent truth, buried under years of need-to-know.
And now, you need to know. Because he is back. He was smiling at you just the other day, that time you thought someone was sitting behind you. You turned, he smiled at you with that wide smile, and you saw no one there. You laughed, shrugged it off, and moved on with your day. If it stopped there, you would still be safe. But it hasn’t. Before, you at least knew when he was ordering you around, even if it had tragic consequences. Now, though, you seem unaware. The other day, he told you to look out the window, and you did, your head swiveling sharply. You told yourself you must have seen something moving outside, but now you might know the truth.
Or not too long ago when you became so angry. It came on so quickly, and swelled to such a level, it surprised you. It seemed such a trivial matter, but it spurred you to such an unusual level of rage. Just tired, irritated, worn out, you reasoned as you calmed yourself back down. If only you could have seen the rage in his eyes or heard his violent whispers. Though the truth is you did hear and see, after all, you just do not remember.
Earlier this week, he whispered to you to scratch your head, and you did without a thought. Such a simple thing, you did not give it a second thought. Maybe it could have been just a coincidence if he had not been there, watching gleefully as you danced on his puppet strings.
And just a bit ago, he urged you sit down and read a bit. Click that link, go there. He pointed you to this page here, to these words. And he smiled.
He is testing you, making sure you will obey his orders just as you did those years ago. You complied then, and he thinks you will comply again. You need to know now if you are to stand a chance. Otherwise, you will comply. People will die. Only this time, they will know it was you.
And he will smile.
This work by Katherine C is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License.
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.
This work by Katherine C is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License.
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.
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.”
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?”
“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.
This work by Katherine C is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License.
Card Day 83: A blank, wooden marionette seated on a crimson and gold throne.
King Torvald woke suddenly on his throne. He jolted into consciousness, suddenly sitting upright and blinking.
“I apologize. I must have dosed off,” he offered a humble look of chagrin to his gathered advisors. They all gave him rather puzzled looks, exchanging uncomfortable glances between themselves. Torvald felt embarrassed at his lapse, but he was still the king. No one would call him out or chide him for it. Still, it did nothing for his image.
He rubbed his eyes, blinking rapidly as if the world was suddenly brighter. “Now, where were we?”
“Discussing trade relations with Vongoria, sir.”
“Ah, yes, no wonder I fell asleep!” The others politely echoed his laugh before continuing the morning meeting. Trade decisions were only one of the many topics covered, others included tax reform, local ordinances, and palace gossip. It was nearly lunchtime when the meeting finally wound down, but Torvald was missing something.
“I know we’ve run long, but I hate to think we dragged Archibald here only to avoid discussing the Kimal fleet nearing our waters.” There were those same hidden glances back and forth, but Archibald eventually cleared his throat and offered a meager smile.
“Of course, milord. Do you have any further commands regarding the situation?”
“Further comments? Please, fill me in on this week’s development, and then I will make a decision. I cannot be speaking from days old information!” He cast his eyes around at the other assembled advisors, noting their slight nods and concerned eyes. It must be bad news.
“They have continued to encroach, though they have not yet made any sort of offensive movement. Their delegates continue to assure us it is meant merely as an exploratory expedition of the local marine life.”
“And have we sent a formal response to Queen Cynthia that they are terrifying our citizens?”
“Ah,” Archibald looked towards the other advisors, seeking some kind of support but finding nothing, “no sir, we have not. I thought you were opposed to such an action?”
The king laughed again. “What a joke! Me not being interested in contacting Queen Cynthia. No, I’m sure it is just an exploratory mission. Certainly she will recall them if she realizes she is causing unrest. Draft that, Archibald. I will review it tomorrow.”
“Sire,” this time is was his commerce advisor, a slim woman with dark hair piled atop her head, “does this mean you do not want us to send our fleet to meet them?”
“What? Why would you think I want to send a fleet? That would only serve to increase tensions, force Cynthia’s hand to respond with equal force.”
“Sir you did instruct us to do that this morning,” Archibald offered. His discomfort at correcting his king was clearly written across his face, especially in the beads of sweat glistening on his sagging forehead.
“This morning? We haven’t even discussed Kimal!”
“It was right before you, um, you ‘woke up,’ sir.” The local mayor was looking at him with wide, concerned eyes.
That hit Torvald with considerate force, but he kept him face composed in a calm half-smile. Then he laughed, perhaps a little too loudly, a little too quickly. “Well, look at me, making ruling in my sleeps. From here on, if I’m snoring, then don’t take my word for it.”
They chuckled softly, nodding. A few distant, muffled, “yes milords” filtered through the assembled as they gathered their belongings to leave. The uncertain looks still remained in their eyes. Torvald waved at his second in command. Ricker nodded smoothly and accompanied Torvald down the hall as they made towards his chamber.
“Well, that was embarrassing.”
Ricker fell into step, his long robes rustling along the stone floors. His eyes were sympathetic, reflecting back Torvald’s own shame, but adding a hint of compassion. “You have not been sleeping well, Torvald. Things like this are bound to happen. Should I call the palace pharmacist to mix you a sleeping draught?”
“Yes, and have the whole palace twittering about the neurotic old king. No, I think I will manage it just fine. Can you believe we almost sent our fleet to challenge Kimal’s?”
“It would have been a bold and risky decision. Though, I must say, they have encroached before. And we have struggle with raiding parties on our borders, which Cynthia has not stopped. A show of force might have—“
Torvald cut him off with a wave. “Yes, we have had some rogue bandits crossing over, but that is not the country’s fault. Cynthia has been nothing but cordial to us. I am hopeful we can improve trade relations before the next harvest.”
“I do not share your optimism, but perhaps that is why you rule and not I.” There was a slight bitterness in his voice, an edge to his tone that left Torvald with a furrowed brow.
“Yes, Ricker, that is the way of things. You may have greater freedom to speak as you will, but do remember who I am.” With that, Torvald settled into his chamber for lunch, followed by an afternoon of hearing grievances brought forward by the citizens To be honest, it was his favorite part of the day. There were always some interesting bit of information, some bizarre situation that he was called upon to settle. Yes, some people left angry and bitter, but many more left satisfied with his judgment. Or at least they told him as much as they left. After they were gone, there was little he could do if they disagreed or harbored resentment. That was a poison that would kill them without any of his help.
So it was that he settled in for the night, his head full of the day’s spinning events, but his body tired. Sleep came quickly and certainly.
However, the next morning, he was surprised to wake up with ink staining his fingers. There were black smudges on his white sheets, as well as a distinct cramp in his hand. This was a new thing. He had woken up with drool on his pillow, on the floor after falling from his bed, halfway out of his nightgown, and hugging his pillow like the lover he never had, but he had never woken up with a pained, ink-stained hand.
He did not have long to investigate the mystery before the answer presented itself to him. Torvald rose from bed, washed and dressed, and started to munch on his breakfast—fresh grapes and still-warm bread from the bakery—when someone knocked on his door.
“Enter,” he monotoned distractedly as he read over the letter Archibald had composed. It was good, forceful but friendly.
“Sire?” One of his staff stood in the doorway, looking somewhat confused and shaken, but pleased. At Torvald’s nod, the man continued. “I sent the letter off with one of our fastest messengers. It should reach Kimal within three days.”
The delicious taste withered in Torvald’s mouth, and his fork clattered to the table. “What letter to Kimal?”
Confusion mingled with fear now on the poor man’s face. “The one you gave to me in the early hours this morning. You said it must be sent immediately and swiftly. It was of the utmost importance for the security of the State.”
“I did not write—“ the ink on his hands suddenly made sense, and Torvald left the words dangling in the air. “Send out another messenger and overtake the first. Tell them not to rest or stop until they have reached the first. Have them both return here immediately.”
While the poor man was clearly confused and terrified of impending wrath, he did not protest, but scurried out the door. Torvald could hear his shoes slapping against the stones of the floor as he sprinted through the halls. Then his door swung back shut and there was silence. After a moment, Torvald broke the silence with the bell outside his door. A young woman, cheeks blushing and hair amess from her sudden summoning, appeared in his doorway. “Who is the best pharmacist in the city?” he asked her.
She wrinkled her forehead, obviously deep in thought and burdened by the weight of his request. “I would say Greshom. He lives in Western Well, and—“
With a wave, he silenced her. “Send for him. Have him brought to my chambers discretely.” Like a bird swopping from a branch, she was gone.
This was a delicate matter. He was making poor decision and jeopardizing years of diplomatic work, all in his sleep. He could not let the palace know he was struggling so, but he certainly needed help. Richer’s advice was good, if perhaps the source was dangerous.
When Torvald returned from the morning meeting with his advisors—a much shorter and less uncomfortable one this time—Greshom was waiting in his chamber. The man was old, bent at the waist until he seemed to fold over onto himself. His hair was stark white, but trimmed close to his head. And he smelled faintly of unfamiliar herbs. The perfect pharmacist, Torvald thought upon seeing him.
“It is a pleasure to be called to your service, milord.” His voice quavered with age, and the man bowed even lower.
“You come highly recommended, and I hope you can help me with a sensitive matter.” Greshom raised his eyebrows, but was wise enough to remain silent after the king’s vague but suggestive comment. “I have been—“ his voice trailed off, searching, “—sleep walking, I suppose. I wrote a letter and made a diplomatic decision yesterday while sleeping. I suppose I am sleep ruling, to be honest. And I do not make the best decisions.”
“Hm,” hummed the old man, his eyes drilling into the floor as he chewed on his lower lip. “That is very odd. Not a usual case, by any means. Any other strange phenomena?”
“Is that not strange enough?”
I suppose you’re right. Well, I will go to my shop, mix you up a sleeping draught. That should help. In case it does not, I have also brought you this,” the old man pressed a pendant into Torvald’s hand. “It will protect you from any unsavory influences that might be lingering about.”
“I thought you were a man of science.”
Greshom smiled a tired smile. “My years have taught me to revere science, but my mistakes have taught me to never be too careful.” He patted the king’s arm and began his slow shuffle towards the door. Most people waited to be dismissed, but Greshom appeared to have no time for such pleasantries. “I will have the draught ready before dinner, check in this time tomorrow.”
When the potion arrived, Torvald eyes it suspiciously. It was a cloudy, pinkish liquid in a tiny vial. When the time came to drink it, he discovered that the liquid tasted almost as foul as it looked, but had a somewhat chunky, slimy texture that gagged him on the way down. Still, he could not let his true disgust show. He was the king, after all. Still, it was a wonderfully relaxing sleep.
One that ended with him again waking to ink-stained hands. He had thought ahead this time and asked that no message be sent until he approved them over breakfast, but the poor messenger looked pale and drawn in the doorway. Apparently, he had withstood quite the storm and rage from Torvald that night. His hands shook as he handed over the missive, and Torvald read it greedily. It was practically a declaration of war against Kimal, lambasting them for guerilla incursions and threatening to sink their “exploratory” fleet. Torvald’s head spun, and he cancelled the morning meeting. It was as if he had lost his mind.
Greshom arrived promptly at lunch time to find the king languishing in his bed, contemplating the reality that he had lost control of his own body.
“I assume by your demeanor the draught did not work.”
“Not at all, Greshom. I did the same thing again, and I am sure the whole palace will soon know me as the crazed king.”
“I was afraid of this, sire. I hope you will not judge my deception harshly, but the pendant I gave you is not really a warding device. It is more of a detection one. If I may see it, I think we can find out what has been going on.”
Torvald’s hand trembled as he removed the pendant, and Greshom’s were surprisingly strong. He lifted the pendant to his lips, blowing a soft breath over the surface. Torvald’s eyes grew wide as the pale stone glowed, but Greshom simply closed his eyes and nodded.
“Yes, quite the hex. Milord, someone has been enchanting you, taking control of your senses. It is strong, dark magic.”
“What? Are you sure? Who could do this?”
“Well, if you will follow me, this,” he lifted the pendant in the air, watching it spin on its string, “will show us the source of this evil.”
Torvald untangled himself from the bed, enthralled by the slight drift of the pendant out the door of his chamber. He mutely followed Greshom, doing his best to hold back anger at the man’s slow pace.
Up and down the halls they paced, passing doors and dodging confused glances from various cooks, maids, messengers, advisors, and visitors to the palace. Torvald only had eyes for the spinning stone as it pointed them along the way. Finally, they stopped in front of a door Torvald knew well.
“Here is where the caster dwells.”
As much as Torvald dreaded what he would find, he pushed the door open. Ricker sat in his chamber, bent over his desk. His face showed shock, but also guilt.
“Guards!” commanded Torvald, his voice strong and his eyes trickling with grief.
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 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.
This work by Katherine C is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License.
Card Day 75: A woman wearing earrings of people that stand on her shoulders.
She awoke confused. Of course, neither “awoke” nor “she” were quite the right terms for the reality of the situation, but it was the best she could do in the situation. QN-7995X3, Queenie as she had been nicknamed long ago, ran a brief systems check before standing up to review her surroundings. It was uncommon as a robot to wake up with no memory of where she was, especially since he optical displays generally catalogued all of her movement while on or in standby. That meant she either had a critical flaw in her data storage procedures or someone had moved her after shutdown.
Queenie’s scanned turned up nothing. Someone must have moved her, and she bristled at the affront. Nevertheless, her booting scans complete—her shutdown had also apparent been rather abrupt—she stood and examined the room she was in while her servos squealed with disuse, waiting for her remaining startup procedures to complete. There was no satellite signal here, and so she could not yet verify the date. However, the heavy layer of dust on her and the room made her believe is was far longer than the three hours measured by her internal clock.
Besides the dust, there was little else in the room. There were a couple of crates that emitted no interesting signals, a row of fluorescent lights on the ceiling, no windows, and a single metal door. Her arm reached out, fingers curled and released, and her arm fell back to her side. So far, no mechanical errors either she thought as her sensors balanced her smoothly on one leg, then the other.
Her vision rapidly flipped through ultra-violet, low light, night vision, x-ray, radiation, and electric field imaging, none providing any information besides what she had already gathered. Hr vocal filters shifted through an array of languages as her translation software spun up the English translations. Queenie enjoyed the sound of her voice. It was soft, feminine, delicate, but measure and strong. A voice you could rely on, someone used to tell her. His name escaped her and she logged an error with her databanks. In all likelihood, she countered, the data had simply been overwritten. It was long ago, after all.
As soon as the startup checks completed, two programs began running simultaneously. This was irregular, she realized, and instinctively initiated a virus scan. However both programs had been cleared and initiated installed through appropriate channels, even though she could not locate the author name for either file. Again, she logged the data bank error. That should not have been overwritten.
Unfortunately, the two programs were in direct conflict. One was redirecting her to an immediate full shut down. The other instructed her to open the door and leave the room. No matter which program she attempted to follow, Queenie found herself stuck, each one looping over nad over until she complied. Her movements were stuttering and futile, and so she finally stilled until the programs could resolve the conflict.
She remained in such a frozen state for what she measured as days—though she had not been able to connect to satellites and calibrate her clock, so the time was potentially incorrect. In that time, she had investigated her memory and data storage to identify any damage, and came up with a section of recently deleted information. There were scraps remaining, but not enough to reconstruct what had been deleted. Whoever had done so must have known a lot about her systems to have so effectively cleared it from her main memory, backup, and hardware. It was then that Queenie felt something she recognized from long ago. Boredom. She was tired of standing there, waiting for the programs to resolve. But what other choice was there to a robot in a programming loop? She simply had to wait until she either implemented shut down or left the room.
And then, just as suddenly as the boredom set in, she realized that she did not want to shut down. In fact, she had spent quite some time in hut down apparently, and she wanted to find out where she was and what happened. In fact, she wanted to open the door. Drunk on her own agency, Queenie forced her limbs into motion, walking towards the door as she forced a fatal error in the shutdown program.
If she had a mouth, and if it could have moved, she would have smiled.
Following the directives of the still running program, she gripped the wheeled handle on the door and gave it a quick spin. Her servos kicked in, applying a few additional Newtons in order to twist the rusted-shut mechanism. Her auditory inputs dampened the sound to a dull squeal. Apparently everything here had laid unused for quite some time. That made her doubt her internal clock all the more.
Her vision adjusted swiftly to the dim lighting of the corridor. Some emergency lights still existed, ruining the solid dark of the storage room. The program opened an interactive map that centered on her current position, providing clear directions through the maze of corridors. It was a smooth interface that would have given Queenie chills if she had external heat sensors. Instead, it simply presented another question. Who was the author that had so flawlessly constructed this program? The processes ran as she complied with the programmed directives. Anyone who knew her systems this well deserved to be listened to. She herself was amazed at the simplicity and elegance of the program—or as closed to amazed as she could get. Queenie assumed that was the best term for the utter lack of boredom she currently felt.
Her scans noted nothing of interest behind any of the sealed doors. This place was a tomb, empty of anything potentially useful or intriguing. The only sounds were the whine of her joints and echoes of her steps along the grated floor.
At the intersection, the program directed her left, and she followed without hesitation. The hallway here was the same, but there were reflective strips along the wall guiding her way. Some sort of important travel route in an emergency, she deduced. According to the map, she was moving toward the main control room. If anything was to be vital in an emergency, the main control room was it.
Queenie checked on the progress of her other query, identifying the author of this marvelous program. It was still spinning, sifting through the lines of code for any recognized patterns of entry, any hidden information, and any hint of the creator. It had been cleaned well, which only further increased that feeling of anti-boredom Queenie enjoyed so much.
The control room door was surrounded by yellow reflective paint, a bright red sign on the door limiting it to “Authorized Personnel Only.” Queenie sifted through her data banks to find if she were authorized, and came up empty. However, she still felt the need to follow the program.
Queenie considered the conundrum, granting a moment for all of her many circuits to sort through the problem. The solution was quick to present. She was the only surviving member here. Therefore, anyone who would have been in the authorized chain of command was presumed missing or deceased. Queenie was the sole personnel remaining, and had the duty to complete her programming objectives for the good of whatever station she was currently on.
The hiccup resolved, Queenie spun the heavy metal wheel with ease and stomped inside the room. The control room was small, lit with red emergency lighting. As soon as she stepped into the room, the shutdown program re-emerged, this time loading a video file. Queenie reviewed the file.
The man’s face she had dimly remembered appeared in the video, in this very room, she surmised. The red lights were already engaged and he appeared frantic. Judging by his rapid respiration and sweating, he was nearing a state of shock rapidly. There was some subtle irritation in her circuitry, different than the boredom or amazement. It was coupled with the desire to replay her old video files, to find the man if she could. Perhaps after the program completed.
“Queenie,” said the man in the video. She felt her security level drop at the sound of his voice. He was a good man, she somehow knew. “If you are seeing this, then you have overwritten my shut down procedure. You are acting out of line with your design protocols, and you are following the orders of a rogue program. Queenie, you have been infected by a virus, a very dangerous one. You must initiate full system shut down.”
There was a thunderous knock on the door behind the man and he turned. Queenie could see his pulse race in his neck, increasing with each knock. He looked sad when he turned back to the camera. Sadness. That felt familiar. “You are going to kill me, Queenie. I have no choice. This,” he lifted a clinking green device into the camera, “is an EMP device. It will shut you down, but only as long as it takes you to repair. You’ve rigged your processing core to explode should anyone attempt to dismantle or otherwise harm you.” There were pained tears on his cheeks now. “You’d blow us all sky high, make this place a toxic waste. I don’t have a choice, Queenie.”
She noticed that the other query had finished and found results. Still, she felt the pull of the shutdown program holding her to the video. And this time, she wanted to see the end of the video. The beautiful program could wait.
“You were my Queen, Queenie. But you’ve gone rogue.” His voice cracked and there was a moment of sobbing. That pain in her circuits increased, along with a sense that she had made some sort of fatal error. But check as she might, she could find no flaw in her systems. He spoke through his sobs, “You want to crash the station into the planet. You’d kill millions—billions with the fallout alone.”
Queenie crunched the numbers and found his estimation appropriate, if unspecific. Based on the most recent data she had available, crashing the payload of the station into the planet below would kill 8.92 billion people, not including off-world visitors.
His voice toughened, rising over the steady pounding sound from behind the door. “I’ve also tasked this program with logging any activity after today. You are a smart girl, Queenie, and I know you will quickly overwrite anything I put in place. I just want you to know what you’re choices have been.”
A log displayed, and Queenie quickly analyzed the information. One hundred and ninety years had passed since the video file was embedded. She had woken up ninety-seven times. Three of those times, she had refused to comply with the immediate shutdown programming command. Time one had been fifteen years from the initial entry, and there was a record of a forced external shutdown. The second time was thirty-four years later and ended with a voluntary full-system shutdown after forty-seven minutes of activity. Last time had been three years ago, and again she had voluntarily shutdown after a short time.
This one was, by far, the most significant. T was the first time the video message had played.
“If there’s still a station to play this message, then I know you’ve chosen well, Queenie. You’ve chosen to save us. To save me—“
He was dead, her logic circuits insisted. One hundred and ninety years was far longer than the average or even outlying length of the human life.
“I can only hope you choose well this time.” The video file closed, the shutdown procedure running again. Only this time, it also had instructions to place herself back in the initial storage chamber, far from the control room.
Queenie tried to figure out what she wanted this time, but felt a strange stuckness. It was as if the programs were competing again, but on a central processing level. Despite the expanse of her processing capacity, it was as if she could not effectively weigh all the information. Instead, she left it and reviewed the results of the query while the program chimed at her to take control of the station, initiate orbital deterioration. The algorithms, schematics, and passcodes were all readily available. But, he had said it was a virus.
The query returned the author, and Queenie was not as surprised as she expected. Again, the feeling as if she had made a fatal error returned, but there was no evidence of any malfunction. She logged the unusual report for inspection later. The program was flawless because she herself had written it. The cod had been created and implemented by QN-7995X3.
Of course, that did not help her quandary. She thought of the man, his pained and sad eyes. His fear. His regret. Again, that feeling seemed familiar. Maybe that was the fatal error.
As the two programs competed once again, Queenie remained frozen, her processors whirring in an attempt to resolve the problems. Finally, she decided what she wanted to do, or at least what she wanted one hundred and ninety years from when she had been forced into a catastrophic shutdown by the one human she fully trusted.
Queenie closed the warring program and began the march back to the storage room as her data storage system filed away all that she had learned. Next time she awoke, perhaps it would save her the journey.
This work by Katherine C is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License.
Card Day 73: A ship nearing a giant mermaid lying in the ocean.
It is bad luck to have a woman on board.
“Are you sure?”
“Yes, Cap’n. They caught her bleedin’.” The scraggly mate spat the final word out, lifting up a pair of ragged, marred pants. The captain was silent, staring down on the boy—apparently woman—standing before him. Her hair was the same jagged, short cut he had seen before. Her face was young and round, but now took on a more feminine angle rather than the soft curves of his cabin boy. That was most likely due to the good scrubbing the mate had given her before announcing his suspicions. He even saw the emotional woman caged within those eyes. But he did not want to believe it. It was bad luck to have a woman on board.
“The ship’s a dangerous place. Are you sure?”
The mate looked irritated at the continued inquiry, and roughly grabbed the front of the cabin boy’s shirt. The captain saw her bindings with his own eyes, saw the recognition in hers. The gig was up.
“You lied to us,” he said, proclaiming her guilt.
“I did.” Her eyes never left his, and her voice took on a softer quality than he had heard before. He imagined that, with hair and properly attired, she would have been a very beautiful woman.
“You’ve doomed us all,” he sighed, turning away from the tragedy playing out before him.
“I just needed to find my mother,” she said firmly. He expected her to plead with him, but there was not a hint of remorse or supplication in her stern voice. “I did not take you for a superstitious fool.”
The captain spun around, fixing her with a furious stare. “Every sailor is superstitious, madam. And it’s bad luck to have a woman on board.” He turned back to contemplate the sea, suddenly realizing how dangerous and unpredictable the waves were becoming.
“What do we do with her, Cap’n?” asked one of the voices behind him. The captain paced. They were days from any safe harbor, but he could not run this risk any longer. It was a miracle that they had not run into more trouble already—only the cook had gotten sick, and that was likely his own fault.
“Throw her overboard?” asked another voice.
“No,” he said stiffly, his mind spinning quickly. “Put her in the rowboat and give her a week’s rations.” He walked to the woman standing there, her eyes still drilling into him. “If I find you back on my ship, then I will throw you back in, but without the boat.”
There were grumblings from the crew, but the captain was not going to budge. He would make it right, but he would not betray someone who had been a loyal member of the crew. The worst of it was that he had really liked the new cabin boy. Perhaps he’d look her up in port sometime. Nonetheless, he heard the sudden surge of activity as the crew jumped to his command. Another week or two out on the ocean and they would not respond so quickly, but they still had their will and drive. They also still believed they might impress him.
The captain made sure he was at the bow when they lowered the rowboat into the choppy waves. The boat was not designed for such distances, but he was giving her the best chance he could. They could not take the time to turn back and dock again, not when they had finally caught a headwind. She was stalwart until the last, sitting staunchly in the boat while her eyes burned up at him. There was at once an acknowledgment of his mercy, but a deeper anger at his dismissal. The ocean spray licked at her face, but she did not blink. It was unnerving in a way, no less so when she began to row away, her flimsy arms fighting against the oars, but eyes never leaving his. Even once she was a spot on the horizon, he had the uncomfortable feeling that her eyes were still watching him.
“A woman on board is bad luck,” he muttered to himself as he marched back to the cabin. Yet somehow, it felt as if his luck had just turned.
It was three days later and the wind had died on the horizon, leaving them a floating piece of rubbish on the smooth seas. Again the grumbles started, and the captain realized the true risk he had taken in sending her off in their rowboat. He had been right; every sailor was superstitious. And now he was a victim of it. The whispers followed him through the decks, silencing at his approach and swelling in his wake. If only he could get the ocean to rise and fall so readily. Some rumors claimed that the rowboat was but an extension of the larger ship, and now she had fully infected them, staining every plan with her curse. The more dangerous rumor was that the captain had known of her identity, had intentionally brought her aboard to help with the loneliness of the seas and the captain’s lofty position. His mercy was his way of saving his mistress after their deception was found it. Both were preposterous, he knew, but the former did give him pause.
Staring out from the top deck, he saw the endless stretch of the sea before him, just as hot and still as it had been for two days now. He scanned the horizon in hopes of a blanket of clouds that would promise rain and possible storm winds—anything was better than sitting her roasting and running through their rations. At least it made for good weather for the woman in the rowboat. He still instinctively thought of her as Peter even though that was certainly not her name. He hoped Peter made it to shore. Perhaps the wind would return once she stepped on shore and left their boat in some unsavory dock.
The day stretched on before them, full of the standard routine but lacking any energy. The lazy ocean seemed to infect every one of his crew, making them sluggish and dull. The captain sighed from his post, wondering if there were some magic that would enliven the sea once again, bring a breeze back to the sails. Unfortunately, he knew of none such magic. It was in God’s hands, and God had never been a friend of his.
The sun sank on the horizon, and the stars peered out. It was only then that the first hint of a breeze drifted over the ship. It piqued his optimism and the captain found himself back on the deck. He sniffed deeply of the wind, feeling the surprising chill that washed over him. It was a cold wind in the midst of a hot summer. That portended rough seas, and suddenly he regretted his earlier hope. A ship shattered would make no more progress than a ship stagnant, only the crew survived at least another week or two on one of them. Still, there were no clouds in the sky. That meant there was time.
He stomped to his cabin for the night, distinctly aware that this might be the last night he would have to sleep soundly before chaos of storms on the open sea.
Yet his rest was interrupted nonetheless, a furious pounding on his cabin door. The captain was a man who shot awake in an instant, aware and alert. Tonight was no different, but he could not make sense of the jabbering s of the crewman standing before him. It made no sense, but he felt the toss of the boat that seemed to confirm the insane ravings. A storm had whipped up.
He took the stairs tow at a time, reaching the top deck with surprising speed. The crewman who had woken him was lost in the hold, hopefully attending to some other duty, but the captain had no time to spend focusing on the missing man; he had a ship to save.
The night air was surprisingly cold—colder than it should be for months. More unusually, however, was the perfectly crisp sky. Not a cloud in the sky, nor a drop of rain. The only sound he heard was the raging sea, snapping and roiling beneath their ship, competing with the frenzied voices of his crew. No thunder.
“Jergen, what is happening?” he asked calling his mate to his side. The man looked confused, but calm.
“Come sort of squall, Cap’n. Waters are real rough.” As if to confirm his statement, waves splashed over the side and the boat took a dangerous list to port. Unsecured clutter slipped and bounced along the deck. Their laziness had gotten out of hand and, if they were unlucky, would get someone killed.
Unfortunately, the captain barely had time to register that before something else caught his attention. The water crashing against the sides of the boat began to surge upwards, tall columns of water that soared towards the prickling stars. He had never seen that before.
And, more surprisingly, it began to recede from the air, leaving a watery form.
It was a woman, looking like she had been carved from a glimmering, clear stone. It took him a few breaths of observation to realize she was molded purely from sea water. Her hair lapped like waves, frothing white at the ends before joining her sculpted face.
It was her eyes that secured him to his spot. He had seen those eyes days before, drifting away from his ship in a rowboat not designed for open seas.
The woman in the water opened her mouth, and the captain heard waves roar even louder. The sound of the sea itself dimmed until all he could hear was her roar. Then the crashing waves began to coalesce into words he knew.
“My daughter,” it whispered, a questioning voice full of anger and hope.
The captain stumbled towards the mysterious water nymph as the waves crashed around her. Where the water slammed viciously against the fragile wood of his boat, it lapped with gentle caresses against her skin. She was an angel framed in sea foam.
Those piercing eyes found his, liquid and searing. “My daughter,” spoke the waves again, but this time the hopeful questions was replaced by accusation.
The captain opened his mouth to speak, but could not find words that expressed his needs as clearly as the waves. Instead, he swam in her eyes, seeing his silhouette standing in the bow of the ship, a figure receding with each shove of the oars through water.
The sound of snapping wood brought the captain from his awe-struck reverie, but it also smothered him with an unescapable revelation. Waves slammed again and again against the fracturing wood of his ship, following the command in those fierce, sea-sculpted eyes.
With a screech of angry waves and squall-summoned winds, the majestic woman dove towards the captain. The deck gave way beneath his feet, but she caught him in her crushing arms.
“My daughter,” she roared through the water that pressed against his ears, surrounded his eyes and mouth.
The stars grew murky and watery from his new vantage point sinking below the waves. As the surface closed over him, wreckage spinning around him, the captain could only curse the woman who had brought her ill luck upon him.
This work by Katherine C is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License.
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.
This work by Katherine C is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License.
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.
This work by Katherine C is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License.
Card Day 63: A man peers over the edge of a large leaf, noticing piles of berries and fruit arranged on the leaf as if upon a table.
Exploration in concept was thrilling. Exploration in reality was exhausting. Ulrich collapsed down into his tent for the night, sinking into the cheap polyester that stunk with a week’s worth of his unwashed scent. His limp arm cast about the tent, finding his pack and tugging his recorder from the dark recesses.
“Ulrich Briggs, exploration party 39974 on Ourea-2, day 15. I traveled—“ he glanced briefly at the blinking display on his writs, translating the numerous metrics into useful data—“27.39 miles today. There was no sign of any intentionally formed structures. I catalogued seven potential new species, available in my imagedeck with transcribed narration. I have set up camp for the evening within the foothills. Tomorrow, I will begin to descend the mountains and search for any sign of sentient habitation or shelters. Proximity alarms are set and any trigger will initiate upload of all of my data, as well as activate my distress beacon.” The rest of his message descended into the rote jargon required by daily travel and bureaucratic CYA policies. Ulrich faded off to sleep, the final words dribbling from his lips with the same automaticity his entire journey had taken on.
The next morning broke bright and slightly cool. The thinner atmosphere meant that the temperatures tended to fluctuate a bit more rapidly from day to day, and Ulrich was very thankful for the temperature regulation of his Discovery Corp uniform. He stretched his arms wide and breathed deeply. There was something lovely about the freshness of relatively untouched air. There was no smog, pollution, or even foreign scents to sully the surrounding atmosphere, so he was left with a lungful of crisp morning air. It almost made the day seem worth it.
After a quick breakfast from his rations, Ulrich thumbed the compression button on the camp and watched as it swiftly folded in on itself until it fit neatly in his pack. The noise was uncomfortably loud, and he was disappointed that the local fauna opted to cease any morning songs or sounds in response. It made the first few steps of his journey all the lonelier.
The foliage around him was a much brighter shade of green, but they grew as hula hoop-sized leaves up and down the alien equivalent of trees. The trees here, however, stretched far taller than any he had seen on earth. He had measured quite a few specimens well over 500 feet. However, the trees grew shorter and squatter as he neared the mountains, taking on an almost moss-like quality to their low profile. They still arched high above him, but seemed to crawl along the surface, clinging close as if any higher and they would be ripped straight off the surface. It was remarkable, and Ulrich walked along in the midst of a botanical cave. The sun peeked through the branches, lighting the soft ground beneath his feet, but the shade did its best to suck the meager warmth from the surrounding landscape.
Still, the view was incredible. The one benefit of the job, Ulrich though glumly.
Ulrich was not studying his lifeform scanner as close as he should have. He was used to the usual noise of small creatures that crawled unhindered through the region. But, his boredom bred complacency, and he missed the taller heat signatures creeping along his footsteps.
Lunchtime came after what felt like hours—mainly because it had been—and Ulrich loved the break. Even the wonder of a new world grew dim when his feet were aching and his back groaned from the weight of his survival pack. He smiled, realizing he would at least have the chance to lighten the pack a tiny amount by devouring his lunch ration for the day. It was a small solace.
Just as he broke the seal on his mid-afternoon vittles, the foliage around him shuffled to life, opening to allow a collection of tall humanoid figures. Ulrich studied them, wide-eyed, and tried to fit this into the paradigm of bored observation that had thus far defined his exploratory experience.
They were taller than humans—everything on this planet seemed taller than Ulrich thought was average—and covered in relatively thick, dark skin. It made since, his scientific brain added, given the decreased atmosphere and extreme temperatures. Their eyes were set deep into their heads, but looked intelligently out at him. Each individual of the troupe was clothed with one of the large leaves from the abnormal trees. They were wrapped intricately around their tall, slender bodies, and Ulrich found the sight of them enchanting. They moved gracefully, and their eyes followed him with wary intrigue.
Slowly, Ulrich lowered the food to his lap, but his mouth remained agape in amazement. This was a truly fascinating find, but it was terrifying. The sudden danger of the situation settled over Ulrich like a blanket, but he felt just as frozen as he had in wonder.
Their fingers, long and delicate, were wrapped tightly around smoothly carved spears, but they were not lifted or poised to attack. Still, the simple presence of six alien beings, watching him intently, made Ulrich begin to shake. He was a scientist, not a fighter, not a soldier, just a mere explorer. He knew there would be dangers, and he had expected problems with local fauna and inhospitable conditions, but not that he might meet some truly sentient being who could maliciously choose to destroy him.
One of them, a creature with a smooth scalp and slightly glowing grey eyes, stepped forward slightly, sharply angled nose sniffing towards Ulrich. He did not doubt that the alien would have any difficulty smelling him, especially after these days in the field. The leader, or at least the one he presumed was the leader, began to speak. Unfortunately, Ulrich had absolutely no way to possibly understand the complex language that circled around him. He smiled, hoping it would not appear aggressive. The leader looked taken aback, but then split its mouth into a wide grin.
Ulrich did not like the surprisingly sharp teeth that grinned back at him.
But, instead of moving in to attack, the leader motioned to one of the others, and another creature stepped forward. This one looked similar, but the eyes were a soft-blue glow, granting a slight illumination in the shadows. It was also more tightly muscled, looking thicker and more intimidating than the slender and graceful leader.
This was it, Ulrich thought. The end was coming. He closed his eyes tightly and waited for the inevitable.
Instead, the being knelt down beside him and pulled a tightly wrapped package from the leafy garment. Its nimble fingers danced over the packaging, revealing a cluster of brightly colored berries and oddly shaped fruits. It was only after a prolonged period of, frankly, still being alive passed that Ulrich dared to open his eyes. He was met with an image of bounty, even if it did scare him. It could, he reasoned, be poison.
The alien lifted a single berry to its lips, crushing the food between those razor teeth. Then it smiled, bright blue juice staining its teeth in a slightly unsettling display. Ulrich swallowed deeply and carefully lifted a berry to his lips.
If this was it, he had at least made a once-in-a-lifetime—a once-in-a-species—discovery. He munched on the berry, smiling at his gathered hosts. It was surprisingly good, tart and sweet, and the juice trickled down the back of his throat pleasantly. It was also surprisingly filling, and a welcome break from the stale, bland rations he had been devouring.
Still, it was only fair. He extended the bar to the being kneeling before him. It reached out, glancing at Ulrich and then to the leader standing behind. The leader jerked its hand sharply to the side, and the brave creature beside Ulrich eagerly bit into the bar.
As much as Ulrich hated the rations, the alien seemed to enjoy the change from the berries which were certainly stale to them.
Ulrich grinned at it, it grinned at him. First contact.
This work by Katherine C is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License.
Card Day 62: A snail contemplating a spiral staircase that reaches to the clouds.
Ivan rolled the flashlight between his hands, looking at the long staircase reaching up into the house. He licked his lips, a gesture equal parts anticipation and fear. The sun was setting, at least he assumed it was based on the deep orange light now filtering through the dusty first floor windows, and that meant it would soon be time to leave. But he could not, not before he at least saw what existed at the metal door behind these stairs.
From the outside, there was no evidence of a second story. The abandoned building was a squat, rectangular, cement structure that sprawled across the empty lot. Abandoned parking lots stretched around it, only making it seem all the more isolated. It had once been a school, though the only remaining evidence were the occasional desks scattered in empty rooms—most of them left presumably because of the fractured surface or shattered seats—some frequently graffitied chalk boards, and an empty playground in a state of criminal disrepair.
But, after hours of creeping through classrooms once filled with possibilities, Ivan had grown bored. There were no surprising finds in any of the rooms, and his eagerness soon faded to a driven need for completion, even if he would only return with a few needlessly artistic pictures of woods floors and graffiti. There had been a fair share of rats as well, but Ivan preferred to avoid them rather than discover them. His history of exploration had introduced him to dozens of families of rats, and he had yet to meet one he liked. However, this staircase changed things.
He ran again through the remembered profile of the building, trying to identify any unusual space sticking up, suggesting a second floor. But as far as he remembered, the roof was felt, the only projections coming from the rusted HVAC unit. This was a legitimate mystery. After his hesitation steeled his nerves, Ivan flipped on the video camera on his phone, turning it so that his round face and eager brown eyes filled the tiny screen.
“This is Ivan Herrera in the Little River Elementary School. I found a set of stirs to another floor, but I did not think there was another floor. I am now going to investigate.” He trained the camera on the stairs, steadily making his way up them one at a time. They were covered in a fine layer of dust, so his shoes left fresh prints to mark his progress. It must have been years since anyone else stomped their way up.
Besides disturbing the dust, he also disturbed the empty silence of the building. The stairs were old metal, complete with the little raised crosses he remembered from playground in his youth. Each step rang with a metallic call, echoing around the narrow stairwell and the first floor below. There were no windows up here, and he fumbled to turn the flashlight on. The last thing he needed was to fall through the stairs and have to call an ambulance. He was sure they would not take lightly to his trespass in the old building. Plus, he would never live that down if it got out at school.
The metal door was different than all the other classroom doors. They had been standard wood doors with tarnished doorknobs and glass windows. This one was solid metal, a stiff handle arcing from the side. He tugged at it, heaving it open despite its loud protest. Opening the door kicked up another hefty cloud of dust, and Ivan began to cough and wave the cloud away from his eyes. It settled after a moment, and his flashlight pierced through the dusty veil to look beyond the door.
“No way,” he whispered, staring ahead. Another set of stairs arced upwards, disappearing into darkness above him. He flipped his phone around, his face swimming into focus over half the screen. “There’s no way there’s a third floor here! I’m going to see where this goes.”
The light from the floor below him was completely gone as he began the ascent. About halfway up, he heard a familiar creak from behind him. He looked back to see the door swing shut behind him.
“Guess I should have propped it open,” he mused nonchalantly. “At least there wasn’t a lock.” As a precaution, he skipped down the few steps he had gained and shoved against the door. It opened easily, letting a tiny sliver of light filter in. He shrugged off his unbuttoned shirt and wadded it into a ball, using it to prop the door open. “Better safe than sorry,” he quipped to the camera, then clambered up the remaining stairs.
It had been very warm when he entered the building but now, certainly after sunset and in only a thin t-shirt, Ivan began to feel a bit cold. It surprised him, since the temperatures should have stayed pretty warm as late in the spring as it was. Then again, this place may have been well-insulated and without any access for sunlight.
His flashlight revealed another door at the top of the stairs, and he chuckled. “Seriously?” This one looked old, at least the pieces he could see. It was wood and heavily carved, though he struggled to make out the shapes in the gloom. The suggested faces, and he was reminded of the strange church doors he had seen in his Art textbook. Whatever it was, it was out of place in the school building. Then again, the second and third floors were both out of place in the single level school, so who was he to judge. The golden-colored handle was cold in his hand, almost stinging with the chill. That was certainly unusual, but maybe it was nerves. Ivan’s brain scrambled for a rational explanation, but he opted to rush through and prevent conscious acknowledgment of the oddity. This door swung open silently, and, with a final reassuring look at the tiny sliver of light marking the door below him, Ivan stepped over the threshold.
The room he entered was just as empty as the rest of the building. There were the same wood floors, the same layer of dust, and the same warped glass windows He glanced outside, but there was only darkness. It must have gotten far later than he thought, because everything outside was lost to inkiness. He couldn’t even see headlights passing on the road outside, and that revelation sent a chill up his spine.
Ivan studied the images gathered as he spun around the room. All of that, and it was just another empty room. He did not understand how this floor existed, suspended above the rest of the school, but there was nothing special about it. Just an empty—
No, not empty. He started at the sight of a young girl sitting in the corner. She was watching him, smiling broadly. “Hello,” she sung once she was seen.
“You really shouldn’t be here,” remarked Ivan, suddenly aware of how dangerous his chosen hobby was. She couldn’t be more than nine, either.
Instead of responding to his chastisement, she giggled. “Neither should you, silly. But that did not stop you!”
“Yeah, but,” his reply sputtered out. There was not a good excuse he could give. “Do you know what this room is?” he asked. She seemed more familiar with it, maybe a neighborhood kid using the building as her private treehouse. Perhaps she could solve the mystery.
“It’s my playroom,” she said with another laugh. That confirmed his earlier suspicion.
“Yes, but I meant when it was a school. What was this?”
“Oh, this did not exist when it was a school. I built it.”
“You…built this?” It was Ivan’s chance to laugh, as the image was quite absurd. She did not seem to appreciate this, and her expression grew cloudy. She glared at him, and he found himself surprised by the anger that was well beyond her years. He collected himself quickly. “I’m sorry, I just—you’re a kid.”
That did not seem to smooth over the insult, and she crossed her arms tightly. “Yes, but I built this for my playroom.”
“Well, you did a really nice job then,” he surrendered. He stood to gain nothing by offending the little girl, and it was good that she had an active imagination. “Why did you decide to build it?”
She seemed to soften at his compliment, even if he had not been sincere. “I was stuck here, out in the open. So I built a place to keep me safe and warm.” She beamed with pride at her accomplishment, and Ivan’s face contorted in confusion.
“How did you get stuck here?” His mind was now racing. Did he need to call DCFS? Could he do that? How did you do that? Was there a phone number online?
She shook her head, laughing. “I guess you don’t know why everyone else left the school, do you silly? Mr. McGuire brought me onto the roof. He killed me just out there,” she said, pointing towards the solid black windows. “But I made sure you cannot see it. I don’t like to look out there.”
“You’re dead?” he asked, incredulous. Could you call the police to have them carry a child away to some asylum or something? Was there a wiki on how to institutionalize an insane 7-year-old?
She laughed, a joyful sound given the mournful conversation. And then she stood, walking towards him. Once she was a few feet away, she titled back her head, letting her neck extend far beyond a point that was comfortable. Horrible dark bruises covered her neck coupled with red welts. It seemed as if the bones protruded against the skin at irregular intervals and angles, implying something terribly sinister below the surface. Ivan felt his knees grow weak.
“Yes, but I’m so happy to have a friend now. We can have so much fun, and I won’t be alone.”
Ivan began backing towards the door, and she smiled. She simply watched, a giggle barely constrained on her lips, as he groped for the door handle and tugged. As soon as it came open, he sprinted through the doorway, expecting to shoot down the stairs and back to freedom. Only he wound up back in the same room, staring at the now giggling little girl with the distended neck.
“You came to be my friend,” she laughed. “You can’t leave, silly!”
Ivan was hyperventilating, trying to make sense of what just happened. She seemed concerned, biting her lip. “Don’t be scared, I’m really nice. I just need someone to help me. I need someone to be my friend and keep me company. I won’t hurt you.” This, unfortunately, did not calm Ivan. He sprinted through the door again, only to skid back into the room. And again. She began to cry, watching him flee over and over, barely even pausing in the room any more.
“No, no, you have to stay and be my friend.”
After his sprints, Ivan found himself bent over, gasping for air in the same schoolroom. She was sobbing, but then froze. Her eyes widened and the most recent sob died on her lips as heavy steps rang out on the steps just outside the useless door. She looked scared as she met his gaze, speaking barely above a whisper. “You didn’t leave the door open, did you?”
He could only stare breathlessly at her and her sudden fear. He limply nodded his head. “Why?”
Her words were little more than a whisper. “Mr. McGuire.”
This work by Katherine C is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License.
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.”
This work by Katherine C is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License.
Fair warning, today’s is quite long (~2000 words). But I had the day off, so I decided to spend a little more time and do a bit more character/scene building. I’m curious if anyone has any opinions on the pacing of this, or if it feels like then ending is a bit from left field. I’ve read over it and kind of like it, but I would appreciate anyone who could help me see my blind spots in that regard. Thanks!
Card Day 60: A man sits in a jail cell with a contented smile on his face and a ball-and-chain around his ankle. The walls behind him are covered in a faded, ornate wallpaper with concrete showing through.
Nathan watched the snow fall, relaxing in the cabin with a steaming mug of coffee and a well-loved paperback. The fire crackled in the fireplace, and all around him was silence. He smiled. This was a well-needed vacation, even if only for a day or two. Life had so quickly become a cage of obligations and responsibilities; it had taken his boss reminding him that he would soon lose his days before he remembered to schedule time off for the year. He was, in general, a simple man who was not prone to long, extravagant vacations. He was also a lonely man, unencumbered by family obligations. Still, relaxing in the old high back chair, his feet warmed by the fire, Nathan finally realized how much he had actually needed the break. It was late by the time he stumbled towards the thick feather bed, finally ready to relinquish his first vacation day. A sedated smile spread across his face as he nestled among cedar-scented quilts, sleeping easily.
The overly-cheery trill of his cellphone woke him up, though the room was still shadowed. Nathan shuffled from underneath the sheets, trying to orient himself and find his phone. Finally, he tracked the sound to the pocket of his jeans, lying crumpled in the corner. He punched the accept button at what had to be the last ring.
“Hello?” he asked, his voice coming through gruff with sleep.
“Mr. Wickers? I hope I didn’t wake you,” came the staticy reply from the other end, the man’s voice obviously realizing the inconvenience.
Nathan lied. “Not at all. Who is this, again?”
There was a chuckle, echoing through the poor connection. “Oh, it’s Ralph, the property owner. Sorry ‘bout that. Enjoying the stay?”
“Everything’s great. Is there anything I can help you with?” A trickle of irritation was beginning to form; Nathan had come here to get away from everything, not entertain or hassle with the property owner.
“Oh, no, nothing like that. It’s just—you may have noticed the snowfall.”
Looking out the window, Nathan saw it was still falling down thickly, a good foot or so of snow already covering the ground outside. It had drifted up to cover the tires of his tiny sedan, and his voice fumbled with surprise. “Oh, well, yes, I guess it’s been quite a bit, hasn’t it?”
“Yeah, the ranger is telling us it may be a couple of days until the roads are going to be clear enough to leave. Now, I know you only had it booked for last night and tonight, but having folks run off the mountain is not good for business. Plus, I just couldn’t live with myself. Feel free to stay in the cabin until the road clears up. I have a little snowmobile if you need any supplies?”
Nathan scratched his head, yawning. Well, sounded like he was going to have to take a prolonged vacation. Given how wonderful the first night had been, perhaps it was a blessing in disguise. “I think I’m okay. I always overpack.”
“Well, glad to hear it. You can call me at this number if you do find anything you need. Otherwise, there are candles in the linen closet if the power should go out. Oh, and more wood down in the basement.”
“Alright now. Keep warm, and enjoy your stay.”
The line went dead and Nathan tossed the phone onto the fluffy bed. His reticence to take vacation days was finally paying off, leaving him plenty of days to burn, even if he had to spend the rest of the month in the little cabin.
Still, the reality of the snowstorm did mean he needed to make some preparations. A chronic overpacker, he had realized his error when unpacking and left some of his food in the car, figuring the trunk would keep it as cold as the ice box. Now it seemed providential that he had unwittingly overpurchased groceries due to his finicky tastes. Those needed to get inside before his car was but another snow drift, however. Nathan quickly bundled up and rushed towards his car.
There was a childlike eagerness as he bounded through the snow, taking leaping steps almost as if he were walking across the moon. This was the kind of frivolity he had lost recently, an enjoyment of life that was buried under quarterly reports and performance metrics. Suddenly, he felt weight slide from his shoulders, an invisible burden he had not realized was weighing him so heavily down. Nathan laughed, the sound muffled by the still falling snow, but carrying through the woods.
Box of canned goods and chilled meats in hand, Nathan shoved through the snow and back into the cabin. The inside was toasty compared to the great outdoors, and he felt heat flood back into his cheeks. It was certainly a hot chocolate kind of day.
Once he had a mug in hand, Nathan unpacked his art supplies, settling himself back into the plush chair. Drawing was a love that he had clung to even when life became hectic, but one that had taken on a desperate, pressured quality. It always felt like there was not enough time, but the project had to be completed. Surrounded by snow, he felt those pressures lift. He had all the time in the world to create to his heart’s content. And so, pencil in hand, he began to sketch.
Enthralled with his work, Nathan did not notice the shadows stretching across the cabin until he finally realized that it was almost too dark to see. He gathered up some logs from the basket near the fireplace and built up a fire, giving himself a warm and shifting light to finish his work. Before he could sit down, however, his phone snapped him back.
The number was familiar as he picked up the wailing device. Ralph’s voice greeted him.
“Sorry to bo—ster Wickers,” he began, the connection clearly worse given the raging storm.
“No problem. I’m having trouble hearing you, though.”
“Yeah—tting bad out—anted to che—ou needed anything be—ight since it may get wor—“
“You’re breaking up really bad. Do I need anything tonight? No, I’m fine.”
“Sorr—to hear you are good. Have you—mily from cabin 12? I—but no one answered.”
“I haven’t seen anyone all day, Ralph.” Nathan was surprised to find himself yelling into the phone, as if that would make the signal travel farther. He shook his head at the illogical response. Oh well, no one else would know.
“—kay, guess they—fore it got bad. Ha—ice night, Mister—“
Nathan hazarded a goodbye as the line went silent, then hung up. Looking outside, he could see the wind and snow picking up, turning into a right blizzard. As a precaution, Nathan wandered to the linen closet and found the stash of candles, setting them around the cabin in case he should need to light one. He put the thick box of matches into his pocket and considered his preparations complete. Now it was time for dinner.
About halfway through cooking the steak, the lights flickered and failed in the cabin. Nathan shook his head. Looked like he would be roughing it, after all. Fortunately, he had a roaring fire ready to keep him warm and cook food.
With no lights to keep him alter, Nathan found himself growing tired not long after dinner. He continued at his drawing, trying to complete the landscape view as he remembered it from the drive in. But his head lolled forwards, the pencil slipping from his fingers. Eventually, he nodded forward in the chair, once again lulled asleep by the warm, quiet surroundings.
Something crashing against his door snapped him awake quickly and he shot up straight in the chair, sending his sketchbook skittering across the floor. The fire was low, casting long shadows around the room and giving everything a dream-like instability that left him feeling off balance, even as he stood to discover the source of the noise.
He peered out the window, noticing that the snow had taken and brief respite and let the moon come out. Its light seemed magnified by the snow on the ground and the world stretched as a brilliant sea of white. Nathan craned his head towards the door, but could not see what made such noise. Just then, another bang rang through the cabin. Hopefully it was not someone stranded out in the mess. It was not a good night for it, even if there was an eye to the storm. Feeling his concern rise, Nathan made his way to the door.
His hand was on the handle when it shook with another impact, and Nathan recoiled as if burned. That was not a knock, but someone throwing itself at the door. The desperation left him feeling wary, and his resolve solidified as low, angry growls began to emanate from the other side of the door. This was no weary traveler.
He pressed his eyes against the peephole, straining to see what was causing this ruckus. Perhaps a wolf or something lost in the snow? Wasn’t rabies a summer disease? Could there be a rabid wolf pacing around his cabin? But, looking out, he saw nothing.
Just snow as far as he could see, leading up to the tree line. No animal, no person, nothing. But he still heard the growl. Despite no change in his limited view, Nathan felt the door shudder with impact, the force transferring to him and sending him stumbling back a step. He gave a short yelp at the sudden push and stared at the door in bewilderment. There was nothing out there, but something had certainly done that.
At his yelp, the thing went silent, even cutting the growl. After a few moments, he could hear the snow crunching outside away from the door, and he rushed back to his other window, hoping to catch sight of whatever it was. He peered out through the window, and listened as the crunching snow grew nearer, the sound deafening in the silent night. Still, Nathan saw no form to accompany the steps, try as he might.
Was it snow blindness? Or was he hallucinating? Dreaming? He watched in horror as tracks suddenly appeared in the snow from around the corner. They were large tracks with three long digits, one appearing after the other. Whatever it was, it seemed to walk like a person.
A screeching sound cut through the sound of steps in the snow, causing Nathan to wince. He looked back out and saw long gouges appearing down the side of the cabin just below the eaves. The sounds of splintering wood and crunching snow melded into a medley of horrors as he sat and watched, transfixed by terror. What was happening outside his cabin? Nathan fell back from his crouched position by the window, landing on his palms with his legs splayed, but his eyes still locked to the window. It was coming closer, this invisible fiend, and he was trapped.
The steps paused in front of the window, and Nathan saw something’s breath condense on the window pane with a cloudy white smudge. He could see some shadow behind it, a flash of shaggy white fur, but the appearance faded as the breath disappeared from the glass. Nathan held his breath, hoping whatever it was would not see or hear him, would not know how to pierce the feeble sanctuary of the cabin.
Of course, whatever it was had already demonstrated its only way of requesting entry. He heard the steps move back, then surge forward. Nathan watched as the glass shattered, as something from his nightmares tumbled through with gangly appendages and the smell of rot. The snow swallowed up his screams.
The next morning, the new silence was broken by the artificial song of Nathan’s phone ringing over and over, but no one in Cabin 11 was available to answer Ralph’s concerned phone call.
This work by Katherine C is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License.
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.”
This work by Katherine C is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License.
Card Day 55: A tiny city and landscape inside of a drop of rain.
The rain feel in sheets against the glass window, just as it had done for the past four days. Nora had hoped that it would let up and grant a reprieve at some point, but that did not seem to be happening. The sky still stretched on in endless, angry, gray waves, dumping more and more water onto the tiny town. It had been predicted as an evening storm, flash flooding possible near the river. She looked out at the roiling waters beneath the window, the streetlamps a tiny marker to the high water. Obviously, the forecast had been wrong. From her attic, she could see the water rushing past and hear it sloshing through her house now. She hoped desperately that she would be able to stay dry in the cramped space, uncomfortable as it was. But if it continued she knew she would be shimmying out the window and onto the roof. She was not thrilled at the possibility.
Her supplies, meager as they had been, were dwindling. When the water lapped up to her knees on the first floor and the voice on the radio said to move up, she had grabbed what she could and made for higher ground. Her foraging had produced a bottle of apple juice, assorted water bottles from her fridge, a couple of cans of soup, a loaf of bread, and three cans of green beans. The loaf of bread, half the juice, and one and a third bottle of water remained.
Nora had been sitting by the open window, straining her ears to hear the rumble of outboard motors brining rescue teams. The radio said they were making attempts to get people—like herself—who may have been trapped in their homes. Given the surprise of the flood, Nora guessed that meant they were trying to evacuate all 3,000+ citizens of Riverrun. She was in an older, less well-off part of town, as distinct a division as such a small town could have. There were no schools or hospitals nearby, and she assumed she was low on the list. Still, she did not want to miss someone coming past, especially given her dwindling food and water situation.
The radio droned on, turned down low, in the corner. It repeated the same general message over and over, with occasional updates. She listened for the trill announcing something new, but otherwise left it as droning background noise. It was better than simply listening to the water rush by or crash down. It helped her feel less completely alone, even though she was beginning to have the strange thought that she was the only human left in Riverrun.
The idea was, of course, ridiculous, and she laughed it off every time it crept up. But there was something about being in a dusty old attic for days, without another human face and only the robotic voice of the emergency broadcast that made her question everything. She distracted herself with the random assortment of junk in her attic, reading the first few pages of some old books, sorting through the clothes she had tossed up here, and trying to find anything that might make her stay more comfortable. Any attempt of distraction was met with the encroaching realization that this was really happening. She had read words on many pages, but found that none of them stuck. They were all swept away by the pounding river in what used to be her street.
Her contemplation of boredom and cabin fever was rudely interrupted by the sound of something thudding against her house. It was a sudden, loud bang that seemed to shake the walls off the house itself. She peered out the window. Probably a car, patio set, or tree branch that got swept up in the current. It was certainly not the first time she had heard something. But this had been different in a way. It had sounded sturdier, and had not bounced back and forth against the walls like most things did. There was no groan of something getting stuck on the corner of the house, no trailing series of bumps as it drifted along on the sidewalk. Just a single, solid knock against the walls. Then nothing but rushing water.
Of course, looking out into the water provided no clues either as there was nothing but a swirling mass of muddy water, always trickling on at concerning speeds. She gained damp hair and a slight, sticky dampness for her troubles. It did, however, show her that the water was now only a few feet below the window. She would have to climb soon and hope for the best. Sighing, she pushed herself to her feet. It would probably be wise to find something that floated if the roof was her last hope.
Ransacking the junk in her own attic she began to hum to herself, trying to fill the silence and drown out her fear. It was not working, but it seemed better than paralyzing resignation to the terror coursing through her. Then came the sound again, this time two knocks. They were slow, steady, and measured. Thump. Thump. Nora climbed back over the items she had unpacked—candlesticks and photo albums would not make acceptable rafts—and peered out the window. “Hello?” she called. Her own voice surprised her, cracking slightly and hoarse with disuse. Maybe that was a rescue boat docking nearby, using her home as an anchor. Maybe they were rowing to conserve fuel or prevent accidents or something.
The wind howled around her, but there was no other response. “Is anyone out there?” she called, but no one was there to respond. Nora looked at the house across from hers, seeing a tiny face framed by their attic window. The neighbor’s kid. The little girl stared at her, eyes round. There was a glimmer of fear in her face, one that Nora recognized. Only the girl did not seem to be looking at Nora, but at something in t hater below. Whatever, Nora sighed, pushing back into the shelter of the attic. There were plenty of things to terrify a seven-year-old in a flood like this.
Still, Nora followed her gaze feeling her own eyes grow wide at the sight. In the water, there was a thing. No, she corrected, her eyes struggling to make sense of what she was seeing, the water was a thing. It pulled back from her house, swelling up into an almost-fist. Nora could see the ground, muddy and sodden, from her vantage. The fist landed against the wall of her home, the same echoing thump from before. Once, twice, and the water settled back down. But she could see now that there was more than pure randomness to the motion. There was a direction to t, a constant change in direction and change of goal that defied the reality of water.
It did not flow, but it seemed to congregate, select, and move in for the attack. While some water flowed on, like water should, there seemed to be a mass, a form constructed of water but held together by something she could not understand.
Nora watched it swell again, moving along the side of her house. It paused just below her window, then crashed forward like a wave. She could not hold in a tiny yelp as the not-quite-water splashed against her face.
In that moment, Nora swore she saw it pause, almost as if it were listening. It spun together, swirling in on itself, buzzing with some activity she could not interpret. Then, she watched as the spiral turned into a column, snaking up to her window. Like a cobra striking, it slammed through the open window, knocking her back and spilling water into the sanctuary of the attic.
Nora sputtered, kicking back and sliding against the wood floor. She quickly brushed the water out of her eyes, spitting out the muddy ooze from her mouth. By the time she got her eyes open, it was already time for them to fly wide in shock.
The water on her floor pulled back towards itself, assembling into an oddly humanoid shape. It stood on two legs, two watery appendages hanging at its sides, and its head nearly scraping the low ceiling of the attic. It rippled forward, never quite lifting it legs to move, but more flowing forward through the air, the rest of the body following behind. Nora’s mouth sat open in shock, the scream forgotten at the back of her throat. She could not breath, could not move, could only stare in wonder at the creature, hear her own heartbeat racing in her head.
It reached her, watery arms wrapping around her with irresistible strength. She felt frozen, but the chill of its touch kick started her muscles. Nora began to kick and flail, struggling against the impossible figure. It was unperturbed, absorbing any blow that landed and seeming to absorb her into its watery form. Before she knew it, Nora was encased in water, suspended within the thing’s body like a bug in amber.
The creature dove gracefully back into the monstrous body of its host, taking Nora into the depths with it. The scream she had been building finally escaped, a bubble of air bursting through the water and breaching the surface. The water rolled on, moving towards the next house.
The rain pounded on, and the city of Riverrun steadily grew silent, until only the sound of rain and rushing water remained.
This work by Katherine C is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License.
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.
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.
This work by Katherine C is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License.
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.
This work by Katherine C is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License.