Card Day 82: A stone doorway that shows a blue sky and clouds.
There is really no logical method of responding a doorway that suddenly appears in your living room. If there is one, I certainly did not find it. There is no way of keeping cool and collected when you wake up one morning and find a large, ached, iron and wood door standing in between your coffee table and television. This thing was medieval, not even something I could have mistakenly purchased from my local hardware store and installed in some bizarre sleepwalking incident. No, it stood there firm, proud, and completely beyond anything I could make sense of.
I checked the internet, but it did not appear to be some strange phenomenon that I was previously unaware of. I called off of work and spent my morning staring at it. No amount of squinting or turning my head side to side made it any clearer, and I could not lift it or move it. The doorposts disappeared into the plush carpet of my home, and it felt sturdier than most of my house did.
Having never been very handy, my collection of tools was rather slim. There was a mismatched set of screwdrivers, a hammer, some odd nails from various ill-conceived home improvement projects, a set of wrenches my dad had proudly bought me when I bought the house, and a pry bar that had been left in my garage when I moved in. The pry bar seemed my best bet, but the door did not budge. Even when I grabbed the hammer and tried to drive the straight, pointed end of the bar into the doorframe, nothing happened. I did not even leave a mark on the stone frame. My results were similarly pitiful when I applied my tools to the door itself. I was at a loss.
So, having no reasonable recourse, I knocked on the door. My knuckles ached with the force, and I felt a splinter drive itself into my index finger. The door simply sat as it had all morning. To be honest, I am not sure what I expected to happen. If someone had opened the door and greeted me, I likely would have screamed and run out of my house immediately. Finally, I grabbed the handle—a large metal ring set into the front of the door—and tugged.
Given its visible thickness and weight, I prepared myself to struggle against it, but it swung open smoothly on well-oiled hinges. The ease sent me tumbling back against my couch, not that the sudden breeze from beyond did not help.
In the middle of my living room was suddenly a doorway into a cloudy sky. Wind whistled through the opening, disturbing the pile of bills and junk mail sitting by my front door. I expected a house or a meadow or something, but I was not expecting an empty expanse of sky and clouds. What do you do with an opening into the sky?
Having formally thrown reason, logic, and self-preservation to the wind, I leaned around the doorframe trying to find what I was looking at. As I peered through, all I saw was blue sky with the occasional break by a passing foggy cloud. Somewhere far, far below I saw the green shadow of earth sinning below, but up here there was nothing. The door hung suspended in the air, just as out of place as it was in my living room. At least that made me feel a bit better. Somewhere else had been a part of the mysterious door outbreak.
It did not, however, help to convince me I was not going insane.
I stepped around to the other wide of the door and looked through to the other side of my living room. At least this way I would still be able to see the TV if I did some minor rearranging. Stepping around to the front of the door, I was again met with a brilliant blue sky. Nothing in my meager life experiences prepared me for this. So, I called my girlfriend.
You might think that the thing to do would be to calmly explain the situation to her on the phone, explain how certain I was that something was wrong with me, and ask her to come to approve of my new illness. Then she could take me to the hospital. Maybe I should have done that, but instead I just asked her to come over. I had spent long enough staring and probing at the door that she assumed I was just home from work, and she agreed to swing over after she cleaned up from the gym. For my part, I closed the door and checked my house for gas leaks.
I was in the basement when she arrived and, unfortunately, our familiarity had bred a valued sense of comfort and ownership. By which I mean she did not wait for me to answer before charging into the house. I heard her calling for me, an edge of panic to her voice.
“What is that?” she asked, shocked. The front door was still open behind her. There was grass, trees, sidewalk, road, and cars behind her. Nothing like what was behind my newest door.
“Oh, good, you see it.”
“Of course I saw it. Did you think I was going to miss this giant home improvement problem? Did you get drunk or something?”
“I—No, I didn’t.” her eyes were stretched wide in amazement as she looked at me. I tried to smile, but she did not really seem to appreciate that. “I just woke up with it.”
“You woke up with a door?”
“I know, it’s crazy. I thought I was crazy.”
“So, is it like a practical joke or something?” her shock melted into wonder as she drew nearer to it. “I mean, it looks really real.”
I stepped around her to the opening and let my smile inch further along my cheeks. “If you think that looks real, then—“ I threw open the door, narrowly missing her nose with the force. She fixed me with an angry scare, but that disappeared as soon as she could take in what was on the other side. My attention on her face, it took me a couple of moments to realize that the view was completely different. The sky was now in its proper place above us, and the door was rooted firmly in loamy forest soil.
She was too intrigued by the new world to notice my mouth hanging open. I watched as she gazed through, leaned through, then passed around to the other side. Finally, she took a hesitant step through. My body came to life then and I grabbed her arm. “Don’t!”
There were bird sounds filtering through the door, and sunlight danced along the ground. Bright green trees as tall as come city buildings swelled before us as the scent of an undisturbed forest slowly filtered into my house. It was idyllic, which helped explain her confusion. “What’s the problem?”
“I just don’t know what’s in there. Or what it is.” My voice trailed off. It was a very inviting scene and there was nothing threatening about it. Nevertheless, I could not shake the slight discomfort that came from stepping through a doorway that appeared in my living room and opened into another world. “What if it closes?’
She took a quick, sudden breath. “I hadn’t thought of that.” I could see her mind whirring through options, her wanderlust triggered. “What if we drag your coffee table into the doorway?”
“I guess we could, but I don’t—“ She was already bent over, dragging the coffee table towards the doorway. “We don’t know what’s out there. This isn’t what you are supposed to do!”
“Oh, I forgot, could you go get the mystery doorway handbook form the bookshelf? I think we need chapter three.” Her flat stare along with her hands firmly on her hips told me all I needed to know. And, in some ways, she was right. What did I know about interdimensional doorways? And what was the harm of peeing through, especially since the door could not close on us now.
“Okay, but we don’t leave sight of the door.”
I stepped through the doorway, and I would be lying if I said it was not the most magnificent moment of my life. Have you ever tasted completely clean air? Having been born and raised in the suburbs, I haven’t. I had also never heard birds singing so giddily or seen trees that grew so tall. Every step was a miracle.
Eventually, we heard voices bubbling from far away. The words were indistinguishable, and the syllables we could make out did not fit any language I had heard. It was a group of women winding their way through the woods. They talked and laughed freely, woven baskets perched on their hips.
“Are you seeing this?” She was gripping the edge of a tree and observing the women walking so far away. Their dress was archaic and drab, leaving no suspicion that we were simply on some secluded woodland form the world we knew.
“Of course. But we really should keep our distance—“
“Duh” she murmured as the women disappeared from view. “They’d probably think we’re witches or something.”
We did as promised and stayed within sight of the door. The sun was setting in the world—darkness already covered my living room on the other side of the door—when we finally made our way back. The coffee table was still there propping the door open, and there was no evidence that anything had disturbed our little portal.
Except for the bird sitting on the coffee table. It was pure white, about as large as a house cat, and ruffling its feathers as we approached. Once we got next to it, it took off, wings shimmering in the sunset lighting.
I was amazed. I have never seen something like that. The wings that stretched were easily five feet wide, made of hundreds of shimmer, translucent feathers. It cooed and trilled as it climbed towards the treetops, fleeing our approach.
I think that there must be magic in the world. Our day trip proved it.
We pulled the coffee table back fully into our dimension, brushing dirt back into the doorway. Then, we let it close.
“I can’t believe you called me before you explored that place,” she whispered as we leaned against the door.
“To be fair, that’s not what I got when I opened it.”
“What do you mean?”
“It was in the middle of the air. I would have been a red spot on the ground if I tried to explore.”
“So it moves?”
I shrugged as exhaustion pulled at me. “I guess.”
There were not words for us then. Instead, we slumped against the door and each other, both of our minds spinning along a million possibilities and realities. There was nothing in this that was normal, and I know I had no idea how you continued to live with this profound knowledge.
Sleep snuck up on us. She was gently snoring as my eyes sagged closed. We slept in front of our mystical portal into another world, overcome by the sheer wonder of what the world could be.
Of course, our peace was short lived. This morning, we woke to heavy knocks on the door. Someone’s fist was pounding against the wood, sending shivers running up and down it.
“Do we open it?” she asked, her eyes suddenly wide awake.
“They sound angry.”
She nodded, her mouth slightly open as we both stared at the door.
“I’m sure they’ll go away soon,” I added. Only they didn’t. Instead, the pounding increased, and now the entire door is shaking with the force of blows. It’s not a fist crashing down any longer, but something larger. In my mind, I see a battering ram slowly pulling back, then swinging down to slam against the wood and iron. The door shakes, quivering with each blow, but it has yet to crack or move.
I don’t know who is on the other side, but I hope it holds.
This work by Katherine C is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License.
Card Day 78: Falling water droplet holding a sun, windswept trees, a snake, a man, water, a butterfly, a fetus, and stones.
Vivia traced the path of water down the windowpane with her finger, watching as the droplets splashed and tumbled down the clear class toward uncertain end. There was a prickle of giddiness in the exercise as she tried to imagine what the route might be, but she was ultimately as surprised as the water droplet was. Or she presumed it was. That raised another interesting question. Did the droplet realize where it was and decide where to go? Did it select each fork in the road or did gravity and friction decide for it? Her eyes searched along the droplets for any hint, but they were stalwart and silent. Just as well, she sighed. It would have robbed some of the magic of it.
The wondering was good, and Vivia felt her brain stretch with the exercise. It was a nice way to shuffle back some of the loneliness, even if the reprieve was remarkably brief. The feeling of companionship with the inanimate rain droplets dwindled, but she found her eyes drawn back again and again to their trails. Some part of her was still concerned with the end of their journey. Perhaps that part should be equally as concerned about her end.
That thought served to redouble the emptiness of her room. It was a stone room, decorated with restrained finery. The bed was plush and soft, though it was nothing more than a plain white lump against the wall. Fresh food arrived three times a day with the same restrained delicacy—fine ingredients combined in mundane combinations. The large window generally let in copious light, though today it bristled with storm clouds. That again was fitting, she decided. Perhaps it was even an intentional reflection of someone’s sorrow for her predicament. She liked to believe that someone out there was on her side.
With a sigh, she collapsed into the wooden chair in the corner, gazing out over the empty and sparse room. It was all the luxury she was accustomed to, simply separated from its usual elegance. It felt silly that they took such care to provide for her comfort when they were, in fact, about to completely destroy her life as she knew it. Yet she had her feather pillow at night.
Feathers were no better at soaking up her tears than a straw mat would have been.
There was a gentle knock on her door—they still pretended she had enough power that one should knock before entering. She wondered if she simply did not speak if the courier would leave the door. She could ride out the rest of her life in this bland cocoon, gazing out at the majestic landscape now covered in fog. These thoughts still danced in her head as the door creaked open.
“Milady Vivia?” squeaked the voice, obviously terribly uncomfortable at the intrusion.
She rose from the chair with a whisper of silk. “I assume they are ready to pronounce their judgment.”
“Yes,” came the response with a sigh of relief, even though it was not a question. She walked towards the door and her ill-burdened messenger opened it wider to admit the guards. They raised silver links in their meaty hands with an apologetic tone.
“We have to obey our orders, Milady.” The ogres did their best not to manhandle her more than necessary as they directed her down the corridors, but she still arrived in the main chamber feeling harried.
“Vivia,” grumbled the silver-haired man from atop his high seat. There was a strange mix of anger, sorrow, and disappointment in his eyes. She deflected that with staunch pride and aloofness, never quite meeting his eyes. He was beneath her and in the wrong. She knew it and he likely had a pretty good idea of it as well.
“You know why you are here?” His voice was the echoing of a storm on the horizon. Once, she had loved the gravelly rumble, but now it left her feeling bitter. That thunder no longer brought the gentle summer rains, but unleashed a torrent that would soon wash her away.
“Because justice,” she spat the word, her eyes roving over the assembled figures with disdain, “must be served.” Her mimicry did not go unnoticed.
“Vivia, we do not want to do this,” said a woman with a shimmering voice. Vivia turned to fix her with a withering stare, but felt an internal prickle as the other woman wilted. Her generally sunny, bright face dimmed to match the cloudy skies outside. At least someone seemed to care.
“Oh, plenty of you want to. Otherwise I would not stand before you in judgment today.”
“You stand here because you killed one of your own!” roared a small man from the other side of the room. He had a stiff and wooden appearance, his skin gnarled like the old oaks that grew by the river. Vivia’s iciness never wavered, and she covered his rage in a heavy frost.
“That is true. I killed him before he could wipe away humanity as we know it.”
“That was not your decision to make,” thundered the leader again. This time he stood, drawing all eyes to him with deference. All except Vivia’s whose instead slowly wandered across the assembled until they found his. She smiled.
“Maybe not, but at least I made one.”
A whisper scuttled along the rest of the waiting faces, dying out just as it reached its swell. Her impudence did not pass without note.
“As have we.” He was the only one who could meet her eyes.
“An eye for an eye, right?”
There was a ripple of anger and sorrow in his eyes. “No, bloodshed must not lead to more bloodshed. There is no justice in such a world.”
For the first time since she entered the room, Vivia faltered. She had marched proudly to her death, and this was unexpected. Nonetheless, she kept her wits about her enough to seal her lips.
“You will be exiled.”
The only measureable change in Vivia’s appearance was the way the blood faded from her cheeks, leaving her a statue carved from marble. Her eyes wavered and blinked, but maintained their intensity.
“Then do it,” she said tersely, her jaw clenched so tight the words barely escaped.
The small, withered man stepped down from his seat and walked before her. He raised a knotted finger and tapped her forehead three times while muttering. With sudden speed, his gnarled nails dug into her arms, drawing a pinprick of blood. And then there was darkness.
Vivia woke up and felt the frailty of humanity in her bones. Her body ached, as did her head. A strange pain arced from the front to the back of her skull and back again, leaving stars in her vision. The name Hannah echoed in her mind, and she turned it over gingerly, probing at it as if it would reveal some great secret. All she got was a series of memories and associations spinning around her own lofty knowledge. Apparently, Hannah was her new—albeit unwilling—host. Hannah.
Vivia certainly preferred her name, but she could spend some time as Hannah if that was what it took. The ground beneath her was hard and cold. Vivia liked the cold, but did not like the way the stones dug into her shoulder blades. Filled with energy and powered by her anger, she vaulted to her feet. Others pushed past and around her, caught up in the bustle of a market and never noticing the woman who had collapsed and revived in the middle of the streets. Just as they wanted, she was sure.
Vivia turned to face the sun, seeing the white hot sphere hanging in the sky. She stared it down as her human eyes watered and withered. Human eyes prevented her from seeing them sitting up there, but she was sure they could see her. She wanted them to see her. The heat and light of the sun burned at her eyes, and she only turned away when it came time to blink away the tears. But a determined smile peeked from the corners of her lips and she surveyed her new people.
She might not be a god any longer, but she would be worshipped.
This work by Katherine C is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License.
So, this idea I like, but I really wanted to stretch it out and make it EVEN longer. But I didn’t. I may return to this later, after the challenge, and flesh it out to be what I want. As always, I hope you enjoy!
Card Day 77: A wall of vines. Some are wrapped around a knife, slowly cutting through other segments of the vine.
Finding the tree was happenstance, but Camilla found the discovery filled her with a mingled feeling of awe and discomfort. It rose mightily into the sky, but it was oddly bound by clinging, woody vines. They snaked around the tree from tip to root, their leaves covering the bountiful boughs. It was, in fact, a tree constructed out of staunch green vines. That was the amazing part.
The discomfort arose because she was somehow certain and inexplicably saddened by the realization that there was almost certainly an actual tree caged inside those vines. Perhaps once tall and beautiful in its own right, it had been strangled to make room for the natural oddity. She walked around the base of the tree, pacing its impressive girth, and studying the vines that scaled the bark—or the presumed bark—so effortlessly.
Camilla felt a small sense of accomplishment at discovery the unique find—or, at least, she thought it was unique. Then again, she had very little frame of reference as this was only her first of two months with her grandmother for the summer. And she had only spent a short while exploring the woods, having quickly grown tired of the spotty satellite TV and limited reading selection. Her grandmother swore they would go to the library in town soon, but Camilla had grown antsy around the house. Besides, her grandmother, seeing her determination to explore the vast wilderness, had promised her that there were arrowheads and other artifacts from native tribes out there, scattered all around the county. Camilla had set off as a daring explorer, and now, looking at this tree, she felt a prickle of satisfaction at her exploratory skills.
Still, the discomfort remained. It took her a few minutes to understand it, a few minutes more to place it. As soon as Camilla considered her mother and father—their strict rules, minute-by-minute schedules, and sky-high expectations—the impact of the tree sank in. Yes, she could certainly understand the feeling of being strangled by outsiders, cut off from the sun, covered up to look more presentable. At least out here, her grandmother could barely see well enough to know that she was wearing any clothes, nonetheless how fashionable. There were no camps, extracurricular, practices, recitals, rehearsals, classes, or tutors to keep her time. Camilla enjoyed the sense of freedom she had to simply wander, even if the television selection had been lackluster thus far.
Camilla let her pity move her to action. The tree was certainly dead she knew, even with her limited knowledge of botany. But she felt the sudden urge to free it, to peel away the vines and discover the once mighty tree beneath. Or, she reasoned, at least find out if there truly was bark underneath. Perhaps the vines had simply opted to mimic the incredible stature of the surrounding trees.
Her nails were short, brittle and no match for the thick vines on the tree. She was able to wrestle one or two small sections off, leaving the pale green stems in a heap on the ground. But the work was slow. She had barely made a dent before her fingers were already aching. Sweat dripped down her nose in response to the good Southern summer, and she examined mere negligible work. Still, she felt pretty certain that she could see a bit of bark hiding beneath the layered tendrils. There was certainly something darker than the light-colored vines underneath.
She returned to the work, pulling at the vines until she had uncovered a small section about the size of a dinner plate. It was slow work, but got a bit easier as she unknotted some tangles and could peel away larger chunks. Underneath, she saw twisted grey bark, as well as a distinct darkness of some hollow. The emptiness inside seemed to stretch on indefinitely, and this only served to further pique her curiosity.
A mix of her own interest and sense of purpose left her dedicated. The old tree could have one last taste of freedom, she decided as guilt over her own freedom threatened to overwhelm her. But it would not be today. She knew if she spent much longer wandering in the woods, her grandmother would start to worry. The last thing Camilla needed was the small town’s volunteer fire department swarming the woods looking for her.
She made it back, hot, tired, but still pleased with her outing. The day passed with the same sluggishness of all the previous. Then again, everything moved slower in the summer heat. Camilla found her thoughts circling back to the tree time and time again, curiosity keeping her mind engaged as she washed the dishes, put away the leftovers from dinner, and watched the nightly news beside her grandmother. When evening finally settled firmly around the house, plunging it into that true darkness that surrounds country homes far from city lights, Camilla thought she would never get to sleep.
But the summer day had easily sapped her of what energy she had. The cool sheets, a breeze ruffling through her window, and she was asleep.
Her sleep was not restful, however. It was plagued by fitful sleep and a sense of foreboding in even the most mundane dreams. She sat on the front porch, rocking side by side with her grandmother in the oversized wicker chairs. Suddenly, it began to rain. The dream had nothing worthy of concern, but it seemed as if it was tinged with foreboding, with the unshakable sense that something was encroaching.
Simple dreams built until she found herself standing before the vine-bound tree. All the veiled threat from her previous dreams coalesced into the green structure. Camilla’s fingers gripped the vines, tugging and pulling them away. As they came apart, her hands quickly became coated with sticky sap—with blood. She dug through the bleeding vines with a fury that surprised her, even as the vines began to scream. They lashed out at her, scraping at her arms as her blood mingled with its. Finally, she pulled back from the tree, panting It lay bare again, bark twisted and gnarled up towards the sky. She could even see the individual branches, arms outstretched in exultation of freedom.
Even more intriguing, she could see the hollow stretching back into the tree. It seemed to be less of a hollow and more of an opening leading into some shadowy cave. In the dream, cold air billowed from the cave while the vines still screamed pitifully behind her. As she approached the opening, two red eyes appeared in the darkness, followed by a sudden flash of teeth,
Camilla woke with a start, sweaty sheets tangled around her limbs. The sun was pouring in, and the cool of the evening was already moving towards a sultry morning. From downstairs, she could hear bacon sizzling over the drone of the morning news. Her grandmother was up, and breakfast would be ready soon. Camilla stomped to the bathroom and turned on the creaking faucet. The shower water always ran so cold in the morning, and it was slow to heat. Still, the time away from her dreams allowed them to fade until the dissipated like the steam rising from the shower. Camilla rinsed away the fear and sweat of the night, ready for another day.
It was easy to sneak the knife out of the kitchen drawer; her grandmother’s hearing and vision were nowhere near the superhuman ability level Camilla’s mother professed in childhood memories.
“Going for a walk, Meemaw,” she said with a smile. The old woman smiled in return, knitting in her rocking chair while some gameshow droned on behind her.
“Just be careful and don’t stay out too late. I thought we’d go to the library today. Maybe after my nap?”
“I’ll make sure I’m back.” Camilla paused on her way out the door and then turned back to grab the flashlight from the hall closet. She wanted to really explore that tree, and it might mean peering into that hollow a bit more.
Had she not been carrying the knife, Camilla would have run to the tree. As it was, she had to pick her way carefully through the underbrush, always conscious of the dangerous tool in her backpack. Out here, she could not afford to fall and stab herself. The same thought returned. There was no need to rally the entire fire department just to find she had tripped over a log and stabbed herself. If she survived, she would never live down the embarrassment. That and her parents would probably never let her leave the house again.
It stood regally as ever in its clearing, perhaps looking even more alive now that a small patch of the tree shone though. It was as if the tree was breathing for the first time in years, and that made Camilla happy. If the tree could be free, she could to. With an eagerness that overcame the soreness of her tired fingers, she set to work sawing through the vines.
It was hot work and the vines would not give easily. Every now and then, Camilla had flashes of her dream, of sticky, bloody sap covering her hands. But in the dappled sunlight of late morning, it was hard to take such things seriously. Besides, she felt a deep sense of peace with her task, and she was far too old, or so she told herself, to be worried about silly dreams.
The vines fell away, revealing more and more of the dried bark. The massive tree required far more work than she had anticipated, and she had drenched her light t-shirt by the time she worked her way around the trunk. There was not much she could do for the upper branches, but she had done a little good.
After finished, she was surprised to see the same gaping hollow from her dream. It was a marvel that the tree was even standing with its whole bottom emptied out. Just like the dream, the darkness inside seem to stretch back and downward, almost like the mouth of a tunnel. Camilla understood the risk. There were likely animals living in there, or maybe a sinkhole or something. It was certainly dangerous. But she also felt that her hard work needed a reward. And the mystery was simply too much to pass up.
She would not go far inside, she resolved, and she would get out if she heard anything that might be an animal. It was not like the tunnel could go far, anyway. But as she shined the beam of her flashlight inside, it was met with darkness as far back as the light could travel.
Camilla stepped cautiously inside, half expecting the cool air from the dream. Instead, the inside of the tree was warm and muggy. It smelled like old, damp earth and soft wood. She pushed steadily inward, eyes wide with a mix of fear and excitement.
Just a few feet in, the tunnel leveled off into a small room. She judged the distance and guessed she was only about five feet beyond the tree at this point, and the low ceiling had already caved in at some points. That was the sign of danger she had been waiting on, and she sighed. Time to turn back.
Before she did, however, she wanted to see what lay in the middle of the room. It was a stone circle that appeared set into the dirt floor, and her flashlight seemed to trip and stumble across scraped indentions. Some sort of markings? Once she was close enough, she could see strange marking all along it. They did not appear random, as if the rain and soil had eroded them, but more intentional. There was almost a pattern to the markings, not that it meant anything to her. As she stopped over, Camilla thought she felt a hand suddenly in the middle of her back, shoving her forward. She tumbled towards the stone, catching herself with her hands as she skidded over the roughhewn surface.
Her hands were scraped and bloody, and there was a splash of blood now obscuring some of the marking. Camilla glanced around, her flashlight scanning the unnaturally heavy shadows, but there was nothing there besides some hanging tree roots and stones. No one was nearby. Maybe it was a breeze, she told herself, or perhaps she hit a patch of wet leaves or mud. Either way, Camilla suddenly did not like the way the shadows seemed to claw at her flashlight or how the forest sounds had faded so dim in the dark recesses of the tunnel. She burst back out into the hot summer air, surprised at the goosebumps crawling along her skin.
The sun was further along in the sky than it should have been, and Camilla readily accepted the excuse to return home. She did want to go to the library after all.
Of course, by the time she got home and got cleaned up, her grandmother was already complaining about how late it was. The woman liked her dinner promptly at five, and a trip into town now would delay that by a good half hour. If Camilla had learned anything about her grandmother, it was that the woman did not like her routine disrupted. It was what came from marrying a military man or at least so Camilla’s mother said.
The strange cavern seemed to follow Camilla just as the tree had. Only, this time, there was no sense of wonder. The feeling of crouching doom from her dream slithered into reality, and Camilla felt herself on edge. She tried to talk to her grandmother, but neither of them was able to focus on the conversation long enough to get anywhere.
Camilla felt weariness tug at her bones as the sunburn from her day’s foolhardy adventure settled in. Her sheets were and icy balm as she sank into them, and her thoughts spun around the hollow of the tree. It was unsettling, distressing, and strangely exhilarating. Nevertheless, her eyes grew heavy in the natural dark.
Again, Camilla dreamed.
This time, however, the dreams were not of foreboding or evil, but she felt liberated. Camilla was flying along the underbrush in the woods, her feet barely touching the ground. Her body moved impossibly fast, dodging saplings and bushes as darkness wrapped around her. She heard her own heavy panting in her ears as she thundered along. She was limitless.
Camilla felt herself stop, even though she had not realized she wanted to. It was as if someone else controlled the body, and she was along for the ride. Either way, the feeling was thrilling. Her rapid flight came to an abrupt halt as she began moving slowly, intentionally towards a shadowed house on the horizon. Camilla recognized the little farm house. She walked towards it, taking note of the open window on the second floor with the fluttering white curtains. Her bedroom widow, open as always. With an effortless leap, she was on the eaves and slinking towards her open window.
Camilla caught sight of her body lying in the bed, snoring softly with each rise and fall of her chest. Her hair was a mess tossed about the pillows, and one leg jutted awkwardly off the bed. All was well. Then, Camilla caught her own reflection in the mirror
Red eyes, jagged teeth, and a coalescing shadowy body. The sight was terrifying, but Camilla saw familiarity in the glowing red eyes. Her terror ebbed slightly as another presence, a grateful one, nudged up against her own thoughts. Without a word, Camilla and whatever she was accompanying spun from the window and disappeared back into the woods.
The run through the forest was indescribable. She felt the chill of moonlight on her skin—it was like the warmth of sunlight on the first spring day, but instead carried the chill of the moon on a heavy summer’s night. The loam of the underbrush was soft under her feet, springy enough to propel her forward through the trees like an undirected missile.
Then, again, there was calm. Her motion still, and she slunk low to the ground. Farmer Drury’s fence rose into view, as well as he slumbering herd of cattle. Without understanding what was happening, the ground rushed beneath Camilla and there was the taste of metal and meat in her mouth. Sudden noises of panicking livestock flooded her ears, but Camilla simply tasted the blood that trickled down her throat. She reveled in the feel of her teeth—sharp and deadly—tearing through fresh meat. She relaxed in the feeling of satiation as she had her fill.
The next morning, Camilla woke refreshed, the taste of blood and freedom still lingering on her tongue.
This work by Katherine C is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License.
Card Day 73: A ship nearing a giant mermaid lying in the ocean.
It is bad luck to have a woman on board.
“Are you sure?”
“Yes, Cap’n. They caught her bleedin’.” The scraggly mate spat the final word out, lifting up a pair of ragged, marred pants. The captain was silent, staring down on the boy—apparently woman—standing before him. Her hair was the same jagged, short cut he had seen before. Her face was young and round, but now took on a more feminine angle rather than the soft curves of his cabin boy. That was most likely due to the good scrubbing the mate had given her before announcing his suspicions. He even saw the emotional woman caged within those eyes. But he did not want to believe it. It was bad luck to have a woman on board.
“The ship’s a dangerous place. Are you sure?”
The mate looked irritated at the continued inquiry, and roughly grabbed the front of the cabin boy’s shirt. The captain saw her bindings with his own eyes, saw the recognition in hers. The gig was up.
“You lied to us,” he said, proclaiming her guilt.
“I did.” Her eyes never left his, and her voice took on a softer quality than he had heard before. He imagined that, with hair and properly attired, she would have been a very beautiful woman.
“You’ve doomed us all,” he sighed, turning away from the tragedy playing out before him.
“I just needed to find my mother,” she said firmly. He expected her to plead with him, but there was not a hint of remorse or supplication in her stern voice. “I did not take you for a superstitious fool.”
The captain spun around, fixing her with a furious stare. “Every sailor is superstitious, madam. And it’s bad luck to have a woman on board.” He turned back to contemplate the sea, suddenly realizing how dangerous and unpredictable the waves were becoming.
“What do we do with her, Cap’n?” asked one of the voices behind him. The captain paced. They were days from any safe harbor, but he could not run this risk any longer. It was a miracle that they had not run into more trouble already—only the cook had gotten sick, and that was likely his own fault.
“Throw her overboard?” asked another voice.
“No,” he said stiffly, his mind spinning quickly. “Put her in the rowboat and give her a week’s rations.” He walked to the woman standing there, her eyes still drilling into him. “If I find you back on my ship, then I will throw you back in, but without the boat.”
There were grumblings from the crew, but the captain was not going to budge. He would make it right, but he would not betray someone who had been a loyal member of the crew. The worst of it was that he had really liked the new cabin boy. Perhaps he’d look her up in port sometime. Nonetheless, he heard the sudden surge of activity as the crew jumped to his command. Another week or two out on the ocean and they would not respond so quickly, but they still had their will and drive. They also still believed they might impress him.
The captain made sure he was at the bow when they lowered the rowboat into the choppy waves. The boat was not designed for such distances, but he was giving her the best chance he could. They could not take the time to turn back and dock again, not when they had finally caught a headwind. She was stalwart until the last, sitting staunchly in the boat while her eyes burned up at him. There was at once an acknowledgment of his mercy, but a deeper anger at his dismissal. The ocean spray licked at her face, but she did not blink. It was unnerving in a way, no less so when she began to row away, her flimsy arms fighting against the oars, but eyes never leaving his. Even once she was a spot on the horizon, he had the uncomfortable feeling that her eyes were still watching him.
“A woman on board is bad luck,” he muttered to himself as he marched back to the cabin. Yet somehow, it felt as if his luck had just turned.
It was three days later and the wind had died on the horizon, leaving them a floating piece of rubbish on the smooth seas. Again the grumbles started, and the captain realized the true risk he had taken in sending her off in their rowboat. He had been right; every sailor was superstitious. And now he was a victim of it. The whispers followed him through the decks, silencing at his approach and swelling in his wake. If only he could get the ocean to rise and fall so readily. Some rumors claimed that the rowboat was but an extension of the larger ship, and now she had fully infected them, staining every plan with her curse. The more dangerous rumor was that the captain had known of her identity, had intentionally brought her aboard to help with the loneliness of the seas and the captain’s lofty position. His mercy was his way of saving his mistress after their deception was found it. Both were preposterous, he knew, but the former did give him pause.
Staring out from the top deck, he saw the endless stretch of the sea before him, just as hot and still as it had been for two days now. He scanned the horizon in hopes of a blanket of clouds that would promise rain and possible storm winds—anything was better than sitting her roasting and running through their rations. At least it made for good weather for the woman in the rowboat. He still instinctively thought of her as Peter even though that was certainly not her name. He hoped Peter made it to shore. Perhaps the wind would return once she stepped on shore and left their boat in some unsavory dock.
The day stretched on before them, full of the standard routine but lacking any energy. The lazy ocean seemed to infect every one of his crew, making them sluggish and dull. The captain sighed from his post, wondering if there were some magic that would enliven the sea once again, bring a breeze back to the sails. Unfortunately, he knew of none such magic. It was in God’s hands, and God had never been a friend of his.
The sun sank on the horizon, and the stars peered out. It was only then that the first hint of a breeze drifted over the ship. It piqued his optimism and the captain found himself back on the deck. He sniffed deeply of the wind, feeling the surprising chill that washed over him. It was a cold wind in the midst of a hot summer. That portended rough seas, and suddenly he regretted his earlier hope. A ship shattered would make no more progress than a ship stagnant, only the crew survived at least another week or two on one of them. Still, there were no clouds in the sky. That meant there was time.
He stomped to his cabin for the night, distinctly aware that this might be the last night he would have to sleep soundly before chaos of storms on the open sea.
Yet his rest was interrupted nonetheless, a furious pounding on his cabin door. The captain was a man who shot awake in an instant, aware and alert. Tonight was no different, but he could not make sense of the jabbering s of the crewman standing before him. It made no sense, but he felt the toss of the boat that seemed to confirm the insane ravings. A storm had whipped up.
He took the stairs tow at a time, reaching the top deck with surprising speed. The crewman who had woken him was lost in the hold, hopefully attending to some other duty, but the captain had no time to spend focusing on the missing man; he had a ship to save.
The night air was surprisingly cold—colder than it should be for months. More unusually, however, was the perfectly crisp sky. Not a cloud in the sky, nor a drop of rain. The only sound he heard was the raging sea, snapping and roiling beneath their ship, competing with the frenzied voices of his crew. No thunder.
“Jergen, what is happening?” he asked calling his mate to his side. The man looked confused, but calm.
“Come sort of squall, Cap’n. Waters are real rough.” As if to confirm his statement, waves splashed over the side and the boat took a dangerous list to port. Unsecured clutter slipped and bounced along the deck. Their laziness had gotten out of hand and, if they were unlucky, would get someone killed.
Unfortunately, the captain barely had time to register that before something else caught his attention. The water crashing against the sides of the boat began to surge upwards, tall columns of water that soared towards the prickling stars. He had never seen that before.
And, more surprisingly, it began to recede from the air, leaving a watery form.
It was a woman, looking like she had been carved from a glimmering, clear stone. It took him a few breaths of observation to realize she was molded purely from sea water. Her hair lapped like waves, frothing white at the ends before joining her sculpted face.
It was her eyes that secured him to his spot. He had seen those eyes days before, drifting away from his ship in a rowboat not designed for open seas.
The woman in the water opened her mouth, and the captain heard waves roar even louder. The sound of the sea itself dimmed until all he could hear was her roar. Then the crashing waves began to coalesce into words he knew.
“My daughter,” it whispered, a questioning voice full of anger and hope.
The captain stumbled towards the mysterious water nymph as the waves crashed around her. Where the water slammed viciously against the fragile wood of his boat, it lapped with gentle caresses against her skin. She was an angel framed in sea foam.
Those piercing eyes found his, liquid and searing. “My daughter,” spoke the waves again, but this time the hopeful questions was replaced by accusation.
The captain opened his mouth to speak, but could not find words that expressed his needs as clearly as the waves. Instead, he swam in her eyes, seeing his silhouette standing in the bow of the ship, a figure receding with each shove of the oars through water.
The sound of snapping wood brought the captain from his awe-struck reverie, but it also smothered him with an unescapable revelation. Waves slammed again and again against the fracturing wood of his ship, following the command in those fierce, sea-sculpted eyes.
With a screech of angry waves and squall-summoned winds, the majestic woman dove towards the captain. The deck gave way beneath his feet, but she caught him in her crushing arms.
“My daughter,” she roared through the water that pressed against his ears, surrounded his eyes and mouth.
The stars grew murky and watery from his new vantage point sinking below the waves. As the surface closed over him, wreckage spinning around him, the captain could only curse the woman who had brought her ill luck upon him.
This work by Katherine C is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License.
Woohoo! On the last quarter! It’s been quite a ride, and will probably continue. Unfortunately, I have a raging migraine tonight, so there may be a lot of typos or issues here. I will probably look over this tomorrow and try to make some corrections. Tonight, I’ve just got to get my eyes closed. Happy reading!
Card Day 64: A rabbit in armor, sword drawn, standing before three different doors.
It is strange to think that my life spun on a pivot based on one choice alone. In one breath, I drastically altered life as I knew it, striking off on some path that I could never have imagined had you granted me ten thousand years to dream. No, it was the impulsivity and daring of youth that set me on this path, and I cannot help but wonder what may have been if a cooler head had reigned and selected my future. Life is, ultimately, the assembled sum of choices made in moments of strength and weakness.
“Take my hand.” The words had been a command, but they were a choice. And I chose adventure, leaving behind the life of simplicity I had thus far known. I leapt from the precipice of the unknown with a mysterious stranger whose tongue was decked in gilded lies. I eschewed the life I had known to chase after the fairytale presented.
Only his fairytale did not have a happy ending, and did not include brave knights or sweeping castles. No, his fairytales were grim reality dressed in a veil of magic. True, there is magic in this world of mine, but not the kind to transform frogs to princes. That was a lesson I learned quickly with him.
I had been young and impressionable. He had been the answers to all the darkness and ennui that dogged my daily life. I was an independent woman who wished for the fantasy of my youth. So I sought it out, digging through the recesses of our reality and searching for the tears.
My search led me to him in a back alley shop carrying all kinds of items, covering the gamut from arcane to mundane. A spells hop, he said with a smile. Only I did not realize that by opening a relationship with him, entering his world, I was actually granting entry to a myriad of unwanted guests.
“Take my hand,” he said, and led me into his shop, into his world. He showed me how to create a spell, how to transform the world and revitalize the magic I sought. Old ways, he said with the gaze of a zealous worshipper.
At first, things had been magical in the most innocent sense of the word. He had shown me how to create light and beauty, how to enchant things so that they took on a feeling of whimsy. I learned simple things to make the colors of my world shine brighter, to make music dance before me, and to grant levity to the struggles of life. I was overwhelmed with luck and beauty. It was like the greatest high I had ever experienced, only it was not bought with self-delusion and unhappy consequences.
Of course, the consequences were there, they just hung back in the shadows and waited until I was so ensnared that I could not escape.
It began with whispers that followed me throughout my day. They ebbed and flowed like waves, overwhelming me at times with their threatening whispers. Whenever I used the gifts he had unlocked within me, I heard them swell to a rabble, only to dim as I exhausted my gifts. As I transformed the pebble in my hand into an apple, they screamed, and then faded on the wind. Every time I cast a light about my home, illuminating my abode with dancing light that shone with tranquility, they raged against the peace. Only when it grew dark did they quiet again.
I thought I was going crazy, but that is not the thing you can tell a therapist. Yes, I hear voices, but only when I use magic. That’s a one way ticket to a life I did not want. So I chose not to reach out for help, but to live with it. I told him about the voices, and he smiled knowingly.
“You didn’t think you’d get this all for free, did you? You’re building quite the tab.” And he stopped taking my calls. The shop closed up, a smudge of paint on a brick wall downtown. From shadows he came, and into them he once again melted.
Had they stayed voices, I think I would have been fine. I could hold them back, limit the use of my skills, and make it by without becoming overwhelmed by the ever clearer voices. As long as I did not think about the horrors they whispered, I could hold it together.
Soon, there were shadows in my eyes. They clung around the edges of my sight, deepening natural shadows and sneaking from them when I was not looking. Their forms were obscure, fluctuating, moving with the ease of light filtering through a dusty window. At night, I woke to find them grinning down at me, hungry and waiting. “An account must be made,” they whispered, grinning with delight.
I know I should have stopped then, stepped away from the new world I had uncovered. I should have returned to the life of normalcy, hoped that they would let me go with time served. But this was more addictive than any drug. Imagine you could change the very fabric of reality around you to make life exactly as you wished. Mourning? Then simply alter time and space so that the loss never happened. Disappointed? Just a few tweaks here or there and the world realigns to your specifications. Lonely? It’s always easy to find someone when you know exactly what they’re looking for. The allure is in the ease. For such a huge power, the keys are relatively simple. Just a nudge to time here, a pull on this part of space, a twist of that arbitrary boundary. Once I knew the rules, it was as if all the world was nothing but a puzzle to be figured out and pieced together per my command. That is a power I could not step away from.
Of course, my refusal did not suit them either. They grew more and more terrifying. They woke me from sleep to scream and growl. My dreams were their playground, filled with images of horror and despair. Every time I tried to right the world in my dream, it twisted before my eyes. Not only did I not get to go home with the man I had hoped for, but I watched as he was ripped limb from limb. My attempt to brighten my apartment turned into a blazing fire, my nostrils filled with the scent of burning flesh while I listened to the screams of my neighbors. I woke in terror.
And tonight, I woke in terror to find they had taken on an even more tangible danger. This time, one of them was seated on my chest, two of its many appendages pinning my arms to my sides. I could try to describe it, but I know words do not do it justice. Its form was mist, eve in movement, but I also had the distinct image of a snarling wolf impossibly balanced on my torso. In no way did the writhing mass of shadow actually resemble a wolf, but that is the form that best describes the being before me. It at once had a form and denied that shape.
“An account must be made,” it snarled, breathing long coils of hot, rancid breath over my face. The stench of my dreams resurged, burning flesh and rotting meat comingled. The claws around my arms dug deep, and I felt my skin pop with the pressure, beads of blood trembling down my arms. I could feel its hunger at the sight, an almost ecstatic trembling in its undefined form.
“An account will be made,” it purred, jaws flashing near my face. “We are owed. We will be sated.”
And I screamed, focusing the primal rage, fear, and desire into one vocalization. I looked at my blueprint of reality, this alien blot marring the system I had learned so well. It was an invader in the world I had created, and I must be the defender.
I know my story could have ended hours ago, a blood stain on a mattress in a bad part of town. A series of screams reported to cops who did not care, a person who vanished into the night, a collection of blood and bones without any valid explanation. I could have been a cold case reserved for the stuff of urban legends.
But my teacher taught me so much better than that, even if he did abandon me. Then again, I don’t think he knew half of what he taught me. But you can learn an awful lot when you can freeze a moment and pick delicately through every neuron of their brain. Yes, you can learn so much.
And so I cleansed my world. I brought back the light that I had created and tended so gently, used it to burn away the claim that thing placed on me. I can close my eyes and see the shock, awe, and fear on its face—or lack of a face—as it realized that the morsel it had in its claws was far more competent than expected. I hate to admit, but that look was intoxicating. As was the feeling of its form dissolving within my thoughts. I felt the structure of its phantasmagorical shape fall apart, covering me in its darkness. It ran warm, thick, and soothing over my skin; it seeped into my wounds and fed me with energy from beyond the veil.
It was a taste exhilarating, fulfilling, and empowering in a way I had never known—a way I did not know a mere human can know.
So, still wearing the remains of my foolish captor, I am once again faced with a choice. Another pivot point in my life has arisen, and I must this time be aware of what lies ahead. I may remain here, waiting, and try to return to life before I was filled with this indescribable power. They will return. Or I can flee, hide myself from the powers I have gathered, and hope that my account may one day be forgotten. The life of the victim, ever on the run.
There is a third option. I may hunt, feed myself on this essence that provides all my life has been lacking. I can drink deep, rip apart those who would dare to threaten me. I can drench myself in shadow and fill myself with their fear as I take the offensive.
Humanity has so long been prey; perhaps it is time for at least one of us to take on the role of the predator. Besides, I can feel the hunger awaken again.
This work by Katherine C is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License.
Card Day 62: A snail contemplating a spiral staircase that reaches to the clouds.
Ivan rolled the flashlight between his hands, looking at the long staircase reaching up into the house. He licked his lips, a gesture equal parts anticipation and fear. The sun was setting, at least he assumed it was based on the deep orange light now filtering through the dusty first floor windows, and that meant it would soon be time to leave. But he could not, not before he at least saw what existed at the metal door behind these stairs.
From the outside, there was no evidence of a second story. The abandoned building was a squat, rectangular, cement structure that sprawled across the empty lot. Abandoned parking lots stretched around it, only making it seem all the more isolated. It had once been a school, though the only remaining evidence were the occasional desks scattered in empty rooms—most of them left presumably because of the fractured surface or shattered seats—some frequently graffitied chalk boards, and an empty playground in a state of criminal disrepair.
But, after hours of creeping through classrooms once filled with possibilities, Ivan had grown bored. There were no surprising finds in any of the rooms, and his eagerness soon faded to a driven need for completion, even if he would only return with a few needlessly artistic pictures of woods floors and graffiti. There had been a fair share of rats as well, but Ivan preferred to avoid them rather than discover them. His history of exploration had introduced him to dozens of families of rats, and he had yet to meet one he liked. However, this staircase changed things.
He ran again through the remembered profile of the building, trying to identify any unusual space sticking up, suggesting a second floor. But as far as he remembered, the roof was felt, the only projections coming from the rusted HVAC unit. This was a legitimate mystery. After his hesitation steeled his nerves, Ivan flipped on the video camera on his phone, turning it so that his round face and eager brown eyes filled the tiny screen.
“This is Ivan Herrera in the Little River Elementary School. I found a set of stirs to another floor, but I did not think there was another floor. I am now going to investigate.” He trained the camera on the stairs, steadily making his way up them one at a time. They were covered in a fine layer of dust, so his shoes left fresh prints to mark his progress. It must have been years since anyone else stomped their way up.
Besides disturbing the dust, he also disturbed the empty silence of the building. The stairs were old metal, complete with the little raised crosses he remembered from playground in his youth. Each step rang with a metallic call, echoing around the narrow stairwell and the first floor below. There were no windows up here, and he fumbled to turn the flashlight on. The last thing he needed was to fall through the stairs and have to call an ambulance. He was sure they would not take lightly to his trespass in the old building. Plus, he would never live that down if it got out at school.
The metal door was different than all the other classroom doors. They had been standard wood doors with tarnished doorknobs and glass windows. This one was solid metal, a stiff handle arcing from the side. He tugged at it, heaving it open despite its loud protest. Opening the door kicked up another hefty cloud of dust, and Ivan began to cough and wave the cloud away from his eyes. It settled after a moment, and his flashlight pierced through the dusty veil to look beyond the door.
“No way,” he whispered, staring ahead. Another set of stairs arced upwards, disappearing into darkness above him. He flipped his phone around, his face swimming into focus over half the screen. “There’s no way there’s a third floor here! I’m going to see where this goes.”
The light from the floor below him was completely gone as he began the ascent. About halfway up, he heard a familiar creak from behind him. He looked back to see the door swing shut behind him.
“Guess I should have propped it open,” he mused nonchalantly. “At least there wasn’t a lock.” As a precaution, he skipped down the few steps he had gained and shoved against the door. It opened easily, letting a tiny sliver of light filter in. He shrugged off his unbuttoned shirt and wadded it into a ball, using it to prop the door open. “Better safe than sorry,” he quipped to the camera, then clambered up the remaining stairs.
It had been very warm when he entered the building but now, certainly after sunset and in only a thin t-shirt, Ivan began to feel a bit cold. It surprised him, since the temperatures should have stayed pretty warm as late in the spring as it was. Then again, this place may have been well-insulated and without any access for sunlight.
His flashlight revealed another door at the top of the stairs, and he chuckled. “Seriously?” This one looked old, at least the pieces he could see. It was wood and heavily carved, though he struggled to make out the shapes in the gloom. The suggested faces, and he was reminded of the strange church doors he had seen in his Art textbook. Whatever it was, it was out of place in the school building. Then again, the second and third floors were both out of place in the single level school, so who was he to judge. The golden-colored handle was cold in his hand, almost stinging with the chill. That was certainly unusual, but maybe it was nerves. Ivan’s brain scrambled for a rational explanation, but he opted to rush through and prevent conscious acknowledgment of the oddity. This door swung open silently, and, with a final reassuring look at the tiny sliver of light marking the door below him, Ivan stepped over the threshold.
The room he entered was just as empty as the rest of the building. There were the same wood floors, the same layer of dust, and the same warped glass windows He glanced outside, but there was only darkness. It must have gotten far later than he thought, because everything outside was lost to inkiness. He couldn’t even see headlights passing on the road outside, and that revelation sent a chill up his spine.
Ivan studied the images gathered as he spun around the room. All of that, and it was just another empty room. He did not understand how this floor existed, suspended above the rest of the school, but there was nothing special about it. Just an empty—
No, not empty. He started at the sight of a young girl sitting in the corner. She was watching him, smiling broadly. “Hello,” she sung once she was seen.
“You really shouldn’t be here,” remarked Ivan, suddenly aware of how dangerous his chosen hobby was. She couldn’t be more than nine, either.
Instead of responding to his chastisement, she giggled. “Neither should you, silly. But that did not stop you!”
“Yeah, but,” his reply sputtered out. There was not a good excuse he could give. “Do you know what this room is?” he asked. She seemed more familiar with it, maybe a neighborhood kid using the building as her private treehouse. Perhaps she could solve the mystery.
“It’s my playroom,” she said with another laugh. That confirmed his earlier suspicion.
“Yes, but I meant when it was a school. What was this?”
“Oh, this did not exist when it was a school. I built it.”
“You…built this?” It was Ivan’s chance to laugh, as the image was quite absurd. She did not seem to appreciate this, and her expression grew cloudy. She glared at him, and he found himself surprised by the anger that was well beyond her years. He collected himself quickly. “I’m sorry, I just—you’re a kid.”
That did not seem to smooth over the insult, and she crossed her arms tightly. “Yes, but I built this for my playroom.”
“Well, you did a really nice job then,” he surrendered. He stood to gain nothing by offending the little girl, and it was good that she had an active imagination. “Why did you decide to build it?”
She seemed to soften at his compliment, even if he had not been sincere. “I was stuck here, out in the open. So I built a place to keep me safe and warm.” She beamed with pride at her accomplishment, and Ivan’s face contorted in confusion.
“How did you get stuck here?” His mind was now racing. Did he need to call DCFS? Could he do that? How did you do that? Was there a phone number online?
She shook her head, laughing. “I guess you don’t know why everyone else left the school, do you silly? Mr. McGuire brought me onto the roof. He killed me just out there,” she said, pointing towards the solid black windows. “But I made sure you cannot see it. I don’t like to look out there.”
“You’re dead?” he asked, incredulous. Could you call the police to have them carry a child away to some asylum or something? Was there a wiki on how to institutionalize an insane 7-year-old?
She laughed, a joyful sound given the mournful conversation. And then she stood, walking towards him. Once she was a few feet away, she titled back her head, letting her neck extend far beyond a point that was comfortable. Horrible dark bruises covered her neck coupled with red welts. It seemed as if the bones protruded against the skin at irregular intervals and angles, implying something terribly sinister below the surface. Ivan felt his knees grow weak.
“Yes, but I’m so happy to have a friend now. We can have so much fun, and I won’t be alone.”
Ivan began backing towards the door, and she smiled. She simply watched, a giggle barely constrained on her lips, as he groped for the door handle and tugged. As soon as it came open, he sprinted through the doorway, expecting to shoot down the stairs and back to freedom. Only he wound up back in the same room, staring at the now giggling little girl with the distended neck.
“You came to be my friend,” she laughed. “You can’t leave, silly!”
Ivan was hyperventilating, trying to make sense of what just happened. She seemed concerned, biting her lip. “Don’t be scared, I’m really nice. I just need someone to help me. I need someone to be my friend and keep me company. I won’t hurt you.” This, unfortunately, did not calm Ivan. He sprinted through the door again, only to skid back into the room. And again. She began to cry, watching him flee over and over, barely even pausing in the room any more.
“No, no, you have to stay and be my friend.”
After his sprints, Ivan found himself bent over, gasping for air in the same schoolroom. She was sobbing, but then froze. Her eyes widened and the most recent sob died on her lips as heavy steps rang out on the steps just outside the useless door. She looked scared as she met his gaze, speaking barely above a whisper. “You didn’t leave the door open, did you?”
He could only stare breathlessly at her and her sudden fear. He limply nodded his head. “Why?”
Her words were little more than a whisper. “Mr. McGuire.”
This work by Katherine C is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License.
Card Day 61: A knight rides on a white horse across the pages of a book. The opposite page has a dark pit, tentacles reaching out from it.
“Are you sure this will work?”
Ursula gave an exaggerated shrug, not even making the polite attempt to hide her ignorance. “I mean, I figure it has as much chance as anything else.”
Quentin sighed, fixing her with a firm, side-eyed stare. “Just so you know, those aren’t the kinds of things that inspire confidence when you’re asking someone to risk life and limb on some plan you’ve cooked up.”
She returned his stare with a lopsided smile, her barely-managed hair flopping across her eyes. She brushed it aside mechanically and shrugged yet again. “If you’d rather I lie to you, I can, but I thought you’d like to know that there’s about an equal chance of success and failure with this.”
“False confidence is a powerful thing,” he muttered, returning to his pacing.
She remained crouched on the ground, flipping through the pages are her eyes flew across the words. “If it makes you feel better, I’ve done my homework.” Another page flipped, snapping crisply in the air. Quentin looked down at it, noting the ornate script that flowed across the page. To him, it looked like some kind of spirograph creation, circling in and out and back across itself. But Ursula assured him she could read it.
“And all of that research never mentioned another way?”
She did not speak, but shook her head. Studying on page intently. After an extended paused, punctuated by Quentin’s frantic footsteps, she finally broke the silence. “Remember, I’m taking the risk with you. But we’re out of options, Quentin.”
He slumped against the wall of the roach motel, pointedly not looking at her. “I know. I know better than anyone. Better than you.” He stomped from the room to the tiny, dingy bathroom, slamming the door behind him. Ursula sighed, leaning back on her heels and letting her head fall into her hands. She understood that he was nervous, that the task was likely a death wish, but he had sought her out. He had brought the information, put the pieces together, and pushed her towards identifying a final solution.
Still, the cold feet made sense, she supposed. It was a suicide mission most likely, but at least she knew the information she had was correct. Quentin’s sister had been the Seventh Forgotten Woman taken by the creature, and Quentin was her Legacy Bearer. He was the only one who remembered he had a sister, and Ursula had verified that by digging through prior records. Old magic struggled with the conveniences of modern technology. The erasure was there, but there were crumbs remaining—failed links, dead domains, and occasional mentions. This entity, fortunately, did not actually re-write any timelines, and so there were at least traces to be found. Interviews with her family had led to blank stares, minor defensiveness. Only Quentin remembered the bubbly 26-year-old woman who went for a jog and vanished from time and space.
The Unsatiated—the name was the closest translation she could make—had met its human needs, so that meant that is merely needed one moon cycle to fully emerge. And last time it had, there had been a swath of the country that suddenly disappeared, hundreds of people vanishing in a blink and barely remembered. From what she had pieced together, however, the creature seemed to feed on the memories it could accumulate, taking first a few until it could emerge from hibernation, then devouring all those that remembered the missing individuals. And then stealing away those who remembered the new missing, and so on. In this interconnected age, the results would certainly be devastating.
Still, she felt powerlessness sweep over her again. The only solutions were conjectures strung together across a dozen ancient sources, none of which had been able to stop it. Of course, Ursula certainly believed she had done due diligence and devised a process that had a shot at working, but only time would tell. And, unfortunately, that time was tomorrow during the new moon.
Her eyes ached from deciphering the old script, and she could feel the mental fatigue piling up. The corners of her eyes were flooded with dark shadows and grasping claws, reminding her that the words she poured over were not meant for mortal minds. She closed the book, letting her façade of bravado fade as she dragged herself to the stiff mattress. A good night’s sleep was possibly one of the most overlooked necessities for a successful banishment.
Given his haggard look, Ursula assumed Quentin had not taken her advice about sleep. He had been gone when she woke, and returned only an hour before they were to leave for the lake. She bit her tongue, avoiding the scolding her certainly deserved. The time was better spent preparing him.
“So once I’ve done the summoning, you’re on. Know what to do?”
“Yeah, I know,” he mumbled, grief seeping through his voice.
“And you have the—“
“I’m ready, okay! Can we get this over with?” His anxiety boiled over into anger, and Ursula pursed her lips at him.
“Lack of preparation will get us both killed. I’m putting my life in your hands. I’m putting hundreds of lives in your hands. So, thank you, but I will cover all the bases. You have the token, yes?”
Shame flashed over his face, a shudder of embarrassment and irritation mingling as well. But his anger was dulled. “Here.” He held out a bracelet made of faded strings woven together.
“And it was hers?”
“I made it for her at summer camp when I was eleven. She wore it for years, but left it at home when she went to college. I found it in the bottom of her—of the storage room closet.”
“Good, that will do nicely. A gift bound in love, tying Legacy with Forgotten.” She looked down at her carefully prepared notes, striking through the items. “And you’re prepared for what might happen at the end?”
“Forgetting her? No, I can’t stand the idea. But there’s no choice, right?”
“No. You won’t even remember that you saved the world. But you will have.”
“Great,” he muttered sarcastically. “Are we good?”
She merely motioned to the van, and he folded himself inside. The ride there was long, mostly silent, and heavy with the impending tension. Darkness held close to their van, unbroken by star or moonlight. Wind whipped its way through the trees, and Ursula could feel nature beginning to bristle with the impending defiance of the laws of the world. Yes, the time was drawing near, and so at least if they failed, there would be very little time to live with the disappointment.
Their arrival was met with silence as well, and Ursula gathered her bag of supplies to complete the summoning. The trees clustered around them, groaning with the wind. Yes, it was the perfect night for arcane rites and rituals. Eventually, the lakeshore rose into view, water lapping angrily at the rocky shore as it promised an impending storm.
“Better make this quick. Looks like it might get bad out here,” offered Quentin, his courtesy suggesting they put the previous conflict behind them.
“It will certainly get bad out here,” she offered with a grim smile, “and it’s going to be our fault.” With that, she dropped to her knees and began to gather her equipment from the canvas bag. She started by drawing a large spiral on the ground with ground-up chalk, closing the outer edge. Starting at the edge closest to the lake, she placed a water-smoother stone etched with a name in each ring, leaving the central most clear. In the middle, she placed a single white candle, lighting it against the best effort of the wind. Her hands were shaking as she poured a measure of blessed oil into a lidded, gold bowl, placing it to the side next to a knife. Preparations complete, she proceeded with the rite.
Quentin listened to her whispered words, hearing them whisper through the woods with a sibilant, melodic tone. It seemed to rise over the wind, circling around him with a strange pull. Then, he heard things he recognized. Names he did not know, followed by the one he did. April Maria Davidson. That name was like music to him; he thought he might never hear another soul say it with such a knowing tone. Yes, she was known, she existed, and he remembered. For the moment, at least, he remembered. But he would soon have to sacrifice even that.
Once Ursula grew quiet, there was a ripple from the water. It was a woman rising out of the water, her body glistening with pale white that seemed to shine like the absent moon. Her hair was dark, falling down to her knees and covering her with an inky veil. She floated there above the water, mist and substance all at once, her eyes radiating hate towards the mortal on the shore. Her mouth split open, rows of teeth glistening inside her dark maw, and released a soundless scream. Quentin felt it slam into his body, even if he could not hear it. Ursula crumpled to the ground, and he feared she may have heard that sound that his mind so flawlessly protected him from.
One of the creature’s arms swam forward, an extension of mist reaching across the lake towards the now distracted Ursula. Just as it was about to reach her, Ursula rolled, bringing forward a mirror and deflecting the appendage.
“Do your damn job already,” she snapped, looking at Quentin with ferocious, pained eyes. “Or you and I can both die here.”
Shocked into action, Quentin drew the bracelet from his pocket and scooped up April’s stone from the circle, careful not to disturb the remaining stones or chalk spiral. His lips fumbled over the name Ursula had taught him, trying to approximate her melodic way with the language. It sounded more like marbles being thrown into a garbage disposal, but it also caught the creature’s attention. She fixed her empty eyes on him, mouth knitting together into a smile. Now, he could hear her whispers.
“Don’t listen to her. Think of April. Do what we said.”
Quentin broke his gaze from the woman, the whispers fading to a distant suggestion or voices. He knelt beside the gold bowl and held the knife in his trembling hand. This was it, the moment of truth or utter failure.
Boldly, drawing on strength form a source he could not recognize, Quentin drew the knife across his palm, screaming the creature’s arcane name once again. “I, Legacy Bearer, banish the name of April Maria Davidson. Bound to the essence, I too banish you from our world. I complete your task, I break all of April Maria Davidson’s ties to this world. And so, I banish you.” His voice was breaking, and he felt tears trickling down his face. Despite the woman’s screams, he pressed his bleeding hand against the etched stone, then wrapped it in the bracelet. Quentin looked at the bloodied stone and the bracelet, his last memento of his beloved sister.
It was a sacrifice in the truest sense as he cast the items into the gold bowl, lifting the candle to light the oil. The scream grew louder, the wind whipped stronger, and Quentin felt his memories begin to fade like dust. He fell to his knees, weeping, as the final thoughts of April fell through his mind, rebuilt around the emptiness of a person erased. It ached as those memories dissolved, almost as if his entire being was being destroyed as well.
And then, there was nothing. He looked around at the dark lakeshore, taking in the woman kneeling on the ground nearby, a strange assortment of items surrounding her.
“Um, excuse me, who are you, and why are we out here?”
The woman smiled, but her eyes looked sad and lonely. “I’m no one,” she quipped. “And I guess you were out for a walk?”
Quentin scratched his head, looking around. “Huh. Weird, I just don’t remember coming out here. Must have been distracted,” he laughed, though it did nothing to resolve his discomfort.
She smiled politely back. “Some things are better to forget, I guess.”
This work by Katherine C is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License.
Fair warning, today’s is quite long (~2000 words). But I had the day off, so I decided to spend a little more time and do a bit more character/scene building. I’m curious if anyone has any opinions on the pacing of this, or if it feels like then ending is a bit from left field. I’ve read over it and kind of like it, but I would appreciate anyone who could help me see my blind spots in that regard. Thanks!
Card Day 60: A man sits in a jail cell with a contented smile on his face and a ball-and-chain around his ankle. The walls behind him are covered in a faded, ornate wallpaper with concrete showing through.
Nathan watched the snow fall, relaxing in the cabin with a steaming mug of coffee and a well-loved paperback. The fire crackled in the fireplace, and all around him was silence. He smiled. This was a well-needed vacation, even if only for a day or two. Life had so quickly become a cage of obligations and responsibilities; it had taken his boss reminding him that he would soon lose his days before he remembered to schedule time off for the year. He was, in general, a simple man who was not prone to long, extravagant vacations. He was also a lonely man, unencumbered by family obligations. Still, relaxing in the old high back chair, his feet warmed by the fire, Nathan finally realized how much he had actually needed the break. It was late by the time he stumbled towards the thick feather bed, finally ready to relinquish his first vacation day. A sedated smile spread across his face as he nestled among cedar-scented quilts, sleeping easily.
The overly-cheery trill of his cellphone woke him up, though the room was still shadowed. Nathan shuffled from underneath the sheets, trying to orient himself and find his phone. Finally, he tracked the sound to the pocket of his jeans, lying crumpled in the corner. He punched the accept button at what had to be the last ring.
“Hello?” he asked, his voice coming through gruff with sleep.
“Mr. Wickers? I hope I didn’t wake you,” came the staticy reply from the other end, the man’s voice obviously realizing the inconvenience.
Nathan lied. “Not at all. Who is this, again?”
There was a chuckle, echoing through the poor connection. “Oh, it’s Ralph, the property owner. Sorry ‘bout that. Enjoying the stay?”
“Everything’s great. Is there anything I can help you with?” A trickle of irritation was beginning to form; Nathan had come here to get away from everything, not entertain or hassle with the property owner.
“Oh, no, nothing like that. It’s just—you may have noticed the snowfall.”
Looking out the window, Nathan saw it was still falling down thickly, a good foot or so of snow already covering the ground outside. It had drifted up to cover the tires of his tiny sedan, and his voice fumbled with surprise. “Oh, well, yes, I guess it’s been quite a bit, hasn’t it?”
“Yeah, the ranger is telling us it may be a couple of days until the roads are going to be clear enough to leave. Now, I know you only had it booked for last night and tonight, but having folks run off the mountain is not good for business. Plus, I just couldn’t live with myself. Feel free to stay in the cabin until the road clears up. I have a little snowmobile if you need any supplies?”
Nathan scratched his head, yawning. Well, sounded like he was going to have to take a prolonged vacation. Given how wonderful the first night had been, perhaps it was a blessing in disguise. “I think I’m okay. I always overpack.”
“Well, glad to hear it. You can call me at this number if you do find anything you need. Otherwise, there are candles in the linen closet if the power should go out. Oh, and more wood down in the basement.”
“Alright now. Keep warm, and enjoy your stay.”
The line went dead and Nathan tossed the phone onto the fluffy bed. His reticence to take vacation days was finally paying off, leaving him plenty of days to burn, even if he had to spend the rest of the month in the little cabin.
Still, the reality of the snowstorm did mean he needed to make some preparations. A chronic overpacker, he had realized his error when unpacking and left some of his food in the car, figuring the trunk would keep it as cold as the ice box. Now it seemed providential that he had unwittingly overpurchased groceries due to his finicky tastes. Those needed to get inside before his car was but another snow drift, however. Nathan quickly bundled up and rushed towards his car.
There was a childlike eagerness as he bounded through the snow, taking leaping steps almost as if he were walking across the moon. This was the kind of frivolity he had lost recently, an enjoyment of life that was buried under quarterly reports and performance metrics. Suddenly, he felt weight slide from his shoulders, an invisible burden he had not realized was weighing him so heavily down. Nathan laughed, the sound muffled by the still falling snow, but carrying through the woods.
Box of canned goods and chilled meats in hand, Nathan shoved through the snow and back into the cabin. The inside was toasty compared to the great outdoors, and he felt heat flood back into his cheeks. It was certainly a hot chocolate kind of day.
Once he had a mug in hand, Nathan unpacked his art supplies, settling himself back into the plush chair. Drawing was a love that he had clung to even when life became hectic, but one that had taken on a desperate, pressured quality. It always felt like there was not enough time, but the project had to be completed. Surrounded by snow, he felt those pressures lift. He had all the time in the world to create to his heart’s content. And so, pencil in hand, he began to sketch.
Enthralled with his work, Nathan did not notice the shadows stretching across the cabin until he finally realized that it was almost too dark to see. He gathered up some logs from the basket near the fireplace and built up a fire, giving himself a warm and shifting light to finish his work. Before he could sit down, however, his phone snapped him back.
The number was familiar as he picked up the wailing device. Ralph’s voice greeted him.
“Sorry to bo—ster Wickers,” he began, the connection clearly worse given the raging storm.
“No problem. I’m having trouble hearing you, though.”
“Yeah—tting bad out—anted to che—ou needed anything be—ight since it may get wor—“
“You’re breaking up really bad. Do I need anything tonight? No, I’m fine.”
“Sorr—to hear you are good. Have you—mily from cabin 12? I—but no one answered.”
“I haven’t seen anyone all day, Ralph.” Nathan was surprised to find himself yelling into the phone, as if that would make the signal travel farther. He shook his head at the illogical response. Oh well, no one else would know.
“—kay, guess they—fore it got bad. Ha—ice night, Mister—“
Nathan hazarded a goodbye as the line went silent, then hung up. Looking outside, he could see the wind and snow picking up, turning into a right blizzard. As a precaution, Nathan wandered to the linen closet and found the stash of candles, setting them around the cabin in case he should need to light one. He put the thick box of matches into his pocket and considered his preparations complete. Now it was time for dinner.
About halfway through cooking the steak, the lights flickered and failed in the cabin. Nathan shook his head. Looked like he would be roughing it, after all. Fortunately, he had a roaring fire ready to keep him warm and cook food.
With no lights to keep him alter, Nathan found himself growing tired not long after dinner. He continued at his drawing, trying to complete the landscape view as he remembered it from the drive in. But his head lolled forwards, the pencil slipping from his fingers. Eventually, he nodded forward in the chair, once again lulled asleep by the warm, quiet surroundings.
Something crashing against his door snapped him awake quickly and he shot up straight in the chair, sending his sketchbook skittering across the floor. The fire was low, casting long shadows around the room and giving everything a dream-like instability that left him feeling off balance, even as he stood to discover the source of the noise.
He peered out the window, noticing that the snow had taken and brief respite and let the moon come out. Its light seemed magnified by the snow on the ground and the world stretched as a brilliant sea of white. Nathan craned his head towards the door, but could not see what made such noise. Just then, another bang rang through the cabin. Hopefully it was not someone stranded out in the mess. It was not a good night for it, even if there was an eye to the storm. Feeling his concern rise, Nathan made his way to the door.
His hand was on the handle when it shook with another impact, and Nathan recoiled as if burned. That was not a knock, but someone throwing itself at the door. The desperation left him feeling wary, and his resolve solidified as low, angry growls began to emanate from the other side of the door. This was no weary traveler.
He pressed his eyes against the peephole, straining to see what was causing this ruckus. Perhaps a wolf or something lost in the snow? Wasn’t rabies a summer disease? Could there be a rabid wolf pacing around his cabin? But, looking out, he saw nothing.
Just snow as far as he could see, leading up to the tree line. No animal, no person, nothing. But he still heard the growl. Despite no change in his limited view, Nathan felt the door shudder with impact, the force transferring to him and sending him stumbling back a step. He gave a short yelp at the sudden push and stared at the door in bewilderment. There was nothing out there, but something had certainly done that.
At his yelp, the thing went silent, even cutting the growl. After a few moments, he could hear the snow crunching outside away from the door, and he rushed back to his other window, hoping to catch sight of whatever it was. He peered out through the window, and listened as the crunching snow grew nearer, the sound deafening in the silent night. Still, Nathan saw no form to accompany the steps, try as he might.
Was it snow blindness? Or was he hallucinating? Dreaming? He watched in horror as tracks suddenly appeared in the snow from around the corner. They were large tracks with three long digits, one appearing after the other. Whatever it was, it seemed to walk like a person.
A screeching sound cut through the sound of steps in the snow, causing Nathan to wince. He looked back out and saw long gouges appearing down the side of the cabin just below the eaves. The sounds of splintering wood and crunching snow melded into a medley of horrors as he sat and watched, transfixed by terror. What was happening outside his cabin? Nathan fell back from his crouched position by the window, landing on his palms with his legs splayed, but his eyes still locked to the window. It was coming closer, this invisible fiend, and he was trapped.
The steps paused in front of the window, and Nathan saw something’s breath condense on the window pane with a cloudy white smudge. He could see some shadow behind it, a flash of shaggy white fur, but the appearance faded as the breath disappeared from the glass. Nathan held his breath, hoping whatever it was would not see or hear him, would not know how to pierce the feeble sanctuary of the cabin.
Of course, whatever it was had already demonstrated its only way of requesting entry. He heard the steps move back, then surge forward. Nathan watched as the glass shattered, as something from his nightmares tumbled through with gangly appendages and the smell of rot. The snow swallowed up his screams.
The next morning, the new silence was broken by the artificial song of Nathan’s phone ringing over and over, but no one in Cabin 11 was available to answer Ralph’s concerned phone call.
This work by Katherine C is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License.
Card Day 56: A boy climbing a ladder and sculpting a bird out of the clouds.
Florence had never been a good sleeper, and tonight certainly was no different. She tossed and turned, fighting against her covers to achieve the perfect balance of hot and cold, feeling at once too tightly covered and too exposed. It was impossible, she decided, to get comfortable in the sweaty tangle of sheets, and the air outside of the shelter of the blankets was too chill. She gave in to the losing battle, lying helpless and frustrated in a knot of sheets, pillows, and irritation.
Self-help books all told her the same thing. Lying there and trying to sleep was not going to do any good, so she should find something soothing and relaxing to do until she felt tired again. With a groan of frustration—the clock already said 2:15 and her alarm was set for 6:00—she set her feet on the comfortably cool wood floor, padding softly towards the kitchen.
Growing up, her mother had always given her a glass of milk and crackers when she could to sleep, and Florence repeated the ritual religiously. A snack acquired, she sat munching at the darkened kitchen table, trying to figure out why her body could be so tired when her eyes remained so alter. The crackers were loud in the silence of her home, the only sounds the occasional hum of a car drifting along outside and the quiet whisper of the air conditioning circulating through the house. It stayed set on a nice, cool temperature at night, just like the doctor ordered. Not that it helped.
The first part of the ritual complete, she moved to the living room, the dog-eared book and tiny reading light at their appointed positions. Computers, television, and cell phones were all forbidden, but books were highly recommended. Sometimes Florence felt she should probably develop a taste for bad books so that they would actually put her to sleep. Still, doctor’s orders.
A few pages in to the dog-eared copy, she did feel her eyes beginning to get slightly heavy, just enough that she dared hope it might be working. There was something about reading that quieted those anxious voices in her head, lulling them into sleep just as surely as smoke stilled the hornets’ nest.
Her chin was sinking onto her chest when there came a slight knock at the door. It was quiet, but rang out obtrusively in the quiet of the house. She snapped to attention, a new wave of fear crashing over her. Who would be out this late at night? Why would they knock on her door? What could they want? Should she call the cops? Was it a ploy?
New anxieties began buzzing about, shattering the forced meditation of her evening ritual. She set the book down from where it lay steepled on her stomach, leaning forward in her chair. There was no other sound, no call for help, no repeated pounding. In fact, the silence refilled the house so quickly, she assumed it had been a half-experienced dream, a car backfiring on the road that her brain twisted into some fitting sound. Still there was a tiny doubt nagging at her, and so she walked over towards the door. Peering through the glass, there was nothing out there but her front porch, wilting flowers that reminded her to add “water the plants” to her checklist.
Turning to walk away, her foot brushed up against something. It was a tiny package wrapped in butcher paper and bound with twine. It was awkwardly oval shaped, and definitely foreign to her house. Had she heard this dropping against her floor?
A thousand new questions began clamoring in her head as Florence carefully undid the string and unwrapped the present. She was half expecting a severed finger or ear to leer out from the wrapping. Instead, much more pleasant fare awaited. Inside was a small, ceramic dove. Its wings were spread mid-flight, and it was crafted finely enough that she imagined she could see the feathers ruffled by the air. It was beautiful, she conceded, if still a creepy package to wind up in her entryway at nearly 3:00 in the morning.
The trespass sent chills up her spine, but she found the object captivating. It was hard to focus on all the anxious thoughts as she stared at it, the limited light from streetlamps outside glinting off the smooth finish. It was perfect, cool to the touch, and oddly reassuring. Still, she as certain the excitement would keep her up the rest of the night. Might as well finish a book, at least.
Returning to her chair, Florence found herself turning the trinket over in her hand, examining all the impossibly tiny details. She was drawn to it, her eyes running back and forth over it, seemingly discovering new details at each pass. Without realizing it, her hand began to loosen and her head dropped forward. Eventually, she fell precipitously to sleep, the figurine resting softly in her lap.
In her dream, she was flying. The landscape raced away below her, dappled pastures broken up by stretches of pale white clouds. The sun was warm, the breeze cool, and she felt the exhilaration of freedom rush over her. Ahead, a mountain swelled into view, its peak snowcapped and gleaming in the brilliance of the sun. Guided by a quest she only half understood, Florence swung herself towards the mountain, diving at a microscopic opening hundreds of feet below her.
The landing was smooth and gentle, carrying her gracefully into the mouth of the opening. She rested briefly, and looked up to see an open door. Listening to the draw of some unspoken goal, she walked through the door.
The inside of the mountain was beautiful, swirls of white, pale blue, and purple rock dancing about in naturally flowing veins. The walls glimmered with embedded minerals, giving the whole place a seeming glow. Following the path, she eventually entered into a large room seated at the base of a sweeping caldera. Sunlight streamed into the room, highlighting a tiny man carefully carving an abstract figure. To the best of her knowledge—and for some reason, she felt she should trust her gut here—it as a man and woman dancing.
“Ah, Florence,” he chirped as she entered. He carefully descended from the ladder in a cloud of rock dust. It was hard to tell where the pale white dust ended and he began. He was swallowed by a long white beard and a mop of white hair which danced about him like a fine mist. His cloak had likely once been a nice, bright, cheerful blue, but it had turned pale at the accumulated debris, as had the simple brown pants. There was not a clean inch on him, but that did not prevent him from making a show of dusting his hands on his pants.
He extended a hand once he reached her, and she bent to shake it graciously. The wisdom of her dream had fled, and she was merely confused. “I’m glad you made it. I’ve been trying to get in touch with you.” He fixed her with a stern glare, his eyes a bright stone grey. Normally, she could see them shinning with glee. Now they looked somewhat serious, though still inviting.
“You wanted to see me?”
“Well of course. You don’t think folks just wander their way in here, do you? I’d never get my work done!” he said, gesturing quickly at the statue behind him. Florence nodded knowingly, but her puzzlement spilled out across her face.
“But I suppose that is precisely the problem, now isn’t it?”
“I really don’t know,” said Florence honestly, trying to take in whatever was going on around her. She missed the confidence of her previous flight.
“Of course you do. I’ve been in here working diligently to craft you the best dreams I can. I have worked up all kinds of wonderful things. And what do you do? You let them go to waste, spoil, and rot!”
“I—I’m sorry,” she began her stammering apology, but stopped as he waved his hand.
“Yes, I’m sure you are. But I am a busy man. Do you know how many dreams I have to construct a night? Do you? Billions, Florence. And then so many people do not even appreciate what they are given.’ He sighed, shaking his head. His cheeks were flushed red with the passion of his speech.
“I try to sleep, but—“
He waved off her defense once again. “Now, I took valuable time out of my day to meet with you about this. I simply cannot spend my time on projects that are going to waste.”
“I don’t know how to fix it,” she mumbled, her eyes scanning the ground. He pursed his lips and studied her out of one eye, thoughts obviously racing through his own head.
“Yes, that is a problem, isn’t it?” He stroked his long beard once, twice thoughtfully. “Do you think you could give me some sort of notice? Maybe if you know you aren’t going to sleep, you could just let me know, say around noon?”
“I wish I could, but I just can’t. What about that statue you sent me?” she asked, surprising herself with how easily the pieces fit together.
He shook his head. “No, far too tiring for me. If I did that every night, I wouldn’t get half of my dreams done in a day.” His voice trailed off, and then his head shot up, a smile on his face and twinkle in his eye. “I’ve got it!” He raced off to a workbench near the nearly-completed statue, pulling up a sheet of paper. “You are on Earth, right? Well, I’ve got just the thing. One of my coworkers brought it in just this week. The perfect sleeping potion!”
Florence grabbed the paper from him, her eyes scanning it and devouring it eagerly. Yes, it all made sense. It was so clear. She nodded, a smile swallowing her face. “This is perfect!” she exclaimed. Not only had he solved his problem, but hers as well.
The man nodded knowingly, turning back to his project. “Just don’t forget it. I won’t have myself wasting all this energy for nothing.” With that, the beautiful dream faded into swirls of color, then darkness.
Florence woke with a start, the sound of the alarm chirping from her bedroom. She craned her neck, stretching out the sore muscles form the uncomfortable position. This was not recommended, she thought grimly. Still, she felt rested, somehow at peace. It had something to do with a dream, she thought fuzzily, grasping at what remained. She remembered sculptures, rock dust in the air, and flying. But the details remained a hazy suggestion of something more.
Still, as she shifted to get up, she felt the dove sculpture shift in her lap. Somehow, that seemed to remind her of something, something old and half-remembered. She set the figurine on the table beside her, mentally making a grocery list. Some sort of inspiration told her it might be the answer to what she needed.
This work by Katherine C is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License.
Card Day 55: A tiny city and landscape inside of a drop of rain.
The rain feel in sheets against the glass window, just as it had done for the past four days. Nora had hoped that it would let up and grant a reprieve at some point, but that did not seem to be happening. The sky still stretched on in endless, angry, gray waves, dumping more and more water onto the tiny town. It had been predicted as an evening storm, flash flooding possible near the river. She looked out at the roiling waters beneath the window, the streetlamps a tiny marker to the high water. Obviously, the forecast had been wrong. From her attic, she could see the water rushing past and hear it sloshing through her house now. She hoped desperately that she would be able to stay dry in the cramped space, uncomfortable as it was. But if it continued she knew she would be shimmying out the window and onto the roof. She was not thrilled at the possibility.
Her supplies, meager as they had been, were dwindling. When the water lapped up to her knees on the first floor and the voice on the radio said to move up, she had grabbed what she could and made for higher ground. Her foraging had produced a bottle of apple juice, assorted water bottles from her fridge, a couple of cans of soup, a loaf of bread, and three cans of green beans. The loaf of bread, half the juice, and one and a third bottle of water remained.
Nora had been sitting by the open window, straining her ears to hear the rumble of outboard motors brining rescue teams. The radio said they were making attempts to get people—like herself—who may have been trapped in their homes. Given the surprise of the flood, Nora guessed that meant they were trying to evacuate all 3,000+ citizens of Riverrun. She was in an older, less well-off part of town, as distinct a division as such a small town could have. There were no schools or hospitals nearby, and she assumed she was low on the list. Still, she did not want to miss someone coming past, especially given her dwindling food and water situation.
The radio droned on, turned down low, in the corner. It repeated the same general message over and over, with occasional updates. She listened for the trill announcing something new, but otherwise left it as droning background noise. It was better than simply listening to the water rush by or crash down. It helped her feel less completely alone, even though she was beginning to have the strange thought that she was the only human left in Riverrun.
The idea was, of course, ridiculous, and she laughed it off every time it crept up. But there was something about being in a dusty old attic for days, without another human face and only the robotic voice of the emergency broadcast that made her question everything. She distracted herself with the random assortment of junk in her attic, reading the first few pages of some old books, sorting through the clothes she had tossed up here, and trying to find anything that might make her stay more comfortable. Any attempt of distraction was met with the encroaching realization that this was really happening. She had read words on many pages, but found that none of them stuck. They were all swept away by the pounding river in what used to be her street.
Her contemplation of boredom and cabin fever was rudely interrupted by the sound of something thudding against her house. It was a sudden, loud bang that seemed to shake the walls off the house itself. She peered out the window. Probably a car, patio set, or tree branch that got swept up in the current. It was certainly not the first time she had heard something. But this had been different in a way. It had sounded sturdier, and had not bounced back and forth against the walls like most things did. There was no groan of something getting stuck on the corner of the house, no trailing series of bumps as it drifted along on the sidewalk. Just a single, solid knock against the walls. Then nothing but rushing water.
Of course, looking out into the water provided no clues either as there was nothing but a swirling mass of muddy water, always trickling on at concerning speeds. She gained damp hair and a slight, sticky dampness for her troubles. It did, however, show her that the water was now only a few feet below the window. She would have to climb soon and hope for the best. Sighing, she pushed herself to her feet. It would probably be wise to find something that floated if the roof was her last hope.
Ransacking the junk in her own attic she began to hum to herself, trying to fill the silence and drown out her fear. It was not working, but it seemed better than paralyzing resignation to the terror coursing through her. Then came the sound again, this time two knocks. They were slow, steady, and measured. Thump. Thump. Nora climbed back over the items she had unpacked—candlesticks and photo albums would not make acceptable rafts—and peered out the window. “Hello?” she called. Her own voice surprised her, cracking slightly and hoarse with disuse. Maybe that was a rescue boat docking nearby, using her home as an anchor. Maybe they were rowing to conserve fuel or prevent accidents or something.
The wind howled around her, but there was no other response. “Is anyone out there?” she called, but no one was there to respond. Nora looked at the house across from hers, seeing a tiny face framed by their attic window. The neighbor’s kid. The little girl stared at her, eyes round. There was a glimmer of fear in her face, one that Nora recognized. Only the girl did not seem to be looking at Nora, but at something in t hater below. Whatever, Nora sighed, pushing back into the shelter of the attic. There were plenty of things to terrify a seven-year-old in a flood like this.
Still, Nora followed her gaze feeling her own eyes grow wide at the sight. In the water, there was a thing. No, she corrected, her eyes struggling to make sense of what she was seeing, the water was a thing. It pulled back from her house, swelling up into an almost-fist. Nora could see the ground, muddy and sodden, from her vantage. The fist landed against the wall of her home, the same echoing thump from before. Once, twice, and the water settled back down. But she could see now that there was more than pure randomness to the motion. There was a direction to t, a constant change in direction and change of goal that defied the reality of water.
It did not flow, but it seemed to congregate, select, and move in for the attack. While some water flowed on, like water should, there seemed to be a mass, a form constructed of water but held together by something she could not understand.
Nora watched it swell again, moving along the side of her house. It paused just below her window, then crashed forward like a wave. She could not hold in a tiny yelp as the not-quite-water splashed against her face.
In that moment, Nora swore she saw it pause, almost as if it were listening. It spun together, swirling in on itself, buzzing with some activity she could not interpret. Then, she watched as the spiral turned into a column, snaking up to her window. Like a cobra striking, it slammed through the open window, knocking her back and spilling water into the sanctuary of the attic.
Nora sputtered, kicking back and sliding against the wood floor. She quickly brushed the water out of her eyes, spitting out the muddy ooze from her mouth. By the time she got her eyes open, it was already time for them to fly wide in shock.
The water on her floor pulled back towards itself, assembling into an oddly humanoid shape. It stood on two legs, two watery appendages hanging at its sides, and its head nearly scraping the low ceiling of the attic. It rippled forward, never quite lifting it legs to move, but more flowing forward through the air, the rest of the body following behind. Nora’s mouth sat open in shock, the scream forgotten at the back of her throat. She could not breath, could not move, could only stare in wonder at the creature, hear her own heartbeat racing in her head.
It reached her, watery arms wrapping around her with irresistible strength. She felt frozen, but the chill of its touch kick started her muscles. Nora began to kick and flail, struggling against the impossible figure. It was unperturbed, absorbing any blow that landed and seeming to absorb her into its watery form. Before she knew it, Nora was encased in water, suspended within the thing’s body like a bug in amber.
The creature dove gracefully back into the monstrous body of its host, taking Nora into the depths with it. The scream she had been building finally escaped, a bubble of air bursting through the water and breaching the surface. The water rolled on, moving towards the next house.
The rain pounded on, and the city of Riverrun steadily grew silent, until only the sound of rain and rushing water remained.
This work by Katherine C is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License.
Card Day 53: A single die with a devilish figure growing legs and emerging from the pips on the surface.
Natalie felt the heft of the die in her hand. It was small, cold, and surprisingly heavy in her hand. Despite being a single small die, it felt like she was holding a crushing weight. Perhaps it was simply the import of the question.
He cleared his throat, obviously annoyed by her prolonged silence. “So, are you the gambling sort?” he asked again, raising his eyebrow provocatively.
She looked down at the die, feeling surprisingly as if the pips were eyes staring eagerly up at her. They were so dark on the dingy white background, and the sensation chilled her. “I’m not,” she whispered, still not meeting his eyes. At her response, he stood up straight, shrugging his shoulders.
“Oh well, I tried.” His hand, long and slender with crisply manicured nails, reached towards hers, moving to pinch the die from her hand.
Reflexively, her fingers closed over it and held tight even as the edges bit into her hand. “No, I’m not the type, but I have to try.” Her yes met his and she was struck by the lack of humanity in them. They were dark blue, the pupils large and endless pits spiraling back into his skull. There was no life or light in those eyes, instead they seemed to suck the brightness of the hospital room into him, leaving everything feeling dim. As if she had forgotten to take her sunglasses off when she came in. It took her several breaths before she realized that his lips were smiling even as his empty eyes drilled into her.
“You’ll take my wager?”
He looked too pleased with this turn of events, and she thought back to every story she had ever heard. These kinds of deals never went the way you wanted, and there was always a hidden catch. But Natalie felt that she had no choice. She was back against the proverbial wall, and she would cling to the only way out she had, even if that meant dancing with the Devil himself. Behind her, she heard the sounds of the respirator churning, the heart monitor keeping a steady tempo. It all seemed to be counting down the seconds remaining in the offer. She could see him beginning to grow weary with the waiting, almost ready to withdraw the offer from a hesitant buyer.
“I’ll take it. We play and, if I win, no one dies tonight or anytime soon.” She had tried to be very clear in her wording, but even now she wondered if she had left too many loopholes. How soon was soon? Who was included in the “no one” discussion? What if no one died, but everyone spent the remainder of “soon” in a coma? She gnawed on her bottom lip apprehensively as she replayed the discussion. It had all seemed to clear before, but now there only seemed to be holes.
He placed his hand on her arm, the skin dry and radiating an unhealthy heat. “I may not be an honest man, but I’ll make sure you get what you deserve. You win, I’ll make sure you and your family live a nice healthy life together. I win, and no one intercedes. This story unfolds like it should, only I get a little piece of you once your time is up.”
“You will save her, right? If I win, I mean.” There was desperation dripping from her words and she clasped his hand. Obvious discomfort stretched across his face at the touch of her hand. Behind her, the machines keeping her daughter alive continued their steady symphony, unobtrusively metering each measure of her too-young life.
He simply nodded, withdrawing his hand from her and taking a couple steps back, as if the distance between them had suddenly become too intimate. “Do you want to know the rules?” he asked condescendingly. She could see he was growing tired of the mortal game, and she began to fear she might lose him. Still, playing without rules would not win her anything.
He nodded curtly, pulling another ivory-toned die from his pocket. Its pips were just as dark and deep, reminding her suddenly of the pupils of his eyes. Maybe that’s why she thought they were looking up at her. “You’ll go first and roll your die,” he gestured at her still clenched fist, and she suddenly became aware of the sharp pain, releasing it suddenly. “After that, make a bid—higher than your number—that you think will be the total on both our dice after I roll. Then I roll. If our two dice add up to the bid, I win. If I roll lower than your number but go over the bid, you win. If I roll higher than you and go over, it’s a draw and I roll first next time. The game is over when we roll the same number or if we roll lower than the bid six times. Winner of the most rounds wins. Got it?”
She nodded her head slowly, the different rules and permutations floating around her. Natalie was suddenly aware that, cognitively, she was in no shape to make such decisions. It was hard to even follow his words. Somehow she suspected that would not void her agreement.
“Good,” he purred, moving towards the counter in the corner of the room. “You’re up.”
Her hand was shaking so much, she felt she did not even have to put much effort into juggling the single die. It fell from her hand, clattering across the table. Four eyes loomed up at her in the increasingly dim light of the hospital room.
“Tough one,” he sighed, not a hint of compassion or sympathy in his voice. “Bid it.”
“Seven?” she bid questioningly. He smiled a crooked grin and made a grand show of shaking the lone die with both hands. She watched as it tumbled to the table, three tiny beads facing up.
“Beginner’s luck,” he grinned as he scooped his die from the table, obviously pleased with his performance. She shook her head, trying to hold onto all the rules and decide if there were a better way, Should she have bid higher? Lower? Was it really just luck? Was he cheating? Her fingers numbly gathered the die to her, suddenly terrified of releasing it. What if they matched this round? It would all be over.
“Take too long and we’ll have to call it,” he said with a pleased smile, gesturing at the large clock on the wall. The die plummeted from her hand, bouncing a couple of times before settling.
A six. “Seven,” she bid, and he looked irritated.
“I suppose the luck may be turning. Not much chance for me here,” he growled. Hi roll produced an unfortunate three, and she saw disgust ripple over his otherwise calm features. “All tied up now, I suppose.”
The traded rounds, their scores racking up steadily. The game remained close to her partner’s obviously swelling irritation. They swapped the first player position as well, and she quickly realized that she stood little chance of winning against him if he set the bid. His years of experience quickly became obvious when he had the power. There was a hunger as he played, a revelry in the competition. Yet a darker demon took over every time his lead slipped, and she watched rage boiling below the surface. Natalie began to fear that it might just boil over, scalding her as collateral.
Her eyes were tired and the game was long. They sat at nine games to seven in his favor, and his pleasure at the events was clear. Fatigue wearing on her, Natalie tossed the die again. Another four. “Five,” she answered, slightly more confidently. A four gave her a good chance he would be under her number, good enough that she needn’t risk not meeting the bid to prevent another point for him. Still, only a two or three would give her the point. A one went to him, a four ended the game, and five or six gave him the lead, a results she feared she would not come back from. Fortunately, it was a two that landed on the table. Nine to eight.
She rolled again, she bid again, he rolled again, and they were tied. She felt thunder rolling in her chest as the importance of the situation settled on her shoulders. This was an important roll. She could pull ahead, possibly win. With prayers on her lips to figures she had never really considered before that moment, she released the die. One.
He chuckled. “Tough break. At least you’ll have another chance to win it back.”
“Three,” she stated despairingly.
His die tumbled over the faux wood surface rattling and grinding its way to a rest. She watched the numbers flash as it bounced, her heart sagging as she knew none of them held the answer. A single, solitary eye gazed up at her from the table. He appeared miffed.
“Well, that was an anticlimactic end,” he grumbled. “I suppose the deal is off. Best of luck, and you will never see me again.”
Natalie’s heart bounded into her throat as she saw her daughter, tiny and pale, rapped in the hospital sheets. “Please! One last roll. Winner takes all.”
His lips twisted into a smile, and she realized that she had played right into his trap. “If you insist. Of course, since I am agreeing to your wager now, it is only fair that I take the lead roll.” The five landed on the table, and he smirked. “Last roll, right? Winner takes all? Let’s go with a bid of six, then.”
She gulped, her hand shaking. She knew that the most likely outcome was she rolled a two, three, or four and bust the bid while still being a lower number. Five would not help her, only put her in the same predicament. And a six was just as useless in this sudden death round. With a wish and a prayer, she tossed the die onto the table. She could not watch it dance and spin, seeming to take an eternity spinning on its edges before it finally came to rest.
This work by Katherine C is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License.
Card Day 52: A red-headed woman floats, wearing a metal cage as a skirt. Inside, two fish swim.
Everyone who grew up near Lake Wonapango had their own story about the lake. Some were your traditional and expected fish stories, some dealt with summer love and improprieties, and others were tragic tales of misadventure. And then there were the other stories, ones that spoke of great loss, the kind that does not stop when the sufferer passes on. Lake Wonapango held deep, dark secrets on its sandy bed, and sometimes those secrets floated to the surface. I remember well the night I myself came face to face with one of those secrets. All my years of trying to forget have done nothing but burn it more firmly in my thoughts.
I was never the fishing type. While it was the most common past time for those who lived around the lake, it was just never my thing. I did not have the patience or the appetite for the long hours spent catching the local fare. It seemed wasteful to haul them up and toss them back in. Still, like most folks around the lake, I had my boat. It was little more than a rowboat—I mean, it had a tiny outboard motor strapped to it, but I rarely used it. You see, I took the boat out not for fishing or swimming, but just to enjoy the water. I always went out at night, and the growl of the motor seemed overwhelming in the otherwise peaceful setting. So, I used it as a chance to get a good work out in, rowing along to a few of the calm, quiet spots I knew of.
The night in question was one of those nights hanging in between spring and summer. The air carried the heavy humidity of summer, but still settled on the cool side of warm. It was heavy with the hopes and aspirations of summer. The crickets, frogs, and cicadas had all started their raucous chorus, so I would say it was anything but quiet out there. But out on the water, it was still peaceful. There’s something about Lak Wonapango that just feels rights when the critters are singing out of key.
There were two empty bottles in the bottom of my boat, and I was leaned back against the edge, the lake water gently rocking me back and forth. The sky stretched out like an endless canvas above me, inky darkness pierced by diamond light. The moon was full, glowing warmly down on the scene. I know that this memory is colored by nostalgia, cast glorious in contrast to the events that were to come. But I don’t know if I could imagine something better and more peaceful than that evening. Maybe that’s why it had to go so wrong. Perhaps beauty and peace like that simply cannot exist in this world for long. The balance must be righted.
In that moment of peace, there was a splash. Now, anyone who has spent much time on isolated waters can tell you a splash does not mean much. I was surrounded by all sorts of wildlife that may have wanted to slide into the water. Or a tree branch could have fallen in. Heck, it could have even been one of the many local fishes swishing to the surface to snag an unfortunate water skimmer. There was no real reason it should have caught my attention. Part of what bugged me is that it did, though. Whatever thoughts and reveries I had been lost in shattered along with the surface of the lake. I sat forward, scanning about. The boat listed a bit with my sudden movements, the bottles rolling and clanging in the bottom.
The ripples began near an old fallen log that jutted its way into the river. Probably a turtle, I thought, swimming back t the shore after a long day of sunning. I tried to rest back against the boat, slip back into my quiet contemplation, but my ears were on edge, straining for any other sounds.
Silence. Completely and totally save for the water lapping against my boat. The bugs and frogs had quieted down, and their absence made me feel suddenly self-conscious. I grabbed the oars to row back home, suddenly feeling out of place on the lake that had always been home.
As my paddles dipped into the water, I imagined I heard an echoing splash hiding in their noise. It was paranoia, I told myself, or an echo from the banks. But still my ears strained. I finally paused mid-stroke, the oars lying limp in the water, and heard another splash following behind me. I spun around and watched as something broke the surface of the water. It was an arm, long and pale in the moonlight. I felt frozen to the spot, watching as the other arm rose and fell, gentle strokes pulling whoever it was steadily closer. I watched the pale shadow glide beneath the water, the feet arcing into the air and pushing it downward just before it reached my boat.
People did swim in Lake Wonapango, so I assumed I must have surprised a sunbather or skinny dipper with my evening sail. I wondered who it was, since they had obviously made towards my boat and darted away to avoid detection. My mind wandered to a couple particular townsfolk I would not mind stumbling upon skinny dipping, but before the thoughts could get too far, something bumped the bottom of the boat.
I was alert and scanning the water, assuming it must be someone playing a joke on me after disturbing them, I was not too thrilled about the potential baptism I might endure if they took it too far; my goal was relaxation, not swimming in the murky water. I watched for them, trying to see when they would surface. But no one showed.
The second bump was louder, sending me careening into the side and almost overboard. It was no longer a funny joke, and I grabbed the paddles again. They could spend all evening in the dark depths of Lake Wonapango if that’s what they wanted to do, but I was going to go home and put an end to the long day.
The paddle in my left hand barely moved in the water before something latched onto it, ripping it from my hands. Wood splintered as it came free, disappearing into the water behind a trialing white arm. I watched it rocket to the bottom until I lost it in the shadows.
I admit, I was cursing up a good storm out there on my boat. Down to one oar, it was going to take me a while to get myself home. This joke was not funny any longer. I took my remaining paddle and prepared for the long journey home.
Only then a hand appeared over the side of the boat. The fingers were long, pale and greenish in the light. I assumed it was the reflection of the moon on the water or something, but now I’m not so sure. One thing I did note as weird was the webbing between the fingers and the long, tapering fingernails. That hand was attached to a long, slender arm.
Suddenly, a face broke the surface of the water. It was mostly human, but just not quite right. The eyes were too round, not the right oval shape. They also stretched a bit too big and had an unusual sheen to them. The lips were wide and flat, curled into a suggestion of a smile. Overall, the face was somewhat flattened. But she blinked those big, shining eyes at me and I was caught. Her hand—a bit slimy, very cold—trailed along mine, winding up my arm. I felt myself leaning towards her, enraptured at the unnatural beauty. Her hair lay in wet ringlets along her body, and it was clear she was completely naked below the water. I could not tell you what else was going on in the world around me then, because my entire being was consumed with devouring her presence. It was as if I had never experienced human connection until that point. Her lips slipped into an alluring smile, an unspoken invitation to come closer.
I tingled with the feeling of her hand on my arm—I only later realized that the tingle was not simply arousal, but a potent toxin that left my arm numb for hours after. In the moment, however, it was bliss. Every nerve danced with her touch, sizzling to new life as her skin glided over my own.
I was in the water before I realized it, drawn in by her smiling eyes. I felt as if I were diving straight into her pupils, drenching myself in their dark depths. But the muddy water of Lake Wonapango filled my mouth, its vile taste reminding me that this was no paradise. My arms flailed about, the one she had carefully caressed flopping mostly useless in the water. I felt her hands running across my chest, the same burn of pleasure and paralysis following her fingertips.
You would think that I would have been able to realize the danger I was in with this mystery creature, but I felt no threat from her. Even as she gently tugged me towards the lake bed, I felt she was only interested in my wellbeing. She could have held me underwater and watched me drown as long as her eyes held mine. No, it was not the awareness of her perilousness, but the long forgotten admonitions of my parents. You never go swimming if you’ve been drinking. It was a recipe for disaster. Their warnings ringing clear, I made for the boat
I suppose she sensed my intention to scape, because those long nails on her hand began digging into my skin. Fortunately, she had well-numbed most of my upper body by that point. I managed to flop into the boat, my vision going blurry around the edges. Eventually, the moon was the only thing left that and some thunderous pounding against the sides of my boat.
I woke up the next morning, the heat having returned in force. My chest was sticky with blood, my head pounded, and my arms felt like they were filled with jello. It was a long, painful, exhausting trip back to shore. A long road of recovery and failed forgetting stretching ahead of me.
Most people blamed the bottles in the bottom of my boat for the strange report. I must have fallen in, gotten scraped up on some rocks. Others, I think, thought it was suicide gone wrong. But, I now know why the lake has claimed more than its fair share of victims. I know why men and women go missing out there, no sign of a problem in their peacefully floating boat. I stay away from the lake at night. I got lucky once, and I’m in no mood to tempt fate. I don’t think I could resist those eyes this time, and I know I’d make my home on the sandy bottom of the lake if she ever invited me again.
This work by Katherine C is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License.
Card Day 51: A sad looking child holding a slingshot stands with his back to a life-size teddy bear with a tear trickling down its face.
Hannah knew that no one believed in imaginary friends, but that did not change her situation. It also did not change the fact that she was lonely, and Carmen was a very good friend to her.
“I didn’t mean to break the vase,” whispered Hannah from her spot beside Carmen in time out. “It as an accident.”
“I know it as,” Carmen smiled sweetly, seemingly unperturbed by the punishment. “But momma sure was mad, wasn’t she?”
Hannah’s legs hung off the bed, swaying back and forth as they kicked at the bed spread. She spun her braided hair around her finger, looking glumly at the floor “Yeah, she had a real fit.”
“Well, next time you shouldn’t run in the house.”
“But you told me you wanted to play tag!” Hannah said, her eyes widening and her voice rising. Camren still just smiled and fixed her with a friendly stare.
“But like momma says, ‘Imaginary friends aren’t excuses!’”
Hannah crossed her arms, pouting. It was not fair that she had to sit in time out for something that was barely even her fault. Yes, she may have been the one to break the lamp, but it had ben Carmen’s idea. It was really an injustice that the two always had to be punished as one, but she supposed that was the risk with an imaginary friend. No one would blame the person they could not see, but it inevitably meant an innocent party was unfairly tried and sentenced.
“Time out is over. Just try to stay calm and remember to use your inside manners.” Momma was in the door, standing tall but looking tired. Her hair was tucked up into a frazzled bun, letting airy wisps of dark hair float about her face. He eyes were heavy and tired, but still filled with a hearty measure of love and care. She balanced her toddler, Jasper, carefully on one hip, her weight resting lightly against the doorframe.
Hannah needed no prompting and hopped up, trying to find the next activity to occupy their time. Carmen sat politely on the bed, watching as the woman slowly walked back down the hallway. Once momma had disappeared back into the kitchen, sounds of stirring and chopping accompanying her return, she slid off the bed and into the floor. “Wanna play dolls?”
Hannah rolled her eyes, but eventually gave in to her friends exaggerated look of request. The two settled in front of the little house. Its rooms stretched before them, a chaotic landscape of toppled furniture and mismatched doll clothes. Hannah picked up a light-haired man and straightened his shirt and pants before seating him at the kitchen table. Carmen was methodically moving through the house, righting the rooms and assembling the family members. The walls of the house were a cheery shade of pink, spring green trim rounding along the walls. When she reached the kitchen, she lifted the father from his assigned seat, gathering him with the rest of the family. There were two little girls, a little boy, a momma, and a dad.
“What a happy family,” sighed Carmen as if mimicking the weary sighs of adults. She looked down at the collection at dolls wistfully, carefully setting them on the floor. “I don’t have a dad,” she added with that same sigh, gazing at the man in his khaki pants and eternal smile.
Hannah felt a twinge of fear and discomfort at the topic, grabbing the man off the floor and putting him behind the house. “I did, once. He was a very mean man. We don’t need a daddy in our house,” she said with finality. It was weird looking down at the small family on the floor, their home gaping in front of them while they smiled with perfectly painted plastic smiles. The mother’s hair was never mussed and frizzed, and the little girls never wound up with dirt on their dresses. No one broke vases in the perfect doll house.
“What was it like?” asked Carmen, pulling Hannah from the uncomfortably mature thoughts that had been drifting through her mind.
She picked up one of the little girls, setting her in one of the pink rooms with a tiny tea set. “What was what like?”
Carmen picked up the little boy and set him in the room next door, moving steadily closer to soiree Hannah was building. “Having a dad?”
At first, Hannah shrugged, her eyes growing distant as memories she did not want to consider filtered in, their shadows stretching over the idyllic dollhouse. Carmen was placing dolls, moving them through the motions of family life. Sister joined the tea party, brother continued trying to sneak through the door, mother ran between the bedrooms and the kitchen, always a bit frantic. She kept her eyes on Hannah, eagerly awaiting the answer. “He was very mean,” she repeated again, her voice sounding distant, “very bad. He used to lock me in the closets when I misbehaved. Sometimes, he would hit me. A lot of time, he and momma yelled. She would cry, and her face would be all red and puffy. Once, he hit me and I didn’t wake up until tomorrow morning.” The words slipped numbly from her lips, falling to the ground. In an instant, she was back in those moments. There were screams and yells, her pounding heart and rapid breaths. She felt tears stinging at her eyes, begging to be released at the memory.
Carmen’s voice brought her back, tying her paradoxically back to reality. “That sounds really bad. I’m glad he’s not your daddy anymore. I’m glad you can live with me.”
Hannah knew how to respond, putting on her old smile as the nightmares continued to pulse through her head. Nevertheless, she tried to focus on the game at hand, to be the perfect host and entertain her friend. In reality, she sought merely to distract herself, lose herself in a world of fantasy where grown men did not take out their inner demons on helpless victims. But that was a world she did not know, and sometimes she wondered if she ever would. Carmen’s voice again broke through. “Why did he do that?”
Hannah’s smile slipped and she shrugged. “I don’t know. He came home late a lot, smelling bad and yelling. Then he would be really mean. The last time I saw him—“ fear welled up in her throat. She remembered that last time. There had been so much noise, explosions of anger blossoming in their tiny home. She had been in her room, in this room, when it had been green instead of blue. He had come into the room, smelling a stinky kind of sweet and wobbling on his feet. There had been blood and pain and darkness. Even in the memory, she could feel fear clawing its way up her throat, pulsing behind her eyes. She took a breath, trying to refocus. “The last time was bad,” she finished, her voice barely a whisper. “Can we play something else?”
Carmen could sense the tragedy behind the words, even if she was young. It was the way such a friend worked. The two shared so much that even feelings were little more than a river flowing between two banks. She did not have the images or the sounds in her mind, though, and so she could be stronger. Hannah smiled appreciatively at her friend. Carmen was the strength she needed. “How about Pirates?”
With that, the two girls fled to the dress-up closet, donning baggy leggings and eye patches. They spent the evening storming beaches and burying treasure, ruling their ship-room with mostly-cotton-but-occasionally-iron fists. The weight of the previous moments was replaced by laughter and false bravado, daring adventures and death-defying feats.
The flurry of activity followed by silence in the kitchen signaled the play date was drawing to an end. The two were caught mid-mission by momma’a reappearance.
“Time for dinner, Carmen. Clean up and wash your hands.”
“Yes, momma,” she sighed, dropping to a seat on the bed. She began to remove the layers of costume. “Can Hannah have a place, too?” she asked.
A flash of worry brushed across her mother’s face, and she smiled gently. “Sweetie, Hannah’s not real. I know you found that diary, but she doesn’t live here anymore.”
Carmen opened her mouth to protest, but Hannah shook her head. Her mother’s disapproving gaze also helped to silence the matter. “Yes, ma’am,” she sighed plaintively, stomping towards the bathroom. Hannah watched her go, sitting down on the bed, trying to forget what her room looked like after that fateful night, trying to forget the months of loneliness before the new family moved in, bringing the friend she always needed.
Too bad no one believed in imaginary friends.
This work by Katherine C is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License.
It is done! I finished part three. To be honest, it became somewhat tiring. I knew where I was going and how to get there, but I admit to being a bit fatigued on this one. It is one of the longest pieces I have written (that wasn’t a chaptered piece), and it simply required a lot of dedication and resolve on my part. It was also really hard to carry a consistent and realistic emotion throughout all of this, mainly because I got tired of thinking like I needed my narrator to think. But I am mostly happy with the conclusion. I feel like there could be some improvements made to the finale, but that is something I will return to in time, once my brain has had a chance to recover from this piece. I’m still a bit too close to it. So, I hope you have enjoyed this so far, and I hope you enjoy the grand finale. If you see anything that could be improved, feel free to drop me a note in the comments. And, because I’m proud of my accomplishment, the whole thing clocks in at roughly 11,000 words and a touch over 24 pages. Thanks for reading!
Jocelyn and I took off through the caves, moving as quickly could in the dark. Our flashlights careened wildly, lighting the rocky walls, the dusty floor, and the innumerable potential obstacles in wide-arcing beams as we tried to get to the small opening that Brian and Hayley had entered before. As Hayley’s screams grew more distant even as we approach, we heard Brian’s cries beginning to ring out as he called after her.
After entering the side passage, Jocelyn and I paused to take in our surroundings. There were two paths carved into the stone, diverging to the right and left. Our lights played across the walls for a moment before finding Brian’s pale blue arrow scrawled on the wall. At least he listened.
Into the dark we dove, hearing Brian’s voice growing louder as Hayley’s grew more and more distant. We moved as quickly as we could, bumping along the walls in our haste to reach our friends. Brian seemed very close now, and the arrows along the wall had grown more and more hastily scrawled, now little more than trailing lines of blue dust on the wall. I was amazed that he had the wits about him to continue marking his path; I knew I wouldn’t if Jocelyn were screaming like that.
In one brief moment, the cave went from in front of me to mashed into my face. I glanced behind me, seeing Brian’s pack dropped unceremoniously in the middle of the floor. Jocelyn halted, looking at me in concern as I picked myself from the stone floor. Perhaps it was a trick of the lights, but she looked impossibly pale, her face drawn in fear even as her eyes showed concern. For the first time, I noticed that she had only had time to pull on her t-shirt before I took off on a mad dash. Her shoes hung loose on her feet, the laces splayed across the floor. I was lucky she hadn’t been the one to fall.
“Are you okay?” Her eyes roved around the tight walls of the tunnel as if the walls themselves would leap up and drag her away.
“I’m fine,” I huffed, pushing myself to my feet. “Just scraped my hands up.” I had not realized how much I had exerted myself getting this far until I had to stop. Now the weight of each breath tugged my body back towards the floor. A sharp stitch pierced my side, and my lungs felt like they would soon burst as I gulped in available air. After all this was over and we had a good laugh about it, Brian and I would start back at the gym, I promised. And Hayley and Jocelyn could come to. Maybe we’d all run a marathon. Or become world class mountain climbers. Once this was a hazy memory in the past.
Jocelyn’s soft, sharp breaths were a counterpoint to my ragged gasps. There was unsettling silence in the caves now. I felt a hint of relief flood through me, certain that whatever danger had appeared was now passed. We could take our time, walk carefully, and meet up with the certain to be embarrassed couple. However a pinprick of anxiety encouraged me forward.
“Let’s go,” I panted.
The silence was suddenly deafening and dangerous. I knew I should feel relieved, but somehow the sudden silence was worrying. I could hear Jocelyn’s steps behind me, the steady ebb and flow of her breathing. My own breaths were still ragged inhales and exhales, but close to resembling something human. And nothing. No laughter, yells, or sounds from ahead of us. Only half-formed blue arrows pointing along our trail.
Our pace stayed steady, but far more cautious. There were areas where we had to climb over small piles of rocks, warning of possible future cave-ins or collapses. Jocelyn gave me a worried look, but pressed on. Eventually the silence gave way to a sound that I have heard in every nightmare since. Sobs.
They were heaving sobs, initially too frail to hear and distinguish from shifting rock. Yet as we continued on our path, they grew louder. They became sobs that reached right into my body and ripped out the last bit of air I had left.
While the sound was bad enough, once my light turned the corner and showed him sitting there on the ground, I felt my own knees begin to give out. I stumble toward him, ignoring the pain as my bloody hands began to clot with dirt. I did not know what happened, but I felt tears behind my own eyes, heard them in the unsteady waver of my voice.
“Brian, what’s wrong? What happened?” The words fell out into the dead air as my eyes took in the little details. They saw Brian’s hands, bloodied, the nail beds jagged and raw, pressed up against the wall. They saw the smudges of dirt along the edge of his short sleeves, noted deep bruises already beginning to bloom. Pieces to a puzzle I could not and cannot understand.
“She—She—There were bats,” his words broke up into sobs as he sat up, his eyes fixated on the immovable stone I front of us.
“Where is Hayley?” I whimpered, my own tears beginning to flow. My mind reeled in the darkness, leaving me bereft with only lips to numbly spill forth questions.
“They flew,” he moved his hands in a swooping motion. “And she just started screaming and running.” He sniffed, his tears streaming down his face in solid lines of immeasurable sorrow. “And she ran—” at this, his words again dissolved under a wave of tears as gestured weakly to the wall in front of him.
“Brian, where did she go?”
“I don’t know!” he screamed, eyes wild in bewilderment. “I saw her running down here, and—and I followed. But then she was gone.”
I felt my heart begin to panic even as my mind began to collect itself. So, Hayley was lost in the caves. This was bad, but not terrible. “Okay, so she got lost. We can retrace our path and check out any other ways she might—”
“No,” Brian interjected sharply. “You don’t understand. I saw her run down here. I saw her run through there!” His finger jutted out towards the cold gray wall, trembling with the force of his statement.
“Brian, that’s a solid wall,” began Jocelyn, calmly and what she intended as soothing. I winced as she continued. “There’s no way she could have done that. Maybe the dark played tricks on you—”
“Is that your answer for everything?!” He yelled, and I felt a dim sense of retribution I did not even know I wanted. “She disappeared! She ran straight through this!” His fist pounded against the wall.
“Is there a trap door or something,” I offered, trying to make sense of this. Brian simply slumped over and sobbed.
“Even if there is, we may not be able to find it,” responded Jocelyn, meekly. “We should head out and find some park rangers.”
There was silence between us, punctuated by the sounds of Brian’s sobs. He was devastated and probably certain he was losing his mind. He had watched the love of his life sprint in terror through a solid rock wall, and nothing about that made sense. My heart aches for him even thinking about that.
“Brian?” I put a hand on his arm. “We need to get some park rangers.” His sobs paused as he looked up at me.
“Do you think they can find her?”
“I’m sure of it. And they have all the best equipment. I bet they even have special training just for this,” the words felt hollow in my mouth, but they gave light back to his eyes.
“You’re right,” he agreed, clinging desperately to the hope I had fabricated. “I bet they do this all the time. They’ll find her.” He was up and walking back the way we entered before I realized it, suddenly empowered by hope.
Jocelyn caught my shoulder as we followed him. “Mark, you know she couldn’t have—”
I cut her off, feeling a rising tide of dull anger as she stomped on our hopes. “I know. But she could be lost.”
“Of course,” she mumbled, “It’s just—none of this makes sense, does it?”
I did not want to answer, because to admit to the insanity we were living in would make it all the more horrible. “I’ve got to keep an eye on Brian. He’s not really in his right mind.” I jogged the few steps ahead to catch him, leaving Jocelyn a few steps behind. I cared about her deeply, but in that moment, she was an outsider to our drama. I had known Brian and Hayley for years. I knew Brian would not have given up on her easily. But Jocelyn couldn’t understand what this was, couldn’t fully comprehend the way the world was suddenly no longer real to either of us. It wasn’t her fault, but I felt I should punish her for it anyway. “Watch your step, Bri. You dropped your pack up ahead.”
He nodded, grunting in the dark as he dutifully trained his flashlight on the floor in front of him. We trekked on in silence for a few moments, the only sound the crunch of our feet on the ground and Brian’s occasional sniffle. He was the one to break the silence. “How could she just disappear?” he whispered.
“I—” the words, intended to be healing and jovial, dried up in my mouth. “I don’t know, Brian. She couldn’t have, right?”
“Right,” he mumbled, “she couldn’t have. Exactly.” I felt a knot of tension ease a bit as we planted ourselves firmly in reality again, only to re-emerge as he spoke again. “Then how did she do it?”
I had no answer, and the feeling of dread in my stomach was beginning to gnaw straight through me. “I’m sure the park rangers will be able to help.” The words were useless, and I believed them no more than I could believe Hayley disappeared behind a rock wall. But if we were to be in the habit of believing impossible things, it was at least a comforting one to cling to. Brian pushed on ahead of me, unwilling to share my hope. We three walked along in silent darkness, individual islands in pools of artificial light, wearily trodding through the belly of the beast.
We never found Brian’s pack. In the moment, that fact dimly registered on my clouded mind, but it is something which has continued to haunt me. There was no way to miss it; the path we were on had not deviated or branched along the way. We followed the arrows in reverse, finding scrawled reminders every step along the way. But the pack in the center of the path was gone, and we exited the side passage without any sign of it. It became one more impossibility in a series of increasingly impossible events.
As we entered the cavern, Jocelyn caught my elbow. There was a softness in her voice that soothed my injured feelings. “Are you okay?” she whispered, careful to keep it below Brian’s hearing.
“Yeah,” I sighed. “Just stressed. And worried.”
“I know. But, it will work out.” As much as she intended that as a reassuring statement, I could hear the question in her voice.
“It will. We just need to get out of here and get some professional help.” I tried to sound optimistic, conjuring every positive bone in me to make it convincing.
“Exactly,” her voice relaxed. “But, I need to grab my pack and pants before we leave. We don’t need another injury trying to get out.”
She was right and I felt sudden tension arise within me. She needed to go back to the other side of the cavern, but Brian was on a tunnel-visioned war path to the exit. Deterring him would be impossible, and leaving her in that half-clothed state would slow us down if not stop us completely with an injury.
“I can run over and catch up with you guys. I’ll be back before you make it up the side,” she offered, reading my mind. The tension dissolved; I could live up to both my responsibilities.
“Yeah, that’s a good plan,” I agreed stupidly. She smiled, kissed my cheek, and took off towards the little pool that had housed such peace only moments before. Brian watched her leave, dulled confusion flashing across his grief-stricken face. “She’s going to pick some stuff up and meet us, Bri. Let’s just keep going.” He dutifully obliged.
If our trip had not been traumatic already, it began to explode into impossibilities with that decision. Believe me when I’ve said I’ve spent weeks and months replaying all these events, as if I could somehow alter what happened by imagining all the different scenarios. We were doomed before we set foot in those caves, and that is the only thing I can be certain of. Brian and I had just reached the wall to climb up when there was a brief scream cut short by the sound of splashing water. We both turned, immediately alarmed.
“Jocelyn?” I called out. My own words echoed back to me, and died away to silence. “Jocelyn!” I called again, panic rising in my voice. The sounds of splashing water and coughs greeted me as I continued to call her name, praying for a response. “We’ve got to go,” I said, turning to Brian. He had turned back to the wall.
“We have to get help,” he growled robotically, repeating my mantra back to me.
“Brian, she could be in trouble. We have to check on her.” I was already turned and moving, certain he would accompany me. Instead I heard the grinding sound of his flashlight on the rocks as he pulled himself up.
“We have to get help.”
I barely heard him, already moving as quickly as possible across the floor of the cavern. The light of my flashlight was increasingly weak, dully lighting a small circle in front of my feet. I did my best to avoid other pools, making my way to the one that glowed dimly, flinging furious shadows on the wall. The sound of splashing and sputtering grew louder as I came closer.
Jocelyn was in the center of the pool, her flashlight clipped to her pack and casting wild shadows as she fought against something unseen. I rushed to the edge, lying flat in a desperate attempt to reach her, but she floated inches from my fingertips.
I saw her eyes, roving and mad as a wounded animal. She groped blindly against the water, struggling to pull herself to the edge. I could not see what kept her, but it was a frozen moment of pure panic. I dove in to the water, feeling it begin to drag me down. But I fought ferociously towards her, even as her head dipped below the surface of the water.
Her hand was in mine. In that final moment, I felt her fingers wrap around mine, and I was certain I had her and could pull her to safety. Her eyes found mine, pleading with me to bring her back to the surface, and I tried to bring her close to me.
But something else pulled at her, dragging her towards the murky bottom. Her fingers gripped mine with vice-like grip, her eyes growing more and more desperate as air escaped her in a flurry of bubbles. She was screaming as she disappeared into the depths. I refused to let her go, but her hand began to feel like pure fire in my hand. It burned, deadening the nerves in my hand until I could not even feel her pull away. She descended, dragged by an impossible spot of light. It was brighter than the light of her flashlight, wavering in and out of our reality as it gently surrounded her, pulling her further and further away. I watched her eyes go from panicked to scared to unfocused as it pulled her away.
I swam to the surface, refilling my lungs with air. There was nothing I could do. I watched that creature drag her downwards, the light of her flashlight illuminating that face, frozen in pleading terror, until it was too small to see. The depths swallowed her alive; that thing carried her into impossible waters where I could not reach.
I sat sobbing in the water, no longer knowing what part of this world still inhabited reality. In the distance, I could see the small light of Brian climbing his way to the surface, dutifully going to get help. Part of me thought about just sinking down right there, discovering whatever inevitable bottom this hungry pool had. I felt certain in that moment that we were no longer a part of reality as we knew it, so what would my death even matter? This cave simply devoured us as soon as we entered, and now it was playing with us. As unhinged as those thoughts sound in the light of day, there is still a part of me that fully believes that. I think, sometimes, that maybe I did just sink away in that pool, and this is all the last gasps of my oxygen deprived brain. Maybe that’s the afterlife. Maybe these memories are my hell, that creature my personal demon.
Someone dragged my body from the water. I assume I did, though I have no memory of it. I cannot remember the walk across the cavern back to the wall. I remember dim awareness of my still numb hand dangling at my side as I followed Brian’s beacon. I remember Brian progressing solidly, dutifully following the arrows marking the safe path. I remember the impossible light moving through the darkness, leading his trail. I remember the way the arrows had changed their direction on our entrance, and saw a new path emblazoned before Brian. There was no time to intervene as my brain slowly put the preposterous pieces together. In a single instant, I heard his brief shout as the step gave way beneath him. I watched his flashlight traced his path to the floor before getting buried under a pile of loosened rock and debris. I felt everything inside of me crumble into dust at the shattered world I lived in.
His face, pinned beneath the rubble, is painted sharply in my mind. His body was twisted unnaturally, like some doll pulled apart and haphazardly stuck back together. Some joints pointed the wrong way, and there was a splatter of red on the rock near his head. Most of him was lost beneath the rocks, but I saw cold eyes looking at me from a head turned sharply away from me. There was no pulse, but I knew before I even checked. That thing had brought us to be devoured.
As if I had not yet paid my debts, my flashlight gave out.
How long I sat there sobbing in the dark, I do not know. Time only has meaning in relation to the life we have left, and as far as I was concerned, I was already dead. I had disappeared in twisting caverns, drowned in an impossible pool, and fallen between crushing rocks.
The light that lived in perfect darkness flitted around me, staying just far enough away to be noticed but barely seen. It waited on its haunches, watching me with those golden eyes as it shifted between real and not real imperceptibly. I was trapped in the dark, no idea where to go, and it waited patiently for me.
Eventually I could not sit there any longer next to the rapidly cooling body of my best friend. I stood, pacing along the wall. I kept a hand on the cool stone, staggering long as if it would suddenly open back into the wide open world. I felt despair as I thought of never seeing the blue sky again, of never seeing anything but this infinite blackness. I turned to walk back and saw the creature floating around Brian. It was a haze covering the area that I instinctively knew was the tomb. I rushed towards it, shouting as if chasing away a scavenger. In an instant, it was simply gone, leaving only the blackness. I sank again to my knees, crying out tears that burned and stung my raw cheeks.
It was hunger that finally drove me to my feet, stumbling again along the wall as if I could find some magic passageway. I carefully walked along the wall, dutifully avoiding turning back and risking stumbling over that grisly scene. If I did that, I am certain I never would have moved again. Or worse, I would have fled screaming into that infinite darkness, another soul swallowed up.
The sound of my shoes scuffling along the dirt floor was suddenly interrupted by a decidedly foreign sound. Something crunched under my feet, the sound echoing over and over in the silence. In my desperation I laughed, recognizing the intruding sound of the chip wrapper in the darkness. I was likely delirious with grief, hunger, and dehydration at this point, but I took it as a sign of salvation, wildly climbing onto the rock surface and feeling out a path. I crawled along that wall, my one good hand and feet constantly reaching out to feel for any stable surface. I laughed as I rose steadily above the floor, groping through the gravel and dust like a blind man. I avoided any path marked by that awful creature, always moving further and further away from it as I moved higher and higher. Eventually, I found my hands gripping the edge where a wide expanse stretched out before me. Still crawling, I found orange peels and food scraps littering the floor. I laughed and stood, racing towards what I hoped was an exit.
Despite the odds, I finally found myself back in the first opening, back where Brian had seen his bat and mocked my concerns. I reached out to the wall, trying to find the way out. It was in here, I was certain. My fingers trailed along the rock face, puling and gripping it as if I would tear down the mountain just to be free. Surely, the opening was here. I briefly felt chalk under my fingers, pointing in a direction that I could not decipher. It was likely meaningless anyway. Still, no gap appeared in the rock. I continued my search until my fingers felt chalk again, and again. I was going in circles, but could find no opening. It was as if the cave has sealed its lips tight, swallowing me inside. The walls seemed to spin and move around me, putting the exit always a few inches away, I was sure. In the darkness behind me, I felt I could see glimpses of light moving to and fro, blocking any hope of progress.
In despair, I fell to the floor. I was crying cold tears that I could not feel until they landed softly on my hands. My sobs came in silent waves as my mind tried to process my own fate of either starving or freezing to death in this rocky tomb. I wondered if anyone would ever even find my body. It could have been minutes or it could have been days—time only existed as a running count of the overwhelming burden of tragedy on my life—but eventually I saw a light move in the darkness, drawing nearer and nearer to me. It moved gracefully, but impossibly slow in the darkness until it stopped just in front of my face, its eyes meeting my own. Those eyes were huge, encompassing the whole room, the whole cave, possibly the whole world. I could see everything contained within them, and most importantly I could also see myself. My own eyes looked back at me in there. And, suddenly, my own thoughts and memories began to play.
It sighed contentedly, drinking in all these precious moments from my life. First days of school, best friends, true loves, and endless opportunity played before me. The creature reached out, its hand seeming to move through my eyes and into my body, shuffling through my deepest personal thoughts and pulling at something that the rest of me fought to keep back. It continued to pry, however, and I felt my reserves give way. The cave flashed into my mind, playing back before me in the world of that thing’s eyes. Laughter, anger, fear filled me with each relived memory. I saw Brian lying bloody and twisted, heard the sound of Hayley’s shrieks grow dimmer and dimmer. Jocelyn floated away from me, a terrified statue etched in ivory as it drifted through the inky black water. I heard the sound of dogs—
Dogs? The creature recoiled for a moment as I was brought back into the present. Yes, dogs barking nearby. Perhaps a rescue, I dared to dream. No, the entity seemed to whisper back to me, not dogs, just lonely wolves seeking their next meal. My strength was failing as the creature drew more and more of me out, trying to drink away the last vestiges of life I had left, but the sound of dogs gave me strength to fight back. I steeled myself, trying not to remember, not to think about my life before. All I had now was the thought of a life lived in the bright air and sunshine yet again. The creature’s grip on me tightened, and I felt that hope begin to waver as it found moment after moment of adoration with Jocelyn at the center. The smell of her hair, the feel of her skin, the warmth of her lips—all faded to cold, dead memory as her eyes pleaded with me in the dark water. She drifted away from me, her fingers slipping through mine and into oblivion.
But no, I fought. I tried to muster a yell, to let them know I was here, but my throat was so parched that I could barely manage a whisper. Nonetheless, I could hear the barking louder now, maybe even echoing off the walls around me. Salvation!
The creature screeched as the flashlights of the rescue team came into view. I dimly felt them speaking to me through the golden haze of its eyes. My lips moved, but there was no sound, only the ever increasing fury of whatever thing had me in its grasp. I felt water flowing down my throat, something warm wrapping around my body. In their hands, I began to feel the creature’s grip loosening. I was winning the fight and pulling away. There was a stretcher, and a light pinprick on my arm, and then they moved me out of the creature’s lair, away from its prying eyes. At some point a fresh breeze hit my face, and I felt tears spring up again. At some point, their voices began to fill my head before turning into a nonsensical buzz in my personal delirium. At some point, the golden hued world of the creature’s eyes gave way to impenetrable blackness once again, and I slept.
They found Brian right where I told them, his head still stuck at that unnatural angle. At least they managed to fix it for the funeral. Hayley and Jocelyn were never found; they searched all the pools in that cavern, and assured me that none of those was deep enough to drown in. As for Hayley, well, the caves had a funny way of turning around on you. And they went for miles. Shock, they called it. Trauma. Of course, it didn’t matter to me what they said or found. I know what happened.
Everyone has a story. And there is something out there that needs our stories, that feeds on our stories. It appears to me that it has a taste for the sour flavor of despair, the tang of fear, and the bitterness of tragedy. Or maybe, like my shrinks keep saying, that’s just the story I’ve told myself.
We all have a story to tell.
This work by Katherine C is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License.
Well, this thing has grown a bit longer than I estimated, so I’m extending it to 3 parts. At around 5-7 pages a piece, I think that’s manageable chunks. The last part is not completed; however I do have the ending written, so at least I know where this thing is going! Without further ado, here is part two*
* Rhyme completely unintentional.
Stepping into the cave from the previously blinding sunshine was akin to plunging from the shore of a warm, tropical beach directly into the arctic depths. My whole body took a moment to adjust to the profound and heavy darkness, even as the shade leached away the warmth in my skin. My sweat began to cool to clammy dampness, comforting me even as that same chill crept steadily along my vertebrae.
The walls were originally very narrow, clinging close to us as we pushed our way inside. The rock face bent and curved around as we walked, forming a tiny switchback before pushing us into a larger opening. The walls flared out as the ceiling rose into a room that was large enough for the four of us to gather comfortably. Our flashlights danced across the ceiling, filling in the tiny hills and crevasses that made up the mottled walls and ceiling. Brian found a bat, but only nudged me silently to share his discovery. Hayley hated bats, and he was not about to have her in hysterics. But he smiled anyway, obviously pleased with himself. I studied the room, feeling a deep appreciation for the natural state of it take hold. There were a few plastic bottle and food wrappers lying in the corners, but if you ignored those, it was pristine. The way the entrance wound into this room, no sunlight crept in from outside. It was almost difficult to even find the narrow passage we used to enter, but Brian dutifully pointed an arrow back at it in crisp blue chalk on the grey wall.
“Don’t go getting in a twist, Gretel,” snapped Brian as he eyed me watching him mark the exit. “We’ll make sure you make it to Grandma’s house.”
“Wrong story, Bri,” quipped Hayley, her head tilted back to a sharp angle to view the rough hewn ceiling. Her light danced over the ceiling, lighting briefly on Brian’s bat before rocketing back to the floor. “Are we just going to stand here all day?” Her discomfort at the winged rodent bled through her friendly smile.
“Just through here,” waved Jocelyn, her flashlight darting down a long stretching tunnel. The cool air and the brilliant joy of her smile revitalizing me, I jogged behind, yelling for her to wait up. I could hear Brian and Hayley exchanging slighted heated whispers behind me, the word “bat” slipping between them in whispered barks. Eventually Hayley pushed her way past me to join Jocelyn in the lead. Brian sidled up beside me, seemingly weighed down by the nearly empty pack on his back.
“It’s a cave. There are bats,” he sighed, exasperation creeping into his voice. There was no further explanation needed, and we continued in friendly silence as Jocelyn led the way through the winding tunnels. Occasionally, Brian would stop and make another mark on the walls, but we soldiered on until the view stopped us in our tracks.
What had been a mere thirty minute walk must have led us even deeper and farther into this cave system than I could have imaged. From where we stood, the emptiness of the cave stretched on for eternity. The rock floor we stood on arced down after about fifteen feet in, a craggy system of stones demonstrating a treacherous path down into what I assumed was the bottom of this cavern, though my flashlight had dimmed to the point that I could not be certain. Somewhere, the sound of water played over the rocks, echoing back and forth in the cavern to harmonize with itself again and again. As the flashlights shifted through the murky darkness, flashes of water on light illuminated a series of small pools and a steady trickle of water tumbling down. The sight and sound were beautiful, yet chilling. The summer warmth was gone now, leaving an empty feeling of cold.
“Are you guys hungry? I think this would be a great place for a bite to eat,” reported Jocelyn, slinging her pack from her shoulders to the dusty floor. I watched her stretch, the long muscles of her back moving smoothly in the shadowy light. Visions of the slender, lithe body under the dusty camping clothes pulled a smile to my face that I hoped she wouldn’t see.
The fruit in my bag—a single apple, banana, and orange—had not fared as well as I had hoped in the trek to the cave. All salvageable, but with a distinct mushiness that was less than appetizing. However, despite the relative brevity of our journey thus far, I was ravenous. The banana disappeared in a flash, and the apple was down to a bare core in similarly swift fashion. I pulled out a mushed peanut butter sandwich and opened the zipper bag. The sound was surprisingly loud in the cave, as if the walls were replaying over and over this foreign sound. It felt wrong, a chill shifting up and down my spine, but the sound of a plastic bag in the darkness seemed even more intruder than the previous loud crunch of the apple. No one else seemed to mind, however, so I tried to shake the growing sense of unease.
Brian ripped open a bag of chips, the same feeling of intrusion creeping along my body again. Maybe we shouldn’t be here. The thought raced through my mind and was dismissed almost too fast to realize. I chided myself for my unease in such a peaceful place.
“This place is amazing, Jocelyn. Did you come here a lot?”
She smiled. “No, only once or twice. It’s not the most riveting place, but I always found it calming, ya’ know?” She stared of wistfully into the darkness, and I could see her shoulders relax even more as her eyes slipped close.
Brian’s loud munching on his chips shattered the quiet moment, but he remained oblivious. “Yeah, you could totally set up a recording in here and make some serious bucks on Cave Sounds to Sleep To. I’d buy it.”
Hayley laughed. “You have more useless get-rich-quick schemes than most cartoon villains.”
“And one day you may be very happy that one pays out,” he reminded her with an emphasized crunch of chips.
Jocelyn sighed, opening her eyes and returning to the conversation. “I have to agree with him, Hayley, I could definitely fall asleep here.” She yawned minutely, and then smiled with contentment. “But there’s a lot more to explore, too.”
“You still awake over there Mark?” called Hayley, exaggeratedly searching the dark recesses of the cave for me. “You haven’t said much.”
I stretched. “Just taking it all in. Besides, you three have all the rings covered in this circus. Wouldn’t want to intrude.” From the dimly lit area where Brian’s flashlight lay, a piece of orange peel flew through the air to land in my hair.
“You’re just oh so clever, huh?” grumbled Brian good naturedly as he lifted his pack again.
“Trash,” stated Hayley blankly, a command she had obviously supplied time and again. Brian complied by toeing the empty chip bag over the edge of the cavern and smiling.
“Now we don’t have to worry about that ending up in some landfill,” he quipped in frail attempt to cover his own laziness. Hayley rolled her eyes. I felt anger rush in.
“What’s wrong with you? This place is pristine and you just go throwing you trash around? Stop acting like a child for once and take some responsibility.” The force of my words surprised me, and even more obviously surprised Brian. His face flashed from startled, to hurt, to angry in a matter of seconds before he turned away.
“Didn’t know we had a park ranger with us. Not much I can do about it now,” he grumbled. Hayley and Jocelyn stood uncertainly between us, caught in the crossfire of my harsh words.
“No, I’m sorry. I don’t—I just—Let’s just be careful, okay?” I said, trying to erase the heavy tension between us. As suddenly as the anger had appeared, it was gone again. I felt momentarily alien in my body, as if someone—something else had been the one propelling those angry words through my lips. With it gone, there was an empty, foreignness in my mind. I felt like a fool.
“Careful is key,” picked up Jocelyn. “We can go down into this cavern area pretty easily, but then we need to be especially careful. It’s big and you can get lost.”
Hayley moved towards Brian, her hand wrapping around his arm to send a gentle but clear message. Let it go. He sighed, and it was as if I could see the irritation roll off his body. He turned around with a fake smile. “No harm, no foul. I’ll be more careful.” As insincere as the message was, it was at least a sincere attempt. Having known him for years, he would wind down for real in a couple of hours. Per our unspoken agreement, this would join other petty arguments that we never spoke of again.
The path down was treacherous, with sliding gravel and an occasional gap in the trail. The stair steps leading down were rugged and irregular, but definitely passable. Years of shifting earth, running water, and solitude had turned them into an obstacle course leading to bottom.
Brian dutifully marked the way, though it was hard to imagine getting lost here. Go up was the primary direction; anything beyond that was merely designed to find the best path. I was bringing up the tail, trying to religiously follow Hayley’s steps in front of my. At one point, I caught movement from the side of my eyes. It was startling, capturing my mind with all kinds of terrible possibilities. My heart suddenly began to race and I felt clammy sweat break out over my body. I turned, trying to find what it was, when suddenly that lightness came into view.
In the dark, it seemed slightly more distinct, but remained utterly incomprehensible. It was a shape of light moving through the darkness, casting no illumination. Two distinct eyes appeared to take up most of its face, and there were two protrusion on either side—ears, I decided—that stretched out into the darkness. There was no discernible body or feet, but it glided through the dark like some swimming ocean creature. The more I studied it, the less it made sense. As I watched, however, it moved toward the wall, reaching out to briefly touch one of the arrows on the wall. In a blur of motion, the chalk seemed to shimmer, then move each particle at a time. After what my heart promised was less than a beat, the arrow reassembled itself, this time pointing the opposite direction.
“Guys! What is that? What is that thing?” I was frozen, staring behind me with my arm pointing into the darkness. There was nothing there. Brian pushed through Hayley to stand by me, all hints of irritation gone and replaced by a warrior’s calm.
“What? Where is it?”
“It was—It was just there. It moved out arrows.”
Jocelyn’s hand on my arm. My eyes broke from the darkness and found her face. “There’s nothing there, Mark. Maybe a bat or something, but chalk arrows don’t move.”
I could hear Hayley shudder at the thought, but she remained silent.
“It wasn’t a bat. It was a—” the words dried up in my mouth. What was it? How could I describe it to them without everyone thinking I was crazy?
“Being in the dark like this can make your eyes play tricks on you. Let’s get to the bottom and take a rest, okay?” Jocelyn’s hand gently guided me down the remaining section of rocks. While I frequently glanced back, the light from Hayley and Brian’s flashlight turned the dark background into an impenetrable cloud. Still, I could have sworn I saw something moving through those shadows.
The sounds of water dripping and pooling was even louder down in the cavern. I could feel myself relaxing in the sound ever so slightly as Jocelyn, her hand still supporting me with its gentle touch on my arm, sat down beside me on a conveniently placed crop of stones.
“Are you okay?” she asked in a soft whisper, leaning in close to me.
“Yeah,” I lied, “like you said, probably just the dark playing tricks on me.”
“Alright, well how about you and I just sit here for a bit,” she smiled as the flashlight threw terrifying sharp shadows across her face.
“I don’t want to ruin it for them,” I replied, nodding towards a brooding Brian and concerned Hayley standing an uncomfortable distance away.
“I’ll tell them that they can go on a bit without us, just to mark everything really well so we can find them later if we need.”
Unless that thing moves it, I wanted to remark, but realized how crazy that sounded. Jocelyn had to be right; just tricks of the darkness on my poor light typical mind. “Okay, sure.”
She stood and walked towards the others. There was a quiet conversation, she motioned towards me, laughed, and waved them on. I watched as Brian snapped his trusty piece of chalk in half and handed one piece to Jocelyn, the eyes of a protector looking at her before drifting to me with a half smile. Jocelyn pointed towards one small opening in the cavern walls, and the two of them drifted off that direction with smiles and laughter.
“I told them we’d catch up in a bit,” she said with a wide smile.
“No need for us to hurry,” I responded with what I thought was a bit of sly suggestion, trying to shake the strange experience from before.
“How are you feeling?” Too subtle, I mentally catalogued.
“Better. I think I was just a bit on edge from the whole trash incident, and then got spooked. These caves are kind of creepy.”
She laughed. “Yeah, you went all Smokey the Bear on him up there. I appreciate a man who cares for the environment,” she responded.
We sat in silence for a few moments, just listening to the water falling somewhere in the distance and basking in the harsh artificial lighting. She was the one to finally break the silence. “Was this all some ploy to get me alone?”
No, I wanted to say. There is something out there and it’s dangerous, even though it hasn’t done anything to us. However, logic won out and the words sounded a bit different when they finally came out. “I thought I was being terribly sneaky.” You’re being crazy, I reminded myself. It was just a trick of the shadows and nothing more. Maybe a bat, but you aren’t Hayley, so chill out.
Her fingers twined through mine as she stood, pulling me up along with her. “Come on, let me show you something really amazing.”
“I can see something amazing from right here.” My eyes ran up and down her once in an exaggerated pattern. She simply rolled hers at me.
“Obviously, I was really lucky to find you in one of the rare times you were single. Come on,” she pulled at me, leading me through the darkness. The sounds of water grew louder and louder as we moved, until finally I could see water reflecting back the flashlight’s beam. Water dripped from far up above, plinking softly against the surface of the water and creating some of the sounds we had heard before. “There are little pools like this all over the place in here. They’re not deep, but surprisingly not cold, either. We spent an entire day just swimming and relaxing here once.”
“Is it safe?”
She slapped my arm playfully. “You have got to stop being such a worrywart. It’s just as safe as skinny dipping down at the quarry,” she responded with a knowing eyebrow lift. Touché.
Dropping her pack, Jocelyn quickly pulled off layers until she was standing in nothing but a tank top and underwear. Goosebumps broke out over her exposed skin, but she seemed invulnerable as she radiated a bright smile. “Last one in owes me a kiss,” she chimed before disappearing into the inky water. I am not ashamed to admit I was steps behind her, stripping down to my boxers in a blink as her face bobbed along the surface of the water.
She was right about the water—surprisingly warm. It was welcomed after how cold the inside of this cave had ultimately become. And it was barely deep enough to swim in. If I submerged my head and stretched, my toes touched a rough hewn bottom. I lazily paddled towards her, before snaring her in my arms. She floated there, looking at me with playful eyes. “I think I owe you something.”
Jocelyn and I had kissed dozens if not hundreds of times. I knew the feel of her lips, the taste of her tongue, the pressure of her kisses against my lips. I would, however, be lying if I said any of the hundreds of kisses before in my life came close to that moment. Maybe it was that heightened sense bull people pull, but in the dark, with the soothing sounds of the falling water, surrounded by the warmth of this little pool, there was something beautiful. Her hands and mine wandering beneath the water, clinging to one another while seeking out those soft touches of warm skin. The water droplets beaded on her face, falling against my lips as we embraced. Each droplet, chilled by the outside air, brought a fresh tingle along my spine. Her body pushed against mine, our lips meeting and holding us fast as we floated and drifted. If I had to choose one moment to live in forever, that would be it.
Eventually we parted and I sighed deeply in the dark and peaceful solitude. She laughed, splashing water against my chest as she swam towards the other side of the pool. “If I didn’t know any better, I’d say you were trying to seduce me,” I called after her. She merely laughed again, kicking a wave of water towards me. “I want to assure you, it is not working.”
The tension from before was melting away, softened up by the rhythmic tap and enveloping warmth of the water. From a distance, all I could see of her was an area of pale skin within the encompassing darkness. I saw her arm reach out of the water, reaching for her water bottle on the outside of her pack. There was a hiss of a lid opening, then the silent sounds of the cavern. I leaned into the water until I could float on my back, meandering lazily through the pool. The water fell, tapping lightly against my stomach as I drifted along in the darkness. This must be like those sensory deprivation chambers, I thought. People throwing money away when nature had already perfected it.
There were soft sounds of splashing in the water, something cutting smoothly through and moving towards me. “Jocelyn—” I began before something grabbed me, pulling me under.
I thrashed and flailed, pulling myself back toward the surface as whatever it was released me. Breaking the surface, I gasped for air, eyes darting through the darkness as if I could locate the danger. Then, there was laughter.
“That’s what you get for not listening to me,” she laughed, splashing water at me yet again.
“Jocelyn! You—that—” I continued gulping in the air, more out of fear than any prolonged deprivation. “I’m already a little on edge, okay?”
“I’m sorry. But come on, you have to lighten up a little bit,” she said, moving in a little closer. I felt her hand find mine, drawing me towards her in the darkness of the water. Her face was a pale shadow on the water, her eyes empty spaces that gazed into my own. She was kissing me again, and I was mentally acquiescing to her remark. Yes, I needed to lighten up. Just a joke. Her lips met mine again and again; we were floating through nothingness, bound to reality only by the presence of the other’s body in that vast emptiness. I was lighter than air.
It was I who broke away this time, coming up for air in a far more metaphorical sense than before. “I have to say, your method is a good one.” She laughed, her hands moving away from me to help her better stay above water.
“So, as I was saying, do you think we should try to catch up with Brian and Hayley. I’m guessing we’ve given them plenty of private time by now.”
“How long have we been in here?”
I heard rather than saw her shrug her shoulders. “You zoned out there for a good while. Plus, our other exercises bought us some more time. But it’s not like there’s a clock in here.”
I nodded before realizing how useless that was. “Right. I guess we should start trying to find them. But, if we hear strange noises, promise me we’ll come right back out here.”
“Deal,” she laughed.
I kicked my way towards the edge and fumbled along the ground until I found our packs. I thumbed on my flashlight and began looking for the other, and turning it on. I stumbled around, trying to get my pants to fit back over my damp legs. In my mad dance, I felt my foot gently tap Jocelyn’s flashlight, and then had the pleasure of watching it drift into the water.
“Uh-oh,” I grumbled.
“I’ve got it,” she said. I heard a splash, then saw her making her way down towards the wavering light. I finally overcame my pants, and tugged my shift over my head just as she broke above the water with the flashlight in hand.
“Good heavy duty one. The water didn’t bother it one bit.” As she began to make her way out of the water, something broke the silence. Something unmistakably chilling.
From somewhere in the darkness, far away and muffled by walls of solid rock, Hayley screamed.
Thanks for reading! As always, feel free to leave a comment letting me know what you think, what could be better, and what you like!
This work by Katherine C is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License
So, I blew my goal of a new post very two weeks. Between starting a new job, packing, and going out of the country for a week, I’m barely holding together. Here is something that I was working on prior to the trip, or at least the first half. I’m afraid it’s turning into a much longer story than I usually write, and so it makes sense to post it as a two parter. The second half is 1/3-halfway done, depending on how much I decide to lengthen it out. Thanks, and enjoy!
*After working on part two, this has turned into a three parter! Links to subsequent parts at the end. I also found one or two wrong names sprinkled throughout, so I tried to clean that up. Enjoy! 8/6/14
Every one of us on this chaotically spinning planet has a story, but not all stories are created equal. Some stories are grand, sweeping epics of terror, bravery, and courage. Others are the mundane but essential stories of the 9 to 5 grind, raising a family, and experiencing all the boring miracles life has to offer. There are tragic stories, funny stories, joyous ones, and those filled with heartache. The fact remains: everyone has a story.
My story begins in an upstate national park a bit off the beaten path for some not 100% approved camping—though if I were being honest, my story began in the county hospital in late fall 1987, but I don’t think all that lead up is necessary. What is important is that Jocelyn and I had been dating for about four months, and I thought it would be nice to go on a double dating trip with my college roommate Brian and his girlfriend Hayley. I was actually really nervous because Brian and Hayley had been together forever. We used to tease them in college that they acted like they had been married for 50 years, and nothing had really changed since. I kept pushing Brian to man up and put a ring on it already, but they both claimed to be against the “formalized institution of marriage.” Instead they lived together without the tax benefits and griped at one another daily. True wedded bliss.
I was really worried that Jocelyn might get the wrong idea, feel pressured into the relationship. Maybe she’d think I was moving too fast. But when Brian asked me to go camping, I couldn’t turn down a weekend with my bud, ya’ know? And when he said Hayley was coming, I knew I’d have to invite Jocelyn along to prevent that terrible third wheel syndrome. Nothing lonelier than sharing a sleeping bag with yourself in the great outdoors while people get in touch with their animal sides (not to mention other unmentionables) right nextdoor. Fortunately, Jocelyn agreed to save me from my awkward loneliness, and I spent the next week and a half stressing over all the potential ways this could go terribly wrong. Many of them ended with a long and awkward drive home with Jocelyn as the wreckage of our relationship smoldered to cold ash. When, of course, I was not devising clever ways to defend her against an inevitable bear/mountain lion attack. What stupid things we worry about.
The first night was great. We parked our car in a winding cut-off from the main forest road and hiked in for a few hours to the spot Brian just knew was right over that hill over there. While we never found the mystical clearing he promised, we did find a nice spot that was pretty close to the lake and a couple deer trails. We set up both tents, got a fire roaring, and started roasting some hot dogs over the flames. We hoped that we were far enough from any traditional trails that the fire would not be visible to a passing ranger. Plus, the summer foliage was so thick through there, you were lucky to see much of anything at a distance. Brian had labored to haul a cooler of beer all the way through the woods, so we graciously celebrated his perseverance with more than a few icy beverages.
Jocelyn and Hayley got along great, probably too well as their conversation soon turned to analyzing our shared flaws with the look of untiring patience nearing its limit. Brian and I just got louder, providing them hours of fodder.
That night Jocelyn and I turned in to our little tent. I can still remember the warmth and pressure of her tiny frame pressed up against me in the night. Or how her hair smelled like strawberries and smoke mixed together. She lay against me, my arms wrapped heavily around her as she slept peacefully. I’ve always been a rowdy drunk, but she made me sentimental too. As tired as I was, I just looked at her face in the moonlight, feeling for once that I had not entirely screwed things up. I fell asleep happy, maybe for the last time.
The next morning came way too early. When you’re in a thin tent without the home comforts of black out curtains, morning always comes too early. The campfire had cooled to low embers by the time we got up, and the morning air was unusually cool. It was summer, but beneath the heavy shade of the trees and as close as we were to the lake, the heat didn’t penetrate. I shivered, returning to the tent for a pair of socks and jeans just as Jocelyn shot out of the ten. She looked startled, and I’m sure I did too as her face hurtled towards me without warning.
“Was something out here?” she asked, her voice rising with panic.
I caught my breath, put on my bravest face. “No, nothing. Why? Did you see something?”
Her fear dissipated, confusion shifting across her face in its place, then embarrassment. “No, I guess not. Probably just the wind or a bird or something.”
“We are outside, after all,” I quipped. Judging by the shadow that passed across her face that was not the right response.
“Right.” She snapped back and then joined Hayley picking through the food and snacks still packed from our arrival. They found breakfast as we sat around the embers, listening to the woods around us begin to wake. I tried to avoid the lances of sunlight stabbing through the trees, hoping that doing so would alleviate the pain that every so often bounced through my eyes and head with very little success. Brian looked like he was in much better spirits than me.
“So, I know Brain and Mark used to go camping all the time, but have you ever gone?” I turned to the conversation between Jocelyn and Hayley just as Jocelyn replied.
“I did once or twice with my dad when we were kids. We also camped out in our backyard every summer. But it’s been a while.” I loved watching the way her face lit up as she talked about these happy childhood memories. I was head over heels and I hadn’t even realized it yet. If I could go back, I’d ask her right there to marry me, and then die happy.
“It’s great to find someone else who knows her way around a tent. If it goes well, maybe we’ll make this a regular summer tradition,” smiled Hayley, her eyes sneaking towards me. I saw Jocelyn look at me and smile.
“I could probably handle that.”
All the pain in the world couldn’t keep me from gazing into those sunlit eyes right then. She was beautiful all that time, but something about her tousled hair, faded makeup, and the crisp green forest behind her was irresistible. And she was willing to give a noncommittal agreement to potentially staying with me for another year. Life was good.
As she turned back to talk to Hayley about her previous camping trips, I noticed something moving. Even now, I have trouble remembering exactly how to describe it. It was almost like the sunbeam falling just to the right of Jocelyn was shining, like it had been doused with glitter. The light there bent and warped in unnatural ways, almost like heat waves on hot pavement. But this was brighter and more real. Unlike those mirages, this shape truly had some kind of form to it. Two flecks of light grew more apparent, solidifying into two round spots darting through the light. At one point, they turned towards me and I got the distinct feeling of eyes. As it “looked” at me, I could begin to make out an image. It was a body that was there and wasn’t all at once. Again, like a heat mirage on the road wavers and fades, it struggled into focus, but I don’t think I ever really saw it. It was small, just a few feet off the ground. Thin, with no other discernible feature besides those watching eyes. The eyes danced around us, flitting from sunshine to shade.
I’ve thought a lot about that shape. About the “body” of that thing. It always seems like I can see it in my mind, but when I focus on it, there’s nothing there. Nothing in my memory but the firm recollection that that shadow and sunlight were different than any others. Like it couldn’t—like it can’t really exist in our world. I’m stuck with the endless torture of surety and doubt that I even saw a flicker of the supernatural on that day.
“Seen a ghost?” shouted Brian, dropping heavily next to me on the log. I winced at the noise, but it shook me out of my study of the figure that wasn’t really there.
“No, just admiring the scenery.” I motioned in the direction where I had been staring for far too long. Nothing there but some dust floating through the air. I told myself I had just drunk too much last night, and this was my payback.
Brian took a deep breath f the cool morning air, weighing the view in his own eyes for a moment. “It is pretty great out here, huh?” He smiled, pleased with his good idea and at peace with the moment, but Brian never was one to stay reflective for long. “So Hayley told me about some sort of mountains around here or something—”
Hayley jumped in to provide the much needed content to Brian’s half-formed idea. “They’re caves, Bri. Your ‘genetic selective deafness’ kicks in at the worst times.”
“And caves are in mountains, right?” There was a brief prickle of tension in the air between them as he spun to face her, but it fizzled away as she shook her head with a smile.
“My logician,” she laughed to Hayley, making a sweeping gesture toward Brian. Jocelyn laughed and the two women turned to join Brian and I in the thus far riveting conversation.
“So, like I said, there are some caves in some mountains around here,” he began again, glancing sideways from his eyes to Hayley with his correction and addition, “and I thought—Hayley thought it would be fun to go spe—” Brian’s face became confused momentarily as he tried to find the right word. “Cave exploring,” he substituted, looking at Hayley for confirmation.
“Yes, cave exploring,” she shook her head again and I began to worry that she would sprain her neck at the frequency of such an exercise. “Have you ever been spelunking, Mark?”
Before I could answer, Brian broke in. “Spelunking! That was it. That’s one of those weird German words, right? Like schadenfreude?”
No one answered him, but Brian did not mind as he continued to roll the word around again and again, swearing to remember it for the rest of the day. “I haven’t ever, really. Don’t we need gear for that? Light lights, ropes, harnesses, helmets, shovels—” I began, wondering why I had not considered caving accidents in my fevered anxiety about harm befalling Jocelyn.
Jocelyn, however, cut me off with a laugh and a wave of her hands. “The caves around here are pretty much harmless little things that go a few miles in. We have our flashlights and as long as we don’t dive down any massive black holes, we don’t need that other stuff. We can just wander in, take a lunch, and eat in the ‘belly of the earth.'” She ended with a gravelly voice that reminded me of old voiceovers from those B Sci-fi movies she always insisted we watch.
“But won’t we get lost?” I added, feeling a knot of panic rising in my chest.
“Geez Gretel, we’ll leave a breadcrumb trail for you to get back out, okay? I brought some chalk to mark any hiking we did, anyways,” scoffed Brian.
The panic subsided, but I still felt a raw sense of unease. There was no logical reason, I was sure, but I was nevertheless certain that this would not end well. But Jocelyn looked excited to do so, already swapping caving stories with Hayley, and I did not want to let her down.
We packed day bags with water bottles, chips, peanut butter sandwiches, and a few pieces of fruit a piece. Jocelyn seemed really excited about the cave picnic idea, and I was beginning to warm up to the idea myself. If all went well, I was sure that Brian and Hayley would sneak off on their own for a few minutes, leaving Jocelyn and I alone in the dark, cold cave. In my head, the concept seemed more romantic than when I try to describe it, which might have something to do with my general ineptitude at all things classically romantic. I was never going to be the devilishly suave Harlequin Hunk. That just wasn’t my story.
We began our hike through the woods, following Hayley’s suggestion and moving back towards the main road. About halfway there, she found the marked trail that led to the caves, at least according to the friends she had heard about them from. Jocelyn agreed.
“I didn’t take you for a spelunker,” I smiled as we walked side by side. That same nostalgic glow covered her face again.
“I went once or twice with friends in college, but I’ve wanted to go again. It’s just the right mix of spooky, dangerous, and exciting.”
“So you went to these caves? I mean, you’ll be able to play tour guide for us, right?”
She laughed. “I’ve only been a couple of times. But, I do know a couple of pretty interesting spots to investigate.” The suggestive lilt of her voice confirmed my own romanticized caving ideas, but also led to a hint of jealousy and insecurity. I knew she was a human who had dated other people before, but nevertheless, I felt a little angry that I would have to explore those spots she had already explored with someone else. It was stupid, really, but human nature.
“Oh, so I guess you really enjoyed your little outings, huh?” I tried to remain joking, keeping a smile plastered to my face, but I could hear that slighted edge to my voice. Her smile faded a degree as she looked to me with concern.
“Oh, man, that’s probably pretty weird for you, huh?”
“What? No. I mean, we’re both adults and all—” Her eyes pinned me to the spot, and I sighed, deflated. “Okay, it’s a little weird.”
Jocelyn smiled again, taking my hand in hers as we continued following Brian and Hayley ahead. “Don’t worry; I know you’re not some jealous monster. It’s always weird to think about past partners. God knows I try to forget you ever hooked up with Macy. How about this: you and I can find out own spot to explore together. “
“Only if you swear to tell me afterwards that it’s the best spot you’ve ever explored,” I joked back, easing into the conversation again. She was perfect—understanding and funny in one amazingly gorgeous package.
She laughed and planted a brief kiss on my cheek as we walked. “Deal.”
We walked that way, hand in hand for a while until Hayley got turned around again. Jocelyn skipped to the front of the group and led the way. By that time, the hike had caught up with me. I was beginning to get hungry, and carrying even the relatively light pack was a chore. I did not want to be grumpy on our adventure, but I could feel it sneaking up on me.
Then, Jocelyn stopped and pointed up a short mountain or tall hill to another signpost sitting in front of a shadowed rock overhang. “Entrance is just there. Maybe a water break before we go?”
She was an angel. I collapsed onto a rock, dragging out a water bottle and gulping furiously. The cool morning air had been replaced by heavy, wet heat that sat on my shoulders like an unpleasant child. My stomach rumbled unhappily, but I ignored it. Jocelyn wanted her cave picnic, and I was going to give her a cave picnic.
Our break was short-lived as we quickly repacked the bags and dragged ourselves up the faint outline of a path. The sign marking the entrance was badly faded by the weather. There had once been a great deal of writing on it, but most of that was now just shallow ridges in the wood. The once bright red “WARNING” was still clear, now faded to a pale suggestion of red, but the remainder was illegible. Beside the entrance was a metal plaque, similarly eroded by its time on the mountain. Jocelyn filled in the missing letters. “Kepperman Cavern,” she chirped, indicating the entrance with a broad flourish. Her cheeks were flushed, strands of dark brown hair clinging to her sweaty face as she smiled broadly.
I pushed aside my clinging uneasiness. I was being ridiculous, really. Seeing the joy on Jocelyn’s face, I resolved to enjoy myself. Even if it was a bit out of character for me, today I would be a spelunker. For her.
I was confident as I walked towards the entrance, laughing good naturedly at some joke Brian made. I was confident peering into the dark and deciding to get out a flashlight. I was confident as the first beams of light played along the cold gray walls of the depths. But I was decidedly not confident as I saw two specks of gold floating in the darkness, as I saw a sunbeam dance across a room it could not exist in. In that moment, I was stupid. And I plunged into the darkness.
Hope you enjoyed it and, as always, feel free to leave any helpful comments or critiques!
This work by Katherine C is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License.