Theme: When you looked inside, you knew things would never be the same.
The water lapped against the boat, and I leaned back, letting the salt bake onto my body. It was time to head back to shore, but my boat was lighter than I had hoped. A little longer, a few more casts.
Then, there was a new sound. I shook off the afternoon doldrums and leaned my ears toward the sound, a steady tapping coming from the side of the boat.
It was some detritus caught in the tides. A mundane explanation, certainly. I started to settle back and lose myself in thought again. But the sound changed. A tap, then a splash, then more taps repeating a pattern. As if the ocean were playing a rhyming game from my youth.
I stood, shaking off fatigue and the inertia of a long day. As I leaned over the edge and gazed down into the water, I froze.
Events that change the way you view the world should come with some sort of fanfare. I got nothing besides a still day on the ocean and the traditional melancholy of my thoughts. Yet my world was reeling. For in that water was a face.
It was mostly human, I reasoned. A swimmer, here, far from shore, I irrationally reasoned. But that did not account for the graceful swoop of its lower body, the tail splashing water at my boat. The face smiled, golden eyes reflecting familiar friendliness. I had no way to understand what I was seeing, but I knew it was beautiful.
The creature tapped on the side of the boat with a playful twist of its head. Those were human hands, but for the webbing. One hand reached out to me, warm, inviting, and kind. I accepted.
If only I had known I could never go back.
Theme: “Laughter filled the air.”
Dave sat on the edge of the bed and shifted again, loosening the tie around his neck and grinning at the woman across from him. Susan? Sarah? One of those typical names. However, she was far from typical, he began to realize.
“So, I don’t normally do this. I know, big shock.” His nervous laughter filled the air, bouncing off the freshly pressed sheets and dusty curtains.
She just smiled, that same absent smile that had been plastered on her face since he opened the door. She tilted her head, and Dave got the sudden image of a gyroscope, her head rotating around the stable point of that lipsticked smile.
The woman at the bar had led the conversation, steadily building Dave’s confidence to Icarian levels. When he slyly passed his room key to her, he felt certain of the move. And then instantly expected her to laugh him away. Instead, she raised an eyebrow and tucked the key into the distractingly low neckline of her dress.
And now, that smile.
“Can I get you something to drink?” he asked nervously. “I got ice from the machine earlier, and—“
Her finger was on his lips, gently silencing him. She smiled wider and leaned over the edge of the bed. Maybe, Dave thought, this was normal and he was the weird one. Frankly, that had held true in most of his life.
“You’re the boss,” he said with another burst of nervous laughter.
“Oh, I’m much more than that,” she said. And the smile grew wider, showing more teeth than fit in a human jaw. Had they always been that sharp?
With practiced ease, she flew to his throat, successfully cutting off the scream before it could bubble out. The hunt looked different nowadays, but the outcome never changed.
Episodes: 10 episodes in the first season, with a minisode between each
Length: 15-25 minutes in the main episodes
I’ve listened to… All of the first season.
The Premise: Cole and Julie host a radio show that they inherited from their father covering Cryptids and the supernatural. Only some of the things they investigate are more real than others.
My Review: Season one of this series just ended and it led me on a fantastic journey with Cole and Julie. The way the story was introduced and the plot was constructed is a perfect example of how to draw an audience in to a complex, creepy world. The story starts relatively light, family bickering, strange and creepy urban myths and legends discussed on a radio show. But as the episodes progress, but the myths become real. There are many layers to the world in which Cryptic takes place, and different episodes land at different points, from mundane with a hint of the mysterious to completely unexplainable. Cole and Julie explore these reports of strange happenings, at times trying to maintain a balance, at other times trying to prevent danger.
This is not so much a monster hunter style story, but more about two siblings trying to hold things together and learn how to navigate a world they have insufficient knowledge of. Their father’s absence is a clear challenge, only made more so as they wrestle with the moral challenges that come along with their roles. While the podcast never completely abandons moments of levity and calm, there are many more serious elements that get brought in, and the episodes suggest Julie and Cole may have made some significant sacrifices to ensure they can do what must be done.
There is still so much mystery left in this world. The podcast overall has done a great job of introducing enough of each story and idea to make it interesting, but never seems to fully answer the questions. It keeps me coming back eager to know more about the world and what it means to live within it. It balances the knowing and the known unknowns very well, so that there are pieces to start to string together, but not the whole picture. As a listener, I know Julie and Cole are hiding things from one another, but my glimpse of the world only starts to uncover what those secrets might be.
Julie and Cole are written as siblings, and frankly it is a very realistic picture of siblings. They bicker, they say hurtful things to one another, and they provide support. There is real, genuine concern, but also that ability to push buttons in the way on siblings can. Obviously, there is history which is revealed slowly through the episodes, and it makes clear how serious the stakes are. One theme throughout is that the supporting characters are often caught up in the chaos of Cole and Julie, intentionally or otherwise. That adds another layer to the show that asks some very tough questions neither of them seem ready or willing to answer.
Overall, Cryptic is a well executed story that takes the trope of siblings dealing with monsters and spins it into something refreshing. While there are lighthearted moments (I love the “ads” the introduce episodes), it also does not shy away from proposing uncomfortable situations and questions,. It’s also willing to leave those unanswered and messy at this point of the story. Cryptic’s biggest drawback is having a more common name that makes them hard to find at times. With season one recently finishing up, I can heartily recommend you listen if you like spooky, supernatural, and thought-provoking stories.
You can find them here: Cryptic
Carver had been saved many times in his life by humanity’s unrelenting reliance on rationality. It may not have always appeared rational, but no matter how many people jumped at shadows, some reasonable voice always served to draw them back to the natural, the possible, the explainable. Except, of course, when it better served their interests to fuel the fire. Carver let that certainty steady his hands.
Whimpers reached his ears, a sound that almost seemed to hum like a background drone in the drama of his life. Whimpers, pleas, and cries of despair were a chorus he conducted, melding seamlessly with the ebb and flow of day-to-day.
He tightened his hands around the victim’s throat. Blonde, blue-eyed, middle-aged, and found putting flowers on a gravestone. She fit the criteria, and so he completed his task with professional indifference. The whimpers quieted as his hands compressed, eventually dying away completely as the woman followed suit. Always give it a few extra seconds after you think they’re out, he thought to himself. It was a lesson you only had to learn once or twice before it stuck.
Once she stopped moving and stayed stopped, he let his grip relax and pulled his notebook from his back pocket. Turning to the last page, he reviewed the criteria to ensure he would not miss a step. That was also a lesson learned quickly after one or two mistakes.
“Only the vile may turn away death, those who by their very stench offend him. Thrice snuff the life of the childless mother, drive his mark into her bones. Under moonlight on the sacred stones, curse the ground and seed with rot.”
Just as he remembered. He felt a peace settle into his bones as he returned to the ritual, walking through the steps he had completed twice before. He was almost certain, at least, that “snuff” suggested strangling—it usually did, at least. Then again, it was a translation through about four languages he might be the only person left alive to speak, so assuming anything about it was true was a risk. Still, he pulled the knife from his waist and began to cut through to her sternum—that would give him ample room to work.
It was a messy business carving death’s sign into the bone, and he had to be mindful not to nick himself. With improvements in DNA technology, his job had gotten increasingly harder. But the internet had certainly been a boon. Life had taught him that there was some truth in the stale axiom to take the good with the bad. He smiled as he finished the mark.
Now to drive to the sacred spot. He had located three places of spiritual significance in local legend, and his experience said those would work sufficiently. The last was only a few miles away. Carver lifted the limp body from the ground, taking a moment to kick the dirt over the bloodstain forming. There were clouds overhead and rain in the forecast, so the likelihood of anyone finding this location was dropping by the moment.
He hefted her into the back of the truck, closed the tailgate, and settled himself into the front. The vehicle rumbled to life and he drove down the access road back toward the highway, his eye on the GPS as he joined the flow of so many other souls twisting through the arteries of the country this late at night. No one thought a thing. Eventually he turned off, followed a maze of turns, and ended at a scenic overlook. The night was heavy around him, but it was the only companion he had. Well, that and the corpse he hoisted from the bed.
It was a treacherous climb down, and the added weight threatened to send him tumbling. Something else that would not be a first. He finally reached the clearing next to the large stones. At some point, according to the area’s history at least, there had been sacred carvings and native runes etched into the surrounding stones. Now they sat weathered and moss covered. But it met criteria, and that was his only concern.
Carver dropped the body without a glance, letting it lie there in a tangle of limbs. There were no specifications on the arrangement of the body that he was aware of. Now, he just needed to “curse the ground.” Pulling a bag of salt from his pack, he proceeded to throw it liberally around the body. Now, all that needed to happen was her body to begin to decay, finishing the process. The location was certainly removed enough to delay someone stumbling on the site. Then again, such things had happened before.
He would be gone before anyone found it, of course, just as he always was. The locals would assume a serial killer in their midst, spend a few weeks or months searching for whoever was abducting these women. And Carver would be on to his next city, running out the clock on this ritual and searching for the next one that would serve to lengthen his life.
Immortality was a devious lie, he thought as he rejoined the flow of traffic towards some unknown destination. Hundreds of secret texts and sacred rituals promised immortality, but he had yet to find one that delivered. Each seemed to give him some handful of extra years, but invariably he again found the effect wearing off. And he had yet to find one that was repeatable. It seemed Death was a wily creature, prone to learning the tricks of his prey and using that to hunt them down.
How many, he wondered. It was not a good idea to try and count, because the number was dizzying. It seemed each culture had its own promise of immortality, and he was running out of options. Six dismembered here, three stabbed, nine decapitated, two drowning, and the list went on. He had found many creative ways to end the lives of random innocents—mostly innocents, he corrected as he thought about a few that required the blood of the damned.
And he was saved time and again by human rationality. It was so much easier to believe that it was the work of a killer, each one representing one depraved mind. It was harder to think about some killer traipsing through the ages, winding across countries and tracing the globe, killing randomly and without pattern. It would require someone to imagine that immortality might exist, that all these seemingly random touches—carved signs, salt, missing organs, ashes, clothing, placement, and a dozen other variables he tracked meticulously—were in fact part of some larger plan. The playbook written by all of humanity and being followed by one truly devout believer.
And Carver knew he could always rely on rationality to help him elude suspicion. The same way no one thought too hard about how he appeared not to age, at least until he just suddenly moved away. New faces, new people, new names, and a new life. And if ever someone began to suspect something was going wrong, well, in this age of reason, they simply dismissed it with a host of poor excuses.
Two weeks later, and he still had not felt that familiar surge of power and energy course through him signifying the ritual had been accomplished and years had been credited to him. He followed the news; no bodies had been discovered, at least none of his. Which meant the ground was now truly seeded now with the rot of the three, yet something had not worked. Maybe a bad ritual, maybe he misinterpreted. And so he flipped through archives of ancient tablets, cave paintings, and scrolls. Most were indecipherable to the average person, but if you grew up speaking the language, it was far simpler.
On to another ritual, another way to leapfrog ahead of Death. He pushed away the thought of what might happen when the trail finally ran cold and Death caught his long awaited prize. As long as there were options out there, he was certain he would not let that happen.
Ah, there was a promising looking one….
Welcome to October! I’m probably not doing 13 days of spooky stories again, but if you’d like to read those from last year, click here! Either way, I needed to write something. I don’t super love this, but I think it could be worse. I like the idea, the concept of a serial killer who’s only motive is following ancient rituals to gain “immortality.” I thought of it while listening to a podcast on unsolved mysteries (Thinking Sideways, for those curious). the hosts were discussing potential highway killers and the idea of MOs and signatures of killers. And this idea came up. I don’t know about execution though. I’m actually wondering if this might be better told from the perspective of someone following the killer’s trail….hm….maybe we’ll revisit.
But, again, this helped break a streak of writer’s block I’ve been feeling. I just wrote to write, and here we go. If you have thoughts, suggestions, or any other general feedback, leave it in the comments.
As always, happy reading! And a very spooky October to you!!
This work by Katherine C is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License.
Join in the Halloween fun here!
“We’re going to be late!” Joseph yelled up the stairs. He heard the closet door slam shut, followed by footsteps shuffling over to the stairs. Eventually, Jenna appeared, still trying to put one boot on as she navigated the stairway.
“Haven’t you ever heard of being fashionably late? No one’s going to care if we’re not there on the dot.”
“This is less on the dot, more on the right time zone. Besides, the invitation said 8:30, so we should respect our host by getting there on time.” He held out her coat. “Are you ready?”
Jenna paused to check her costume in the mirror one last time. She adjusted the gold hoop earring and slid back the bandanna. It took one more sweep of her outfit to decide she would pass as a pirate for the evening. Joseph propped up the stuffed parrot on his shoulder, but seemed less intent on scrutinizing every detail of his ensemble. That and he had the past ten minutes of waiting to make wardrobe changes.
“Let’s go,” she decreed finally, taking the coat from his hands and swaying out the door. She was halfway down the stairs before he had locked the door; apparently she had finally decided to get a move on.
“Do you have the directions?” Joseph yelled after her. She lifted her phone above her head and shook it once, just long enough for him to see the map on the screen.
Once in the car, she turned the heat up and settled into the passenger seat. The phone began dictating its directions with mechanical surety, and Joseph followed the instructions dutifully. The party was in the next town over, which meant a short drive on the pitiful state highway that served as the primary connector from one place to the other. At least the moon was bright and high in the sky, doing its best to make up for missing streetlights.
“I’ve never been a pirate for Halloween before,” Jenna mused from her seat, eyes unfocused as they stared out the window. “Have you?”
“Uh, I think when I was a kid I was once. My mom made the costume.”
“What was your favorite costume growing up?” she countered.
Joseph paused to think it over, mostly trying to remember what costumes he had actually worn. “I went as an army man one year. Painted my arms and face green, even. That was probably the best one I can remember.”
“That sounds so cute. I’m going to text your mom for pictures.”
“What about you?”
Jenna looked up from her phone with a smile that said she had been waiting for him to ask. “I was an astronaut for like three years in a row. Had a helmet and everything. If the costume still fit, I’d be an astronaut every year.”
“In a quarter mile, turn left onto Hibbard Springs Road,” added the GPS with programmed politeness. Joseph leaned forward in his seat as if that would help him spot the upcoming turn. His headlights caught the green road sign hanging lonely on the side of the road just in time to slow down and pull onto the side street. It was somehow even smaller and more isolated, forcing him to slow even further in order to avoid the car shattering pot holes and sudden drop-offs on the side. He looked anxiously at the clock. 8:47. So much for being on time.
“Their new place is really out there, huh?” Jenna commented as she bounced along with the car.
“I guess so. Said they wanted more privacy.”
“In five hundred feet, turn right onto Shady Glen Lane.”
Joseph kept his eyes peeled to see the turn, but eventually the directions changed.
“Make a U-turn.”
He eyed the narrow road dubiously and continued straight along the winding lane. “Did you even see the turn?” He saw Jenna shake her head from his periphery.
“I saw something, but I thought it was a driveway or something.”
“I’ll get turned around at the next road.”
“In one hundred feet, make a U-turn.”
Joseph smacked at the phone in irritation, turning off the driving commands for the moment. He knew the area he needed now, and the house was supposedly on Shady Glen. Out here, the cars should be enough to tell him which house he was looking for.
The road continued on without any evidence of a side street. If anything, it became narrower and bumpier the farther they went. Finally, a stop sign appeared from beneath the trees. A cross street, if nothing else, meant he could pull a quick turn. Not like there was a lot of traffic around.
Once turned around, he slowly moved along the road back to the place where they had missed their turn. It was easy to see why, as the road turned into mostly gravel at that point. It had probably been paved at one point, but the elements had their way with it. This was the sort of thing, Joseph thought, that was helpful to mention in directions to a party.
At 9:18, they pulled up in front of a brightly lit house surrounded by cars. There were cars on the side of the road, cars in the driveway, cars in the grass. “This is it?” he asked. The house was brightly lit, but he didn’t see anyone milling about inside or outside.
Jenna pulled the invitation from her purse and unfolded it, holding her phone up to read it. “449,” she muttered, glancing up to check the house number. “Yep! We’re here!”
They both seemed relieved to exit the car, joining hands to walk up the grassy hill to the front door. While they had both expected at least some music or sounds of people, it was still quiet. The door hung ajar.
“I guess they must be out back?” Joseph offered as he pushed his way into the house. There were abandoned cups and plates piled with snacks, but no people.
“In this weather? I hope they have a fire or something.” Jenna picked her way carefully into the house, looking from side to side. “You don’t think they’re trying to scare us, do you?”
“It’d serve you right for making us so late.”
“We would have been on time if you had at least gone the speed limit. And not missed the turn.”
It was eerie walking through the silent house. Their steps echoed around what should have been a festive place, but instead it carried with it the silence of a tomb. In the kitchen, they could see a bowl of chips that had fallen to the floor.
They could also, finally, see signs of life. Two large, glass doors led out to a nice, but empty patio. Well beyond that, they could see a roaring bonfire with people moving around it. They flailed and swayed, in time to music Joseph could not yet hear.
“Great way to start a spooky Halloween,” he said with a laugh. They had both begun to notice the tension creeping up along their backs as they walked through the house, and it was nice to release it all with the wide open doors.
Once on the patio, they could faintly hear the music. It seemed the sound system had moved outside for the fun. They walked hand in hand across the yard towards the welcoming flames.
“Hey!” Joseph called out when they were about halfway there. They saw a handful of moving people, but it seemed a lot of the guests were sitting or lying on the grass. It seemed strange, but perhaps there was some activity afoot. “You could have left a note on the door or something!” Some of the bodies turned toward him, but then back to the fire. No one responded.
“They probably can’t hear over the music,” offered Jenna, giving his arm a quick squeeze.
It was louder now, some playlist occasionally interrupted with ads. Joseph chuckled as he watched the dancers. He never knew his friends were so uncoordinated. Then again, most of the time he spent dancing with them was after a drink or two, and everyone knew alcohol served to enhance one’s natural coordination.
Closer now, Jenna paused, falling a step or two behind him. “Joe, are you sure they’re okay?” she asked. “This is the right house, isn’t it?”
He stopped and turned to her, looking inquisitive. “Yeah, why? Don’t let the house freak you out—we just missed them is all.”
“Yeah, but I don’t recognize them. No one.”
“It’s Halloween, babe. They are probably wearing masks.”
She still looked unconvinced, but began walking again anyway. “Yeah, you’re probably right. I’m just getting some weird vibes.” She forced a smile and took his hand again.
Closer, and Joseph felt something tickling along the back of his neck. He didn’t know what it was, but Jenna was right. Something about all of this was off. The fire made a bright point that seemed to blow out the surrounding details. He could hear the music, but in the gaps between songs, there was something else. Yelling? Growling? It was too indistinct to draw a conclusion.
And then the people lying down or sitting slumped on the ground. That was not normal, especially not for a party like this. Maybe around 2am when everyone sober enough to leave had dispersed, but not a few minutes in. No one was that sloppy.
“Maybe I should call Craig, just to make sure we have the right place,” Joseph said, stopping in the damp grass and dragging out his phone. “Don’t want to crash someone else’s party, right?”
Jenna stopped beside him, hugging her coat to her and making an occasional glance toward the fire. It seemed some of the dancers had noticed them and were now staring. She tried to shake off their gaze, but felt it creep back along her skin each time.
The phone rang. And they both turned toward the source of the sound, a glowing square sitting forgotten a few yards behind them. Joseph lowered the phone. “Craig?” he called out, looking behind them. “Must have dropped his phone, I guess,” he said unconvincingly, walking back towards the house to retrieve it. Jenna followed closely, noticing now that some of the people had left the fire and were coming towards them.
“Maybe we should just go back to the house. See if we can’t get a hold of anyone,” she suggested somewhat frantically. Joseph stooped to pick up the phone, then recoiled. It was sticky, and he could see something blood red now covering his fingers.
He glanced around the field scanning around the darkness like he had not before. Before, they had only focused on the fire and making their way there. Now, however, he was looking for anything else. His mind was in survival mode, carefully studying the landscape for any clues that might get him out.
He found a big one.
No more than ten yards from their path out of the house, hidden by the shin high grass, he found Craig. His glasses were smashed into his face, his skin a network of claw and teeth marks. In the pale light of the moon, he could see dark patches along his face and clothes that were certainly blood. That darkness appeared to coalesce at the top of his head, where it appeared someone had spent a lot of energy smashing away every inch of skull.
Jenna did not wait, but took off toward the house. Joseph followed closely behind, flying across the grass and through the still open doors to the house. They skidded over discarded plates and napkins, careening through the house toward the front door.
Jenna risked a look back and caught sight of the first of their pursuers in the floodlights. There was no mistaking what she saw, and the word became the only thought in her head. She knew it from the rotted face covered in blood, from the empty eyes, from the shambling gait.
They were out of the house and scrambling back into the car within moments, Joseph slamming into reverse and pulling out onto the highway.
“Call the cops,” he barked as they flew down the lonely highway.
“And say what?” Jenna countered. “Did you see that thing?”
“You have to call. They’ll have to do something. Get the National Guard or—“
She was dialing, and he could hear the operator pick up.
“Yes, we were at a party and someone attacked our friends.” The words spilled out of her lips mechanically, pulling tears out along with them. She felt as if she could barely breathe, as if an invisible hand were crushing her throat.
Joseph strained his ears to hear the words from the other end. He gripped the wheel tighter and tighter as if that would get them farther away from what had just happened.
“449 Shady Glen Lane. I think some of them were dead,” she added, her voice breaking.
Comforting sounds from the other end of the line. “No, we left. They were still there. They were—“ Her eyes met Joseph’s, puzzling and then resolving. “They were dressed like zombies.” A pause. “No, I don’t know how many people there were.”
Eventually, she hung up the phone to sob into the fabric of the car. Joseph did his best, reaching over one hand to touch her shaking shoulder.
“Hey, we’re okay. We’re safe now.” The words fell hollow from his lips. They both knew that there was no more “safe” with something like this. They were fleeing.
And eventually, they’d run out of places to hide.
This work by Katherine C is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License.
Catch up or follow along here.
Janice paced in front of the movie theater, watching the last rays of sunlight vanish behind the skyline. With the sun setting, the wind kicked up. This was going to be one of those cold Halloweens, she reasoned. Around here, it was either too hot to wear a costume or you had to wear two or three layers just to keep warm. So no one got to see your costume. She was just glad to have outgrown the costume phase altogether. Now she did grown-up things. Like going to see the classic monster movie marathon at the theater with her new friend.
Her new friend who was already ten minutes late.
They had met online a few months back. He was, supposedly, new to town. They had connected on a message board advertising local events and businesses. He liked her handmade jewelry, she liked his wittiness. So they had chatted back and forth, emailing and texting. They even talked on the phone once or twice, but both realized they were better socially when there was a screen in the way.
Which is how they ended up agreeing to meet to watch the marathon. Janice’s phone buzzed its quick tone, indicating a message. She saw his name on the screen, followed by a rather short message. “Running l8. B there soon.”
“The show is starting soon.” She typed back, watching the text bubble pop up. “How far away are you?”
A few moments before another buzz. “Go in. Save me a seat and ill find u when I get there.”
Just what she needed, she thought. Another flake of a friend. She had those in droves. Janice had been convinced Drake was different. With a sigh, she pushed through the double doors and into the theater.
“Fifth row on the end,” she texted after finding a seat. The lights were low in the theater, ads for local businesses and the theater playing on a loop. There were a handful of people sitting in the theater, many of them in overly complicated costumes. Janice just tapped on her phone and snuck out a mini candy bar stolen from the candy her roommate made her promise was only for trick-or-treaters. Not like the little monsters needed all the candy.
The lights dimmed, and Drake was still a no-show. At least, she told herself, the night would not be an entire waste if he was standing her up.
Five minutes in to the first movie, someone dropped into the chair beside her. She snapped her eyes from the screen to see Drake smiling back. They had exchanged pictures a while back, but he looked even better than she remembered. Dark hair, dark eyes, full lips. She suddenly felt self-conscious in her jeans and t-shirt. It was just a casual meet-up between friends, they had agreed. Only now she kind of wished she hadn’t.
“Sorry I’m late,” he whispered, giving her hand a quick squeeze. She felt butterflies.
“No problem. It just started.”
A woman two rows ahead of them gave a quick glance behind. Though she was silent, Janice could read the irritation in her eyes. Drake appeared oblivious, tossing his feet onto the chair in front of him and settling in to his seat. “Dracula,” he said with a nod. “Good place to start.”
They watched Dracula, followed closely by The Mummy, then The Wolf Man to round out a trifecta of classic monster movies. As the lights rose, Janice swam back to reality, only to find herself still enraptured by her companion.
They stumbled from the theater with the rest of the crowd, spilling out onto a street that was dark and cold, but still alive with the festivities of the night. She could hear music coming from somewhere, a sound that almost seemed to be The Monster Mash spilling into the street. People still milled about in various stage of costume, making their way to and from events. She smiled as the moment filled her with drunken confidence.
“You wanna get something to eat around here?” she risked the question as she and Drake began walking down the sidewalk.
“Uh,” he began, caught off guard. She felt her heart pound in her throat for each agonizing second of silence. “I don’t really know what’s around here.” He spoke haltingly, an uncomfortable smile on his face.
“I use to hang out around here all the time, so I know some great spots. I could—“
“No, it’s not that. I just—I like to really know my food, you know?”
“Oh yeah, of course,” blustered Janice. She didn’t know. She, in fact, had no idea what that meant. But it was important to Drake, so of course she knew.
They stood frozen on the sidewalk, both standing just far enough away from each other to prevent anyone from getting the wrong idea, while remaining close enough people knew to walk around them. Janice began to think that, if they stood there long enough, she might actually become frozen to the sidewalk.
“Then, I, uh, I had a great time. Maybe we can do it again—“
He cut her off, grabbing her hand. “Sorry, I didn’t mean you have to leave.”
“No, maybe we could do something else, though?”
“Yeah, of course, yeah.” Don’t be so enthusiastic, she chided herself. You are a grown adult, not some fawning teenager. “But I’m really cold, so…Maybe a drink or something?”
He was still holding her hand, but she could feel the breeze nipping at her fingertips. Drake switched from foot to foot nervously, appearing to weigh his words very carefully. “I don’t really like the bars around here. Not my scene. We could always go to my place? It’s just a couple blocks away.”
Now it was Janice’s turn to pause. Her rule was to never go home with a stranger, because that was how people ended up in landfills. However, whispered something deep inside her, Drake was no stranger. She knew him well after months of chatting.
And, said another part of her, when had she ever had a chance with a guy like him? Besides, it was Halloween. Of all the days, maybe this was the one to take a little more of a risk. To live a little bit. They were all going to die eventually, right?
“Sure,” said someone else in Janice’s body. And then Drake was leading her by the hand down the sidewalk, through a part of the city she remembered like a dream. They made chitchat about the movies, Drake waxing poetic about the golden years of Hollywood. Janice agreed and listened, still somewhat shocked that she was truly following this beautiful stranger—friend, she corrected—through the streets.
“Here we are,” he finally said, stopping in front of a shabby looking apartment complex. He was new to the city, she thought, which meant he may not have had time to find the perfect place. This would do.
“Hope you’re thirsty. I know I am,” he laughed as they climbed the stairs. Eventually, he paused in front of a door identical to all the rest, pulling a key from his pocket. “Ladies first.”
She stepped inside, caught off guard by how dark it was. She had expected streetlights or moonlight to filter in through the windows, but she could barely make out the outline of them on the far wall. Just the tiniest seam of light peeked through. He must have some mighty strong blackout curtains, she thought. Drake stepped in behind her, and she heard the door click shut, sealing off the meager hallway light. Now the room was filled with impenetrable darkness.
“I think you forgot the lights,” she said between nervous laughs as she turned back towards the door and, hopefully, a light switch.
“I didn’t forget. I just think it makes it more exciting. Gets the blood pumping.” Drake’s voice seemed to come from in front of her, swallowed up in the darkness.
A slight chuckle, the tried and true defense mechanism of many nervous women. “There’ll be time for that later. I don’t want to trip over your sofa and break an ankle.” She found the wall, her hands quickly swimming over the surface to find a switch. There was a flood of relief when her thumb snagged the switch, the tension building in her chest snapping like a rubber band.
It recoiled as she flipped the switch to no effect. Again, she tried, with the same darkness. Now Drake began to laugh.
“I can hear your heart pounding from here,” he said, this time to her right. Janice followed the wall back to the door, but came up short as her hands found fabric and skin. Drake’s hands tightened around her wrists.
“I told you I like to get to know my food,” he whispered into her ear, pulling her tight against his body. “And you are just my type. Sweet, innocent, a splash of naïve—“ one hand left her wrists and trailed along her neck, twisting itself in her hair—“and absolutely terrified.”
Janice didn’t have a chance to scream before his fangs sunk deep into the side of her neck. The darkness all around her flooded inside until it was the only thing left.
This work by Katherine C is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License.
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The change in the weather, the colors in the leaves, the shortening days. I felt tension melt from my body as the signs of autumn finally settled in. I felt in my element, I guess, with the rhythms of season finally aligning to my own. Even my wardrobe seems most at place in the middle of fall. I was never the sort to have bright colors to wear during the summer or pastels to flaunt in the spring. But give me some warm tones and a nice sweater, and I’m good to go.
Last year was no different.
Loving the fall often means getting out and enjoy it, which I tried to do as often as possible. My favorite thing to do was go for an all-night bonfire out in some secluded place. I was not interested nearly as much in the drinking and carousing—though that too is fun—as in the chance to be outside, feel the wind, smell the fire, and toast a marshmallow or two.
Trevor had invited me to the party. I always thought he had a thing for me, but it was never the right time. And then it was the worst time. I guess this is where I blame destiny or something, but honestly it just wasn’t meant to be. Either way, his grandparents have a farm out in the boonies, one of those places where the road is too far away for anyone to catch us burning a good sized fire.
I had a few drinks, a couple of hotdogs roasted over the fire, and more than my fair share of the s’mores supplies. The music had changed from frenetic dance songs to slower, calmer music. The smell of marijuana drifted through the air, contributing to the overall chill of everyone involved. Trevor was feeling smooth, so he sidled up next to me. I was staring up at the stars, trying to remember constellations from the trips my parents used to take me on. Out there, you could see so much. The stars faded on the horizon, city lights eating away at them. But if you looked straight up, it seemed like you could see forever. Maybe you could.
“Hey,” he said. I could hear the nerves in his voice. Rather than respond, I just gave him a mix between a hum and a sigh. He leaned back in the grass beside me.
“I’m glad you came out tonight. I was really hoping you could make it.”
“What can I say, you throw a nice party,” I replied with a smile he couldn’t see.
“Yeah, everyone seemed to have a good time.”
There was nothing to respond to in that, so I just let time pass between us. He was warm, and I could feel the warmth of his body spilling over onto me. I probably should have shifted closer to the fire, let it burn some of the chill off. But I was afraid of moving and breaking whatever spell had been cast in that spot where I could see forever.
He sat up on one elbow, looking down at me. “You just going to lay here the rest of the night?”
“I might,” I laughed. His face danced with shadows from the fire, but I could see the confident smile on his lips.
“Then I guess I’m just stuck here,” he said, dropping back to the ground with a dramatic flop. The alcohol made me giggly, and his display was not helping.
Silence again. Longer this time, but I could sense him fidgeting beside me. “There’s a really cool old barn. Back a ways in the woods. I could show you, if you want. It’s a little more private, and—“
I had begun to wonder if he was ever going to make a move. I suppose I could have, but I always preferred to be chased. At least, I used to. That’s another thing that changed.
The woods whispered around us as we walked an old hunter’s path through the underbrush. Leaves crunched beneath our shoes. Trevor held my hand, leading me carefully through the darkness and over fallen logs. I can’t say I was in my most coordinated state, but we managed to make it with only minor falls.
The barn was impressive, obviously once home to a large production. Of course in the day and age of commercial agriculture, most families had no need of a structure so large. Trevor opened the door, releasing the sharp squeal of hinges. In the echo of it, I thought I heard something reply. But it faded before the last, ear-piercing groan of the door had fully dissipated.
Trevor led me inside, and I pretended to look around as I watched him. The next moments were a blur of sensations, first pleasant and then terrifying. Trevor and I were kissing, his hands on my body. He lifted my shirt and I felt a quick gust of cool October air chill my skin. I kissed him back, tasting smokiness and cheap beer on his tongue.
Then there was undeniably something else, some new sound. It was part howl, part groan, and it ripped through the barn. Something was outside. Trevor pulled away, looking toward the door.
The lighting was poor and we had wandered away stupidly without a flashlight, but there was a clear silhouette in the doorway. Something large, almost dog-like, but standing far too tall. With a bay, it sprang forward into the barn. Pleasure melted into fear.
Trevor was screaming and there was the smell of must. I remember falling, landing in the dirt and decaying hay while sounds of a struggle bounced around me. In one instant, I saw Trevor standing with his back against the far wall. His eyes darted around the barn, landing on me as panic flooded his system.
“Trisha, you gotta get out of—“ something moved between us, and his words turned into yells. “Get away from me!”
The next thing was a sharp yell from Trevor, one that started strong and ended suddenly. I smelled blood in the air.
Whatever it was vanished again, seeming to leap in and out of the shadows around me. I scrambled to my feet and over to Trevor. The dirt was sticky with blood, and it clung to my hands as I reached down and tried to lift him up. He wasn’t speaking now, wasn’t moving.
My hand suddenly sank deep into something soft and warm, something which pulsed once or twice with a spurt of blood before growing still. My eyes tried to make sense of it, tried to understand how my hand was somehow inside his body while his eyes looked on. But they couldn’t.
There was growling behind me, a rolling warning sound. I should have turned and looked, maybe run. I can think of a lot of things that would have been better answers. Instead, I sat in shock and stared at Trevor’s face, at my hand halfway through his gut.
Then I got a chance to experience what it was like for Trevor. Something pierced my shoulder, something sent me forcefully to the ground. My head slammed into Trevor’s chest, covering it with sticky blood. Then there was my own blood adding to the mix, binding us together in unholy union. I felt teeth and claws tearing at me, shredding the skin of my back. Jaws closed around my wrist and puled until I thought my arm would half to dislocate from the rest of me. And then, as suddenly as it had begun, there was nothing but unconsciousness.
I woke up and Trevor didn’t. If that were all that happened, it would be a terribly traumatic story, but just another story of a rabid dog and some unwitting victims. Only it wasn’t. Because I woke up whole and healed, while Trevor laid there with a hole sliced through him. And things began to change forever.
So now, I still love autumn. I’m a natural autumn. It brings with it long nights under the changing trees, the wind whistling through my hair. I no longer like to be chased, but I certainly like to pursue. The fall leaves make that easier, helping me listen to the sound of my prey in flight. I love the way they crunch beneath my feet as I move silently through the woods.
It’s too bad Trevor didn’t make it. Maybe we would have had our chance then. Then again, if he had made it, I’m not sure what I would have eaten those first few days. I think he would have liked the idea of sacrificing himself for me.
I still love to go to cookouts. Those times in the wee hours of the morning when everyone is drowsy, vulnerable. They taste of smoke and spice. And when the revelry has died down, I can lie contented and look at the stars.
Sometimes I think I can see forever. Maybe I’ll live long enough to find out.
This work by Katherine C is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License.
Hello! Sorry for the silence. I just started my new (old) job, and I’ve been trying to get all the paperwork and stuff squared away. It’s been a headache and a half, but hopefully all the right forms are to the right people now. I’ve also had a nightmare of a cold recently, so that has not helped me with the whole creative aspect of things.
But, of course, I do come bearing another story. This is the epitome of a first draft, though. As always, the story is below. My critique to myself would be a good concept and interesting start. However, the ending lacks a bit of punch and the pacing may be off. I’m afraid it drags at the beginning and then rushes through the climax. (I also just realized I dislike the tense switch from past to present at the end. It seemed like it worked at the time, but it’s a strategy I’m not usually a fan of. Something else to consider…) So I’d expect some tinkering on this. I’m also toying with the idea of expanding this story into multiple parts. I’ve had a couple of character ideas kicking around for a while, and they might be the perfect way to help the protagonist learn more about the eponymous Bottle Lady and her curse. But I think I need to get part one right before I think about expanding.
I would really appreciate any feedback or advice anyone has. Do you agree with my own critique? Disagree? Think I’m missing a glaring issue? I really enjoy showing the process of writing for me, and I hope you will join me on that journey. Either way, as always, happy reading!
Growing up, I never would have called my mother superstitious. Sure, she had a story and warning for everything, but there was none of the magic hand waving that I associated with tenuous superstitions. No, her beliefs were undeniable fact. The sun rose in the east and set in the west, what goes up must come down, and the Rat King would nibble your toes at night if you failed to rinse your dinner plate. There was no myth to it.
Once I left home, the absurdity of many of these beliefs finally sunk in. It’s not so much that I honestly believed these growing up, but just that I assumed everyone had these stories. Didn’t everyone know the story of the Crooked Old Man who lived in the basement and would creep up the stairs if you failed to shut the door? No, they didn’t. And in hindsight, I’m surprised I didn’t end up more disturbed by these creepy stories.
I grew older and the stories made sense. She was a single mom, living in a city hundreds of miles from her family, doing everything to make a life for three kids. The stories kept us in line. She never believed a one of them either, but they created rules. She did not have to be the bad cop, because her fables were there to fill in the gap. Still, it would have been nice to know not everyone grew up with these stories. I would have worried my college roommate a lot less.
After the power of the stories as real had faded, the behaviors remained, firmly ingrained in my routine. Getting undressed? Take our clothes and put them in the hamper, making sure not to leave your pants or sleeves or socks all bunched up. I completed the action rhythmically thanks to eighteen years of practice, not because I was afraid the trapped skin cells and dirt would give rise to an evil twin. But it’s hard to explain that story to someone and not have them think you’re crazy.
So, I chalked up my mother’s story to superstition and well-intentioned morality stories. Even being grown, she sometimes brought them up when we were at the house, reminding us to use coasters so the witch couldn’t use the ring to peer into our living room. We smiled and complied.
I’m feeling sentimental now, I guess. Like maybe I should write all these stories down before I forget them. Mom died, you see. Last month. It’s still a fresh wound, but she had been so sick for so long…
Still, none of that is the point. The point is that she was not wrong.
I had to dig pretty far back in my memory to remember the first time she spoke about the Bottle Lady. I was very young, and we had just had a screaming match full of all the fury my little body could muster. I don’t remember what I said or why I was upset—being young there are a million possible reasons. But I remember the feeling of my raw throat and flushed cheeks as she sat me on my bed. She was beside me, one hand on my knee and another on my back, soothing. All the details are fuzzy, but I imagine she had that same resigned, loving, irritated look that she seemed to perfect in my teens.
“Mija,” she said. Or maybe I just imagine she said. It’s not important. “Mija, we must never yell things like that, especially not where the wind can take those words away. You never know who might hear.” Older me made sense of this by thinking she must not want to disturb the neighbors with a childish tantrum. And a hefty mix of “don’t air your dirty laundry in the street” thrown in for good measure.
I don’t remember my words, but I recall a stubborn streak emerging. I’d do what I want, because I was old enough to realize I could decide my own actions and affect others. I was a power drunk tyrant of a toddler. Or so she always told me fondly.
“If you do need to yell, make sure to go around and close all the windows. Make sure it’s not too windy outside either. Perhaps you may need to even close the chimney. When you’re rea good and sure no one else can hear you, then you can yell all you want. But you have to take some time to prepare, first.”
Grumbling and obstinance on my part, met with her smile and gentle hand. “You see, the Bottle Lady likes to listen for people who are angry and unhappy. She listens on the wind to hear angry little children. If she hears you, she’ll follow that sound all the way back to you and scoop your little voice right up into one of her bottles. Then you won’t be able to say a thing.”
My mouth agape, staring, wondering. It’s a wonder I did not have nightmares my entire childhood. But she smiled, then leaned down with mock menace. “Of course, then, maybe, I’d get a little peace and quiet!” She was tickling me and I was laughing, the punishment passed. The Bottle Lady was a frequent bogeyman in our home. If I started to yell at my sister, mother would be there to point me to the windows. Once I had checked all the windows and doors, I could come back and say whatever I had on my mind. Of course, most of the anger had burned out by then. Eventually, it simply became another habit. If I began to raise my voice, I’d stomp off to check the doors and windows, returning a couple of minutes later in a much better mindset to speak. And the idea of fighting on the playground or at school—places I could never hope to contain my words—was foreign.
Her superstitions had a purpose. I just never imagined any of them could be true.
I was not in a good place after she died. I mean, I’m still not in a good place, but I’m less the mess I was and more a typical grieving child. Or as typical as grief ever is. I let my good habits slide—dishes piled in the sink, clothes on the floor, the TV blaring at all hours. It was a call from some debt collector that finally broke me. I was in our old house, in the midst of packing up her belongings. They had no way to know she had passed, and God knows she had racked up debt trying to stay alive. That does not make them any less vultures. They wouldn’t listen, and before I knew it, I was screaming into the telephone.
I was not in my right mind, and I could not tell you what I truly said upon penalty of death. The anger and pain just gushed out of me and through the phone. How dare they, I said. Didn’t they know we were grieving (which they couldn’t have, I know)? I was sick and tired of putting up with it all, of looking happy and pulled together. I just wanted to be left alone.
While hanging up would have been sufficient, I flung the phone against the wall. It burst into hunks of cheap plastic, leaving a gash in the drywall I had to later fill. The house had to bear the scars of my immature rage.
I didn’t even think about the Bottle Lady as I stormed around the house, shoving things into boxes ahead of the big sale. My sister was pushing it, despite my requests to slow down. My brother refused to get involved. Who knows what things I muttered in that house. I was angry at myself, angry at the creditors, angry at Mila and Peter, angry at God, angry at my mother. All the while, the curtains flapped in the nice breeze. I’m sure the neighbors thought I was crazy, but then again they probably would have given me the benefit of the doubt.
I slept in my old bedroom that night, staring up at the posters of my teenage heartthrobs, still enshrined there after so many years. Mom had always left our rooms the same, saying the house would always be ours. And it was until Mila decided to liquidate it.
We were also told to never leave the windows open while we slept, lest some bad spirit sneak in and put naughty words in our mouths. I could not remember a time in my life when I had fallen asleep with a window open, but that night was the exception. Grief swarmed me, and I was unconscious only a paragraph into my book chapter.
The wind was truly blowing when I woke up, kicking the gauzy curtains about in a frenzy. They snapped in the wind, which is what I assumed woke me up. It felt and sounded like a storm was brewing up somewhere, so I considered it a lucky break. Doing my best to avoid entangling myself in the curtains, I stumbled over and slammed the window down, then dutifully traced my steps through the house to ensure everything was sealed up tight. The realtor would have my head if I got the “original wood floors” waterlogged with such a careless mistake.
She was standing on the in the hallway as I made my way out of the kitchen. I froze, my eyes quickly trying to parse the strange silhouette. In the dark, all I could see was a dark lump in the center of the hallway, with a large square extending from about four feet to the top of the ceiling. The figure lurched forward, the square dragging along the ceiling with the clink of glass from somewhere. Trying to assign human anatomy to it, I recognized the short, wide leg that stomped forward, followed by a belabored sway forward. From the leg, I was able to pick out a torso and two stubby arms.
She stepped forward again, falling into the limited light from Mila’s bedroom window. I could see her face, round and squashed together. Her lips looked swollen, and her eyes squinted until there was nothing more than a thin shadow marking their location. One her back, strapped haphazardly by two worn leather straps, was some large wooden structure. She carried it along, her back impossibly stooped by the weight of whatever it was. I could hear the glass rattling with each step she took, tinkling in time to the shaking of the wooden behemoth.
She smiled when she saw me, the shifting muscles somehow creating an even more displeasing image. Almost in relief, she sagged towards the ground, slumping her shoulders until the straps released whatever it was on her back. Her posture stayed just as stooped, giving the impression she was nearly walking about on all fours. Still smiling, she turned and tugged on what I quickly recognized as a door on a large cabinet. She carried the thing about with her.
The doors fell open with a long, irritated creak. The hinges appeared to barely hold it together, and they swung, pealing their displeasure with each miniscule movement.
Enraptured as I was by the scene, I turned and fled the moment she turned her back to inspect the contents of the cabinet. The kitchen door led out into the back yard, which connected to the front by a gate. It seemed trivial to escape, especially since the woman was at the wrong end of the hallway to prevent me from fleeing. However, the door was shut tight. I gripped the doorknob tightly and turned with all my might, but it simply spun in my hand.
The basement door was opposite the exit, and there was a way out through there. I turned to sprint down the steps, but she caught me in my tracks. My mind tried to piece together how she could have made it from one end of the hallway to me in the time it took me to check the door, but none of the pieces matched. It was a categorical impossibility. Still, she slowly shuffled between me and the door, her mouth still wide with a smile.
There was a glass bottle in her hand, something made of old, weather-worn blue glass. She lifted it up and shook it at me, the glass catching what little light there was in the kitchen. “Yours?” she said, her voice bursting from her mouth like a moth escaping a musty closet.
She deftly withdrew a cork from the bottle, and I heard my voice. “Don’t you have any decency?” the voice shouted, breaking the stillness in the kitchen.
It continued. “I certainly couldn’t live with myself if I was half as vile as you”
“Go to hell!”
“They just think they can dump everything on me, but they’re in for a rude awakening.”
“Bet they just wish I’d up and die, too. Make it easier on everyone.”
More and more hate poured out of the bottle, and I felt my eyes widen. That was my voice, and the words were all too familiar. I heard myself on the phone, pacing the house, swearing as I threw things into boxes and crunched old newspapers around them. It was a terrifying mimic of my entire afternoon.
The Bottle Lady nodded, placing the cork back in the bottle almost lovingly. Her eyes met mine, cruelty glinting there, as she raised the bottle and brought it crashing down on the floor. Little pieces of blue scattered across the cheap linoleum.
With surprising dexterity and speed, she swept up a handful of the shards and threw them into her gaping mouth. I could hear the crunching, see the trickle of blood snake down her chin. She swallowed and then smiled with newly bloodstained teeth.
“You should have known better,” said my voice from her lips.
She turned and began shuffling her way back out of the kitchen, coattails dragging along behind her and leaving a trail of grime in her wake. My mouth opened. “Who are you and why the fuck are you in my house” was what I intended to say. But there was only silence. My lips flapped open, the air gusted through, but there were no words. They were trapped, buried somewhere deep in my chest.
I sprinted after her, lips forming into the shapes for “Wait!” and “Stop!” to no avail. She was at the end of the hall as I exited the kitchen. I could see into the cabinet now, see dozens if not hundreds of bottles lining the shelves. There were all shapes and colors, some filled and some empty.
With unexpected tenderness, she closed the doors and lifted the straps to her back. I was close enough to touch her, to grab one arm. The flesh beneath was soft, nearly oozing from beneath my fingers. She turned to me, still smiling from a face now painted with blood and spittle, and then was gone with her cabinet.
I yelled and screamed silently sitting there alone in the house. My sister came over around noon the next day and found me in a heap precisely where the Bottle Lady disappeared. There was a trail of dirt and leaves leading form the kitchen to the hallway, which she began complaining about as soon as she entered the house. The words died on her lips when she saw me.
They say its selective mutism brought on due to grief. Selective because my sister, brother, and one rather peeved creditor say I have been calling repeatedly and leaving terrible voicemails. I’ve told my sister I wish she were dead six times, apparently, and have repeatedly told my brother mom never loved him anyways. Of course, I know I haven’t said those things, but my sister did not seem to buy into the Bottle Lady story no matter how quickly I wrote about what happened. And I have not found anyone to confirm it’s not me leaving 3am voicemails for the whole family. I just sound crazy. My psychiatrist agrees.
Worst of all, though, are the things I’ve been saying to me. She whispers in my own voice whenever I’m alone. “You’re worthless,” I say with more vitriol than I’ve ever used in my life. “Mom as the only person who could ever love you, and she died just to get away.” It’s a constant barrage of all my worst thoughts, delivered by the one person I thought I could depend on.
I think she’s angry that I’ve been writing this. Like I’m somehow cheating. The things she says to me, that I hear myself say, have gotten worse and worse. I assume the phone calls to my siblings have, too, but they understandably cut contact with their toxic sister.
I see her now. Hiding around the corner, in the shadows of my closet, three seats behind me on the bus. She just smiles and watches, waiting for me to break.
Like a predator, she separated the weakling from the herd and now has only to circle until I give in to my weakness.
I fear she won’t have much longer to wait.
This work by Katherine C is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License.
So, I’ve got a few things in the works, including one kind of neat project I had hoped to post this week. But, it is (as always) taking longer than I anticipated. So, it should be coming along before too long. In the meantime, I wanted to write something shorter. I’ve been writing really long things recently, which is good, but it can be a crutch for me. So here is something shorter to try and tell a story well, but briefly. As always, first draft. Let me know your thoughts!
It was a fool’s errand to be out in the cold, but Dana felt she had no other choice. The car was stopped and getting colder by the second, her phone did not work, and she was sure she had seen a town just a few miles back. So a walk in this weather, bundled as she was, shouldn’t be a problem. Only it was quickly becoming one.
Her mittens were more than adequate for the usual walk from her car, down the couple of blocks to work, and into the aggressively heated building. But the fabric was soaked after one or two unfortunate tumbles into the snow, and her fingers were chilled to the bone. They had passed the point of obnoxious ache and entered into an almost pleasant numbness. Her feet, in contrast, pounded with the ache of walking and increasing cold. The beaten up pair of boots she dutifully dragged with her did an admirable job protecting her, but with drifts above her knees, snow was quickly slipping in and turning her socks into soggy, icy cages.
Dana blinked and felt her eyelashes stick to one another for a moment. Her scarf was wrapped tight around her mouth, nose, and ears, leaving a humid and increasingly odorous environment as she stomped along. The town had to be close. She imagined a warm cup of hot chocolate in her hands, enlivening her numb fingers once again. The image was real enough that she could almost taste the rich chocolate favor. But then reality intruded yet again.
The wind howled around her, muted by her dutiful scarf, but it ripped and tore across the ground. Occasionally, a tree branch would sway and dump a generous serving of snow onto her stockinged head. She tried to block out the sound of creaking branches, her nerves already on edge.
And then there was something different. This was not the random groan of branches, nor was it the constant rumble of the wind snapping through the trees and kicking up clouds of snow. No, this was a strange, rhythmic sound. It was the sound of footsteps crunching through the snow, breaking through the icy top layer and sinking into the soft drifts below. They mimicked Dana’s own steps, but slower. Whoever was out here with her was clearly not in the hurry she was.
Which meant, she reasoned, that they must know where they are and be close to shelter. It could be her saving grace.
She pulled the scarf from her mouth, looking around in hopes of catching sight of her companion between the trees. The steps sounded close. “Hello? I’m lost.”
She listened, but the steps continued on, just as slow and steady as before. She looked, but everything was the same palette of grey, white, and green pine needles. She glanced behind her, down the arc of snowy asphalt stretching behind her. It would be easy to see someone walking along the side of the road—part of the reason she had chosen her path—but whoever was out here remained hidden.
Dana peered into the branches on the other side of the road. The weak sunlight was quickly fading, and she could not make out much more than a mass of shadows.
“Hello?” she tried again. “My car broke down and I need to get to town,” she offered, hoping it might convince the stranger that she was no threat.
The steps paused, and she was almost angry at the sudden silence. Now she did not even have the sound cues to help her find the person she was now sure would be her savior. But, she reminded herself, it meant they may have heard her.
“Do you know of anywhere I can go to get warmed up?”
Slow, steady steps resumed, now at a slightly quicker pace. She continued to scan the trees, hoping to see her rescuer. There was a flurry of movement to her left, and she spun quickly. Something was moving between the trees, but it blended with the grey and white all around her. Whoever it was, they were large, knocking aside tall branches and leaving them swaying. Was it a hunter wearing some sort of snow camo? She tried to estimate the height from the branches, but the answer kept coming back impossible. Her eyes promised the branches were at least 10 feet high, but she knew that was impossible.
Looking through the increasing shadows, she tried to discern the outline coming towards her. The steps were quicker now, increasing as it moved. But try as she might, it continued to deflect, the light diffusing across the white snow and white clothing of whatever hurtled towards her. And then it was closer, free from the maze of grey branches and tree trunks.
And it was not a person, Dana realized quickly. It walked on two legs, but towered beneath the canopy. Its face was of some indistinguishable animal. A flattened snout, low angled ears, dark eyes, and rows of teeth. It watched her closely, sniffing the air.
“Elo?” it mimicked, tilting its head to the side and staring at her. “Elo,” it said again.
Dana wondered for an instant if her brief pause had been enough to freeze her boots to the ground, but then life returned to them. She was able to ignore the pain and she ran down the roadway, trying to put distance between her and whatever creature she had disturbed.
Now she could hear its steps crashing behind her, covering the icy ground in broad, gangly bounds. It spoke with a mishmash of her words, coming out half-spoken.
“Car own. I go arm lost.”
And then there was ice swelling up to meet Dana. Her feet had betrayed her, flying back behind her as she plummeted to the ground. She heard those words echoing in the darkness as the smell of musk and decay overtook her.
Dana woke up warm. There was a blanket covering her body, soft and scratchy all at once. She pushed herself deeper into it, reveling in the encompassing warmth. There was the smell of smoke and the crackle of a fire in the air. Her mind slowly put the pieces together and informed her that she had no idea where she might be, wrapped in a blanket in front of a fire. With that, her eyes flew open.
It was a cave, lit only by the glow of the fire in the middle of the room. There was a smattering of bones, camping equipment, and branches littering the floor. Dana’s boots sat to the side, just beyond the fire but close enough to dry.
And then there was the hulking behemoth, sitting on its haunches and looking into the fire. It made a few muffled noises, half grunts, and adjusted its position. Then, in what seemed to be slow motion, it turned to look at Dana. There was recognition—perhaps excitement—in its eyes as it noticed she had awoken. With shuffling steps, it moved over to her. Dana tried to escape, but there was nowhere to go. Behind her was a stone wall and in front of her a monster. Her arms and legs tangled in the pelt thrown over her, further impeding her hopes of escape. And then it was beside her, its large paw reaching towards her face with outstretched claws. She screamed.
It softly touched her cheek, the rough skin of its hand running across her cheek. It opened its mouth in what almost resembled a smile, tongue lolling out like a pleased dog. The scream faltered as confusion took over.
“What are you?” she asked, eyes locked onto its large face.
“Warm,” it said, gesturing broadly to the fire roaring.
“You brought me here to get warm?”
It did not provide a response, but moved over to the fireside, settling down into a crouch and watching her. When she did not move, it gave a quick hop and slapped the ground with one massive hand. Dana slid forward slowly, feeling the increasing heat as she inched her way along the floor. Once beside the creature, it turned back to the fire, watching it as if hypnotized. Dana herself watched the fire, noticing the way the tongues of flame licked at the wood and danced wildly. The shadows skirted around the room, creating monstrous hallucinations from clumps of rock and hair. She tried not to look at the bones.
And exhaustion took over, her eyes growing heavy. She fell asleep leaning against one firm, furry arm.
“We’ve got her here!”
Someone was yelling and Dana was slowing waking up. There was a commotion, the sound of someone crashing through snow and branches. And then a police officer was in front of her, reaching down and checking her pulse.
“What are you—“ She felt dazed and confused, half awake and uncertain how she came to be there.
“Dana Morrison? Are you okay?”
“I don’t know. Where am I?”
“Are you injured?” he asked, visually scanning her and she pushed herself off the frozen ground and into a seated position.
“I don’t—I don’t think so.”
He clicked his radio. “Paramedics to my position. We need to get her out of here.”
The next few moments were a flurry of activity. He kept asking questions, providing only brief answers. She had been missing for almost two days. They had found her car down the road. It was a miracle she was alive.
The paramedics arrived and checked her briefly before loading her up for a trip to the hospital. But as they strapped her into the gurney, one approached her.
“This blanket probably saved your life. No sense leaving it behind,” she smiled, smoothing the fabric over Dana’s legs. Dana glanced down to see a rough pelt draped over her legs. She tried not to think about the impossible familiarity, because she knew that cave couldn’t exist. It had to be a hallucination brought on by hypothermia.
This work by Katherine C is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License.
Here is something I threw together in honor of fall. Just an idea that I wanted to play with. As always, I would love to hear your thoughts in the comments!
Michael had no reason to fear. True, it was certainly a situation where one might consider fear an appropriate response, but there was absolutely no reason for him to fear.
It had been a peaceful evening up until that point. The day had been dreary, rain trickling down window panes and pattering on the sidewalk. He had watched it, gloomily, from his office window. It was hard to stay focused and productive with the grey and slithering weather slipping past his window. The morning felt like early evening, the afternoon like dusk. His body was already prepared to crash when he got home, convinced it was 7:00 by the time he made it out of the grey structure.
Somehow, however, the cloud cover had broken on the drive home. There were only a few hours of sunlight left, but Michael eagerly soaked it in from behind his car windows. After getting home, he resolutely set out for an early evening walk to take in the clean, warm air. It was a perfect walk, the scent of fall in the air, still slightly damp from the day’s rain. The sun was warm and beaming.
His neighborhood was nice, and it seemed others had a similar idea. Families and children seemed to be soaking up the lovely weather, certain that rain would trundle back by the next day. It was the unofficial rainy season, the tail end of summer as it shifted to the chilly fall weather. There was some magic to the changing season, and it seemed everyone wanted to witness to it.
Michael had eventually drifted into the park, making his way into the wooded paths. The sun filtered through the leaves, highlighting the subtly shifting shades of the leaves. A nice breeze picked up, and he tugged his jacket closer. The leaves whispered around him. It was peaceful.
But, as is common with fall evenings, the darkness seemed to settle in at a surprisingly rapid pace. The sun eventually sunk beneath the hills on the horizon, casting long golden fingers around the newly approaching clouds. Shadows grew long, eventually melding into one another, casting a heavy blanket of darkness over the park. Michael sighed as the lamps flicked on, sodium yellow now filtering through the trees. If not for a growing hunger in his gut—that slice of pizza from lunch had not lasted as long as he would have liked—he might have spent a little longer meandering along the path. The air was getting a bitter edge to it, and he almost thought he could hear rain whispering in the top of the leafy canopy. It was for the best to return home.
Only, as is so often the case, the best laid plans most certainly went awry. He found himself standing at a fork in the road, completely unsure of which path he had come from. He had been lost in thought, barely paying attention to where his feet wandered. Still, the park was not that big, and there was no harm in taking a wrong turn. The worst case, he reasoned, would be he ended up on a street a couple blacks over instead of next to his house. The weather was still nice enough to make it adventure, not an inconvenience.
The leaves rustled around him as he arrived yet again at a fork I n the path. He had not passed this many, surely. Still, he was certain that the paths would eventually lead it. They were all pretty much interlinked circles, after all. He tried to remember the map at the edge of the park with its brightly highlighted trails, but it was simply a mess of tangled lines crossing over and under one another.
It was not until he came upon yet another path with no memory of the choice that he began to feel a slight prickle of unease. The park was not that big.
His pace was faster, and he zipped up his jacket His hands were actually getting a bit chilled, even though he had not thought the temperature was supposed to drop that drastically tonight. Around and around he wandered, hidden under the leaves and following one stout lamp post to another.
And then, the path ended.
For a moment, Michael stood and stared at the path that simply thinned and then disappeared into a pile of leaves. There were no sounds—not even the sound of cars zipping past on the nearby roads—besides the whispering of leaves rustling overhead. The wind must have kicked up, he reasoned, as the sound rose to a crescendo.
He did not remember dead ends in all of his trips to the park. Then again, he did not remember forks upon forks leading him deeper and deeper into the woods. It was obvious he must not have been paying much attention. Shrugging his shoulder, he turned around.
It was then Michael began to fear, even if there was no reason to. Standing before him was a pile of leaves, which certainly does not sound terrifying. However, if you were walking along the woods, slightly lost, and suddenly came upon a human shaped collection of fall leaves, you might startle as well. You certainly would as it opened big, golden, owl-like eyes and stared at you with predatory eagerness.
Fear tends to produce one of three responses in a human. They will choose to either fight, flee, or freeze. In this moment, Michael chose to freeze. His mouth fell open as if someone had unhinged his jaw, and his eyes seemed to fall back into the cavern of his skull. For a moment, he simply took in the image of some impossible creature before him.
It opened its mouth—though it did not quite have a mouth. He only understood it as a mouth because of the sounds that began when a chasm opened up just below the eyes. It was leaves whispering in the wind, hissing and slithering in a language he could not comprehend. It was then that he noticed the jagged points of red and orange ringing that opening, the undulating vine that writhed within the expanse. Teeth, his mind labeled. Tongue.
Suddenly, they looked sharp. Michael felt his fear—as useless as it was—enter a new stage, call upon a new tactic. Flee, it said. He turned and began to rush through the underbrush, damp leaves slick with rain and threatening his minutest progress. Still, despite the treacherous footing, he made his way through the woods, hands batting away grasping branches. Behind him, he heard the leaves laughing at him, their bodies sliding one over another, laughing in a frozen breeze.
Michael did what you most certainly should not and chanced a glance behind him. He could see the strange creature cut from foliage rising among the tree, clambering over the branches like water pooling over stones. For a moment, he was struck by the memory of his chemistry teacher rolling mercury in a glass bottle. It seemed to glide over the surface the same way this creature wove between the branches.
Of course, his attention torn away, he was quick to slip. And that thing was quick to pounce, diving from the trees in a flurry of movement. Michael was pinned to the ground, and he called upon his very last resource. He started to fight. Michael’s legs flew towards the creature, ripping into its leafy form, only to be swallowed up in the mass. He tried to pull his arms away, to scrtch nad punch at what he assumed was the things face. But instead, his arms seemed ot sink into the loamy soil beneath him. The woodland detritus beneath his back seemed to come alive, wrapping around him and pulling him into an impossible embrace.
The creature almost seemed to smile, that gap of a mouth stretching wider with that same sibilant laugh. Now he could see the teeth clearly, sharp and dangerous despite their innocent appearance. It smelled of rot and decay in there, eons of autumns cast into an inky pit of some living horror.
In that moment, Michael gave up on fear. As the teeth grew closer, wrapping around his yes, he finally saw the error of his ways.
And so, Michael had no reason to fear. Fear should do something, give a creature some hope of surviving an ordeal. But, for Michael, it had no purpose. He could freeze, flee, or fight all he wanted. But there was no good reason to fear. After all, he was dead the moment he laid eyes upon those hungry eyes.
So, I am finally getting around to posting (here) the final version of what started as Pheromones all those months ago. I am happy to announce this was recently posted on creepypasta.com. It ended up with a new name, a slightly different slant on the story, and what I feel is a lot more direct storyline. I’ve had the benefit of seeing two or three additional iterations of this particular piece, and so to me it seems like it has been quite the journey. The final idea is one I am really happy with, but one that seems to have evolved quite a bit from the seed of an idea that started it all. In fact, this whole story started from the line “There was something predatory in the way she walked.”
Since this is my blog and I can blather about whatever I like, I am going to talk about how this story developed, specifically how I felt about the blend of gender, sex, and horror. To skip that and read the final version of the story, click here and it will jump you down the page to the beginning.If you are interested in my rambling thoughts, read on!
One of the things that really bothered me after I got the idea for Pheromones (which will forever be it’s title in my mind, even if Dionaea Muscipula is a much better one) was how to handle the sexuality and danger I was interested in without playing into harmful gender stereotypes that plague horror. In short, women who engage in sexual activity are either innocent victims or sex-hungry monsters. Knowing that I was writing a story about a seductive monster, I feared tripping into these. If the monster was female, then it was playing into the same stereotypes that vilifies any sexual desire from a woman as indicative of a drive out of control. However, making the victim female meant I would yet again punish a female character for seeking a sexual interaction, reinforcing stereotypes that plague the genre. I mean, I watch plenty of horror movies. Once the chick decides to hook up with someone, you can almost be guaranteed they will die soon. Sex is dangerous for women, is the implicit message. Or, conversely, women who like sex are risky and untrustworthy. So I felt I was in a pickle.
Originally, I decided to make the “monster” more or less human, somewhat vampiric, and ultimately female. For where I am, the ability to show a woman empowered enough to seek out sex was better than the weak victim, I knew my story arc, and I tried to choose the lesser of two evils. But I was certainly never happy with it. In my mind, Annalise was powerful, dangerous, and independent. I mean, while it was beneficial for me to write such a woman, it also sounded like propaganda that someone would have spread in the 20s to prevent women’s suffrage. “Give them the vote, they’ll be all out on their own. They’ll destroy us all!” That’s exaggerated and silly, and I doubt anyone gives my writing that much thought, but that’s how it felt. On the one hand, it was a victory for me, but it also fed other, harmful lies that I disagree with as well.
As I said, lesser of two evils, however. I’d rather have a fiercely independent female monster than a deceived victim punished for her weak female will. I know both of these are exaggerations and probably more involved than they should be, but part of my desire in writing this was to explore sexuality in my writing, within the context of horror, and do it effectively. So these were the underlying thoughts that primarily concerned me.
I toyed with changing the genders. I thought about making it a same-sex attraction. That one felt like I was skirting the issue, and I also believe that, being a straight white female, it’s something I would need to practice in writing first. I practiced writing in the male voice for a long time, and still have to be very intentional about it. (I also really enjoy writing “female/male sounding” things and then having the character be the opposite gender, just to challenge my own gender norms).
Ultimately, I wrote the original version of Pheromones and flt okay about it. I loved the idea, but the ending and dynamics never felt right. It was too vampy, a little to cliche, and not what I wanted. I rewrote the ending dozens of times and was never quite happy with it.
Then, I thought up this new ending in the shower one morning, and it felt right. It took the conversation away from the strict gender roles, made it more fluid, and enhanced the predatory aspects of “Annalise” that I wanted. It also fit better with the fly trap idea, a flower which blooms and wilts, only to bloom again. It kept the strong woman, but also demonstrated that brutality was not a gender characteristic, but a part of the monster. What I had realized was that her goal was never sex, but hunger. My attempts to tie hunger into gender in an effective way was the problem, since hunger is not male or female. It is animal, crossing gender boundaries. And so the ending similarly crossed those boundaries. It did not end up being an in depth exploration of gender and sexuality, because this is not the best way to explore such complex topics. But it did present the ideas and help present a male-female dyad in horror that manages not to fall into (too many, at least) gender stereotypes. It is not perfect, and I know Martin’s character is probably unfair, but for me it was an important opportunity to deal with these themes.
Okay, so that is a lot of rambling, but I wanted to share some part of my creative process. I try to be thoughtful about what I put out there, so sometimes it is nice to share the thought that went into something. If you’ve read all this, thank you, nad I hope it was moderately interesting. Without further ado, Dionaea Muscipula.
Martin looked somberly into the murky gold of his lukewarm scotch. He hated these kinds of functions. Not only was he not particularly good at large crowds, dancing, loud music, and general social interaction, but it only became all the more painful when you combined a room full of people with his same weaknesses and demanded that they play the roles. It was a professional conference, he bemoaned, but he was the only person with the seeming self-awareness to feel abject discomfort at the whole evening’s proceedings. He slumped glumly in the stiff reception chair, his body depending on the unsteady table to keep him upright and appearing engaged. The white table, stained with leftover dinner crumbs and a spilt half glass of red wine, had been empty for what felt like an eternity as his dinner companions—strangers in nice suits and dresses who prattled on as if they were 25 again—had given themselves over to the open bar and dance floor.
He glanced at his watch. Surely after two hours of such nonsense his dues were paid well enough to warrant sneaking back to his room for some sleep and relaxation. Others might jest that he was a stick in the mud for retiring so early, but he would not make a fool of himself as his colleagues were so wont to do.
Gathering his tired dinner jacket and room key, Martin froze. From across the room, he spotted a gorgeous woman slicing through the crowd. There was something predatory in the way she walked. An utter lack of self-consciousness as she strode through the flailing bodies in the crowd. There was a look in her eyes, evident from half a room away, which showed she knew she stood on a level above all those around her. She had the look of a sated wolf prowling amongst unguarded sheep, utterly disinterested in their bleating. Her hair flowed in sheets of shining black as deep as the moonless sky, waving with disdain as she cut her own path through the writhing masses around her. Almost instinctively, the way parted for her, bringing her directly to Martin’s table.
With indelible grace, she swept a glass of red wine from a passing waiter, holding the delicate glass in her soft fingers. She smiled, pearly white teeth flashing between plump red lips. Her eyes were brilliant green, reflecting Martin’s dumbfounded gaze right back at him. The lovely scent of flowers encapsulated him as it rolled off her body. It was far more intoxicating than the mild drinks he had been nursing all night. Martin felt as if he were being drawn into her web, but he had no will to fight it.
“Annalise,” she breathed. For a moment, Martin was unsure what to do. All he knew were that those syllables were the most heavenly sounds he had ever heard. He would endure pain, torture, war, strife, poverty, illness, and any worldly ill if only those three syllables would replay again and again. To have those lips speak such beauty!
She smiled again and his mouth snapped shut from its gape. “M-Martin,” he stammered as he collected himself, shamed by the coarseness of his own voice.
She reached out a slender hand to touch his arm. “So nice to finally meet you.” Martin felt his heart begin to thunder. She knew of him? She wanted to meet him? What crazy fever dream had he slipped into? “I won’t keep you, as it seems you are leaving, but I just couldn’t miss the chance—”
“No, no. Not leaving,” he interjected, eagerly grabbing his chair and planting himself into it. “Just was, uh, getting a better view of things, you know.” She laughed and Martin prayed his ears would ring with that delightful sound for the rest of his life. He would go deaf to the world if only to hear her laugh.
“Then may I join you?” she asked, somewhat hesitantly, betraying the assured confidence Martin had seen so clearly moments ago. He could not imagine having such an effect on a woman, especially not one like her. Martin sat up a little straighter in his seat; keeping his dignity tonight might actually pay off for once, he mused. She must like a serious, intellectual man. Well, by God, she had found her man then.
“Where are you from, Annalise?” He was so smooth, he congratulated himself. Those words flowed like butter.
“Please, I didn’t come all the way over here to talk about me, Martin! Tell me about you,” she purred, her hand falling gently on his forearm as she moved closer. As close as he was, he felt himself absolutely adrift in her marvelous scent. She smelled of sweet flowers opened brightly to the summer sun, and Martin was content to collapse into the field.
So talk he did. Martin regaled her with stories of his groundbreaking work as she eyed him with pure wonder. He shared about his glowing academic career, the awards and showcases that had chosen to honor him and his work in his brief career. He spoke in heartfelt about his calling to the field, the passion and the reward he felt from doing such work. She played her role well, smiling at the right parts, laughing at his clumsy jokes and sighing in awe of his humble victories. Martin felt his chest swell with pride as he prattled on about his meager life, finding his own ego reflected and doubled in her searching green eyes.
After a while, she smiled and squeezed him arm softly, interrupting him mid-flow. It was amazing how easy it was to talk to her. He found himself divulging so many things to her, almost as if he had known her for half of his life. It was just her soft presence, the comforting aroma of flowers, and the focused interest pouring from her eyes. It made his tongue loose in a way no person or substance-induced state ever had. He froze in silence, suddenly feeling the ache of his throat after so much talking over the din of the music.
“I’m having trouble hearing you over all of them,” she said, rolling her eyes towards the mass of drunken hooligans who would don suits tomorrow and nurse hangovers through the scheduled sessions. “Do you think we could go somewhere more private?”
Martin was flummoxed. In all his years, he had never expected to catch the eye of such a woman—of any woman, if he wanted to be honest with himself. He had even less expected to find such a beautiful groupie for his relatively dull research. And now, this surprise of all surprises revealed another layer of amazement. She was trying to seduce him! Martin smiled. Perhaps he would let her.
“My room is just down the hall from here,” he spat out quickly, his eagerness spilling over his words. She gave him a reassuring and understanding smile.
“That sounds perfect.”
Martin stood from his seat, his legs wobbling uncertainly. He could remember college years and first dates with similar weakness of the knees, only this seemed even more extreme. A goofy smile drifted over his face; he was drunk on her presence, and there was no use in denying it. Every system he generally kept so well controlled was flying by its own rules, freed by her enchanting smile and intoxicating scent. He offered her his arm, and the two floated from the room. Martin’s legs seemed to belong to someone else, carrying him confidently out of the room. The doors swung shut behind them, effectively muffling the raucous music still pouring from the banquet hall. At this rate, his colleagues would be stumbling into the first session still decked in their party finery.
The sounds of the others faded as they walked along the hallway until Martin realized he and Annalise were shrouded by a heavy covering of silence. Anyone else in the hotel had long since gone to bed, and the music down the hall had faded quickly. He supposed it only made sense that the place would have good soundproofing for such an event. The silence was surprisingly intimate. He could hear her soft breath, the air moving over the swell of her full lips. Her feet sunk lightly in the plush carpet, whispering softly in the hall. In contrast, he heard his heart racing in his chest, listened to the uncoordinated and irregular pace of his own steps dragging through the carpet. He was a love—or perhaps more accurately lust—struck mess.
He fished the little plastic card from his wallet, and the door gave its friendly beep as the light flashed green. After shoving the door open, his arm flailed about in the darkness seeking the light switch that always seemed to be two or three inches higher or lower than he remembered. With a click, the lights hummed on and bathed the room in a harsh and artificial glow. Despite the generally terrible effects of such lighting on people, Annalise still appeared radiant as she stepped into the room. She was commanding as she entered, and he felt as if perhaps they had unwittingly entered her room rather than his, given her comfort. But no, his shirt and slacks hung pressed in the closet, his battered suitcase tossed unceremoniously on the second twin bed. She simply possessed an air of belonging wherever she went.
The smell of flowers carried him along in her wake, and he stumbled into his own room behind her, coming up short as she paused in front of him. Her eyes were smiling as she turned to him. “What a wonderful evening,” her words drifted into the silence of the room as she fell softly against the crumpled bed spread, her red dress a stark contrast with the dull white sheets.
“Uh, yes, it has been—“ magical, enchanting, impossible, miraculous?“—quite the night,” he finished weakly, standing uncomfortably in the entryway to his room looking around. He felt his eyes lingering too long in hers, drawn in by their brilliant spell. The heavy presence of flowers in the air made him feel woozy, and he nearly stumbled as he broke his gaze from hers.
“Martin, what if I told you that I have been thinking about my lips on you since I first laid eyes on you?” She whispered haltingly, her eyes betraying the innocence on her lips.
Flabbergasted, Martin sat in silence. Now he knew that this must be some kind of ruse. Or perhaps someone had spiked his drink and he was hallucinating. The drink—had he had more than he thought? Would he wake up groggily to some ancient troll in his bed? Could he have fallen asleep at the table, and now this goddess was his sweetest dream?
Before he could reach a final conclusion—brain tumor?—her lips were on his, her body pressed against him. His shock had prevented him from seeing the speed with which she pounced from the bed, catching him in her arms and drawing him back to the bed. No matter what doubts he might have, he could not deny the reality of the experience happening in that moment. He swam in the warmth of her limbs around him, the taste of her soft lips, and the scent of her lithe body. In that moment, all he knew was that his lips and hers were dancing together now, their tongues meddling somewhere in between. She pushed him back on the bed, her lips following his steady descent down to the stiff hotel bed. Martin’s heart was a metronome in his chest, trying to keep pace with his flying thoughts. He pulled her close, kissing every inch of that beautifully pearly white neck and face that he could. She laughed and smiled as she playfully pinned his hands down on the bed.
“You know, Martin, there is something delicious about a body excited.” Her tongue snaked its way into his mouth, those brilliant red lips melding with his for a brief moment. “And our bodies tend to respond the same to excitement and fear,” she whispered, coming up for breath. Every word she spoke sent waves of excitement across Martin’s body, just to feel the gentle ebb and flow of her breath across his skin.
“Me, personally,” she smiled, leaning to kiss along his neck, “I prefer the taste of excitement.” She ended this with a soft nip at his earlobe. Martin felt a slight stir of discomfort at her choice of phrasing, but brushed it off. Just a turn of phrase, he reminded himself, finding himself again drowning in her green eyes and the soft scent of sunlit flowers.
Her fingers played with the silk knot at her waist, carefully untangling the ribbons so that flashes of marble skin slipped through. She turned her back to him, letting the dress slowly fall away to reveal her perfectly sculpted body. Martin’s eyes grew wide as she spun, but his pleasure gave way to terror all too quickly.
Her chest was a tangle of intertwined flesh, a traumatic knot of scars and blood. In the time it took Martin to make sense of it, the knot began to writhe, petals of flesh slowly unfolding to reveal a gaping maw of teeth where her stomach should have been. Her once bright green eyes were now dull and dead, any hint of life yanked from them with the reveal of this monstrosity. Where the aroma of flowers had so allured him, now he could only smell the sickly odor of rot. A scream, initially frozen in disbelief deep within his gut, slowly clawed its way up to his lips, breaking through the air with a brief cry before those yellowed, broken teeth closed around his head.
The room echoed with the muted crunch of bone, the moist sound of blood and flesh abandoning their respective domains and mingling in a blender of jagged teeth. It gulped, Annalise’s whole body quivering with the effort of ingesting the body of her momentary paramour. The sheets were stained with blood, matching the brilliant fabric of the discarded dress. However, it was not interested in waste. Most of the blood flooded its gullet, Annalise’s ivory skin warming and brightening with the fresh flood of still-warm liquid.
Sweet iron filled the room, its scent nearly overpowering. The now lifeless body of Annalise flopped about as the creature neglected grace in favor of speed. Her head lolled onto her chest, drifting dangerously near the still gaping teeth. A thick, coiled tongue snaked out of the mouth, slithering across the bed to gather whatever remained before it could fully soak in to the cheap hotel mattress. With a shake and an odorous sigh, the creature sat back on the bed. Slowly, Annalise’s eyes began to change, drifting from their brilliant green to a steely blue. Her hair fell out like leaves shaken by the wind, short cropped salt-and-pepper strands replacing it. Her arms and legs lengthened, then thickened. After a moment, the creature stood, a perfect copy of Martin, but imbued with a very different spirit.
It considered the new body, then reached into its mouth to retract a thick pair of black glasses. For a moment, it held them to its new face, considering the advantages of such eyewear. Ultimately, it discarded them and watched as they shattered at the base of the wall. Unlike Martin, the creature walked tall, shoulders back and eyes up high. It smiled charmingly as the skin of his face stretched with the unusual gesture. While Martin certainly did not have sculpted abs or a youthful body, there was at least minimal evidence that he had taken good care of himself, resulting in a relatively slender and strong physique. The creature turned Martin’s head side to side, looking itself up and down in the mirror across the room. It was far from perfect, but with a dash of charm and some newfound confidence, it would certainly do. “Nice to meet you, Martin,” he said, his voice starting with the lilting soprano of before and then taking on a confident baritone that filled the room.
After pilfering the clothes hanging in the closet, the creature looked at the mess it had made and smiled. Martin slipped into its new costume, and walked strongly towards the door. His hand hovered over the light switch, gaining one last glimpse at the bloody masterpiece now staining the cheap room. Then, he plunged it into darkness and made his way back to the festivities.
The night was still young.
This work by Katherine C is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License.
So, this idea I like, but I really wanted to stretch it out and make it EVEN longer. But I didn’t. I may return to this later, after the challenge, and flesh it out to be what I want. As always, I hope you enjoy!
Card Day 77: A wall of vines. Some are wrapped around a knife, slowly cutting through other segments of the vine.
Finding the tree was happenstance, but Camilla found the discovery filled her with a mingled feeling of awe and discomfort. It rose mightily into the sky, but it was oddly bound by clinging, woody vines. They snaked around the tree from tip to root, their leaves covering the bountiful boughs. It was, in fact, a tree constructed out of staunch green vines. That was the amazing part.
The discomfort arose because she was somehow certain and inexplicably saddened by the realization that there was almost certainly an actual tree caged inside those vines. Perhaps once tall and beautiful in its own right, it had been strangled to make room for the natural oddity. She walked around the base of the tree, pacing its impressive girth, and studying the vines that scaled the bark—or the presumed bark—so effortlessly.
Camilla felt a small sense of accomplishment at discovery the unique find—or, at least, she thought it was unique. Then again, she had very little frame of reference as this was only her first of two months with her grandmother for the summer. And she had only spent a short while exploring the woods, having quickly grown tired of the spotty satellite TV and limited reading selection. Her grandmother swore they would go to the library in town soon, but Camilla had grown antsy around the house. Besides, her grandmother, seeing her determination to explore the vast wilderness, had promised her that there were arrowheads and other artifacts from native tribes out there, scattered all around the county. Camilla had set off as a daring explorer, and now, looking at this tree, she felt a prickle of satisfaction at her exploratory skills.
Still, the discomfort remained. It took her a few minutes to understand it, a few minutes more to place it. As soon as Camilla considered her mother and father—their strict rules, minute-by-minute schedules, and sky-high expectations—the impact of the tree sank in. Yes, she could certainly understand the feeling of being strangled by outsiders, cut off from the sun, covered up to look more presentable. At least out here, her grandmother could barely see well enough to know that she was wearing any clothes, nonetheless how fashionable. There were no camps, extracurricular, practices, recitals, rehearsals, classes, or tutors to keep her time. Camilla enjoyed the sense of freedom she had to simply wander, even if the television selection had been lackluster thus far.
Camilla let her pity move her to action. The tree was certainly dead she knew, even with her limited knowledge of botany. But she felt the sudden urge to free it, to peel away the vines and discover the once mighty tree beneath. Or, she reasoned, at least find out if there truly was bark underneath. Perhaps the vines had simply opted to mimic the incredible stature of the surrounding trees.
Her nails were short, brittle and no match for the thick vines on the tree. She was able to wrestle one or two small sections off, leaving the pale green stems in a heap on the ground. But the work was slow. She had barely made a dent before her fingers were already aching. Sweat dripped down her nose in response to the good Southern summer, and she examined mere negligible work. Still, she felt pretty certain that she could see a bit of bark hiding beneath the layered tendrils. There was certainly something darker than the light-colored vines underneath.
She returned to the work, pulling at the vines until she had uncovered a small section about the size of a dinner plate. It was slow work, but got a bit easier as she unknotted some tangles and could peel away larger chunks. Underneath, she saw twisted grey bark, as well as a distinct darkness of some hollow. The emptiness inside seemed to stretch on indefinitely, and this only served to further pique her curiosity.
A mix of her own interest and sense of purpose left her dedicated. The old tree could have one last taste of freedom, she decided as guilt over her own freedom threatened to overwhelm her. But it would not be today. She knew if she spent much longer wandering in the woods, her grandmother would start to worry. The last thing Camilla needed was the small town’s volunteer fire department swarming the woods looking for her.
She made it back, hot, tired, but still pleased with her outing. The day passed with the same sluggishness of all the previous. Then again, everything moved slower in the summer heat. Camilla found her thoughts circling back to the tree time and time again, curiosity keeping her mind engaged as she washed the dishes, put away the leftovers from dinner, and watched the nightly news beside her grandmother. When evening finally settled firmly around the house, plunging it into that true darkness that surrounds country homes far from city lights, Camilla thought she would never get to sleep.
But the summer day had easily sapped her of what energy she had. The cool sheets, a breeze ruffling through her window, and she was asleep.
Her sleep was not restful, however. It was plagued by fitful sleep and a sense of foreboding in even the most mundane dreams. She sat on the front porch, rocking side by side with her grandmother in the oversized wicker chairs. Suddenly, it began to rain. The dream had nothing worthy of concern, but it seemed as if it was tinged with foreboding, with the unshakable sense that something was encroaching.
Simple dreams built until she found herself standing before the vine-bound tree. All the veiled threat from her previous dreams coalesced into the green structure. Camilla’s fingers gripped the vines, tugging and pulling them away. As they came apart, her hands quickly became coated with sticky sap—with blood. She dug through the bleeding vines with a fury that surprised her, even as the vines began to scream. They lashed out at her, scraping at her arms as her blood mingled with its. Finally, she pulled back from the tree, panting It lay bare again, bark twisted and gnarled up towards the sky. She could even see the individual branches, arms outstretched in exultation of freedom.
Even more intriguing, she could see the hollow stretching back into the tree. It seemed to be less of a hollow and more of an opening leading into some shadowy cave. In the dream, cold air billowed from the cave while the vines still screamed pitifully behind her. As she approached the opening, two red eyes appeared in the darkness, followed by a sudden flash of teeth,
Camilla woke with a start, sweaty sheets tangled around her limbs. The sun was pouring in, and the cool of the evening was already moving towards a sultry morning. From downstairs, she could hear bacon sizzling over the drone of the morning news. Her grandmother was up, and breakfast would be ready soon. Camilla stomped to the bathroom and turned on the creaking faucet. The shower water always ran so cold in the morning, and it was slow to heat. Still, the time away from her dreams allowed them to fade until the dissipated like the steam rising from the shower. Camilla rinsed away the fear and sweat of the night, ready for another day.
It was easy to sneak the knife out of the kitchen drawer; her grandmother’s hearing and vision were nowhere near the superhuman ability level Camilla’s mother professed in childhood memories.
“Going for a walk, Meemaw,” she said with a smile. The old woman smiled in return, knitting in her rocking chair while some gameshow droned on behind her.
“Just be careful and don’t stay out too late. I thought we’d go to the library today. Maybe after my nap?”
“I’ll make sure I’m back.” Camilla paused on her way out the door and then turned back to grab the flashlight from the hall closet. She wanted to really explore that tree, and it might mean peering into that hollow a bit more.
Had she not been carrying the knife, Camilla would have run to the tree. As it was, she had to pick her way carefully through the underbrush, always conscious of the dangerous tool in her backpack. Out here, she could not afford to fall and stab herself. The same thought returned. There was no need to rally the entire fire department just to find she had tripped over a log and stabbed herself. If she survived, she would never live down the embarrassment. That and her parents would probably never let her leave the house again.
It stood regally as ever in its clearing, perhaps looking even more alive now that a small patch of the tree shone though. It was as if the tree was breathing for the first time in years, and that made Camilla happy. If the tree could be free, she could to. With an eagerness that overcame the soreness of her tired fingers, she set to work sawing through the vines.
It was hot work and the vines would not give easily. Every now and then, Camilla had flashes of her dream, of sticky, bloody sap covering her hands. But in the dappled sunlight of late morning, it was hard to take such things seriously. Besides, she felt a deep sense of peace with her task, and she was far too old, or so she told herself, to be worried about silly dreams.
The vines fell away, revealing more and more of the dried bark. The massive tree required far more work than she had anticipated, and she had drenched her light t-shirt by the time she worked her way around the trunk. There was not much she could do for the upper branches, but she had done a little good.
After finished, she was surprised to see the same gaping hollow from her dream. It was a marvel that the tree was even standing with its whole bottom emptied out. Just like the dream, the darkness inside seem to stretch back and downward, almost like the mouth of a tunnel. Camilla understood the risk. There were likely animals living in there, or maybe a sinkhole or something. It was certainly dangerous. But she also felt that her hard work needed a reward. And the mystery was simply too much to pass up.
She would not go far inside, she resolved, and she would get out if she heard anything that might be an animal. It was not like the tunnel could go far, anyway. But as she shined the beam of her flashlight inside, it was met with darkness as far back as the light could travel.
Camilla stepped cautiously inside, half expecting the cool air from the dream. Instead, the inside of the tree was warm and muggy. It smelled like old, damp earth and soft wood. She pushed steadily inward, eyes wide with a mix of fear and excitement.
Just a few feet in, the tunnel leveled off into a small room. She judged the distance and guessed she was only about five feet beyond the tree at this point, and the low ceiling had already caved in at some points. That was the sign of danger she had been waiting on, and she sighed. Time to turn back.
Before she did, however, she wanted to see what lay in the middle of the room. It was a stone circle that appeared set into the dirt floor, and her flashlight seemed to trip and stumble across scraped indentions. Some sort of markings? Once she was close enough, she could see strange marking all along it. They did not appear random, as if the rain and soil had eroded them, but more intentional. There was almost a pattern to the markings, not that it meant anything to her. As she stopped over, Camilla thought she felt a hand suddenly in the middle of her back, shoving her forward. She tumbled towards the stone, catching herself with her hands as she skidded over the roughhewn surface.
Her hands were scraped and bloody, and there was a splash of blood now obscuring some of the marking. Camilla glanced around, her flashlight scanning the unnaturally heavy shadows, but there was nothing there besides some hanging tree roots and stones. No one was nearby. Maybe it was a breeze, she told herself, or perhaps she hit a patch of wet leaves or mud. Either way, Camilla suddenly did not like the way the shadows seemed to claw at her flashlight or how the forest sounds had faded so dim in the dark recesses of the tunnel. She burst back out into the hot summer air, surprised at the goosebumps crawling along her skin.
The sun was further along in the sky than it should have been, and Camilla readily accepted the excuse to return home. She did want to go to the library after all.
Of course, by the time she got home and got cleaned up, her grandmother was already complaining about how late it was. The woman liked her dinner promptly at five, and a trip into town now would delay that by a good half hour. If Camilla had learned anything about her grandmother, it was that the woman did not like her routine disrupted. It was what came from marrying a military man or at least so Camilla’s mother said.
The strange cavern seemed to follow Camilla just as the tree had. Only, this time, there was no sense of wonder. The feeling of crouching doom from her dream slithered into reality, and Camilla felt herself on edge. She tried to talk to her grandmother, but neither of them was able to focus on the conversation long enough to get anywhere.
Camilla felt weariness tug at her bones as the sunburn from her day’s foolhardy adventure settled in. Her sheets were and icy balm as she sank into them, and her thoughts spun around the hollow of the tree. It was unsettling, distressing, and strangely exhilarating. Nevertheless, her eyes grew heavy in the natural dark.
Again, Camilla dreamed.
This time, however, the dreams were not of foreboding or evil, but she felt liberated. Camilla was flying along the underbrush in the woods, her feet barely touching the ground. Her body moved impossibly fast, dodging saplings and bushes as darkness wrapped around her. She heard her own heavy panting in her ears as she thundered along. She was limitless.
Camilla felt herself stop, even though she had not realized she wanted to. It was as if someone else controlled the body, and she was along for the ride. Either way, the feeling was thrilling. Her rapid flight came to an abrupt halt as she began moving slowly, intentionally towards a shadowed house on the horizon. Camilla recognized the little farm house. She walked towards it, taking note of the open window on the second floor with the fluttering white curtains. Her bedroom widow, open as always. With an effortless leap, she was on the eaves and slinking towards her open window.
Camilla caught sight of her body lying in the bed, snoring softly with each rise and fall of her chest. Her hair was a mess tossed about the pillows, and one leg jutted awkwardly off the bed. All was well. Then, Camilla caught her own reflection in the mirror
Red eyes, jagged teeth, and a coalescing shadowy body. The sight was terrifying, but Camilla saw familiarity in the glowing red eyes. Her terror ebbed slightly as another presence, a grateful one, nudged up against her own thoughts. Without a word, Camilla and whatever she was accompanying spun from the window and disappeared back into the woods.
The run through the forest was indescribable. She felt the chill of moonlight on her skin—it was like the warmth of sunlight on the first spring day, but instead carried the chill of the moon on a heavy summer’s night. The loam of the underbrush was soft under her feet, springy enough to propel her forward through the trees like an undirected missile.
Then, again, there was calm. Her motion still, and she slunk low to the ground. Farmer Drury’s fence rose into view, as well as he slumbering herd of cattle. Without understanding what was happening, the ground rushed beneath Camilla and there was the taste of metal and meat in her mouth. Sudden noises of panicking livestock flooded her ears, but Camilla simply tasted the blood that trickled down her throat. She reveled in the feel of her teeth—sharp and deadly—tearing through fresh meat. She relaxed in the feeling of satiation as she had her fill.
The next morning, Camilla woke refreshed, the taste of blood and freedom still lingering on her tongue.
This work by Katherine C is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License.
Card Day 69: A man being pulled along in a cart by a toy soldier while other toy soldiers line the passage.
The lights were out at Fort Kestrel when Zach arrived home. His house was also empty, and he made the correct assumption that, due to whatever had caused the power outage, his wife had to stay at her post a bit longer today. It was a bit irritating floundering about in the dark, but he fumbled with the window shades upon entering, and pale light filtered in from outside. It was, at least, a sunny day. Even if that made the underlying reason for the power outage less clear.
Zach scrounged along the baskets under the coffee table until he found one of the big, decorative, scented candles that had decorated the top before other clutter pushed them aside. He lit it, the artificial scent of cinnamon quickly assailing his nostrils. At least it was light for those pesky interior rooms. And in a large enough glass that he could carry it with him, He was not in the mood to scrounge around for other candles or spend the time policing the flames. Then again, last thing they needed was a house in ashes.
The base was surprisingly quiet, but Zach tried not to think about it too closely. There may have been some sort of drill or announcement that he was not aware of. Living on base had its fair share of intrigue, but most of it was more boring than intriguing for Zach. Still Lily should have been home, especially since he had gotten out early. And usually the neighbor kids were out screaming this time of day, just after dinner time for the perfectly happy family. They wre good kids, he just was not a fan of loud noises late at night.
Honestly, that meant the decision to live on base had probably been the wrong one, but Lily’s job had bizarre enough hours that it had been worth it. Still, those bizarre hours were almost always planned, and this one wasn’t. It was probably nothing, Zach told himself, walking around the house and opening whatever windows he could find.
Looking out, so much was quiet. There was a hush over the base that made him feel uncomfortable. It was generally a bustling place, but now it sat lonely. As the sun began to grow closer to the horizon, promising a beautiful sunset, Zach jiggled his cell phone in his hand, quickly tapping the central button to bring the screen to life.
There was a message waiting for him. He must have missed the vibration while driving along the pitted roads leading from his office to his house. At least that explained something. He swiftly clicked through the menu options, wondering what he had forgotten.
“Zach.” Her voice held a tint of panic, and he wondered if it was a panic he should catch as well, or simply related to the bustle of the office. “I—Honey, I love you. Something went very wrong today. I won’t be coming home. If you get this, stay off base. Stay in your office. I—“ he could hear her voice fracturing. “I love you, Zach. Remember that, okay?” The message went silent in his hand, replaced by the emotionless metallic voice of the menu operator. Zach could sympathize with that emptiness, plunging the depths of emotional numbness he now felt. That message was dire. It was terrifying, final, and heartbreaking. He sat frozen, afraid that if he moved, all he was would shatter.
Eventually, the message service disconnected, leaving the phone empty in his hand. That was okay. He was empty, too. But his mind swirled with a thousand questions. What had happened? Did she mean she wouldn’t come home tonight? Ever? The tears in her voice seemed to suggest ever. What gave her forewarning, but no way to escape? What should he do now that he was on base? Where was everyone? Had something happened to everyone? Is that why the power was out? They tumbled over one another in his brain, never around long enough t piece together any answer.
Then, the warning claxons began to sound. He jumped at the sound, the way it echoed in the emptiness. If the message time was anything to judge by, they were about an hour and a half too late. If only he had answered his phone, he could have found answers to some of these questions. He could have told her he loved her too. But she knew that, didn’t she?
The correct protocol for various drills ran through his head, but he felt heavy. It was too much to stand, move, follow through on proper procedures. Besides, it was not an alarm sound he recognized. The weather sirens went off every week like clockwork, so he knew that tone. This was different. Nor was it the bugle calls that ran at regular intervals across the day. It was probably wise to move to the storm shelter, but part of him wanted to sit here until Lily came through the doors. Even if that meant he never moved again.
Zach eventually picked up a new sound, the sound of a car roaring along the empty roads. Come to think of it, they had been surprisingly empty. There was a full lot at the commissary, but empty streets. Zach’s thoughts flashed back to the empty-eyed guard at the entry shack, waving him through after a cursory glance at his ID. That, at least, was normal. But he wondered what that man was doing now. Was that his vehicle? Was he investigating the sirens? Was he caught up in whatever had silenced the base?
His phone clattered to the floor as Zach stood, marching towards the door. He did not know what was going on, but he wanted to find out. The best way to find out would be to go toe Lily’s lab, see if anyone there could tell him anything. He grabbed the keys from the side table, and was about to start his car when he realized silence had once again settled over the town. Unsure of why, he opted to remain silent rather than drawing any further attention to himself.
Along his walk, Zach noticed that all the windows were drawn. Yes, it was getting late, he recognized that by the golden glow in the sky, but there were usually some home opened to the great outdoors, windows wide on dinner tables and television screens. Tonight, it was dark. He could not even distinguish candlelight flickering behind the heft of closed curtains.
The rumble of a truck caught him by surprise, and he instantly became the proverbial deer in the headlights. Before he could adjust to the brightness, there were dark uniformed figures surrounding him. This was not good.
“All civilians were commanded to report to Jefferson Plaza at 1800.” The voice was cold, emotionless, and stiff. It was also a voice he did not recognize, and the bright truck lights prevented his eyes from reading the nametag.
“I was at work. I did not know,” he stammered, blocking the bright light, but it did nothing to unshadow the people surrounding him.
“We will take you there now. Get in the truck.” One of the men grabbed his arm, and he instinctively recoiled.
“No, I need to see my wife. Lily Summers? She works in the Med Research Building—Calvin Research Hospital?” He was glad the name came to him, because he was certain that referring to the “rat lab” or “bone cabinet” would not have jogged their memories like it did Lily’s.
All four of the soldiers around him froze, heads cocked slightly to the right. Zach was afraid to breathe, afraid he might upset whatever delicate balance was at play. These men were not soldier—there was a stiffness and awkwardness to their movements that suggested the gear was unfamiliar and bulky. It was almost as if they did not quite fit in the uniforms, even though the shadows clearly filled it out.
“We will take you there. Get in the truck.”
Zach did not trust these unusual soldiers with their mechanical ways, but he needed to see Lily. He also realized that their willingness sto take him to her in her restricted lab meant they certainly were not who they masqueraded as. His sense of foreboding grew as he hauled himself into the back of the truck.
The base was small enough that it was but a brief, bumpy ride to the squat white building. N the dim light of the truck, he could read their nametags. Martinez, Halcomb, and Bridges, plus whoever was doing the actual driving. He knew Halcomb from one of Lily’s work get togethers, and he also knew that the person wearing his uniform was not Halcomb. That man spoke with a soft voice, a slight stutter on occasion. None of that was evident in the short words spoken by this man. His words came out in short, sharp, loud bursts, almost as if the ability to modulate his speech was not quite there.
Zach unloaded from the truck when told, marched into the white building as informed, and sat in the back of the elevator as the uniformed men pushed buttons and entered the clearance code. There was no reason Zach should have been brought down to Lily’s level, not with his lack of clearance, and he knew that. He tried to study the faces behind the darkened visors as they rode together in the elevator, but all he could make out were eyes. And he did not dare trust what he saw, because the eyes he could see were bulging in fear, screaming in terror. Their mouths were thin, flat lines that appeared bored. It had to be an illusion of the light.
The doors opened onto a long, hallway, lit sporadically with emergency lighting. As he walked along, he heard the crunch of glass beneath his feet, lying below each shattered bulb. Whatever had happened, a lot of power must have surged through to burn out this many lights and, in all likelihood, power for the entire base. It was still odd no one had gotten power back up.
They paused in front of a metal door, punching in numbers on the keypad with fingers that skated over the buttons like spiders along a web. It was a strange contrast to their previous stiffness, and it left him feeling as if tiny legs were skating along his skin. Zach shivered as the doors gaped wide.
He saw Lily standing before him, and his insides melted. She was okay, she was alive, and whatever this craziness was, she would help him out. He expected her to be surprised at his arrival, but she looked disinterested to annoyed.
“Ah,” she said pursing her lips as she turned towards him, “Zach.”
His words flooded out of him, unleashing some of the tidal wave of emotions bottled inside of him. “Lily. You’re okay. What happened? I got you message, but I was already home? Where is everyone? What is going on? What about the power?” He rattled off questions as he took a couple of frantic steps towards her, arms out wide. Unfortunately, the guards from before grabbed his arms and held him fast to the spot. Zach pulled against them, struggling with all the might his untrained body had, but their hands squeezed tight enough that his hands began to go numb. “Lily?”
The woman sighed, smiling sadly at him. “Yes, I suppose I am this ‘Lily’ you are looking for. She talks about you. She wants me to tell you she loves you, and that you should run.” The woman gave a quick yip of a laugh at this. “Of course, it will do you no good to run now.”
“What do you mean? Lily? I love you, Lily! What’s going on?”
His please, the fervency in his eyes, did little to break the woman. “I’m sure she appreciates that. She can hear you, you know. But, unfortunately, I need her right now. I need you.”
“Wha-Who are you?” She was walking towards him and Zach felt paralyzed by her eyes—by Lily’s eyes—staring at him with such cold detachment.
“I’m just a traveler taking a lift,” said the woman with a calm smile, but Zach felt terror race up his spine. “Unfortauntely, it’s a bit cramped in here. I need to drop off some passengers, and I think you can help.”
“Lily!” he screamed, renewing his fight against the soldiers at his arms. But he did nothing, and they did not even flinch at his furious protest. She watched him fight, that same calm smile on her face. Exhausted, he looked back at her with defeated eyes. “Why?”
“Why? Well, that’s easy. Lily,” she said the name as if it were foreign to her tongue, “invited us. She was poking around with that energy crystal back there,” the woman tossed her head towards a dull, whitish rock on the table across the room. Zach knew nothing of that, but that was nothing new. “And she broke through. She let us free, let us into your world. She’s quite the lovely host.”
“What do you mean? How did you come from that rock? Where did it come from? Where did you come from?” The torrent of questions poured out of him in a stream, barely comprehensible.
“My, aren’t you the curious one?” said Lily, laying a cold hand on his cheek. “You will have plenty of time for your answers once you let us in. For now, just know that we came from very far away, and we are very happy to be here. It’s been so long.” The hand on his cheek turned into a vice, pulling his head towards her. Her lips—Lily’s lips—were on his, stiff and passionless. The woman breathed into him, and Zach felt his vision grow dark as his body went limp. Something oozed through his throat and lungs, seeping into his blood, along his body. Eventually, Zach felt something slithering behind his eyes, a mist creeping along his spine. And then, Zach stood. Only, Zach did not want to stand. He wanted to crumple to the floor, collapse into tears. His face was an emotionless mask. Someone else moved his lips, pressed air through his lungs, made words appear before him.
Someone else walked down the hall and away from Lily. Someone else donned a uniform that was the wrong size, and tried to forget the pain streaming from Lily’s eyes. Someone else tasted blood on his lips and savored it.
Zach screamed, but someone else smiled.
This work by Katherine C is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License.
Card Day 67: Children riding a wind-up carousel atop dragons, elephants, and other creatures.
The dragon rose majestically over the forest, her wings unfurling and casting deep shadows along the ground below. She stretched her neck, releasing a vicious cry into the sun-laced air, as her wings arched back and forth rhythmically. In the forest below, there was movement that caught her eye, perhaps a worthy foe. Large, intelligent blue eyes scanned the forest, picking up the disturbances in the foliage that marked her opponent’s movements.
On the ground, the dinosaur roared its own battle cry, staring at the trees in an attempt to reach the best floating high above. His steps thundered along the earth, creating rumbling disturbances throughout the area. Animals fled from before him as he made his way to the arena. This would be the final battle, the one to prove ultimate alpha predator. Above him, he could see the flying shadow following behind him, heading to the determined place.
Rock walls rose around them, towering and imposing, limiting her top altitude while keeping him in a cramped earthly domain. Both roared, circling one another and looking for any weakness. She struck first rearing back and spewing a blast of liquid fire to the ground. The dinosaur rolled away, narrowly avoiding a swift loss. He raised his claws, raking at the air, but finding her out of reach. Instead, he reared back and shot his own ball of flame towards her.
“Hey, that’s no fair!” snapped Xandi, swatting at her twin brother.
“You did it to me!” he responded as he shoved her in turn.
She put her hands on her hips. “Yeah, well, dragons can breathe fire. Dinosaurs can’t. Maybe you should have thought of that before.”
“Well it’s still not fair. You can breathe fire and fly. It’s no fun if you just fly away the whole time. I guess you’re just chicken.” Xander smirked at her and stuck out his tongue. Unfortunately, he also closed his eyes to complete his taunt, so he did not have a chance to see her barreling towards him until she tackled him to the ground.
Now that the dragon had left her lofty domain, the fight could truly begin. The punched and pinched at each other, roaring with pain and irritation as they rolled along the playroom floor. The ruckus quickly summoned a referee, however, and their mother stormed in to separate the two.
Having twins had taught her quite a bit about how to break up a fight, so she grabbed two arms and tugged them in opposite directions, ending up with two panting children on opposite sides of her body. “That’s enough, you two. If you don’t want timeout, then the fight is through.” Both looked angry and offended, carrying the weight of perceived slights and a few red marks from the brutal fight.
“Xander was cheating. He was a dinosaur, but he kept blowing fire!” She accentuated her point with the stomp of a foot, and her mother sighed. They were both too young to have that much attitude.
“Well Xandi wouldn’t even play! She was just flying and trying to beat me!”
“That’s the whole point,” she sneered back.
“Yeah, but you were being a big chicken—“ His mother’s sharp look cut off the taunt before it could progress to the actual clucking, but Xandi understood the intent nonetheless. Their mother shook her head, drawing them side by side in front of her. The same bright blue eyes stared at her, the same dark hair framing pale faces. If they were not different genders, she would have sworn they were identical twins.
“Listen you two, I don’t care who did what or what animals have what superpowers. You cannot hit your brother or your sister.” Her eyes drifted side to side between them, pinning them both to the floor. “If you cannot play Monster Battle nicely, you cannot play at all.” She watched them both soften as she threatened their favorite game. Their mother rolled her eyes internally and reminded herself to thank her husband for the wonderful Godzilla marathons.
“No, please, we can play nice!” whine Xandi, giving a half-sincere smile to her brother,
“Yeah, we’ll be good and quiet. No more fighting. No more real fighting,” said Xander as he quickly corrected his statement.
“I don’t know, guys. We do this a lot. Maybe it’s time to take a break—“
“No,” rose the chorus, plaintive and heartbroken.
“Give us one more chance, Mom.” Xander held onto her arm, resting his head against her shoulder. Xandi reached over and put a hand on her brother’s shoulder in true teamwork.
“Yeah, Xander can have fire-breath, I guess. It’ll be more fun, then.” She did not sound convinced, but Xander brightened at the concession.
Their mother stood, eyeing them both closely. She knew she still had dinner to tend to on the stove and a hefty stack of paperwork waiting for her review. If for once the promises were true, it would definitely make her evening a lot less stressful. Worst case scenario, she would be back in ten minutes to break them up again and set them to different tasks.
As their mother left the room, they envisioned a giant alien mothership floating away on the horizon. They could return to the duel.
“Alright,” said the dragon from her lofty vantage point, “you can have fire breath, but then I get—“ she paused as she searched her repertoire of appropriate monster abilities,”—ice breath!”
The dinosaur grumbled something under his breath, but accepted the solution. “Fine. But if you fly out of bounds, then you lose.”
“Fine,” muttered the dragon, never having broken the steady beat of her wings. She flapped above the arena as the combatants sized one another up.
Xander struck first, blowing a billowing cloud of fire upwards as he rushed around the arena. Xandi glanced around, suddenly seeing the air turn into a boundary of flaming walls. “That was smart,” she said, and he smiled smugly in response. “But not smart enough. Ice breath!”
With that, the sky turned into frozen blocks of fire that swiftly plummeted to the ground. The dinosaur used all its agility and speed to dodge out of the way, but one of the falling pillo—ice blocks struck his shoulder, and he careened wildly along the ground.
He roared in pain, sliding along the dusty arena floor and bumping against the rock walls. Pictures hung along the rock face trembled, but held firm. They both sighed in relief as the lack of devastation.
“Now I’ve got you!” roared the dragon, circling her fallen prey. Victory gleamed in her eyes along with a haughty sense of accomplishment. “You won’t get away from me!”
Even in his wounded state, the dinosaur was not to be bested. He lifted a rock from the floor next to him and flung it with all his might toward the spiraling beast. She was taken by surprise, never having suspected her injured foe to be so creative or strong. The stone struck her wing, and she found herself careening back towards the ground. And the waiting claws of her opponent.
The twins crashed into one another, once again rolling across the floor in the throes of laughter and mumbled threats. They locked arms, faces hovering inches from one another, and rolled back and forth across the floor.
They tumbled and fought, managing to seamlessly block one another’s attacks. Eventually, their breath-based powers exhausted, they restored to throwing stones from around the arena, crushing one another under pillowy weights. The dragon lifted a handful of pebbles and watched as the stuffed animals mercilessly rained down on her foe. He stood no chance, as he could not block all the dozens of projectiles launched his way. But he dove behind a rocky outcropping, then launched another boulder towards her. She barely had time to roll out of the way, struggling to fly away on her injured wing.
They were breathless and screeching, dodging behind furniture and overturning pillows, cushions, footstools, toys, and anything else that made a suitably safe stand-in for deadly attacks. Eventually, the ruckus drew the mothership back into the room.
“Guys,” sighed the alien voice, cutting into their battle. The dragon and dinosaur froze, investigating the new threat. “I thought you were going to keep it calm.”
“We were, mom, we just—“
“You made a huge mess.” Both creatures looked around at the ruins of the arena, stones littering the floor from one end to the other. Little remained of the once pristine battleground. It had truly been a ferocious fight.
“We were just having fun,” muttered Xander, his eyes darkening under his pouting brow.
“Yeah, but fun does not mean destruction. Listen, dinner will be ready in ten minutes,” said the alien, pointing animatedly at the sundial looming on the arena wall. “I want this place picked up by dinner. No more Monster Battles.”
“Yes, ma’am,” moaned Xandi and Xander. They slowly began walking towards the pillows, picking them up with half-hearted zeal and dropping them limply on the couch. The mothership floated away again as she ran a tired hand through her hair.
“I’ll get you next time,” taunted Xandi as she restacked the various stuffed animals in their assigned spots.
“Why wait until next time?” growled the dinosaur, a devious smirk on his face. Before she could react, he scooped up the footstool cushion and smacked her in the back of the head.
This work by Katherine C is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License.
Card Day 65: A cat sits in its bed, staring up at a deer head mounted on the wall. Tears drip from the deer’s eyes and down to the floor.
Henry had the growing sense of unease that there was something following him through the woods. It was a subtle sense, steeped in his own paranoia and cautious personality, but unshakeable. It was as if he could hear the slightest echo to his steps among the crackling leaves, or as if the birds seemed to wait just a bit too long to return to song behind him. He was born and raised among these woods, and he felt as if he could read them like an open book. Today, the message they were spelling out was grim, and he could not escape the clammy feeling creeping up his back. He was being followed, watched, and stalked.
The feeling of eyes on his back made his skin itch, almost as if a cold wind had whipped up and bit at his well-protected skin. Henry though he might just crawl right out of his skin, leave it a husk on the ground, if only to escape the impossibly unsettling feeling. Every tree branch suddenly became a traitorous hand seeking to pin him down and impede his progress. His home turf took on sudden maleficence he strained his ears, trying to hear the double crunch of his steps mirrored in someone else’s, attuned to the whispered music of another’s breath filtering through the trees.
It took all the resolve he could muster not to turn heel and flee through the woods. His home was on the other side, just over a mile’s journey, and even at his age he could make it in fifteen minutes or so at a light jog. His heart wasn’t what it used to be, but his doctor would probably approve of the exercise. But his pride forbade such an act of cowardice, so he held his steps to steady stroll through the diminishing sunlight. It would be dark soon, which might have been reason enough to hurry his trip, but the lingering possibility of some adversary that could perceive it as a sign of weakness meant he would be late getting home, strolling in and hanging his hat on the hook just past sunset.
Fortunately, the idea of the woods at night was less terrifying, or would have been under normal circumstances. His youth had been defined by sneaking into the woods for drinks and carousing with his buddies. Not to mention the many early morning hunting trips with his father—generally full of its own drinking and carousing—that had given him a familiarity with the darkened woods. In some ways, that was his territory to prowl. He felt as if he knew the way better under the cloak of night, those times when he relied on his other senses to guide him.
Only now, there was the very real danger of a predator. Carter Jinkerson had sworn he saw a couple of wolves roaming around a couple weeks back. Henry tried to dismiss the thought, noting that the footsteps—real or imagined—that he heard were not the soft padding of some four-footed animal. No, it was something large and heavy, walking about on two feet that perfectly mirrored his own. Somehow that realization did nothing to relieve his feeling of unease. He had bested every kind of animal that haunted these woods, but a human, now a human would certainly be challenging.
There had not been any string of attacks or murders in the sleepy town, so he tried to remind himself that killers did not just spring up in the midst of the woods. It was probably some kids, maybe one of his buddies trying to give him a scare. Even more reason to not let them see him sweat.
It was then that Henry realized the footsteps he had been thinking so intently on had, in fact, grown silent. He no longer heard anything sneaking along after him, even if the unusual silence did hang thick among the branches. Nothing but one set of steps pushing through the fall’s bounty of leaves, thundering through like a wounded deer crashing through the underbrush.
The silence was terrifying. He had lost the one thing that gave him an edge. He had known he was being hunted, and now he had lost his predator. Henry took a few great gasping breaths, trying to look as if he was merely resting, while his eyes jumped from tree to tree in a futile hope of finding one of the guys from the town leaning with a wide grin from behind his cover. But no one appeared, and Henry’s heart began to beat heavily against his ribs with the panic that left his limbs leaden. Even if he was not walking, he could hear the steady steps of his heart pacing the forest floor, seeking solace in trees that had so often filled him with serenity.
And then the leaves cracked behind him, closer than he had imagined and gaining with each shuffling step. That sound sent a jolt running through him, the alarm of the woods filtering through his heavy soled shoes and through his body. It spurred those limp muscles to action, pushing through the detritus. Thin, wispy branches whipped at him, tugging on his clothes as if pleading to also be taken away from whatever monstrosity dogged his heels. The steps were heavy behind him, signaling some beast much larger than any he had ever hunted. Henry fled, his eyes trained to the treacherous ground, unwilling to risk of fallen branch or surprise sinkhole ending his perilous flight.
The fading sunlight threw long shadows across the forest floor. The slender bodies of the trees lay in straight lines, painting lanes that he used to direct his steps toward safety. His home was just a bit farther on, just beyond the edged of the woods. He pushed himself to keep moving, even as his lungs ached and his mind swam with possibilities. Most disorienting was the shadow that followed along behind him, something that towered over his meager silhouette. It consumed his shadow, devouring it was the long, angled face. Spindly protrusions—could they be antlers?—protruded from the head of the shadow, dueling the black and grey branches lacing the ground. And it always grew closer, gaining on Henry’s frenzied steps.
Breath, hot and sticky, rolled of his back. It came in great puffs, crashing onto him like a wave, and he felt primal terror of something old and unknown snaking through his body. It threatened to anchor him to the spot, cease all bodily functions, and sacrifice his life to avoid living with the knowledge that such a thing could exist. Only Henry barely understood what it was he was fleeing. But his instincts knew that it was dangerous, ancient, and inescapable. The memory would cling to him like disease. It would rot his life away, turn his speech into frenzied howlings of woodland monsters and curses. Henry’s baser side understood all of this, even as his human mind scrambled over all the rationality and logic it could muster. Unfortunately, things like what lived in his forest were utterly impervious to the machinations of rational thought.
A tree branch snapped at his cheek, ripping his baseball cap from his head and leaving a thin trail of blood. The pain, slight as it was, freed him from the hindrance of that instinctive fear and returned full control of his muscles. Henry vaulted back to his top sped, a far less impressive speed than it might have been five or ten years ago, and made for the tree line. He could see the golden light just beyond the trees, the freedom from shadow. Just beyond that would be his home, the front porch light on, and a heavy shotgun in the hall closet.
Those steps never faltered, but never seemed to gain on him either. Henry almost felt like this thing that he could not bring himself to study was toying with him. It was waiting for him to turn, look back, and trip. Then it would pounce, its lure taken by the prey. It, however, did not know just how stubborn Henry could be. Presuming to know its plan, Henry steeled himself. He would not give it the satisfaction of looking.
The trees thinned around him, and he imagined the steps slowed behind him. In his delirium, he was certain that the pursuit had slowed. He was escaping. The thought blossomed in him as he burst through the trees, a flock of pheasants startled from their roost and exploding into the air. He felt the same rush of escape, putting distance between himself and whatever his hunter was. As his front porch grew closer, Henry felt as if his heart would pound right through his chest wall and beat him to the safety of the house.
He collapsed inside, falling against the backdoor. Nothing sounded after him. There were no steps on his front porch. It was silent in his house save the ticking of a clock on the mantle. Henry marveled at the silence, wondering if perhaps he had imagined the pursuer in the forest.
While his hand scrambled to the closet and pulled out his ever reliable shotgun, Henry risked a peek through the glass of his front door. He saw shadows leaning long form the woods, but there was a section of darker shadow. Something tall and imposing, its shoulder heaving in the woods as if out of breath after a long pursuit. Antlers reached high into the trees, branches mingling with branches. He could see feral golden eyes sparkled at him, then whirl and disappear.
Henry flipped the deadbolt, and leaned heavily against the door. He had no answers, no any energy to move farther. The paralysis of fear finally snared him, and he spent the evening cowering by the door.
When he woke in the morning, it was easy to attribute his fear to a bad dream figments of his imagination, or symptoms of a stroke. Perhaps it was time to see Dr. Macoughley in town after all. His knees and back ached as he rose unsteadily from his vigil by the door. The hardwood floors—while attractive to look at—did not make a suitable bed. He felt certain he would hear about this for the next few days from his creaking joints. At least, he reasoned, it was looking like another nice day outside, full of early morning sunshine. Maybe not a day for a stroll in the woods, but pleasant nonetheless.
Henry opened the door to take in the view, to prove to himself that he was not terrified of the woods that had so long been his haven. Instead, the view confirmed his fears. On the porch sat a twisted crown of tree branches, reaching high and twisting like the beautiful antlers that resided over his fireplace. The branches jutted perversely from a bleached white deer skull, the eyes empty and glaring deep into Henry’s own. Worst of all, however, was what lay beside the strange skull.
There sat his hat. Jagged tears ran along the right side, tiny tufts of his hair still tangled within the material. The blood rushed from Henry’s face, leaving him a ghost standing on the porch of his home. The only thing about him that remain alive was the shallow, stinging cut along his right cheek.
This work by Katherine C is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License.
Woohoo! On the last quarter! It’s been quite a ride, and will probably continue. Unfortunately, I have a raging migraine tonight, so there may be a lot of typos or issues here. I will probably look over this tomorrow and try to make some corrections. Tonight, I’ve just got to get my eyes closed. Happy reading!
Card Day 64: A rabbit in armor, sword drawn, standing before three different doors.
It is strange to think that my life spun on a pivot based on one choice alone. In one breath, I drastically altered life as I knew it, striking off on some path that I could never have imagined had you granted me ten thousand years to dream. No, it was the impulsivity and daring of youth that set me on this path, and I cannot help but wonder what may have been if a cooler head had reigned and selected my future. Life is, ultimately, the assembled sum of choices made in moments of strength and weakness.
“Take my hand.” The words had been a command, but they were a choice. And I chose adventure, leaving behind the life of simplicity I had thus far known. I leapt from the precipice of the unknown with a mysterious stranger whose tongue was decked in gilded lies. I eschewed the life I had known to chase after the fairytale presented.
Only his fairytale did not have a happy ending, and did not include brave knights or sweeping castles. No, his fairytales were grim reality dressed in a veil of magic. True, there is magic in this world of mine, but not the kind to transform frogs to princes. That was a lesson I learned quickly with him.
I had been young and impressionable. He had been the answers to all the darkness and ennui that dogged my daily life. I was an independent woman who wished for the fantasy of my youth. So I sought it out, digging through the recesses of our reality and searching for the tears.
My search led me to him in a back alley shop carrying all kinds of items, covering the gamut from arcane to mundane. A spells hop, he said with a smile. Only I did not realize that by opening a relationship with him, entering his world, I was actually granting entry to a myriad of unwanted guests.
“Take my hand,” he said, and led me into his shop, into his world. He showed me how to create a spell, how to transform the world and revitalize the magic I sought. Old ways, he said with the gaze of a zealous worshipper.
At first, things had been magical in the most innocent sense of the word. He had shown me how to create light and beauty, how to enchant things so that they took on a feeling of whimsy. I learned simple things to make the colors of my world shine brighter, to make music dance before me, and to grant levity to the struggles of life. I was overwhelmed with luck and beauty. It was like the greatest high I had ever experienced, only it was not bought with self-delusion and unhappy consequences.
Of course, the consequences were there, they just hung back in the shadows and waited until I was so ensnared that I could not escape.
It began with whispers that followed me throughout my day. They ebbed and flowed like waves, overwhelming me at times with their threatening whispers. Whenever I used the gifts he had unlocked within me, I heard them swell to a rabble, only to dim as I exhausted my gifts. As I transformed the pebble in my hand into an apple, they screamed, and then faded on the wind. Every time I cast a light about my home, illuminating my abode with dancing light that shone with tranquility, they raged against the peace. Only when it grew dark did they quiet again.
I thought I was going crazy, but that is not the thing you can tell a therapist. Yes, I hear voices, but only when I use magic. That’s a one way ticket to a life I did not want. So I chose not to reach out for help, but to live with it. I told him about the voices, and he smiled knowingly.
“You didn’t think you’d get this all for free, did you? You’re building quite the tab.” And he stopped taking my calls. The shop closed up, a smudge of paint on a brick wall downtown. From shadows he came, and into them he once again melted.
Had they stayed voices, I think I would have been fine. I could hold them back, limit the use of my skills, and make it by without becoming overwhelmed by the ever clearer voices. As long as I did not think about the horrors they whispered, I could hold it together.
Soon, there were shadows in my eyes. They clung around the edges of my sight, deepening natural shadows and sneaking from them when I was not looking. Their forms were obscure, fluctuating, moving with the ease of light filtering through a dusty window. At night, I woke to find them grinning down at me, hungry and waiting. “An account must be made,” they whispered, grinning with delight.
I know I should have stopped then, stepped away from the new world I had uncovered. I should have returned to the life of normalcy, hoped that they would let me go with time served. But this was more addictive than any drug. Imagine you could change the very fabric of reality around you to make life exactly as you wished. Mourning? Then simply alter time and space so that the loss never happened. Disappointed? Just a few tweaks here or there and the world realigns to your specifications. Lonely? It’s always easy to find someone when you know exactly what they’re looking for. The allure is in the ease. For such a huge power, the keys are relatively simple. Just a nudge to time here, a pull on this part of space, a twist of that arbitrary boundary. Once I knew the rules, it was as if all the world was nothing but a puzzle to be figured out and pieced together per my command. That is a power I could not step away from.
Of course, my refusal did not suit them either. They grew more and more terrifying. They woke me from sleep to scream and growl. My dreams were their playground, filled with images of horror and despair. Every time I tried to right the world in my dream, it twisted before my eyes. Not only did I not get to go home with the man I had hoped for, but I watched as he was ripped limb from limb. My attempt to brighten my apartment turned into a blazing fire, my nostrils filled with the scent of burning flesh while I listened to the screams of my neighbors. I woke in terror.
And tonight, I woke in terror to find they had taken on an even more tangible danger. This time, one of them was seated on my chest, two of its many appendages pinning my arms to my sides. I could try to describe it, but I know words do not do it justice. Its form was mist, eve in movement, but I also had the distinct image of a snarling wolf impossibly balanced on my torso. In no way did the writhing mass of shadow actually resemble a wolf, but that is the form that best describes the being before me. It at once had a form and denied that shape.
“An account must be made,” it snarled, breathing long coils of hot, rancid breath over my face. The stench of my dreams resurged, burning flesh and rotting meat comingled. The claws around my arms dug deep, and I felt my skin pop with the pressure, beads of blood trembling down my arms. I could feel its hunger at the sight, an almost ecstatic trembling in its undefined form.
“An account will be made,” it purred, jaws flashing near my face. “We are owed. We will be sated.”
And I screamed, focusing the primal rage, fear, and desire into one vocalization. I looked at my blueprint of reality, this alien blot marring the system I had learned so well. It was an invader in the world I had created, and I must be the defender.
I know my story could have ended hours ago, a blood stain on a mattress in a bad part of town. A series of screams reported to cops who did not care, a person who vanished into the night, a collection of blood and bones without any valid explanation. I could have been a cold case reserved for the stuff of urban legends.
But my teacher taught me so much better than that, even if he did abandon me. Then again, I don’t think he knew half of what he taught me. But you can learn an awful lot when you can freeze a moment and pick delicately through every neuron of their brain. Yes, you can learn so much.
And so I cleansed my world. I brought back the light that I had created and tended so gently, used it to burn away the claim that thing placed on me. I can close my eyes and see the shock, awe, and fear on its face—or lack of a face—as it realized that the morsel it had in its claws was far more competent than expected. I hate to admit, but that look was intoxicating. As was the feeling of its form dissolving within my thoughts. I felt the structure of its phantasmagorical shape fall apart, covering me in its darkness. It ran warm, thick, and soothing over my skin; it seeped into my wounds and fed me with energy from beyond the veil.
It was a taste exhilarating, fulfilling, and empowering in a way I had never known—a way I did not know a mere human can know.
So, still wearing the remains of my foolish captor, I am once again faced with a choice. Another pivot point in my life has arisen, and I must this time be aware of what lies ahead. I may remain here, waiting, and try to return to life before I was filled with this indescribable power. They will return. Or I can flee, hide myself from the powers I have gathered, and hope that my account may one day be forgotten. The life of the victim, ever on the run.
There is a third option. I may hunt, feed myself on this essence that provides all my life has been lacking. I can drink deep, rip apart those who would dare to threaten me. I can drench myself in shadow and fill myself with their fear as I take the offensive.
Humanity has so long been prey; perhaps it is time for at least one of us to take on the role of the predator. Besides, I can feel the hunger awaken again.
This work by Katherine C is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License.
Card Day 61: A knight rides on a white horse across the pages of a book. The opposite page has a dark pit, tentacles reaching out from it.
“Are you sure this will work?”
Ursula gave an exaggerated shrug, not even making the polite attempt to hide her ignorance. “I mean, I figure it has as much chance as anything else.”
Quentin sighed, fixing her with a firm, side-eyed stare. “Just so you know, those aren’t the kinds of things that inspire confidence when you’re asking someone to risk life and limb on some plan you’ve cooked up.”
She returned his stare with a lopsided smile, her barely-managed hair flopping across her eyes. She brushed it aside mechanically and shrugged yet again. “If you’d rather I lie to you, I can, but I thought you’d like to know that there’s about an equal chance of success and failure with this.”
“False confidence is a powerful thing,” he muttered, returning to his pacing.
She remained crouched on the ground, flipping through the pages are her eyes flew across the words. “If it makes you feel better, I’ve done my homework.” Another page flipped, snapping crisply in the air. Quentin looked down at it, noting the ornate script that flowed across the page. To him, it looked like some kind of spirograph creation, circling in and out and back across itself. But Ursula assured him she could read it.
“And all of that research never mentioned another way?”
She did not speak, but shook her head. Studying on page intently. After an extended paused, punctuated by Quentin’s frantic footsteps, she finally broke the silence. “Remember, I’m taking the risk with you. But we’re out of options, Quentin.”
He slumped against the wall of the roach motel, pointedly not looking at her. “I know. I know better than anyone. Better than you.” He stomped from the room to the tiny, dingy bathroom, slamming the door behind him. Ursula sighed, leaning back on her heels and letting her head fall into her hands. She understood that he was nervous, that the task was likely a death wish, but he had sought her out. He had brought the information, put the pieces together, and pushed her towards identifying a final solution.
Still, the cold feet made sense, she supposed. It was a suicide mission most likely, but at least she knew the information she had was correct. Quentin’s sister had been the Seventh Forgotten Woman taken by the creature, and Quentin was her Legacy Bearer. He was the only one who remembered he had a sister, and Ursula had verified that by digging through prior records. Old magic struggled with the conveniences of modern technology. The erasure was there, but there were crumbs remaining—failed links, dead domains, and occasional mentions. This entity, fortunately, did not actually re-write any timelines, and so there were at least traces to be found. Interviews with her family had led to blank stares, minor defensiveness. Only Quentin remembered the bubbly 26-year-old woman who went for a jog and vanished from time and space.
The Unsatiated—the name was the closest translation she could make—had met its human needs, so that meant that is merely needed one moon cycle to fully emerge. And last time it had, there had been a swath of the country that suddenly disappeared, hundreds of people vanishing in a blink and barely remembered. From what she had pieced together, however, the creature seemed to feed on the memories it could accumulate, taking first a few until it could emerge from hibernation, then devouring all those that remembered the missing individuals. And then stealing away those who remembered the new missing, and so on. In this interconnected age, the results would certainly be devastating.
Still, she felt powerlessness sweep over her again. The only solutions were conjectures strung together across a dozen ancient sources, none of which had been able to stop it. Of course, Ursula certainly believed she had done due diligence and devised a process that had a shot at working, but only time would tell. And, unfortunately, that time was tomorrow during the new moon.
Her eyes ached from deciphering the old script, and she could feel the mental fatigue piling up. The corners of her eyes were flooded with dark shadows and grasping claws, reminding her that the words she poured over were not meant for mortal minds. She closed the book, letting her façade of bravado fade as she dragged herself to the stiff mattress. A good night’s sleep was possibly one of the most overlooked necessities for a successful banishment.
Given his haggard look, Ursula assumed Quentin had not taken her advice about sleep. He had been gone when she woke, and returned only an hour before they were to leave for the lake. She bit her tongue, avoiding the scolding her certainly deserved. The time was better spent preparing him.
“So once I’ve done the summoning, you’re on. Know what to do?”
“Yeah, I know,” he mumbled, grief seeping through his voice.
“And you have the—“
“I’m ready, okay! Can we get this over with?” His anxiety boiled over into anger, and Ursula pursed her lips at him.
“Lack of preparation will get us both killed. I’m putting my life in your hands. I’m putting hundreds of lives in your hands. So, thank you, but I will cover all the bases. You have the token, yes?”
Shame flashed over his face, a shudder of embarrassment and irritation mingling as well. But his anger was dulled. “Here.” He held out a bracelet made of faded strings woven together.
“And it was hers?”
“I made it for her at summer camp when I was eleven. She wore it for years, but left it at home when she went to college. I found it in the bottom of her—of the storage room closet.”
“Good, that will do nicely. A gift bound in love, tying Legacy with Forgotten.” She looked down at her carefully prepared notes, striking through the items. “And you’re prepared for what might happen at the end?”
“Forgetting her? No, I can’t stand the idea. But there’s no choice, right?”
“No. You won’t even remember that you saved the world. But you will have.”
“Great,” he muttered sarcastically. “Are we good?”
She merely motioned to the van, and he folded himself inside. The ride there was long, mostly silent, and heavy with the impending tension. Darkness held close to their van, unbroken by star or moonlight. Wind whipped its way through the trees, and Ursula could feel nature beginning to bristle with the impending defiance of the laws of the world. Yes, the time was drawing near, and so at least if they failed, there would be very little time to live with the disappointment.
Their arrival was met with silence as well, and Ursula gathered her bag of supplies to complete the summoning. The trees clustered around them, groaning with the wind. Yes, it was the perfect night for arcane rites and rituals. Eventually, the lakeshore rose into view, water lapping angrily at the rocky shore as it promised an impending storm.
“Better make this quick. Looks like it might get bad out here,” offered Quentin, his courtesy suggesting they put the previous conflict behind them.
“It will certainly get bad out here,” she offered with a grim smile, “and it’s going to be our fault.” With that, she dropped to her knees and began to gather her equipment from the canvas bag. She started by drawing a large spiral on the ground with ground-up chalk, closing the outer edge. Starting at the edge closest to the lake, she placed a water-smoother stone etched with a name in each ring, leaving the central most clear. In the middle, she placed a single white candle, lighting it against the best effort of the wind. Her hands were shaking as she poured a measure of blessed oil into a lidded, gold bowl, placing it to the side next to a knife. Preparations complete, she proceeded with the rite.
Quentin listened to her whispered words, hearing them whisper through the woods with a sibilant, melodic tone. It seemed to rise over the wind, circling around him with a strange pull. Then, he heard things he recognized. Names he did not know, followed by the one he did. April Maria Davidson. That name was like music to him; he thought he might never hear another soul say it with such a knowing tone. Yes, she was known, she existed, and he remembered. For the moment, at least, he remembered. But he would soon have to sacrifice even that.
Once Ursula grew quiet, there was a ripple from the water. It was a woman rising out of the water, her body glistening with pale white that seemed to shine like the absent moon. Her hair was dark, falling down to her knees and covering her with an inky veil. She floated there above the water, mist and substance all at once, her eyes radiating hate towards the mortal on the shore. Her mouth split open, rows of teeth glistening inside her dark maw, and released a soundless scream. Quentin felt it slam into his body, even if he could not hear it. Ursula crumpled to the ground, and he feared she may have heard that sound that his mind so flawlessly protected him from.
One of the creature’s arms swam forward, an extension of mist reaching across the lake towards the now distracted Ursula. Just as it was about to reach her, Ursula rolled, bringing forward a mirror and deflecting the appendage.
“Do your damn job already,” she snapped, looking at Quentin with ferocious, pained eyes. “Or you and I can both die here.”
Shocked into action, Quentin drew the bracelet from his pocket and scooped up April’s stone from the circle, careful not to disturb the remaining stones or chalk spiral. His lips fumbled over the name Ursula had taught him, trying to approximate her melodic way with the language. It sounded more like marbles being thrown into a garbage disposal, but it also caught the creature’s attention. She fixed her empty eyes on him, mouth knitting together into a smile. Now, he could hear her whispers.
“Don’t listen to her. Think of April. Do what we said.”
Quentin broke his gaze from the woman, the whispers fading to a distant suggestion or voices. He knelt beside the gold bowl and held the knife in his trembling hand. This was it, the moment of truth or utter failure.
Boldly, drawing on strength form a source he could not recognize, Quentin drew the knife across his palm, screaming the creature’s arcane name once again. “I, Legacy Bearer, banish the name of April Maria Davidson. Bound to the essence, I too banish you from our world. I complete your task, I break all of April Maria Davidson’s ties to this world. And so, I banish you.” His voice was breaking, and he felt tears trickling down his face. Despite the woman’s screams, he pressed his bleeding hand against the etched stone, then wrapped it in the bracelet. Quentin looked at the bloodied stone and the bracelet, his last memento of his beloved sister.
It was a sacrifice in the truest sense as he cast the items into the gold bowl, lifting the candle to light the oil. The scream grew louder, the wind whipped stronger, and Quentin felt his memories begin to fade like dust. He fell to his knees, weeping, as the final thoughts of April fell through his mind, rebuilt around the emptiness of a person erased. It ached as those memories dissolved, almost as if his entire being was being destroyed as well.
And then, there was nothing. He looked around at the dark lakeshore, taking in the woman kneeling on the ground nearby, a strange assortment of items surrounding her.
“Um, excuse me, who are you, and why are we out here?”
The woman smiled, but her eyes looked sad and lonely. “I’m no one,” she quipped. “And I guess you were out for a walk?”
Quentin scratched his head, looking around. “Huh. Weird, I just don’t remember coming out here. Must have been distracted,” he laughed, though it did nothing to resolve his discomfort.
She smiled politely back. “Some things are better to forget, I guess.”
This work by Katherine C is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License.
Fair warning, today’s is quite long (~2000 words). But I had the day off, so I decided to spend a little more time and do a bit more character/scene building. I’m curious if anyone has any opinions on the pacing of this, or if it feels like then ending is a bit from left field. I’ve read over it and kind of like it, but I would appreciate anyone who could help me see my blind spots in that regard. Thanks!
Card Day 60: A man sits in a jail cell with a contented smile on his face and a ball-and-chain around his ankle. The walls behind him are covered in a faded, ornate wallpaper with concrete showing through.
Nathan watched the snow fall, relaxing in the cabin with a steaming mug of coffee and a well-loved paperback. The fire crackled in the fireplace, and all around him was silence. He smiled. This was a well-needed vacation, even if only for a day or two. Life had so quickly become a cage of obligations and responsibilities; it had taken his boss reminding him that he would soon lose his days before he remembered to schedule time off for the year. He was, in general, a simple man who was not prone to long, extravagant vacations. He was also a lonely man, unencumbered by family obligations. Still, relaxing in the old high back chair, his feet warmed by the fire, Nathan finally realized how much he had actually needed the break. It was late by the time he stumbled towards the thick feather bed, finally ready to relinquish his first vacation day. A sedated smile spread across his face as he nestled among cedar-scented quilts, sleeping easily.
The overly-cheery trill of his cellphone woke him up, though the room was still shadowed. Nathan shuffled from underneath the sheets, trying to orient himself and find his phone. Finally, he tracked the sound to the pocket of his jeans, lying crumpled in the corner. He punched the accept button at what had to be the last ring.
“Hello?” he asked, his voice coming through gruff with sleep.
“Mr. Wickers? I hope I didn’t wake you,” came the staticy reply from the other end, the man’s voice obviously realizing the inconvenience.
Nathan lied. “Not at all. Who is this, again?”
There was a chuckle, echoing through the poor connection. “Oh, it’s Ralph, the property owner. Sorry ‘bout that. Enjoying the stay?”
“Everything’s great. Is there anything I can help you with?” A trickle of irritation was beginning to form; Nathan had come here to get away from everything, not entertain or hassle with the property owner.
“Oh, no, nothing like that. It’s just—you may have noticed the snowfall.”
Looking out the window, Nathan saw it was still falling down thickly, a good foot or so of snow already covering the ground outside. It had drifted up to cover the tires of his tiny sedan, and his voice fumbled with surprise. “Oh, well, yes, I guess it’s been quite a bit, hasn’t it?”
“Yeah, the ranger is telling us it may be a couple of days until the roads are going to be clear enough to leave. Now, I know you only had it booked for last night and tonight, but having folks run off the mountain is not good for business. Plus, I just couldn’t live with myself. Feel free to stay in the cabin until the road clears up. I have a little snowmobile if you need any supplies?”
Nathan scratched his head, yawning. Well, sounded like he was going to have to take a prolonged vacation. Given how wonderful the first night had been, perhaps it was a blessing in disguise. “I think I’m okay. I always overpack.”
“Well, glad to hear it. You can call me at this number if you do find anything you need. Otherwise, there are candles in the linen closet if the power should go out. Oh, and more wood down in the basement.”
“Alright now. Keep warm, and enjoy your stay.”
The line went dead and Nathan tossed the phone onto the fluffy bed. His reticence to take vacation days was finally paying off, leaving him plenty of days to burn, even if he had to spend the rest of the month in the little cabin.
Still, the reality of the snowstorm did mean he needed to make some preparations. A chronic overpacker, he had realized his error when unpacking and left some of his food in the car, figuring the trunk would keep it as cold as the ice box. Now it seemed providential that he had unwittingly overpurchased groceries due to his finicky tastes. Those needed to get inside before his car was but another snow drift, however. Nathan quickly bundled up and rushed towards his car.
There was a childlike eagerness as he bounded through the snow, taking leaping steps almost as if he were walking across the moon. This was the kind of frivolity he had lost recently, an enjoyment of life that was buried under quarterly reports and performance metrics. Suddenly, he felt weight slide from his shoulders, an invisible burden he had not realized was weighing him so heavily down. Nathan laughed, the sound muffled by the still falling snow, but carrying through the woods.
Box of canned goods and chilled meats in hand, Nathan shoved through the snow and back into the cabin. The inside was toasty compared to the great outdoors, and he felt heat flood back into his cheeks. It was certainly a hot chocolate kind of day.
Once he had a mug in hand, Nathan unpacked his art supplies, settling himself back into the plush chair. Drawing was a love that he had clung to even when life became hectic, but one that had taken on a desperate, pressured quality. It always felt like there was not enough time, but the project had to be completed. Surrounded by snow, he felt those pressures lift. He had all the time in the world to create to his heart’s content. And so, pencil in hand, he began to sketch.
Enthralled with his work, Nathan did not notice the shadows stretching across the cabin until he finally realized that it was almost too dark to see. He gathered up some logs from the basket near the fireplace and built up a fire, giving himself a warm and shifting light to finish his work. Before he could sit down, however, his phone snapped him back.
The number was familiar as he picked up the wailing device. Ralph’s voice greeted him.
“Sorry to bo—ster Wickers,” he began, the connection clearly worse given the raging storm.
“No problem. I’m having trouble hearing you, though.”
“Yeah—tting bad out—anted to che—ou needed anything be—ight since it may get wor—“
“You’re breaking up really bad. Do I need anything tonight? No, I’m fine.”
“Sorr—to hear you are good. Have you—mily from cabin 12? I—but no one answered.”
“I haven’t seen anyone all day, Ralph.” Nathan was surprised to find himself yelling into the phone, as if that would make the signal travel farther. He shook his head at the illogical response. Oh well, no one else would know.
“—kay, guess they—fore it got bad. Ha—ice night, Mister—“
Nathan hazarded a goodbye as the line went silent, then hung up. Looking outside, he could see the wind and snow picking up, turning into a right blizzard. As a precaution, Nathan wandered to the linen closet and found the stash of candles, setting them around the cabin in case he should need to light one. He put the thick box of matches into his pocket and considered his preparations complete. Now it was time for dinner.
About halfway through cooking the steak, the lights flickered and failed in the cabin. Nathan shook his head. Looked like he would be roughing it, after all. Fortunately, he had a roaring fire ready to keep him warm and cook food.
With no lights to keep him alter, Nathan found himself growing tired not long after dinner. He continued at his drawing, trying to complete the landscape view as he remembered it from the drive in. But his head lolled forwards, the pencil slipping from his fingers. Eventually, he nodded forward in the chair, once again lulled asleep by the warm, quiet surroundings.
Something crashing against his door snapped him awake quickly and he shot up straight in the chair, sending his sketchbook skittering across the floor. The fire was low, casting long shadows around the room and giving everything a dream-like instability that left him feeling off balance, even as he stood to discover the source of the noise.
He peered out the window, noticing that the snow had taken and brief respite and let the moon come out. Its light seemed magnified by the snow on the ground and the world stretched as a brilliant sea of white. Nathan craned his head towards the door, but could not see what made such noise. Just then, another bang rang through the cabin. Hopefully it was not someone stranded out in the mess. It was not a good night for it, even if there was an eye to the storm. Feeling his concern rise, Nathan made his way to the door.
His hand was on the handle when it shook with another impact, and Nathan recoiled as if burned. That was not a knock, but someone throwing itself at the door. The desperation left him feeling wary, and his resolve solidified as low, angry growls began to emanate from the other side of the door. This was no weary traveler.
He pressed his eyes against the peephole, straining to see what was causing this ruckus. Perhaps a wolf or something lost in the snow? Wasn’t rabies a summer disease? Could there be a rabid wolf pacing around his cabin? But, looking out, he saw nothing.
Just snow as far as he could see, leading up to the tree line. No animal, no person, nothing. But he still heard the growl. Despite no change in his limited view, Nathan felt the door shudder with impact, the force transferring to him and sending him stumbling back a step. He gave a short yelp at the sudden push and stared at the door in bewilderment. There was nothing out there, but something had certainly done that.
At his yelp, the thing went silent, even cutting the growl. After a few moments, he could hear the snow crunching outside away from the door, and he rushed back to his other window, hoping to catch sight of whatever it was. He peered out through the window, and listened as the crunching snow grew nearer, the sound deafening in the silent night. Still, Nathan saw no form to accompany the steps, try as he might.
Was it snow blindness? Or was he hallucinating? Dreaming? He watched in horror as tracks suddenly appeared in the snow from around the corner. They were large tracks with three long digits, one appearing after the other. Whatever it was, it seemed to walk like a person.
A screeching sound cut through the sound of steps in the snow, causing Nathan to wince. He looked back out and saw long gouges appearing down the side of the cabin just below the eaves. The sounds of splintering wood and crunching snow melded into a medley of horrors as he sat and watched, transfixed by terror. What was happening outside his cabin? Nathan fell back from his crouched position by the window, landing on his palms with his legs splayed, but his eyes still locked to the window. It was coming closer, this invisible fiend, and he was trapped.
The steps paused in front of the window, and Nathan saw something’s breath condense on the window pane with a cloudy white smudge. He could see some shadow behind it, a flash of shaggy white fur, but the appearance faded as the breath disappeared from the glass. Nathan held his breath, hoping whatever it was would not see or hear him, would not know how to pierce the feeble sanctuary of the cabin.
Of course, whatever it was had already demonstrated its only way of requesting entry. He heard the steps move back, then surge forward. Nathan watched as the glass shattered, as something from his nightmares tumbled through with gangly appendages and the smell of rot. The snow swallowed up his screams.
The next morning, the new silence was broken by the artificial song of Nathan’s phone ringing over and over, but no one in Cabin 11 was available to answer Ralph’s concerned phone call.
This work by Katherine C is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License.
Hello, wonderful Reader! I apologize for not posting yesterday. I was running from 7:30-9:45 with class and clients, so I was simply worn out by the time I finally made it home. Just a day of back-to-back-to-back appointments. So, I just had to keep myself sane and healthy. Still, I was frustrated because I really wanted to write this story! But, better late than never. I only have one day left to skip, so hopefully nothing too major gets in the way. Thanks for sticking with me, and I hope you enjoy today’s piece. Happy reading!
Card Day 57: An hourglass. As the sands fall, they cover a youthful young woman below while revealing an old woman above.
The world fell out of balance slowly, so slowly that at first no one noticed. Eventually, however, the changes grew to a swell so extreme that it was impossible not to notice. Religious folks proclaimed the apocalypse, the green champions decried humanity’s misuse of the world, and science curried to find a suitable answer for the unraveling of everything believed to be true. Nevertheless all the time spent pointing guilty fingers do nothing to slow the inevitable. In the end the world fell apart, just like everyone warned it would.
With the collapse of the world as she knew it, Opal found herself the only person—perhaps the only creature—left alive. Her world had gone from one full of joy, vibrancy, and community to one that was best described as a barren waste. Admittedly, this change had begun long before the world started its tumultuous descent into nothingness. She had wrought her own demise long before, and humanity simply imitated her chaotic spiral into oblivion.
The first loss had been her husband, an unmourned passing which ultimately freed her from his tyrannical, at times abusive rule. She had not wept for him, but had leapt into life with seal. From there, she blossomed, caring for her beautiful children, managing her household, and running her little universe in shining perfection. Her methods were, of course, trying to those around her who might have found it difficult to live to her exacting standards. But Opal had standards, and just because that meant others had to work did not mean she was wrong.
After his passing, Opal later was forced to say farewell to her twin brother, who died surprisingly young under curious circumstances. There was, of course, a shadow cast across Opal at the time, but she grieved him so deeply that no one pressed the issue. Still questions hung around the family like old cobwebs, seeking to uncover why he had died so brutally, what the symbols carved into his hands, forehead, and soles of his feet could mean, and why every mirror was shattered in his house. The craze of Satanism was in full swing, and Opal poured all her ire towards that possibly fictitious and certainly exaggerated subculture. Opal had loved her brother dearly, and many said she was never the same after he passed.
She did, in fact, become a bit of a recluse. She dressed darkly, wearing thick sunglasses and veils to cover her face. More surprising in the small town was her departure from the local Lutheran Church, akin to spitting in the face of half the town. Her children—grown by then—tried to convince her to return, but she only withdrew more and more. It became such that she rarely left her house.
Of course, then her eldest daughter died, and most thought the news would simply shatter what remained of the fragile woman. However, she responded to the news with all the grace they remembered from the woman of old, carrying herself with dignity at the graveside as she buried a child. She mourned appropriately, and then placed her home for sale. Hr life moved into times of perceived festivity. She traveled, saw the world, dressed vibrantly, and eschewd all the things a proper lady was expected to do in her old age. Opal had a fondness for Jack Daniels, ordorous cigars, and younger men. Her children, those who remained in their small hometown at least, spoke of her in hushed whispered with blush rising to their faces. Senility, they tried to suggest. But their mother would not offer them that.
No, while Opal appeared to age, she remained quick enough to cause a ruckus any time someone suggested her mind was going. Her wits never suffered, and even though she appeared to grow old, she remained as spry and active as she ever had. Many folks said she was brighter, smarter, and more athletic than the Opal they remembered way back in high school days. But soon, those folks began to die off, leaving Opal the shining example of a generation buried to time.
She buried three more children as time went on, leaving herself beholden to no one. Though the town she had once knew had forgotten her, Opal still breezed in from time to time, a figure cut out of mystery that no one rightly knew what to do with. It seemed as if she enjoyed baffling the locals, winging in with her knowledge, grace, and devil-may-care abandon for anything reputable folk would do.
Her ties to the living world grew thin as Opal buried grandchildren she had hardly known, accompanying weeping great grandchildren she recognized only by their sharp cheekbones. She was the figure in black hovering about the edges of the gravesite, her eyes turned downwards in silent contemplation, But she never stayed long, carried off by the next wayward wind to chase whatever fancy had most recently struck her.
When the world began dying, she hardly noticed. She had no one to mourn as people—young and old—began to simply collapse in the streets. The news was depressing and had no impact on her daily life, so she ignored it. Only when the traffic thinned to a trickle and her favorite shops began to board up did she notice something was wrong. Yes, something was terribly wrong. An epidemic of death wrapped across the globe, claiming victims without disease or injury. One moment, a child was laughing, the next her heart stopped. A mother drove home from work, and then plowed her car into the guardrail, brain-dead before the impact.
The anxiety that seized the planet did nothing to Opal; she knew she could not die. However it did crimp her style, leaving no one to be in awe of her, to accompany her wild adventures, to scam for a few extra dollars. The woman beholden to no one began to feel lonely, to wilt without the eyes of others on her.
And now, she was relatively certain she was the last one left on the planet. Being immortal was not nearly as much fun without an audience.
She sat just outside Chicago, resting on the hood of her most recent vehicle, yet again out of gas. She knew that the gas pumps probably still worked, but it was generally easy to just find a new one and pick up again. Hotwiring was one of the many skills her long life had granted her. Only, now, she paused for a break. She thought she had seen someone in her rearview mirror, so opted to do the polite thing and wait.
Sure enough, the lanky woman came waltzing down the highway, swaying to unknown music and dancing in the destruction. Opal’s face twisted into a bitter scowl as the woman neared. “I don’t find that very funny,” she snapped once the woman was in earshot.
The young woman smiled at her, fixing Opal with a concentrated stare. “Opal, darling!” she greeted. “I hope you don’t take offense, but,” she shrugged, “I assumed you’d be more welcoming to me with a face you can trust.”
Opal resettled herself against the hood of the car, crossing her arms. “That’s not a face I care to see anymore.”
“But, Opal, it’s your face, yes? And my, weren’t you beautiful!” The creature wearing her face smiled at herself in the reflection of a nearby car before finding Opal’s eyes again. “Were being key, I’m afraid.”
“What do you want?” spat the old woman, now beginning to feel the heat of the sun on her wrinkled skin. Her mind was sharp, her body young, but her appearance had definitely degraded over time. She did not need that worthless hellspawn rubbing it in.
“I got the sense you were looking for me.”
Well, that at least was true. Opal had finally decided she had had her fun. It was time to make peace with death and move along. “I’m ready to die,” she said bluntly, not meeting the creature’s taunting gaze.
“I’m sure you do. But that’s not how this works.”
“But I made the decision, I made the deal. Now I want it to be over!” She slid off the hood of the car, standing to her full five and a half foot height. Not an imposing figure, but one that seethed with years of unspent fury.
The young woman did not respond, but ambled along the highway, gazing aimlessly out into the wastes. “Do you even know why all this happened, Opal?”
“I don’t care why it happened, I want—“
“You should care. You caused it.” Opal’s words dried up in her mouth, and the creature smiled, pleased with the response. “You see, Life and death are so delicately balanced, and then you come along. You unhinged it all with your “immortality” schtick. I mean, really, you thought there would be no consequences?”
“But there were!” she said with a start, taking frenzied steps towards the woman. “I sacrificed everything! I gave you Samuel!”
“Ah, the brother. Yes, I suppose that sated Death for a while. But eventually, his books came back out of balance. And he’ll search high and low to find that missing number. Only, my boss and I made sure he could not find you.” Her face broke into a wide, pointed tooth grin. “We made an agreement, after all.”
“Well, then I’m ready to pay for my crimes. Give me all you’ve got, drag me to hell if you must. I’m ready to die.” Opal put on as brave a face as she could muster, trying to cover up the years and decades of weariness etched in every wrinkle.
The demon wearing her face laughed, a throaty sound that echoed across the empty sky. “Opal, dear, you are paying already. Welcome to your Hell. You’ll have long enough to enjoy it, I promise.”
This work by Katherine C is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License.
Card Day 55: A tiny city and landscape inside of a drop of rain.
The rain feel in sheets against the glass window, just as it had done for the past four days. Nora had hoped that it would let up and grant a reprieve at some point, but that did not seem to be happening. The sky still stretched on in endless, angry, gray waves, dumping more and more water onto the tiny town. It had been predicted as an evening storm, flash flooding possible near the river. She looked out at the roiling waters beneath the window, the streetlamps a tiny marker to the high water. Obviously, the forecast had been wrong. From her attic, she could see the water rushing past and hear it sloshing through her house now. She hoped desperately that she would be able to stay dry in the cramped space, uncomfortable as it was. But if it continued she knew she would be shimmying out the window and onto the roof. She was not thrilled at the possibility.
Her supplies, meager as they had been, were dwindling. When the water lapped up to her knees on the first floor and the voice on the radio said to move up, she had grabbed what she could and made for higher ground. Her foraging had produced a bottle of apple juice, assorted water bottles from her fridge, a couple of cans of soup, a loaf of bread, and three cans of green beans. The loaf of bread, half the juice, and one and a third bottle of water remained.
Nora had been sitting by the open window, straining her ears to hear the rumble of outboard motors brining rescue teams. The radio said they were making attempts to get people—like herself—who may have been trapped in their homes. Given the surprise of the flood, Nora guessed that meant they were trying to evacuate all 3,000+ citizens of Riverrun. She was in an older, less well-off part of town, as distinct a division as such a small town could have. There were no schools or hospitals nearby, and she assumed she was low on the list. Still, she did not want to miss someone coming past, especially given her dwindling food and water situation.
The radio droned on, turned down low, in the corner. It repeated the same general message over and over, with occasional updates. She listened for the trill announcing something new, but otherwise left it as droning background noise. It was better than simply listening to the water rush by or crash down. It helped her feel less completely alone, even though she was beginning to have the strange thought that she was the only human left in Riverrun.
The idea was, of course, ridiculous, and she laughed it off every time it crept up. But there was something about being in a dusty old attic for days, without another human face and only the robotic voice of the emergency broadcast that made her question everything. She distracted herself with the random assortment of junk in her attic, reading the first few pages of some old books, sorting through the clothes she had tossed up here, and trying to find anything that might make her stay more comfortable. Any attempt of distraction was met with the encroaching realization that this was really happening. She had read words on many pages, but found that none of them stuck. They were all swept away by the pounding river in what used to be her street.
Her contemplation of boredom and cabin fever was rudely interrupted by the sound of something thudding against her house. It was a sudden, loud bang that seemed to shake the walls off the house itself. She peered out the window. Probably a car, patio set, or tree branch that got swept up in the current. It was certainly not the first time she had heard something. But this had been different in a way. It had sounded sturdier, and had not bounced back and forth against the walls like most things did. There was no groan of something getting stuck on the corner of the house, no trailing series of bumps as it drifted along on the sidewalk. Just a single, solid knock against the walls. Then nothing but rushing water.
Of course, looking out into the water provided no clues either as there was nothing but a swirling mass of muddy water, always trickling on at concerning speeds. She gained damp hair and a slight, sticky dampness for her troubles. It did, however, show her that the water was now only a few feet below the window. She would have to climb soon and hope for the best. Sighing, she pushed herself to her feet. It would probably be wise to find something that floated if the roof was her last hope.
Ransacking the junk in her own attic she began to hum to herself, trying to fill the silence and drown out her fear. It was not working, but it seemed better than paralyzing resignation to the terror coursing through her. Then came the sound again, this time two knocks. They were slow, steady, and measured. Thump. Thump. Nora climbed back over the items she had unpacked—candlesticks and photo albums would not make acceptable rafts—and peered out the window. “Hello?” she called. Her own voice surprised her, cracking slightly and hoarse with disuse. Maybe that was a rescue boat docking nearby, using her home as an anchor. Maybe they were rowing to conserve fuel or prevent accidents or something.
The wind howled around her, but there was no other response. “Is anyone out there?” she called, but no one was there to respond. Nora looked at the house across from hers, seeing a tiny face framed by their attic window. The neighbor’s kid. The little girl stared at her, eyes round. There was a glimmer of fear in her face, one that Nora recognized. Only the girl did not seem to be looking at Nora, but at something in t hater below. Whatever, Nora sighed, pushing back into the shelter of the attic. There were plenty of things to terrify a seven-year-old in a flood like this.
Still, Nora followed her gaze feeling her own eyes grow wide at the sight. In the water, there was a thing. No, she corrected, her eyes struggling to make sense of what she was seeing, the water was a thing. It pulled back from her house, swelling up into an almost-fist. Nora could see the ground, muddy and sodden, from her vantage. The fist landed against the wall of her home, the same echoing thump from before. Once, twice, and the water settled back down. But she could see now that there was more than pure randomness to the motion. There was a direction to t, a constant change in direction and change of goal that defied the reality of water.
It did not flow, but it seemed to congregate, select, and move in for the attack. While some water flowed on, like water should, there seemed to be a mass, a form constructed of water but held together by something she could not understand.
Nora watched it swell again, moving along the side of her house. It paused just below her window, then crashed forward like a wave. She could not hold in a tiny yelp as the not-quite-water splashed against her face.
In that moment, Nora swore she saw it pause, almost as if it were listening. It spun together, swirling in on itself, buzzing with some activity she could not interpret. Then, she watched as the spiral turned into a column, snaking up to her window. Like a cobra striking, it slammed through the open window, knocking her back and spilling water into the sanctuary of the attic.
Nora sputtered, kicking back and sliding against the wood floor. She quickly brushed the water out of her eyes, spitting out the muddy ooze from her mouth. By the time she got her eyes open, it was already time for them to fly wide in shock.
The water on her floor pulled back towards itself, assembling into an oddly humanoid shape. It stood on two legs, two watery appendages hanging at its sides, and its head nearly scraping the low ceiling of the attic. It rippled forward, never quite lifting it legs to move, but more flowing forward through the air, the rest of the body following behind. Nora’s mouth sat open in shock, the scream forgotten at the back of her throat. She could not breath, could not move, could only stare in wonder at the creature, hear her own heartbeat racing in her head.
It reached her, watery arms wrapping around her with irresistible strength. She felt frozen, but the chill of its touch kick started her muscles. Nora began to kick and flail, struggling against the impossible figure. It was unperturbed, absorbing any blow that landed and seeming to absorb her into its watery form. Before she knew it, Nora was encased in water, suspended within the thing’s body like a bug in amber.
The creature dove gracefully back into the monstrous body of its host, taking Nora into the depths with it. The scream she had been building finally escaped, a bubble of air bursting through the water and breaching the surface. The water rolled on, moving towards the next house.
The rain pounded on, and the city of Riverrun steadily grew silent, until only the sound of rain and rushing water remained.
This work by Katherine C is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License.
Card Day 53: A single die with a devilish figure growing legs and emerging from the pips on the surface.
Natalie felt the heft of the die in her hand. It was small, cold, and surprisingly heavy in her hand. Despite being a single small die, it felt like she was holding a crushing weight. Perhaps it was simply the import of the question.
He cleared his throat, obviously annoyed by her prolonged silence. “So, are you the gambling sort?” he asked again, raising his eyebrow provocatively.
She looked down at the die, feeling surprisingly as if the pips were eyes staring eagerly up at her. They were so dark on the dingy white background, and the sensation chilled her. “I’m not,” she whispered, still not meeting his eyes. At her response, he stood up straight, shrugging his shoulders.
“Oh well, I tried.” His hand, long and slender with crisply manicured nails, reached towards hers, moving to pinch the die from her hand.
Reflexively, her fingers closed over it and held tight even as the edges bit into her hand. “No, I’m not the type, but I have to try.” Her yes met his and she was struck by the lack of humanity in them. They were dark blue, the pupils large and endless pits spiraling back into his skull. There was no life or light in those eyes, instead they seemed to suck the brightness of the hospital room into him, leaving everything feeling dim. As if she had forgotten to take her sunglasses off when she came in. It took her several breaths before she realized that his lips were smiling even as his empty eyes drilled into her.
“You’ll take my wager?”
He looked too pleased with this turn of events, and she thought back to every story she had ever heard. These kinds of deals never went the way you wanted, and there was always a hidden catch. But Natalie felt that she had no choice. She was back against the proverbial wall, and she would cling to the only way out she had, even if that meant dancing with the Devil himself. Behind her, she heard the sounds of the respirator churning, the heart monitor keeping a steady tempo. It all seemed to be counting down the seconds remaining in the offer. She could see him beginning to grow weary with the waiting, almost ready to withdraw the offer from a hesitant buyer.
“I’ll take it. We play and, if I win, no one dies tonight or anytime soon.” She had tried to be very clear in her wording, but even now she wondered if she had left too many loopholes. How soon was soon? Who was included in the “no one” discussion? What if no one died, but everyone spent the remainder of “soon” in a coma? She gnawed on her bottom lip apprehensively as she replayed the discussion. It had all seemed to clear before, but now there only seemed to be holes.
He placed his hand on her arm, the skin dry and radiating an unhealthy heat. “I may not be an honest man, but I’ll make sure you get what you deserve. You win, I’ll make sure you and your family live a nice healthy life together. I win, and no one intercedes. This story unfolds like it should, only I get a little piece of you once your time is up.”
“You will save her, right? If I win, I mean.” There was desperation dripping from her words and she clasped his hand. Obvious discomfort stretched across his face at the touch of her hand. Behind her, the machines keeping her daughter alive continued their steady symphony, unobtrusively metering each measure of her too-young life.
He simply nodded, withdrawing his hand from her and taking a couple steps back, as if the distance between them had suddenly become too intimate. “Do you want to know the rules?” he asked condescendingly. She could see he was growing tired of the mortal game, and she began to fear she might lose him. Still, playing without rules would not win her anything.
He nodded curtly, pulling another ivory-toned die from his pocket. Its pips were just as dark and deep, reminding her suddenly of the pupils of his eyes. Maybe that’s why she thought they were looking up at her. “You’ll go first and roll your die,” he gestured at her still clenched fist, and she suddenly became aware of the sharp pain, releasing it suddenly. “After that, make a bid—higher than your number—that you think will be the total on both our dice after I roll. Then I roll. If our two dice add up to the bid, I win. If I roll lower than your number but go over the bid, you win. If I roll higher than you and go over, it’s a draw and I roll first next time. The game is over when we roll the same number or if we roll lower than the bid six times. Winner of the most rounds wins. Got it?”
She nodded her head slowly, the different rules and permutations floating around her. Natalie was suddenly aware that, cognitively, she was in no shape to make such decisions. It was hard to even follow his words. Somehow she suspected that would not void her agreement.
“Good,” he purred, moving towards the counter in the corner of the room. “You’re up.”
Her hand was shaking so much, she felt she did not even have to put much effort into juggling the single die. It fell from her hand, clattering across the table. Four eyes loomed up at her in the increasingly dim light of the hospital room.
“Tough one,” he sighed, not a hint of compassion or sympathy in his voice. “Bid it.”
“Seven?” she bid questioningly. He smiled a crooked grin and made a grand show of shaking the lone die with both hands. She watched as it tumbled to the table, three tiny beads facing up.
“Beginner’s luck,” he grinned as he scooped his die from the table, obviously pleased with his performance. She shook her head, trying to hold onto all the rules and decide if there were a better way, Should she have bid higher? Lower? Was it really just luck? Was he cheating? Her fingers numbly gathered the die to her, suddenly terrified of releasing it. What if they matched this round? It would all be over.
“Take too long and we’ll have to call it,” he said with a pleased smile, gesturing at the large clock on the wall. The die plummeted from her hand, bouncing a couple of times before settling.
A six. “Seven,” she bid, and he looked irritated.
“I suppose the luck may be turning. Not much chance for me here,” he growled. Hi roll produced an unfortunate three, and she saw disgust ripple over his otherwise calm features. “All tied up now, I suppose.”
The traded rounds, their scores racking up steadily. The game remained close to her partner’s obviously swelling irritation. They swapped the first player position as well, and she quickly realized that she stood little chance of winning against him if he set the bid. His years of experience quickly became obvious when he had the power. There was a hunger as he played, a revelry in the competition. Yet a darker demon took over every time his lead slipped, and she watched rage boiling below the surface. Natalie began to fear that it might just boil over, scalding her as collateral.
Her eyes were tired and the game was long. They sat at nine games to seven in his favor, and his pleasure at the events was clear. Fatigue wearing on her, Natalie tossed the die again. Another four. “Five,” she answered, slightly more confidently. A four gave her a good chance he would be under her number, good enough that she needn’t risk not meeting the bid to prevent another point for him. Still, only a two or three would give her the point. A one went to him, a four ended the game, and five or six gave him the lead, a results she feared she would not come back from. Fortunately, it was a two that landed on the table. Nine to eight.
She rolled again, she bid again, he rolled again, and they were tied. She felt thunder rolling in her chest as the importance of the situation settled on her shoulders. This was an important roll. She could pull ahead, possibly win. With prayers on her lips to figures she had never really considered before that moment, she released the die. One.
He chuckled. “Tough break. At least you’ll have another chance to win it back.”
“Three,” she stated despairingly.
His die tumbled over the faux wood surface rattling and grinding its way to a rest. She watched the numbers flash as it bounced, her heart sagging as she knew none of them held the answer. A single, solitary eye gazed up at her from the table. He appeared miffed.
“Well, that was an anticlimactic end,” he grumbled. “I suppose the deal is off. Best of luck, and you will never see me again.”
Natalie’s heart bounded into her throat as she saw her daughter, tiny and pale, rapped in the hospital sheets. “Please! One last roll. Winner takes all.”
His lips twisted into a smile, and she realized that she had played right into his trap. “If you insist. Of course, since I am agreeing to your wager now, it is only fair that I take the lead roll.” The five landed on the table, and he smirked. “Last roll, right? Winner takes all? Let’s go with a bid of six, then.”
She gulped, her hand shaking. She knew that the most likely outcome was she rolled a two, three, or four and bust the bid while still being a lower number. Five would not help her, only put her in the same predicament. And a six was just as useless in this sudden death round. With a wish and a prayer, she tossed the die onto the table. She could not watch it dance and spin, seeming to take an eternity spinning on its edges before it finally came to rest.
This work by Katherine C is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License.
Card Day 52: A red-headed woman floats, wearing a metal cage as a skirt. Inside, two fish swim.
Everyone who grew up near Lake Wonapango had their own story about the lake. Some were your traditional and expected fish stories, some dealt with summer love and improprieties, and others were tragic tales of misadventure. And then there were the other stories, ones that spoke of great loss, the kind that does not stop when the sufferer passes on. Lake Wonapango held deep, dark secrets on its sandy bed, and sometimes those secrets floated to the surface. I remember well the night I myself came face to face with one of those secrets. All my years of trying to forget have done nothing but burn it more firmly in my thoughts.
I was never the fishing type. While it was the most common past time for those who lived around the lake, it was just never my thing. I did not have the patience or the appetite for the long hours spent catching the local fare. It seemed wasteful to haul them up and toss them back in. Still, like most folks around the lake, I had my boat. It was little more than a rowboat—I mean, it had a tiny outboard motor strapped to it, but I rarely used it. You see, I took the boat out not for fishing or swimming, but just to enjoy the water. I always went out at night, and the growl of the motor seemed overwhelming in the otherwise peaceful setting. So, I used it as a chance to get a good work out in, rowing along to a few of the calm, quiet spots I knew of.
The night in question was one of those nights hanging in between spring and summer. The air carried the heavy humidity of summer, but still settled on the cool side of warm. It was heavy with the hopes and aspirations of summer. The crickets, frogs, and cicadas had all started their raucous chorus, so I would say it was anything but quiet out there. But out on the water, it was still peaceful. There’s something about Lak Wonapango that just feels rights when the critters are singing out of key.
There were two empty bottles in the bottom of my boat, and I was leaned back against the edge, the lake water gently rocking me back and forth. The sky stretched out like an endless canvas above me, inky darkness pierced by diamond light. The moon was full, glowing warmly down on the scene. I know that this memory is colored by nostalgia, cast glorious in contrast to the events that were to come. But I don’t know if I could imagine something better and more peaceful than that evening. Maybe that’s why it had to go so wrong. Perhaps beauty and peace like that simply cannot exist in this world for long. The balance must be righted.
In that moment of peace, there was a splash. Now, anyone who has spent much time on isolated waters can tell you a splash does not mean much. I was surrounded by all sorts of wildlife that may have wanted to slide into the water. Or a tree branch could have fallen in. Heck, it could have even been one of the many local fishes swishing to the surface to snag an unfortunate water skimmer. There was no real reason it should have caught my attention. Part of what bugged me is that it did, though. Whatever thoughts and reveries I had been lost in shattered along with the surface of the lake. I sat forward, scanning about. The boat listed a bit with my sudden movements, the bottles rolling and clanging in the bottom.
The ripples began near an old fallen log that jutted its way into the river. Probably a turtle, I thought, swimming back t the shore after a long day of sunning. I tried to rest back against the boat, slip back into my quiet contemplation, but my ears were on edge, straining for any other sounds.
Silence. Completely and totally save for the water lapping against my boat. The bugs and frogs had quieted down, and their absence made me feel suddenly self-conscious. I grabbed the oars to row back home, suddenly feeling out of place on the lake that had always been home.
As my paddles dipped into the water, I imagined I heard an echoing splash hiding in their noise. It was paranoia, I told myself, or an echo from the banks. But still my ears strained. I finally paused mid-stroke, the oars lying limp in the water, and heard another splash following behind me. I spun around and watched as something broke the surface of the water. It was an arm, long and pale in the moonlight. I felt frozen to the spot, watching as the other arm rose and fell, gentle strokes pulling whoever it was steadily closer. I watched the pale shadow glide beneath the water, the feet arcing into the air and pushing it downward just before it reached my boat.
People did swim in Lake Wonapango, so I assumed I must have surprised a sunbather or skinny dipper with my evening sail. I wondered who it was, since they had obviously made towards my boat and darted away to avoid detection. My mind wandered to a couple particular townsfolk I would not mind stumbling upon skinny dipping, but before the thoughts could get too far, something bumped the bottom of the boat.
I was alert and scanning the water, assuming it must be someone playing a joke on me after disturbing them, I was not too thrilled about the potential baptism I might endure if they took it too far; my goal was relaxation, not swimming in the murky water. I watched for them, trying to see when they would surface. But no one showed.
The second bump was louder, sending me careening into the side and almost overboard. It was no longer a funny joke, and I grabbed the paddles again. They could spend all evening in the dark depths of Lake Wonapango if that’s what they wanted to do, but I was going to go home and put an end to the long day.
The paddle in my left hand barely moved in the water before something latched onto it, ripping it from my hands. Wood splintered as it came free, disappearing into the water behind a trialing white arm. I watched it rocket to the bottom until I lost it in the shadows.
I admit, I was cursing up a good storm out there on my boat. Down to one oar, it was going to take me a while to get myself home. This joke was not funny any longer. I took my remaining paddle and prepared for the long journey home.
Only then a hand appeared over the side of the boat. The fingers were long, pale and greenish in the light. I assumed it was the reflection of the moon on the water or something, but now I’m not so sure. One thing I did note as weird was the webbing between the fingers and the long, tapering fingernails. That hand was attached to a long, slender arm.
Suddenly, a face broke the surface of the water. It was mostly human, but just not quite right. The eyes were too round, not the right oval shape. They also stretched a bit too big and had an unusual sheen to them. The lips were wide and flat, curled into a suggestion of a smile. Overall, the face was somewhat flattened. But she blinked those big, shining eyes at me and I was caught. Her hand—a bit slimy, very cold—trailed along mine, winding up my arm. I felt myself leaning towards her, enraptured at the unnatural beauty. Her hair lay in wet ringlets along her body, and it was clear she was completely naked below the water. I could not tell you what else was going on in the world around me then, because my entire being was consumed with devouring her presence. It was as if I had never experienced human connection until that point. Her lips slipped into an alluring smile, an unspoken invitation to come closer.
I tingled with the feeling of her hand on my arm—I only later realized that the tingle was not simply arousal, but a potent toxin that left my arm numb for hours after. In the moment, however, it was bliss. Every nerve danced with her touch, sizzling to new life as her skin glided over my own.
I was in the water before I realized it, drawn in by her smiling eyes. I felt as if I were diving straight into her pupils, drenching myself in their dark depths. But the muddy water of Lake Wonapango filled my mouth, its vile taste reminding me that this was no paradise. My arms flailed about, the one she had carefully caressed flopping mostly useless in the water. I felt her hands running across my chest, the same burn of pleasure and paralysis following her fingertips.
You would think that I would have been able to realize the danger I was in with this mystery creature, but I felt no threat from her. Even as she gently tugged me towards the lake bed, I felt she was only interested in my wellbeing. She could have held me underwater and watched me drown as long as her eyes held mine. No, it was not the awareness of her perilousness, but the long forgotten admonitions of my parents. You never go swimming if you’ve been drinking. It was a recipe for disaster. Their warnings ringing clear, I made for the boat
I suppose she sensed my intention to scape, because those long nails on her hand began digging into my skin. Fortunately, she had well-numbed most of my upper body by that point. I managed to flop into the boat, my vision going blurry around the edges. Eventually, the moon was the only thing left that and some thunderous pounding against the sides of my boat.
I woke up the next morning, the heat having returned in force. My chest was sticky with blood, my head pounded, and my arms felt like they were filled with jello. It was a long, painful, exhausting trip back to shore. A long road of recovery and failed forgetting stretching ahead of me.
Most people blamed the bottles in the bottom of my boat for the strange report. I must have fallen in, gotten scraped up on some rocks. Others, I think, thought it was suicide gone wrong. But, I now know why the lake has claimed more than its fair share of victims. I know why men and women go missing out there, no sign of a problem in their peacefully floating boat. I stay away from the lake at night. I got lucky once, and I’m in no mood to tempt fate. I don’t think I could resist those eyes this time, and I know I’d make my home on the sandy bottom of the lake if she ever invited me again.
This work by Katherine C is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License.
Card Day 49: A giant eating a city.
Ryan woke up hungry, just like he had every midnight for the past four days. He stumbled wearily from bed, his feet dragging the cluttered wood floors of the apartment toward the kitchen. He had lived in the place long enough to navigate the treacherous span of hallway, living room, and kitchen with ease, leaving lights off to avoid waking his light sleeping roommate. Once he arrive, Ryan bathed the kitchen in the cold light of the refrigerator, searching desperately among the bare shelves. Behind a jar of pickle juice—someone had neglected to buy more—he found a hidden container of Chinese takeout. Led by his ravenous, primitive hunger, he ate the meal straight from the cardboard container by the light of the fridge.
He woke up late in the morning, a brief spark of panic flooding him before he remembered it was Saturday. He had not missed his alarm, it had just never been set. Rolling over in the warmth of his bed, he listened to the sound of his roommate opening and closing cabinets in the kitchen. As if on cue, his stomach growled menacingly, assuring he would have no peace lying lazily in bed to while away the day. Tugging on a pair of shorts of indeterminate age and cleanliness from his bedroom floor, he meandered out.
“Did you eat my food?” snapped Garret in greeting.
Ryan grumbled his apology, “Maybe. I was hungry last night.”
“Really? Geez, dude, you’ve eaten everything in the house.” The obviously irritated man slammed the refrigerator door shut with as much force as possible, rewarded only with the unsatisfying “snick” of the seal catching.
Ryan grabbed a bag of croutons from the pantry, shaking them quickly before turning them up into his mouth. “Not everything,” he said around the mouthful of bread.
“I guess it wasn’t everything, but it sure is now.” Garret gestured at the empty fridge and the bare pantry. “Are you going to start munching on the baking soda next?”
“Sorry, Garret,” responded Ryan, casting his ashamed eyes down on towards the ground. “I just—I think something may be wrong. I’ve been starving the past few days.” He gave a halfhearted shake of the empty bag, hoping to find some crumb.
“What, you gotta tapeworm or something?” asked the unsympathetic Garret as he snatched his keys off the counter. “Well, maybe you should get that checked out. I’m going to Jumbo Burger.” This time, the door resounded with a far more satisfying slam.
Ryan tossed the bag into the garbage can, feeling that same gnawing hunger. Maybe it was a parasite or something. All he knew was that, Since Tuesday, he had not felt full once. He had eaten hamburgers, salads, ice cream, canned vegetables, boxed dinners, frozen dinners, and a hearty helping of chocolate, but that bought him mere moments of satiation. Looking into the depths of the overflowing trash can and gaping emptiness of the cupboards, he felt a sense of shame and dread. He scheduled a doctor’s appointment for that day, and made sure to leave with enough time to pick up a couple burgers and fries on his way.
Arriving home after the appointment, he only felt more frustrated. They had taken blood, checked his vitals, and congratulated him on losing twelve pounds since the last visit. As he told the story about his unending hunger, his doctor looked at him with an empty smile and asked if he had felt stressed recently. Ryan was certain that, even after hearing his stomach roaring in the appointment and producing the $35 receipt from his midafternoon lunch purchase, the doctor did not truly believe how dire this situation was.
He set the groceries on the table, unloading two bags worth of chips, popcorn, bread, and as many calorie-dense food as he could gather on his dwindling budget. He hoped that some of the tests would come back and solve this problem before he literally ate himself out of rent. Garret wandered into the kitchen, eyeing the groceries.
“Sorry about your food. Have whatever you want,” mumbled Ryan in a peace offering. Without speaking, Garret ripped open on of the bags of chips before disappearing back into the living room. The loading music of the latest smash hit game blared from the room, and Ryan grabbed the bag of chocolate candies, stuffing them into his mouth as he tried to fill the endless pit.
He remembered hearing that black holes grew larger and more powerful the more matter they consumed. He began to wonder, mostly in an attempt to stay upbeat about the situation, if he did not have a black hole steadily growing in the pit of his stomach. Then again, he had no proper education in astronomy, so there was no telling.
His afternoon was spend scouring the internet for any relevant information, becoming more convinced that he did, in fact, have some kind of parasite, and eating through the copious groceries he had bought. Night settled heavily on the apartment, eventually silencing the sounds of gameplay from the living room. Ryan heard the floor creak as Garret made his way to his room, and finally pulled his acing eyes from the screen. All the research he did provided no cures, or at least none until he received the report back from the doctor. He could feel the pit in his stomach growing once again. Knowing that there was nothing left for him from his afternoon foraging, Ryan took a couple of hefty shots of whiskey from the communal bottle—the only thing that seemed to have absolutely no effect on his overwhelming hunger—and let the alcohol soothe him to sleep over the protests of his stomach.
Only, this time, he awoke already buried in the fridge. His hands were ice cold, and he saw the torn open bags of frozen vegetables lying on the floor. His mouth was gritty with the raw peas and carrots, and something else. In shock, he realized that the steaks they had frozen for a summer barbecue—once it finally got warm enough—were also missing. Their packages lay beneath the vegetable bags, confirming his suspicions.
Ryan rushed to the bathroom just in time to throw up the amazing amount of food he had devoured. Hunger roared back to life, even more painful than before. He felt every muscle in his body was aching with the hunger, and his stomach knotted over itself, end over end. Sitting on the cold tile floor of the bathroom, he shook with terror and weakness, feeling every fiber of strength in his being rallying to bolster his hunger. The growls of his stomach echoed through the tiny room, haunting him with their commands.
Ryan leaned his head against the toilet and wept. He was quick to flush before his body took over and devoured the expulsion in desperation. Eventually, he felt his vision narrowing, growing dim around the edges. This was it, he despaired. Somehow, he was starving to death despite having eaten as much as he could cram into his mouth. The cool porcelain of the toilet pressed against his forehead as the white tiles faded to black.
Ryan woke in his bed, feeling surprisingly refreshed. As he looked at the clock and saw it was mid-afternoon, the alertness made more sense. The memories of the night before felt like a nightmare in the bright sunshine of the afternoon, and he dared to hope that was the case. He threw his legs over the side of the bed, delivered from the impossible hunger. Silence filled the apartment, so quiet he could hear the clock ticking softly on his desk. Garret must still be asleep, he thought, and decided to make a gesture of apology. He would refresh the groceries in the house—real food, this time—and perhaps pick up a lock for the fridge.
Stepping into the hallway, he could see the carnage from the night before still in the kitchen. The freezer door stood open, but at least it was empty, Ryan thought grimly. Packaging laid over the floor, a despicable reminder of his curse. At least whatever it was seemed to have finally remitted. Throwing up must have helped. He wandered in there, his feet padding softly on the wood floor, and cleaned up what remained of his mess. Now, shower and then the grocery store.
He was nervous entering the bathroom, the site of his breakdown the night before. But those thoughts vanished as he caught sight of himself in the mirror. Blood on his face, on his chest. Blood caked in his hair, staining his teeth. He felt frozen terror settling in his limbs, forcing him to stand and stare at his horrifying appearance. What had happened?
Feeling certain he was still in a nightmare, Ryan slowly exited the bathroom, still staring into his own eyes as if that monster would leap from the mirror and devour him. Once outside, he slowly turned to look towards the other door in the apartment, hanging slightly ajar. Garret’s room lay on the other side, silent. With a trembling hand, Ryan pushed the door open.
Garret was inside, his eyes wide in fear and pain. There was so much blood, so many chunks of missing flesh with uneven teeth marks running up and down his body. Looking at the mangled body, Ryan felt a disturbing mix of disgust and desire.
He savored the taste of blood on his lips, quashing the revulsion with the sheer pleasure of finally being sated.
This work by Katherine C is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License.
Card Day 46: A collection of theater masks showing all different emotions.
Put on your mask; don’t let them see you sweat, rehearsed Lily to herself, carefully arranging her face into the mask of friendly interest and moderate warmth. Inside, the battle of anxiety roared on, waves crashing against the roughhewn rocks walls of her defenses, threatening to overwhelm her. But on the outside, she was polished and calm, a delicate smile hovering in the curve of her lips. Her eyes might have been screaming, but in a fast-paced, microwave minute and Facebook isolation world, no one was likely to notice if her disguise was incomplete.
She flexed her hands beneath the table, curling and uncurling her fingers in what was proving a fruitless attempt to generate some blood flow and rid them of their clammy feel. Her face remained carved with attention and friendliness as her date—the fourth one tonight, with three more lining the tables to her right—rattled on about his most recent hobby.
Distracted form the conversation, she almost missed his joke, barely giving her time to swap out masks and put on her “good-humored, chuckling” face. Fortunately, she caught the first sign of a smile on his lips and made the swap, mirroring his own soft smile. This had been such a bad idea.
The bell on the other side of the room dinged, its chime echoing. One more swap into the “pleased to meet you, but no promises” mask and she had a brief moment of respite. Chairs squeaked across the floor, the men walked nervously and awkwardly along the plotted course, and eventually some new face was sitting at her table.
Watching him extend an eager hand in greeting, she felt as if she were a creature on display. She did not see that momentary pause she was sure others saw in her face. No, his expressions skipped fluidly from introduction, to interested, to laughing—she had not thought her response would be quite so funny—and back to serious. Her self-consciousness peaked, but she dutifully kept her head high and her lips in an appropriate half smile, not willing to break the façade.
Didn’t everyone have their repertoire of masks? Lily felt her mind wandering, pulled along the train of thought. Was she really so weird? Did it come so easily to everyone else, and she was merely missing some vital piece that made the masks something more? It was as if he had read the script beforehand, and knew exactly how to play his role. In contrast, Lily realized she always felt like the surprised, underprepared understudy, diligently studying those around her and floundering through her most important roles. Of course, such a life of improvisation had left her practiced at the art, and she knew she could fool most people. Only, here, in this setting, she was surrounded by people flawlessly playing the right social game, completely unaware of the impossible talent they possessed.
Lost in thoughts, Lily realized she had missed some vital cue. The man across the table—Steve, his name tag said—was giving her a slightly bewildered look, obviously waiting for some response. She was supposed to be embarrassed now, and she quickly rearranged her face, bringing up a hand to cover her eyes that would never match. Transition complete, she set her fingers delicately on the table.
“I’m so sorry. I was distracted—“ by how human you are, her mind completed—“by how incredibly well-spoken you are. I was just thinking, I wish I could speak—“live—“like you.”
He chuckled good-naturedly, his eyes looking proud and humble all at once. That was a mix she had never quite pinned down, so she opted for abject humility whenever such complexity was called for. Her cheeks were beginning to ache with the constant smile.
The bell again, her savior. She stole the brief moment she had, letting herself fall inward and just relax. There was no one watching for the briefest of moments, and she could just be, without the social mask the world required. This was such a terrible idea, she reiterated, wondering why she ever let her friend talk her into it.
Another man, but this time something aught her attention. She nearly missed it, slipping into her “pleased to meet you, likewise” mask, but she was so familiar that it could not go undetected. She saw him put on his own mask, “the pleasure is mine,” covering his face as he spoke the words.
As she pulled her interested and aloof face on over her old one, she watched as he slipped into his engaged and passionate one, telling her all about his current business venture. It was not the mask that caught her eye, but that brief pause in between where she could see him.
He asked about her work, and she watched his intensely interested face flicker into life while she swapped to the humorous work cliché look. She watched as she spoke and his mask fell fr an instant, only to reappear with a slightly brighter smile. As she asked a question, she jumped at the opportunity.
“Stop,” she whispered, just as his mask fell but before it could be replaced. Her eyes were dancing, her lips curled in the most authentic smile she had ever felt. “You’re like me.”
He observed her for a moment, his face empty of all the socially dictated expressions for this occasion. This was not, he seemed to recognize, a socially dictated exchange. His eyes lit up as well. “I always wondered if people could tell.”
“I don’t think they can,” with a conspiratorial head nod towards the other tables, “but I know what to look for.”
“So, why’d you end up in a place like this? Torture, right?”
Lily was shocked by the giggle that leapt from her lips, even if her mask did not match. Her face was stuck on intently interested while her mind was dancing through joy and discovery. “Parents, guilt trip, you know.”
“And eventually us kids have to give in, put on a good show.” She nodded sharply once. “Wanna go? I know a great place without all of,” he jerked his head sharply to the side, “them.”
It was completely unacceptable to get up and leave in the middle of speed dating, certainly against some rules somewhere. But being with him, Lily felt herself empowered. She could thrust aside the shackles of modern social convention, be who she wanted, and do what felt right to her. He seemed to have no such concerns, whisking his jacket from the coatrack and leading her out the door.
“So,” she took a too-long pause to look at his nametag, “Evan, where is this place?”
“Hop in my car and I’ll drive us there. It’s got great atmosphere, private, no people to bother us. You can really get to know me.” He made no effort to hide the pride and arrogance in this, no cover of false modesty. Lily studied him and realized she understood everything about him, because he made no attempt to hide it. She knew it was against all the rules to get in the car with a strange man after meeting him for ten minutes, but she also knew that the world’s rules had never made sense to her. She slid into the passenger’s seat, squeaking across the leather seats.
He started the car and began to drive along the city streets, speeding in and out of the round pools of streetlight. They sat in silence, faces blank and empty. There was no room for masks between them; they were merely humans.
He finally stopped just beside a dreary looking tunneled walkway. Someone who was better at independently reading cues would have felt their hair rising, a gut feeling of dread and bad choices settling in. Lily, however, did not. She was thrilled to have found someone just like her, tired of the shackles of acceptable social life, ready to embrace the freedom of truly being human with another human. She stepped out of the car without hesitation.
“See, I told you we would be free,” he said, as if he could read her thoughts. “It’s just through there, one of my favorite spots. I’ll catch up,” he pointed to the trunk and Lily nodded.
“Through the tunnel?” she asked, her voice flat. He smiled, slipping into a reassuring mask—she felt for him, because it certainly was hard to let those habits die. Without another word, she turned on her heal and began an even-paced marched through the tunnel.
The sound of his steps accelerating behind her was somewhat surprising, but less so than the feeling of a thin cord around her throat. Her face burst into an expression of shock and terror, perhaps one of the most authentic expressions she had ever worn. She had no tie to consider the appropriate mask—was there one for such an event?—but merely clawed at his hands.
Her fight was short lived, and she hit the ground with a muffled thud. Evan looked down at her, wiping his hands. It was not quite how he had expected the night to go, but she had been far easier to woo than many of the others. His cold, empty mask finally gave way, revealing a hint of anger, fury, and pleasure all mingled together on his face.
He did not like being truly seen, and Even said a silent thanks that she had been too foolish to dig any deeper. She might not have liked what she saw.
This work by Katherine C is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License.