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.
Hello there! Welcome to the 13 Stories of Halloween in the Attic. I know, it’s not an original concept, but I thought it would be fun. What it means is, for the next 13 days, I’m going to post a short story relating to the season. Being a predominantly horror/supernatural writer, this is kind of like my Christmas. So I thought I should celebrate!
The stories will be short one-shots dealing with seasonal themes. Expect to see classic monsters, trick-or-treaters, jack-o-lanterns, ghosts, and ghouls. Some will be funny, some scary, and most of them a little campy. I have written a few of them over the past two days, and there is quite a bit of variability in the style and tone of them. Hopefully there will be something for everyone! All the stories will be available in the 13 Stories of Halloween tag, so you can catch up anytime. Without further ado, I give you the first story. Happy reading!
“How long do we have to stay here?” Alex asked, his eyes trying to take in the decrepit setting all at once but only succeeding in bouncing wildly from one corner of the room to the other.
“What, are you chickening out already?” His friend Dean threw his backpack onto the floor as he stomped in.
“No, I just—it’s hot out, is all, and this place definitely doesn’t have AC.”
The two boys stood in the entryway to the abandoned house. Like every town, theirs had its haunted house. They were certain, however, that their haunted house was actually haunted. Unlike all those others. A sweeping staircase stretched in front of them and up towards the second floor. There was a room to either side of the entryway, neither decorated in a way to suggest any previous use. Everything was simply covered in a hefty coat of dust and broken glass. The windows had been boarded up, but only after the town hooligans had managed to smash most of them.
Dean knelt down by his bag, the dust swirling around him as he disturbed it. His hands swam through the bag before escaping with two flashlights. He had replaced the batteries before leaving home, and they shone brightly as he tested them out.
“Trust me, Al, you aren’t going to melt.” Dean shoved a flashlight toward Alex, who took it and rapidly clicked it on and off as if afraid it would reject his commands. Dean took a few steps forward, venturing further into the house along the hallway running parallel to the stairs. “Guess we should have a look around?”
Alex nodded and turned his light on. While the moon was large and bright outside, almost none of that light made it past the plywood sheets on the windows. The floors creaked under their feet, obviously unused to being walked on. How long had such a place lain dormant, Alex wondered. There were no signs left of the original occupants. Of course, that made sense. He never understood why the houses in movies and TV shows were always furnished with antiques. He knew enough to know that was like burying cash in a house and leaving the door unlocked.
The hallway led back and into what appeared to be a kitchen. There were old hookups from something, plus the sagging remains of countertops. Dean tapped his flashlight against a hole in the wall. “Someone beat us to the pipes and wiring,” he said with a smirk. Alex just nodded.
There was a small pantry off the kitchen, but nothing inside besides rat droppings and an old pull string light. Despite its rather imposing presence on the street, the house itself was beginning to feel rather cramped. And, if Alex was honest, boring. Hearing the stories, he had expected bloodstains and skeletons, maybe some screaming ghosts and at least a general feeling of unease. But it felt like an abandoned house. Nothing special.
Dean took the lead, walking back towards the entryway. The two rooms off the entrance were large and open. One had a fireplace in the middle of one wall, the brickwork crumbling away. Dean shone his light inside it and leaned close to inspect what was left. Expecting perhaps some charred bones or the remains of a secret diary, he was disappointed to find nothing more than some burnt newspaper—probably from the last bum seeking shelter—and bird droppings.
“Well, this is a bit of a letdown,” muttered Dean as he rose back to full height. Alex leaned against the opposite wall, his flashlight off and bouncing softly against his knee.
“I did expect something a little more interesting from the scariest house in Four Clovers,” agreed Alex.
“Yeah, I’m pretty sure my Aunt’s house after chili night is a lot scarier than this old place.”
“But I’m guessing you still want to stay?”
Dean looked at Alex as if he were the dumbest person in the room. “Of course,” he said, stating the obvious, “it’s a dare, isn’t it? We have to stay until after 3:00am. The Witching Hour.” At the last phrase, he flipped his light up so it cast his face in shadows, taking one long, stalking step towards Alex. It was less effective than he hoped.
“I bet the asbestos in here is terrible for cell service, too,” bemoaned Alex as he slid down the wall and pulled his phone from his pocket.
“I don’t know if that’s how that works,” stated Dean, “and either way, we still have to check upstairs.”
Now was Alex’s turn to return the stare. “I’m sorry, upstairs? Have you seen the state of this place? You go up there, you will fall back through the floor. And I’m not carrying you to the ER for a busted leg.”
“We can’t just half explore the house.”
“We can. We agreed to stay here, not choose it for our summer home.”
“Oh, come on, what if all the scary stuff is upstairs?”
Alex made a show of leaning away from the wall and out the doorway, just far enough out so that he could barely look up the staircase. “You’re probably right, bro. I bet the ghosts like to hide up there. But hey, we wouldn’t want to scare them.” He returned to typing on his phone, probably telling Amy how much of a bust Dean’s Halloween plans turned out to be.
“We said we’d take a picture in the attic. They’ll never believe us without it.”
Alex sighed and rolled his eyes, then pushed himself to his feet. He grumpily shoved his phone in his pocket and retrieved his abandoned flashlight. “Fine. We’ll go to the attic. But if I fall and die, you have to deal with my parents.”
The two slowly started up the stairs. They groaned and sagged a bit, but none of them gave way as they stepped carefully up one at a time.
“This is what my grandpa calls true craftsmanship,” said Dean with an exaggerated smile. He eagerly stomped once, twice, three times on his step, which responded with a hollow thud.
“Just climb the stairs.”
The landing branched off to three bedrooms, with a fourth door closed at the end of the hall. Alex walked toward the closed toward and supposed staircase to the attic while Dean turned the opposite way.
“Dude, attic?” snapped Alex.
Dean shrugged and continued on his way. “If we’re up here, we might as well check out the rooms. I think this one,” he waved his flashlight at the open room at the end of the hall, “was where the father murdered his daughter and her boyfriend.”
Alex waited, hoping he could call the bluff, but Dean vanished into one of the rooms and did not reemerge. “Dean?” he tried after a few seconds of silence. No response.
“Dean? Come on, did you fall in or something?” Alex began taking slow, measured steps down the hall, leaning against the all as he tried to peek into the bedroom. But Alex was nowhere to be seen.
“It’s not funny. Come on, let’s go to the attic!” Slow and steady, he made his way down the hall and found himself face to face with the doorway. He leaned around the doorframe and spotted Dean, face pressed against the intact glass of the window.
“What are you doing?”
“I can see in the Davis’s house from here. They’re watching Saw tonight.” Alex shoved him, and Dean pulled away from the window with a wide grin.
“I thought you were bored?”
“Can we just go up to the attic? Before this place collapses?”
“Fine,” Dean acquiesced, making their way out of the room and toward the opposite end of the hall. “They say after he killed the two of them, he strangled his wife because she wouldn’t stop screaming. And then his son tried to stop him, but the dad pushed him down the stairs.”
“Yeah, Dean, everyone knows the story. Dad goes crazy, kills everyone. The American Dream.”
“But isn’t it crazy? We’re walking where they died. Those stairs? Those were the ones he threw his son down! That front door? He shoved some neighbor guy’s face through it. I mean, there aren’t any ghosts, but still…”
“Yeah, and when you sit on your couch, you’re sitting where your parents conceived you.” Alex stopped, underlighting his face and waving his free hand about his head. “Isn’t that spooooky?”
“You’re an ass, you know?”
They tugged open the door to the attic, staring up at yet another set of stairs. These were noticeably less dusty, likely, Dean reasoned, due to the closed door. Still, cobwebs hung thick around them.
“Ladies first,” offered Dean. Alex shoved him forward onto the first step.
“No, I insist, after you,” said Alex with a smirk.
The attic was as much of a letdown as the rest of the house. Nothing up the stairs, not even an old treasure trove of discarded junk. Whoever had moved them out took everything with them. Alex snapped the picture with little fanfare, and they began their descent.
“Do you think there’s a basement?” asked Dean, hopefully.
“You can check. I’m going to watch some videos until we can finally leave in—“ Alex quickly checked his phone—“two hours and seventeen minutes.”
“You’re so lame.”
“You’re the one who still says lame.”
They reached the bottom of the stairs and turned the doorknob, but it was stuck.
“So much for craftsmanship,” muttered Alex, giving the door a solid push. It protested, but did not move.
“Let me try. Probably just warped.” Dean put his hand on the doorknob, turning it sharply. He leaned back, then shoved his shoulder into the door. It released suddenly, sending him stumbling out onto the decrepit landing.
Only this time it was different. The dust was gone, replaced by a stylish carpet runner down the middle of the floor. The rooms had doors on them now, and light seeped out from under the far door.
“What the—“ the words died on Alex’s lips. Everything was clean and new, or at least newer than before. Someone was snoring behind one of the doors. “We’ve got to get out of here,” he said when his voice returned, pushing past Dean toward the stairs.
“What do you mean?” hissed Dean. “We’ve been looking for something to happen, and now you just want to leave?”
But Alex was already halfway down the stairs. The door squealed open, then closed with a final thud. Dean stood dumbstruck at his post. Shaking his head, he slowly began walking along the hall towards the door with lighting. The daughter’s door, he told himself. Maybe he could talk to her ghost.
The door swung open quietly, so quietly it did not immediately alert the occupant. She sat at a table under the window, writing thoughtfully in a small journal. He could see her face reflected in the dark glass of the window, a smile on her lips at whatever she was writing down. After a moment, her eyes caught his reflection in the mirror, and she turned with a start.
“Ricky?” she asked, eyes wide with surprise and a little fear.
“Uh, my name’s not—“
“You know better than to come here. What if my dad finds us?” She stormed across the room, peeking her head out the door before closing it quietly.
“My name’s Dean,” he finally managed.
“This is not a time for jokes. My dad cannot know you were here. He didn’t see you, did he?” All the warmth had drained from her face, leaving behind nothing but the very real fear. It seemed to be contagious, because Dean felt it bubbling through his chest as well.
“No, no one saw me. Everyone else was asleep.”
“Good, then you’ll just climb out the window and go home. We’ll talk at school.” She grabbed his hand and practically dragged him across the room. The window squealed in protest as she raised it, and they both froze. Nothing but silence in the house.
She released a small sigh, followed by a half smile. “Don’t pull something like that again,” she said as she kissed him softly on the cheek.
Dean got one leg out the window before the silence exploded into noise. The door to the room flew open, an angry giant of a man filling the frame. He crossed the room in what could have been no more than two long strides, grabbing Dean by his shirt and dragging him back into the room.
The two eyes that glared down at him were bloodshot, and the smell of alcohol rolled off of him in a tangible wave. “You think you can come into my house?” he roared, angry enough that spittle coated Dean’s face.
Dean’s lips were moving, trying to get words out that would solve the problem. But nothing besides air made it through.
The eyes moved from Dean to the girl cowering beside the window. “You think you can whore in my house?” he bellowed. She covered her face defensively, a tiny sob escaping her lips as she prepared for an incoming blow. Instead, the man threw Dean like a rag doll against the wall.
“I guess I’ll have to teach you both a lesson.”
Alex waited outside, breathing heavily as he eyed the once again dark house. He was not sure what he had seen inside, but something had happened. It wasn’t until he made it off the porch that everything returned to its prior state of disrepair. But, Dean had not followed. And now, he paused and listened closely, he imagined he heard some mumbling voice.
The mumble grew until it was a definitively audible roar from the back corner of the building, accompanied now by a wet smacking noise that he could not place. It made his skin crawl, and his concern for Dean shot up a few more degrees.
Then someone screamed, a brief and piercing noise that cut off halfway through. The silence after was deafening. This was a prank, Alex assured himself. Dean must have recorded some spooky noises and saw this as the perfect opportunity to scare him. There probably hadn’t been a dare after all. He expected some new effect after the scream was silenced, but there was nothing for a minute. The silence stretched.
Alex walked back up the stairs of the porch and tentatively turned the door knob.
“Dean?” he asked as he gently opened the door and stepped inside.
The door opened onto a lovely furnished entryway, this time. In shock, he felt the door slip form his hand and fall gently closed behind him. Alex looked up along the stairs to see a young boy kneeling and crying, as some dark shadow paced from down the hallway. The boy sobbed and screamed in terror. Then, in a fluid motion, the shadow grabbed the boy by the neck and flung him down the stairs, almost as if discarding a dirty rag. The body bounced about halfway down the staircase, rolling the rest of the way to land at Alex’s feet.
He was rooted to the spot, eyes wide. His mouth opened and closed like a fish, and he felt just as breathless. “Do not meddle in my business,” roared the shadow at the top of the stair. It suddenly barreled down the stairs, taking them two or three at a time. Alex felt his muscles free in time for him to spin to the door, hands scrambling for the knob.
Just as his fingers wrapped around the doorknob, strong fingers wrapped around his skull.
“It’s my house!” growled the man from the stairs, punctuating the statement with a knock on the door using Alex’s head.
“It’s my family,” he added, giving another firm knock.
“I’m the man—“ the world was grey and full of impossible pain for Alex with the third knock—“of this household.”
The man’s fingers seemed to seep into Alex’s skull know, pressing on his brain from all sides until it felt like it was simply going to explode.
“I will. Be. Respected,” he growled, each word punctuated by another rapid conference between Alex’s head and the door.
Alex welcomed the relieving darkness, the man’s word turning into nothing but mumbled nonsense. The pain faded as he got one last glimpse at the outside world before that massive hand pulled his head back through the door to continue his tirade.
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.
Hello! So, this piece was posted on creepypasta.com today. You can check it out on the site here if you’d like to see the ratings, comments, etc. All told, it is a finished piece that I probably will not be returning to, though I did catch one typo when skimming through it this morning (because of course I did). I certainly enjoyed writing this one and hope it gives you a chill down your spine.
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New or old, I hope you enjoy this story. As always, Happy reading!
Marjorie had been lingering outside the nondescript metal door for nearly two hours, appearing to study the door and the faded sign above it. The Deli, it read in dusty script. Her coat was wrapped as tightly around her as the fraying fabric allowed, but still the winter air dug through it. The cold was not enough, however, to drive her out of the elements and through the door. Once or twice she approached it, hand shaking as it neared the handle, only to draw back at the last second as if the handle were a snake.
It should have been easier to enter the door the longer she waited, but it seemed to only grow immeasurably more difficult. It did not help that in her entire time waiting no one had entered or left the building. Had someone sallied up, opened the door, and safely entered into a cloud of inviting warmth, it may have lured her in. Similarly, the safe exit of any sort of person would have given her the assurance that one could brave whatever lay beyond. But the road was empty, and the door sat unmoving.
A particularly sharp gust of wind whistled down the abandoned alley, tugging at her coat and sending her tangled hair into a maelstrom. Her eyes watered at the cold, and she inched closer to the wall, hoping it would afford some protection. It was silly, she chided herself, spending all this time out in the elements. This was what had to be done. She was out of options, and her only hope lay beyond that door.
Yet Marjorie wondered if perhaps it was better to be hopeless than pay whatever price this hope would cost.
The streetlight flickered on overhead. Soon it would be dark, and then she would have to make a decision or risk staying on the unsafe streets at night. Being here in the middle of the day was dangerous enough—she would not be caught outside after dark.
That was the final shove she needed to overcome her inertia. With sudden resolve, she gripped the door handle. It flew open in her hands almost reflexively, for which she was glad. The metal was bitterly cold, seeming almost to burn her with its chill. Had the door not stood open, she would have again released it and likely vanished back to her home.
Inside was a nondescript, concrete hallway. A lonely yellow light filled the inside, leading to another door. This door was made of a dark wood and had a heavy brass knocker affixed to the middle. Marjorie’s steps echoed in the concrete chamber, coming to a sudden stop when the metal door groaned to a loud close. The weak, evening light was now gone, leaving her alone with only the single bulb. She had not realized how comforting it was to have that little bit of the outside world with her. With the door closed, even the distant sounds of traffic were cut-off.
Panic wrapped its claws around her throat. She felt her chest tighten with its serpentine grip; her heart thundered against her ribs. In that moment, instincts took over and she reverted to her most primitive response. Flee.
The echoes of her steps were a maddening flurry around her as she sprinted the fifteen feet back to the metal door. Her hands scrambled for purchase on the handle, only to find nothing but smooth metal. No handle on this side. The thunder of thousands of years of evolution continued to push her towards flight, and her fingers clawed around the metal door frame, hoping to find some crevice to pry open the door. Only there was again nothing. In the dim light afforded by the bulb, she could not make out a single seam. It was almost as if the door had sealed as soon as she entered. Her breaths now came in ragged gasps that did little to help her or calm her. Instead, the world seemed to swim before her. A mocking door, concrete walls. It was almost as if the walls were inching closer, activated on some cruel timer to pin her here forever.
All that she could hear was the flood of blood pulsing through her veins, the rapid fluttering of her heart frantically trying to escape, and the jarring sound of air ripping from her lungs before being shoved back inside. The walls acted as an echo chamber, reflecting her own terrified symphony back at her.
Deep breaths, she reminded herself. Just like those nights spent in the closet, deep breaths. She had to slow herself down if she was going to survive this. Slowing her breathing to a measured pace was akin to stopping a car with no brakes. She felt her lungs fight against the control, trying to maintain their breakneck pace despite her insistence. Over time, however, she won out. The breaths were shaky, but calm, and her heart took its cue to return to its typical state of frenzy. The walls returned to their assigned places and stopped their dizzying journey.
Carefully, Marjorie ran her hands along the wall where the door stood, confirming that there was no seam that she could grip. It was a well-constructed door; there was not even a glimmer of dying afternoon light slipping through the bottom. If she could not back out now, she must go forward.
The hallway was not long, but she felt like a member of a funeral procession as she somberly made her way towards the door. Up close, she could see twisting, abstract shapes carved all over the door. They meant nothing to her, but she felt her breaths begin to hiccup again in her chest. Deep breaths, she repeated her only mantra.
Her hand was shaking as she placed it on the brass knocker. Unlike the door handle, this one was pleasantly warm to the touch. Inviting, almost. With a groan of rusted metal, she lifted it and rapped it quickly against the door. One, two, three. The door began to swing smoothly on its hinges after the third knock, opening onto a room filled with the murmur of quieted voices and wisps of strange smelling smoke. She stepped gingerly inside, feeling immediately out of place.
There were tables and booths scattered around the room. Marjorie did her best not to make eye contact or even look at them, keeping her eyes trained to the worn wood floor. She heard a few snickers, saw a couple hands point her out from their shadowy seats. Even as the large frames filled her periphery, she walked steadfastly towards the counter at the far end of the room.
Everyone in the room recognized immediately how out of place she was. While they were each bedecked in protective charms and talismans—some hanging from their necks, others etched into the scar tissue of their bodies—all she had was the flimsy barrier of her coat, still pulled tight around her against the now suffocating heat of the small room. She waked gingerly across the creaking floorboards, barely daring to breathe. They grinned and watched.
Marjorie approached the counter and lifted her eyes to see the attendant slouched on a stool behind the domed glass structure. Halfway to his face, her eyes froze on the contents of the display case. She assumed the rotted lumps inside had once been some sort of meat, though they were now covered in flies and maggots. Pooled, congealed blood covered the bottom surface, even seeping out and down to the floor. She followed the trail to see the red-stained, warped wood along the floor boards. Mouth agape and eyes wide, she was certain she saw a few eyeballs and fingers mixed in amongst the decay, but she tried to put it out of her mind.
“Want to try a sample?” came the mocking, gravelly voice of the attendant as he pulled open the door to the case. Immediately, a wave of putrescence poured out and enveloped Marjorie. She did her best to escape it, stumbling backwards and tripping over a warped floorboard. There was a low chuckle from those gathered around her, growing more and more quickly into a round of bawdy laughter.
She gagged, her stomach trying to force up the breakfast and lunch she had not eaten. It burned her eyes, starting them watering again. Her stomach having only been successful in ejecting a small amount of water she had nervously sipped at outside, her lungs took to coughing. Anything to get that stench away from her and out of her body.
There was the sound of a lock snapping into place as the attendant continued to laugh. She studied him briefly from her place on the floor behind watery eyes. He was filthy, covered in a layer of grime that made it impossible to tell his age. A tangled mess of dirt and wispy hair sat atop his head, falling into his beady eyes as he rocked back and forth with laughter at her predicament. His hands—stained and caked with muck—gripped the counter as long, yellowed nails scraped across the glass in time to his chuckling.
Marjorie did her best to pull herself together, rising from the floor and straightening her clothes as if that would restore her dignity. The smell had faded, now only a slight whiff of decay rather than the malodorous assault. That or her nose could no longer register the scent having burned out that sense for good. She threw her head back, eyes meeting the dark, glassy eyes of the man behind the counter.
“I’m here to speak with the owner,” she said in what she hoped was a confident voice. It did not help that it trembled and broke as she spoke. But at her words, a begrudging silence spread through the room.
The attendant snorted, a thick mucusy sound. For a moment she was afraid he was preparing to spit on her. Instead, he jerked one dirty finger to a paper ticket dispenser. “Take a number, then.”
With that, the attention on her seemed to fade. The low, grumble of conversation returned and she heard chairs scraping across the wood as the denizen’s returned to their intrigue. She walked over and gripped the dusty piece of paper delicately, as if afraid it might crumble to dust in her fingers. Perhaps this was another trick. Instead, the machine groaned and dispensed with a tiny slip. Number 43. She looked around for some sign that told her where she was. She had not seen anyone enter or leave today, so perhaps the line was long. But there was no such indicator.
“Excuse me,” she cautiously questioned the attendant, “how do I know what number is up?”
One eye turned to face her, the other stared out over the bar. “Take a seat and you’ll be called.” His eye flicked back to whatever it was between the counter and door that so raptly held his attention.
Marjorie gingerly picked her way over to an unoccupied table, acutely aware that her back was exposed to whatever kind of people liked to congregate in a place like this. She was certain that she could feel each individual eye raking over her back, sense spider-like appendages trace up and down her spine. Her hands were balled into knots, resting bloodlessly on her lap.
The minutes trickled by, marked only by the rise and fall of bawdy laughter. Marjorie kept her eyes focused on the table in front of her, trying to pick out patterns and shapes in the wooden surface. Trying to keep her mind from wandering too far from the task at hand. Somehow she knew that she could snap if forced to take in the reality of where she was and what she was doing. Instead, she focused on the next step. Meeting the owner and making her request.
The crack of a metal mug slamming onto the wooden table brought her eyes up, open wide like an animal caught in a snare. A woman stood across from her, tall and broad-shouldered. She had one bright green eye that studied Marjorie up and down. In place of her other eyes was a nasty incision, weeping a slight bit of pus, that bulged with dark stitches. Without being invited, the woman settled into the seat across from Marjorie.
“Me oh my, you don’t belong here, pretty thing,” she said in a hushed tone. Her eye was hungry. Marjorie sat silent as the woman studied her with a slight smile on her dry, swollen lips. “No, you aren’t meant to be here at all. What brings a little bird like you into a place like this?”
Marjorie focused her eyes back on the table. There was nothing she could say here that would keep her safe, and she knew that. She just needed to meet with the owner and make her request.
“A quiet one. Not going to sing for Lucy, eh? Come now, tell me what you need and I can help you get out of this place.” Marjorie’s silence prevailed. “We both know this is not a safe place for the likes of you. I’ve got a soft-spot for women, knowing how hard it is to be among this rabble myself. Just let me help you, dearie.”
Almost unbidden, Marjorie’s eyes lifted from the table and met the woman’s unnatural green one. It was beautiful, truly, even if it was nested within a hideous face. The green reminded Marjorie of the view from her bedroom window as a child on Easter morning. There was a small tree that grew just outside that always seemed to be absolutely covered in new leafs that shone with that bright, spring green. That was the color of the eyes. And it shone and sparkled like sunlight reflecting off water.
“There now, I’m sure we can work something out. I just know I can help you with whatever you need.” Lucy’s voice was a soft singsong, not the harsh growl of a dedicated chain smoker like before. “I even make sure my prices are fair, especially for a fair young thing like yourself.” Marjorie felt a hand on her knee, gently stroking. “Them pretty eyes of yours—they look like they’ve seen a world of heartache, eh? I could take care of those for you. You’d like that, yes?”
Eye fixated, Marjorie felt her head begin to bob slightly. To not see the horrors she had in her time, well, that would be nice.
“I see you like the idea,” Lucy’s face cracked open into a wide grin. “I thought you might. I’m good as seeing what people really need from me. I just need you to say it. Say you’ll give me those awful eyes of yours, and I’ll make sure you never have to see something so terrible again.”
Marjorie’s mouth opened, the very words on her lips, when a strong hand settled onto her shoulder. It smelled of leather and blood and gripped her shoulder hard enough to break the trance.
“Not going to let you have all the fun, Ol’ Luce. It’s not every day we get something so lovely in this dingy place.”
Marjorie felt dizzy and confused, as if time were moving at double again its normal pace. Her mind was slow in catching up to what was happening—what had almost happened—leaving her feeling as if she were lagging behind the rest of the world. Now Lucy was standing, measuring up to a formidable height, with anger in that lone green eye.
“I’ll not have you meddling, Thomas. She and I were nearly to a deal.”
“A deal you tricked her into, no less. Where’s the fun in that? Just weave your little spell, and she’ll say whatever you want. You’ve gone soft, Luce. I need to make you work for it.” His voice was soft, but firm. It seemed to cut through the background din like a razor, until it was the only thing she could hear. As Marjorie’s mind caught up with what had just nearly happened, she felt her heart begin to race. And then there was the hand on her shoulder, the firm grip beginning to hurt with its intensity.
The man bent over her shoulder, smiling. A long, black beard tickled against the skin of her neck, and she could smell the whiskey on his breath. “I’m afraid we have not been introduced, and I’ve already gone and saved your life. It’s a bad habit, I admit. My name is Thomas.” He extended his other hand towards her, the one on her shoulder growing tighter as she refused to shake. “Oh, we must be polite in an uncivil place as this, yes? What’s your name?”
Marjorie whimpered at the pain in her shoulder but fixed her eyes back on the table. She had to talk to the owner. She had to make her request.
“Back off and let her be, Thomas. I saw her; I made the first move. There’ll be others for you,” barked Lucy’s voice.
“Yes, but you didn’t close on the sale, now did you?” His eyes flicked away from Marjorie for just a moment, fixing Lucy with a cold gaze before returning with more warmth to Marjorie’s face. “You’ll find I’m much more direct. No need for silly games.” The hand moved smoothly from her shoulder, along the back of her neck. Suddenly, his fingers were wrapped through her hair, yanking her head back and exposing her throat. She felt something cold and sharp there, and barely dare to breathe. His smiling face leaned over hers, “How many years would you give me to keep this pretty little neck of yours attached?”
Marjorie heard a short laugh to her right, saw a slender man standing to the side. He stood just within her periphery, far enough back that she could only make out the vague shape of him. “Thomas, do be careful. There is plenty of her to go around if we just act with a little tact. I bet you could make some even better deals if you thought this through.”
“Oh no, you aren’t going to trip me up with that again. You swindled me out of everything last time.”
“You are right, it was a bit of a dirty trick. But surely you and Luce could work out some sort of a deal. You don’t need her eyes after all.”
Marjorie noticed the shadow of Luce appeared to turn and nod towards the man to the side, and she heard a very soft chuckle from him.
Thomas’ hands gripped her hair even more tightly. “You’re just mad that I got to her first, and this time I’m cutting you out!”
“Well, fine, but I fear it’s not just me you’ll be fighting against, Tom. A lot of us would like a piece of her.”
Thomas leaned back down by her ear, his words coming in a whispered frenzy. “Well, dear, looks like they’ll be taking you piece by piece. What do you say then? Give Ol’ Thomas whatever years you’ve got left? At least they’ll go to some sort of use, yeah?”
Marjorie heard grumbling in the room, the sound of chairs scraping along the wood, and a chorus of various metals meeting metal. There was a new tension in the uncomfortably warm room, a weight that pressed down all around her.
“Come on, times ticking, do we have a deal? You look like an altruistic soul. Help me out.” Footsteps coming close, a few short barks of anger. The intensity increased in his voice and he shook her head sharply. “They’ll cut out your tongue soon, so you best tell me now!”
Marjorie felt tears falling down her cheeks, a steady stream now pouring from her eyes. She had to speak to the owner. She had to make her request. Only she was not so sure she’d even get that chance.
Someone grabbed Thomas and the knife nicked her, drawing a thin line of blood far less lethal than it could have been. Marjorie dove under the table, trying to evade the arms that grabbed at her. There was the smell of blood in the room, and all the inhabitants had been suitably whipped into a frenzy. She was the lone fish drifting amongst the sharks.
A mug struck her temple, thick hands gripped and tugged at her arms, leaving angry red bruises that began to darken almost instantly. The rough floor scraped along her knees and arms as she crawled, filling her skin with tiny needling splinters. As she scrambled, kicked, and bit at any appendage that came her way, she noticed the tempo of the fray beginning to increase. No longer was she the main prize, but the fighters had turned on one another, vying for the chance to claim this lovely reward. They knew, of course, that she had nowhere to run. Finally, she found a corner to hide in, burying her head in her arms and trying to drown out the sound of the chaos around here. She needed to speak to the owner.
After what felt like hours of combat, the sounds of an opening door cut through the din. A sudden silence filled the room, minus the groaning of the incapacitated, and Marjorie began to sob. This was it. A victor had been named, and she was now the trophy to be parceled as he or she saw fit. She could not even lift her eyes to see which of the horrors in the room she would be left with.
However, something else broke the silence. “Number 43?” asked the calm voice of a young girl. Marjorie dared to barely lift her head, seeing the tiny figure standing in a doorway that had not existed moments before.
She scrambled to her feet, holding aloft the ticket she had somehow held onto during the fray. None of the remaining combatants—the war had obviously not been won quite yet—dared to touch her as she walked forward, towards the child in the doorway. Still, she shuddered and spooked as they milled about in the shadows. The girl motioned into the bright rectangle cut into the formerly intact wall, and Marjorie walked forward.
The door closed behind her, a parlor trick she was now used to. It took a few moments for her eyes to adjust from the gloom of the waiting room to the warm light of this new area. It was a well-furnished office, completed with a large wooden desk and an assortment of alluring leather chairs. The scent of cedar mixed with the smell of the crackling fireplace in a way that reminded Marjorie of weekend trips to her grandad’s cabin. Silently, the young girl stepped against the wall behind Marjorie, next to what had been the doorway, but now was nothing more than another section of oak paneling.
The man behind the desk did not look up at first. He was busy tallying and writing in a thick ledger, seemingly uninterested in the bruised and bloody woman before him. After a few moments, he looked up with a friendly smile and closed the book firmly.
“Marjorie, pleasure to meet you finally. I see you got the traditional welcome from our guests? And not a one of them was able to make a deal with you! You must be made of some tough stuff.”
She nodded mutely, uncertain now of how to proceed. He simply smiled at her and gave her the time she needed to study him. His teeth were bright white—the only clean thing she had seen since entering the deli. His eyes were as dark as his teeth were white, but they appeared to be friendly. As he waited for her to speak, he knitted his fingers together in front of him, rolling his shoulder to straighten out the drape of his crisp suit coat. Every bit of him seemed to be polished and neat—a stark contrast to the room before.
“Are you the Devil?” she finally managed to squeak out, eyes wide.
He laughed, throwing his head back and letting the sound ripple around the room. It was a friendly, amused sound that put her at ease. “Oh no, nothing so boring as that.”
“But you can give people whatever they want.”
He composed himself, that same broad smile still on his face. “Well, of course I can. But there is much more to this world than your simple understanding of gods and devils. Don’t worry, Marjorie, this is no deal with the Devil. But do tell me, what is it you want?”
“I—I came here to—“ The words would not come. She had thought and thought about how she would tell her story, how she would describe the years of abuse, threats, and evil. She considered taking off her coat and showing him the pale yellow stains of old bruises, but they were now marred by fresh ones from the fray. She felt for the death certificate in her pocket, the name of her first son written on it. And now the words would not come.
He watched patiently, no hint of irritation at her pause. When she began to sob, he offered her the handkerchief from his front pocket.
“He told everyone I was drunk. That was how I fell down the stairs. That was why Mikey died.” The tears were coming more in earnest now, and she dabbed at her eyes with the handkerchief. “They all looked at me like a terrible mother, that I would be drinking while pregnant. They blamed me—if I had been sober, I wouldn’t have fallen and Mikey would have at least had a chance. No one believed me.”
“I don’t bring people back from the dead, Marjorie. Even I don’t meddle in things like that,” his voice was soft, almost as if moved by her tearful story.
She took that moment to compose herself, sniffing and wiping away the tears. “I know. That’s not why I’m here. I want you to kill my husband.” The words were out, blunt and dirty, before she realized what she was saying. This was not how the discussion was supposed to have gone.
His face brightened. “Oh, is that all you need? Well, that should be a relatively easy matter”
“You don’t understand. He’s a monster. It won’t be easy to kill him, but you have to. You have to kill him, because he’s a very bad person.”
“Marjorie, I don’t care who he is. He could be Hitler or the Pope reincarnate. All I care about is that you want him dead. And I can make that happen, no matter how ‘monstrous’ he might be.” He reached over and pulled an ornate ink pen from his desk. “I will need some details, like his name, address, distinguishing physical features. Also, would you like proof of death?”
Marjorie’s stomach churned at the thought of what she was doing. It was the only way, though. He had to pay for his crimes, and no one else was willing to do it. “No, I won’t need that. Everyone says you follow through on your deals.”
“Word of mouth is certainly the best advertisement for services such as mine,” he smiled that disarming smile again.
“Um, well, his name is David Bergen and his address is 1394 Windhaven Rd, Apt 1722. It’s in Topeka.” He continued writing and nodding. “He’s about six foot tall, a big bulky guy. Blond hair, brown eyes. He has some sort of tribal tattoo on the back of his neck, one of a skull on his right bicep. Is that enough?”
“Oh, that’s lovely. A wonderful description. I’ll dispatch someone right away,” he said, nodding to the small girl. Marjorie heard the door swing open behind her, then close quietly. “But, now that your terms are set, let us discuss what I shall get in return. A few rules. I don’t trade in souls—it is simply too much of a hassle to deal with, and the return is rather poor. I also don’t accept first born children,” at this, he nodded his head towards the spot the girl had been moment before. “I’ve done it once, but I’ve found children are not particularly useful.” There was a sudden cruel glint to his smile, “Besides, someone has already taken yours.”
Marjorie was silent, her fingers worrying over the hem of her jacket as if that would provide some solace in this moment. Her heart was pounding again, and she wondered if perhaps she was going to suffocate here in this office. The scents and furnishing that had seemed so lavish now felt oppressive. “But I can give you anything else, right?”
He paused to consider her comments. “I reserve the right to refuse any substandard trade. I won’t, for instance, take your pocket lint.” He chuckled appreciatively at his own joke. “But I accept most fair trades.” His demeanor turned more serious, perhaps even taking on a sinister air. He leaned forward over the desk, shadows growing across his face as he did so. “Think carefully now about what you’ll give me for this. Whatever you decide, you will think it is something you would never want back no matter how long you live. But once it’s gone, you’ll find you cannot live without it. You’ll yearn for it. You’ll do anything to replace it. You’ll take it. But it will never be enough, will always be shrouded in the filth of something borrowed. So make a wise choice, but know there is no wisdom that will save you. What will you give me?”
She thought long and hard, but she had spent days thinking about it already. She was almost certain she had thought of something that in no way could harm her, no matter what. In fact, she reminded herself, it would be a relief. She would be strong and brave then, not the timid girl that had entered. “My pain,” she finally answered.
He smiled eagerly, a response that made her suddenly uncertain. “Oh, yes, we have a deal! Pain is one of my favorites. And don’t come back here saying I didn’t warn you.” With that he clamped her hand in his and shook once. Marjorie felt as his grip began as an excruciating vice, then dwindled until she could barely even notice it. The aches and pains of her various cuts and bruises also dimmed before disappearing altogether.
As promised, with it gone, she also felt that absence acutely. It was a kind of nostalgia now, a prickling sense of something missing and a longing to return. This wasn’t so bad, she thought. Uncomfortable, certainly, but it must have been the right choice.
He still smiled. “You think it’s going to be easy. But that’s just the first taste. Give it time.”
“But,” there was a crackle in her voice. Sacrificing pain did not remove fear. “I can take away others’ pain now, right?”
His eyes simmered with glee, as if her altruism was a delicious appetizer. “Of course, my dear. And you most certainly will. Again and again, you’ll valiantly step in and take every ache from their bodies, dry the tears from their eyes. And someday that won’t be enough. You’ll hunger for more. So you’ll give them a little pain, only to take it away. Until that isn’t enough either. I told you, it will never be enough. You can try to drown yourself in the pain and agony of millions and never be satisfied.” His grin finally split into a restrained laugh, and he quickly reassembled his face into a look of mild amusement. The excitement glimmered in his eyes.
Lost in his eyes, in the long future stretching before her, in the half-perceived glimpse of the monster she would become, Marjorie barely noticed as the room faded from around her. The last thing to disappear were his eyes, and she blinked. She felt dazed, as if waking from a dream, as she stood the sidewalk and in the light of early dawn. Impossibly, she was standing in front of a nondescript brick building on the other side of town.
“Remember,” she heard his voice on the breeze, “the Deli is always open. I’m guessing you’ll have a table all your own soon enough.”
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.
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, it has been a while for me. I blame it on wrapping up the first stage of my dissertation process. Admittedly, that last stage was predominantly me waiting anxiously for any sort of email response from my Dissertation Chair so I could proceed, but that is not the best atmosphere under which to be creative. I’ve been in a bit of a writing rut recently because of this, so I opted to challenge myself to get something moving. Here is the result of that challenge. It started with the phrase “…was a man of deadly boring nature…” and developed from there. I also challenged myself to use a line from my thought notebook about unfamiliar stars. It has its flaws. I think the back half is a little weak, and the dialogue, while intentionally somewhat over the top and cliche, may not quite be well enough developed to make that evident. I think I’ll give it a few days to percolate and return to edit it once the initial shine has worn off. It’s a little off-beat for me, but it was fun to write nonetheless. And, if nothing else, it got the gears moving a little more smoothly. Let me know what you think in the comments (or don’t. I just appreciated that you read this far!)
Walter was a man of fatally boring nature—the kind that assured he would die in his mid-50s while asleep, the unfortunate victim of a sedentary lifestyle, fast food, and fat-strangled heart. He was a lonely bachelor living in an apartment which was clean not because of meticulous organization, but because he did not have the furnishings to fill it. The emptiness of his home was traded for the emptiness of his office at precisely 8:35 every morning, which gave him just enough time to get snarled in traffic and arrive ten minutes late like clockwork. He worked as a nameless drone in a tiny cubicle, the walls adorned only with the company calendar that was chronically two months behind. If he did not show up to work, it would probably be a week before anyone noticed he was missing. Walter assumed, at times, that the smell would alert his neighbors long before his workplace noticed. If he was honest, the Chinese delivery boy would probably be the first to notice when his order did not come in at 6:15 Monday night. He wouldn’t care that it didn’t, but Walter felt comforted that at least someone would realize he was gone. It was a sad, empty existence. He could not recall a time that his routine had changed, which is why his late night waking was nearly the stroke that did him in.
Walter woke to the uncanny sensation of unfamiliar stars stretching away in the sky before him. The shock that it was not his water-stained ceiling staring back at him was the second to settle in, superseded by the realization that the constellations that danced across that inky canvas were not, in fact, those beloved childhood sigils. He felt suddenly off balance, as if his entire being had fled and left his body an empty shell. Those stars had guided him through so many places of darkness, including the miserably cold and dreary nights spent by the fire with his father on some misguided attempt to man Walter up through the time honored tradition of shooting helpless animals with firearms.
He reeled with the wave of memory and emotion that flooded his sense with the cold realization. He was utterly alone. Even his familiar stars were not there to comfort him.
His loss slowed his realization that different stars meant he was somewhere he had never been. That he had somehow sleepwalked into a place so distant he could not find a guiding star? Walter did not know how it was possible. He pushed himself off the ground, his hand sinking to the wrist in the spongy feeling earth. He must be on some sort of moss bed, he reasoned, but there was no moon above him to illuminate the ground. Which was odd because it had been a full moon only a few nights previous. He had to shut the blinds just to get some sleep.
Walter tried to put the impossibility of his situation out of his mind. He instead patted the threadbare pockets of his pajama pants, but was disappointed to find he had not fallen asleep with his cell phone tucked in close. Instead, he found splinters of a forgotten pretzel and a crumbled TV guide page stuffed into the corners. Nothing helpful, her surmised quickly, and stood staring into the dark shadows without a thought in his mind. There were plenty of thoughts threatening, those he could feel, but to admit even one in meant unleashing those floodgates to overwhelm his fraying mind. Where he was was impossible, but as long as he refused to acknowledge it, it remained a silly conjecture.
Light grew behind him. Walter spun around as the soft light crept over his shoulder, relieved that someone had found him out in the wherever he was. They were about thirty yards away, holding some sort of ball that glowed with a diffuse light. The shadows crowded around the figure as it drew closer, appearing to bob softly as its feet sunk into the loamy soil. Whoever it was, they looked no taller than a child, though they moved with the ease of an adult who has well acclimated to their limbs. There was no hesitation as they drew closer.
“Hey!” Walter called out. “I’m lost!” The figure continued moving at a steady pace, never pausing nor returning the call. It was coming towards him, Walter thought, so certainly it would stop and help him. Unless—
Thoughts of the evening news spiraled through his mind. Perhaps he had been drugged and brought out here for sport. Maybe this was his captor, come to finish the deed. Walter calmed himself with thought of the figures apparent small stature; any killer that size he could easily overpower. He could sit on them, for all it mattered.
While he was developing an appropriate defense strategy to take down the unsuspecting figure, it had drawn with fifteen feet of him. Now, he could see it. And now, he felt the world begin to slip away beneath him. There was a body that stretched too long towards the ground, legs that seemed to radiate out and skitter across the pale grass with spider-like agility. Atop that cylindrical body sat a blocky head, with wide set, narrow eyes and a puckered mouth. The light Walter had assumed it was carrying was, instead, the softly glowing end of one of its “arms.”
For the second time that night, Walter awoke to unfamiliar stars, though these now had a certain ring of recognition to them. His view, however, was obstructed by the oddly thick and square head of his captor or savior, he did not know. Its eyes were wide set and small, tiny little splashes of milky white peeking through folds of greyish-pink skin. At least, Walter assumed they were eyes. The creature seemed to be investigating him curiously, sniffing at him with the small angular protrusion which Walter wanted to call its nose. If it had a nose. He quickly corralled his thoughts. This was not impossible as long as he refused to think about it.
When the thing spoke, Walter’s world spun again, and he felt reality draining back into the welcoming darkness again. But that voice was like a life preserver cast upon the waters of unconsciousness, bringing him once again to the surface.
“Stand, Walter Cromwell of Earth.” It’s voice was raspy and stumbled over the foreign syllables as if each sound was receiving its first utterance in the foreign atmosphere. Walter was willing to admit that this certainly was not his home planet, at least not anymore. It was, he reasoned, some strange dream he would soon wake from. He went along with the creatures demand, filling the earth seep through his fingers as he shoved himself to his feet. His legs wobbled, mostly thrown off by the world that seemed to still be spiraling rapidly away from the human, but he did his best to remain strong and stable.
“We have brought you here to warn your fellow humans. Doom is approaching,” stated the creature, its eyes fixing on Walter’s face far above it. Dispute being only half his height, the being did not seem the least intimidated by Walter’s imposing form. There was something empowering in that, something that awakened a primal need for dominance in Walter.
“What are you?” his lips mumbled without his consent, and that quest for dominance disintegrated.
The creature seemed taken aback, obviously expecting some different response following its proclamation. “I—I am Skeel of the Onwihu. This is our planet. We have brought you here to save your race!” Skeel regained his stride, voice rising in urgency by the end of his sentence.
“Yes, because what now is approaching?”
“Doom!” Cried Skeel, his arms lifting until the ball of light hovered just below Walter’s chin. “The end of the humans!”
“Right,” Walter mused, studying this figure and his exigency. “I really think you have the wrong guy. I’d be no good at that sort of thing.”
“Walter Cromwell, we chose you.”
“Yes, and I’m flattered and all, but perhaps you meant some other—”
“You were the one who gazed at us in the stars! You were the one who spoke to us, reached for us, sought our intervention.”
Well, he thought. He had done that. Years ago, trapped in a tree stand in the middle of the night, praying for anyone to intervene. He wondered if it would be appropriate to tell them they were a few decades too late. “I really think you may have made a mistake. I don’t even know the first thing about saving the world. Really, it’s not my line of work.”
Skeel sighed, an oddly human mannerism that made Walter feel a little more at home. That was a response he was used to getting, not this “save-the-whales” mumbo-jumbo. “Walter Cromwell, you have been selected. You will save your people.”
“And how do you suppose I will go about that? Have you noticed how we treat people who see little green men?”
The reference appeared to sail over Skeel’s head, something which was not hard to do. He continued with unwavering perseverance. “You must show the humans the errors of their ways. Show them to restore their own nature. Tell them to turn from paths of destruction and violence against their society.”
“Right. And why would they listen to me?”
Without another word, Skeel reached out the light on his arm and touched Walter’s hand. Immediately, his mind was flooded by words that had no meaning, but told him all he would need ot know. Those voices outlined the coming destruction. First, they promised, there would be fire. Walter saw a volcano exploding, spewing magma and ash into the atmosphere and blanketing the surrounding countryside. He saw faces streaked with ashes and tears, rescue crews fighting through smoke and debris. Then, they proceeded, water. New York City was flooded, he saw, its streets hidden beneath churning black waters, laden with the refuse of a populace who no longer cared. There were bodies in the water, Walter saw, and diseases swimming through the newly created rivers. In quick succession, he saw meteor showers—unexpected, but due to hit March 29th—an earthquake which neatly rent a shopping mall in half, the death of three different world leaders, and the frenzied press conference for the cure for cancer.
The images did not stop, but moved on to scenes of plague. He saw people wasting away in hospital beds, then in their homes, and then in the streets. Everywhere were gaunt faces and open sores, pouring pus and disease into the populace. Those who did manage to survive such pestilence he watched slowly waste away, lining up for days for a loaf of bread that was already filled with mold and maggots by the time it reached their mouths. From there he saw war. Men and women armed, grim faces marching through foreign streets, tearing one another apart for assured food and medical care. He saw world leaders frothing at the mouth as they condemned one another. He saw bombs falling, cities disintegrating, and parents weeping for children lost within the rubble. Finally, he saw a cloud rise from the earth, spreading its destructive power from one end to the other, silencing the sordid final moments of Earth’s biography.
Skeel pulled away, leaving Walter feeling suddenly cold and alone. “Tell them what you have seen; tell them what you could not know otherwise. Then they will believe. Then they will change.”
It was reassuring to wake to his familiar ceiling with the abstract stain spreading from the wall, and to be immediately assaulted with the blaring tempo of his alarm. What a dream, Walter mused. He rose from the bed, stretching stiff joints and ignoring the grey-green dust that marked his footsteps through the dingy apartment. His morning shower was more than enough to wash away any possible evidence of his evening’s adventure, and Walter was just as happy to let it filter down the drain in a murky swirl of water. He left, sliding a piece of toast into the toaster as he turned on the television.
Which tie today, he thought, examining the numerous options hanging limply over his dining room chair. It felt like a blue kind of day, he decided as he moved back to his bedroom.
The toaster popped as Walter cinched his belt, and it was time for breakfast. The morning news was a chipper as usual, presenting the daily diversions with clinical imbalanced optimism. Walter watched them discuss a clip of a puppy tripping up and down stairs as he buttered his toast.
“Well, you may need a video like that to pick you up after our next story,” chirped the woman, trying and failing to reassemble her face into a mask of gravity. “We are getting reports of a massive volcanic eruption from Italy in just the past hour. Rescue teams have been unable to approach the affected areas as of yet, and remain concerned about those individuals trapped in the surrounding areas. We go to John Michaelson in Rome for the latest news.”
Weird, thought Walter. It was certainly a strange coincidence that he had dreamed this very thing the night before. What was even weirder was he felt it was time to admit to himself and anyone else concerned that it most certainly had not been a dream. The fate of the world was in his hands. Next would be the flood, he thought, munching pensively on the corner of his toast. He sighed the sigh of someone with an immeasurable weight pressing down on them, forcing the air from their very lungs. It seemed he had his work cut out for him if he was going to save this miserable excuse for a planet.
But perhaps, he mused, the end of the world would not be so bad after all.
The clock on the microwave caught his attention. 8:35—time for work. He clicked off the television as he drifted out the door, dragging himself into another day of drudgery and toil. Walter was a man of fatally boring nature.
This work by Katherine C is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License.
It is done! I finished part three. To be honest, it became somewhat tiring. I knew where I was going and how to get there, but I admit to being a bit fatigued on this one. It is one of the longest pieces I have written (that wasn’t a chaptered piece), and it simply required a lot of dedication and resolve on my part. It was also really hard to carry a consistent and realistic emotion throughout all of this, mainly because I got tired of thinking like I needed my narrator to think. But I am mostly happy with the conclusion. I feel like there could be some improvements made to the finale, but that is something I will return to in time, once my brain has had a chance to recover from this piece. I’m still a bit too close to it. So, I hope you have enjoyed this so far, and I hope you enjoy the grand finale. If you see anything that could be improved, feel free to drop me a note in the comments. And, because I’m proud of my accomplishment, the whole thing clocks in at roughly 11,000 words and a touch over 24 pages. Thanks for reading!
Jocelyn and I took off through the caves, moving as quickly could in the dark. Our flashlights careened wildly, lighting the rocky walls, the dusty floor, and the innumerable potential obstacles in wide-arcing beams as we tried to get to the small opening that Brian and Hayley had entered before. As Hayley’s screams grew more distant even as we approach, we heard Brian’s cries beginning to ring out as he called after her.
After entering the side passage, Jocelyn and I paused to take in our surroundings. There were two paths carved into the stone, diverging to the right and left. Our lights played across the walls for a moment before finding Brian’s pale blue arrow scrawled on the wall. At least he listened.
Into the dark we dove, hearing Brian’s voice growing louder as Hayley’s grew more and more distant. We moved as quickly as we could, bumping along the walls in our haste to reach our friends. Brian seemed very close now, and the arrows along the wall had grown more and more hastily scrawled, now little more than trailing lines of blue dust on the wall. I was amazed that he had the wits about him to continue marking his path; I knew I wouldn’t if Jocelyn were screaming like that.
In one brief moment, the cave went from in front of me to mashed into my face. I glanced behind me, seeing Brian’s pack dropped unceremoniously in the middle of the floor. Jocelyn halted, looking at me in concern as I picked myself from the stone floor. Perhaps it was a trick of the lights, but she looked impossibly pale, her face drawn in fear even as her eyes showed concern. For the first time, I noticed that she had only had time to pull on her t-shirt before I took off on a mad dash. Her shoes hung loose on her feet, the laces splayed across the floor. I was lucky she hadn’t been the one to fall.
“Are you okay?” Her eyes roved around the tight walls of the tunnel as if the walls themselves would leap up and drag her away.
“I’m fine,” I huffed, pushing myself to my feet. “Just scraped my hands up.” I had not realized how much I had exerted myself getting this far until I had to stop. Now the weight of each breath tugged my body back towards the floor. A sharp stitch pierced my side, and my lungs felt like they would soon burst as I gulped in available air. After all this was over and we had a good laugh about it, Brian and I would start back at the gym, I promised. And Hayley and Jocelyn could come to. Maybe we’d all run a marathon. Or become world class mountain climbers. Once this was a hazy memory in the past.
Jocelyn’s soft, sharp breaths were a counterpoint to my ragged gasps. There was unsettling silence in the caves now. I felt a hint of relief flood through me, certain that whatever danger had appeared was now passed. We could take our time, walk carefully, and meet up with the certain to be embarrassed couple. However a pinprick of anxiety encouraged me forward.
“Let’s go,” I panted.
The silence was suddenly deafening and dangerous. I knew I should feel relieved, but somehow the sudden silence was worrying. I could hear Jocelyn’s steps behind me, the steady ebb and flow of her breathing. My own breaths were still ragged inhales and exhales, but close to resembling something human. And nothing. No laughter, yells, or sounds from ahead of us. Only half-formed blue arrows pointing along our trail.
Our pace stayed steady, but far more cautious. There were areas where we had to climb over small piles of rocks, warning of possible future cave-ins or collapses. Jocelyn gave me a worried look, but pressed on. Eventually the silence gave way to a sound that I have heard in every nightmare since. Sobs.
They were heaving sobs, initially too frail to hear and distinguish from shifting rock. Yet as we continued on our path, they grew louder. They became sobs that reached right into my body and ripped out the last bit of air I had left.
While the sound was bad enough, once my light turned the corner and showed him sitting there on the ground, I felt my own knees begin to give out. I stumble toward him, ignoring the pain as my bloody hands began to clot with dirt. I did not know what happened, but I felt tears behind my own eyes, heard them in the unsteady waver of my voice.
“Brian, what’s wrong? What happened?” The words fell out into the dead air as my eyes took in the little details. They saw Brian’s hands, bloodied, the nail beds jagged and raw, pressed up against the wall. They saw the smudges of dirt along the edge of his short sleeves, noted deep bruises already beginning to bloom. Pieces to a puzzle I could not and cannot understand.
“She—She—There were bats,” his words broke up into sobs as he sat up, his eyes fixated on the immovable stone I front of us.
“Where is Hayley?” I whimpered, my own tears beginning to flow. My mind reeled in the darkness, leaving me bereft with only lips to numbly spill forth questions.
“They flew,” he moved his hands in a swooping motion. “And she just started screaming and running.” He sniffed, his tears streaming down his face in solid lines of immeasurable sorrow. “And she ran—” at this, his words again dissolved under a wave of tears as gestured weakly to the wall in front of him.
“Brian, where did she go?”
“I don’t know!” he screamed, eyes wild in bewilderment. “I saw her running down here, and—and I followed. But then she was gone.”
I felt my heart begin to panic even as my mind began to collect itself. So, Hayley was lost in the caves. This was bad, but not terrible. “Okay, so she got lost. We can retrace our path and check out any other ways she might—”
“No,” Brian interjected sharply. “You don’t understand. I saw her run down here. I saw her run through there!” His finger jutted out towards the cold gray wall, trembling with the force of his statement.
“Brian, that’s a solid wall,” began Jocelyn, calmly and what she intended as soothing. I winced as she continued. “There’s no way she could have done that. Maybe the dark played tricks on you—”
“Is that your answer for everything?!” He yelled, and I felt a dim sense of retribution I did not even know I wanted. “She disappeared! She ran straight through this!” His fist pounded against the wall.
“Is there a trap door or something,” I offered, trying to make sense of this. Brian simply slumped over and sobbed.
“Even if there is, we may not be able to find it,” responded Jocelyn, meekly. “We should head out and find some park rangers.”
There was silence between us, punctuated by the sounds of Brian’s sobs. He was devastated and probably certain he was losing his mind. He had watched the love of his life sprint in terror through a solid rock wall, and nothing about that made sense. My heart aches for him even thinking about that.
“Brian?” I put a hand on his arm. “We need to get some park rangers.” His sobs paused as he looked up at me.
“Do you think they can find her?”
“I’m sure of it. And they have all the best equipment. I bet they even have special training just for this,” the words felt hollow in my mouth, but they gave light back to his eyes.
“You’re right,” he agreed, clinging desperately to the hope I had fabricated. “I bet they do this all the time. They’ll find her.” He was up and walking back the way we entered before I realized it, suddenly empowered by hope.
Jocelyn caught my shoulder as we followed him. “Mark, you know she couldn’t have—”
I cut her off, feeling a rising tide of dull anger as she stomped on our hopes. “I know. But she could be lost.”
“Of course,” she mumbled, “It’s just—none of this makes sense, does it?”
I did not want to answer, because to admit to the insanity we were living in would make it all the more horrible. “I’ve got to keep an eye on Brian. He’s not really in his right mind.” I jogged the few steps ahead to catch him, leaving Jocelyn a few steps behind. I cared about her deeply, but in that moment, she was an outsider to our drama. I had known Brian and Hayley for years. I knew Brian would not have given up on her easily. But Jocelyn couldn’t understand what this was, couldn’t fully comprehend the way the world was suddenly no longer real to either of us. It wasn’t her fault, but I felt I should punish her for it anyway. “Watch your step, Bri. You dropped your pack up ahead.”
He nodded, grunting in the dark as he dutifully trained his flashlight on the floor in front of him. We trekked on in silence for a few moments, the only sound the crunch of our feet on the ground and Brian’s occasional sniffle. He was the one to break the silence. “How could she just disappear?” he whispered.
“I—” the words, intended to be healing and jovial, dried up in my mouth. “I don’t know, Brian. She couldn’t have, right?”
“Right,” he mumbled, “she couldn’t have. Exactly.” I felt a knot of tension ease a bit as we planted ourselves firmly in reality again, only to re-emerge as he spoke again. “Then how did she do it?”
I had no answer, and the feeling of dread in my stomach was beginning to gnaw straight through me. “I’m sure the park rangers will be able to help.” The words were useless, and I believed them no more than I could believe Hayley disappeared behind a rock wall. But if we were to be in the habit of believing impossible things, it was at least a comforting one to cling to. Brian pushed on ahead of me, unwilling to share my hope. We three walked along in silent darkness, individual islands in pools of artificial light, wearily trodding through the belly of the beast.
We never found Brian’s pack. In the moment, that fact dimly registered on my clouded mind, but it is something which has continued to haunt me. There was no way to miss it; the path we were on had not deviated or branched along the way. We followed the arrows in reverse, finding scrawled reminders every step along the way. But the pack in the center of the path was gone, and we exited the side passage without any sign of it. It became one more impossibility in a series of increasingly impossible events.
As we entered the cavern, Jocelyn caught my elbow. There was a softness in her voice that soothed my injured feelings. “Are you okay?” she whispered, careful to keep it below Brian’s hearing.
“Yeah,” I sighed. “Just stressed. And worried.”
“I know. But, it will work out.” As much as she intended that as a reassuring statement, I could hear the question in her voice.
“It will. We just need to get out of here and get some professional help.” I tried to sound optimistic, conjuring every positive bone in me to make it convincing.
“Exactly,” her voice relaxed. “But, I need to grab my pack and pants before we leave. We don’t need another injury trying to get out.”
She was right and I felt sudden tension arise within me. She needed to go back to the other side of the cavern, but Brian was on a tunnel-visioned war path to the exit. Deterring him would be impossible, and leaving her in that half-clothed state would slow us down if not stop us completely with an injury.
“I can run over and catch up with you guys. I’ll be back before you make it up the side,” she offered, reading my mind. The tension dissolved; I could live up to both my responsibilities.
“Yeah, that’s a good plan,” I agreed stupidly. She smiled, kissed my cheek, and took off towards the little pool that had housed such peace only moments before. Brian watched her leave, dulled confusion flashing across his grief-stricken face. “She’s going to pick some stuff up and meet us, Bri. Let’s just keep going.” He dutifully obliged.
If our trip had not been traumatic already, it began to explode into impossibilities with that decision. Believe me when I’ve said I’ve spent weeks and months replaying all these events, as if I could somehow alter what happened by imagining all the different scenarios. We were doomed before we set foot in those caves, and that is the only thing I can be certain of. Brian and I had just reached the wall to climb up when there was a brief scream cut short by the sound of splashing water. We both turned, immediately alarmed.
“Jocelyn?” I called out. My own words echoed back to me, and died away to silence. “Jocelyn!” I called again, panic rising in my voice. The sounds of splashing water and coughs greeted me as I continued to call her name, praying for a response. “We’ve got to go,” I said, turning to Brian. He had turned back to the wall.
“We have to get help,” he growled robotically, repeating my mantra back to me.
“Brian, she could be in trouble. We have to check on her.” I was already turned and moving, certain he would accompany me. Instead I heard the grinding sound of his flashlight on the rocks as he pulled himself up.
“We have to get help.”
I barely heard him, already moving as quickly as possible across the floor of the cavern. The light of my flashlight was increasingly weak, dully lighting a small circle in front of my feet. I did my best to avoid other pools, making my way to the one that glowed dimly, flinging furious shadows on the wall. The sound of splashing and sputtering grew louder as I came closer.
Jocelyn was in the center of the pool, her flashlight clipped to her pack and casting wild shadows as she fought against something unseen. I rushed to the edge, lying flat in a desperate attempt to reach her, but she floated inches from my fingertips.
I saw her eyes, roving and mad as a wounded animal. She groped blindly against the water, struggling to pull herself to the edge. I could not see what kept her, but it was a frozen moment of pure panic. I dove in to the water, feeling it begin to drag me down. But I fought ferociously towards her, even as her head dipped below the surface of the water.
Her hand was in mine. In that final moment, I felt her fingers wrap around mine, and I was certain I had her and could pull her to safety. Her eyes found mine, pleading with me to bring her back to the surface, and I tried to bring her close to me.
But something else pulled at her, dragging her towards the murky bottom. Her fingers gripped mine with vice-like grip, her eyes growing more and more desperate as air escaped her in a flurry of bubbles. She was screaming as she disappeared into the depths. I refused to let her go, but her hand began to feel like pure fire in my hand. It burned, deadening the nerves in my hand until I could not even feel her pull away. She descended, dragged by an impossible spot of light. It was brighter than the light of her flashlight, wavering in and out of our reality as it gently surrounded her, pulling her further and further away. I watched her eyes go from panicked to scared to unfocused as it pulled her away.
I swam to the surface, refilling my lungs with air. There was nothing I could do. I watched that creature drag her downwards, the light of her flashlight illuminating that face, frozen in pleading terror, until it was too small to see. The depths swallowed her alive; that thing carried her into impossible waters where I could not reach.
I sat sobbing in the water, no longer knowing what part of this world still inhabited reality. In the distance, I could see the small light of Brian climbing his way to the surface, dutifully going to get help. Part of me thought about just sinking down right there, discovering whatever inevitable bottom this hungry pool had. I felt certain in that moment that we were no longer a part of reality as we knew it, so what would my death even matter? This cave simply devoured us as soon as we entered, and now it was playing with us. As unhinged as those thoughts sound in the light of day, there is still a part of me that fully believes that. I think, sometimes, that maybe I did just sink away in that pool, and this is all the last gasps of my oxygen deprived brain. Maybe that’s the afterlife. Maybe these memories are my hell, that creature my personal demon.
Someone dragged my body from the water. I assume I did, though I have no memory of it. I cannot remember the walk across the cavern back to the wall. I remember dim awareness of my still numb hand dangling at my side as I followed Brian’s beacon. I remember Brian progressing solidly, dutifully following the arrows marking the safe path. I remember the impossible light moving through the darkness, leading his trail. I remember the way the arrows had changed their direction on our entrance, and saw a new path emblazoned before Brian. There was no time to intervene as my brain slowly put the preposterous pieces together. In a single instant, I heard his brief shout as the step gave way beneath him. I watched his flashlight traced his path to the floor before getting buried under a pile of loosened rock and debris. I felt everything inside of me crumble into dust at the shattered world I lived in.
His face, pinned beneath the rubble, is painted sharply in my mind. His body was twisted unnaturally, like some doll pulled apart and haphazardly stuck back together. Some joints pointed the wrong way, and there was a splatter of red on the rock near his head. Most of him was lost beneath the rocks, but I saw cold eyes looking at me from a head turned sharply away from me. There was no pulse, but I knew before I even checked. That thing had brought us to be devoured.
As if I had not yet paid my debts, my flashlight gave out.
How long I sat there sobbing in the dark, I do not know. Time only has meaning in relation to the life we have left, and as far as I was concerned, I was already dead. I had disappeared in twisting caverns, drowned in an impossible pool, and fallen between crushing rocks.
The light that lived in perfect darkness flitted around me, staying just far enough away to be noticed but barely seen. It waited on its haunches, watching me with those golden eyes as it shifted between real and not real imperceptibly. I was trapped in the dark, no idea where to go, and it waited patiently for me.
Eventually I could not sit there any longer next to the rapidly cooling body of my best friend. I stood, pacing along the wall. I kept a hand on the cool stone, staggering long as if it would suddenly open back into the wide open world. I felt despair as I thought of never seeing the blue sky again, of never seeing anything but this infinite blackness. I turned to walk back and saw the creature floating around Brian. It was a haze covering the area that I instinctively knew was the tomb. I rushed towards it, shouting as if chasing away a scavenger. In an instant, it was simply gone, leaving only the blackness. I sank again to my knees, crying out tears that burned and stung my raw cheeks.
It was hunger that finally drove me to my feet, stumbling again along the wall as if I could find some magic passageway. I carefully walked along the wall, dutifully avoiding turning back and risking stumbling over that grisly scene. If I did that, I am certain I never would have moved again. Or worse, I would have fled screaming into that infinite darkness, another soul swallowed up.
The sound of my shoes scuffling along the dirt floor was suddenly interrupted by a decidedly foreign sound. Something crunched under my feet, the sound echoing over and over in the silence. In my desperation I laughed, recognizing the intruding sound of the chip wrapper in the darkness. I was likely delirious with grief, hunger, and dehydration at this point, but I took it as a sign of salvation, wildly climbing onto the rock surface and feeling out a path. I crawled along that wall, my one good hand and feet constantly reaching out to feel for any stable surface. I laughed as I rose steadily above the floor, groping through the gravel and dust like a blind man. I avoided any path marked by that awful creature, always moving further and further away from it as I moved higher and higher. Eventually, I found my hands gripping the edge where a wide expanse stretched out before me. Still crawling, I found orange peels and food scraps littering the floor. I laughed and stood, racing towards what I hoped was an exit.
Despite the odds, I finally found myself back in the first opening, back where Brian had seen his bat and mocked my concerns. I reached out to the wall, trying to find the way out. It was in here, I was certain. My fingers trailed along the rock face, puling and gripping it as if I would tear down the mountain just to be free. Surely, the opening was here. I briefly felt chalk under my fingers, pointing in a direction that I could not decipher. It was likely meaningless anyway. Still, no gap appeared in the rock. I continued my search until my fingers felt chalk again, and again. I was going in circles, but could find no opening. It was as if the cave has sealed its lips tight, swallowing me inside. The walls seemed to spin and move around me, putting the exit always a few inches away, I was sure. In the darkness behind me, I felt I could see glimpses of light moving to and fro, blocking any hope of progress.
In despair, I fell to the floor. I was crying cold tears that I could not feel until they landed softly on my hands. My sobs came in silent waves as my mind tried to process my own fate of either starving or freezing to death in this rocky tomb. I wondered if anyone would ever even find my body. It could have been minutes or it could have been days—time only existed as a running count of the overwhelming burden of tragedy on my life—but eventually I saw a light move in the darkness, drawing nearer and nearer to me. It moved gracefully, but impossibly slow in the darkness until it stopped just in front of my face, its eyes meeting my own. Those eyes were huge, encompassing the whole room, the whole cave, possibly the whole world. I could see everything contained within them, and most importantly I could also see myself. My own eyes looked back at me in there. And, suddenly, my own thoughts and memories began to play.
It sighed contentedly, drinking in all these precious moments from my life. First days of school, best friends, true loves, and endless opportunity played before me. The creature reached out, its hand seeming to move through my eyes and into my body, shuffling through my deepest personal thoughts and pulling at something that the rest of me fought to keep back. It continued to pry, however, and I felt my reserves give way. The cave flashed into my mind, playing back before me in the world of that thing’s eyes. Laughter, anger, fear filled me with each relived memory. I saw Brian lying bloody and twisted, heard the sound of Hayley’s shrieks grow dimmer and dimmer. Jocelyn floated away from me, a terrified statue etched in ivory as it drifted through the inky black water. I heard the sound of dogs—
Dogs? The creature recoiled for a moment as I was brought back into the present. Yes, dogs barking nearby. Perhaps a rescue, I dared to dream. No, the entity seemed to whisper back to me, not dogs, just lonely wolves seeking their next meal. My strength was failing as the creature drew more and more of me out, trying to drink away the last vestiges of life I had left, but the sound of dogs gave me strength to fight back. I steeled myself, trying not to remember, not to think about my life before. All I had now was the thought of a life lived in the bright air and sunshine yet again. The creature’s grip on me tightened, and I felt that hope begin to waver as it found moment after moment of adoration with Jocelyn at the center. The smell of her hair, the feel of her skin, the warmth of her lips—all faded to cold, dead memory as her eyes pleaded with me in the dark water. She drifted away from me, her fingers slipping through mine and into oblivion.
But no, I fought. I tried to muster a yell, to let them know I was here, but my throat was so parched that I could barely manage a whisper. Nonetheless, I could hear the barking louder now, maybe even echoing off the walls around me. Salvation!
The creature screeched as the flashlights of the rescue team came into view. I dimly felt them speaking to me through the golden haze of its eyes. My lips moved, but there was no sound, only the ever increasing fury of whatever thing had me in its grasp. I felt water flowing down my throat, something warm wrapping around my body. In their hands, I began to feel the creature’s grip loosening. I was winning the fight and pulling away. There was a stretcher, and a light pinprick on my arm, and then they moved me out of the creature’s lair, away from its prying eyes. At some point a fresh breeze hit my face, and I felt tears spring up again. At some point, their voices began to fill my head before turning into a nonsensical buzz in my personal delirium. At some point, the golden hued world of the creature’s eyes gave way to impenetrable blackness once again, and I slept.
They found Brian right where I told them, his head still stuck at that unnatural angle. At least they managed to fix it for the funeral. Hayley and Jocelyn were never found; they searched all the pools in that cavern, and assured me that none of those was deep enough to drown in. As for Hayley, well, the caves had a funny way of turning around on you. And they went for miles. Shock, they called it. Trauma. Of course, it didn’t matter to me what they said or found. I know what happened.
Everyone has a story. And there is something out there that needs our stories, that feeds on our stories. It appears to me that it has a taste for the sour flavor of despair, the tang of fear, and the bitterness of tragedy. Or maybe, like my shrinks keep saying, that’s just the story I’ve told myself.
We all have a story to tell.
This work by Katherine C is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License.
In high school, I was a part of a writer’s group. We called ourselves WD and met weekly in a local Starbucks to read and critique on another’s pieces. We had a stuffed catfish named Sheldon, hand sewn by one of our members, who presided over our meeting (and by cat fish, I mean some unholy creation that was half cat and half fish. More of a mer-feline, if you like.) There was a weekly theme that had to be adhered to, and a pretty strict limit on the length of stories (I think it was 1-2 pages and no more). With two poets and two short story-ists, the feedback was generally pretty good and covered the main bases. I, however, often found myself fighting against that page limit. I would shrink margins and sneakily decrease the font by a half point. I did everything to make it look shorter than it was. And, generally, they found me out and I promised not to do it again. Sadly, I also regularly lied to my friends about that very thing. As I reflect, though, that limit was probably very good for me. It forced me to write, get the words out, and identify the core components of the story. But part of me has always loved having the freedom to just fully flesh out all the pieces of a story.
Honesty time? The Stories We Tell—what I’m working on now—has worn me out. While I like the idea, and am still quite enamored with it, it was a larger undertaking than I imagined. It requires so much consistency and logic that it is exhausting. While it is a great character piece for me, it’s also been very challenging. And I love that about it. But, I need a break. While I could soldier through it and force myself to write it, it won’t do the concept or the previous portions justice to do so. I think one week off to focus on a short and simple piece will do me good, and revitalize me to finish that story. It’s probably only got about 25% left to go in that last part, but I just need some fresh eyes on it. So, I plan on having the final part up in about a week. But for now my mostly nonexistent readers, here is a shorter piece in memory of the great times with WD.
Theme: “Some people say humans only use 10% of their brains. Those people are idiots.”
“Some people say humans only use 10% of their brains. Those people are idiots. I mean, perhaps it is true that those proposing such a foolish thought do, in fact, only use 10% of their own mental capacities. That would certainly explain a few things. I myself take great care to use all of the brain I can. It feels so perversely wasteful to do otherwise, especially when so many in the world do not have the privilege of such ample brains as I.
“Take a look at this specimen here. It’s quite a lovely one, I think. Taken from a recently deceased family man who just walked in to the wrong place at the wrong time. Tragic. He was a blue-collar, nine-to-five kind of guy. Carried pictures of his kids in his wallet. According to reports, nothing more than a high school education, but it was more than enough for a happy and successful life. And, despite what some might say, every single piece of his brain is wonderfully valuable. Take this here.”
Hands turn the brain upside down, showing the jagged edge of the brain stem lying vacant. A scalpel deftly slices through the meninges. The probe digs down and lifts up a small strand of cross shaped fibers.
“The optical tract. It runs all the way through the brain, carrying all kinds of signals from rods, cones, and nerve endings. Can you imagine the millions upon billions of sights this nerve has seen?! All of those moments flowing through this tiny little piece.”
“And, here.” The scalpel dives again, separating a small hunk of striated matter in the back. “The cerebellum. This lump of flesh lets us move and balance. It bestows grace, balance, and coordination. Without this, we’d be falling all over ourselves. It constantly adjusts our body position, our movements, fine tuning like a skilled craftsman honing a masterpiece.”
Now a long-bladed knife delicately cuts the lonely brain down the middle, dividing it into two equal halves. It gracefully slices again, shaving off a thick segment like a butcher slicing steaks.
“And what would we be without the corpus callosum, eh? We’d be half a person, unable to connect our rights and our lefts. We’d see the world as half as brilliant, completely unable to integrate complex cognitive information. You know they’ve severed this in folks? Suddenly the world exists as two defined halves, and never the twain shall speak again! How marvelous to see it all as one. Not to mention,” the scalpel hovers over a small, pale, round structure, “the thalamus! The seat of all our sensory information. It takes our whole world in and divvies it to the correct location. The master multitasker of our brain, constantly assessing and routing information. A healthy dose of thalamus with some good corpus callosum, and the whole world is a web of interconnection. Nothing is beyond our ken!”
The long blade carves off another section, laying it lovingly on the table. It continues, slicing the shrinking brain like a tender pot roast. “That’s not even to mention the hypothalamus, hippocampus—see the seahorse there?—the amygdala! And so many other areas that we can only intimate the location of, so unique are our very brains.” The probe flew swiftly across the sections, pointing out large regions of mottled brain. “Wernicke and Broca, side by side and so crucial to relating to one another. A good bit of that duo and perhaps I’ll have one of those fabled silver tongues! Fronto-orbital regions, sensory strips, motor cortex. I think I’ve shown you more than enough to suggest far more than 10% of our marvelous brains are useful. I think I’ve made my case.”
The chef’s knife plunges into the mushy grey matter, dicing the brain into fine chunks. Wernicke and Broca mingle, while the right side visual regions muddy up their linguistic solidarity. The olfactory bulb bumps pieces of the vaunted optic tract as the cerebellum balances everything out once and for all.
“As I said, I always strive to use all of my brains. Tonight, I think I’ll try that Bolognese recipe I’ve been slobbering over. I’ve a lovely Chianti I’ve been saving just for this. Won’t you stay for dinner?”
This work by Katherine C is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License.
Well, this thing has grown a bit longer than I estimated, so I’m extending it to 3 parts. At around 5-7 pages a piece, I think that’s manageable chunks. The last part is not completed; however I do have the ending written, so at least I know where this thing is going! Without further ado, here is part two*
* Rhyme completely unintentional.
Stepping into the cave from the previously blinding sunshine was akin to plunging from the shore of a warm, tropical beach directly into the arctic depths. My whole body took a moment to adjust to the profound and heavy darkness, even as the shade leached away the warmth in my skin. My sweat began to cool to clammy dampness, comforting me even as that same chill crept steadily along my vertebrae.
The walls were originally very narrow, clinging close to us as we pushed our way inside. The rock face bent and curved around as we walked, forming a tiny switchback before pushing us into a larger opening. The walls flared out as the ceiling rose into a room that was large enough for the four of us to gather comfortably. Our flashlights danced across the ceiling, filling in the tiny hills and crevasses that made up the mottled walls and ceiling. Brian found a bat, but only nudged me silently to share his discovery. Hayley hated bats, and he was not about to have her in hysterics. But he smiled anyway, obviously pleased with himself. I studied the room, feeling a deep appreciation for the natural state of it take hold. There were a few plastic bottle and food wrappers lying in the corners, but if you ignored those, it was pristine. The way the entrance wound into this room, no sunlight crept in from outside. It was almost difficult to even find the narrow passage we used to enter, but Brian dutifully pointed an arrow back at it in crisp blue chalk on the grey wall.
“Don’t go getting in a twist, Gretel,” snapped Brian as he eyed me watching him mark the exit. “We’ll make sure you make it to Grandma’s house.”
“Wrong story, Bri,” quipped Hayley, her head tilted back to a sharp angle to view the rough hewn ceiling. Her light danced over the ceiling, lighting briefly on Brian’s bat before rocketing back to the floor. “Are we just going to stand here all day?” Her discomfort at the winged rodent bled through her friendly smile.
“Just through here,” waved Jocelyn, her flashlight darting down a long stretching tunnel. The cool air and the brilliant joy of her smile revitalizing me, I jogged behind, yelling for her to wait up. I could hear Brian and Hayley exchanging slighted heated whispers behind me, the word “bat” slipping between them in whispered barks. Eventually Hayley pushed her way past me to join Jocelyn in the lead. Brian sidled up beside me, seemingly weighed down by the nearly empty pack on his back.
“It’s a cave. There are bats,” he sighed, exasperation creeping into his voice. There was no further explanation needed, and we continued in friendly silence as Jocelyn led the way through the winding tunnels. Occasionally, Brian would stop and make another mark on the walls, but we soldiered on until the view stopped us in our tracks.
What had been a mere thirty minute walk must have led us even deeper and farther into this cave system than I could have imaged. From where we stood, the emptiness of the cave stretched on for eternity. The rock floor we stood on arced down after about fifteen feet in, a craggy system of stones demonstrating a treacherous path down into what I assumed was the bottom of this cavern, though my flashlight had dimmed to the point that I could not be certain. Somewhere, the sound of water played over the rocks, echoing back and forth in the cavern to harmonize with itself again and again. As the flashlights shifted through the murky darkness, flashes of water on light illuminated a series of small pools and a steady trickle of water tumbling down. The sight and sound were beautiful, yet chilling. The summer warmth was gone now, leaving an empty feeling of cold.
“Are you guys hungry? I think this would be a great place for a bite to eat,” reported Jocelyn, slinging her pack from her shoulders to the dusty floor. I watched her stretch, the long muscles of her back moving smoothly in the shadowy light. Visions of the slender, lithe body under the dusty camping clothes pulled a smile to my face that I hoped she wouldn’t see.
The fruit in my bag—a single apple, banana, and orange—had not fared as well as I had hoped in the trek to the cave. All salvageable, but with a distinct mushiness that was less than appetizing. However, despite the relative brevity of our journey thus far, I was ravenous. The banana disappeared in a flash, and the apple was down to a bare core in similarly swift fashion. I pulled out a mushed peanut butter sandwich and opened the zipper bag. The sound was surprisingly loud in the cave, as if the walls were replaying over and over this foreign sound. It felt wrong, a chill shifting up and down my spine, but the sound of a plastic bag in the darkness seemed even more intruder than the previous loud crunch of the apple. No one else seemed to mind, however, so I tried to shake the growing sense of unease.
Brian ripped open a bag of chips, the same feeling of intrusion creeping along my body again. Maybe we shouldn’t be here. The thought raced through my mind and was dismissed almost too fast to realize. I chided myself for my unease in such a peaceful place.
“This place is amazing, Jocelyn. Did you come here a lot?”
She smiled. “No, only once or twice. It’s not the most riveting place, but I always found it calming, ya’ know?” She stared of wistfully into the darkness, and I could see her shoulders relax even more as her eyes slipped close.
Brian’s loud munching on his chips shattered the quiet moment, but he remained oblivious. “Yeah, you could totally set up a recording in here and make some serious bucks on Cave Sounds to Sleep To. I’d buy it.”
Hayley laughed. “You have more useless get-rich-quick schemes than most cartoon villains.”
“And one day you may be very happy that one pays out,” he reminded her with an emphasized crunch of chips.
Jocelyn sighed, opening her eyes and returning to the conversation. “I have to agree with him, Hayley, I could definitely fall asleep here.” She yawned minutely, and then smiled with contentment. “But there’s a lot more to explore, too.”
“You still awake over there Mark?” called Hayley, exaggeratedly searching the dark recesses of the cave for me. “You haven’t said much.”
I stretched. “Just taking it all in. Besides, you three have all the rings covered in this circus. Wouldn’t want to intrude.” From the dimly lit area where Brian’s flashlight lay, a piece of orange peel flew through the air to land in my hair.
“You’re just oh so clever, huh?” grumbled Brian good naturedly as he lifted his pack again.
“Trash,” stated Hayley blankly, a command she had obviously supplied time and again. Brian complied by toeing the empty chip bag over the edge of the cavern and smiling.
“Now we don’t have to worry about that ending up in some landfill,” he quipped in frail attempt to cover his own laziness. Hayley rolled her eyes. I felt anger rush in.
“What’s wrong with you? This place is pristine and you just go throwing you trash around? Stop acting like a child for once and take some responsibility.” The force of my words surprised me, and even more obviously surprised Brian. His face flashed from startled, to hurt, to angry in a matter of seconds before he turned away.
“Didn’t know we had a park ranger with us. Not much I can do about it now,” he grumbled. Hayley and Jocelyn stood uncertainly between us, caught in the crossfire of my harsh words.
“No, I’m sorry. I don’t—I just—Let’s just be careful, okay?” I said, trying to erase the heavy tension between us. As suddenly as the anger had appeared, it was gone again. I felt momentarily alien in my body, as if someone—something else had been the one propelling those angry words through my lips. With it gone, there was an empty, foreignness in my mind. I felt like a fool.
“Careful is key,” picked up Jocelyn. “We can go down into this cavern area pretty easily, but then we need to be especially careful. It’s big and you can get lost.”
Hayley moved towards Brian, her hand wrapping around his arm to send a gentle but clear message. Let it go. He sighed, and it was as if I could see the irritation roll off his body. He turned around with a fake smile. “No harm, no foul. I’ll be more careful.” As insincere as the message was, it was at least a sincere attempt. Having known him for years, he would wind down for real in a couple of hours. Per our unspoken agreement, this would join other petty arguments that we never spoke of again.
The path down was treacherous, with sliding gravel and an occasional gap in the trail. The stair steps leading down were rugged and irregular, but definitely passable. Years of shifting earth, running water, and solitude had turned them into an obstacle course leading to bottom.
Brian dutifully marked the way, though it was hard to imagine getting lost here. Go up was the primary direction; anything beyond that was merely designed to find the best path. I was bringing up the tail, trying to religiously follow Hayley’s steps in front of my. At one point, I caught movement from the side of my eyes. It was startling, capturing my mind with all kinds of terrible possibilities. My heart suddenly began to race and I felt clammy sweat break out over my body. I turned, trying to find what it was, when suddenly that lightness came into view.
In the dark, it seemed slightly more distinct, but remained utterly incomprehensible. It was a shape of light moving through the darkness, casting no illumination. Two distinct eyes appeared to take up most of its face, and there were two protrusion on either side—ears, I decided—that stretched out into the darkness. There was no discernible body or feet, but it glided through the dark like some swimming ocean creature. The more I studied it, the less it made sense. As I watched, however, it moved toward the wall, reaching out to briefly touch one of the arrows on the wall. In a blur of motion, the chalk seemed to shimmer, then move each particle at a time. After what my heart promised was less than a beat, the arrow reassembled itself, this time pointing the opposite direction.
“Guys! What is that? What is that thing?” I was frozen, staring behind me with my arm pointing into the darkness. There was nothing there. Brian pushed through Hayley to stand by me, all hints of irritation gone and replaced by a warrior’s calm.
“What? Where is it?”
“It was—It was just there. It moved out arrows.”
Jocelyn’s hand on my arm. My eyes broke from the darkness and found her face. “There’s nothing there, Mark. Maybe a bat or something, but chalk arrows don’t move.”
I could hear Hayley shudder at the thought, but she remained silent.
“It wasn’t a bat. It was a—” the words dried up in my mouth. What was it? How could I describe it to them without everyone thinking I was crazy?
“Being in the dark like this can make your eyes play tricks on you. Let’s get to the bottom and take a rest, okay?” Jocelyn’s hand gently guided me down the remaining section of rocks. While I frequently glanced back, the light from Hayley and Brian’s flashlight turned the dark background into an impenetrable cloud. Still, I could have sworn I saw something moving through those shadows.
The sounds of water dripping and pooling was even louder down in the cavern. I could feel myself relaxing in the sound ever so slightly as Jocelyn, her hand still supporting me with its gentle touch on my arm, sat down beside me on a conveniently placed crop of stones.
“Are you okay?” she asked in a soft whisper, leaning in close to me.
“Yeah,” I lied, “like you said, probably just the dark playing tricks on me.”
“Alright, well how about you and I just sit here for a bit,” she smiled as the flashlight threw terrifying sharp shadows across her face.
“I don’t want to ruin it for them,” I replied, nodding towards a brooding Brian and concerned Hayley standing an uncomfortable distance away.
“I’ll tell them that they can go on a bit without us, just to mark everything really well so we can find them later if we need.”
Unless that thing moves it, I wanted to remark, but realized how crazy that sounded. Jocelyn had to be right; just tricks of the darkness on my poor light typical mind. “Okay, sure.”
She stood and walked towards the others. There was a quiet conversation, she motioned towards me, laughed, and waved them on. I watched as Brian snapped his trusty piece of chalk in half and handed one piece to Jocelyn, the eyes of a protector looking at her before drifting to me with a half smile. Jocelyn pointed towards one small opening in the cavern walls, and the two of them drifted off that direction with smiles and laughter.
“I told them we’d catch up in a bit,” she said with a wide smile.
“No need for us to hurry,” I responded with what I thought was a bit of sly suggestion, trying to shake the strange experience from before.
“How are you feeling?” Too subtle, I mentally catalogued.
“Better. I think I was just a bit on edge from the whole trash incident, and then got spooked. These caves are kind of creepy.”
She laughed. “Yeah, you went all Smokey the Bear on him up there. I appreciate a man who cares for the environment,” she responded.
We sat in silence for a few moments, just listening to the water falling somewhere in the distance and basking in the harsh artificial lighting. She was the one to finally break the silence. “Was this all some ploy to get me alone?”
No, I wanted to say. There is something out there and it’s dangerous, even though it hasn’t done anything to us. However, logic won out and the words sounded a bit different when they finally came out. “I thought I was being terribly sneaky.” You’re being crazy, I reminded myself. It was just a trick of the shadows and nothing more. Maybe a bat, but you aren’t Hayley, so chill out.
Her fingers twined through mine as she stood, pulling me up along with her. “Come on, let me show you something really amazing.”
“I can see something amazing from right here.” My eyes ran up and down her once in an exaggerated pattern. She simply rolled hers at me.
“Obviously, I was really lucky to find you in one of the rare times you were single. Come on,” she pulled at me, leading me through the darkness. The sounds of water grew louder and louder as we moved, until finally I could see water reflecting back the flashlight’s beam. Water dripped from far up above, plinking softly against the surface of the water and creating some of the sounds we had heard before. “There are little pools like this all over the place in here. They’re not deep, but surprisingly not cold, either. We spent an entire day just swimming and relaxing here once.”
“Is it safe?”
She slapped my arm playfully. “You have got to stop being such a worrywart. It’s just as safe as skinny dipping down at the quarry,” she responded with a knowing eyebrow lift. Touché.
Dropping her pack, Jocelyn quickly pulled off layers until she was standing in nothing but a tank top and underwear. Goosebumps broke out over her exposed skin, but she seemed invulnerable as she radiated a bright smile. “Last one in owes me a kiss,” she chimed before disappearing into the inky water. I am not ashamed to admit I was steps behind her, stripping down to my boxers in a blink as her face bobbed along the surface of the water.
She was right about the water—surprisingly warm. It was welcomed after how cold the inside of this cave had ultimately become. And it was barely deep enough to swim in. If I submerged my head and stretched, my toes touched a rough hewn bottom. I lazily paddled towards her, before snaring her in my arms. She floated there, looking at me with playful eyes. “I think I owe you something.”
Jocelyn and I had kissed dozens if not hundreds of times. I knew the feel of her lips, the taste of her tongue, the pressure of her kisses against my lips. I would, however, be lying if I said any of the hundreds of kisses before in my life came close to that moment. Maybe it was that heightened sense bull people pull, but in the dark, with the soothing sounds of the falling water, surrounded by the warmth of this little pool, there was something beautiful. Her hands and mine wandering beneath the water, clinging to one another while seeking out those soft touches of warm skin. The water droplets beaded on her face, falling against my lips as we embraced. Each droplet, chilled by the outside air, brought a fresh tingle along my spine. Her body pushed against mine, our lips meeting and holding us fast as we floated and drifted. If I had to choose one moment to live in forever, that would be it.
Eventually we parted and I sighed deeply in the dark and peaceful solitude. She laughed, splashing water against my chest as she swam towards the other side of the pool. “If I didn’t know any better, I’d say you were trying to seduce me,” I called after her. She merely laughed again, kicking a wave of water towards me. “I want to assure you, it is not working.”
The tension from before was melting away, softened up by the rhythmic tap and enveloping warmth of the water. From a distance, all I could see of her was an area of pale skin within the encompassing darkness. I saw her arm reach out of the water, reaching for her water bottle on the outside of her pack. There was a hiss of a lid opening, then the silent sounds of the cavern. I leaned into the water until I could float on my back, meandering lazily through the pool. The water fell, tapping lightly against my stomach as I drifted along in the darkness. This must be like those sensory deprivation chambers, I thought. People throwing money away when nature had already perfected it.
There were soft sounds of splashing in the water, something cutting smoothly through and moving towards me. “Jocelyn—” I began before something grabbed me, pulling me under.
I thrashed and flailed, pulling myself back toward the surface as whatever it was released me. Breaking the surface, I gasped for air, eyes darting through the darkness as if I could locate the danger. Then, there was laughter.
“That’s what you get for not listening to me,” she laughed, splashing water at me yet again.
“Jocelyn! You—that—” I continued gulping in the air, more out of fear than any prolonged deprivation. “I’m already a little on edge, okay?”
“I’m sorry. But come on, you have to lighten up a little bit,” she said, moving in a little closer. I felt her hand find mine, drawing me towards her in the darkness of the water. Her face was a pale shadow on the water, her eyes empty spaces that gazed into my own. She was kissing me again, and I was mentally acquiescing to her remark. Yes, I needed to lighten up. Just a joke. Her lips met mine again and again; we were floating through nothingness, bound to reality only by the presence of the other’s body in that vast emptiness. I was lighter than air.
It was I who broke away this time, coming up for air in a far more metaphorical sense than before. “I have to say, your method is a good one.” She laughed, her hands moving away from me to help her better stay above water.
“So, as I was saying, do you think we should try to catch up with Brian and Hayley. I’m guessing we’ve given them plenty of private time by now.”
“How long have we been in here?”
I heard rather than saw her shrug her shoulders. “You zoned out there for a good while. Plus, our other exercises bought us some more time. But it’s not like there’s a clock in here.”
I nodded before realizing how useless that was. “Right. I guess we should start trying to find them. But, if we hear strange noises, promise me we’ll come right back out here.”
“Deal,” she laughed.
I kicked my way towards the edge and fumbled along the ground until I found our packs. I thumbed on my flashlight and began looking for the other, and turning it on. I stumbled around, trying to get my pants to fit back over my damp legs. In my mad dance, I felt my foot gently tap Jocelyn’s flashlight, and then had the pleasure of watching it drift into the water.
“Uh-oh,” I grumbled.
“I’ve got it,” she said. I heard a splash, then saw her making her way down towards the wavering light. I finally overcame my pants, and tugged my shift over my head just as she broke above the water with the flashlight in hand.
“Good heavy duty one. The water didn’t bother it one bit.” As she began to make her way out of the water, something broke the silence. Something unmistakably chilling.
From somewhere in the darkness, far away and muffled by walls of solid rock, Hayley screamed.
Thanks for reading! As always, feel free to leave a comment letting me know what you think, what could be better, and what you like!
This work by Katherine C is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License
So, I blew my goal of a new post very two weeks. Between starting a new job, packing, and going out of the country for a week, I’m barely holding together. Here is something that I was working on prior to the trip, or at least the first half. I’m afraid it’s turning into a much longer story than I usually write, and so it makes sense to post it as a two parter. The second half is 1/3-halfway done, depending on how much I decide to lengthen it out. Thanks, and enjoy!
*After working on part two, this has turned into a three parter! Links to subsequent parts at the end. I also found one or two wrong names sprinkled throughout, so I tried to clean that up. Enjoy! 8/6/14
Every one of us on this chaotically spinning planet has a story, but not all stories are created equal. Some stories are grand, sweeping epics of terror, bravery, and courage. Others are the mundane but essential stories of the 9 to 5 grind, raising a family, and experiencing all the boring miracles life has to offer. There are tragic stories, funny stories, joyous ones, and those filled with heartache. The fact remains: everyone has a story.
My story begins in an upstate national park a bit off the beaten path for some not 100% approved camping—though if I were being honest, my story began in the county hospital in late fall 1987, but I don’t think all that lead up is necessary. What is important is that Jocelyn and I had been dating for about four months, and I thought it would be nice to go on a double dating trip with my college roommate Brian and his girlfriend Hayley. I was actually really nervous because Brian and Hayley had been together forever. We used to tease them in college that they acted like they had been married for 50 years, and nothing had really changed since. I kept pushing Brian to man up and put a ring on it already, but they both claimed to be against the “formalized institution of marriage.” Instead they lived together without the tax benefits and griped at one another daily. True wedded bliss.
I was really worried that Jocelyn might get the wrong idea, feel pressured into the relationship. Maybe she’d think I was moving too fast. But when Brian asked me to go camping, I couldn’t turn down a weekend with my bud, ya’ know? And when he said Hayley was coming, I knew I’d have to invite Jocelyn along to prevent that terrible third wheel syndrome. Nothing lonelier than sharing a sleeping bag with yourself in the great outdoors while people get in touch with their animal sides (not to mention other unmentionables) right nextdoor. Fortunately, Jocelyn agreed to save me from my awkward loneliness, and I spent the next week and a half stressing over all the potential ways this could go terribly wrong. Many of them ended with a long and awkward drive home with Jocelyn as the wreckage of our relationship smoldered to cold ash. When, of course, I was not devising clever ways to defend her against an inevitable bear/mountain lion attack. What stupid things we worry about.
The first night was great. We parked our car in a winding cut-off from the main forest road and hiked in for a few hours to the spot Brian just knew was right over that hill over there. While we never found the mystical clearing he promised, we did find a nice spot that was pretty close to the lake and a couple deer trails. We set up both tents, got a fire roaring, and started roasting some hot dogs over the flames. We hoped that we were far enough from any traditional trails that the fire would not be visible to a passing ranger. Plus, the summer foliage was so thick through there, you were lucky to see much of anything at a distance. Brian had labored to haul a cooler of beer all the way through the woods, so we graciously celebrated his perseverance with more than a few icy beverages.
Jocelyn and Hayley got along great, probably too well as their conversation soon turned to analyzing our shared flaws with the look of untiring patience nearing its limit. Brian and I just got louder, providing them hours of fodder.
That night Jocelyn and I turned in to our little tent. I can still remember the warmth and pressure of her tiny frame pressed up against me in the night. Or how her hair smelled like strawberries and smoke mixed together. She lay against me, my arms wrapped heavily around her as she slept peacefully. I’ve always been a rowdy drunk, but she made me sentimental too. As tired as I was, I just looked at her face in the moonlight, feeling for once that I had not entirely screwed things up. I fell asleep happy, maybe for the last time.
The next morning came way too early. When you’re in a thin tent without the home comforts of black out curtains, morning always comes too early. The campfire had cooled to low embers by the time we got up, and the morning air was unusually cool. It was summer, but beneath the heavy shade of the trees and as close as we were to the lake, the heat didn’t penetrate. I shivered, returning to the tent for a pair of socks and jeans just as Jocelyn shot out of the ten. She looked startled, and I’m sure I did too as her face hurtled towards me without warning.
“Was something out here?” she asked, her voice rising with panic.
I caught my breath, put on my bravest face. “No, nothing. Why? Did you see something?”
Her fear dissipated, confusion shifting across her face in its place, then embarrassment. “No, I guess not. Probably just the wind or a bird or something.”
“We are outside, after all,” I quipped. Judging by the shadow that passed across her face that was not the right response.
“Right.” She snapped back and then joined Hayley picking through the food and snacks still packed from our arrival. They found breakfast as we sat around the embers, listening to the woods around us begin to wake. I tried to avoid the lances of sunlight stabbing through the trees, hoping that doing so would alleviate the pain that every so often bounced through my eyes and head with very little success. Brian looked like he was in much better spirits than me.
“So, I know Brain and Mark used to go camping all the time, but have you ever gone?” I turned to the conversation between Jocelyn and Hayley just as Jocelyn replied.
“I did once or twice with my dad when we were kids. We also camped out in our backyard every summer. But it’s been a while.” I loved watching the way her face lit up as she talked about these happy childhood memories. I was head over heels and I hadn’t even realized it yet. If I could go back, I’d ask her right there to marry me, and then die happy.
“It’s great to find someone else who knows her way around a tent. If it goes well, maybe we’ll make this a regular summer tradition,” smiled Hayley, her eyes sneaking towards me. I saw Jocelyn look at me and smile.
“I could probably handle that.”
All the pain in the world couldn’t keep me from gazing into those sunlit eyes right then. She was beautiful all that time, but something about her tousled hair, faded makeup, and the crisp green forest behind her was irresistible. And she was willing to give a noncommittal agreement to potentially staying with me for another year. Life was good.
As she turned back to talk to Hayley about her previous camping trips, I noticed something moving. Even now, I have trouble remembering exactly how to describe it. It was almost like the sunbeam falling just to the right of Jocelyn was shining, like it had been doused with glitter. The light there bent and warped in unnatural ways, almost like heat waves on hot pavement. But this was brighter and more real. Unlike those mirages, this shape truly had some kind of form to it. Two flecks of light grew more apparent, solidifying into two round spots darting through the light. At one point, they turned towards me and I got the distinct feeling of eyes. As it “looked” at me, I could begin to make out an image. It was a body that was there and wasn’t all at once. Again, like a heat mirage on the road wavers and fades, it struggled into focus, but I don’t think I ever really saw it. It was small, just a few feet off the ground. Thin, with no other discernible feature besides those watching eyes. The eyes danced around us, flitting from sunshine to shade.
I’ve thought a lot about that shape. About the “body” of that thing. It always seems like I can see it in my mind, but when I focus on it, there’s nothing there. Nothing in my memory but the firm recollection that that shadow and sunlight were different than any others. Like it couldn’t—like it can’t really exist in our world. I’m stuck with the endless torture of surety and doubt that I even saw a flicker of the supernatural on that day.
“Seen a ghost?” shouted Brian, dropping heavily next to me on the log. I winced at the noise, but it shook me out of my study of the figure that wasn’t really there.
“No, just admiring the scenery.” I motioned in the direction where I had been staring for far too long. Nothing there but some dust floating through the air. I told myself I had just drunk too much last night, and this was my payback.
Brian took a deep breath f the cool morning air, weighing the view in his own eyes for a moment. “It is pretty great out here, huh?” He smiled, pleased with his good idea and at peace with the moment, but Brian never was one to stay reflective for long. “So Hayley told me about some sort of mountains around here or something—”
Hayley jumped in to provide the much needed content to Brian’s half-formed idea. “They’re caves, Bri. Your ‘genetic selective deafness’ kicks in at the worst times.”
“And caves are in mountains, right?” There was a brief prickle of tension in the air between them as he spun to face her, but it fizzled away as she shook her head with a smile.
“My logician,” she laughed to Hayley, making a sweeping gesture toward Brian. Jocelyn laughed and the two women turned to join Brian and I in the thus far riveting conversation.
“So, like I said, there are some caves in some mountains around here,” he began again, glancing sideways from his eyes to Hayley with his correction and addition, “and I thought—Hayley thought it would be fun to go spe—” Brian’s face became confused momentarily as he tried to find the right word. “Cave exploring,” he substituted, looking at Hayley for confirmation.
“Yes, cave exploring,” she shook her head again and I began to worry that she would sprain her neck at the frequency of such an exercise. “Have you ever been spelunking, Mark?”
Before I could answer, Brian broke in. “Spelunking! That was it. That’s one of those weird German words, right? Like schadenfreude?”
No one answered him, but Brian did not mind as he continued to roll the word around again and again, swearing to remember it for the rest of the day. “I haven’t ever, really. Don’t we need gear for that? Light lights, ropes, harnesses, helmets, shovels—” I began, wondering why I had not considered caving accidents in my fevered anxiety about harm befalling Jocelyn.
Jocelyn, however, cut me off with a laugh and a wave of her hands. “The caves around here are pretty much harmless little things that go a few miles in. We have our flashlights and as long as we don’t dive down any massive black holes, we don’t need that other stuff. We can just wander in, take a lunch, and eat in the ‘belly of the earth.'” She ended with a gravelly voice that reminded me of old voiceovers from those B Sci-fi movies she always insisted we watch.
“But won’t we get lost?” I added, feeling a knot of panic rising in my chest.
“Geez Gretel, we’ll leave a breadcrumb trail for you to get back out, okay? I brought some chalk to mark any hiking we did, anyways,” scoffed Brian.
The panic subsided, but I still felt a raw sense of unease. There was no logical reason, I was sure, but I was nevertheless certain that this would not end well. But Jocelyn looked excited to do so, already swapping caving stories with Hayley, and I did not want to let her down.
We packed day bags with water bottles, chips, peanut butter sandwiches, and a few pieces of fruit a piece. Jocelyn seemed really excited about the cave picnic idea, and I was beginning to warm up to the idea myself. If all went well, I was sure that Brian and Hayley would sneak off on their own for a few minutes, leaving Jocelyn and I alone in the dark, cold cave. In my head, the concept seemed more romantic than when I try to describe it, which might have something to do with my general ineptitude at all things classically romantic. I was never going to be the devilishly suave Harlequin Hunk. That just wasn’t my story.
We began our hike through the woods, following Hayley’s suggestion and moving back towards the main road. About halfway there, she found the marked trail that led to the caves, at least according to the friends she had heard about them from. Jocelyn agreed.
“I didn’t take you for a spelunker,” I smiled as we walked side by side. That same nostalgic glow covered her face again.
“I went once or twice with friends in college, but I’ve wanted to go again. It’s just the right mix of spooky, dangerous, and exciting.”
“So you went to these caves? I mean, you’ll be able to play tour guide for us, right?”
She laughed. “I’ve only been a couple of times. But, I do know a couple of pretty interesting spots to investigate.” The suggestive lilt of her voice confirmed my own romanticized caving ideas, but also led to a hint of jealousy and insecurity. I knew she was a human who had dated other people before, but nevertheless, I felt a little angry that I would have to explore those spots she had already explored with someone else. It was stupid, really, but human nature.
“Oh, so I guess you really enjoyed your little outings, huh?” I tried to remain joking, keeping a smile plastered to my face, but I could hear that slighted edge to my voice. Her smile faded a degree as she looked to me with concern.
“Oh, man, that’s probably pretty weird for you, huh?”
“What? No. I mean, we’re both adults and all—” Her eyes pinned me to the spot, and I sighed, deflated. “Okay, it’s a little weird.”
Jocelyn smiled again, taking my hand in hers as we continued following Brian and Hayley ahead. “Don’t worry; I know you’re not some jealous monster. It’s always weird to think about past partners. God knows I try to forget you ever hooked up with Macy. How about this: you and I can find out own spot to explore together. “
“Only if you swear to tell me afterwards that it’s the best spot you’ve ever explored,” I joked back, easing into the conversation again. She was perfect—understanding and funny in one amazingly gorgeous package.
She laughed and planted a brief kiss on my cheek as we walked. “Deal.”
We walked that way, hand in hand for a while until Hayley got turned around again. Jocelyn skipped to the front of the group and led the way. By that time, the hike had caught up with me. I was beginning to get hungry, and carrying even the relatively light pack was a chore. I did not want to be grumpy on our adventure, but I could feel it sneaking up on me.
Then, Jocelyn stopped and pointed up a short mountain or tall hill to another signpost sitting in front of a shadowed rock overhang. “Entrance is just there. Maybe a water break before we go?”
She was an angel. I collapsed onto a rock, dragging out a water bottle and gulping furiously. The cool morning air had been replaced by heavy, wet heat that sat on my shoulders like an unpleasant child. My stomach rumbled unhappily, but I ignored it. Jocelyn wanted her cave picnic, and I was going to give her a cave picnic.
Our break was short-lived as we quickly repacked the bags and dragged ourselves up the faint outline of a path. The sign marking the entrance was badly faded by the weather. There had once been a great deal of writing on it, but most of that was now just shallow ridges in the wood. The once bright red “WARNING” was still clear, now faded to a pale suggestion of red, but the remainder was illegible. Beside the entrance was a metal plaque, similarly eroded by its time on the mountain. Jocelyn filled in the missing letters. “Kepperman Cavern,” she chirped, indicating the entrance with a broad flourish. Her cheeks were flushed, strands of dark brown hair clinging to her sweaty face as she smiled broadly.
I pushed aside my clinging uneasiness. I was being ridiculous, really. Seeing the joy on Jocelyn’s face, I resolved to enjoy myself. Even if it was a bit out of character for me, today I would be a spelunker. For her.
I was confident as I walked towards the entrance, laughing good naturedly at some joke Brian made. I was confident peering into the dark and deciding to get out a flashlight. I was confident as the first beams of light played along the cold gray walls of the depths. But I was decidedly not confident as I saw two specks of gold floating in the darkness, as I saw a sunbeam dance across a room it could not exist in. In that moment, I was stupid. And I plunged into the darkness.
Hope you enjoyed it and, as always, feel free to leave any helpful comments or critiques!
This work by Katherine C is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License.