Card Day 51: A sad looking child holding a slingshot stands with his back to a life-size teddy bear with a tear trickling down its face.
Hannah knew that no one believed in imaginary friends, but that did not change her situation. It also did not change the fact that she was lonely, and Carmen was a very good friend to her.
“I didn’t mean to break the vase,” whispered Hannah from her spot beside Carmen in time out. “It as an accident.”
“I know it as,” Carmen smiled sweetly, seemingly unperturbed by the punishment. “But momma sure was mad, wasn’t she?”
Hannah’s legs hung off the bed, swaying back and forth as they kicked at the bed spread. She spun her braided hair around her finger, looking glumly at the floor “Yeah, she had a real fit.”
“Well, next time you shouldn’t run in the house.”
“But you told me you wanted to play tag!” Hannah said, her eyes widening and her voice rising. Camren still just smiled and fixed her with a friendly stare.
“But like momma says, ‘Imaginary friends aren’t excuses!’”
Hannah crossed her arms, pouting. It was not fair that she had to sit in time out for something that was barely even her fault. Yes, she may have been the one to break the lamp, but it had ben Carmen’s idea. It was really an injustice that the two always had to be punished as one, but she supposed that was the risk with an imaginary friend. No one would blame the person they could not see, but it inevitably meant an innocent party was unfairly tried and sentenced.
“Time out is over. Just try to stay calm and remember to use your inside manners.” Momma was in the door, standing tall but looking tired. Her hair was tucked up into a frazzled bun, letting airy wisps of dark hair float about her face. He eyes were heavy and tired, but still filled with a hearty measure of love and care. She balanced her toddler, Jasper, carefully on one hip, her weight resting lightly against the doorframe.
Hannah needed no prompting and hopped up, trying to find the next activity to occupy their time. Carmen sat politely on the bed, watching as the woman slowly walked back down the hallway. Once momma had disappeared back into the kitchen, sounds of stirring and chopping accompanying her return, she slid off the bed and into the floor. “Wanna play dolls?”
Hannah rolled her eyes, but eventually gave in to her friends exaggerated look of request. The two settled in front of the little house. Its rooms stretched before them, a chaotic landscape of toppled furniture and mismatched doll clothes. Hannah picked up a light-haired man and straightened his shirt and pants before seating him at the kitchen table. Carmen was methodically moving through the house, righting the rooms and assembling the family members. The walls of the house were a cheery shade of pink, spring green trim rounding along the walls. When she reached the kitchen, she lifted the father from his assigned seat, gathering him with the rest of the family. There were two little girls, a little boy, a momma, and a dad.
“What a happy family,” sighed Carmen as if mimicking the weary sighs of adults. She looked down at the collection at dolls wistfully, carefully setting them on the floor. “I don’t have a dad,” she added with that same sigh, gazing at the man in his khaki pants and eternal smile.
Hannah felt a twinge of fear and discomfort at the topic, grabbing the man off the floor and putting him behind the house. “I did, once. He was a very mean man. We don’t need a daddy in our house,” she said with finality. It was weird looking down at the small family on the floor, their home gaping in front of them while they smiled with perfectly painted plastic smiles. The mother’s hair was never mussed and frizzed, and the little girls never wound up with dirt on their dresses. No one broke vases in the perfect doll house.
“What was it like?” asked Carmen, pulling Hannah from the uncomfortably mature thoughts that had been drifting through her mind.
She picked up one of the little girls, setting her in one of the pink rooms with a tiny tea set. “What was what like?”
Carmen picked up the little boy and set him in the room next door, moving steadily closer to soiree Hannah was building. “Having a dad?”
At first, Hannah shrugged, her eyes growing distant as memories she did not want to consider filtered in, their shadows stretching over the idyllic dollhouse. Carmen was placing dolls, moving them through the motions of family life. Sister joined the tea party, brother continued trying to sneak through the door, mother ran between the bedrooms and the kitchen, always a bit frantic. She kept her eyes on Hannah, eagerly awaiting the answer. “He was very mean,” she repeated again, her voice sounding distant, “very bad. He used to lock me in the closets when I misbehaved. Sometimes, he would hit me. A lot of time, he and momma yelled. She would cry, and her face would be all red and puffy. Once, he hit me and I didn’t wake up until tomorrow morning.” The words slipped numbly from her lips, falling to the ground. In an instant, she was back in those moments. There were screams and yells, her pounding heart and rapid breaths. She felt tears stinging at her eyes, begging to be released at the memory.
Carmen’s voice brought her back, tying her paradoxically back to reality. “That sounds really bad. I’m glad he’s not your daddy anymore. I’m glad you can live with me.”
Hannah knew how to respond, putting on her old smile as the nightmares continued to pulse through her head. Nevertheless, she tried to focus on the game at hand, to be the perfect host and entertain her friend. In reality, she sought merely to distract herself, lose herself in a world of fantasy where grown men did not take out their inner demons on helpless victims. But that was a world she did not know, and sometimes she wondered if she ever would. Carmen’s voice again broke through. “Why did he do that?”
Hannah’s smile slipped and she shrugged. “I don’t know. He came home late a lot, smelling bad and yelling. Then he would be really mean. The last time I saw him—“ fear welled up in her throat. She remembered that last time. There had been so much noise, explosions of anger blossoming in their tiny home. She had been in her room, in this room, when it had been green instead of blue. He had come into the room, smelling a stinky kind of sweet and wobbling on his feet. There had been blood and pain and darkness. Even in the memory, she could feel fear clawing its way up her throat, pulsing behind her eyes. She took a breath, trying to refocus. “The last time was bad,” she finished, her voice barely a whisper. “Can we play something else?”
Carmen could sense the tragedy behind the words, even if she was young. It was the way such a friend worked. The two shared so much that even feelings were little more than a river flowing between two banks. She did not have the images or the sounds in her mind, though, and so she could be stronger. Hannah smiled appreciatively at her friend. Carmen was the strength she needed. “How about Pirates?”
With that, the two girls fled to the dress-up closet, donning baggy leggings and eye patches. They spent the evening storming beaches and burying treasure, ruling their ship-room with mostly-cotton-but-occasionally-iron fists. The weight of the previous moments was replaced by laughter and false bravado, daring adventures and death-defying feats.
The flurry of activity followed by silence in the kitchen signaled the play date was drawing to an end. The two were caught mid-mission by momma’a reappearance.
“Time for dinner, Carmen. Clean up and wash your hands.”
“Yes, momma,” she sighed, dropping to a seat on the bed. She began to remove the layers of costume. “Can Hannah have a place, too?” she asked.
A flash of worry brushed across her mother’s face, and she smiled gently. “Sweetie, Hannah’s not real. I know you found that diary, but she doesn’t live here anymore.”
Carmen opened her mouth to protest, but Hannah shook her head. Her mother’s disapproving gaze also helped to silence the matter. “Yes, ma’am,” she sighed plaintively, stomping towards the bathroom. Hannah watched her go, sitting down on the bed, trying to forget what her room looked like after that fateful night, trying to forget the months of loneliness before the new family moved in, bringing the friend she always needed.
Too bad no one believed in imaginary friends.
This work by Katherine C is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License.
I confess, today’s post is way longer than the limit, but I was having such fun writing it that I just wanted to keep going. This is another one I may return to in the future, just because it was an interesting idea I would like to develop a bit more. Any thoughts, questions, concerns, or critiques, feel free to swing by the comments and let me know. As always, happy reading!
Card Day 43: A half-devoured thanksgiving feast.
The food sat half-eaten and rotten on the table. Victoria tried not to think about why that was, though it was a scene she had seen replayed over and over again in her travels. It all happened so fast, no one even had time to realize what was happening. One moment the world was full of holiday cheer, turkey, and family togetherness, and the next it was a place of chaos, terror, and bloodshed. She shuddered at her own memory, shunning thoughts of the football game cutting to emergency broadcast, the sound of rending flesh carrying through the last frame before all hell broke loose across the world.
“Phil, double check the windows in the back. I’ll block the front doors. You,” she pointed at the teenage girl gagging at the stench of wasted food, “check the kitchen for nonperishables. And Davey, see if you can’t get rid of the maggot party in the dining room,” she finished with a weak smile before turning towards the high backed chair nearby. She pushed it up against the door; it was heavy enough to slow down someone trying to enter, but mobile enough they could pull it away if escape became the priority. It had been a few nights since they had a major disturbance at night, but she was not about to let down their guard just yet.
“I don’t know if I can stay here,” moaned the girl, a hint of sickness in her weak voice. “It smells awful.”
“Liza, there are beds, a fireplace, and a roof over our head. It’s sundown, so it has to do. Any luck in the kitchen?”
Liza gestured to the counter behind her where there was a stack of cans and boxes. Victoria marched over to them, carefully inspecting each one. Condensed soup, a few boxes of hamburger helper, pancake mix, and baking supplies. It was a relatively meager pantry, but she assumed most of the cupboards had been emptied to complete the feast lying in decay on the dining room table.
Phil wandered into the room, looking grim. “Windows weren’t good, but I pulled some stuff in front of them. We should be fine tonight.”
“Were they broken?”
His face stretched into a tight smile. “Not so much. Looks like folks here had ‘em open, enjoying the breeze when it all went down.” Those in the kitchen were silent, each called back to their own personal hell. Phil spoke up again. “At least it looks like we’ll have a decent dinner tonight.”
That snapped Victoria back to the present, the house filled with the stench of death and a ragtag band of sorrowful faces looking to her for leadership. “Can you two throw something together for us? Store what you don’t use.”
“Shouldn’t you women be the ones in the kitchen?” smirked Davey, a smile in his eyes.
“I’ll be in charge of cooking if you’d like us all holed up here for a week with food poisoning,” shot back Victoria. He chuckled, turning toward the counter to inspect the goods.
“I just don’t see why you always get out of working,” he said with a smile. Liza shook her head at the two adults, constantly chiding and joking at one another. It was hard to find joy in the newly desolate, always dangerous world, but somehow they managed. Mostly through practiced avoidance and intentional unremembering, but if it allowed them to survive, so be it.
“For your information, I’m going to check upstairs for supplies and any other…disposables.” She struggled with the last word, and all of the light left the room. They all knew what disposables meant, and the wordplay did little to lessen the grimness of the task. Phil nodded sharply and attended to his task.
Victoria passed the basement as Davey was walking up, his face slightly green after his unpleasant task. “All done,” he said weakly, gesturing vaguely to the darkness behind him. “Doesn’t look like anyone made it down there, either. No disposables to speak of, but there may be some supplies. Want me to grab a light and check?”
She put a steadying hand on his shoulder. “Maybe later. You’re a bit green in the gills, so why don’t you take a break?” He gave a weak, thankful smile and nod, shuffling towards Phil’s boisterous voice. Victoria continued toward the stairs.
The second floor was a dim hallway with doorways on either side. Given the smell, she was hesitant to open the doors, but it was the task she had chosen. The first room was empty, a child’s bedroom with toys scattered across the floor. A well-worn teddy bear sat forlorn on the bed. At least someone would get a bed to sleep in tonight. The second door was less pleasant. There the door opened onto a chilled bathroom, someone’s unfortunate torso half in and half out of the window. The winter had kept it from smelling too foul, but the scent of rot was still evident. She grabbed the towel hanging on the doorway and shoved the body the rest of the way out. One disposable down, but given the size of that feast, there had to be more. Maybe, she dared to hope, they had escaped. Her mind imagined the family, at least the one hanging in frames along the stairway, rushing to the windowless basement, barricading themselves in until the horrors had ceased, until dawn poked through. Maybe they had found one of the survivor colonies. Maybe they were waiting in the remaining two doors on the floor.
She tried ot think of other things, putting the family out of her mind as she rustled through the medicine cabinet. Some antibiotic ointment, bandages, acetaminophen, and cough syrup. Nothing lifesaving, but some nice luxuries. The light through the window was growing dimmer, and she pressed on down the hallway.
Door three held the horrors she had hoped to avoid, blood leaving the carpet caked and cracking with her steps. There was not enough substance left of the bodies to clean out the room; they were smeared on the walls and ceiling indiscriminately, no way to make it habitable. She closed the door behind her and continued to the last room.
The nursery surprised her, pristine as it was. This face had not been in the photos—too young or not yet born, she supposed. A tiny mobile sat still and collecting dust, the baby blue walls a stark contrast to the crimson room of before. It would do to sleep, she supposed, tossing books from the tall bookshelf to the floor. She dragged the shelf in front of the window, leaning against it. This life made her sick most of the time, but only in the silence of isolation could she let the mask crack. She had wept the tears she had, but the emptiness in her soul continues to ache.
After securing the remaining windows, she stomped back downstairs to find Phil, Davey, and Liza building a roaring fire in the hearth using the broken dining room chairs. A haphazard collection of pots sat with whatever dinner would be, and Victoria fell into one of the chairs.
“That bad?” asked Phil, catching the drawn pallor of her face.
“Could be worse. Two bedrooms, one bed, one room…” she shrugged, and they understood. One room desolate, destroyed, defiled. One room full of everything they wanted to forget.
It was not long before she had a bowl of soup in front of her, the flavor weak and watery. She ate it with a thankful smile, though the only sound over the meal was the clinking of spoons on the porcelain dishes. How different, she imagined, than the last meal in this house, full of family and life. They were the surviving dead, marionettes mimicking the role of the living. She sat down by the window—blocked by the dining room table now in its side—and peered through the sliver of a crack left visible. The sound of someone sinking to the floor beside her snapped her back to reality.
“Time yet?” asked Liza, almost bored.
“Soon, I guess.” The silence deepened between them,
“Where were you—the first time, I mean?”
Victoria pondered the question, considering leaving the silence intact. Liza’s brimming eyes convinced her otherwise. Secrecy and pain were no way to build a future. “In Liberty, at my uncle’s place. We were watching the game.”
“How did you make it out?”
Victoria ran her tongue along the back of her clenched teeth, trying not to remember the painful night when the stars crashed down. “Like most people did, I suppose. Once the windows started breaking, I ran to the basement.”
“Did your family-“
“No. None of them. It was all over so quick, I didn’t have time to save any of them.” She fixed the girl with an empty stare. “I used to feel guilty, not saving any of them, but then I realized it’s a miracle I even survived. I didn’t know what I was doing or what was happening. Even if I went back now with what I know, I don’t think I could act quick enough to do anything.”
Liza dropped her eyes to the floor. “I don’t even know how I made it. I fell asleep and woke up to everything,” she pointed around the room, “like this.” Victoria could see the pain in her expression, and balked. She had never been good with this emotional kind of stuff, and the events of the past had only served to harden her.
“We’re all lucky, I guess,” she said unconvincingly, turning back to the windows. She stared up at a sky rapidly emptying of stars. Bright streaks flashed down towards the ground, hitting with a whistling crash. From the impacts stood lanky creatures, modeled from stardust, glimmering with cold light. The looked around with large, shining eyes that lit the air around them like spotlights. Victoria moved away from the window.
“They’re awake,” she sighed, standing on creaking legs. “Let’s lie low, make sure they don’t spot us. Away from the windows and keep quiet,” she said, reminding here band of survivors needlessly. They all knew the drill by heart. It only took one night of devastation to learn the rules.
Grimly, the settled in, waiting for the light of morning to call the stars home and free them once again.
This work by Katherine C is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License.
Card Day 40: A boy stands inside a glass dome, the world inside the dome a sunny scene with a house in the background. Outside the dome is a snowy world. Imagine an inverted snow globe.
Kevin pressed his face up against the glass, seeing the first flakes of snow falling for the season. He sighed, leaning against the cool glass as if he could somehow pass through it and catch the tiny flakes on his tongue. Alas, the window remained an impassable boundary, cutting him off from the wonders of the world outside.
He drifted through the empty house, aimless and tired of the same faded wallpaper, crushed carpet, and creaky wooden steps. What he would not give to get out and feel the cool wind on his cheek, the sun on his back, the tingle of snow against his skin. The breeze from the air conditioner, warmth of the stove, and icy residue of the freezer were no suitable substitute, despite his best efforts. He sighed, begrudgingly bearing his burden. Such was the life of a deceased spirit unable to pass on.
Kevin made his way to the attic. He had always wondered, growing up, why attics tended to be such a magnet for ghosts and ghouls in movies, books, and campfire stories. Having lived the life himself for almost ten years now, he finally understood. Everyone stored their interesting things in the attic or basement. After spending a couple of months following behind the current residents, watching the world move by past his window, Kevin felt his boredom grow. It was not until he found a box of old comics and books in the basement, the unusual medical textbooks in the attic, and a stash of old tapes and a Walkman under the stairs that he found a hobby that did not leave him feeling dejected and alone. Unlike some spirits, he was at least conscientious enough to wear headphones when he listened to his music.
The internet was a remarkable invention even if he could not fully interact with the computer—the screen tended to blink and fade to off whenever he was too close by. The current owners often left the thing running, displaying news, family updates, or short videos. It was something different to pass the time, even if it did little to relieve his boredom for long.
The good thing about living in a haunted house was that people eventually got tired of the weird happenings, flickering lights, occasional bumps and whispers in the night, and sometime oldies blared through speakers that they moved out. A new gaggle of residents would move in, bringing their own bizarre junk for exploration. Kevin imagined that, were he alive, he probably could have earned a couple of degree based on the information he absorbed through boxed up textbooks alone. He had also read numerous dairies, journals, failed novels, children’s books, and salacious wannabe romance novels.
Of course, he always knew what he would do at 7:13pm. No matter where he had been, what he was doing, or what he felt like, he would be magnetically drawn to the second floor landing. He found himself there now, looking out the large bay windows at the accumulating snow. What he wouldn’t give for a sled and an hour outside, he thought wistfully. His legs—or their incorporeal spirit form—began to walk towards the stairs of their own volition. Kevin sighed, awaiting the inevitable.
The sound of a toy car clanking down the stairs echoed in the room, even though there was nothing to create such a racket. Kevin felt himself follow suit, tumbling down the stairs in a disjointed heap of limbs. He stopped against the wall, a lingering dull ache to remind him of the sudden pain and darkness of a broken neck.
His current roommates startled a bit, and he could hear a feminine voice rise at the sudden noise. It was much quieter than the actual event, but still a disruption. For a boy who never really liked to be the center of attention, his unavoidable disturbance was certainly a fate worse than death. The ritual complete, Kevin slowly stood, brushing himself off and stretching out the kinks in his joints from the fall. Recently, his shoulder had been popping out of join in what would have certainly ben a painful situation if he could have felt pain. Instead, it was a inconvenient pop to reset the socket, and then he could return to what he was doing.
Hearing nothing more, his tenants calmed back down, attributing the sound to someone on the street, the heat kicking on somewhere, or the refrigerator cycling. They nestled back down on the couch, him running his hands over her hair as they watched some comedy. He only really knew it was a comedy because of the laugh track. It really did not seem that funny to Kevin, but then again, he had to remember that mortal concerns had little pull over him anymore. Wacky situational comedy had lost its relevance when he took his shortcut from the second floor.
Still, seeing the snow outside awakened a thick feeling of nostalgia. For a long time, actually dying, leaving the mortal coil, had been a distinct fear. He had floated along the halls of his family home, watching his parents grieve and struggle to move on, but ultimately afraid to actually leave the world behind. It was, after all, the only world he knew. Then, he realized that he could still learn and experience some of life, even if it had to be from a distance. More recently, however, he felt a deep fatigue and ennui with the whole situation.
He ached for the feeling of snow, for a scene besides the same inside of the house. Different paint and trappings did little to relieve the sameness of the space.
Feeling adrift in his feelings, Kevin made his way back to the attic. She was, apparently, a veterinarian, and so he was learning a great many things about animal care. It was wonderfully useless knowledge, since he would never have any need to keep an animal alive per se, at least not in his current form. Sometimes he imagined leaping in to save the day, giving some puppy the Heimlich when the owners were out, but generally animals had an instinctive fear of him.
Settling back into the corner he had created, Kevin let the evening slip through his fingers. He found himself gazing sorrowfully out the tiny round window, watching snow pile on the streets, cars, light posts, and tree branches. The moon rose high, nothing but a orb of haze behind a wooly blanket of grey clouds. He lazily turned the pages, studying the diagrams and text. A real lifelong learner, he thought with a sardonic smirk.
His studying was disrupted by the long, pained creak of branches outside the house. The wind had kicked up and paired with the heavy snow and ice, leaving the trees to fight against the constant battering. He could hear the branches groaning beneath the strain.
The wind howled a bit louder, whistling through microscopic cracks he never could find. The branches swayed and kicked, creaking all the more loudly. Try as he might, Kevin was completely unable to focus on his book with the racket.
With a sudden crash, one of the branches finally gave way, crashing down through the roof. It slammed into a pile of boxes, shattering an old mirror that had been in the attic even longer than Kevin. Even though he was in no danger, the sudden noise made him jump.
Then, miracle of miracles, Kevin watched the snow filter in through the gaping hole in the roof. Entranced by the dancing flakes, finally so close, Kevin stumbled towards them. Barely believing, he reached out his hand and felt the tiny flakes land on his skin. They burned with a sharp cold, never quite melting on his hand. The feeling was wondrous, a final touch of the world he had known and left behind. He could hear the wind, feel the snow, see the moon, smell the new fallen snow, and taste fresh winter air.
Content and at peace, Kevin finally left his childhood home, seeking the next step in the grand adventure of death.
This work by Katherine C is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License.
Card Day 38: A man walks up a staircase in the sky towards a door. Behind him is crisp blue sky, and below him place water, dutifully reflecting the sky so the image is seamless.
The sun was an angry, white eye burning in the endless expanse of blue sky and sea. It glared down with an unbearable intensity, scouring everything beneath its fiery gaze. Renee looked up, and saw nothing but the blue sky stretching from horizon to horizon where it joined with the choppy blue ocean. There was not a hint of cloud in the sky, meaning there would be no respite from the heat, nor would there be any evening rain to collect on the tiny tarp stretched over the raft.
Her tongue sat swollen and dry in her mouth, rolling around in her aching parched mouth. No rain meant no drinkable water again today. It was day four, and the thirst was beginning to grow unbearable. She carefully, measuredly scooped a palmful of sea water into her hand, sipping at it just enough to relieve the crusty feeling in her mouth. She knew the salt water was actively shortening her own hydration reserves, but it was nice to have a moment of relief.
Renee leaned back against the edge of the rubber raft, its side comfortably warm in the early morning sun. Her legs and joints ached, as did her head. It felt as if her entire body had been wrung dry, leaving nothing but a weak husk to bake in the constant sun. Perhaps, she thought, she would luck into a chance rain storm. Her stomach ached with a familiar emptiness, reminding her that water was not the only concern. The limited food rations had dwindled, and she had not felt like eating much since her water ran out.
Carefully, Renee stretched her light rain jacket across the width of the raft, creating a tiny refuge hidden from the sun. Her skin was raw with the constant water, sun, and salt. This is what jerky must feel like, she thought sardonically, turning to slide beneath the flimsy shelter. It would eventually get hot pinned beneath the jacket and raft, but for now it was a relief to feel the shade. The constant struggle for survival left her feeling weary, exhausted, and hopeless, and so she had little energy left to fight the weight of her eyelids over dry, aching eyes. The sound of the water against the boat, calm and rhythmic, rocked her into an uneasy sleep.
Renee woke suddenly from her dream to a sudden sound. She was thankful for the alarm, because she had been yet again reliving her frenzied flight from the sinking ship, hearing the sounds of her crew calling for help as the storm ripped them apart. The first thing she was aware of was the rapid pace of her heart, the ache in her bones, and the sound of something tapping softly against the boat. Moving tenderly from her lean-to, she investigated the source of the sound.
The sight was enough to convince her that she had finally snapped and was now hallucinating after her time in isolation and exposure. From in the midst of the sky was a set of blue—or possibly clear—steps leading to a door cut out of the sky. She was not sure how her eyes picked out the stairs and door from the seamless blue sky, but she somehow knew it was there. And her little boat had stopped against it. Renee stared at it in amazement, reaching out to feel the cool material of the steps beneath her fingers. There was no logic to explain this bizarre encounter.
Barely had she managed to wrap her head around the presence of steps in the middle of the sky hen the door opened. The sky simply arched back, revealing a square of white within the otherwise azure fabric. A hand pushed open the door, and her eyes travelled along it to the man standing before her. He was short and portly, wearing a well-fitted black suit. The most ridiculous piece, however, was the crisp black top hat balanced precariously on top of his head. He smiled at her as he stepped through the doorway and along the steps.
“Hail, traveler! Well met?” he said, his voice rising in the questions as he stood on the last step. Rene stared up at him from her spot sitting on the floor of the small boat.
“Who are you?” she asked, her voice cracking with dehydration. It hurt to speak, straining her vocal cords that seemed to have stiffened with disuse.
“Oh, that’s no matter. I’m here for you, and that’s what is important. Permission to come aboard?”
Renee paused, trying to wrap her mind around what was happening. She had been traveling alone for so long, and there was no protocol for how to respond to mystery men descending from the sky. Her confusion was evident.
“I suppose this is all a bit shocking, but if I may have a seat, I would be happy to explain.” He gestured to the open end of the raft. “May I?”
She nodded, unsure of what else to do. He delicately stepped into the raft and, despite her fears, it did not tip or buck too wildly at the added weight. Renee sat on her end, having disassembled her raincoat shelter, watching him warily.
“So, you seem to have found yourself a bit…lost,” he said with a friendly smile.
Renee’s head bobbed in ascent, a reflexive response to the human contact. Trying to regain her ability to focus, she gave her head a quick shake to clear it. “Who are you, again?” Her voice surprised her with its whispering quality, like sheets of paper shuffled together. It was also hard to speak, her words coming in rough gasps.
“I am just the man responsible for keeping an eye on things, trying to help wanderers like you find their way.”
It was a half-answer and she noticed her defenses raising, even though her head felt heavy and thoughts were lethargic. “And what is—“ she paused, gesturing at the strange structure rising out of the sky to save her voice.
“Oh. Hm. Well, that is just a doorway,” he said with an unconvincing smile. “But, enough chitchat. I have something for you.” She watched as he drew a small cylinder from his coat, shaking it so that she could hear the water lapping inside. “I’m sure you’re quite thirsty.” His manicured hands unscrewed the cap, pouring soe of the liquid into a silver cup. He passed it to her, and she eagerly accepted, her thirst clawing at the back of her throat.
However, as she looked at it, she froze. The liquid was not the clear, cool water she had expected. Instead, it was a murky, grey substance that sloshed about with the motion of the boat. Noticing her uncertain gaze, he spoke up, “I know it looks a bit odd, but trust me, it’s for your own good. You’ve been out here quite a while, and this will help you feel better.”
“Is it medicine?” she asked. There was some thought buzzing about, some reason she should worry, some innate fear, but it would not come to the forefront of her mind.
“Yes, in a sense. Quite like medicine.”
Though she knew she had no reason to trust him, there was something about the man from the sky that left her feeling comfortable. Even as the thought arose that he might be seeking to harm her, it seemed so impossible that she dismissed it. The heat, hunger, and thirst scrambled her thoughts, and she was drinking deeply of the liquid before she realized it. It flowed smoothly down her throat, soothing the raw tissues and leaving her feeling cool and comfortable. Renee was amazed. She could feel it flooding through her body, relieving her aching joints and soothing her burned skin as it traveled. It was truly miraculous. As the last drops of the grey liquid trickled down her throat, she sank into the feeling of relief.
“Better now, yes?”
“Much better,” she said with a contented smile, her voice taking on its soft and feminine tone again.
“Good. That’s my job, after all. If you’re ready?” He stood, motioning towards the stairs leading to the open door.
“Go with you?” she asked, standing quickly. Her heart leapt into her throat, and she felt the ecstasy of salvation flooding through her.
He laughed, a ringing and easy going sound that soothed her soul. “Would not do much good to just leave you here, now would it? Come along.”
The man walked regally up the stairs, gliding along them with practiced ease. Renee followed, testing the first step anxiously before quickly clambering behind him. The two stepped into the doorway, swinging the slice of sky shut behind them.
On the ocean, the little raft continued to bob along, carrying its lifeless cargo in a gentle embrace across the restless waves.
This work by Katherine C is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License.
Card Day 37: Two ants sword fighting on top of a stack of gold coins.
“I can’t do this without you, Matt.”
He sighed, fading beneath the onslaught of her persistent pleading. “Lydia, it’s just crazy. I mean, you can’t actually believe this stuff?”
She smiled and shrugged. “It is crazy. But just imagine if it works. We’d be rich beyond our wildest dreams, free to do what we want. We could finally run off together!”
“I know, it would be great. But, what, we’re going to sell our souls to the devil and then spend our days on our own private island?”
“Nope, no soul selling required. It’s all right here,” she spun the worn leather book towards him, and he saw the spidery nonsense written on the page. He shoved it away.
“You know I don’t read any of that. This is ridiculous, Lyd.”
He looked up to see the whimsy and determination fade from her eyes, shattered by sudden pain. “Don’t you trust me?”
That was the final straw, and Matt finally gave in. “Of course I trust you. I’ll help you do the ritual-thing,” he agreed with a dismissive wave of his hand. “As long as you agree this is crazy stuff.”
Lydia smiled and shrugged, granting him a quick peck on the cheek before darting away to prepare.
The little country church, so endearing during the day with its white siding and little bell tower, loomed intimidating and dark under the moonless sky. “Are you sure this is right?” asked Matt, giving the building the side eye.
“Well, you won’t read the manuscript, so you’re just going to have to trust me,” she giggled, tugging at his hand and pulling him into the building. “Now, you have to help me set up.” Suddenly, two stubby white candles were in his arms, their matching counterparts in Lydia’s. “Take those and put them due north and due south. These,” she wiggled the candles in the gloom of the building, “will go on the east and west.”
Matt complied, dutifully carrying the candles to the far north and south of the building. It was unsettling walking down the long rows of empty pews, the eyes of Jesus staring down on him as he trespassed the sacred space. He felt the pressure of dozens of eyes on him, accusing him of his blasphemy and sin. The wrongness of the situation settled on him like a sheet of ice, nearly freezing him in place. Lydia’s whistle brought him back.
“Here,” a white piece of chalk flashed through the air towards him, ultimately landing at his feet with a snap and puff of white. “Use that to draw a line between the two candles, but don’t connect them in the middle,” she warned, bending down to do the same from her candles. Matt picked up the two halves of chalk and carefully followed her instructions.
“We’re making a cross?” he asked, wondering if this witchcraft weren’t possibly more benign than he suspected.
“Not quite. A broken, unfinished cross. So make sure they don’t connect!”
The lines drawn, Lydia met him in the center and pulled a thin metal chain from her bag of supplies. She very carefully laid the chain in a perfect circle, touching each of the four lines from the candles. Next, she set a tall, slender, black candle in the midst of the circle.
“A silver chain, and everything is in place.” She looked back over her work with a giddy smile, clutching her hands together in excitement. “’When the empty moon hangs twixt heaven and hell, cast your eyes unto the darkness,’” she quoted, almost as if unaware of the words trickling from her lips.
Matt shuffled uncomfortably from side to side, watching her as she spun around the place, wide-eyed with excitement. The sense of unease from before had not relented, but instead grew more intense, as if the shadows were drawing about and suffocating him. Yet she seemed completely unfazed by the heavy danger in the air; if anything, she seemed invigorated by it.
“Are you sure this is a good idea?”
She froze in her place, then turned slowly to face him. Her face smiled widely, but there was an edge of threat to her voice. “I thought you said you would trust me on this, Matt.”
“I do, Lyd, I really do. But doesn’t this just feel…wrong?”
She quickly crossed over to him, warmth radiating from her caring glance. “Oh, I guess it is pretty weir, huh? But, just think, soon we’ll have all the things we ever wanted. We’ll have our dreams.” Carefully, tenderly, she ran her hands along the side of his face, cupping his chin softly. “We’ll have each other.”
Matt sighed heavily and laughed softly. “If it even works. Which it probably won’t. I mean, you did just dig that out of a thrift shop,” he said, nodding his head towards the book lying on the dusty floor next to the northernmost candle.
“Exactly. It’s just a silly little game.” Her smiled widened, and she was beaming with excitement. “Now, you stand in the center while I light the candles. It’s time.”
Matt took up his appointed position in the silver circle, standing just behind the unlit candle. Lydia ran from the western candle around, ending at the northern one where she fell to her knees beside the book. Now, Matt knew from their planning, she would read some words and answer the “questions” that some spirit was supposed to ask. He fully expected her to keep up the charade even when the questions weren’t asked, and then they would giggle and laugh and get some cheap coffee for the drive back home.
However, things did not go as planned. She knelt down, whispering in the silence of the church. And then there was a heavy shadow at her side, red eyes burning out of the darkness. She spoke to it, as if in a trance, eventually slowly raising her arm to point at him. That was too much for him, and he went to run towards her, scoop her into his arms, and bolt from the cursed place, but he looked down to see the silver chain twined about his ankles, suddenly impossibly heavy given its frail appearance. There was cold creeping up his arm, and he saw tendrils of shadow lapping along his wrists.
“Lydia!” he cried, and she turned sorrowful, empty eyes towards him. “What’s happening?”
Her voice was heavy with grief and exaltation, a blend of emotions that left him feeling hollow inside. “I told you I couldn’t do this without you, Matt.”
He screamed as the shadows began tearing away at his skin, every molecule those dark tendrils touching exploding into the immeasurable agony of oblivion. “I thought—I thought we were doing this together!” The silver chains burned at his legs and the shadows licked up his arms and across his torso with ferocious, hungry speed. “I thought you loved me,” he whimpered, the pain forcing him to his knees.
“Oh, Matt, I did love you. I do. This never would have worked if I didn’t,” she said, smiling as if her confession made it all better.
The last thing he heard as the shadows consumed all that was left of his body, leaving nothing but a tattered soul in torment, was her parting consolation. “But, Matt dear, you have to understand. Now, I will be unstoppable. Now, I will be a god.”
This work by Katherine C is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License.
So, I took a day off yesterday. This week has been ridiculously busy, and then I had an 8 hour class today. Saturday. Yuck. So, I just was burned out on all fronts. Fortunately, a day spent in class with my incredible, wonderful, supportive classmates, plus pizza out after, has given me back a bit of energy. So, here is today’s, and sorry for the skip yesterday! Happy reading!
Card Day 35: A small child stands, sword raised high, in front of a giant blue dragon.
Jeanie woke up again from a nightmare, the sweat clinging to her body and the sheets. Her heart pounded, and she felt the flutter in her chest of rapid, gasping breaths. She lay there, her eyes scurrying over the ceiling, trying to calm herself down from the terrifying images and ideas that circled about. In the bright light of morning, she knew these feelings would disappear instantly, but the heavy darkness of 3am fed them. Her heart slammed against her ribs, echoing the sound of footsteps in her brain. It was just her heartbeat, she knew, but the sound rubbed against her raw nerves, keeping her whole body alert and terrified.
You’re too old to be scared of the dark, she thought to herself, rolling over and trying to ignore the paranoia creeping along her now exposed back. Lying this way, while more comfortable, meant she could not see the closet door. It was absurd, truly, to imagine something creeping out of her closet, but with her current state of arousal and the tricky way the mind sneaks toward impossibilities in the wee hours of the morning, she could not shake the image.
The teenager turned over, hoping that would ease the discomfort. Now she stared at the strips of black closet from between the slates of the door. However, she felt the same chill and anxiety creep along her spine again. This way, she could not see the hall door. Who knew who could be sulking along the hallways, slowly inching through the doorway? Defeated and capitulating to her own irrational paranoia, Jeanie turned back onto her back, staring at the bumpy plaster.
She tried to put the nightmare out of her mind, erasing the images of blood and pain. Watching that movie was a stupid idea, she chided herself, but acknowledging the source did nothing to weaken the images. They still spun through her mind, images frozen on the back of her eyelids. Every time she closed her eyes, they grew in vividness until she felt she was once again trapped within the dream. Her eyes flew open, back to the ceiling and the irregular pattern of the streetlight through her blinds.
It was beginning to feel as if sleep was unlikely to return for the night. She watched the clock tick from 3:17 to 4:10 with its steady rhythm. Her eyes were heavy and leaden, sinking closed only to snap open at every creak or grown from the house. Though her heart had slowed and her skin now prickled with cold from the air conditioner, she still could not fully embrace the ease and calm needed to finally fall back asleep.
There was a shuffling in her closet, and her eyes flew open, pupils wide in the dim room. Just the house settling, she reminded herself, letting her heart slow from the sudden jolt. Had she not felt the terror of the moment, she would have laughed at herself for imagining someone sitting and sliding her clothes along the hangers in the floor of her cluttered closet. It was a ridiculous image, but one full of impending devastation in her tired, anxious state. She resettled in the sheets, tugging her pillow to a slightly better angle, and once again squeezed her eyes closed to invite sleep, however fruitless that was.
This time, she swore she heard the familiar creak of her closet door inching open, swinging on the dusty hinges. It was a sound that was so familiar, but so wrong in the moment. Her mind quickly filled in the scenario, filling the closet with a grinning maniac, meat cleaver in hand, licking blood from his lips and eyeing her eagerly through the white wooden slats. In her mind, he mistook every brief moment her eyes closed as an opportunity to inch closer, sneak towards her, and ultimately plant the knife between her eyes. She opened her eyes to dissuade him, sure that he would not risk an attack if she made it clear she was awake.
Staring more intently at her closet than she ever had in her life, she was suddenly aware that the door actually was cracked just a bit. Not much, but a sliver of black showed between the white of the door and the frame. Probably wasn’t just latched, she told herself, easily excusing the creak of the door. Yeah, it had simply caught a gust of air when the vents kicked on, inching open a breath. It had squeaked, she had freaked out. Simple. Besides, the likelihood of a crazed murderer actually hiding in her closet was almost impossible. It was silly to even imagine it. As sleep faded from her mind, she found her ability to reason through and dismiss her fantasies become easier and easier. Perhaps she would actually get some sleep eventually.
Then again, it wouldn’t hurt to test a theory. Jeanie calculatedly closed her eyes, ears straining for the sound of the closet. She imagined she heard a shuffle, her shoes tumbling over one another, but surely that was fantasy. There was no sound of a door easing open, and nothing to alert her. Just a few more minutes of listening, and she could rest assured the coast was clear.
Her heavy eyes grew weightier, making it harder to execute the last step in her master plan. Instead, she found herself slowly extending the time needed to be certain, sleep the only thing creeping towards her.
Until the door creaked again. She was awake with a start, staring at the gaping opening of her closet. The door had creaked only on the last little stretch, now standing wide. Just the air, she told herself, not believing it for a moment. Her first instinct was to jump out of bed, rush down the hall, and wake her parents. But, she reminded herself, she was far too old to run to her mommy because she got scared of a draft. If her brother heard, he would never let her live it down. Gathering what little resolve she had, Jeanie carefully stepped out of bed, determined to protect the dignity she had.
Nearing the closet, she did not see the shape of a person hiding in the shadows, or notice the sudden movements of a deadly killer springing on his prey. All there was were some shirts, pairs of jeans, a few skirts, and a pile of shoes, most of which no longer fit her after that last growth spurt. Jeanie shook her head, feeling bravery and self-ridicule take the place of her fear. Just a draft and overactive imagination. She grabbed the door and made sure it closed with a click this time before turning back to bed.
However, as she moved toward here bed, something snaked out from under her bed. It had a thin body, ending in small, clawed feet. The end not attached to the floor was covered in multiple, blinking eyes, and a slim smile of a mouth. It reached one of the snake-like appendages from its side towards Jeanie, and she felt a scream clawing its way towards her mouth. The thing placed its hand over her mouth, effectively muffling the scream, its mouth emitting a soft hiss.
“Now, now, Jeanie,” it whispered, “you need your rest.” Its other arms moved towards her, sliding around her waist and arms. Despite the urge to fight back welling in her, her limbs felt heavy and unresponsive, hanging limp at her side as it led her to bed. “Let me take care of that nightmare for you, and you just sleep tight.” As three of the arms pulled the covers over her body, it leaned down to grace her forehead with a motherly kiss. Jeanie’s eyelids fluttered, then calmed, until finally drooping closed. She breathed evenly and calm as sleep settled in.
The monster from under her bed watched for a moment, a look of pride and satisfactions shifting through its multiple eyes. With a sigh, it glided back to the closet, disappearing inside.
This time, it made sure it latched.
This work by Katherine C is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License.
Guys, I worked today from 9am-8pm. Talk about tired! Therapy, reports, testing, feedback, notes, and random paperwork, bleh! I really want not sure this one was going to get finished, and I think it is probably lacking some pieces just because my brain is on the fritz. But I got it posted! Pushing through the tired and busy! Woohoo! i hope you can at least find something you enjoy about it. Happy reading!
Card Day 33: The sun looking down on a sea of umbrellas.
Janine loved to play with shadows. She remembered the games fondly from her childhood, miniature dramas put on against her bedroom wall by her grandfather. Even with his thick, arthritic hands, he managed to create wonderful images. Then again, she thought as she smiled at the memory, she was very easily impressed as a child. Once, she recalled the long dragon-saga he had presented during the week she was at home with the Chickenpox. He carefully walked her through the story, shaping her hands and letting her dictate the story, even though her feverish and childish commands did little for the strength of the tale. He was always smiling, light sparkling in his eyes from the flashlight in the corner. Those were the memories that helped her sleep soundly at night.
Now, she sat in her own dark apartment, idly splaying figures, animals, and objects across the wall from the flickering light of the television. What was on there did not really interest her, and she let her mind wander through the shadowy world at her fingertips. Janine let the parrot on the wall take flight, bursting out of the cone of light to disappear into the impeding darkness. The screen behind her grew dim with some program, and her light failed. Janine turned her attention to the television with a glower.
“It’s not the television’s fault they had to investigate the basement,” came a voice from the shadowed chair behind her.
“I know. I was just having fun.”
Her companion chuckled warmly, and she turned to smile at him. He was slouched across the chair, limbs sprawling over the arms and over the back. Somehow, despite the seemingly impossible posture, he was comfortable. His features were obscured by the shadows of the living room, but she knew he was smiling back at her.
“Did you order dinner?” he queried, his voice betraying the intended nonchalance of the question. He must be very hungry, she told herself.
“Yeah, like twenty minutes ago. Didn’t you hear me on the phone?”
There was an impatient grunt from the shadows.
“Well, it should be hear in like ten minutes. Think you can last that long?” There was a hint of concern in her voice; he was not the most polite or enjoyable company when he was hungry.
“I guess you better hope I can,” he growled, sinking deeper into the plush chair. Janine rolled her eyes at the display; he could be so dramatic at times, and it was exhausting to always cater to his whims. But, Janine reminded herself, that was what friends were for. They looked out for one another, helped each other grow and develop, and sometimes made inconvenient sacrifices for the other’s happiness. He was her oldest friend, memories of him stretching all the way back to her childhood. Just after her grandfather died, actually. She felt a tingle of discovery at that realization, never having noticed how serendipitous his arrival was for her.
Janine turned her attention to the movie, watching the wide-eyed co-eds drift deeper into the dungeon-like basement. While some might have responded with anxiety, tension, or concern about the characters, Janine smiled to herself, her mind drifting back through memories yet again.
Her basement growing up was gargantuan, filled with boxes, spiders, and darkness. She had been terrified of it since the day they moved in, and it seemed, at the time at least, that her terror was the primary reason her mother forced her to carry her clothes down to the hamper buried in the basement. It was not until her grandfather and the shadow puppets that Janine learned to take the stairs one at a time when leaving the basement.
It was about a week after her grandfather died that she met her now friend while tearfully making sad shadow puppets on the wall. She was not sure where he had come from, given that she was located in the darkness of the basement with just a flashlight for company, but he joined her in playing with the shadows. Whereas her figures moved slowly, lethargically over the wall, his danced with stunning agility. Eventually, their shadow games became the highlight of her day. She rushed home from school, grabbed her flashlight, and then they were off to create sweeping dramas and heartbreaking stories in simple shadows on cold concrete walls.
Janine knew her mother worried during those times, but she was so consumed with her own grief, and Janine was smiling. If she had any concerns about her strange new friend, she certainly was not going to mention them during such a delicate time. And, once the time was right, it seemed impossible to separate the two.
“The darkness is gonna git you,” he whispered, an edge of eagerness in his voice. He was glued to the screen, still watching the shaky footage of the three girls creeping through the darkness.
“You can be seriously creepy, you know?”
She thought she saw him shrug, a slight shift in the weight of shadows that indicated some form of movement. Janine shook her head.
“What did you order, anyways?” he asked with sudden curiosity.
He groaned. “I don’t think I’ve met that driver.”
“Just what you’d expect—young, wide-eyed, probably a bit high most of the time. He’s good enough.”
“Is he clean?”
“Does it really matter that much?”
She heard him begin to speak before a sudden rap on the door interrupted. She felt his eyes on her, a bit of irritation creeping in beneath the growing hunger. “Behave,” she hissed at him before turning and calling over her shoulder from her spot on the sofa. “The door’s open! Bring it in!”. Though she could not see it, she heard her friendly companion give a delighted purr as his tongue snaked over his lips. Janine heard the door creak open, a column of light spilling into the room and banishing some of the heavy shadows she so happily cultivated.
“Is this Apartment 115?” came the nervous voice of the delivery boy.
“Yep, just bring it in and set it on the table. I’ll grab the tip!” She hopped up from the sofa, walking towards the dark kitchen as the delivery boy took his hesitant steps into the apartment, the door a gaping maw of light behind him.
“You order the number 6?”
“Yep, that’s me. I’ll just be a second.”
She listened to his sneakers shuffle across the hardwood floors toward the living room. From the corner of her eye, she could see her friend coiling himself into the seat of the chair, ready to pounce. As soon as the boy stepped over the threshold and into the shadows, there was a muted yell, a brief scuffle, and then silence. Her shadowy friend sank back into the seat, a smile of satisfaction certainly playing over his obscured face.
Janine loved to play with shadows, even if that meant sacrifices at times.
This work by Katherine C is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License.
I’m not too happy with today’s. I had a lot of trouble finding an idea I liked, and this is actually the third piece I started. It is paced all wrong, and I’m not super happy with the ending, but it does have its moments. Just a kind of mixed bag of feelings about this one. If you have any thoughts, please leave them in the comments. As always, happy reading!
Card Day 31: A boy walks along a field, throwing seeds. Behind him, Venus fly traps and other carnivorous plants snake towards him.
Steven felt certain he was being followed. There was something about the way the shadows drifted across the walls that made him think of some predator slouching behind him, waiting to pounce once he turned down the wrong dark alley or side street. Yet every time he looked back, nothing was there. Just empty streets and foggy yellow pools of light.
“You’re paranoid, man,” he mumbled under his breath, the words spilling out into the night in a cloud of fog. Determined, he shoved his hands into the pockets of his jacket and strode on, trying not to look at the fun house mirror shadows parading alongside him. His fingers ran over the wad of cash in his pocket, feeling the smooth surface on unvalued bills, the harsh edges where they folded in on one another. He let his mind wander over how he would spend it, trying his best to ignore the feeling of unease creeping along his back. Just keep walking, just keep dreaming.
The city rested and he walked beneath the closed lids of so many houses. Occasionally, one light would be on, or a window would spill the pale blue illumination of television into the world, but for the most part, he hopped from one streetlight to the next, his head low. Up ahead, a car suddenly backfired, a sound that pierced through the night and froze Steven in his tracks. For a moment, he was reminded of the sound of a gunshot, someone yelling, spit frothing in his mouth. After the spell lifted, Steven began jogging along the sidewalk, trying to hurry home without drawing undue attention. The feeling of being watched, of being followed, intensified, raising the hair along his neck as his shoulders knotted in upon themselves.
Unable to shake the feeling of eyes on him, Steven turned again, spinning around quickly and hoping to catch the perpetrator ducking behind some trashcan or staircase. But there was nothing on the street, no movement besides a windswept chip bag crossing the road.
Seeing the bag, Steven laughed at himself. He had managed to work himself up over a single piece of litter tumbling down the street. “Almost wet yourself for some trash,” he chided, shaking his head. After pausing on the street long enough to convince himself he was no longer afraid, and that he was being silly for giving in to the paranoia, Steven walked on, a confident measure to his slowed steps. He held his head high, breathing deeply of the night air and blowing heavy clouds into the sky. No stars shone here; the light pollution burned them away years ago. He had seen the stars before, in person, on a couple of family vacations, but tonight the streetlights were his stars. And he could see his fame written in them.
The feeling returned to him after a moment, but he did his best to ignore it. Ignorance was a skill that Steven had spent much of his life honing, and so the requirements came easy. He had practiced his ability to ignore feelings of sadness, fear, and guilt, and the same tools kept him moving down the empty streets toward home.
It was a long walk to his apartment. He knew that was the point, so that he did not have to worry about running into someone he knew, but his body was beginning to feel the delayed effects of adrenaline rushing out of him, leaving his muscles tired. His feet ached with each step, and his pace slowed to give his wearying body a break. It was only a few more blocks, but he felt suddenly very tired. His arms hung in his pockets like paperweights, dragging all of him toward the dirty pavement. Each step was like lifting a bag of sand, slinging it forward, and dropping it. Steven felt himself lurching along, leaving a trail of fatigue glazing the ground behind him. The exhaustion weakened his defenses, and all his attempts to avoid the eyes crawling up his back began to give way.
A gust of wind and he swore someone breathed down his neck, the wind growling in his ear. The air was warm and sticky, not the winter breeze he expected this time of the year. Despite its heat, chills danced up and down his spine, giving him an involuntary shiver. Somewhere in the distance, a police siren ripped through the still night. Steven felt his blood freeze solid in his veins. It was far away, but something whispered that it was not far enough. His fingers played over the sticky spots on the bills in his pocket, trying hard not to remember what that was.
Steven ripped his hands out of his pockets, brushing the sticky red remnants on the brick of a nearby building, half aghast and unbelieving at the sight of it. With renewed energy from an unknown source, he ran. The sound of his sneakers on the pavement snapped after him, a rapid, tapping echo that pursued him down the empty streets. He no longer cared who saw or thought about his trip home, but he simply wanted to arrive to his waiting apartment, collapse inside with the locks thrown, and hope to outsleep or outdrink his guilty conscience.
Beneath the sound of his pounding steps and thundering heart, Steven imagined he heard another sound. Someone breathing deeply, another set of footsteps mirroring his own. Just the echo between city buildings, he thought, just the breeze whispering through the balconies. From an open window spilled the sound of some couple fighting, voices rising to a fever pitch and fading as Steven rushed past the window. Nevertheless, the yells and anger were enough to snap him back to that moment.
The lights—cheap, dull, buzzing loudly—hurt his eyes as he stepped out of the night and into the store. Steven raised the pistol in his hand, pointing towards the lone cashier. “Just the money.” His voice was loud, demanding, spittle flecking his lips with the force of the command. But the man reacted, moved quickly, yelling something Steven did not have time to comprehend. Steven’s fear jumped, pulling the trigger with sudden decisiveness. The man froze, toppling like a child’s tower, his eyes wide and staring. The smell of gunpowder and blood filled the room as panic began to set in. Trying to salvage the plan, Steven rushed to the cash register and grabbed the cash he could. The cool air outside, the strange peace that was so different than the muted chaos he had just experience, made him feel as if he had entered another world. And so he set off towards home, pretending his life was not in shambles, letting the cold numb his raw nerves.
Now he was certain. There was another set of footsteps. And he could smell the blood again, suffocating him with the sweet, iron scent. Steven stopped, breathing in ragged gasps after his flight through the streets. He turned around, expecting nothing yet again, but instead found himself face to face with a man. He was dressed in shadows, and the light from the streetlamps seemed to recoil from him, leaving a heavy patch of darkness around his feet.
“I think you’ve got something that’s not yours,” said the man, his voice flat but drawling. “It ain’t right to take what isn’t yours.” Steven’s struggle was short, and soon the only evidence left was a roll of bloodied dollar bills and the scent of blood hanging in the air.
This work by Katherine C is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License.
Card Day 28: Two snails in an empty stadium are jousting towards one another, their antennae covered by javelins.
The clicking of the keys stampeded through the empty office like a herd of raging bison fleeing certain destruction, tripping over themselves and mounting in haste as they echoed off the empty cubicle walls. Marco sighed, the rapid clicking halting abruptly as he rubbed his tired eyes. He looked at the screen, seeing row after row of accusatory red squiggles identifying every flaw. The report had to be on McGilligan’s desk by open tomorrow, and he still had pages to go. It wasn’t helping that every fifth keystroke was the wrong one.
He pushed back from the desk, leaving the pool of light afforded by the fluorescent light under his cabinet. The floor was surprisingly dark, letting in limited lights from the streets far below, and he felt blinded in the thick darkness.
Coffee was the answer, he was sure of it.
During the hustle and bustle of the day, he never noticed the soft crushing sound of his loaders on the short-trimmed carpet, but now it flowed him along his walk. The tiny break room hummed as he flipped on the overhead lights, bathing the room in a sterile glare that stung at his tired eyes. Shuffling across the linoleum, Marco filled the stained pot with water from the tap, dumped an arbitrary amount of grounds into the basket, and flipped the switch. The smell of coffee quickly filled the air, giving him a reflexive jolt of energy. He waited until the pot dribbled to silence, and then filled the largest mug he could find with the liquid.
Back at his desk, he felt little optimism, even with the caffeine. The cursor still stared and blinked at him, and he let out an unconscious groan which broke through the heavy silence. The silence did not help him think, but only made his isolation all the more present. He sat, feeling the weight of his aloneness and impending failure.
Clicking dispiritedly, he rid his work of the annoying corrections, trying to make it resemble something more than the failed procrastination of a seventh grade history assignment, but ultimately feeling like it was a wasted effort. Then again, it was unlikely anyone would ever even read the report, he cynically admitted. The company had already decided to move forward with the land acquisition, despite protests, and his report was a technical requirement that would get shoved in some folder for the next seven years, then routinely shredded.
It had, at least, been an interesting report to research. He looked into the pros and cons of the acquisition case from a business perspective, talked to residents, protesters, supporters, wildlife experts, geologists, and more specialists than he could imagine. Yes, it was true that the land used to hold some spiritual significance for the area natives. And yes, it was the dwelling place of an endangered slug species. And yes, no one wanted a big corporation setting up shop in their backyard. But, he had not been able to meet with one practitioner of any religious rites in the area, the slugs were not going to be severely disturbed by the building of a complex, and the introduction of the corporation would lead to hundreds of jobs in the community. Ultimately, the report wrote itself, supporting the already decided position.
Still, Marco felt he had to do his due diligence, digging for anything that might later come back as a pitfall of the project. He listed every concern expressed and succinctly dispatched them. Or at least, that had been the intention. Instead, he sat floundering, staring at his screen and trying to remember how he took all of this data and made it say “Great idea, boss!”
Marco jolted in his chair as he thought he heard the distant chime from the elevator. The janitors had already done their sweep of his floor, back before all the lights had gone off and he had been plunged into his solitude. He strained his ears for the sound of someone moving about, walking along the soft carpet, breathing, coughing or clearing their throat. Nothing but silence. Must have imagined it, he answered, wondering if the lack of sleep, isolation, and caffeine were about to trigger some sort of hallucination.
He typed a few lines, summarizing the results of the geological survey that someone had requested. There was nothing found to be all that special, besides some underground caves located relatively far from the build site. His desk was scattered with pages and pages of reports from specialists that some bigwig somewhere had ordered, and he scrambled through them to quote the final evaluation.
There was a thump from somewhere on the floor, the sound of something falling against the walls of a cubicle. Marco froze in his paper shuffling, again straining for any noises. Did offices creak and groan like houses at night? Did cubicles? But he heard nothing else.
“Hello?” he called into the empty space. Nothing responded. Slightly shaken and feeling on edge, Marco realized his coffee cup was already empty. Which meant it was time for a fill up. His walk across the floor was nerve-wracking, especially as he imagined he heard something bumping against the cubicle walls opposite him. But no shadow moved along the alleys, and no one returned his call into the vast space. He focused on making it to the break room.
The light made everything better, and he laughed at his jumpiness. The sounds were probably just the air vents coming on, rattling around the cheap barriers. Only in his sleep-addled state could he get so worked up over so little. He poured another cup of sludge, drinking it as he realized how poor a job he had done making the coffee, and promptly shattered the mug on the floor as he turned around.
Existing—he wanted to say standing, but the thing had no body to speak of—in the doorway was a massive slug, its body stretching back into the shadows. It spotted him and opened its maw of a mouth, displaying hundreds of glistening teeth, dripping with saliva. Slowly, it inched towards him.
Marco realized he was trapped in the tiny break room with no way to leap over the creature and nowhere to run. He grabbed the coffee pot, flinging it and the remaining lukewarm liquid at it, but it barely paused at the collision. Slowly, it crept forward, its jaw opening and closing as if already snacking on his bones
He stumbled back over the chairs, hoping he could at least outrun the thing, when suddenly one of the teeth came flying at him. It sailed through the air like a harpoon, embedding itself deep into his calf. Marco let out of pained yell, stumbling against the wall. His head began to swim, and dizziness took hold. Still pushing himself away, albeit weakly, the slug seemed to be gaining on him. The room was spinning, and the lights were going dim, ultimately fading into shadow.
Marco lay limp and barely conscious as the creature inched closer for the feast. His last thought was that there was no way he was going to get that report finished in time.
Okay, so I’m putting this at the end of everything, but I’m going to be honest, this is the first thing I wrote. This card has me pretty stumped, and I’m trying to take some time to focus on it, come up with some ideas. I figured, while I did this, I could at least go through a bit of my creative process with this. So, I have a card. Some days, the idea just jumps off the page at me, like with Day 26 and the books. Sometimes a word or phrase comes to mind, like “token of affection,” from Day 1. Other days, I look at the card and it just stares back at me. Today is one of those days. My husband is now use to the occasional, “Crap,” from me when I draw my card, meaning whatever is on there has me stumped. As tempting as it is, I do not toss the card back in and try again, but I do have a process.
I start with the background. What is going on? Are there any interesting details that help make it all make sense? (There is stadium seating behind them, but it’s empty). What emotion does it evoke? (Silliness, futility) Any thematic ideas? (Isolation, maybe impending tragedy either perceived or real, effort despite no observers, tedium) Are they actors in the image, and if so, do they inspire anything? (Snails. I am not writing about anthropomorphized snails.) Then I just spend some time rolling these thoughts around, trying to find anything that sticks or seems to coalesce into some idea. Sometimes, I just let go of the details of the image, hold onto the feeling, and try to imagine an opening line (like “Wonder has always been a child’s greatest asset” from Day 6), and then integrate story components from there. And then sometimes I just start writing something, anything, and hope it ultimately makes sense. When I’m feeling a little stuck, I turn to some good instrumental music tracks to help me out, Disparition (the music of Welcome to Night Vale!) is a personal favorite.
Today, I ultimately started with the ideas of tedium, isolation, effort, and perceived doom (and a little Disparition). And then decided I have not done a good horror piece in a while, and I want to. So, there you have it. My creative process, at least for today. I stumbled across this article today, which was fairly interesting. It’s kind of the approach I’ve been taking with these, only I publish them with the caveat that they are first drafts. It’s how I do a lot of my stuff actually, because it does keep me moving and working. Worth a read (and its short)!
Also, and this is kind of important, I learned today that slugs can be predatory, have up to 3000 teeth, and can, in fact, shoot their teeth like a harpoon to deliver neurotoxins to their prey. Slugs just moved up a few notches on my scary creatures list!
Thanks for paying attention to my rambling! Hope you enjoyed it. 🙂
This work by Katherine C is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License.
Card Day 24: A man sits below a tree, up to his waist in yellow sand. Above him is a tree branch, covered in birds that he conducts in song. From the branch, a spider descends.
Death sat at the edge of the bed, looking at the frail man beneath the sheets. His breaths were shallow and rattling, and his pulse was visible through the paper thin skin of his wrists. Gently, Death lifted his hand and placed it atop the man’s.
Edmund opened his eyes slowly, as if they were held shut by an incredible weight. He did not respond with fear or sorrow to the specter, but smiled the same way he did when his grandchildren roared into the sterile hospital room. It was a look of weary joy, speaking of all the ambivalences long life encompasses. His voice creaked when he spoke, an organ that had deteriorated from the booming orator’s voice of his youth. Now it was a scratchy whisper, wavering like a twig in a summer’s storm.
“I figured you’d come around soon.”
Death smiled, his eyes softening. “It is about that time.”
“You don’t look like I thought you would. Too much….skin.” The rest of Edmund’s words and thoughts faded off as he stared up at death. There was no skeletal face, no heavy black hood. The ephemeral spirit did not even carry a scythe. Instead, Death was a man in a black suit and tie, his hair trimmed and lying neatly in dark brown waves. His shoes were sharp and polished, one balanced precisely atop his knee while the other tethered him to the tile floor. Beside him sat a leather briefcase with complicated looking cylinders on top. In an unsettlingly human motion, Death repositioned his wire-rimmed glasses on his nose and smiled.
“The shock and awe thing really isn’t necessary most of the time,” responded Death calmly.
Edmund grunted his answer, his breathing coming in irregular hiccups. Death gave him a sympathetic look as he carefully weighed his words.
“It is almost time, and it can be time now.”
Edmund closed his eyes, swallowed hard and nodded. He relaxed against the stiff hospital pillows, feeling the last bit of struggle fade out of his body. It was quiet, peace, and freedom. He opened his eyes, feeling suddenly light now freed of his medical burdens, and smiled back at Death.
“That was not nearly as bad as people say,” he chuckled.
Death echoed the laugh, the sound feeling somewhat hollow coming from the man at the end of the bed. “Those who complain have rarely met me. It’s libelous, really.”
Edmund continued to laugh, though there was no clear impetus for it. He laughed until his entire form shook, tears sliding down his ghostly face. He laughed so loudly that, had he still been a corporeal being, the whole hospital would have awoken. After a time, the laughter faded to an occasional chuckle. “What now?” he finally asked between snickers, his voice regaining its youthful tenor.
“Now, it’s time for the Great Beyond. But, as a courtesy, any final requests? Barring harming someone or restoring your life, I’m fair game for last wishes.”
Edmund grew serious for a moment, pondering this unexpected opportunity. “I suppose…” his voice trailed off as he considered the question. “Well, after being locked up in here, I’d like one thing. I’d like to see one last bit of beauty in this life. I miss things besides grey walls, fluorescent bulbs, and tile floors.”
Death nodded, pursing his lips in thought. “That’s a tall order, Mr. Graves.”
Edmund shrugged. “I figure you’re the man who can make it happen.”
In a fluid, graceful movement, Death bent and retrieved the briefcase from the floor. His fingers danced over the tumblers in some well-practiced numbers, the case opening with a satisfying click. “I think I have just what you need.” He pulled a smooth stone from the case, and then closed it with a click. At that sound, the hospital walls faded away, making way for a broad, darkening sky. Edmund joined Death atop some pristine mountain peak, watching the sun set over a valley of impossible peaks and valleys. The colors spread across the sky like a spilled oil painting, creating shades that only existed for that moment. Death turned to Edmund, smiling with pride. “Beautiful, eh?”
Edmund shrugged, looking unimpressed. “I suppose, but I saw more beautiful sunsets when Agnes and I were dating. We used to sneak off to Lover’s Point and watch it set. This is nice and all, though,” he finished, suddenly sheepish and concerned her appeared ungrateful.
“No worries, Edmund. I aim to please, but even I miss the mark occasionally. Let’s try something else.” He delved back into the briefcase, returning with a paintbrush.
“Listen, Death, if the real thing ain’t gonna do it for me, a painting won’t either. I think we can skip that one. I’ve never been one for galleries and all that. My grandson had some art up in those things, and they were beautiful, but most of its just trying to capture what we can see with our own eyes. Or some modern mumbo jumbo.”
Death chuckled and returned the brush. “You’re a man who knows what he likes. I like that. Maybe we change tack.” He snapped the briefcase shut, holding a single sheet of music. The mountain gave way to the concert hall, filled with a celestial blend of instruments and human voices. They rose and fell in harmony, creating a slight echo that left feelings of nostalgia for each passed moment, while spurring the listener into the next marvelous note. The words were unimportant, but the sound seemed to wrap the entire hall in a shell of impenetrable peace. Death looked at Edmund, expecting to see his mouth agape and eyes wide. The man instead had a look of polite appreciation, and smile good naturedly at Death.
“Oh, now this is very nice. Reminds me of when Nina, my daughter, was in choir. She had the voice of an angel. I swear, nothing more beautiful than that.” Realizing what he had said, Edmund fumbled for an apology. “Not that this isn’t nice. It’s quite nice. Beautiful, even. Thank you, Death.”
Death shook his head and sigh. “Edmund, I promised you a last request, and I do take pride in keeping my word. Let me try one last thing. I think I’ve got you figured out.”
Another expedition into the briefcase, another item retrieved. This time, it was a scuffed metal fork. Death smiled as the concert hall walls faded, as the sound dimmed to a memory, and the ruckus of family dinner took over.
Edmund found himself in the midst of a family Thanksgiving some years hence. Nina and her husband John were smiling and laughing, Tracie played the piano while the smell of a slightly overdone bird wafted through the house. Jason and Michael were lying in the floor, putting together a puzzle. He saw piles of coats in the hallway, heard the hubbub of activity in the kitchen were Marsha was putting the finishing touches on the big spread, enlisting a joyful David to cart it all to the long table. Edmund smiled, and Death saw tears stinging at the man’s eyes.
“Well, now, I guess you finally got my number, Death. Nothing more beautiful than that. Nothing at all.”
This work by Katherine C is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License.
Card Day 17: A single white poppy amidst a field of red ones.
For years I had known that I was special. It was this innate, trustworthy feeling that somehow I was set apart, even if I could not yet realize what that meant. I remember walking through the crowded halls of high school, surrounded by pettiness and shortsighted passions, feeling distinctly different from the other adolescents plodding their dreary days. I was special, because somehow I could see through this all. It was not, necessarily, presentience, but more of an awareness of a realm that existed beyond the reality of the everyday.
It would be years later before the true importance of this separation became clear, but I nevertheless lived in accordance with my calling. It is with great peace and contentment that I say goodbye to my simple life of unfulfilled selection, giving up the toil and worries of human life for the transcendence I so prepared myself for.
I do not view my fellow humans with contempt or disdain. I understand the vibrancy with which they lived their lives, constantly pursuing some meaning or happiness. It is, ultimately, the same thing I sought. Only I could see beyond the mere rewards of a short span of life on this earth. I could see into the stars and to the true purpose awaiting me.
The stars. Have you considered them, dear reader? Do you share my admiration and awe, or are you like the rest of my species? Do you see in the stars only endless expanse of danger, fear, and destruction? Do you rail against the destiny our race was born to, or do you willingly accept your role in the far larger drama playing across the universe? I have never been so self-consumed to consider our race more than a mere speck in the expanse of space and time, a footnote in the great annals of universal history. We have served such a vital purpose, but it is our duty to but serve so that greater things may come. We shall be transformed. You, dear reader, shall be transformed just I have.
I remember when the stars reached out to us, bringing news of swift arrival. So many ignored the messages of the stars, but I could hear them singing, ringing with the news. It was a riotous din, completely unavoidable to anyone who would open their ears and eyes. If we had listened, then perhaps the great coming could have been a process of ease. We could have transitioned without strain into our new roles. Yes, it was necessarily a disorienting transition, leaving behind so much of what we foolishly used to define ourselves. We are a magnificent race, capable of so much others are not, but we refused our central role in all things.
When they came, there was such commotion. I was out at the store buying groceries for the week when it all began. The arrival came as a shock to me—I am not, as I said, presentient—but a welcome surprise nonetheless. The first sign of their arrival was the air. It suddenly took on an electric tingle, racing across my skin, up and down my spine, and across my tongue. It was a thrilling, terrifying experience. Yet, for the first time I can remember, I felt as if I were truly alive and aware of my senses. It was as if the sudden atmospheric electricity gave an edge to my senses, making colors brighter, sounds crisper, tastes more succulent, smells more vibrant, and touch more real.
It was in that moment that the full extent of my otherness became clear. This was the world of experience so many had felt before me, and now so many recoiled from it. I saw men and women begin to teeter on the edge, feeling the energy in the air as it set their nerves and fears alight. I do not believe they understood what it meant then, but soon they would.
From among the clouds, the beings appeared. So often, we imagined their arrival in massive ships that blotted out the sun. Instead, the floated on ephemeral wings, descending like snowflakes in the atmosphere. And like snow, they quickly and softly blanketed the world, requesting that we commit to our ordained positions in this expansive universe.
Yet so many rebelled. I watched with sorrow as humanity showed its worst side, reacting with violence and aggression towards these interstellar beings of light and goodwill. We attacked them, rebelling against the natural order to try and dispel the “invaders,” as so many called them. I remember the sound of rocket fire, the smell of burning structures and ozone in the air. Our weapons did nothing to them but anger them. I remember such sorrow in my heart, so different from the levity and freedom I now feel. If only we had acquiesced to their requests, all my brothers and sisters in humanity could experience this great relief.
What you must understand is that they came in peace, and we drove them to destruction. We acted as we always have, and responded to this unknown future with abject terror. We fought and we fled, but we should have known we were no match. I cannot see the future, but I could see we were bound for destruction when the first mortar flew.
I was in the epicenter when it happened. There was light, so brilliant and searing. I felt it with the same electricity as I had in the store, as if my skin was alive and singing. I saw others crumple to their ground, their screams fading into silence. All around me there was carnage and bloodshed. I lay docile and content amid the mingling blood of thousands of my species who had refused the coming blessing. My heart still pounded a steady, low, reliable beat. I would serve my purpose diligently, without struggle or rebellion.
They came to me in the bloodshed, their bodies perfect and glowing with an unperceivable light. They trudged through the offal, corpses, and destruction utterly unmarred by the horrors. I could see them searching, seeking the beacon of my awareness and submission.
Joining them was pure elation. For a moment, my body was in their grasp, white hot feelings piercing through very nerve and cell. I felt their consciousness probe mine, searching. I heard their whispered promises and assurances. I could join them if only I would renounce the silly things which tied me to humanity, I realized then why I was set apart, that I had always been destined to become something greater than my race had ever imagined. My race’s limited imagination, abject fear, and ultimate futility held us back, caged us in weak flesh, and left us captive to meaningless emotions. There was brilliant light, the burning away of human weakness. And I merged, a being purely set apart. My acceptance assured I would fulfill my ultimate purpose to drift through the outer bounds of space, converting those who were worthy while ridding the universe of the plague of mediocrity and small-mindedness. I was always set apart; I was always different.
Now, I am life. I am death.
This work by Katherine C is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License.
Here is today’s. Not sure how I feel about it, but part of this exercise is writing things I’m not 100% on, and just going for it anyway. Sometimes it’s all about putting words on the page. The tone of this one is weird, and I’m not sure how I feel about the narrative structure. It;s mostly a character piece, with a little bit of reflection and surprise mixed in (and, ultimately, the surprise may be utterly unnecessary). I think it is interesting, but I’m just not sure if I love it or hate it. Right now, it could go both ways. If you have an opinion, please let me know. May not sort it out for me, but it at least lets me know if I’m way off base! Happy reading!
Card Day 11: A woman standing and pulling aside her apron to reveal a puppet stage in her abdomen. On the stage, she raises an object threateningly towards another, smaller puppet. (Think the old Punch and Judy sketches.)
From all outward appearances, Dave and Cindy were the perfect couple, living the dream of blissful married life for nine loving years. They were the traditional, enviable power couple. She was brilliant, fit, and a terror of a corporate lawyer. She had worked hard for her prestige, though the memory of such long all-nighters through college and law school was distant now, and she continued to build herself into a dynamic machine of ruthlessness and productivity. Up at five am to hit the gym for a vigorous morning workout, it was then into the office by seven. Cindy was the kind of woman who would smile beautifully as she plainly told you precisely how this deal was going to go down, her lashes fluttering in innocence the whole while. I suspect some people fell for her routine and thought they were pulling one over on her, but most folks were smart enough to hear the steel in her voice, waiting to tear them apart.
Dave was a slight man, but most who knew him quickly forgot his underwhelming physical presence in light of his impossibly quick mind. He was an oncologist by trade, able to at once slip into the role of a comforting stranger belaying bad news while also carefully deconstructing every molecule of an interaction. His sympathy was short-lived by necessity, but he often found himself in shock at the maudlin displays put on in his office by a family who, quite obviously, previously cared very little at all for the fate of the poor sod getting the death sentence. He was a card shark, one of those who seemed to see right through the card backs based on a drop of sweat alone. He was popular, well-liked, and avoided for most major arguments. Dave had more wits than he knew what to do with, and sometimes unsheathed his biting comments in the face of another’s misguided ignorance. His was a friendliness put on for the obligation of human interaction, carefully masking an underlying disdain. Of course, his friends were eternally in the dark about that, so well-crafted was the disguise.
Then again, his wife was much the same way. The same in a way that allowed her to see through him, to the despicable being underneath. In turn, he saw past her beauty and charm to the bitter, jaded creature she truly was. They were, as I said, the perfect couple, as long as one did not dig too deep.
They went to the right parties, hosted the right shindigs, and belonged to the right charities. Their benefit dinners were well-known and well-attended, while they both sat on the prestigious boards of all the right organizations. In person, they loved and doted on one another, smiling from across the room. They danced in perfect harmony, and laughed at each other’s jokes. High school sweethearts, they had parted ways in college and only rekindled their love after a chance encounter in line at the local coffee shop. He bought her extravagant gifts, she praised his every accomplishment, and everyone smiled in awe of their wonderful relationship, if inwardly seething for the saccharine nature of it all.
Of course, that was only on the outside. Sure, there were clues if one knew where to look. There was a harsh edge to Cindy’s laughter when Dave told a joke, a mocking bite that he was certain to hear. Dave’s brows knit a little too close together when he smiled at his lovely bride, broadcasting his irritation to her from across the room, even as his eyes danced with a smile. If one were ever close enough to the smile-clad, dancing duo, one might hear the under-the-breath instructions barked by Cindy as Dave giddily disregarded each one. If you hung around late enough after one of their parties, long enough for the guests to go home, the staff to clean up, and the house to return to silence, then you would hear true feelings spill out, harsh words shot across empty hallways from rooms on opposite ends of the house. Bitterness, regret, rage, duplicity, and hopelessness.
To give up, file the papers, and go their separate ways would reveal a terminal weakness for both of them, something to be exploited or, even more distressingly, pitied. Staying together at least provided a ready target to drown with rage and frustration, as well as the occasional bought of angry sex born from isolation and animal need. It also, most importantly, shored up the image of a happy couple, successful in all they set their minds to. And, ultimately, wasn’t that what mattered.
What one might not know was that Cindy had a very dangerous peanut allergy, and that Dave had been routinely making himself a generous plate of fried chicken in sizzling peanut oil about once a week, most of which ended up uneaten in the garbage. Cindy, of course, could not explain the itching, swelling, and redness that occasionally sprung up. Dave, for his part, grumbled that she could use whatever she wanted if she ever took up the initiative to cook.
One likely wouldn’t know that Cindy had a concealed carry permit, ostensibly for the early morning walk from the office parking garage to her well-secured office building. And it was certainly not well known that she kept it under her pillow at night, sometimes lying awake and wondering which head most needed a bullet to end all of this. Dave, snoring peacefully like a freight train, slept on, unaware where his life hung in the ultimate balance.
Some people certainly knew about Dave’s secretive afternoon appointments with Janice Weathers, the lead surgeon at his hospital. She was, of course, there for surgical consults on patients, but the office hour was protected as sacred, with all phone calls on hold, the blinds drawn, and the door locked. For patient confidentiality, of course. They had only just booked their tickets to the latest AMA conference, though the meeting was in Denver while their tickets said Mexico. Someone knew, but likely turned a blind eye to something that was not their business.
And now, of course, everyone knows of the bloody aftermath. The knife wounds and gun shots that opened Cindy and Dave’s hidden inner life to public view. Everyone knows about the corpse in the swimming pool and the other in the garage, bags packed in the trunk already. Everyone knows about the screaming and yelling that woke up their sleepy neighbors, and about the pile of mementos burning on the front lawn.
If only someone could have seen through those two, interceded, and stopped Fate’s cruel hand. If someone could have seen the herald of the stars and somehow intercepted one of them, preventing this grand tragedy. Yes, if someone had intervened, those two would probably still be around, making someone else miserable. But, you see, Fate’s job is sometimes to remove the blemishes, cut the cancer out where it festers. It is a bloody, messy procedure so often, but I must say, I enjoy my job.
This work by Katherine C is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License.
In honor of Halloween, here is a quick little piece. As always, it’s a WIP and could use some work, but just an idea I wanted to play around with. This is literally the first draft of this piece, so I’m sure it has some rough patches that could be improved, but I really like what I have so far. In a couple of days, I’ll probably hate it, so I better post it now while it’s still on my good side! I hope you enjoy, and, as always, feel free to leave any recommendations or critiques in the comments!
Jaime hated Halloween. She had never had the brave disposition necessary to enjoy horror movies, scary stories by the fire, or jump scares in the hallways. In first grade, she had spent most of her classroom’s Halloween party in hysterics after one of her classmates leapt out at her when she was walking to the snack bowl. A few years and Halloweens later and she still had not overcome her deep dread about the month of October.
More specifically, however, Jaime hated the Jinkersons’ house during Halloween. The Jinkersons were a kind, loving couple. Eleven months of the year, Jaime loved living next door to them. They baked cookies and had an arcade in their basements that was free for the neighborhood kids to play in. They also volunteered their ample backyard for neighborhood ballgames during the long summer afternoons. Mrs. Jinkerson was a woman decked in smiles, a teacher by trade and passion. Mr. Jinkerson was old, chubby, and an endless repository of jokes and harmless pranks. But, come October, their smiling faces beamed as they draped their home in skeletons, ghouls, zombies, body parts, and buckets of red-tinted corn syrup, and Jaime began to avoid their home as much as she could.
This year took the cake. The Jinkersons outdid themselves on the overall decoration, piling more corpses and ghosts across their yard. Mr. Jinkerson even built a maze out of black trash bags through the backyard, gleefully leading the neighborhood kids through the various scenes of horror. Jaime, while displeased, could handle the decorations in the yard. She simply did not go in there, and did not walk past their house after dark. She crossed the street, and then walked back to her house. Even the willfully scared screams of her friends as they lost themselves in the maze did not bother her. What did, however, was the cheap plastic skeleton hanging in the tree. It seemed to stare directly into her window, and any slight breeze triggered its creepy laughter.
It was 3:15 in the morning and she had early soccer practice at 7:00am the next morning. The chattering laugh—deep, throaty, and echoing unnaturally—woke her with a start. She heard the plastic frame fluttering in the trees, triggering more and more laughter from the flimsy ghoul. Jaime rolled over, pulling her pillow down over her ears as she pressed her face into her mattress. Even with the sacrifice of near suffocation, the decoration’s brittle laughter still pounded in her ears, sending chills fluttering down her spine. It was just a plastic toy, she chided herself, trying to balance her fear with her frustration, but the logical reassurance did little to calm her in the pitch night.
The laughter quieted just as the sun began to rise along the horizon. Jaime’s tired eyes eased into the quiet moment, letting her doze off for a few precious hours before waking.
“Are you feeling okay, honey?” her dad asked as he stuffed a hastily made sandwich into her lunch box. Jaime stared with glazed eyes at her cereal, now soggy mush after wading in the milk undisturbed. “Jamie?” he questioned, snapping her back to attention.
“I didn’t sleep good,” she mumbled before halfheartedly stirring her cereal and lifting a milk-logged bite.
“Didn’t sleep good? What was the matter?” questioned her mother, stomping into the room on the tips of pointed heels. She stopped sharply in front of her husband, spinning tight on her heel and pointing wordlessly at the gaping zipper in the back. “You weren’t up late reading again, were you?”
“No,” she grumbled with a scowl. “It was the Jinkerson’s skeleton. It kept laughing.”
“Oh, honey, surely you couldn’t hear that thing through your window,” sighed her father after taking care of the offending sipper. The metal snapped sharply into place, and Jaime’s mother dropped into her chair at the table.
“I heard it all night.” Jaime reiterated, punctuating each word with an intentional pause.
“But, sweety, didn’t you have your window closed?” her mother asked.
Jaime stared at her mother grimly before giving her a sharp nod. “It was closed. I heard it.”
“I’ll talk to Mr. Jinkerson today, then,” sighed her father as he dropped her lunchbox on the table. “I’m sure he can switch it off or something.” With that declaration, her older brother swept into the kitchen, his chair squealing as it dragged across the floor. He dug into his breakfast as if he had not eaten in weeks, and the conversation shifted to his after school practice schedule. Jaime slipped out to finish getting ready for her morning practice, dragging tired and leaden limbs down the hallway to her bedroom. The skeleton hung outside her window, toothy grin mocking her as it drifted in the gentle autumn breeze. At least, Jaime mused, he was quiet this time.
The school day was a blur. Morning practice was a nightmare of tangled feet and sluggish limbs that responded seconds to late to every drill–by the end she had earned her teammates two extra laps. She fell asleep in her math class, her eyes tired of searching aimlessly for the missing x in so many different equations. English class was even worse as she left her books in her locker, earning herself a responsibility paper for Mr. Edmunds since she could not participate in the class reading. She spilled milk down her shirt at lunch, dropped the paints in art, and slammed her finger in her locker after final period. The day was a maelstrom of unfortunate events.
By the time she laid down for bed, Jaime’s hatred for the grinning skeleton had grown into monstrous levels of rage. It’s meddling had brought on all the troubles she now faced, and all it could do was grin malevolently at her, as if they were childhood friends conspiring on some cheap prank. She was staring at the shiny plastic eyes of the decoration, irritation smoldering in her gaze, when there was a knock on her door.
“Ready for bed?” her dad asked, leaning against the door frame. Jaime didn’t respond, but burrowed a bit deeper into her comforter. “I talked to Mr. Jinkerson. He said he’d pull the batteries out of the skeleton; didn’t know it even made noise when they put it up. And that he owed you a game session for keeping you up,” he chuckled before crossing over to her bed. He tousled her hair–the only part of her visible to him–and sat on the edge of the bed. “Think you can get some sleep tonight?”
Jaime rolled over, flopping with the over-dramatic air only a teenager can muster. “I’ll try my best, dad.”
He smiled and laughed to himself before standing. “Good, that’s all I ask. I’m sure it would help if we could keep Mr. Bones here from spying on you all night.” With a shirt tug, he pulled the curtains closed, effectively shutting out the newly named Mr. Bones. “No sight, no sound, no problem.” The click of the light switch signified his departure, and Jaime found herself rapidly overcome by the heavy hand of sleep.
3:19 and she was awake, again the sounds of laughter rattling outside her window. This time, frustration won out over fear. The cheap decoration had been nothing but a nuisance, and she was tried of it. She resolutely threw her legs off the bed and stomped over to the window. Flinging back the curtains, she saw the skeleton dancing in the wind, limbs akimbo, as it laughed mouthlessly into the darkness. It mocked her.
Without another thought, Jaime walked to the backdoor. She flung the screen wide, robotically grabbing her brother’s baseball bat from beside the door on her way out. The wind blew furiously, tossing leaves into her face as she made her way across the lawn with single-minded fortitude. Her feet squished into the mud, chilling her to the bone. She was on a mission, one who could not be deterred.
The first swing and the decoration’s flimsy limbs were tangled around the bat. Another swing brought the grinning face to the ground. Again and again she lifted the bat before bringing it down on the grin, the arms, the legs, and any part of the cursed skeleton she could. After a few minutes, the ghoul was reduced to shattered plastic and tangled wires. The wind howled through the trees, eagerly reclaiming its dominance of the nightly noises. It chilled the sweat that had appeared across Jaime’s brow, calming the fury that had only recently raged with her slight form.
With abnormal calm, Jamie scooped up the tattered remains of the skeleton and carried them to the trashcan. She dumped the remains unceremoniously into the bin, leaving it to grin amongst the old newspapers and last night’s leftovers. A deep peace settled over her as she walked in the newly quiet evening, back to the back door. With a smile, she climbed victoriously back into bed.
As her eyes closed, her blood froze in her veins. From the darkness of her bedroom, a sound caught her attention. Laughter rattled through her room, reaching across the space to paralyze her beneath the thick comforter. It was deep, throaty, and echoing too deeply to emanate from the darkened corner. Her eyes snapped open, drawn immediately to the gaping, toothy smile waiting for her.
Jaime screamed. It laughed.
This work by Katherine C is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License.
It is done! I finished part three. To be honest, it became somewhat tiring. I knew where I was going and how to get there, but I admit to being a bit fatigued on this one. It is one of the longest pieces I have written (that wasn’t a chaptered piece), and it simply required a lot of dedication and resolve on my part. It was also really hard to carry a consistent and realistic emotion throughout all of this, mainly because I got tired of thinking like I needed my narrator to think. But I am mostly happy with the conclusion. I feel like there could be some improvements made to the finale, but that is something I will return to in time, once my brain has had a chance to recover from this piece. I’m still a bit too close to it. So, I hope you have enjoyed this so far, and I hope you enjoy the grand finale. If you see anything that could be improved, feel free to drop me a note in the comments. And, because I’m proud of my accomplishment, the whole thing clocks in at roughly 11,000 words and a touch over 24 pages. Thanks for reading!
Jocelyn and I took off through the caves, moving as quickly could in the dark. Our flashlights careened wildly, lighting the rocky walls, the dusty floor, and the innumerable potential obstacles in wide-arcing beams as we tried to get to the small opening that Brian and Hayley had entered before. As Hayley’s screams grew more distant even as we approach, we heard Brian’s cries beginning to ring out as he called after her.
After entering the side passage, Jocelyn and I paused to take in our surroundings. There were two paths carved into the stone, diverging to the right and left. Our lights played across the walls for a moment before finding Brian’s pale blue arrow scrawled on the wall. At least he listened.
Into the dark we dove, hearing Brian’s voice growing louder as Hayley’s grew more and more distant. We moved as quickly as we could, bumping along the walls in our haste to reach our friends. Brian seemed very close now, and the arrows along the wall had grown more and more hastily scrawled, now little more than trailing lines of blue dust on the wall. I was amazed that he had the wits about him to continue marking his path; I knew I wouldn’t if Jocelyn were screaming like that.
In one brief moment, the cave went from in front of me to mashed into my face. I glanced behind me, seeing Brian’s pack dropped unceremoniously in the middle of the floor. Jocelyn halted, looking at me in concern as I picked myself from the stone floor. Perhaps it was a trick of the lights, but she looked impossibly pale, her face drawn in fear even as her eyes showed concern. For the first time, I noticed that she had only had time to pull on her t-shirt before I took off on a mad dash. Her shoes hung loose on her feet, the laces splayed across the floor. I was lucky she hadn’t been the one to fall.
“Are you okay?” Her eyes roved around the tight walls of the tunnel as if the walls themselves would leap up and drag her away.
“I’m fine,” I huffed, pushing myself to my feet. “Just scraped my hands up.” I had not realized how much I had exerted myself getting this far until I had to stop. Now the weight of each breath tugged my body back towards the floor. A sharp stitch pierced my side, and my lungs felt like they would soon burst as I gulped in available air. After all this was over and we had a good laugh about it, Brian and I would start back at the gym, I promised. And Hayley and Jocelyn could come to. Maybe we’d all run a marathon. Or become world class mountain climbers. Once this was a hazy memory in the past.
Jocelyn’s soft, sharp breaths were a counterpoint to my ragged gasps. There was unsettling silence in the caves now. I felt a hint of relief flood through me, certain that whatever danger had appeared was now passed. We could take our time, walk carefully, and meet up with the certain to be embarrassed couple. However a pinprick of anxiety encouraged me forward.
“Let’s go,” I panted.
The silence was suddenly deafening and dangerous. I knew I should feel relieved, but somehow the sudden silence was worrying. I could hear Jocelyn’s steps behind me, the steady ebb and flow of her breathing. My own breaths were still ragged inhales and exhales, but close to resembling something human. And nothing. No laughter, yells, or sounds from ahead of us. Only half-formed blue arrows pointing along our trail.
Our pace stayed steady, but far more cautious. There were areas where we had to climb over small piles of rocks, warning of possible future cave-ins or collapses. Jocelyn gave me a worried look, but pressed on. Eventually the silence gave way to a sound that I have heard in every nightmare since. Sobs.
They were heaving sobs, initially too frail to hear and distinguish from shifting rock. Yet as we continued on our path, they grew louder. They became sobs that reached right into my body and ripped out the last bit of air I had left.
While the sound was bad enough, once my light turned the corner and showed him sitting there on the ground, I felt my own knees begin to give out. I stumble toward him, ignoring the pain as my bloody hands began to clot with dirt. I did not know what happened, but I felt tears behind my own eyes, heard them in the unsteady waver of my voice.
“Brian, what’s wrong? What happened?” The words fell out into the dead air as my eyes took in the little details. They saw Brian’s hands, bloodied, the nail beds jagged and raw, pressed up against the wall. They saw the smudges of dirt along the edge of his short sleeves, noted deep bruises already beginning to bloom. Pieces to a puzzle I could not and cannot understand.
“She—She—There were bats,” his words broke up into sobs as he sat up, his eyes fixated on the immovable stone I front of us.
“Where is Hayley?” I whimpered, my own tears beginning to flow. My mind reeled in the darkness, leaving me bereft with only lips to numbly spill forth questions.
“They flew,” he moved his hands in a swooping motion. “And she just started screaming and running.” He sniffed, his tears streaming down his face in solid lines of immeasurable sorrow. “And she ran—” at this, his words again dissolved under a wave of tears as gestured weakly to the wall in front of him.
“Brian, where did she go?”
“I don’t know!” he screamed, eyes wild in bewilderment. “I saw her running down here, and—and I followed. But then she was gone.”
I felt my heart begin to panic even as my mind began to collect itself. So, Hayley was lost in the caves. This was bad, but not terrible. “Okay, so she got lost. We can retrace our path and check out any other ways she might—”
“No,” Brian interjected sharply. “You don’t understand. I saw her run down here. I saw her run through there!” His finger jutted out towards the cold gray wall, trembling with the force of his statement.
“Brian, that’s a solid wall,” began Jocelyn, calmly and what she intended as soothing. I winced as she continued. “There’s no way she could have done that. Maybe the dark played tricks on you—”
“Is that your answer for everything?!” He yelled, and I felt a dim sense of retribution I did not even know I wanted. “She disappeared! She ran straight through this!” His fist pounded against the wall.
“Is there a trap door or something,” I offered, trying to make sense of this. Brian simply slumped over and sobbed.
“Even if there is, we may not be able to find it,” responded Jocelyn, meekly. “We should head out and find some park rangers.”
There was silence between us, punctuated by the sounds of Brian’s sobs. He was devastated and probably certain he was losing his mind. He had watched the love of his life sprint in terror through a solid rock wall, and nothing about that made sense. My heart aches for him even thinking about that.
“Brian?” I put a hand on his arm. “We need to get some park rangers.” His sobs paused as he looked up at me.
“Do you think they can find her?”
“I’m sure of it. And they have all the best equipment. I bet they even have special training just for this,” the words felt hollow in my mouth, but they gave light back to his eyes.
“You’re right,” he agreed, clinging desperately to the hope I had fabricated. “I bet they do this all the time. They’ll find her.” He was up and walking back the way we entered before I realized it, suddenly empowered by hope.
Jocelyn caught my shoulder as we followed him. “Mark, you know she couldn’t have—”
I cut her off, feeling a rising tide of dull anger as she stomped on our hopes. “I know. But she could be lost.”
“Of course,” she mumbled, “It’s just—none of this makes sense, does it?”
I did not want to answer, because to admit to the insanity we were living in would make it all the more horrible. “I’ve got to keep an eye on Brian. He’s not really in his right mind.” I jogged the few steps ahead to catch him, leaving Jocelyn a few steps behind. I cared about her deeply, but in that moment, she was an outsider to our drama. I had known Brian and Hayley for years. I knew Brian would not have given up on her easily. But Jocelyn couldn’t understand what this was, couldn’t fully comprehend the way the world was suddenly no longer real to either of us. It wasn’t her fault, but I felt I should punish her for it anyway. “Watch your step, Bri. You dropped your pack up ahead.”
He nodded, grunting in the dark as he dutifully trained his flashlight on the floor in front of him. We trekked on in silence for a few moments, the only sound the crunch of our feet on the ground and Brian’s occasional sniffle. He was the one to break the silence. “How could she just disappear?” he whispered.
“I—” the words, intended to be healing and jovial, dried up in my mouth. “I don’t know, Brian. She couldn’t have, right?”
“Right,” he mumbled, “she couldn’t have. Exactly.” I felt a knot of tension ease a bit as we planted ourselves firmly in reality again, only to re-emerge as he spoke again. “Then how did she do it?”
I had no answer, and the feeling of dread in my stomach was beginning to gnaw straight through me. “I’m sure the park rangers will be able to help.” The words were useless, and I believed them no more than I could believe Hayley disappeared behind a rock wall. But if we were to be in the habit of believing impossible things, it was at least a comforting one to cling to. Brian pushed on ahead of me, unwilling to share my hope. We three walked along in silent darkness, individual islands in pools of artificial light, wearily trodding through the belly of the beast.
We never found Brian’s pack. In the moment, that fact dimly registered on my clouded mind, but it is something which has continued to haunt me. There was no way to miss it; the path we were on had not deviated or branched along the way. We followed the arrows in reverse, finding scrawled reminders every step along the way. But the pack in the center of the path was gone, and we exited the side passage without any sign of it. It became one more impossibility in a series of increasingly impossible events.
As we entered the cavern, Jocelyn caught my elbow. There was a softness in her voice that soothed my injured feelings. “Are you okay?” she whispered, careful to keep it below Brian’s hearing.
“Yeah,” I sighed. “Just stressed. And worried.”
“I know. But, it will work out.” As much as she intended that as a reassuring statement, I could hear the question in her voice.
“It will. We just need to get out of here and get some professional help.” I tried to sound optimistic, conjuring every positive bone in me to make it convincing.
“Exactly,” her voice relaxed. “But, I need to grab my pack and pants before we leave. We don’t need another injury trying to get out.”
She was right and I felt sudden tension arise within me. She needed to go back to the other side of the cavern, but Brian was on a tunnel-visioned war path to the exit. Deterring him would be impossible, and leaving her in that half-clothed state would slow us down if not stop us completely with an injury.
“I can run over and catch up with you guys. I’ll be back before you make it up the side,” she offered, reading my mind. The tension dissolved; I could live up to both my responsibilities.
“Yeah, that’s a good plan,” I agreed stupidly. She smiled, kissed my cheek, and took off towards the little pool that had housed such peace only moments before. Brian watched her leave, dulled confusion flashing across his grief-stricken face. “She’s going to pick some stuff up and meet us, Bri. Let’s just keep going.” He dutifully obliged.
If our trip had not been traumatic already, it began to explode into impossibilities with that decision. Believe me when I’ve said I’ve spent weeks and months replaying all these events, as if I could somehow alter what happened by imagining all the different scenarios. We were doomed before we set foot in those caves, and that is the only thing I can be certain of. Brian and I had just reached the wall to climb up when there was a brief scream cut short by the sound of splashing water. We both turned, immediately alarmed.
“Jocelyn?” I called out. My own words echoed back to me, and died away to silence. “Jocelyn!” I called again, panic rising in my voice. The sounds of splashing water and coughs greeted me as I continued to call her name, praying for a response. “We’ve got to go,” I said, turning to Brian. He had turned back to the wall.
“We have to get help,” he growled robotically, repeating my mantra back to me.
“Brian, she could be in trouble. We have to check on her.” I was already turned and moving, certain he would accompany me. Instead I heard the grinding sound of his flashlight on the rocks as he pulled himself up.
“We have to get help.”
I barely heard him, already moving as quickly as possible across the floor of the cavern. The light of my flashlight was increasingly weak, dully lighting a small circle in front of my feet. I did my best to avoid other pools, making my way to the one that glowed dimly, flinging furious shadows on the wall. The sound of splashing and sputtering grew louder as I came closer.
Jocelyn was in the center of the pool, her flashlight clipped to her pack and casting wild shadows as she fought against something unseen. I rushed to the edge, lying flat in a desperate attempt to reach her, but she floated inches from my fingertips.
I saw her eyes, roving and mad as a wounded animal. She groped blindly against the water, struggling to pull herself to the edge. I could not see what kept her, but it was a frozen moment of pure panic. I dove in to the water, feeling it begin to drag me down. But I fought ferociously towards her, even as her head dipped below the surface of the water.
Her hand was in mine. In that final moment, I felt her fingers wrap around mine, and I was certain I had her and could pull her to safety. Her eyes found mine, pleading with me to bring her back to the surface, and I tried to bring her close to me.
But something else pulled at her, dragging her towards the murky bottom. Her fingers gripped mine with vice-like grip, her eyes growing more and more desperate as air escaped her in a flurry of bubbles. She was screaming as she disappeared into the depths. I refused to let her go, but her hand began to feel like pure fire in my hand. It burned, deadening the nerves in my hand until I could not even feel her pull away. She descended, dragged by an impossible spot of light. It was brighter than the light of her flashlight, wavering in and out of our reality as it gently surrounded her, pulling her further and further away. I watched her eyes go from panicked to scared to unfocused as it pulled her away.
I swam to the surface, refilling my lungs with air. There was nothing I could do. I watched that creature drag her downwards, the light of her flashlight illuminating that face, frozen in pleading terror, until it was too small to see. The depths swallowed her alive; that thing carried her into impossible waters where I could not reach.
I sat sobbing in the water, no longer knowing what part of this world still inhabited reality. In the distance, I could see the small light of Brian climbing his way to the surface, dutifully going to get help. Part of me thought about just sinking down right there, discovering whatever inevitable bottom this hungry pool had. I felt certain in that moment that we were no longer a part of reality as we knew it, so what would my death even matter? This cave simply devoured us as soon as we entered, and now it was playing with us. As unhinged as those thoughts sound in the light of day, there is still a part of me that fully believes that. I think, sometimes, that maybe I did just sink away in that pool, and this is all the last gasps of my oxygen deprived brain. Maybe that’s the afterlife. Maybe these memories are my hell, that creature my personal demon.
Someone dragged my body from the water. I assume I did, though I have no memory of it. I cannot remember the walk across the cavern back to the wall. I remember dim awareness of my still numb hand dangling at my side as I followed Brian’s beacon. I remember Brian progressing solidly, dutifully following the arrows marking the safe path. I remember the impossible light moving through the darkness, leading his trail. I remember the way the arrows had changed their direction on our entrance, and saw a new path emblazoned before Brian. There was no time to intervene as my brain slowly put the preposterous pieces together. In a single instant, I heard his brief shout as the step gave way beneath him. I watched his flashlight traced his path to the floor before getting buried under a pile of loosened rock and debris. I felt everything inside of me crumble into dust at the shattered world I lived in.
His face, pinned beneath the rubble, is painted sharply in my mind. His body was twisted unnaturally, like some doll pulled apart and haphazardly stuck back together. Some joints pointed the wrong way, and there was a splatter of red on the rock near his head. Most of him was lost beneath the rocks, but I saw cold eyes looking at me from a head turned sharply away from me. There was no pulse, but I knew before I even checked. That thing had brought us to be devoured.
As if I had not yet paid my debts, my flashlight gave out.
How long I sat there sobbing in the dark, I do not know. Time only has meaning in relation to the life we have left, and as far as I was concerned, I was already dead. I had disappeared in twisting caverns, drowned in an impossible pool, and fallen between crushing rocks.
The light that lived in perfect darkness flitted around me, staying just far enough away to be noticed but barely seen. It waited on its haunches, watching me with those golden eyes as it shifted between real and not real imperceptibly. I was trapped in the dark, no idea where to go, and it waited patiently for me.
Eventually I could not sit there any longer next to the rapidly cooling body of my best friend. I stood, pacing along the wall. I kept a hand on the cool stone, staggering long as if it would suddenly open back into the wide open world. I felt despair as I thought of never seeing the blue sky again, of never seeing anything but this infinite blackness. I turned to walk back and saw the creature floating around Brian. It was a haze covering the area that I instinctively knew was the tomb. I rushed towards it, shouting as if chasing away a scavenger. In an instant, it was simply gone, leaving only the blackness. I sank again to my knees, crying out tears that burned and stung my raw cheeks.
It was hunger that finally drove me to my feet, stumbling again along the wall as if I could find some magic passageway. I carefully walked along the wall, dutifully avoiding turning back and risking stumbling over that grisly scene. If I did that, I am certain I never would have moved again. Or worse, I would have fled screaming into that infinite darkness, another soul swallowed up.
The sound of my shoes scuffling along the dirt floor was suddenly interrupted by a decidedly foreign sound. Something crunched under my feet, the sound echoing over and over in the silence. In my desperation I laughed, recognizing the intruding sound of the chip wrapper in the darkness. I was likely delirious with grief, hunger, and dehydration at this point, but I took it as a sign of salvation, wildly climbing onto the rock surface and feeling out a path. I crawled along that wall, my one good hand and feet constantly reaching out to feel for any stable surface. I laughed as I rose steadily above the floor, groping through the gravel and dust like a blind man. I avoided any path marked by that awful creature, always moving further and further away from it as I moved higher and higher. Eventually, I found my hands gripping the edge where a wide expanse stretched out before me. Still crawling, I found orange peels and food scraps littering the floor. I laughed and stood, racing towards what I hoped was an exit.
Despite the odds, I finally found myself back in the first opening, back where Brian had seen his bat and mocked my concerns. I reached out to the wall, trying to find the way out. It was in here, I was certain. My fingers trailed along the rock face, puling and gripping it as if I would tear down the mountain just to be free. Surely, the opening was here. I briefly felt chalk under my fingers, pointing in a direction that I could not decipher. It was likely meaningless anyway. Still, no gap appeared in the rock. I continued my search until my fingers felt chalk again, and again. I was going in circles, but could find no opening. It was as if the cave has sealed its lips tight, swallowing me inside. The walls seemed to spin and move around me, putting the exit always a few inches away, I was sure. In the darkness behind me, I felt I could see glimpses of light moving to and fro, blocking any hope of progress.
In despair, I fell to the floor. I was crying cold tears that I could not feel until they landed softly on my hands. My sobs came in silent waves as my mind tried to process my own fate of either starving or freezing to death in this rocky tomb. I wondered if anyone would ever even find my body. It could have been minutes or it could have been days—time only existed as a running count of the overwhelming burden of tragedy on my life—but eventually I saw a light move in the darkness, drawing nearer and nearer to me. It moved gracefully, but impossibly slow in the darkness until it stopped just in front of my face, its eyes meeting my own. Those eyes were huge, encompassing the whole room, the whole cave, possibly the whole world. I could see everything contained within them, and most importantly I could also see myself. My own eyes looked back at me in there. And, suddenly, my own thoughts and memories began to play.
It sighed contentedly, drinking in all these precious moments from my life. First days of school, best friends, true loves, and endless opportunity played before me. The creature reached out, its hand seeming to move through my eyes and into my body, shuffling through my deepest personal thoughts and pulling at something that the rest of me fought to keep back. It continued to pry, however, and I felt my reserves give way. The cave flashed into my mind, playing back before me in the world of that thing’s eyes. Laughter, anger, fear filled me with each relived memory. I saw Brian lying bloody and twisted, heard the sound of Hayley’s shrieks grow dimmer and dimmer. Jocelyn floated away from me, a terrified statue etched in ivory as it drifted through the inky black water. I heard the sound of dogs—
Dogs? The creature recoiled for a moment as I was brought back into the present. Yes, dogs barking nearby. Perhaps a rescue, I dared to dream. No, the entity seemed to whisper back to me, not dogs, just lonely wolves seeking their next meal. My strength was failing as the creature drew more and more of me out, trying to drink away the last vestiges of life I had left, but the sound of dogs gave me strength to fight back. I steeled myself, trying not to remember, not to think about my life before. All I had now was the thought of a life lived in the bright air and sunshine yet again. The creature’s grip on me tightened, and I felt that hope begin to waver as it found moment after moment of adoration with Jocelyn at the center. The smell of her hair, the feel of her skin, the warmth of her lips—all faded to cold, dead memory as her eyes pleaded with me in the dark water. She drifted away from me, her fingers slipping through mine and into oblivion.
But no, I fought. I tried to muster a yell, to let them know I was here, but my throat was so parched that I could barely manage a whisper. Nonetheless, I could hear the barking louder now, maybe even echoing off the walls around me. Salvation!
The creature screeched as the flashlights of the rescue team came into view. I dimly felt them speaking to me through the golden haze of its eyes. My lips moved, but there was no sound, only the ever increasing fury of whatever thing had me in its grasp. I felt water flowing down my throat, something warm wrapping around my body. In their hands, I began to feel the creature’s grip loosening. I was winning the fight and pulling away. There was a stretcher, and a light pinprick on my arm, and then they moved me out of the creature’s lair, away from its prying eyes. At some point a fresh breeze hit my face, and I felt tears spring up again. At some point, their voices began to fill my head before turning into a nonsensical buzz in my personal delirium. At some point, the golden hued world of the creature’s eyes gave way to impenetrable blackness once again, and I slept.
They found Brian right where I told them, his head still stuck at that unnatural angle. At least they managed to fix it for the funeral. Hayley and Jocelyn were never found; they searched all the pools in that cavern, and assured me that none of those was deep enough to drown in. As for Hayley, well, the caves had a funny way of turning around on you. And they went for miles. Shock, they called it. Trauma. Of course, it didn’t matter to me what they said or found. I know what happened.
Everyone has a story. And there is something out there that needs our stories, that feeds on our stories. It appears to me that it has a taste for the sour flavor of despair, the tang of fear, and the bitterness of tragedy. Or maybe, like my shrinks keep saying, that’s just the story I’ve told myself.
We all have a story to tell.
This work by Katherine C is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License.
Well, this thing has grown a bit longer than I estimated, so I’m extending it to 3 parts. At around 5-7 pages a piece, I think that’s manageable chunks. The last part is not completed; however I do have the ending written, so at least I know where this thing is going! Without further ado, here is part two*
* Rhyme completely unintentional.
Stepping into the cave from the previously blinding sunshine was akin to plunging from the shore of a warm, tropical beach directly into the arctic depths. My whole body took a moment to adjust to the profound and heavy darkness, even as the shade leached away the warmth in my skin. My sweat began to cool to clammy dampness, comforting me even as that same chill crept steadily along my vertebrae.
The walls were originally very narrow, clinging close to us as we pushed our way inside. The rock face bent and curved around as we walked, forming a tiny switchback before pushing us into a larger opening. The walls flared out as the ceiling rose into a room that was large enough for the four of us to gather comfortably. Our flashlights danced across the ceiling, filling in the tiny hills and crevasses that made up the mottled walls and ceiling. Brian found a bat, but only nudged me silently to share his discovery. Hayley hated bats, and he was not about to have her in hysterics. But he smiled anyway, obviously pleased with himself. I studied the room, feeling a deep appreciation for the natural state of it take hold. There were a few plastic bottle and food wrappers lying in the corners, but if you ignored those, it was pristine. The way the entrance wound into this room, no sunlight crept in from outside. It was almost difficult to even find the narrow passage we used to enter, but Brian dutifully pointed an arrow back at it in crisp blue chalk on the grey wall.
“Don’t go getting in a twist, Gretel,” snapped Brian as he eyed me watching him mark the exit. “We’ll make sure you make it to Grandma’s house.”
“Wrong story, Bri,” quipped Hayley, her head tilted back to a sharp angle to view the rough hewn ceiling. Her light danced over the ceiling, lighting briefly on Brian’s bat before rocketing back to the floor. “Are we just going to stand here all day?” Her discomfort at the winged rodent bled through her friendly smile.
“Just through here,” waved Jocelyn, her flashlight darting down a long stretching tunnel. The cool air and the brilliant joy of her smile revitalizing me, I jogged behind, yelling for her to wait up. I could hear Brian and Hayley exchanging slighted heated whispers behind me, the word “bat” slipping between them in whispered barks. Eventually Hayley pushed her way past me to join Jocelyn in the lead. Brian sidled up beside me, seemingly weighed down by the nearly empty pack on his back.
“It’s a cave. There are bats,” he sighed, exasperation creeping into his voice. There was no further explanation needed, and we continued in friendly silence as Jocelyn led the way through the winding tunnels. Occasionally, Brian would stop and make another mark on the walls, but we soldiered on until the view stopped us in our tracks.
What had been a mere thirty minute walk must have led us even deeper and farther into this cave system than I could have imaged. From where we stood, the emptiness of the cave stretched on for eternity. The rock floor we stood on arced down after about fifteen feet in, a craggy system of stones demonstrating a treacherous path down into what I assumed was the bottom of this cavern, though my flashlight had dimmed to the point that I could not be certain. Somewhere, the sound of water played over the rocks, echoing back and forth in the cavern to harmonize with itself again and again. As the flashlights shifted through the murky darkness, flashes of water on light illuminated a series of small pools and a steady trickle of water tumbling down. The sight and sound were beautiful, yet chilling. The summer warmth was gone now, leaving an empty feeling of cold.
“Are you guys hungry? I think this would be a great place for a bite to eat,” reported Jocelyn, slinging her pack from her shoulders to the dusty floor. I watched her stretch, the long muscles of her back moving smoothly in the shadowy light. Visions of the slender, lithe body under the dusty camping clothes pulled a smile to my face that I hoped she wouldn’t see.
The fruit in my bag—a single apple, banana, and orange—had not fared as well as I had hoped in the trek to the cave. All salvageable, but with a distinct mushiness that was less than appetizing. However, despite the relative brevity of our journey thus far, I was ravenous. The banana disappeared in a flash, and the apple was down to a bare core in similarly swift fashion. I pulled out a mushed peanut butter sandwich and opened the zipper bag. The sound was surprisingly loud in the cave, as if the walls were replaying over and over this foreign sound. It felt wrong, a chill shifting up and down my spine, but the sound of a plastic bag in the darkness seemed even more intruder than the previous loud crunch of the apple. No one else seemed to mind, however, so I tried to shake the growing sense of unease.
Brian ripped open a bag of chips, the same feeling of intrusion creeping along my body again. Maybe we shouldn’t be here. The thought raced through my mind and was dismissed almost too fast to realize. I chided myself for my unease in such a peaceful place.
“This place is amazing, Jocelyn. Did you come here a lot?”
She smiled. “No, only once or twice. It’s not the most riveting place, but I always found it calming, ya’ know?” She stared of wistfully into the darkness, and I could see her shoulders relax even more as her eyes slipped close.
Brian’s loud munching on his chips shattered the quiet moment, but he remained oblivious. “Yeah, you could totally set up a recording in here and make some serious bucks on Cave Sounds to Sleep To. I’d buy it.”
Hayley laughed. “You have more useless get-rich-quick schemes than most cartoon villains.”
“And one day you may be very happy that one pays out,” he reminded her with an emphasized crunch of chips.
Jocelyn sighed, opening her eyes and returning to the conversation. “I have to agree with him, Hayley, I could definitely fall asleep here.” She yawned minutely, and then smiled with contentment. “But there’s a lot more to explore, too.”
“You still awake over there Mark?” called Hayley, exaggeratedly searching the dark recesses of the cave for me. “You haven’t said much.”
I stretched. “Just taking it all in. Besides, you three have all the rings covered in this circus. Wouldn’t want to intrude.” From the dimly lit area where Brian’s flashlight lay, a piece of orange peel flew through the air to land in my hair.
“You’re just oh so clever, huh?” grumbled Brian good naturedly as he lifted his pack again.
“Trash,” stated Hayley blankly, a command she had obviously supplied time and again. Brian complied by toeing the empty chip bag over the edge of the cavern and smiling.
“Now we don’t have to worry about that ending up in some landfill,” he quipped in frail attempt to cover his own laziness. Hayley rolled her eyes. I felt anger rush in.
“What’s wrong with you? This place is pristine and you just go throwing you trash around? Stop acting like a child for once and take some responsibility.” The force of my words surprised me, and even more obviously surprised Brian. His face flashed from startled, to hurt, to angry in a matter of seconds before he turned away.
“Didn’t know we had a park ranger with us. Not much I can do about it now,” he grumbled. Hayley and Jocelyn stood uncertainly between us, caught in the crossfire of my harsh words.
“No, I’m sorry. I don’t—I just—Let’s just be careful, okay?” I said, trying to erase the heavy tension between us. As suddenly as the anger had appeared, it was gone again. I felt momentarily alien in my body, as if someone—something else had been the one propelling those angry words through my lips. With it gone, there was an empty, foreignness in my mind. I felt like a fool.
“Careful is key,” picked up Jocelyn. “We can go down into this cavern area pretty easily, but then we need to be especially careful. It’s big and you can get lost.”
Hayley moved towards Brian, her hand wrapping around his arm to send a gentle but clear message. Let it go. He sighed, and it was as if I could see the irritation roll off his body. He turned around with a fake smile. “No harm, no foul. I’ll be more careful.” As insincere as the message was, it was at least a sincere attempt. Having known him for years, he would wind down for real in a couple of hours. Per our unspoken agreement, this would join other petty arguments that we never spoke of again.
The path down was treacherous, with sliding gravel and an occasional gap in the trail. The stair steps leading down were rugged and irregular, but definitely passable. Years of shifting earth, running water, and solitude had turned them into an obstacle course leading to bottom.
Brian dutifully marked the way, though it was hard to imagine getting lost here. Go up was the primary direction; anything beyond that was merely designed to find the best path. I was bringing up the tail, trying to religiously follow Hayley’s steps in front of my. At one point, I caught movement from the side of my eyes. It was startling, capturing my mind with all kinds of terrible possibilities. My heart suddenly began to race and I felt clammy sweat break out over my body. I turned, trying to find what it was, when suddenly that lightness came into view.
In the dark, it seemed slightly more distinct, but remained utterly incomprehensible. It was a shape of light moving through the darkness, casting no illumination. Two distinct eyes appeared to take up most of its face, and there were two protrusion on either side—ears, I decided—that stretched out into the darkness. There was no discernible body or feet, but it glided through the dark like some swimming ocean creature. The more I studied it, the less it made sense. As I watched, however, it moved toward the wall, reaching out to briefly touch one of the arrows on the wall. In a blur of motion, the chalk seemed to shimmer, then move each particle at a time. After what my heart promised was less than a beat, the arrow reassembled itself, this time pointing the opposite direction.
“Guys! What is that? What is that thing?” I was frozen, staring behind me with my arm pointing into the darkness. There was nothing there. Brian pushed through Hayley to stand by me, all hints of irritation gone and replaced by a warrior’s calm.
“What? Where is it?”
“It was—It was just there. It moved out arrows.”
Jocelyn’s hand on my arm. My eyes broke from the darkness and found her face. “There’s nothing there, Mark. Maybe a bat or something, but chalk arrows don’t move.”
I could hear Hayley shudder at the thought, but she remained silent.
“It wasn’t a bat. It was a—” the words dried up in my mouth. What was it? How could I describe it to them without everyone thinking I was crazy?
“Being in the dark like this can make your eyes play tricks on you. Let’s get to the bottom and take a rest, okay?” Jocelyn’s hand gently guided me down the remaining section of rocks. While I frequently glanced back, the light from Hayley and Brian’s flashlight turned the dark background into an impenetrable cloud. Still, I could have sworn I saw something moving through those shadows.
The sounds of water dripping and pooling was even louder down in the cavern. I could feel myself relaxing in the sound ever so slightly as Jocelyn, her hand still supporting me with its gentle touch on my arm, sat down beside me on a conveniently placed crop of stones.
“Are you okay?” she asked in a soft whisper, leaning in close to me.
“Yeah,” I lied, “like you said, probably just the dark playing tricks on me.”
“Alright, well how about you and I just sit here for a bit,” she smiled as the flashlight threw terrifying sharp shadows across her face.
“I don’t want to ruin it for them,” I replied, nodding towards a brooding Brian and concerned Hayley standing an uncomfortable distance away.
“I’ll tell them that they can go on a bit without us, just to mark everything really well so we can find them later if we need.”
Unless that thing moves it, I wanted to remark, but realized how crazy that sounded. Jocelyn had to be right; just tricks of the darkness on my poor light typical mind. “Okay, sure.”
She stood and walked towards the others. There was a quiet conversation, she motioned towards me, laughed, and waved them on. I watched as Brian snapped his trusty piece of chalk in half and handed one piece to Jocelyn, the eyes of a protector looking at her before drifting to me with a half smile. Jocelyn pointed towards one small opening in the cavern walls, and the two of them drifted off that direction with smiles and laughter.
“I told them we’d catch up in a bit,” she said with a wide smile.
“No need for us to hurry,” I responded with what I thought was a bit of sly suggestion, trying to shake the strange experience from before.
“How are you feeling?” Too subtle, I mentally catalogued.
“Better. I think I was just a bit on edge from the whole trash incident, and then got spooked. These caves are kind of creepy.”
She laughed. “Yeah, you went all Smokey the Bear on him up there. I appreciate a man who cares for the environment,” she responded.
We sat in silence for a few moments, just listening to the water falling somewhere in the distance and basking in the harsh artificial lighting. She was the one to finally break the silence. “Was this all some ploy to get me alone?”
No, I wanted to say. There is something out there and it’s dangerous, even though it hasn’t done anything to us. However, logic won out and the words sounded a bit different when they finally came out. “I thought I was being terribly sneaky.” You’re being crazy, I reminded myself. It was just a trick of the shadows and nothing more. Maybe a bat, but you aren’t Hayley, so chill out.
Her fingers twined through mine as she stood, pulling me up along with her. “Come on, let me show you something really amazing.”
“I can see something amazing from right here.” My eyes ran up and down her once in an exaggerated pattern. She simply rolled hers at me.
“Obviously, I was really lucky to find you in one of the rare times you were single. Come on,” she pulled at me, leading me through the darkness. The sounds of water grew louder and louder as we moved, until finally I could see water reflecting back the flashlight’s beam. Water dripped from far up above, plinking softly against the surface of the water and creating some of the sounds we had heard before. “There are little pools like this all over the place in here. They’re not deep, but surprisingly not cold, either. We spent an entire day just swimming and relaxing here once.”
“Is it safe?”
She slapped my arm playfully. “You have got to stop being such a worrywart. It’s just as safe as skinny dipping down at the quarry,” she responded with a knowing eyebrow lift. Touché.
Dropping her pack, Jocelyn quickly pulled off layers until she was standing in nothing but a tank top and underwear. Goosebumps broke out over her exposed skin, but she seemed invulnerable as she radiated a bright smile. “Last one in owes me a kiss,” she chimed before disappearing into the inky water. I am not ashamed to admit I was steps behind her, stripping down to my boxers in a blink as her face bobbed along the surface of the water.
She was right about the water—surprisingly warm. It was welcomed after how cold the inside of this cave had ultimately become. And it was barely deep enough to swim in. If I submerged my head and stretched, my toes touched a rough hewn bottom. I lazily paddled towards her, before snaring her in my arms. She floated there, looking at me with playful eyes. “I think I owe you something.”
Jocelyn and I had kissed dozens if not hundreds of times. I knew the feel of her lips, the taste of her tongue, the pressure of her kisses against my lips. I would, however, be lying if I said any of the hundreds of kisses before in my life came close to that moment. Maybe it was that heightened sense bull people pull, but in the dark, with the soothing sounds of the falling water, surrounded by the warmth of this little pool, there was something beautiful. Her hands and mine wandering beneath the water, clinging to one another while seeking out those soft touches of warm skin. The water droplets beaded on her face, falling against my lips as we embraced. Each droplet, chilled by the outside air, brought a fresh tingle along my spine. Her body pushed against mine, our lips meeting and holding us fast as we floated and drifted. If I had to choose one moment to live in forever, that would be it.
Eventually we parted and I sighed deeply in the dark and peaceful solitude. She laughed, splashing water against my chest as she swam towards the other side of the pool. “If I didn’t know any better, I’d say you were trying to seduce me,” I called after her. She merely laughed again, kicking a wave of water towards me. “I want to assure you, it is not working.”
The tension from before was melting away, softened up by the rhythmic tap and enveloping warmth of the water. From a distance, all I could see of her was an area of pale skin within the encompassing darkness. I saw her arm reach out of the water, reaching for her water bottle on the outside of her pack. There was a hiss of a lid opening, then the silent sounds of the cavern. I leaned into the water until I could float on my back, meandering lazily through the pool. The water fell, tapping lightly against my stomach as I drifted along in the darkness. This must be like those sensory deprivation chambers, I thought. People throwing money away when nature had already perfected it.
There were soft sounds of splashing in the water, something cutting smoothly through and moving towards me. “Jocelyn—” I began before something grabbed me, pulling me under.
I thrashed and flailed, pulling myself back toward the surface as whatever it was released me. Breaking the surface, I gasped for air, eyes darting through the darkness as if I could locate the danger. Then, there was laughter.
“That’s what you get for not listening to me,” she laughed, splashing water at me yet again.
“Jocelyn! You—that—” I continued gulping in the air, more out of fear than any prolonged deprivation. “I’m already a little on edge, okay?”
“I’m sorry. But come on, you have to lighten up a little bit,” she said, moving in a little closer. I felt her hand find mine, drawing me towards her in the darkness of the water. Her face was a pale shadow on the water, her eyes empty spaces that gazed into my own. She was kissing me again, and I was mentally acquiescing to her remark. Yes, I needed to lighten up. Just a joke. Her lips met mine again and again; we were floating through nothingness, bound to reality only by the presence of the other’s body in that vast emptiness. I was lighter than air.
It was I who broke away this time, coming up for air in a far more metaphorical sense than before. “I have to say, your method is a good one.” She laughed, her hands moving away from me to help her better stay above water.
“So, as I was saying, do you think we should try to catch up with Brian and Hayley. I’m guessing we’ve given them plenty of private time by now.”
“How long have we been in here?”
I heard rather than saw her shrug her shoulders. “You zoned out there for a good while. Plus, our other exercises bought us some more time. But it’s not like there’s a clock in here.”
I nodded before realizing how useless that was. “Right. I guess we should start trying to find them. But, if we hear strange noises, promise me we’ll come right back out here.”
“Deal,” she laughed.
I kicked my way towards the edge and fumbled along the ground until I found our packs. I thumbed on my flashlight and began looking for the other, and turning it on. I stumbled around, trying to get my pants to fit back over my damp legs. In my mad dance, I felt my foot gently tap Jocelyn’s flashlight, and then had the pleasure of watching it drift into the water.
“Uh-oh,” I grumbled.
“I’ve got it,” she said. I heard a splash, then saw her making her way down towards the wavering light. I finally overcame my pants, and tugged my shift over my head just as she broke above the water with the flashlight in hand.
“Good heavy duty one. The water didn’t bother it one bit.” As she began to make her way out of the water, something broke the silence. Something unmistakably chilling.
From somewhere in the darkness, far away and muffled by walls of solid rock, Hayley screamed.
Thanks for reading! As always, feel free to leave a comment letting me know what you think, what could be better, and what you like!
This work by Katherine C is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License
So, I blew my goal of a new post very two weeks. Between starting a new job, packing, and going out of the country for a week, I’m barely holding together. Here is something that I was working on prior to the trip, or at least the first half. I’m afraid it’s turning into a much longer story than I usually write, and so it makes sense to post it as a two parter. The second half is 1/3-halfway done, depending on how much I decide to lengthen it out. Thanks, and enjoy!
*After working on part two, this has turned into a three parter! Links to subsequent parts at the end. I also found one or two wrong names sprinkled throughout, so I tried to clean that up. Enjoy! 8/6/14
Every one of us on this chaotically spinning planet has a story, but not all stories are created equal. Some stories are grand, sweeping epics of terror, bravery, and courage. Others are the mundane but essential stories of the 9 to 5 grind, raising a family, and experiencing all the boring miracles life has to offer. There are tragic stories, funny stories, joyous ones, and those filled with heartache. The fact remains: everyone has a story.
My story begins in an upstate national park a bit off the beaten path for some not 100% approved camping—though if I were being honest, my story began in the county hospital in late fall 1987, but I don’t think all that lead up is necessary. What is important is that Jocelyn and I had been dating for about four months, and I thought it would be nice to go on a double dating trip with my college roommate Brian and his girlfriend Hayley. I was actually really nervous because Brian and Hayley had been together forever. We used to tease them in college that they acted like they had been married for 50 years, and nothing had really changed since. I kept pushing Brian to man up and put a ring on it already, but they both claimed to be against the “formalized institution of marriage.” Instead they lived together without the tax benefits and griped at one another daily. True wedded bliss.
I was really worried that Jocelyn might get the wrong idea, feel pressured into the relationship. Maybe she’d think I was moving too fast. But when Brian asked me to go camping, I couldn’t turn down a weekend with my bud, ya’ know? And when he said Hayley was coming, I knew I’d have to invite Jocelyn along to prevent that terrible third wheel syndrome. Nothing lonelier than sharing a sleeping bag with yourself in the great outdoors while people get in touch with their animal sides (not to mention other unmentionables) right nextdoor. Fortunately, Jocelyn agreed to save me from my awkward loneliness, and I spent the next week and a half stressing over all the potential ways this could go terribly wrong. Many of them ended with a long and awkward drive home with Jocelyn as the wreckage of our relationship smoldered to cold ash. When, of course, I was not devising clever ways to defend her against an inevitable bear/mountain lion attack. What stupid things we worry about.
The first night was great. We parked our car in a winding cut-off from the main forest road and hiked in for a few hours to the spot Brian just knew was right over that hill over there. While we never found the mystical clearing he promised, we did find a nice spot that was pretty close to the lake and a couple deer trails. We set up both tents, got a fire roaring, and started roasting some hot dogs over the flames. We hoped that we were far enough from any traditional trails that the fire would not be visible to a passing ranger. Plus, the summer foliage was so thick through there, you were lucky to see much of anything at a distance. Brian had labored to haul a cooler of beer all the way through the woods, so we graciously celebrated his perseverance with more than a few icy beverages.
Jocelyn and Hayley got along great, probably too well as their conversation soon turned to analyzing our shared flaws with the look of untiring patience nearing its limit. Brian and I just got louder, providing them hours of fodder.
That night Jocelyn and I turned in to our little tent. I can still remember the warmth and pressure of her tiny frame pressed up against me in the night. Or how her hair smelled like strawberries and smoke mixed together. She lay against me, my arms wrapped heavily around her as she slept peacefully. I’ve always been a rowdy drunk, but she made me sentimental too. As tired as I was, I just looked at her face in the moonlight, feeling for once that I had not entirely screwed things up. I fell asleep happy, maybe for the last time.
The next morning came way too early. When you’re in a thin tent without the home comforts of black out curtains, morning always comes too early. The campfire had cooled to low embers by the time we got up, and the morning air was unusually cool. It was summer, but beneath the heavy shade of the trees and as close as we were to the lake, the heat didn’t penetrate. I shivered, returning to the tent for a pair of socks and jeans just as Jocelyn shot out of the ten. She looked startled, and I’m sure I did too as her face hurtled towards me without warning.
“Was something out here?” she asked, her voice rising with panic.
I caught my breath, put on my bravest face. “No, nothing. Why? Did you see something?”
Her fear dissipated, confusion shifting across her face in its place, then embarrassment. “No, I guess not. Probably just the wind or a bird or something.”
“We are outside, after all,” I quipped. Judging by the shadow that passed across her face that was not the right response.
“Right.” She snapped back and then joined Hayley picking through the food and snacks still packed from our arrival. They found breakfast as we sat around the embers, listening to the woods around us begin to wake. I tried to avoid the lances of sunlight stabbing through the trees, hoping that doing so would alleviate the pain that every so often bounced through my eyes and head with very little success. Brian looked like he was in much better spirits than me.
“So, I know Brain and Mark used to go camping all the time, but have you ever gone?” I turned to the conversation between Jocelyn and Hayley just as Jocelyn replied.
“I did once or twice with my dad when we were kids. We also camped out in our backyard every summer. But it’s been a while.” I loved watching the way her face lit up as she talked about these happy childhood memories. I was head over heels and I hadn’t even realized it yet. If I could go back, I’d ask her right there to marry me, and then die happy.
“It’s great to find someone else who knows her way around a tent. If it goes well, maybe we’ll make this a regular summer tradition,” smiled Hayley, her eyes sneaking towards me. I saw Jocelyn look at me and smile.
“I could probably handle that.”
All the pain in the world couldn’t keep me from gazing into those sunlit eyes right then. She was beautiful all that time, but something about her tousled hair, faded makeup, and the crisp green forest behind her was irresistible. And she was willing to give a noncommittal agreement to potentially staying with me for another year. Life was good.
As she turned back to talk to Hayley about her previous camping trips, I noticed something moving. Even now, I have trouble remembering exactly how to describe it. It was almost like the sunbeam falling just to the right of Jocelyn was shining, like it had been doused with glitter. The light there bent and warped in unnatural ways, almost like heat waves on hot pavement. But this was brighter and more real. Unlike those mirages, this shape truly had some kind of form to it. Two flecks of light grew more apparent, solidifying into two round spots darting through the light. At one point, they turned towards me and I got the distinct feeling of eyes. As it “looked” at me, I could begin to make out an image. It was a body that was there and wasn’t all at once. Again, like a heat mirage on the road wavers and fades, it struggled into focus, but I don’t think I ever really saw it. It was small, just a few feet off the ground. Thin, with no other discernible feature besides those watching eyes. The eyes danced around us, flitting from sunshine to shade.
I’ve thought a lot about that shape. About the “body” of that thing. It always seems like I can see it in my mind, but when I focus on it, there’s nothing there. Nothing in my memory but the firm recollection that that shadow and sunlight were different than any others. Like it couldn’t—like it can’t really exist in our world. I’m stuck with the endless torture of surety and doubt that I even saw a flicker of the supernatural on that day.
“Seen a ghost?” shouted Brian, dropping heavily next to me on the log. I winced at the noise, but it shook me out of my study of the figure that wasn’t really there.
“No, just admiring the scenery.” I motioned in the direction where I had been staring for far too long. Nothing there but some dust floating through the air. I told myself I had just drunk too much last night, and this was my payback.
Brian took a deep breath f the cool morning air, weighing the view in his own eyes for a moment. “It is pretty great out here, huh?” He smiled, pleased with his good idea and at peace with the moment, but Brian never was one to stay reflective for long. “So Hayley told me about some sort of mountains around here or something—”
Hayley jumped in to provide the much needed content to Brian’s half-formed idea. “They’re caves, Bri. Your ‘genetic selective deafness’ kicks in at the worst times.”
“And caves are in mountains, right?” There was a brief prickle of tension in the air between them as he spun to face her, but it fizzled away as she shook her head with a smile.
“My logician,” she laughed to Hayley, making a sweeping gesture toward Brian. Jocelyn laughed and the two women turned to join Brian and I in the thus far riveting conversation.
“So, like I said, there are some caves in some mountains around here,” he began again, glancing sideways from his eyes to Hayley with his correction and addition, “and I thought—Hayley thought it would be fun to go spe—” Brian’s face became confused momentarily as he tried to find the right word. “Cave exploring,” he substituted, looking at Hayley for confirmation.
“Yes, cave exploring,” she shook her head again and I began to worry that she would sprain her neck at the frequency of such an exercise. “Have you ever been spelunking, Mark?”
Before I could answer, Brian broke in. “Spelunking! That was it. That’s one of those weird German words, right? Like schadenfreude?”
No one answered him, but Brian did not mind as he continued to roll the word around again and again, swearing to remember it for the rest of the day. “I haven’t ever, really. Don’t we need gear for that? Light lights, ropes, harnesses, helmets, shovels—” I began, wondering why I had not considered caving accidents in my fevered anxiety about harm befalling Jocelyn.
Jocelyn, however, cut me off with a laugh and a wave of her hands. “The caves around here are pretty much harmless little things that go a few miles in. We have our flashlights and as long as we don’t dive down any massive black holes, we don’t need that other stuff. We can just wander in, take a lunch, and eat in the ‘belly of the earth.'” She ended with a gravelly voice that reminded me of old voiceovers from those B Sci-fi movies she always insisted we watch.
“But won’t we get lost?” I added, feeling a knot of panic rising in my chest.
“Geez Gretel, we’ll leave a breadcrumb trail for you to get back out, okay? I brought some chalk to mark any hiking we did, anyways,” scoffed Brian.
The panic subsided, but I still felt a raw sense of unease. There was no logical reason, I was sure, but I was nevertheless certain that this would not end well. But Jocelyn looked excited to do so, already swapping caving stories with Hayley, and I did not want to let her down.
We packed day bags with water bottles, chips, peanut butter sandwiches, and a few pieces of fruit a piece. Jocelyn seemed really excited about the cave picnic idea, and I was beginning to warm up to the idea myself. If all went well, I was sure that Brian and Hayley would sneak off on their own for a few minutes, leaving Jocelyn and I alone in the dark, cold cave. In my head, the concept seemed more romantic than when I try to describe it, which might have something to do with my general ineptitude at all things classically romantic. I was never going to be the devilishly suave Harlequin Hunk. That just wasn’t my story.
We began our hike through the woods, following Hayley’s suggestion and moving back towards the main road. About halfway there, she found the marked trail that led to the caves, at least according to the friends she had heard about them from. Jocelyn agreed.
“I didn’t take you for a spelunker,” I smiled as we walked side by side. That same nostalgic glow covered her face again.
“I went once or twice with friends in college, but I’ve wanted to go again. It’s just the right mix of spooky, dangerous, and exciting.”
“So you went to these caves? I mean, you’ll be able to play tour guide for us, right?”
She laughed. “I’ve only been a couple of times. But, I do know a couple of pretty interesting spots to investigate.” The suggestive lilt of her voice confirmed my own romanticized caving ideas, but also led to a hint of jealousy and insecurity. I knew she was a human who had dated other people before, but nevertheless, I felt a little angry that I would have to explore those spots she had already explored with someone else. It was stupid, really, but human nature.
“Oh, so I guess you really enjoyed your little outings, huh?” I tried to remain joking, keeping a smile plastered to my face, but I could hear that slighted edge to my voice. Her smile faded a degree as she looked to me with concern.
“Oh, man, that’s probably pretty weird for you, huh?”
“What? No. I mean, we’re both adults and all—” Her eyes pinned me to the spot, and I sighed, deflated. “Okay, it’s a little weird.”
Jocelyn smiled again, taking my hand in hers as we continued following Brian and Hayley ahead. “Don’t worry; I know you’re not some jealous monster. It’s always weird to think about past partners. God knows I try to forget you ever hooked up with Macy. How about this: you and I can find out own spot to explore together. “
“Only if you swear to tell me afterwards that it’s the best spot you’ve ever explored,” I joked back, easing into the conversation again. She was perfect—understanding and funny in one amazingly gorgeous package.
She laughed and planted a brief kiss on my cheek as we walked. “Deal.”
We walked that way, hand in hand for a while until Hayley got turned around again. Jocelyn skipped to the front of the group and led the way. By that time, the hike had caught up with me. I was beginning to get hungry, and carrying even the relatively light pack was a chore. I did not want to be grumpy on our adventure, but I could feel it sneaking up on me.
Then, Jocelyn stopped and pointed up a short mountain or tall hill to another signpost sitting in front of a shadowed rock overhang. “Entrance is just there. Maybe a water break before we go?”
She was an angel. I collapsed onto a rock, dragging out a water bottle and gulping furiously. The cool morning air had been replaced by heavy, wet heat that sat on my shoulders like an unpleasant child. My stomach rumbled unhappily, but I ignored it. Jocelyn wanted her cave picnic, and I was going to give her a cave picnic.
Our break was short-lived as we quickly repacked the bags and dragged ourselves up the faint outline of a path. The sign marking the entrance was badly faded by the weather. There had once been a great deal of writing on it, but most of that was now just shallow ridges in the wood. The once bright red “WARNING” was still clear, now faded to a pale suggestion of red, but the remainder was illegible. Beside the entrance was a metal plaque, similarly eroded by its time on the mountain. Jocelyn filled in the missing letters. “Kepperman Cavern,” she chirped, indicating the entrance with a broad flourish. Her cheeks were flushed, strands of dark brown hair clinging to her sweaty face as she smiled broadly.
I pushed aside my clinging uneasiness. I was being ridiculous, really. Seeing the joy on Jocelyn’s face, I resolved to enjoy myself. Even if it was a bit out of character for me, today I would be a spelunker. For her.
I was confident as I walked towards the entrance, laughing good naturedly at some joke Brian made. I was confident peering into the dark and deciding to get out a flashlight. I was confident as the first beams of light played along the cold gray walls of the depths. But I was decidedly not confident as I saw two specks of gold floating in the darkness, as I saw a sunbeam dance across a room it could not exist in. In that moment, I was stupid. And I plunged into the darkness.
Hope you enjoyed it and, as always, feel free to leave any helpful comments or critiques!
This work by Katherine C is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License.
So, this is based off of a creepy dream/nightmare I had. I also focused on using dialogue in this piece effectively, because I feel that’s something I drift away from in first person stories, at times to the detriment of the overall story. It’s kind of dark, and I’m aware that this may have potentially triggering content. It discusses complications in pregnancy, miscarriage, and infant death. All of those can be potentially triggering for individuals, and so if this is a sensitive subject for you, I might suggesting skipping this entry. I did my best to handle these topics respectfully, but I understand discussion of these topics may conjure painful memories or experiences for some. Thank you.
Steven and I had been trying for months, for what felt like years. We had been married four and a half years, and were ready to turn the storage room into a nursery once and for all. I had never quite understood the process involved, nor that I had months of disappointment before me; growing up people had simple announced the baby full of smiles, but here we were reading temperatures and following calendars without a bit of luck. So, every time I was a day late, we both knew it would be a trip to the drugstore and then a disappointed dinner of take out and ice cream.
After about 18 months of really trying, the test came up positive. We didn’t know what to think when we saw those lines; we were shocked. The next few weeks were a blur of doctor’s appointments and giddy phone calls. We mailed little booties to our parents’ homes, and then eagerly waited by the phone to hear their congratulations. And then, after only a few weeks of bliss, I woke up in the middle of the night, my stomach roiling into cramped knots. There was blood on the sheets. That was miscarriage one. Our weeks of bliss turned into weeks of somber grief.
Miscarriage two and three were not necessarily easier, but we had learned at least. Our hopes did not rise above the concrete, and we kept the giddy phone calls to a minimum. My mother visited for a long week where she and I stumbled around each other in awkward silence, both feeling the hole where joy should have been.
When the fourth pregnancy rolled around, Steven and I began to grieve. We should have quit, given up, but we had to hope. Only that positive news made my heart sink a little deeper, certain that we would say goodbye to yet another child before we ever met him or her.
And then nothing happened. Week nine, ten, eleven, and twelve slipped by with nothing more than routine check-ups. Of course, given our history, our check-ups were a bit more stringent than “routine,” but there was no cramping, no terrified waking to bloodstained sheets. We had been so ready to grieve that we did not know how to rejoice. Of course, this would not be my story if this truly ended happy, but at that point I was so blindsided by joy that I almost felt that same shocked somberness from the first miscarriage.
The foundation of that joy began to crack during in our fourteen week check-up. One blood test abnormal, an ultrasound scheduled to confirm or deny a defect. Just as we began to cling to the idea that this time might just be it.
Our doctor was a nice man, if a bit perfunctory. But sitting in his office following our ultrasound was pure torture. He came in with our file, looking run down which only confirmed my fears.
“Mr. and Mrs. Gaines,” he began, flipping through the chart with tired eyes. “You know we discussed last time that you tested with an elevated AFP—”
I interrupted, though I knew I shouldn’t. It felt as if I could argue my way out of the words he was certainly going to say. “But you said that could be anything. Or nothing.”
He smiled a smile that told me he had given this talk many times before. “Yes, the AFP test alone is not clear. Unfortunately, the ultrasound today was. The fetus—”
“Our child.” This time, my husband was the one to interrupt, a steeled look in his eyes. Now, I don’t mean to argue the point at which life begins or any political stance. All I can say is that this was our child; every failed pregnancy had been ours, lives cut short.
“The child,” the doctor corrected gingerly, “has a condition called anencephaly. This means that the brain is not forming normally. In fact, a large portion of the brain is missing. If carried to term, the fet—child would be highly unlikely to live past a week. I’m very sorry. We can schedule an appointment to terminate, and maybe look into some alternative fertility methods—”
“No.” Steven and the doctor both fixed me with slightly surprised stares. But, to be honest, I couldn’t do it. We fought so hard, and even now I could not stand the idea of passing up a week with our child. “I don’t want to terminate.”
The doctor smiled. “Mrs. Gaines, I understand. This is very hard, shocking news. How about you and your husband go home and talk this over. We can schedule at a later date.”
“Is there anything else we can do? Any medicine? Treatment? Surgery? Maybe the ultrasound was wrong?” I could feel the room slipping from me, beginning to spin wildly around the bitter news. The doctor gave the same stretched, sad smile.
“No, Mrs. Gaines. It’s not wrong. And there is no treatment. This is a lot to take,” his eyes shifted to Steven, searching for rationality. Instead, he found a man resolute. “Mr. Gaines, perhaps you should take her home, give her some time to come to terms—”
“Doctor, I believe she’s answered your questions. We’ll be going.”
I don’t remember driving home; I don’t remember the next few days clearly. I remember looking at the slight bump of my stomach, wondering what had cursed me. Weeks passed, and we got pitying looks as we went through the motions of doctors’ appointments and prenatal screenings. I think the doctors and nurses thought we were crazy. Maybe we were. Then, Steven found something. He came home one day with a smile and a business card for a doctor who claimed miracles. We were desperate, and I was on the phone in minutes. It was nearly 7:30pm when I called, but cheery receptionist was ready at the phones, and scheduled us for an appointment the next day.
We were shipwrecked and clinging to anything to stay afloat. Foris Medical Center was our life raft. Dr. Smith was a charming man, tall with short clipped hair beginning to thin on the sides. He smiled behind thin frames, and sat in a brightly lit office surrounded by posters of happy families.
“We were able to get copies of your past medical records,” he smiled, “and, as you know, performed our own ultrasound. We can confirm the initial diagnosis of anencephaly.”
My heart shattered. “But you said you could help!” I was speaking too loud, my voice was cracking, and tears were biting behind my eyes.
He kept smiling. “And we can, Janet. Please, have a seat so I can discuss the procedure.”
His words almost didn’t make it through the sorrow beginning to rage inside my body, but Steven was pulling me back into the chair and pulling me back to the office. We listened, and my heart began to beat again.
We would carry to term, or as close to term as possible. And then we would come to Foris for delivery. In fact, they would take over all prenatal care to that point. And it would all be free for our participation in their treatment trial. Following the birth, they would take our child—our son, they told us—and conduct some cutting edge surgery. It would be a few weeks before he would be able to come home with us, but we would have our son. Ideally, without any complications. It sounded too good to be true; in hindsight, it was. But all I could hear was that this time I would hold a crying baby to my chest and smile into his beautiful eyes.
They held true to their promises. They covered all the rest of our care, even providing in home assistance with cooking and cleaning when I was prescribed bed rest. And when the day came, we found ourselves in a state of the art surgical room, surrounded by smiling faces.
Michael was born as 11:56 on March 15. True to their word, the doctors whisked him away immediately into a nearby surgical room. I was told to rest, recuperate, and get ready to see him in a few short days.
I never questioned our miracle. I did not dare to risk a second thought as we brought him home at a month old to his nursery. I loved the joy of looking into his half-opened eyes, rocking him slowly to sleep. I cherished every minute of seeing his little body grow and develop. It went by so fast.
I noticed some odd things in those first few weeks, but I was so terrified of uncovering something else, that I brushed it off. I suppose the first thing was how fixed his gaze could be. I was used to seeing infants with their eyes unfocused, maybe gazing strangely at a ceiling fan or image. But his gaze was different. His eyes were fixed, bright, knowing. The followed and watched like a hawk. I felt absurd admitting it, but I found his prying eyes unsettling at times. But I shrugged it off.
And then there were the times his eyes would change entirely. No longer were they the glassy blue eyes I was used to, but instead solid black. From corner to corner, his eyes would turn solid black. At our check-ups at Foris, I mentioned this, and the pediatrician assured me that, due to pigment changes, sometimes newborns’ eyes can change color. Don’t worry about it, she said.
Also, we had to get rid of our cat. My parents took her in, but we were terrified of something bad happening. Now, I’m not one of those who buys into the myth that cats will sit on and suffocate babies, but from the day we brought Michael home, Zissy would not stop standing outside the room and growling. She hissed at him whenever he got to close, and we did not want for one or both of them to get hurt.
I said it went by too fast, but I mean it. I was not prepared to consider stopping breastfeeding at 3 months because his razor sharp teeth were tearing into soft, and already chafed flesh. We tried to switch to a bottle, but he would not take it no matter what I tried. I was at my wit’s end.
“Michael has to eat,” Steven provided. He shrugged and looked at me. “We know he’ll eat natural, so maybe we just have to give up on the bottle idea.” I felt so angry at him, at the little smile in his eyes. But he was right. And so I endured it, and did my best to keep the wounds cleaned so that Michael only got milk. Then again, the pediatrician told me it was normal for some bleeding and such. Don’t worry about it, she said.
I also wasn’t ready to find him standing in his crib at four month old. Advanced, I told myself. Advanced, as I noticed his toys moving about his room when no one else was in there. Advanced when I saw the drawings on scratch paper of human-like figures and crisply drawn rows of symbols. He was just advanced, the pediatrician smiled, don’t worry about it.
Michael was nearly six months old, potty trained, and feeding himself when I got the comment on my blog. I had posted the story of our miracle, of the gentle ministration of Foris Medical Center, on my blog, and it had received a decent amount of traffic. Most people wrote it off, told me the diagnosis had been wrong, but this comment was different. The username was ForisKilledMyBaby, and you can only imagine what she said.
Dana, as I later found out, told me about her picture perfect pregnancy at Foris. She had no complications, no death sentences on her developing child. Everything was going fantastic. She said labor was a breeze, and she heard her daughter’s shrill cry fill the room, only to have the child secreted away, just like my Michael had been. Only, this time, the doctors did not bring back a smiling baby, but tearful news. Her baby, Elana she told me, had not survived. Cord trauma, they told her. I wouldn’t have believed a word she said if she hadn’t had the pictures.
Dana told me she was never supposed to get them, and I believe her. They showed her little girl ripped apart, her skull sawed open and emptied. Dana told me that her Elana had died for my son. His defects had been replaced by her healthy daughter. I still didn’t want to believe it. I deleted the comment, stepped away from the computer, and tried to forget those graphic images. I think you’ll understand if I don’t provide them here. I still have nightmares, and spreading the misery will in no way relieve mine.
These thoughts were wriggling through my mind at Michael’s six month appointment, but how do you ask a doctor that? Especially a doctor who would be implicated in such horrors. I brought up the strangely rapid milestones, and was met with smiles from the doctor.
“Our treatments seem to be working even better than expected, then, Ms. Gaines. Have there been any problems with Michael?”
“No,” I whispered, feeling guilty for questioning my miracle. “But isn’t it odd? He’s only six months old.”
Dr. Doe smiled at me. She had a friendly face, making her a clear fit for a pediatrician. “Milestones are just estimates. Some children reach them faster than others. Some of the procedures surrounding his anencephaly may have other outcomes that we are not aware of. You are one of our first in this study, after all.” She smiled down at Michael. “Aren’t you just a little superman?”
There was a ruckus in the hall, and I saw the smile drift from Dr. Doe’s eyes. It stayed plastered to her lips as she set down the thick file on Michael and looked back at me. “We’re almost done here, but it sounds like something I might need to check on. Give me a moment?”
She was gone for five minutes before my itching fingers opened the file. Inside were your general demographics, records of his immunizations, weights, growth chart. All normal things. But then there were some pages, written in English but covered in the same squarish script Michael had been drawing. Then x-rays that just looked wrong. No surprise, but I’m no radiologist. I’ve seen x-rays on TV, and well, these just looked wrong. The bones seemed to be too short in some places, too long in others. And the skull was a mess of shaded tissue and a strange fibers that wove throughout his skull. Things just looked wrong.
Then final page is what confirmed that something was going on. It was a simple fact sheet. Hybridization Status, read the top. There was information about me, my childhood, my marriage. All presented under the headline “Human Participant.” There was a much more sparse account of Steven, but this conspicuously titled “Foris Participant.”
Michael was looking at me with those black eyes, staring at me. I felt scared, and then felt silly at being scared by my infant. Surely, I had misunderstood something. Maybe Steven had signed up for a program of some sort, or maybe it was how we were entered into the trial program. But niggling fears reminded me that there was information I had never given to Foris, typed there in black and white.
Dr. Doe walked in, all smiles again. She glanced at the file, and her smile faltered. “Any other questions?” she asked, her eyes beginning to look panicked.
I tried my best to smile convincingly. “No. Is everything okay out there? Can we leave? It’s almost his nap time.”
“Well,” he voice faltered, the cheer fading as she glanced at the file again, “if you’re sure there’s nothing else, of course. We’ll see you again soon,” she began to recover her enthusiasm. “Goodbye Michael!”
I went to pick up my son, and he turned faster than I could imagine. His teeth snapped down on my hand, sharp enough to draw blood. I was shocked, and Dr. Doe smiled broadly. She didn’t know I saw her, because her face had been reorganized into concern by the time she was dabbing at my injured hand with gauze. “Are you okay?”
I tried to laugh it off, but I felt terror creeping up. “I’ll be fine. Told you it was passed his nap time.” She wrapped the bite on my hand, and I snapped Michael into his carrier. His eyes were staring up at me, bright blue again.
We got home and I put Michael down for a nap. And then I dove to the computer, trying to find that comment, trace down her email so I could ask her questions. I began searching, trying to turn up any conspiracies about Foris. The searches were clean, and my paranoia began to subside. There was a logical explanation. Surely, there was a logical explanation.
Three days later, my initial terror dulled, Dana emailed me back. She asked me to meet her at a coffee shop on West and Delaware to talk. Without the baby, she specified.
So, I told Steven I was going to meet a friend from college one night, and asked him if he would mind. At first, he argued.
“Janet, honey, you’re his mom. I think he needs you to take care of him.”
“Yes, but you’re his dad Steven. I think you can watch him for an hour and half. I’ll feed him before I leave, grab a water at the coffee shop with Lizzy, and be back home before you two get done with bath time. I just don’t feel right about taking him out that late and in such a public place.”
Steven sighed. I hated lying to him, but since I had read that file, I noticed how close a watch he kept on me. How cold his eyes looked, even as we lay side by side in bed at night. Steven was my husband, but I suddenly wasn’t sure who that really was.
Eventually he acquiesced, but I felt uneasy about it. I smiled, and kissed his cheek.
The coffee shop was crowded, but I found Dana in the corner, holding a copy of Catch-22 just as she promised. I felt uneasy walking into the noisy place, convinced that some pair of eyes was following my trail through the cluttered room. Dana stood and greeted me with a hug, like old friends.
“Foris receptionist in the corner,” she whispered in my ear, followed more loudly by, “Janet! It’s been too long!”
We sat down and she leaned in close, a smile plastered to her face. “So, you know I suppose?” He voice was quiet, and her hands and face moved as if she was sharing brilliant news. To an outsider, I assumed, it would look like two old friends catching up. Unfortunately, I knew I was not a very good actress.
“I’ve read some weird things. I mean, I don’t know what to think—”
“It’s all true. Whatever you think, you probably only understand half of it, but it’s true,” her voice rose suddenly, “So tell me about this new baby boy!” she exclaimed, just as a woman in a long brown coat brushed past us on the way to the bathroom.
“M-Michael?” I stuttered. “He’s fine. I mean,” my face crumpled into confusion, “you know all the weirdness, and the For—”
“Oh, aren’t all toddlers that way?” Her eyes were screaming at me. “What have you been up to?”
I caught on, and we began a stilted discussion about our idealized lives. She played the role of an old sorority sister well. As we wound down, she stood and smiled broadly, extended her arms. “It was so good to see you,” she exclaimed loudly. The lady in the brown coat’s eyes glanced up. “We really should do this more often.” Then her voice dropped to a conspiratorial whisper, “Take this. Read page 119.” She shoved the book into my hands, and traipsed out of the coffee shop with a final wave. I stowed the book into my purse and followed after a moment of cleaning up the litter from the table.
Once in my car, I ripped the book open. “Janet,” it read in hasty script, “they followed me here, so I’m sorry I can’t tell you more. Hopefully this will clear some things up. Foris is NOT a medical group. They have no interest in anyone’s health but their own. Foris ARE something else. They are some sort of life form, much like us, but distinctly different. And they have plans for us humans. Your husband, S you called him on the blog, he’s one of the them. Go home. Get out. You are their test tube. The DNA doesn’t match quite right, so they need others like me. Like my,” here the text grew soft, halting, “Elana. Don’t go to your parents, your family, or your friends. Destroy your phone. Find a hotel, pay in cash, and email me later.”
My head was swimming as I drove home. I arrived to find Steven seated at the computer, slowly scrolling through the history from the web browser.
“Janet?” he asked, turning slowly to face me. “Care to tell me about Dana?” His eyes were solid black, just like Michael’s. His smile was wide, lined with sharp teeth, just like the teeth which bit my hand and breast. There was a flicker of something utterly inhuman, something made of shadow and smoke, and then my Steven looking at me with rage in his eyes.
I sprinted out of the door. I jammed the keys in the ignition and tried to ignore Steven’s hands pounding on the window. I ignored the image of my six month old son standing as a silhouette in the doorway, laughing at developmental milestones. I ignored the occasional glance of something sinister and smoky bursting from the container that was my husband.
I drove away. I drove and drove until it was dawn again. After some time, I pulled over and lobbed my phone over a bridge. I drove on for another hour, and then pulled off into a dingy strip motel. The owner took pity on me, as I’m certain I looked like a wreck, and accepted my $20 as payment for the room. From what I’ve seen so far, no one else is here, so I suppose having someone stay in the room is better than nothing. I told him my husband chased me out of my home, and so he’s let me stay here the past three nights. I emailed Dana the first night, but she never responded. All I got back was a link to a newspaper article about a terrible car accident from three nights ago. Some poor woman leaving a coffee shop, shoved off the road by a drowsy tractor trailer.
I guess I’m alone now. I’ve been at this computer for hours, hoping to see another email come through. But it’s silent. I feel like my whole world is silent. What now?
This work by Katherine C is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License.