Theme: Image Prompt
I always struggled with the line between creativity and madness.
But I finally had it, shaping eccentricity into something that people would have to appreciate. I stood anxious on the platform, waiting for the reveal. So many years, so many failed versions of me: the shy child, lost and alone in my dreams; a demure, conformist adolescent; a rebellious adult; all leading to apathy that watched the world whizz by while I abstained. None of those faces had been what my art needed.
If only I’d known it would take someone believing in me. Landon had seen the beauty in me and my art, and this was thanks to him. I never would have made such an opus without him.
He understood me, was there when the muses fled. I smiled to myself, but the waiting crowd reflected it back. I never thought I would stand in a gallery with him beside me. He had helped me find this place, sell my first painting. And the owners could do nothing but admire my dedication. This reveal would not only make my career, but put them on the map as well.
Ultimately, even his unwavering support began to crack. Yet those prickles of doubt were just what I needed to push me forward to greatness.
Who knew it was a matter of medium, not inspiration.
The speeches slowed, and the crowd was looking at me, waiting. Deep breath, one sharp tug to reveal it all.
The sheet fell away, and I heard their gasps. But I could not take my eyes off the majesty of what I created.
Landon would be immortalized, forever my muse. He was the perfect medium to express the impossible I had always dreamed of.
I always struggled with the line between creativity and madness.
Theme: “The door hadn’t been there yesterday.”
Julia winced at the sound of the refrigerator slamming. She could hear the irritation steaming out as he breathed.
“Where’s the milk?”
“I think we’re out,” she replied, eyes down. You never made eye contact with an aggressive animal unless you wanted to fight.
He took a breath, hand on the table to steady himself from such an affront. Last night had been all apologies. He would be better, he swore. He saw where he went wrong. And, besides, now she knew, too, and could do better.
“We’re out of milk, and you didn’t think to get any? Or, what, did you empty it for your breakfast?”
“I had toast. I can make you some if you’d like.”
He collapsed into a chair and waved her toward the counter. There was a storm brewing again. He didn’t speak again until the toaster finished, causing Julia to jump.
“I’m really trying, you know. I just need you to meet me halfway. You’re in charge of the house stuff, so it makes me angry when you drop the ball.”
The words were calm, but they cut, and she knew how this would go. As it always had. “Meet me halfway” Don’t drop the ball.” “Carry your weight.” And once the words stop hitting hard enough…
As she buttered his toast, Julia remembered work yesterday, remembered Teresa. Her eyes had been filled with knowing and unsaid words. “If you ever need a place, I have a guest room. It’s yours as long as you need it.”
Escape. The door had not been there yesterday, but Julia felt a certainty growing within her.
He finished breakfast and sulked out of the apartment as a preamble to the evening’s inevitable outcome. She found an old duffel bag. It was time to open that door.
Theme: Coming of Age
To be one second so ordinary and the next so transformed was a shock no one would handle gracefully. Lucia was, however, doing far worse than even that.
When the bandits had sprung the ambush, she had been jarred out of daydreams by a flurry of adrenaline. Her eyes widened, heart raced, and her hands tightened on the reins. When they pulled her from her horse with blades at the ready and ill-intent in their eyes, something had changed.
Some recess opened up within her mind and a hundred lifetimes exploded into her consciousness. Operating on a blend of habit an instinct, her body moved through the would-be attackers. One moment she was in their grasp, the next with a sword, the next watching those who could still do so flee.
She had never held a sword before in her life, but it was clear one–maybe all–of those other lives had.
Now she sat in the muddy middle of the road, still holding the sword that felt natural in her uncalloused hands.
“I am the chosen avatar,” said a voice in her mind that both was and wasn’t hers.
“I don’t want to be chosen anything,” she replied, satisfied that at least her spoken voice was unchanged.
She poked the edges of the revealed memories, but delving deep seemed like an overwhelming endeavor. It was a morass of magic, battle, loss, and triumph. Always repeating. A line she would undoubtedly continue.
But maybe not if she stayed here, mired in the mud. If she did not move, she could not be chosen.
The new multitude in her mind reminded her this was utterly foolish and impractical. Yet she stayed until it grew dark, holding on to the moments when she had last been Lucia and only Lucia.
Theme: Lost Outside Image
Krul sat on the ridge and looked out at the landscape. It was the world he had seen since the day his eyes opened, and there was a melancholy in his posture. His limbs felt heavy, body seeming to sink into the loamy soil. Perhaps, he mused, he would take root there.
Quiet, unobtrusive steps approached. He knew it was Shala without looking at her. The ground flexed as she sat down next to him.
“It is a beautiful sight, ” she said after sufficient time had passed. He stayed silent.
Beautiful, yes. Arching canopy that glowed faintly in the twilight. Rich, vibrant earth in shades of blue, purple, and red. He was leaving a world built for him, and he might not return.
Earth. He has been once before. It was a crowded place with the wrong gravity, corridors that hovered too close to his form, chairs without space for his legs. And smells everywhere. Their atmosphere assaulted him every time he chanced a breath.
“I want to remember it,” he said into the silence.
Shala’s presence remained still, but he could feel her humming with thoughts she would not say. The planet was not the only thing being left behind.
“You will not forget. You will come home to us.”
Krul stuffed down his response. She did not need to know the assignment was marked in earth years, years that would leave him aged if he returned at all. Hope was good.
There was a loud buzz that resounded through his chitin. “My escort is arriving soon,” he said as she stood. Shala stayed seated.
Good, he thought as he walked away. She could remember this for him. She could remember him.
Lyla had stared at the ceiling long enough to memorize every crack and imperfection. It was an ineffective distraction, and she felt the thoughts still whispering.
They’re going to figure it out. Figure out the fraud you are.
She tried to turn her thoughts down other paths, but each one ended in the same morass of negativity.
Remember that presentation to the boss? You skipped a whole slide and didn’t realize for ten minutes.
The memory of panic pushed her heart rate up until she felt that familiar heat of embarrassment. She remembered fumbling back in the slides and her words. And that look, the forced smile that betrayed annoyance. Impatience.
Incompetent. That’s what they all think.
Lyla glanced at the clock. 2:46am. For hours she had been trapped by this barrage of her mistakes, from recent to ancient history.
“No one even remembers that,” she told herself through gritted teeth.
You’ve never been good at much; why should it change now?
She rolled over in bed, squeezing her eyes tight as if she could ambush sleep into compliance. If anything, the voices seemed to get louder.
Now you’ll be exhausted tomorrow. Just make more mistakes.
With each new thought, she sought some pleasant place for her mind to hide.
You should call in sick. But then they’ll all see you can’t handle it.
A deep breath slowed her racing heart. She picked up the book from the nightstand and turned on the light. If she was going to contend with these internal monsters, she could at least wield a little magic to shove them back to the darkness.
Eventually, the book lay limp on her chest. She could finally breathe easy, mind free to explore the impossible world of her dreams where such mundane fears could not tread.
Theme: “It was magical”
I could not take my eyes off of him, even in such a simple moment. He was at the kitchen table, morning sun cutting through the windows and setting him aglow. After all that had happened, seeing him there made my heart race. I took a deep breath; it was important to be centered.
He smiled at me, watching me watching him. It was a perfect moment, everything still. I breathed in deep, inhaling the scent of fresh coffee. I just needed to stay in this reality as long as possible.
“You know I love you, right?” I asked, laying my hand over his.
He took a sip of his coffee instead of answering, but I could see it in his eyes. I knew he appreciated all I had sacrificed to give us this.
It was almost perfect enough to forget it was magical. To forget that the glamour would fade and I’d be left alone with the dregs of reality once again. I willed with everything I had to keep the charade up longer this time. Eventually, it had to stick, and we’d get the happily ever after we deserved.
I was concentrating so hard I almost didn’t hear him.
“Please,” he whispered, his eyes pleading with me from behind the broken smile. “Please let me go.”
I felt a surge of panic, of rage. How dare he threaten what I had made? Boiling anger spilled into the world, distorting the image until it finally broke apart. I was left staring at a bloated corpse across the table.
I pushed from the table and assessed the wards. His spirit was not getting away, because I would make it right. I would make it work. He promised me forever. It was not my fault he tried to break his promise.
James settled into his accustomed spot on the couch. His eyes began their habitual trip out the window—nothing was there, as always—before he snapped them back to the doctor across the room. She smiled, clipboard balanced on her knee.
“So, today’s our last day?” she began.
He shifted in his seat, reaching for one of the decorative pillows and pulling it into his lap. “That’s what you keep telling me.” It was supposed to be good-natured, but even he heard the edge at the end.
“It’s normal to have some anxiety. This is a change.”
He nodded but did not immediately respond. She left that silence long enough before leaning forward. “We’ll wrap things up today, but first, how have the past few weeks been?”
This was familiar, a comforting routine. In the beginning, this discussion had been full of stress, anger, anxiety, and grief. Now it was…boring. They checked in on the usual things—all going fine. She was right, of course; it was time to end. And he had even suggested it. But facing the reality….
“So,” she said after a while, “if you could go back to the beginning, what would that James think?”
He laughed at the image. “He’d think I was trying to trick him into something.”
“Yeah, I mean, look at me.” And James finally paused to do just that. “I went to my daughter’s recital last week,” he said quietly. “And I finally called Ricky. He’s doing good.”
“He wasn’t upset?”
James shook his head. “Hell, I haven’t had a nightmare this week.” Once he started, it was hard not to see the fruits of his determination.
At the end of the hour, he stood outside the office door, business card in hand “just in case.” It was time for the next chapter.
Theme: The World Upside Down Image
“You know the only option is to accept it,” she said, her words gentle yet firm.
“I know. I just–” the words broke. It was hard to see anything through this wash of tears. He brushed a hand across his eyes and the world blurred further. “How do you know?” he asked after a long, shaking breath.
“You don’t,” was the simple reply.
He studied the room around him, its chaos and senselessness. Things that had been overlooked now stood in stark relief. There was the picture of his sister, the keychain his friend had picked up on vacation, a t-shirt from a forgotten concert. This detritus of his life, now a testament.
“But what happened?” he asked. Clawing through his mind, he could find plenty of memories. But the end was blank. The empty space of a recently pulled tooth.
She shrugged, eyes wandering the room with polite curiosity.
“Can I say goodbye? Call my dad?”
She smiled, an ancient smile worn many times, as she softly shook her head. “The time for goodbyes has almost passed. Only one is left.”
She reached out her hand. He stared at it, world reeling and snapping into focus in succession. One moment, there was peace and acceptance. The next a maelstrom of doubt and uncertainty.
“They’ll miss me, though,” he said. His eyes searched hers, seeking mercy. “I don’t want them to be sad.”
“It is a human’s lot to love and lose.” She made a small gesture with her hand, urging him forward. “But joy comes with reunion. You can wait for them, just beyond.”
He did not try to wipe away the tears now, letting them fall as he took her hand. He looked at the world behind him–his corner of the universe–as it began to grow dim.
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: “Something was wrong”
Cheryl sat stiffly in the metal chair, taking deep breaths as Dr. Brown taught her; she studied the woman across the table. That woman had familiar blue eyes, a kind smile, and hair tucked into a nostalgic messy braid. Cheryl forced a smile.
“Hi, mom,” the woman said, hope and pain in her eyes.
“Addie?” Cheryl started. Dr. Brown nodded optimistically from where he perched on his chair in the corner.
“Yeah, mom, it’s me. It’s Addie.”
There were tears brimming on either side of the table. Cheryl let the edge of a true smile form. She reached across the table and took the young woman’s hand.
But something wasn’t right. Cheryl recoiled, all the joy vanishing.
“No,” she barked, “you aren’t Addie. Addie died. I saw her. She died.” The words were spilling out now, each more agonized than the last.
Dr. Brown was beside her in a moment. “Cheryl,” he said gently, “remember, we talked about this. Addie was taken to the hospital. She li–“
“No, my baby died. You are trying to trick me. It’s all a trick.” Now the words were a full-on yell, and none of Dr. Brown’s soothing made it through. He shared a glance with Addie, then tapped twice on the door behind him.
The orderly helped Cheryl out of the room, a mix of firm and gentle born of compassion and years of experience.
Once the door closed, Dr. Brown turned back to Addie, the customer service smile fading.
“That was a pitiful performance,” he spat. “We’ve got that woman as drugged as we can while keeping her conscious, and she wasn’t fooled for a minute.” His gaze was cold and Addie met it in kind. “Do better,” he hissed as he exited, “or you’ll get us all killed.”
Theme: Road Trip
The music poured around her, filling the car with sound and energy. Kyla moved with the music, belting out the tunes as she shot down the highway towards lands ahead. She felt alive, invigorated, and so she drove on, car diving in and out of pools of light as streetlights flickered overhead. It was a path set out for her.
The car moved with her, acting as an extension of her own body. She was dragon and rider, knight and steed, moving with one singular purpose to the rhythm encompassing her. The road, now conquered, faded away beneath her tires and she pressed on.
There was plenty of music, designed precisely for an occasion such as this. The disc spun in the player and dozens more awaited, each promising a mix of nostalgia and joy. Lyrics poured out of her from places mostly forgotten as tears trailed down her cheeks, unacknowledged except to wipe them away when the road dissolved into a blur. She drove onward.
With the bursting light of dawn, she turned off the highway and onto the city streets, eventually coming to stop in front of an unfamiliar apartment she would call home. Silence settled in heavily once the car was off, and she felt her mind surging ahead. It would be a few hours yet before the office opened to get keys, but moving in would not take long. She hazarded a glance at the flotsam of her old life lying in boxes in the backseat, fragments of something before, but turned away. No time for the past now. She had made sure to fill the road behind her with enough noise to keep her thoughts from wending back that way.
It was a new day, and she planned to keep it that way.
When I was a child, I used to wish I could fly away. I had seen Mary Poppins, watched her float through the sky, and wanted the same. I’d grip my umbrella tightly as I jumped from puddle to puddle, one part joyous with each satisfying splash from my boots, the other part wishing to feel the earth fall away beneath me. I never knew where I would go, only away. On an adventure. Wasn’t that how the stories always went?
I grew up and, like all children, dropped those foolish notions. No adults flew around on umbrellas. She’d asphyxiate before she ever got high enough, anyways. And, to be honest, maybe Mary Poppins wasn’t even that good of a nanny, right?
But standing there, umbrella up against the rain, I felt all the old yearnings resurge. The handle was smooth plastic, the cheap nylon canopy–in an appropriate black–popping with each raindrop. There was a steady stream falling around me as I stood protected in my bubble. I was vaguely aware of comforting hands on my arm, my back. Gentle squeezes of encouragement. But all they seemed to do was further tether me to the ground.
And so I gripped the handle. Here I would not jump, but I would wish. As I looked at the looming grave, dirt steadily falling on the lid below, I hoped every moment to feel that lift beneath me. I did not know where I would go, but wherever it was would be away from here. And maybe wherever that was would be a place you still were.
Theme: You weren’t supposed to wake up here.
From darkness to light. It all happened in an instant, the world exploding into vibrancy. I gasped— I could remember breathing, yet this felt like my first breath. The oxygen raced ragged down my throat, ripping into my lungs. It ached to breathe, it ached to see.
My brain felt unsure of how to parse the world. Light and shadow. Noises—someone was walking somewhere, something screamed, whether mechanical or animal I could not tell. There was an assault of smells that made me gag, either because they were unpleasant or because I had been so deprived. I gagged, flooding my senses with that bitter taste.
It was too much at once, and I felt myself drowning in sensation. As the flood subsided, I could piece things together, steadily understanding. Above me was the roof, wooden and in disrepair. The walls were dusty and stained. Those screams were certainly not mechanical. Those smells were certainly rot.
Worst were the shadows finding permanence. Bodies, lying on a table like the one I occupied. They lay there still, quiet, and unmoving.
And then there were the footsteps.
Something obscured my view, and my eyes struggled to refocus. Then there was a monstrous face, the source of the smell.
The eyes bulged at strange angles, barely contained by the flesh of its face. A ragged gash served as the mouth, a menagerie of teeth standing at lazy attention inside. It sniffed.
“Got another one,” it growled in a bubbling voice. It paused, head titled for a response, then shrugged. “Guess I’ll get this one.”
Rough hands on my body, like coarse stones tearing my skin. “Please,” I heard my voice, unfamiliar and harsh with disuse, “I shouldn’t be here.”
It laughed. “Of course you should. Now back to sleep.”
A needle’s pinch, then darkness.
Theme: “The door crept open”
The growl came from the closet. There was no denying the fact nor any reconciling it with reality. Lana hadn’t been sleeping and now wouldn’t be anytime soon. Instead, she stared at the wooden door and clenched the blankets about her with the primal instinct they would protect her.
“Get it together,” she whispered through gritted teeth. The impossibility required rationality to reassert itself quickly, shoving the fear to the side. “There are no monsters in closets.”
As if to prove to herself and whatever had growled, she flung the blankets aside and put her feet on the floor. Once grounded, she expected to feel safer. Instead, she felt more certain she was going mad.
Did the knob move? The door shake? Lana strained her ears to listen for anything. Was that breathing or the AC whispering through the vents?
“This is ridiculous. You outgrew this stuff in grade school.” She stood and forced her legs toward the door.
The room was chilled, her palms clammy. She studied the narrow wooden door. It only really counted as a closet so her landlord did not run afoul of housing laws; no room for monsters in there. Lana gripped the handle and took a breath.
“Grow up, Lana,” she growled to herself in a final act of motivation.
The door crept open and–
There was Nothing.
Nothing, vast, infinite, and dark. Stretching into eternity and beyond for impossible depth. How was emptiness so much worse than everything she had imagined?
As the Void reached out to draw her in, Lana longed for fangs, fur, and claws.
The crone had been clear with her instructions. Davalon had left the bottle under the full moon, had only water from the Halcyon Lakes since dawn, and now held the sweet-smelling elixir uncorked in his hand.
“Drink it before your task, and you will be guaranteed success. No follies will find you.” Before he left, she placed a hand on his arm, one finger raised in final warning. “Take care. This is a powerful spell. Do not squander it.”
He did not intend to. Steeling his nerves and belting his scabbard to his side, Davalon tossed his head back and drank the elixir, feeling a tingling swim through his body alongside the adrenaline. He prepared to leave for the arena, where his opponent was already boasting loudly.
The curtain to his tent swirled, and Maryalei appeared. There was a new stutter step to his heartbeat as she looked at him.
“I was not sure I would catch you,” she said.
Davalon felt his whole body vibrating with life; he was not sure if it was anticipation, fear, lovesickness, or the effects of the draught. “Marya,” he said before the words stuck. He felt like a schoolboy, not a knight-to-be. And yet, if the crone’s magic failed, when would he have this chance? “I am glad you came.”
She smiled, a hint of laughter in her eyes.
“After this,” he started, feeling a growing sense of confidence as his head swam with opportunity, “I would have your hand in marriage, if you’ll have mine?”
She rushed to him. “Of course,” she sighed, an unexpectedly easy victory.
At that moment, Davalon felt an empty feeling as the confidence fled and fear and nerves remained. One task, he recalled and hoped he might live long enough to enjoy what his potion had granted.
Theme: They never saw it coming
Trevor bounced from foot to foot, waiting for the doors to open and admit his soon-to-be wife down the aisle. He felt sweat run down his collar, a heavy smile on his nervous lips. He had not seen her since yesterday’s rehearsal, per tradition and her request; he imagined her resplendent for him alone. So he looked to the heavy wooden doors at the end of the aisle as the organ geared up and started the notes.
It was a bar too far into the song and the doors had not opened. He shifted again, smile shuddering, still waiting. Then, a creak and groan as the aged wood slowly edged open.
His eyes found hers just above her harsh smile. And then confusion and panic settled in as another figure in a white dress started down the aisle as well, hand in hand. Her father was supposed to be walking her down the aisle, but instead, there was a second bride.
The nerves settled firmly into a knot in his stomach.
Anna walked down the aisle in time to the song, never letting her gaze deviate from his. His eyes swung back and forth between his bride and the other woman, trying to wake up from this nightmare. Finally, the song ended and Anna stood at the bottom of the steps. They had rehearsed; he would go down, take her hand, and help her up. Only he froze.
“I figured since you thought you could date both of us, you wouldn’t mind marrying us both?” she said with acid dripping from her voice.
Louisa smiled too, and he was trapped beneath their withering gazes. “Only I’m not sure either of us wants to say ‘I do.’”
Trevor fainted, the only way to save any dignity he had left.
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.
Theme: Image Prompt
My feet could no longer feel the earth beneath them, but I remembered it.
I remembered the feel of dark soil under my soles, thrumming with the vibrancy of earth and whispering ancient ways to me. The sway of Mother Earth, the loving gaze of Mother Moon. The exaltation of all things feminine and trampled by the day-to-day life.
We danced, my sisters and I, beneath that moonlight. We leaped, held aloft in the arms of our two mothers, cradled in that space. In the smoke and stars, we saw visions.
I remembered breathing deep the perfume of wilted flowers and sweat, mingled with the bonfire scent. It was intoxicating and every time my feet dug into the soil, I could feel the bounty of life surge through me. We joined together to celebrate the divine around us, the divine within us.
Moonlight, starlight, dirt, and blood. In those moments, we existed not as human flesh, but as something carved from the essential elements and told to celebrate. I did not need air to live, only those moments of ecstasy. My worship kept my heart beating, my lungs moving, and I thrived on that inhuman diet on those nights of revelry.
The flickering shadows of the fire threw scenes of the future before us, cloudy, mystical. And somehow we did not see what was to come until the sacredness of our space was trampled beneath booted feet, feet that could not feel the hum of the earth. Their bodies were covered so that even the moonlight could not strike them.
My feet no longer feel the earth beneath them, dangling here in the in-between. All I feel is the grip of the rope, punishment for daring to touch the sacred.
Jessie settled in her chair and let the beach surround her. Deep breath in and she tasted the salty air, slightly fishy, but pleasantly so. She heard gulls circling out at sea, their calls coming in with the steady rhythm of the waves. Her phone buzzed; she ignored it.
The sun was warm, bright. The sand beneath her feet radiated heat up through the soles of her feet, and she dug her toes down to find cooler sand below. The phone was ringing. Another deep breath, sinking into her seat.
She watched the waves come in and out, sea dancing with sunlight, white foam licking at the sand. Another ring, this time an email, and she let the waves carry away the distraction. Her ears settled on the roar of the waves.
Someone was knocking on a door, and she let her eyes drift across the sand. Now there was the sound of kids playing, calling to one another. A steady bubble of human chatter beneath the steady pulse of the waves. She breathed in time to the tides, in and out, with the same steadiness and certainty.
Just a peaceful day on the beach, blue skies, white sands, and–another knock. “Jessie? You in there? I brought the reports you asked for. I can come back later?” No footsteps. Lena was, despite her words to the contrary, waiting.
Jessie’s eyes snapped open, the beach fading from her mind as the office returned. Her peace lay shattered and dispersed in the piles of paper on her desk. She briefly noticed that her hands were digging into the arm of her chair. So much for a break.
She stood and opened the door before Lena could leave. Deep breath in, the subtle scent of salt, as the world reclaimed its space.
Theme: The call came at midnight
The phone was ringing. I reached a hand toward the buzzing, glowing thing and sat up, trying to clear the sleep from my voice.
“Hello?” It didn’t work, and my words came out with the familiar fuzzy, just-woken quality.
“Mike? It’s Chris.” Chris. I checked the caller ID on the screen. New guy from work. Nice enough, but not the sort I would take middle of night phone calls from.
“Uh-huh,” I added to the conversation, dropping all pretense. If you called this late–early–then you knew the person had been sleeping.
“I figured it out. I was having this dream, and it just all–Boom!”
“Figured what out?”
“The time travel project, of course”
Chris laughed. “Why else do you think I’d be waking you up? We both know what a grump you are.”
He was clearly drunk. Or high. Probably both, I reasoned.
“Listen, Chris, I think you need to get back to sleep. We’ve got work tomorrow, and we can talk then.” I figured he would instead be sleeping off whatever this was, but did not say as much. I just wanted to go back to sleep myself.
“Work? Mike, what are you–” he stopped midsentence.
“It’s Wednesday morning, bud. Sleep it off.”
“No, it’s not. We don’t–”
He paused, there was an intake of breath on the line. Part excitement, part shock.
“What’s the date, Mike?”
“Now? It’s February 10.” I said after checking the phone screen.
“February 10…” he trailed off, waiting for me.
I sighed and ran a hand across my face. The smart thing to do was hang up. “2021,” I said instead.
“Oh.” In his voice was surprise, confusion. “Oh,” he said again. This time somber and shocked. “I have to get back,” were his final words before the call disconnected.
This is a new thing. Welcome to my first Terse Tale, chosen as a name almost entirely because of alliteration. I’ll be sharing some micro stories I have been writing for an online challenge over the past few weeks. These are 100-300 word stories based on a given prompt. I’ve always been rather wordy, so I have found it really tough and rewarding to try and tell a convincing story in a short format. Sometimes the attempts is a success, other times less so. But I have found myself thinking a lot more about what I say and how I say it when writing. Ideally, I will post these weekly for as long as I continue to write them!
So, in the interest of brevity, here is the first one, based on the theme “it was as if time itself stopped.”
It was as if time itself stopped. Or perhaps that was just wishful thinking. I wondered how long I could stay there silent, motionless, barely breathing. Perhaps they would just go away and I could imagine nothing was wrong.
They were touching me now, a hand light on my arm. I think it was supposed to be reassuring, yet it only served to threaten my careful shell of denial. And they were talking, but I could not be bothered to tune my mind to their words. I was in freefall and neither gravity nor time could touch me unless I chose to stop.
“We’re not going home?” My words broke through, surprising both of us, and they stumbled mid-sentence. A heartbeat of silence.
“No. The boosters were too damaged to get us off the surface.” They were repeating what they had already said, I realized, but the words felt all new to me, striking a fatal blow each time.
“Not with the storms and solar flares picking up. We’re lucky to have landed at all.”
Lucky, they said. Didn’t feel that way. I glanced at the small photo taped haphazardly to my work station. That small face that I knew would age years in the time I was away, but now–
“A few weeks, with rationing. No one could have predicted–”
“And a few months until rescue,” I interrupted. They didn’t say anything more. They did not need to. I understood perfectly my sentence as I was to serve it. Weeks or months had no meaning; I would float through the remaining time left, but I was already dead.
I grabbed the picture as I walked away. He and I were now both frozen moments in time, even if mine soon would run out.
Gabe walked out hand in hand with the girl from the party. Her name was Jessica, he thought. It had been loud inside, and he was always terrible with names. He did know that she was pretty, laughed at his jokes, and kept smiling at him all night. Those, for the moment, were certainly more important than names.
“You know how they do those stupid human trick shows and stuff?” he asked her. It was cold out, and he remembered seeing the words coalesce in the early morning darkness.
She pulled her arms around her and nodded. “Yeah, like burping the alphabet backwards or fitting into a shoebox or something?”
“Yeah, that kind of stuff.” He paused and gave her a smile he hoped came across as intriguing and not creepy as it felt. “I’ve got one of my own.”
He could almost see the eye roll. And to be fair, it did sound like a bad pick-up line, now that he played it back. But that wasn’t the point. The bad pick-up line would come later. “Not like that,” he added quickly, the false bravado and charm fading away.
She took a step or two away, looking at him with a subtle smile. Then she raised an eyebrow. “Show me.”
He smiled. “Okay, look up at the sky and pick a star,” he explained, hurrying over to stand just behind and to the side of her.
“Alright, that one,” she said with finality.
“Can you point to it? So I know which one?”
“Well, this isn’t going to be much of a magic trick if I show you my star, but sure.” She lifted her arm and pointed to a middling bright star in the middle of the sky.
“Good choice,” he said thoughtfully, then raised his arm. “Keep your eye on that star, and—“ he extended his finger, pointing to the star as well. “Poof.”
Like that, the star blinked out, leaving a little patch of black in the sky.
“Whoa, did you just—can you do it again?”
He laughed, then answered her. “Yeah, of course. Choose another one.”
She did, and they repeated the process. Four times total.
“That’s amazing. I mean, you just point and they disappear?”
“Yeah,” he said, with insincere humility, “just something that I’ve been able to do since I was a kid. Don’t show off too much or else the government might track me down.” She leaned back against him, staring up at the sky with its covering of stars that now seemed not quite so far away. “And if you think that’s impressive, “ he said, leaning close to her ear, “you should see what else these fingers can do.”
And there was the bad pick-up line.
It was later, lying in bed, that Jessica—that was her name, he had confirmed surreptitiously—brought the trick up again.
“So, like, do the stars just stay out or…?”
He blinked his eyes open and shifted his position, trying to stay focused despite a wave of grogginess. “No, they come back, at least by the next night or so. I’ve never really timed it.”
“And you can just do that? Like, you weren’t hit on the head with a meteor or born in a spaceship or anything?”
“Not that I know of. Just found out when I went star watching with my grandpa one year.”
“And you primarily use this power to get women to sleep with you?”
“What?” he asked, a hint of offense coloring his words. “I definitely do not do that. It’s just that the only people I trust with my secret ability are those that are willing to sleep with me. I can’t just let everyone know I’m the world’s most useless superhero. If my secret identity got out,” he chuckled and let the sentence hang incomplete, settling comfortably into the pillows.
“Well, your secret is safe with me,” she said, rolling over and pulling the covers around her contentedly.
Gabe closed his eyes, breathing a deep sigh as he let the drowsiness take over. He was nearly asleep again when her voice broke through.
“But what if there are, like, planets round those stars?”
He shook his head, as if that would shake off the sleepy feeling. “Planets?” he asked, trying to quickly replay the last few seconds to make sure he knew what she said. “I’m sure there are planets around them. Aren’t there tons of planets out there?”
“Yeah, yeah, but” she sat up, suddenly looking excited, “but what if there are people on the planets? And you just turned out their sun?”
“Oh no,” he said, throwing his arm over his face and rolling to the side with theatrics. “I picked up the crazy chick. Don’t tell me you believe in aliens.”
She gave him a playful push on the shoulder, laughing herself. This was one of those moments he would go back to after their relationship eventually dissolved. Her in the bed, hair tousled, eyes sleepy, but a wide smile on her face as she laughed. Through the laughter, she thought out her response. “I mean, no, not really, but who knows, right? There’s so much out there, and—“
“Listen, if there are aliens out there, they can come and ask for an apology. I’ll give it to them. But I think it is mighty suspicious that sightings of aliens have dropped now that everyone has a handy camera with them 24/7. So I think I’m safe.”
And yet, here he was.
The abduction didn’t happen like it did in the movies. There was no blinding white light or tractor beam. And Gabe was pretty sure he was not paralyzed, at least not physically. It was, however, very much like those kidnapping movies that took off for a while. A bunch of shadows in his bedroom that suddenly lunged and grabbed him on all sides, sliding something bag-like over his head, and then carrying him out of the house. Gabe heard the door squeak shut behind them, the sound of too many feet on the gravel, and then an electronic whoosh and snap sound. The air around him was cooler, not the humid summer heat, and the light making its way through whatever was on his head was brighter. He felt cold ground beneath him as they set him down, then everything stopped.
His heart was still pounding in his chest, a rapid beat that threatened to burst right out of his chest. He tried taking everything in, tried making the shadows he had seen match anything plausible. He was being kidnapped, that was certain, but he had a very unsettling feeling it was not by anyone or anything he had encountered before.
“You can remove the hood,” said a voice. The sound of English made his heart slow a pace or two. They spoke English. So that meant it was unlikely anything as absurd as his mind had raced to.
“I can leave it on, if you prefer. You know, so I don’t know who you are. So you don’t have to kill me.” The words poured out of his mouth, sounding stupider than he thought.
A sigh. “I’d prefer to speak to you directly.”
Gabe grabbed the hood and lifted it off in a fumbling motion. And as his eyes adjusted to the bright light, the conversation so long ago with Jessica came rushing back.
In the movies, abductions use tractor beams. In the movies, aliens are vaguely humanoid. Gabe was discovering both of these were simply Hollywood magic and nothing at all related to reality.
The gathering of being stood around his cage. There were five of them—no six. One had no form at all, but did appear to be a collection of moving haze. One at least had clear legs, though there were four of them. He could generally find eyes in their various places on the beings, and some had indentions that Gabe thought could possibly be mouths. But beyond that, his understanding of their anatomy stopped. Despite the bright lights, the room started to go dark around the edges. Then the middle. Then everywhere.
The room was still cold and bright when Gabe awoke, and there was a hum of activity off to the side. He was not in his bedroom, which meant something had happened, but it most certainly could not be those things swimming to the surface of his mind.
Voices. He tried to focus on them, if only to stop the spinning in his head.
-not what we really were expecting.”
“Does it really matter what this creature is like? It’s dangerous!”
“I just don’t think we should make any sort of rash decision.”
“No one is suggesting we act rashly but just—“
“Me. I suggest we act rashly. Who knows? It could wipe us all out before we even—“
“Now we have no reason to think—“
“You don’t get to just—“
The voices began to meld into a stream of babble and yelling that was indistinguishable. Gabe slowly rolled over, letting himself finally take a look at his surroundings.
It was, unfortunately, exactly as he remembered. A white room, bars surrounding him, and a menagerie of completely alien creatures standing in a huddled mass to the side.
Eventually one of them—some creature with what looked like tentacles and apparently a mouth that opened by splitting their head widely down the middle—noticed he was moving.
“It has awoken,” it said, a sharp tone of panic in its voice. The others turned quickly to stare at him.
“Earthling,” said one of them, taking a step towards him. This one had four legs, three long protrusions with what looked like eyeballs, and no discernible mouth. Nothing moved when he spoke, but Gabe heard it clearly. “We have been sent to neutralize you.”
“You speak English,” Gabe gawked, his mind trying desperately to help him see that was not the important part here. The alien’s face fell, as did the others, and Gabe was amazed to discover he could recognize disdain in completely alien features. Perhaps that was another superpower he possessed.
“Our ship automatically translates all language into something you can understand.”
Curiously, Gabe also discovered that the same disappointed tone was also easily interpreted. He sat staring and they stared back at him. Now that he had a chance to see them without passing out, he realized they were all wearing what looked like armor of some sort. The pieces were all different, fit to their physiology, but made of some thick, dark, shiny substance. They were some sort of military squadron? Or pirates? Or space cops?
His mind finally ran through and processed what had been said to him before, and panic shot through his system. “Wait, neutralize?”
“He got there!” said one of the creatures, though Gabe did not look quickly enough to tell who. From the gestures being made, he thought it might have been amorphous creature standing towards the back and cycling through different colors, but he could not be sure.
The four-legged alien spoke again. “Yes, that is our mission. We have been sent to save our homes and neutralize you. By whatever means necessary.”
“I think you have the wrong person. I just work in a call center. I don’t have anything to do with aliens.”
“So you aren’t the one who keeps extinguishing our stars?”
Had he been on Earth, Gabe was certain this would be a good time to request a lawyer. But, with aliens, he was not sure if the idea of a lawyer even translated. Or was an option. They had just kidnapped him, after all. Or was it an arrest? He felt out of his depth.
“Can I plead the fifth? Is that a thing?”
The gathered group turned toward one another, then back to him. “That is not an answer. Have you extinguished our stars?”
One of the group stepped forward slightly. Its face, or what Gabe liked to think of as its face, was covered in a smattering of shiny, black spheres. Most likely eyes, but this was all a learning exercise for him. The sides of its head suddenly lifted, two large wing-like appendages stretching into the air. These were connected to the rest of it by shimmering strands of something. It stood there, waiting.
“What would happen if I had?”
“This is going to take all day, Devlox.” Now Gabe was sure it was the large amorphous creature. It turned a striking shade of maroon with impatience.
“We have plenty of time before we reach home system. If it takes many days, it takes many days.”
“Home system?” said Gabe, sitting up straighter and feeling his heart begin to race again. “You mean we’re leaving Earth?”
“Yes, we left some time ago. As soon as we boarded, actually,” responded Devlox. Gabe felt a little better. This…being was at least willing to be reasonable. To answer questions. The good cop, thought Gabe. And bad cop was back there. But that still left a lot of undecided creatures in the wings.
“But then what if it’s not me?”
The collection of haze spoke. Its voice was in the ship, but Gabe also seemed to feel it resonating through him. All in all, it was a very unpleasant situation. “Earthling, we already know it is you. Devlox and his kind are more…skeptical of modern technology.”
“I’m simply not willing to base such a decision on the advice of a machine, Cylantha. There is nothing wrong with being diligent.”
Cylantha sighed, which felt similar to a strong wind pushing against Gabe’s body. “Yes, but this whole interrogation is simply to satisfy you.”
“Fine,” Devlox stomped back, a feat Gabe noted was more impressive with more legs. “Then what do you suggest we do? Go ahead and execute it?”
The amorphous creature turned a shade of green that Gabe felt very unsettled by. “That’s the easiest way, yes.”
Another, tinier voice spoke up as a rather short, squid-like creature piped up. “It is wrong to kill another creature. We must find another way”
“Wrong to kill a creature that could wipe out all our planets in an instant? That’s wrong?” spoke the tentacle creature that had first alerted them to Gabe’s consciousness.
“It always brought them back,” added the little one, not shrinking down from the intimidating figure. “Right?” he asked, turning toward Gabe.
“Well, I mean, I guess so. I didn’t really do anything, you see.”
“So you mean to say you didn’t extinguish the stars?” asked Devlox.
“I guess, I mean, I did. I didn’t mean to. Well, I meant to, but I didn’t mean to hurt anyone.”
“And you brought them back?” added Devlox.
“They just, always came back. I didn’t have to do anything.”
The creature with the wing-like appendages and many eyes stepped back, the wings folding back in. “It is telling the truth,” it said in a monotone. Somehow, that did not seem to help.
The large creature now stepped forward. “You mean to tell me you just hoped they would come back?” it roared, skin flashing all shades of dark blue and purple.
“You just hoped it would work?” squeaked the tiny creature with a hurt, accusing tone. Gabe shrank back more from the disappointment than the rage. He had always been susceptible to a good guilt trip.
There was a push of wind, something from Cylantha, Gabe assumed, and the group quieted. It was silent, and in that silence Gabe felt guilt pouring over him. The only solution was to break that silence. “So you are telling me I’ve been turning your sun off and on for all these years?”
“Yes,” came the exasperated sigh from most of the seven assembled beings. It was not in unison, but almost.
“And you had no idea what you were doing?” asked Devlox. Gabe noticed that the wing flaps were back up.
“I knew if I pointed at a star, it would blink out. And then come back later. I had no idea there were aliens—“ he watched the whole room recoil at that word—“up there. I never wanted to hurt anyone.”
“It is telling the truth,” came the same monotone report as the wings closed again.
“So you just kept doing it? With no thought to the consequences?” asked Cylantha.
“I didn’t know anyone else was out there.”
“So this is the great Destroyer,” said Devlox, pacing across the ship. Again, it was remarkable to Gabe how universal disappointment seemed to be. “Sorry there will be no need for an honor duel, Antu,” it finished, waving to the amorphous creature who had settled into a silvery green shade.
“It would not be much of a fight,” snapped back Antu.
“Do we have to kill him, then?” squeaked the squid-like creature. Devlox looked to the group.
“I don’t know,” said the weary creature after a moment. “Things are not going according to the plan.”
“How did you get your powers?” asked Cylantha, wafting forward toward the bars. “Did you purchase them? Performa a ritual? Defeat a great enemy?”
Gabe shrugged, then realized that might not translate to a group of beings with no shoulders to speak of. “I don’t know. I just always could.”
“And you never found that odd?” asked the hazy form again.
“I mean, sure, it was a weird trick. I’d show people sometimes and they’d be amazed. But I tried not to make a big deal out of it. Sounds like it caused you all a lot of problems.”
“Well, mass panic intermittently, irregularities in temperature and gravitational fields, and the crushing despair that one day Kav’nu may not return,” bristled a blue-shaded Antu.
“I’m sorry,” said Gabe.
“See, it’s sorry everyone. We can just forgive it and go on with our lives,” squeaked the squid.
All three of Devlox’s eye stalks peered down at the tiny thing, blinking slowly. “That’s not how this works, Meerk. It could still destroy us all.”
“But it said it’s sorry.”
“And I am sorry. I promise, now that I know, I won’t do it again.” Gabe began to foolishly hope that this tactic might actually work, given his sincerity.
“Oh, we will be sure of that,” said Devlox, eyes returning forward.
“You’re going to kill me?” Gabe whispered.
“Not yet. But we are going to keep an eye on you. You say it happens when you point? Wait, Viremat,” Devlox gestured to the thing with many eyes that stepped forward, raising the flaps on its head again. “It only happens when you point at a star?”
“Speak,” ordered Cylantha.
“Yes,” squeaked Gabe, feeling so many eyes on him.
“It speaks the truth.”
Devlox took a deep breath. “Alright then, Antu, get something to hold its arms down. We’ve got a long trip ahead of us.”
Thanks for reading!
I haven’t written in a long time. I’ve dabbled here and there, but this was one of the first times I sat down with an idea and just got to get it out there. I typed it up on my day off, gave it a read through and made some adjustments, but I’m just so happy that I got something done! This is an idea that I had in the first few weeks after my little girl was born. Those were some rough weeks and, despite being tired, my anxiety was doing a great job ensuring I was not sleeping. “Sleep when the baby sleeps.” Haha, okay then.
I started developing this idea then, after singing Twinkle Twinkle Little Star to her. And having something to think about, a world to play with, it made me start to feel better. So I really wanted to get back to this and flesh out this character. It’s changed a lot from where it started, but I think it was a fun idea to play with. It’s what I needed then, and what I needed now to help me do something just for me.
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.
The end for our town came with neither the promised bang nor whimper. It came with silence, presumably sometime in the middle of the night when most of us were sleeping and those few awake were focused on other, seemingly more important, things. I don’t know who first discovered what was happening, but everyone knew something must be wrong when the internet stopped working. No one in town could get a signal in or out. Cell towers must be down, was the first thought. Or maybe some big power outage in the local big city. Our small town was mostly just a parasite, sucking down resources from the city to thrive in relative isolation. But that also meant that anything happening there without fail trickled over to us in due time. And with the internet down, there was no immediate way to figure out what that might be.
Things for me, at least, took a turn from annoying to bizarre when Judy Calvin stumbled in to the local diner—I was in there for my morning coffee before trudging down to the local grocery to start my shift. She worked in the city doing something—accounting, maybe? But she came in that morning looking pale and wide-eyed. Without a word, she slipped into a booth, sliding her bag and jacket across from her. From a distance, I could see her lips moving, but as far as I could tell she wasn’t saying a word. It was certainly an unsettling sight to see. I usually ran into her at the local farmer’s market, smiling and bubbly with an arm load of produce. This was certainly different.
Lorene, co-owner and unshakeable waitress at the greasy spoon, made her way over to the table with a pot of coffee and a tepid smile. Customer service, always, but caution most of all. Lorene had seen her fair share of bad stuff—being on the edge of town meant she had seen a lot of trash tumble in and out in her time.
“Looks like a rough morning, Judy,” she began, pouring a cup of coffee without waiting for the request. “Need me to get anyone?”
Judy’s eyes swung up to look at Lorene, and finally sound starting to trickle out of her lips. I still was too far away to hear clearly, and judging by Lorene’s face, she wasn’t faring much better.
“Sorry, what now, hun? Do you need me to call David? Maybe see if someone can take you down to Doc Linehan this morning? You don’t look so good and—“
The volume increased, now a frantic whisper that snaked across the surprisingly quiet diner. Everyone seemed to be straining to hear. We were a small town, so gossip was mostly our lifeblood. And this would be a story worth a few rounds of drinks at The Watering Hole later on.
“The road is gone.” Those were the first words I heard. The first sign to me that this was something more than small town gossip. She hadn’t hit a hitchhiker with her car, come across a deer carcass, or been chased by some local hoodlums. She had either had a significant mental break, or something unheard of was going on. I’m writing this down for posterity, so I guess you can imagine which it was.
“I was driving to work, and it just disappeared. It was there, and then there was nothing. I was in the nothing. The road is gone. It’s just gone.” Her voice was steadily rising in volume as she spoke, and I watched as my fellow nosy patrons began to shift with the same discomfort rolling through me.
“There’s nothing there!” she yelled now, then took a deep breath. “Nothing.” With that, she quieted again, back to the silent whispers that echoed only in her own mind. Lorene stepped away from the table, her normally imperturbable demeanor showing just the hint of a crack. “Lucas,” she snapped to the boy behind the counter trying to look busy refilling patron’s coffee mugs that had evaporated under his distracted gaze. “I need you to call Doc Linehan and Sheriff Marsh. I think Judy might need some help.”
“But the phone’s are down,” he replied dumbly.
I had always admired the steel in Lorene, and it came out now. “Well, we got someone here who needs help. I suggest you start running to town and get back as quick as you can.”
The boy pulled off his apron and set aside the coffee in an instant, spurred into movement by her decisive leadership.
“And Doris,” called Lorene as she made her way behind the counter.” Doris’s grey-haired head peaked from kitchen window, as if she hadn’t been listening the whole time. “Get a breakfast plate rolling for Mrs. Calvin here.” As she turned back to the counter, I heard her mutter under her breath, “There’s not much a full belly can’t at least help.” Then she took to wiping down the counter, one eyes watching Judy who only moved her lips in some silent chant.
I looked at my watch. Assuming Lucas kept his pace—and I somehow had no doubt he would—it would be at least 20 minutes before he returned. Assuming, of course, the Sheriff was in the station and Doc was not meeting with a patient already. That would put me at least 10 minutes late for my shift. I knew I needed to leave, but also knew that this was the kind of event Mack would understand me missing for. Or, if not, at least the kind of event that meant my shifts at the grocery would mean very little very soon.
I sipped my coffee—Lorene refilled it without ever looking at me. The diner had gone quiet with everyone waiting for the mystery to unfold. My money was on drugs, then. Someone had slipped something into Judy’s breakfast, leaving her to experience a fantastically upsetting trip halfway on the way to work. But there was something about her demeanor, the silence and terror, that left some primal doubt wriggling in my mind. Lorene took the plate from the window after a few minutes, setting it gently on the table in front of Judy who never looked at it.
In fifteen minutes, the chime over the door rang and Lucas strolled in with the Sheriff and Doc Linehan. I had not estimated them hitching a ride in the Sheriff’s cruiser, though I suppose I should have. For a moment, I felt more at ease knowing the professionals were here now to sort out what was going on. But that faded when I saw how serious the Sheriff looked. He knew something about this, and he didn’t like it. Doc Linehan followed behind a few steps, smiling at the patrons as she entered with that comforting smile she brought to all her patients. We were lucky she stuck around to start a practice, I suppose, when she could have made much more money opening up in some big hospital somewhere.
“Mrs. Davis,” said the Sheriff with a gentle tone that contrasted the determined look in his eyes. “I hear you may have seen something this morning—“
“The road’s gone, Tripp,” she said in a flat monotone, not looking up. Gone was the urgency, the desperation in her voice. The Sheriff glanced over at Doc, both of them exchanging knowing glances. Drugs, I felt the certainty increase.
“I was driving, and it was there. Then it wasn’t.”
“And where’s your car, Mrs. Davis?” he asked, cutting her off.
Now she turned to look at him, a fresh wave of terror washing over her features. “I—I got out to look. See what was going on. I only took a few steps away and it—it was gone, too.”
Sheriff Marsh sighed, then grabbed at the walkie on his shoulder. “Got another one, Jessi. Can you find Shawn Calvin? Have him come down to Lorene’s to pick up his wife.” He took a few steps away, pulling out the notebook he kept in his front pocket to jot down some notes. Doc Linehan slid into the booth next to Judy, her warm smile beginning to break through the layers of frozen terror holding her captive. There was quiet, muted conversation before the doctor began to make a cursory exam. Checking pupils, taking temperature, measuring pulse, all while smiling.
I was truly late for my shift, but that seemed less important now. Judy was another. That meant something big was going on. However, it seemed unlikely I was going to learn much more here. Down the road—and clearly within walking distance—was where the real mystery lay. I left a few dollars on the counter, waved at Lorene who didn’t seem to notice, and made my way out the door.
It was a nice morning—early fall, a bit cool, but sunny and pleasant. Outside of the diner, the intrigue began to fade. I probably owed it to Mack to show up and help him with the morning rush. He’d enjoy the gossip, I was sure, and I could catch up on it later. Being a busybody had never really suited me, even if that was the primary pastime in a small town. I already felt a bit ashamed of my open gawking in the diner. Here was someone having a rough time, and there was me staring at the sideshow.
Hands in pockets, I made my way back towards the center of town and the grocery store where I had worked since high school. It wasn’t much, but it was a living, as they said. Being single, childless, and living in a small town, I seemed like the perfect candidate to move about and try to strike it rich anywhere else. But I had inherited my parent’s house, knew the town, and had a stable, relatively stress-free job, I always figured I was already living the dream. Besides, what small town didn’t need a few cranky spinsters for the kids to someday call Old Witch So-and-So. Live wasn’t glorious, but I certainly was happy.
I arrived at the grocery to see a few folks already waiting outside. The front doors were still locked, the lights were off. Mack lived a ways out of town on a piece of land large enough to nearly need its own postal code. He liked the isolation. But that meant if there was some sort of problem on the road, he’d be tied up. Maybe there was flooding out somewhere? I hadn’t heard any storms roll through last night, but weather had always been a bit fickle. Or maybe just some heavy fog bogging things down?
Heavy enough Judy Calvin lost her car in it? Whispered some doubting voice in the back of my mind, but I quieted it as I smiled at the soon-to-be customers.
“Cassie, finally, can you let us in? I’ve got to pick up a few things for the Town Hall lunch today and—“
I smiled and shrugged, effectively cutting off the conversation. “You know Mack as well as I do, Gloria. He’s not trusting the keys to the shop to anyone. Might make off with all the merchandise, ya’ know?”
She didn’t smile back, but crossed the gravel lot to her car. LuAnne and George were also waiting, but seemed satisfied enough with my response. I watched as George plugged in headphones and leaned against the wall. LuAnne simply sat on the hood of her car and watched the road, as if that would bring Mack in any sooner.
I glanced at my phone. Still no bars, still just as good as a paperweight. It was twenty minutes past opening now with no sign of Mack. He was probably trying to call, but not much good that would do him.
The autumn morning began shifting into a summer late morning. The sun was out in full force and began to bake the ground as I sat and waited. LuAnne and George had wandered off after a bit. Gloria had asked me four times if I could let her in, steaming a bit more each time. Finally she climbed into her car and said she’d drive to the city to get what she needed, but she’d let Mack know just what she thought about his service. I wished her well and waved her off. Now it was just me, waiting. It was an hour past opening and the lights stayed off.
I grabbed a newspaper from beside the door—yesterday’s edition, meaning whatever it was kept even the paper boy from making it in—and scribbled a note on it.
“Mack—been waiting here. I heard there’s problems on the road. Went to check with Sheriff Marsh. Be back soon. –C. “ I wedged it into the door, then began a slow walk back to the diner, the last place I had seen the sheriff. Lorene was at her post when I arrived, but the diner was far emptier than it had been.
“Do you know where the Sheriff went?” I asked as I entered the pleasantly cool establishment.
She smiled. “Took most of my customers with him to see what was what with this road issue. Headed that way,” she said, pointing out of town. Guess you’re off to sneak a peek as well.”
I shrugged. “Mack’s not here. Guess he must have gotten stuck, too. Didn’t know if the Sheriff had heard anything or if he had a key so I could open up for the day. Mack’d hate it, but, ya’ know, people need to eat.”
“That they do,” she said with a chuckle in her voice. “Well, best of luck.” Maybe the last bit of levity I can recall.
The road trailed down through some trees, and I followed it, staying to the side to avoid any oncoming traffic. But it was silent, only the sounds of birds chirping and squirrels darting through the underbrush. Quiet enough that I was stunned when I rounded a corner and stumbled across what seemed to be about a quarter of the town’s population. There was Gloria, gaping from beside her car. Looked like her trip to town turned out well. The Sheriff was there, staring ahead, along with a goodly number of my companions from the diner. Even Lucas had made his way down. And they were all staring at…nothing.
And when I say nothing, I mean nothing. It wasn’t white or black or dark or anything it just wasn’t…anything. I can’t describe what nothing looks like because there aren’t any features to pin it on. It’s more like some deep level of consciousness that sees emptiness and knows. The road was there, and then it wasn’t. The trees waved in a breeze, limbs momentarily existing and vanishing as they crossed that invisible boundary. And we all stared, not sure what to make of this impossibility.
“What is it?” came the stupid question from my mouth. Lucas opened and closed his mouth. The Sheriff turned and looked at me. “Not sure. But seems like it’s got us a bit cut off.”
“I’d say. Anyone walked into it?”
“A few folks, those that got surprised by it. I think Mrs. Calvin said she spent a few minutes wandering in it before showing up at Lorene’s this morning,” said the Sheriff as if this were nothing more than a sudden rainstorm that cropped up.
“Does it—does it end?”
“Don’t know,” he shrugged. “Guess that’s something we need to find out.”
He marched over to his cruiser, popping the trunk and shuffling around. A moment later, with a slam that seemed to bounce off the wall of nothing, he returned with a rope.
He waved to a couple of the gathered folks, handing the end of the rope to Frank Jordan, the deputy. Frank was a good, down to earth sort of fellow. He seemed to be taking everything in shocked, but resolute stride. “I’ll need you to hold on to this end here,” the Sheriff said, passing Frank one end of the rope. “I’ll tie the other around me, and that way I don’t get lost out there.” He ran the rope through his belt loops, securing it with a secure, Boy Scout approved knot. “If I tug twice, like this,” he demonstrated briefly, “then I want you all to start pulling and bring me back in. Got it?” We all nodded, and he glanced around, seeming to make eye contact with everyone. We were all responsible now. The reality that this was something unknown, unexplainable, impossible was all beginning to settle in on me in those moments, numbness creeping up my body like that nothingness appeared to creep along the road.
Frank held on, nodding sharply to the Sheriff who began to make his way into the nothing. One moment, he was there. The next, he vanished from view. Frank held the rope, and my eyes watched as it slowly snaked out further and further. I’m not sure I even breathed in those minutes as the line slowly wound out. Then, there was a tug—once, twice. Frank began pulling, all of us latching on to the rope and reeling it in. The rope felt light, flying in far more quickly than it had spun out. And only at the end, as the frayed end of the rope emerged from the emptiness, did the meaning fully hit us. There was silence, all eyes on the end of the rope lying motionless on the ground, trying to take in everything it might mean.
We had town meetings after that. Everyone gathered together, but no one had any answers. Had about four before everyone stopped showing up—seemed they only sparked panic and hopelessness, staring into one another’s eyes and all reading the same, terrifying truth reflected back.
Electricity lasted a few days from the local facility, but it dried up pretty quick. After a few more, I realized I hadn’t seen the sun. Light still came in the morning and darkness at night, but it was as if we were trapped in a dome where only light seeped through. There were no stars at night, no light of the moon. Just a dim, diffused light during the day and a heavy, silent dark at night. The wind stopped blowing at some point, covering everything in an added layer of unnatural stillness. Sound seemed to be muffled, captured in whatever bubble we found ourselves in.
For a few days, everyone tried to go on like it was normal, as if it were just a long weekend and everyone had the day off. But the longer the situation lasted, the more impossible it became to pretend like this was some short-lived fluke. We busted the windows to the grocery store after four days—people had to eat, after all. It seemed like that was the moment we all made peace with the fact that this town was our prison. Most of us in town had assumed this would be the place we’d die as well, just not quite like this.
There is a rhythm to disaster as well. Wake up, go to the town hall to check for news, shop the remains of the grocery to ensure enough food for the next few days. Boil some water. Sit and watched the sunless sky fade to night. It’s not good, but somehow humanity always seems to find a pattern. And so I lived that pattern as the members in town dwindled. I assumed folks decided to risk it, take the chance on escape.
And I have to hope now that they all made it, finding some world on the other side of this nothing that was bustling and alive and active. Because soon, I’ll be taking that same impossible journey. You see, I woke up this morning, looked out the window, and saw that I was surrounded by nothing. The town was gone, my neighbor was gone, even the oak tree outside my window. In my gut, I felt something settled. Some part of me had known this would happen the whole time. And so I have packed the food I have into a pack, along with all the bottles of water I still had filled. I’ve got a flashlight, not that it seems to penetrate this nothing around me. Some matches, a change of clothes, and a hodgepodge of medical supplies scavenged from my bathroom cabinet. I don’t really stand a chance if there isn’t reality waiting on the other side. But I suppose I haven’t got a choice.
There are sounds in the nothing now. Something I’ve never heard before, but that I can hear as it surrounds me. Groans—almost like whale songs I heard playing that time I went to the aquarium. But deeper, sharper somehow. They don’t sound safe. I have my grandfather’s shot gun and what shells I could find, I suppose that should be comforting, but that feeling of helplessness has settled so deep inside me that nothing seems to uproot it.
I’ve wasted precious daylight writing this—truth is, I don’t want to start walking. But maybe someday this will lift and someone will know what has happened. Or perhaps you’re unlucky enough to find yourself trapped here. Maybe it will shine some light on what happened. I don’t have any answers.
Procrastinating is not getting me anywhere. I’m going to go now.
God be with us all.
So, 2017 has been a great, exciting, and busy time. However, all those wonderful and busy things mean I have not really been writing…at all. In February we started looking for a house, found one we liked in March, closed in April, started remodeling, and finally moved in June. Then I started studying nonstop for my licensing exam while we continued renovations on the house. A little over a week ago, I passed my exam (after around 150 hours of studying!). Hopefully, that’s one of the last big hoops on the road to becoming a full-fledged psychologist! Yesterday, we finished the final large scale interior project for the house–we’re waiting for cooler weather before tackling all the outside work.
So, it’s been good, but I’m glad to get back to writing a bit more regularly. I have been saving up quite a few ideas I want to get on paper, this one included. Plus I have some ideas saved up for Milgram that I definitely want to work on. If you’ve read this far, thanks! I hope you enjoyed this little story. Hopefully I’ll be more reliable going forward. I don’t have any plan to buy another house or take another test. Just general life stuff. Which can be crazy enough on it’s own.
As always, I’m open to any feedback you might have. I feel rusty, but definitely enjoyed getting words on paper and creating (then destroying–sorry about that…) this little town. Feel free to leave me a comment if you’d like.
This work by Katherine C is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License.